“I’m interested in fashion, but I’m not bothered by what they wear. I’m more interested in the woman underneath.” Nobuyoshi Araki is a superstar in Japan. Confronting taboo subjects such as sex, female nudity and death head on, his photographs are at once erotic, intimate, challenging, confrontational and beautiful and Kiko Mizuhara is his ideal subject.
Kiko Mizuhara steps up and Araki, purring, is clearly enamoured by his new subject. Pumping his fists and spinning on the heels of his New Balance trainers, Araki lunges forward to give her a cuddle. It’s the first time they have met and the reaction is genuine. Like the cat who’s got the cream, you get the feeling he’s in for a treat. She’s giggling, nervous – his reputation, as ever, truly precedes him – yet all smiles.
A model since she was 12, Kiko made her film debut as Midori in Norwegian Wood, the outgoing girlfriend that reinvigorates a boy’s lust for life after the suicide of a friend. The casting is perfect, and the contrast between the two actresses pronounced. Araki sets her nerves at ease by cracking a joke. He calls her “Oishi” [delicious] and smacks his lips before letting out one of his trademark belly laughs.
Araki flirts with Kiko as she positions herself in a corner decorated with a giant bouquet of flowers. He makes her laugh by asking, “What do you love more, money or love?” Kiko answers, “Love” as she plays with a flower between her lips, her teeth gripping its stem, trying to suppress the laughs created by his constant joshing – she can barely keep a straight face. Today’s shoot is tame compared to his famous kinbaku rope bondage photographs of naked girls tied from the rafters – not to mention the candid graphic black and white photographs of Araki and friends frequenting Tokyo sex clubs in the 1970s – but even still the charisma that creates these possibilities to push the boundaries is evident. He wants “more skin” from Kiko. She kills the request with kindness. He then asks whether she has a boyfriend. “I don’t,” Kiko replies. When the shoot is over, “Shall I kiss you?” he asks. “No, no thank you, it’s okay!” Kiko blushes, laughing. As the team pack up the clothes and equipment, I retire with Araki, his agent Natsuko – who acts as our translator throughout – and to Araki’s delight, Kiko, to Hanaguruma, the nearby 6th floor karaoke bar he visits every night.
Translated to English, the bar’s name means ‘The Flower Wheel’, a fitting title if we consider the connection between blooming fertility and death that appear so often in Araki’s photographs. The walls are covered with prints and posters of his work and what gaps remain are occupied by Polaroids recording past escapes in this secret den – French fashion editors topless, pillow fighting models, Lady Gaga, Harmony Korine and his wife Rachel, and a portrait of Araki sketched by Nan Goldin. In every Polaroid on the wall, Araki appears wearing a T-shirt with Kaori’s face on his chest, “Because if I don’t wear her near my heart, she’s going to escape,” he says. Shifting in his seat with a glass of shochu in hand, he cannot hide his excitement towards Kiko. It’s quite clear which one out of the two of us he would rather be spending the evening with.
I ask the half-American, half-Korean Kiko whether she was scared to be photographed by Araki. “Yes! Everybody had been giving me so much pressure leading up to the shoot...” she says, whispering “Araki Araki Araki” as if he was a Ghostbusters gremlin. “My manager was like, ‘Are you sure?’ but of course I wanted to.” Araki bursts out, “Everyone says so! But Kiko, there’s no need to worry. I don’t just suck on your nipples, but blow them too!” It makes no sense, but everyone laughs. The two endearing 60 something women who run the bar, old friends and former subjects of Araki, don’t bat an eyelid. Later, they point out naked photos of their younger selves on the wall.
Did Kiko tell her parents she was going to be photographed by Araki today, I ask, wondering how her mother would react? “No, not yet,” Kiko replies. “She’s going to be excited, but worried. I know she’s going to ask whether I was naked.”
Earlier in the day, while photographing club kids on location in the Golden Gai bar district of Tokyo, Araki complemented one of the girls by saying she looked like a “streetwalker”. In 40 years of photographing Japanese women, how have they changed, I ask? “It’s not so much that they’re getting dirtier, but they’re getting less, let’s say, innocent,” he replies. “The club kids aren’t really ideal subjects, because they’re so... knowing, they know how to be separate from normal society. So they’re maybe much cleverer in a way, but they’re less innocent. Kiko on the other hand is much purer, polite, she looks innocent. She’s the perfect subject.”
