Friday, May 31, 2002

On Sex, Art and the City, or Araki, Kusama and their Tokyo Decadence

"Trust me. I won't hurt you, have trust in me," he coos into her frightened ear. Willingly bound spread-eagled to a chair designed for deviant sexual acts, an unclad, nearly naked, young Asian Audrey Hepburn lookalike named Ai stares bewildered even before the opening credits roll. Her pale yellow nudity only punctuates her bare vulnerable limbs helplessly subject to the prurient whims of her customer. She is a prostitute who specializes in catering to the idiosyncratic, often sadomasochistic predilections of the horny Japanese male. Her clientele includes the rich and powerful, a corrupt assortment that ranges from gangsters to corporate executives.

Her john, an unctuous sort, looms over Ai like a circling vulture. Garbed in fashionable yet casual attire that bespeaks of no good, he wears the tailored open-patterned, open-collared silk shirts tucked into loosely pleated pressed slacks favored by the Yakuza. When she protests his attempts to gag and blindfold her, he exhorts Ai to relax, spouting eccentric fascistic pseudopolitical doctrine in praising her innocent sense of comeliness as ultra-male chauvinism, "Someone as pure and courageous as you…is the only hope for this rotten Japan. I worship you. Sluts who screw around during college…and then end up marrying doctors and bureaucrats…I call those sluts whores. You're great, do you understand?" She succumbs to his entreaties only to be betrayed as the trick injects a syringed needle of a clear liquid substance into her exposed thigh. A close-up of her drug-induced torture reveals a blank submission as Ai comes to understand the bleariness of her fate.

And so begins the Ryu Murakami 1991 film Tokyo Decadence, a searing, disturbing, and extremely graphic indictment of the twin hypocrisies of excessive materialism and sexual puritanism, which combine to create an exploited underclass of sex merchants forced to feed the perversions of their powerful tormentors. This sexually explicit, challenging, sentiment-free portrait of a high-priced Tokyo call-girl resembles a documentary-like parade of savage sadism allowing us to journey through the smutty sex underground of the titular city, witnessing and experiencing sexual degradation, confusion, and despair. As Ai's world of drugs and prostitution grows darker, she begins a desperate search for a way out, including a futile attempt to win the affections of one of her more civil clients before eventually losing her sense of self, literally and finally her mind.

Such is the allegorical message of depraved turpitude that infects what was believed by the director as the strength of a morally upright Japan immune to the dangers of sex, drugs and the criminal underworld.

But what does this cautionary tale reflect of its endemic culture and sexual mores? Does the director Murakami advocate the tradition of sexual objectification and subjugation of women as borderline pornographic figures in order to propagate it? And more specifically, how does he perceive the role of the Japanese female in said society? A long tradition exists within Japan of its complex attitude towards sex and eroticism despite what most Westerners misperceive as meek asexual Asian manhood and his overeroticized woman as femme fatale. The notorious pleasure quarters operating to satisfy male hormonal needs even today date back to its early feudal history as a specific culture of the geisha is developed and ritualized to provide entertaining and lighthearted company for men. These women behave as second-class citizens subservient to the patriarchal demands of its societal proprieties and merely function to reinforce and maintain this status quo. In fact, films such as Double Suicide, Utamaro and his Five Women, Enjo, and even Genroku Chushingura often reference these geisha houses as socially sanctioned sites of phallocentric lust. Such places are similar to the saloon of cowboy lore except that by Western standards these are judged as sinful houses of ill-repute in violation of moral and legal jurisprudence unlike their Japanese counterparts. Consequently, a type of masculine superiority complex runs rampant as the rule rather than the exception. What is inferred from the subtext of Tokyo Decadence centers on a contemporized, but very cynical view of geisha tradition.

In Utamaro and his Five Women, for instance, the director Kenji Mizoguchi creates a thinly veiled portrait of the famous painter Utamaro glorifying the Yoshiwada district famous for its pleasure quarters and how the courtesans who became his models manipulated their henpecked circle of men who formed his coterie. His sympathetic portrayals of the five women announce his views toward a broader feminism somewhat going against the grain, in fleshing out each of the female characters to humanistic effect. A fuller picture develops to activate the relationships between the artist, his disciples and the women involved when questions of artistic improprieties clash with governmental codes of patriotic conduct. However, in Tokyo Decadence, a microcosm of this Mizoguchi pro-Japanese, pro-feminist model is subverted by Murakami to address his disgust of the innocent (in his view) woman child being victimized by the evil inherent of predatory capitalism. The physical pain Murakami ostensibly inflicts upon Ai then becomes metaphorical of the resultant suffering the modern Japanese woman endures. Forced to wiggle her thonged ass until she climaxes in front of an uncurtained skyscraper window pretending to be a "despicable horny businesswoman", a humiliated Ai admits to another client that "I've discovered that I have no talent whatsoever". To which, he retorts, "After forty years, I've discovered that I'm basically a horny bastard." How misogynistically appropriate, it seems.

