A Trip to Japan - Meetings with Remarkable Men #2-
by Master "K"
Welcome to my second post recounting my recent trip to Tokyo and my various meetings with some of the most famous bakushi (rope artists) in the world.
Upon landing in Japan I realized almost immediately that my fears about potential changes in the country or its people were groundless. Friendly, helpful and incredibly polite to the jet lagged visitor, the Japanese remain some of the most courteous and pleasant people in the world. As for the countryside itself, green and verdant, it too retained the charming qualities I remembered in its artistic balance between the natural and man made. Even Narita airport, forever the source of complaints from foreign businessmen more interested in efficiency and a buck than good city planning, plays its part by being far enough away from Tokyo to provide a pleasant ride into the city and by protecting the town from too much jet engine noise.
Would Nureki Chimuo appear as formidable? He certainly could, for he has quite a reputation.
Generally considered, at 80, the greatest living bakushi (rope artist), Nureki holds an exalted place in the history of Japanese BDSM. I cover his career extensively in my book but, to put it briefly, he holds this position by virtue of his age, his decades of accomplishments and for his being a living link between the origins of kinbaku and today. For instance, the great Minomura Kou hired him as an editor of Uramado, the second most famous SM magazine (after Kitan Club) ever published. In addition, to date he has written thousands of articles on BDSM subjects and almost a dozen books on all aspects of kinbaku. On top of that, he is probably the most published bakushi in the world by virtue of his doing thousands of photos shoots and hundreds of films/videos and "how to tie" publications over the decades. The truth is, if you've seen a genuine Japanese kinbaku photo, there's a good chance the rope work was done by Nureki Chimuo.
My personal connection to Nureki sensei began with my book, "The Beauty of Kinbaku." After discovering it at the SM Museum in Tokyo and having it translated, he was kind enough to send me a lovely and complimentary letter of review. As you might imagine, this was extremely humbling. He also added the following aside:
"If you come to Tokyo, I would definitely like to meet. I would like to spend plenty of time with you and demonstrate for you my rope techniques and practices. Really, you have done a splendid job of pulling everything together into an accurate, concise book. I am just so impressed. You have my deep respect and admiration."
As you might imagine, this made my knees shake.
Of course, I presumed this was just the sort of polite invitation and salutation a kind Japanese correspondent might make, never really assuming the Yank on the other end of the letter would take him up on it. And even if he did, an actual meeting could be easily deflected.
And then a second letter arrived asking if I could come between specific dates in 2010 so that I could view a "special shoot" being arranged for the magazine Mania Club, a publication of the potent Sanwa publishing group. Gulp! Maybe he really did want me to visit?!
It seems Nureki sensei was being given the chance to completely create a photo shoot (and video) to his own exacting standards by using his favorite model and photographer and all his closest associates -- a "dream team" of kinbaku art, if you will. Even given his position, this is quite rare as most professional bakushi simply follow the orders of magazine editors, film/video directors and sometimes photographers (the famous Sugiura Norio comes to mind) and "tie to order," so to speak. It was this creative act he wanted me to witness.
If ever there was an "opportunity not to be missed," this was it ... and so I packed my bags.
The day of the shoot.
A few days after my arrival in Japan, on the morning of the shoot, my small group was instructed to be prompt for our 11 AM encounter with this legend on the 7th floor of the Sanwa building in downtown Tokyo. Arriving early, I was struck by how ordinary the building seemed despite its being the headquarters for one of the (if not the) most famous publishers of erotic material in Japan.
My mind began to wander through the many images I'd seen of Nureki and his kinbaku. Would he match my recollections? I also recalled with a start that he's a man noted for his temper, quite surprising for someone from a culture that's famous for its desire to avoid unseemly conflicts. I'd heard that he "suffers fools badly" and can fly into a towering rage if crossed. He is also known as one who has no small ego and once even insisted that a foreign visitor to his famous kinbiken presentations identify photos of his kinbaku from a group of pictures that contained the work of several other bakushi before he allowed the foreigner in the door! Hmmm. What was I getting myself into?
To my surprise, the 7th floor studio was in pitch darkness when we arrived exactly at 11 AM and there was an eerie stillness pervading this usually busy floor of Sanwa where most of their photographic work is done. We peered into the gloom and as our eyes accustomed themselves to the dark, there, to my shock, in the far distance, sitting quietly on the darkened set, was Nureki Chimuo, alone, twisting a length of rope in his hands and apparently deep in concentration. It was a startling apparition and, more startling still, he paid no attention to us, so focused did he seem on the upcoming task.
All at once, several lights went on and what appeared mysterious was quickly explained when several of Nureki's staff appeared. It seems that one of sensei's creative ideas was to shoot this photo set, a "damsel in distress" scenario he'd written, lit only by flashlights to better enhance its film noir "look." An interesting creative decision. The photographer had darkened the stage to better test his equipment before beginning and that's why all the lights were out.
A brief welcome was offered, introductions were made and, in typical Japanese fashion, we presented our gifts of thanks. I was startled to realize that part of sensei's "dream team" was the photographer Kei-san, one of the best kinbaku lens meisters in Japan. Tall for a Japanese, bald, very friendly and welcoming, he is perhaps best known for being a close associate of the late Akechi Denki sensei and for taking several of the most iconic images of that legendary bakushi's kinbaku. A "dream team" indeed! Other participants in this shoot included a senior editor at Sanwa and Nureki's "manager," both women. In fact, the crew seemed to consist mostly of women and also several very fit younger men of the camera assistant/grip sort.
As for Nureki sensei, he hung back ... assessing. Imperious might be the best adjective to describe him as it was immediately obvious that nothing was going to be done on that set that he first didn't approve. Neither friendly nor unfriendly it was also clear he was taking our measure. I thought again of that hapless foreigner and his "photo test!"
