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Hajime Sawatari at the Taka Ishii Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

It is a familiar sight on the Tokyo art scene: A gallery opening, the photographer a middle-aged man, his subject a teenaged girl, the pictures a collection of nudes. It is a studied scene: The photographer is meant to affect an insouciant air, and it’s preferable that he be a little disheveled, you know, like an artist. The rough look should be balanced by a black suit (it’s always a black suit), and he should smile while signing one of his books for a fan. He will also laugh at his own jokes, prompting others to feel good about doing the same. It is important that the gallery be respectable, and that the pictures are black and white—this affords the work a cachet which convinces the curious to spring for the books and the collectors to buy the prints. That’s what gives these guys the credibility which transfigures their softcore into hard art, and that’s what makes the gallerists happy to host them.

Nobuyoshi Araki does it best, and so it was no surprise to find the lubricious lensman at the respectable Taka Ishii gallery in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward, sitting center court at the party for Hajime Sawatari’s "A Girl," an exhibition of 20 black and white nudes by the 60 year-old photographer in the black suit, with his teenaged model, porno star Mae Hoshino.

"I used to shoot fashion," says Sawatari, "but I don’t anymore. Now I like nudes, nude girls."

Araki has told interviewers that he has sex with many if not most of his subjects. Sawatari won’t be bothered with the question concerning his teenaged model.

Neither will she, exactly. "Well, (giggle giggle), I’m actually 20 now," laughs the saucy Hoshino, who has starred in a half-dozen adult videos, and did seven "difficult" sessions with Sawatari in the production of this show.

"Porno is business," she says, "but this is art."

There are 20 pictures here, all 508x610cm. Sawatari likes to fill up the frame, and judging by the distorted perspectives, likes to work up close to his model with a wide-angle lens. More than a few pictures are out of focus (in an artsy way), and there is a dynamic created in the motion-blur shots, which tend to involve Hoshino shaking her breasts. The full-figured model displays a full repertoire of poses: She can also hold her breasts, recline on a bed, press her breasts together, and kneel on the floor like a dog, dangling her breasts. And so on.

If there is one remarkable photograph here it is the genitalia close-up. Sawatari shrugs when asked if he fears that the photograph, which is half-hidden by a pillar near the rear of the gallery, might be ordered removed by authorities. He says he doesn’t think so, and he might be right—things seem to have loosened up over the last year to the point where Japanese censorship standards now resemble those practiced in the West, circa, say, about 1965. This is, however, a great leap forward from the state of affairs a mere five or so years ago, when pubic hair was still a no-no and selections from a show of century old Aubrey Beardsley drawings were deemed obscene and pulled down by police.

While it is by no means obscene, only in Japan would "A Girl" be considered fine art. Sawatari is known to adult website surfers for his photo CD, "Finger," which, a naughty.com affiliate promises, delivers "softcore nude Photo-CD images of sexy young Japanese." You can find Sawatari’s CD in the site’s bargain bin, along with titles such as "Busty Babes Get Kinky."

Hmm… "Softcore nude images of sexy young Japanese": An apt description of an all-too familiar sight on Tokyo’s gallery walls.

"A Girl" runs to Mar 18, 2000 at the Taka Ishii (3915-7784).
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