Thursday, 3 February 2011

Cinema Strange #3. Arakimentari (Travis Klose, 2004)

The softer side of Nobuyoshi Araki is revealed in Arakimentari (2004)

I knew nothing about Nobuyoshi Araki going into Arakimentari, and I knew very little coming out. Filmmaker Travis Klose seems so in love with Araki's work that rather than delving deep into the world of the art and the artist he insists on filling half of his all too brief (74 minutes) documentary with montages of his photography. Indeed, this tale of style over fact is best viewed as a live exhibition hosted by the mad professor of erotic photography. Araki is a fascinating figure; exuberant yet gentle, he can come across as both feminist and misogynist, and is both likable and infuriating. Branded by many as "a monster", his work breaches the line between ecstasy (life) and transcendence (death, and the state of death), revealing moments of pure humanity. His boundless enthusiasm and passion for his craft is sure to bother some, but I was bothered by how little time we actually spent with him. Klose refuses to interview his subject, save for a few minutes of talking head footage, and for newcomers there's very little learnt about Araki that you couldn't gather by flicking through one of his thousands of books, each one an epic and beautiful gallery of themed ideas; some are calmly observational of nature, others sexually explicit - it appears that Araki shook up the Japanese porn scene when filmmakers such as Nagisa Ôshima (In The Realm Of The Senses, 1976) were pushing boundaries in the cinema.

The problem for me lies in the question of who this film is for. As a newcomer to Araki I can only really speak for one side of the audience - those discovering him and his work for the first time. It's a largely shallow experience; albeit one filled with stunning, evocative photography that regaled, enraptured, angered and moved me. The film finds firmer ground in the final ten minutes when Araki speaks of his wife, who died some years ago. He took photos of her for a book called 'Sentimental Journey', and the shot of him holding her hand for the last time is affecting in a unique way. It feels almost invasive, yet also intimate. It's an expression of true love. Hearing Araki speak of his wife, and walk the audience through his photography of her, is the highlight of an otherwise muddled film that fans of Araki will likely have an even bigger problem with. For them, half of the film will be a revision session - they will own the books these stills are taken from, and have likely heard him discuss his passion and themes with other interviewers. Talking heads such as Björk and Takashi Kitano express love and admiration for Araki, but don't recount any experiences, stories or knowledge in particular. Neither does the subject, for that matter, as we largely see him in a working environment - snapping away at the city of Tokyo, illuminated by neon signs, or shooting his 'Erotic Housewife' series, where his towering enthusiasm really becomes evident.

An energized and beautiful picture, it's also unfocused and unsubstantial, resulting in a wasted opportunity that, while telling me nothing about the artist, has exposed me to an entire universe of art. Perhaps Klose is too in love with his subject to really be subjective, and allow him room to breathe in what should have been a fascinating exposé, but becomes something distinctly un-cinematic and uninformative. Like I said in the opening paragraph, it's best viewed as a slide-show; an almost interactive gallery. And in that disappointing sense, it functions perfectly.

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