Araki Nobuyohsi has been the subject of criticism for many years, having explored areas that border on or go beyond taboo. The 65-year-old artist can be held singularly responsible for changing the way in which Japanese society is perceived through several mediums, and it’s those perceptions which have garnered him tremendous fame in the latter years of his life. He became celebrated for his body of work which surrounded itself on his late wife, Yoko; which was subsequently used as a basis for Naoto Takenaka’s superb Tokyo Biyori. With that part of Araki’s life being visited, director, Travis Klose draws us into Ariki’s own little world and tries to discover the man behind the art.
It can’t be easy to make a documentary about the life of a man who is as fascinating, energetic and offbeat as Araki Nobuyoshi; getting into his head is like trying to prize open a safe with a pair of chopsticks. It’s kind of where the film struggles at times. While Arakimentari offers much in the way of the man’s philosophies and outlook on life, it does little to challenge his critics, or go beyond the simple factor that this is a man who loves his work. One thing is for sure, the documentary portrays Araki as a hugely egotistical fellow. He adores his work, with good reason and he does what he can to challenge the censors. Granted he’s had a raw deal over the years. In one particular book he shows us (which was censored inside Japan only) of female anatomy, we see nothing but huge scribbles and ugly blocks covering up his work entirely. Who would actually buy a black and white collection of photographs that depicted the vagina, only for them to be nothing but huge blobs? It’s this kind of disrespect for his photography that has the viewer reel in horror at Japan’s censorship laws; however some good came from it, and as this film momentarily examines it did create a new argument for what is pornography and what is art. But this is Araki’s mentality; as a man who finds that nothing should be restrictive within the boundaries of photography. He’s at war with a larger being, and as a means to challenge that being he even went so far as to censor his own work by adding paint strokes over the “offending“ parts. The film would do well to go on and address just how monumental these changes in Japanese society were and why some of his work can often be considered as nothing but depraved slices of an unnatural life, but it simply traipses around them, points the odd finger without going into detail and then just continually ups the praise.
I suppose that one should ask “why should it be challenging?” Indeed the film is clearly a celebratory effort on the part of the director, who managed to get Bjork, Takeshi Kitano and several photographers in on the gig, and at no point does it offer the opinions of those who would want to argue against what his work stands for. Rather than examine Araki’s fresh standpoint on his admiration for the female form, along with his non-discriminatory approach to photography and then seeing how that conflicts with other critic’s opinions on whether or not his work his offensive porn, it sticks with the former, because in all frankness it doesn’t really give a toss. This isn’t as much a critical study on his life and work, but a look at the way in which he works. This is largely a shame, because it would have been nice to have had a more in-depth piece about his time spent growing up and marrying, as opposed to some fleeting moments of discussion, when Araki isn’t trawling the streets to take photographs of anyone and everything. Granted what we do get has its moments of poignancy; it becomes saddening to hear about the passing of his wife, Yoko, but even then very little is divulged aside from Araki spending time at her bedside. Other more known facts with relation to his wife are not dwelt upon, which naturally leaves unanswered questions for some. It’s because some of the film’s more obscure direction that it outstays its welcome. If we were to break it down then a large portion would appear to be nothing more than Araki taking the director down high streets to meet a bunch of people (and hopefully loads of girls) that he enjoys talking about sex and love with.
