Japanese ‘erotic’ photography: 村田兼一, Ken-ichi Murata. (Part 1)



Before we formally introduce Ken-Ichi Murata and his oeuvre, we’re obliged to recapitulate any ideas that we’ve formulated in our discussion of Sakiko Nomura. This will enable us as well as the reader to see if our formulations need further elaboration of diversification.

The central idea in our previous discussion was that there is no eroticism possible without a subjective encounter. In other words: photography can only become erotic by way of an encounter, to be situated on the visual level, between ‘something’ in the image and a looking subject whose constellation and unconscious gave rise to the possibility of the encounter. The consequence of the subjective nature of this encounter is that the appreciation of eroticism is a radical subjective affair.

With the reformulation of our main proposition behind us, we can now put Ken-Ichi Murata (1957- …) and Yumiko Yamasi (1975 – …), who hand paints Murata’s pictures, under our magnifying glass. Looking at the various titles, e.g. Japanese princess (2005, Edition Reuss), Princess of desire (2007, edition Reuss), Naked Princess (2010, Edition Reuss), of his published art books, we’re immediately able to discern a structuring signifier that underpins his oeuvre: “Hime”.

Phantasmatic erotic narrative framing

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The photographs shown above are from the series called The Frog Prince (蛙の王子) and aim to tell the erotically reinterpreted fairy tale narrative of the Frog Prince – Murata’s own composed narrative can be read at http://murata.main.jp/kaeru_top.htm [Japanese]. Like this series reveals and like Murata himself underlines, these photographs are to be understood as illustrations of fairy tales and usually five to ten photographs compose one narrative.

The following question immediately arises: Is an erotic encounter – the encounter with the watching object – prior to any narrative incorporation/apprehension of the photograph by the subject? In our view, this is the case. The precise moment when our ‘looking’ is ensnared is prior to any narrative apprehension of that aspect that caused the ensnarement. But it’s only after further ‘looking’ of the subject/spectator, after a sort of subjective ‘incorporation’ of or investment in the photograph, that eroticism, as experienced by the subject/spectator, can come to full fruition.

This answer enables us to give the aspect of a narrative in relation to engendering eroticism its place. Is ‘structure by narrative’ not the way to really sow and reap eroticism in photography? Is ‘structure by narrative’ not a way to guide the way in which a subject/spectator can invest erotically in a given photograph? And could a given narrative frame, given the subjective investment in that particular  narrative, not become a template for that subject/spectator to use in his own phantasy life?

And if such narrative structure isn’t present – see for instance Sakiko Nomura’s photography, doesn’t the spectator incorporate a given photograph in some sort of “fantasmatic” narrative of his own? And doesn’t this fantasmatic relation between spectator and erotic picture imply that the photographer him/herself has a similar fantasmatic relation with his photographs. In other words, doesn’t a photographer approach the act of erotic “framing” by way of his own fantasy? If so, then the following more general question arises: is real eroticism not always underpinned by a “fantasmatic” structure?

When I started creating the series, the theme was always “death and re-birth”. And in the basic stories of those of my works, there are two types ; “a girl wandered around the different world and got raped by monsters. But she released herself strongly” or “And then she got assimilated to the different world or monsters and ended up rotting away. (Murata, see his website)”

Before trying to answer these more overarching questions, we should investigate the function of narrative framing for the subject Ken-Ichi Murata: why does Murata aim to reveal the hidden eroticism in fairy tales and mythology? What is the function of ‘erotic revelation? The only way we can understand something about the specificity of Murata’s narrative framing, i.e. the use of western and oriental fairy tale and mythological narratives, is if we grasp the importance of the structuring signifier “Hime”.

From Hime, the structuring signifier, to Eros.

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Not only the photographs above, but every photograph in this article bears witness of the way in which the signifier “Hime” underpins the framing of women and the narrative in which a particular woman comes to be situated. “Hime” is, in other words, the signifier that structures every narrative and functions thus as an anchor point.

Using Kotaro Iizawa’s commentary (see Murata’s website) we conclude the following about this particular signifier: “Hime” is an ancient Japanese signifier that signifies ‘awe’ and ‘wistfulness’ for women. In the past the signifier was strictly reserved to designate noble princesses, women of the imperial family, and women of aristocracy, but in the present “Hime” is often used to honour a particular woman: her beauty, her character, her elegance, … etc. In the Kansai region, the region where Murata’s from, the signifier “Hime” is sometimes used for prostitutes and reveals that the signifier in itself has an erotic quality.

The short exploration of the signifier enables us to formulate our guiding question: what function does the woman as “Hime” have in relation to the engendering of eroticism in a particular narrative frame?

“There is a photograph that a rubber hose comes out of a girl’s vagina. The hose can be taken as a penis and also be taken as a umbilical cord. In that photograph, the girl, nourished by being connected with something, is sleeping. And her face is quite easy. In my image, the girl is like a peacefully sleeping fetus, and, as it were, a princess in the tale “The Sleeping Beauty” (Murata, see his website)”.

Guided by the speech of Murata, we propose that the image of “Hime” and its place in the magical narrative is to underline and to make the “Eros” of the female model explicit. In the magical narrative, the image of “Hime” aims to fixate the “Eros”, the strictly sexual component of the life-force, of that specific woman. One could even propose that the true “Hime” in the photograph is not the woman as such, but the woman as sexual being, the woman as Eros. If so then one can say that Murata’s photography is partially a celebration of female sexuality as something noble, and something that deserves awe. Watching Murata’s photographs more closely, one easily sees that Murata, for the greater part, situates the female Eros ‘around’ the female genital area: this focusing on the female genital area is something that keeps repeating itself.

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The ‘repeated’ revelation of (female) Eros as “Hime” or by way of using the image of “Hime” in a fantastical narrative, necessitates us to look more closely at the function of this ‘erotic repetition’: Why does “Hime”, as the signifier situating and fixating Eros, plays such a fundamental role in Murata’s oeuvre?  This question, as a matter of fact, concerns nothing other than the subjective underpinnings of Murata’s oeuvre.

(To be continued in Part 2)


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