The second hell: pornography
The second hell also comes from Shintoism. It concerns the enigma of shimenawa, i.e. the sacred rope that, in the Shinto tree altars, encircles the things and places that are considered sacred. Usually people think that this rope has a triple function: symbol, sign and protection. As noted, it is stretched around those places and things (shintai) that are supposed to be temporary receptacles of kami and stimulate the veneration of the faithful. Until the Meiji era, the peasants extended a shimenawa along the main access road to their village in order to protect it from hostile forces. Buddhism also adopted the use of this rope, as long ago as the Nara era (710-784) and afterwards it seems that it was spread by the popular propagation of Pure Land Buddhism. In this case, statues of monks were often attached to it, which were object of a special devotion, the famous Jizō. However the reason for this religious practice is completely different: the statues are tied with the aim of getting an answer to a prayer; the requester ties a string around the Jizō, and when the wish is granted the faithful unties it.
In my opinion, we need to keep all this complex and ambiguous religious background in mind, to understand the attraction that the use of the rope has exercised on the erotic imagination since the Edo period, giving rise to the sexual practice called shibari. They were the main subject of the paintings of the Japanese painter Seiu Ito (1862-1961) who, in turn took his inspiration from the great Tsukiyoka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). To understand Araki`s many photographs that depict it we need to follow this artistic path.
The passion for shibari opens another hell, that which the monk Genshin called samghāta. Here we find those who had committed the sin of lust: demons push them towards two mountains which, as they approach, crush them. This hell contains the forest of the leaf-swords. The demons reveal a tree, at the top of which is a very attractive woman. The man starts to climb this tree, but the leaves are transformed into swords that pierce him. Yet, covered in blood, he manages to reach the top of the tree. At this point, however the woman suddenly falls to the ground from the top of the tree and cries out: ”It`s your fault that I`ve fallen into hell; come down immediately and embrace me!” Full of tenderness the man climbs down but the leaf-swords have changed direction and cut his body again. When the man arrives at the foot of the tree, the woman, with a smile, leaps to the top of the tree again. So the man climbs up again. This scene repeats itself endlessly for an untold number of years!
The hell that Araki`s photographs confront is even worse. The insatiability of an agonizing sexual desire is always there, but this no longer comes from our psyche or a relationship with a real flesh and blood person, but from a photographic image. This was censured in the west before the `80s of the 20th century. Pornographic material was reserved for brothels and connoisseurs, i.e. to the few, refined lovers of eroticism. In this way, they retained the fascination of the prohibited and transgressive. With the deregulation of the `80s, pornography became available to everyone. With the internet this tendency has further developed. In Japan there has been some resistance as shown in the prohibition on showing the male member and pubic hair.
This democratization of pornography has contributed to making sexuality something vulgar, banal or trivial, removing any cultural value or psychic tension. The Genshin monk`s samghāta is no longer the insatiability of desire but an addiction to the media. Even Araki`s erotic photographs are seen, by a rough and ignorant public, as pornography.