It’s a much less backhanded complement than before, and I ask Araki what photography has in common with sex. “Photographs are sex, it’s like making love with the shutter, it’s pillow talk.” He continues, “Say with Rinko, her reaction was good, she’s quite sensitive in that way, it was more like dancing. The camera is a love machine!” Kiko, returning to a question I asked before the conversation meandered, describes auditioning for Norwegian Wood, “It was my first time acting. I didn’t know it was that big a deal, I thought it might be a little part or not that big a story. So I was really relaxed when I went to audition. I was like, [waving] ‘Hiiiii I’m Kiko!’ But then I started and I felt awkward.” Araki, frustrated by not being able to follow us in English – and perhaps a touch jealous at the shift in Kiko’s attention – suddenly shouts out in Japanese, “Congratulations on your pregnancy!” Laughing, they toss up their glasses; Kiko cheers “Kampai!”
Kiko gained a sizeable following online, posting photographs of herself in various outfits and YouTube videos of her modelling. “Everyone in Japan seems to record everything they do, like, [in a sarcastic voice] ‘I ate this today, and look at this, I’ve been hanging out with this girl today.’ And I wanted to do something different, more about what I’m interested in rather than how I spend my days.” She is, like a lot of other Japanese girls her age, a dedicated follower of fashion. I ask what her fashion favourites are. “I really like Miu Miu,” she answers. “Because... it’s really Lolita!” Araki’s ears prick up as they recognise this English word. He pipes up in heavily accented English, “Rurita?” Kiko corrects him, they laugh. Araki takes out a book of photographs of his naked girlfriend Kaori and puts it on the table. The four of us looking at these black and white photographs, with purple and blue brushstrokes painted on top of Kaori in compromising positions, forms quite a surreal scene. Does Araki ever get jealous of others ogling his girlfriend? “I’m a photography fan so I like sharing my work,” he says, “and the work of others. I’m ready to share everything with everybody.” Does Kaori get jealous? “No, not so much.” He mimes getting a slap across his face when he gets home. “Once upon a time she did, but now she’s much more mature.” Another book comes out on to the table. Black and white photographs with brushstrokes on top, this time though there’s no naked Kaori, or any other women for that matter. Instead, page after page is filled with sunsets. The book, his 452nd, is his most recent. A diary of sorts, there are no entries between the 18th and 27th of January, 2009. He tells me the reason those dates are missing is that he underwent an operation for prostrate cancer, from which he has now recovered. Called Testament, the book deliberately mirrors Skyscrapes, another collection of sunsets taken the year after his wife Yoko died in 1990 – the only photographs he took in that time of mourning. Though he spent much of his childhood playing in a cemetery amongst the anonymous graves of courtesans from the Yoshiwara red light district – the only green space in an otherwise poor, crowded area of Tokyo – and making a connection between sex, death and flowers at a young age, Araki doesn’t believe it’s necessary to visit Yoko’s grave. “Because whenever I think about her, or death, I can just look at the sky instead,” he explains. “I haven’t been thinking about death recently, but there is always a grim reaper stalking me. But then I get days like this where two beautiful young girls come to visit me, and they make me feel alive again.”
Araki tells me he has only two regrets, for not taking any photographs of Yoko’s body in her coffin. Because he organised the funeral himself he was “too busy to take any pictures.” The other is “failing to take photos of the nostrils of a girl who acted perfectly during sex. I said to her, ‘Come on, look this way!’ but she refused. I’m still powerful in bed you see, I can keep going for a while,” he says in the direction of Kiko, never missing an opportunity for innuendo. Continuing, he lets it be known that even though he’s having a great time, he’s feeling tired and can’t stay out drinking as late as he once did. Also, meeting Kiko might have worn him out.
I ask Araki – whose work in the 1970s, with its slapstick black spot censorship is often credited with overturning the Japanese ban on pubic hair – whether he enjoyed pushing the boundaries of what is accepted in this generally conformist society. “Do you mean enjoy or enjoyed? Because I did enjoy it. But now, it’s more accepted,” he replies. “I still feel like a little boy, in the way that if someone tells me not to do something, I will do it. It may be provocative, but it’s in more of a boyish way. Not in a violent way, it’s the act of doing it, the reaction pushes the boundaries.” His answer brings to mind a scene from earlier that day. At a zebra crossing stood dozens of salary men and shoppers waiting for the red light to change on an otherwise empty street – Araki might just be the only person who would dare cross while everyone else waits until they are told. Since a series of large exhibitions in Europe and America alerted mainstream Japan to his talent in the 1980s, he has held countless exhibitions at museums across the country and is regarded alongside Yayoi Kusama and Haruki and Takashi Murakami as a national treasure. Street sweepers high five him in the street. When did Araki realise he was accepted by mainstream Japanese society? “I don’t think it’s happened yet. Perhaps not in my lifetime. I will turn 70 this year but I have only just started running.” At least in this day and age, he won’t be running alone.