As a man Araki is painted in a bizarre fashion; he’s such a fascinating figure that it’s easy to feel cheated by how little we actually get to know him. It’s obvious from the start that he’s a very bold man; confident with his devil-haired noggin and commentary on how he uses photography as a means to branch the gap between life and death. He talks of his camera like it was a sexual metaphor as he reels off one after the other, with examples such as “I want to caress you with my lens”, before laughing it off every time. But while the documentary never relays it in actual words, one can’t help but feel that Araki is playing on defence all the time. At one point he says that a man should never show his true feelings, because basically it isn’t cool. And yet we can tell from watching him that he’s a man who has deep feelings and channels them through his work. None is more evident than when examining his work of clouds, which he took over a period of one year after the death of his wife; yet when he goes back to reminisce as he views these pictures he clams up ever so slightly, as if he‘s still somewhat uncomfortable. Likewise he talks about his cat, Chiro and how it helped him move on in life, as well as the influence that his mother had upon him. But then the film just gets back to him laughing and drinking and acting all very strange, especially when viewing his own photos which he can‘t help but laugh at, despite the serious nature of them. It’s odd in that we see a man here who is torn in places, but who won’t allow himself to be examined as greatly as one would expect from a production like this. It then comes down to forming your own opinions; I would argue that his wife’s passing affected his change in attitude greatly, just how he was prior is anyone’s guess when watching this piece. With that said he is an engaging fellow and his wisdom of sorts is amusing at times. It’s is very bizarre nature which makes him all the more endearing, but it’s still a wonder as to how he feels when the camera is off him. Clearly he enjoys company; here it’s his means of escape, as he entertains everyone else around him with his own brand of humour and brashness. But then we can also see that he adores his status in life; he plays up to it like any “controversial” and revered fellow would, and yet he doesn’t appear to be any more pretentious for it. While his views on his subjects might sound outlandish at times, you can’t help but feel that he really believes in what he’s saying. He might well play up to preconceptions, but it seems that the media is to blame more for that than he is. After all, as prolific as Araki is I don’t think he can afford to be any different in the eyes of those who view him as an artist. Many call him a monster, but at the end of it all we aren’t any wiser as to why exactly, past the fact that he’s a little unorthodox in his methods. It’s this kind of extremity that goes on to seal his reputation.
The documentary then begins to falter toward the end because it manages to exhaust itself early on, by showing repetitive moments of Araki working with models for his housewife series, or by going over the same ground with his muse. It eventually gets into looking at his work from the 80’s, dubbed the “Era of heat” by Araki himself, which was meant to be an act of rebellion against his conservative 70’s work. This comes after the film has already addressed his increase in popularity during the 90’s. It’s all rushed, and that can be blamed on several of Travis Klose’s preoccupied segments that feel like nothing more than padding, along with several portions being poorly edited together; for example the mention of Yoko near the start and then nothing again until the end, as with the aforementioned 90‘s segment, making it something of a chronologically challenged journey. It all lacks that flow, which should showcase a form of progression if it were meant to look at how Araki‘s work evolved throughout the years. The film even looks at his work based on flowers, but it seems so very uninterested in it all, as practically nothing is explored in this area. It’s more concerned with his sexually fuelled work, of which bondage is a predominant focus and interviewing fellow photographers who would discuss the way in which Araki’s work strikes up hidden cultural conflicts. Yes that is true, and his photos certainly are beautiful and unique, but it’s as if we aren’t allowed to understand his softer side, which he’s already told us in no uncertain terms that he’s afraid of showing.
At the end the viewer is given some insight into the man who changed photography within Japan, but it isn’t enough. It’s a journey through neon-Tokyo, which serves as nothing more than Araki’s playground; his inspiration for all things, and the reason why he will never leave. But it also feels like it’s holding back far too much, as if there was so much more to this strange man, who is one of the most important and talked about photographers in the world. With so many books published, surely there is a lot more to be divulged? The film’s goal is simple though, this is meant to say how great Araki is, and no one would have you believe any differently that this was a man who has ridden on the wave of success because he dared to be challenging. Should it then actually question his artistic integrity, and if he‘s always accompanied by a lighting crew? Perhaps, but then that would probably defeat the point.
Tartan presents Arakimentari on a rather impressive disc, even if it has some flaws.
Despite Tartan listing this as being 1.77:1 it is actually presented in its native 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The transfer itself is very good, offering plenty of fine detail considering it was filmed with digital cameras. The occasional Super-8 footage creeps in, which is naturally grainy and raw and is a stylistic choice. Skin tones are good, black levels are pretty solid, but contrast appears to be a little low at times. There is evidence of combing throughout, so I’m going to assume another NTSC-PAL conversion.