Only later in the film when Ai escapes the strangling hands of a necrophiliac who insists he can only make love in the projected image of Mt. Fuji if she plays "dead" does she regain some margin of control. This is apparent as a subtle reversal of roles occurs with Ai in the hands of a dominatrix named Saki who "shows her the ropes" if you will. Through example she lashes her badly toupeed whimpering male love slave "Turtle Face" with a cat-o'-nine-tails for disobeying her orders to drink the urine that Ai pees into a silver dog bowl.

Yet the director Murakami who also doubles as the author of this story, seems to imply that the internal factors dictating how women are treated and regarded in Japanese society can also be attributed to decidedly abstract and externally concrete forces.

Often the comparison between the raw energy that life in the streets exude equates a popular notion of unfettered sexual urges. All bets are off with those unfortunate to pound the pavement or what Hollywood termed the "asphalt jungle". The city as object of desire is transformed into the city as place where the forces of desire are set free. (Diana Agrest, The Return of the Repressed: Nature in The Sex of Architecture) The photographer Nobuyoshi Araki echoes this sentiment, espousing that "without obscenity, our cities are dreary places and life is bleak."

Such primitivism houses much material for both Araki and Murakami to erect their respective arguments. Each employ, even exploit, this metaphor of architecture as city to be distinct elements within their oeuvre that become symbols of patriarchy emphasizing the dominance of Western cultural imperialism.

For Murakami, though, the skyscraper becomes the political and ideological conditions, which engender specific architectural responses to understand both "the cultural conditions in which buildings are produced and...the relationships of the power that structure the physical environment and produce the socio-psychological (sexual) conditions in which the lives of men and women are lived". (Ghislaine Hermanuz, Housing for a Postmodern World: Reply to Alice T. Friedman) That bubble economy Tokyo in the 1980's experienced a real estate boom resurrects visions of former imperial grandeur for Murakami; he overlaps scenes of exterior and interior geometric urban sprawl symbolizing the price of modern civilization to coopt the milieu associated with the Wall Street-inspired animalism. This zeitgeist, he feels, is responsible for a greedier brand of Japan business superiority, a Samurai ethic that transposed a warrior mentality into achieving military-like corporate efficiency as substitute for an emasculated historically warring nation. It fuels the competitive killer instinct intrinsic of male testosterone that simply stokes runaway sexual drive as those who feel the rush of power and life from the fast money in the very fast lane. Combine these factors and what ensues is a recipe for unabated carnivorous sexual appetites in need of instant and constant relief. Perhaps it is these circumstances that impel Murakami to portray the bankruptcy of these kinds of aberrant sexual behaviors.

Unlike Murakami, though, Nobuyoshi Araki physically interacts with the space of the city. Night after night during the height of the giddy 1980's megasuccess of "Japan, Inc." to coincide with the full bloom of the Tokyo sex industry, this photographer visited the city's adult entertainment centers for shooting, particularly Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku. For him, what these places offered was the opportunity for reportage of contemporary urban morals: it became the central locale, a zoo for variety of sexual creatures. However, Araki is always "aware of the fiction inherent in the supposed "objectivity" of standard documentary photographs: as long as subjects are aware that they are being photographed, they are not being photographed in their natural state." (Akihito Yasumi, The Photographer between a Man and a Woman, Tokyo Lucky Hole, Taschen)

Like Murakami, at least Nobuyoshi Araki has the good sense not to disguise his subjects or his subjectivity about women and his sexual desire. His photographs are gritty black and white pictures of the Japanese sex industry, which Araki transforms from base and vulgar images of prostitutes into portraits that become a historical record of a specific time of 1980's excess and hedonism. His camera displays a common respect for these women and their profession that he seemingly glorifies. No doubt, what is shown can be perceived as pornography, but without the anticipated exoticification and eroticization of women that the viewer can expect. Much like early Nan Goldin, he captures in his subject matter a carefree comfortable snapshot quality of private (nee sexual) moments made public. And like Jack Pierson, he portrays these scenes not as dirty but as matter-of-fact. That Araki includes himself as part of these photographs adds an interior dialogue about the lifestyle he documents. It skewers the polite stereotype of modern Asian society as robotic and sexless. The viewer sees an interaction between the photographer and what he photographs without the loose condescension that can be incriminating. Therefore the city became his personal playground to express a genuine surprise at the strangeness of the encountered sexual scenes from a delicate distance.