With Tartan going overboard on almost everything, they once again supply us with some fairly useless tracks. We have a choice of DD2.0, DD5.1 and DTS 5.1. It’s a documentary for heaven’s sake. The only plus that the DTS has is that DJ Krush’s music is a little louder. Otherwise don’t go wetting your pants over it. The most important thing, which is dialogue comes through clear and doesn’t suffer from drop outs or the like.
There are optional English subtitles for the feature, although any English dialogue is not translated, which may disappoint those with hearing difficulties.
Audio Commentary by Director Travis Klose and Producer Jason Fried
Despite having a few lengthy pauses, Klose and Fried manage to offer plenty of insight into filming, along with providing comments with regards to how difficult it all was. They start by informing us that the project began in 2001; quickly turning into a credit card scenario, once Araki gave them permission. They then flew to Japan and shot primarily with the Sony VX2000; other mediums were used, such as Super-8. Initially Arika was very hard to film as he took a while to warm up to the cameras and eventually open up to them so that they could capture what they wanted - or try to anyway. Of course this reflects on the finished product, and explains why it doesn’t feel as in-depth as one would like. In addition they explain that Araki is such a speedy guy that a lot of what they wanted to achieve was left to the wayside, resulting in some regret on the filmmaker’s part. They also talk about wanting to show variety by inserting pictures other than Araki's nudes, and yet the end result doesn't nearly show enough. There is acknowledgement going to Araki’s videographer, for having lent them extra footage to use, which they could not obtain themselves, in particular the bondage sequences. They praise DJ Krush for his involvement and communication, as well as mentioning the participating interviewees. So there’s enough here worth listening to, including discussion on deleted footage and traversing the language barrier.
Additional Footage (55 mins)
This is an extension of some of the interviews that feature in the finished film. Araki sits at a bar table by himself and answers Klose’s questions through a translator. Starting of with his subjects, he talks about the intimacy of shooting and forming a relationship through photography, all the while creating a certain mood through conversation. He talks a little about how women inspire him, which can be seen in the documentary, along with his thoughts on motherhood and childhood. Further influences come about in the city he shoots in, which he refers to as a playground. After about ten minutes you begin to realise that a lot of this has been covered previously and the interest begins to die down. However Araki’s modesty continues to shine through, labelling himself as a genius, whose fate was determined by Heaven. He really does think highly of himself, from his “cute looks” to his “Pikachu hair” and by now the viewer may decide if they want to continue listening to the man or simply turn off. Well if you stick with it he carries on, getting continually fidgety, while covering the same ground. I have to say that I got bored half way through, as we’re really not getting much insight into the man; he sits there drinking, waiting for his friends to turn up and gives the occasional comment of worth about specific projects (although providing little detail) when not laughing. I don’t doubt that he’s a fun man to hang out with, but for the duration of this interview there’s really not a whole lot to get worked up about.
The sound is quite poor in places; although Araki comes through fine his translator and Klose are very quiet from sitting in the background. In order to even remotely understand what they’re saying you have to turn up the volume considerably high.
39 photos can be accessed here. Most of them can be seen in the film, none of them have specific titles to identify them. These range from Araki’s bondage sessions to some of the more intimates moment in his life. Also included are several that blur the lines between censorship; depicting the body with various manipulating strokes of paint.
Original Trailer (1:38)
The big up trailer, with DJ Krush’s music accompanying it, along with various musings from Araki.
The obligatory Tartan reel, with trailers for Mysterious Skin, The Woodsman, The Machinist and Mean Creek.
Arakimentari is interesting in part because it does follow Araki and we do get to hear him express himself through his work. However it is also flawed in several areas and stays entirely one-sided. There is a lot more to Araki, of that there’s no denying, but in this instance we are denied; save for a nice look at some of his photographs and his sexually obsessed persona. It is a shame then that Klose’s documentary isn’t as intimate as most of Araki’s work.