If Araki captured the inner city grittiness of sexual profit and commerciality then Murakami appears intent on drawing comparisons with the Meiji Restoration and modern Tokyo hypercapitalism. Is Japanese society a slave to the rampant Western Pop culture that unduly permeates its sense of tradition and history? And how does this effect its identity? Is Murakami overstating the quotidian argument of spiritual purity of his Japan being corrupted by outside powers? The answer to these questions interestingly enough may lie in a subsequent scene early in the film when Ai consults a fortuneteller to enlist the gods for her salvation. In a truly wicked satirical instance of brilliant casting, Murakami resurrects the legendary self-committed and forgotten artist Yayoi Kusama to portray this dowdy, dithering relic whom stares through a magnifying glass to prognosticate Ai's future. Wistfully, cryptically and prophetically, fortuneteller Kusama stammers a recap of her own life as a warning-in-kind to Ai, imploring, "Your wish requires you to follow three rules. First, place a telephone book under your TV. Second, don't go to an art museum in the west. There's a thick mist in that direction...and a woman alone will be lost in it forever. And thirdly, find a pink stone...make a ring out of it...and wear it on your middle finger. You follow these three rules and God says that you'll be happy."

The unexpected cameo appearance of Yayoi Kusama signifies how the director intends a cultural and art-historical connection to his theme of sexual obsession. It is as if Murakami is saying "my Japan requires a spiritual cleansing." And who better to convey his message than someone considered a victim of the corrupt West? Kusama perverted prevailing niceties of the art world throughout the sixties and seventies with "her relentless use of the phallus, which can be interpreted as a defiance of the oppressive male power by symbolic appropriation (that) arose in part from her deeply-rooted anger against the rigid conventions of Japanese patriarchy and social conformism. Kusama's psychosexual aggression evolved as stubborn protest against the restrictive social, economic and political environment of prewar and wartime Japan. Accompanied by sensations of anxiety, displacement, and isolation, her obsessive-compulsive state was driven by a fixed image of the phallus and a need to control its threatening proliferation through the act of giving it form." (Alexandra Munroe, Revolt of the Flesh, Chapter 9, Scream Against the Sky, P.197 Harry Abrams) Her story acts as the real-life story within the larger fictional story.

But is the film a conflated Japanese biopic version of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" with Ai as Holly Golightly as Kusama herself? Certainly Ai is seen shopping at Tiffany's to buy an extravagantly expensive pink opal to don for the proscribed and aforementioned promise of good fortune. So what is Murakami hoping to achieve in his remake? Is it supposed to be a homage or scathing parody? In doing one or the other or both, Murakami seeks to ask who is to blame for this present state of affairs. Does he fault Japan or America? Or both?

Watching Tokyo Decadence informs us about the preoccupation within a cramped geography the Japanese obsess over things sexual. It is a part of their collective self that sometimes can be over-the-edge. But it should surprise no one that the complicated issues concerning how the ancillary topics about their attitudes towards sex definitely affect how Japanese men tenuously relate to Japanese women on these terms. In the end, Murakami questions whether women "really have come a long way, baby" even amidst his definition of this libertine excessivism.

Thursday, May 30, 2002

Ideas apppropriated (stolen) from Benny Hill

Recruited conga line shot apriori at regular speed digitally accelerated. Action (maybe scripted) recording the supposedly quotidian affects a Warholian cinema verite as live-action still-life fast-forwarded sans direct portraiture. Envision disembodied appendages of faceless torsos blurrily staccatoed in a Chaplinesque doppler effect chasing one another ala Keystone cops. Or basically your run-of-the-mill videokinetic homage to all things Futurist nee Filippo Tommaso Marinetti or Giacomo Balla and his crazy "spinning legs" dog on a leash. And where is Alvin Toffler now? (somewhere in Korea hawking technological egalitarianism) But to superimpose a bunch of bikinied Asian babes in pursuit is pure Benny Hill. So what next, Beat Takashi revives Zatoichi?

A Good Piece of Ash is ahead of Fractured Patellae currently.

Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Notes on a tunnel of love

A cornucopiaed outer shell somewhere between Puryear and Kapoor? Or projected images weaving a drunken path, undulating the vertical to horizontal axes? Maybe both.

The solid form of a conical shape analogous to the proverbial (and pedestaled) object or empty skin perhaps in larger scale to suggest potential of human interactivity via architectural structure versus reference to Scorcese and his tunnel of love tracking shot dealing with the politics of site-specificity as interiorized public space contains enough mental furniture to move about.

Tomorrow Benny Hill