In appearance, Nureki Chimuo is remarkable. Short and stocky, at 80 he has no outward signs of age. His face is wrinkle free, his complexion clear and his energy level remarkable. He speaks in high pitched, fast paced, staccato bursts and clearly assumes an absolute authority. On this day he wore his trade mark black T-shirt and loose fitting, pajama-style pants. It was obvious he didn't want to chat but rather was completely focused on the task at hand.
The Sanwa editor approached to say we were welcome and to apologize for not being able to "host" us more properly. She explained that they almost never invite visitors, especially when sensei is tying, and so hoped we would understand if we were left to our own devices as spectators. She gave the impression of a nervous talent agent that had a difficult, super star type client that needed all her attention. She also explained they had a lot of work to do in a short amount of time but that she was confident of success because of the "team" and the fact that Nureki sensei "ties so quickly." Fascinating. After getting drinks from the refreshment table we quietly settled into seats on the periphery of the action.
As I began to concentrate on my surroundings, I noticed that the stage was of a good size and seemed quite well equipped. There was a lighting grid attached to the ceiling and a fair amount of professional looking equipment scattered around but that wasn't going to be used today because of Nureki's creative flashlight idea. People kept streaming back and forth from other offices adjacent to the stage and itseemed clear our stage was only part of a larger production complex.
All at once, there was a flurry of activity and today's model arrived accompanied by a female make-up person and the editor. The model seemed nervous and Nureki welcomed her with a few relaxing jokes. Her name is Sawato Fuyuki and I'm told she's one of Nureki's favorites. It's easy to see why. Not only is she beautiful but she has an interesting story.
It seems that when Sawato was 17 she wrote Nureki a letter asking to model for him. She loved the look of his kinbaku which she'd seen in a magazine and dreamed of experiencing it. However, she never mailed the letter for fear of ... who knows? Over the years she wrote him many letters like this but they, too, never made it to a post office box. Finally, in her late 20's she actually sent a letter and received an invitation to meet. They've worked together several times since with great success.
Apparently, this is fairly remarkable because Nureki sets high standards for his models. He prefers them intelligent, interested and sophisticated and isn't especially keen on those from the fetish scene. It's said he once took a liking to one young woman who had expressed an interest in the art of kinbaku, as opposed to just modeling, and offered to guide her through the SM Library. Unfortunately, she had the misfortune of saying something "vulgar" on the trip over so Nureki only dropped her unceremoniously at the library's door!
Nureki approaches us to confirm his satisfaction with today's model, her costume and to say that Ms Sawato, "loves my kinbaku." Is he just boasting? It would seem not because then the most extraordinary thing suddenly occurs.
Fortunately, no one from Sanwa had noticed our indiscretion because they were so busy with their model! After a few more minutes of this Nureki gets annoyed and gruffly cautions Ms Sawato that, "You'd better pull yourself together because we've got a lot of work to do today and, if you keep this up, you won't make it!"
After this startling curtain raiser, the model steadies herself and the shoot begins in earnest.
Watching Nureki sensei carefully, it's clear that it's not that he ties so quickly but rather that he does his kinbaku so effortlessly. Like all the other famous rope masters I observed during my trip (Yukimura Haruki, Urato Hiroshi, etc.), Nureki, after decades of practice, has achieved a fluidity and grace in tying that can best be described as a dance of kinbaku; not the big movements of the flashy stage performer, but the quieter grace of complete mastery.
What's equally exciting to see is that this shoot features Nureki's signature style of "kuzushi nawa" or "random rope." This is a type of tying that is asymmetrical in look while still being quite forceful and Nureki is a past master at it. For instance, his first rope of the day created a "high hand" takate-gote that's quite strict and gives the impression of roughness, perfect for the kidnapping scenario. Kuzushi nawa also has the advantage of presenting the rope patterns a bit more distinctively to the camera than more symmetrical layerings sometimes do because the wraps will each catch the light individually depending on the model's movements. Making this type of tie look good takes real skill and the true trick with this "random rope" style is getting the pressures right so the model feels relatively comfortable and stays safe. This is the real art of kuzushi nawa and Nureki is the king of this technique as his student and disciple Naka Akira confirmed to me later on in my stay.
Because of time constraints, I seldom am able to follow too many of the posts on the various rope oriented Internet groups but one that belatedly caught my attention recently was entitled, "Why are Japanese rope master's ties so messy," or something of the sort. I wish I'd been able to catch that one because the answer is so simple. The great bakushi's ties are "messy" only when they want them to be for effect and aren't "messy" at all when they shouldn't be for aesthetics or, more importantly, for safety. The perfect illustration of this occurred during this photo session.
One of the most interesting aspects of this shoot was the fact that it proceeded almost like an intense play session. By this I mean that there was only one break in the 2 hours of shootings and that, as Nureki sensei continued to add to and complicate his kinbaku, Ms. Sawato stayed bound and struggling throughout. Kei-san, the photographer, had to cover the session in a quasi-documentary style using only lightning fast "adjustments" of his illuminating flashlights as the "damsel" was moved from set to set. An interesting challenge. In other words, things moved swiftly and dramatically and yet every time a position was attempted that called for some sort of suspension where a crossed rope might threaten nerve compression Nureki sensei stepped in to straighten his wraps to assure a flat layering and an even pressure in order to minimize the risks. And this happened not once but several times.
Although the session was definitely "erotic" it was by no means "pornographic." Of course, this was of no surprise since Nureki has gone on record many times stating his general disdain for the use of kinbaku for this obvious exploitative purpose. In this session the emphasis was on the beauty of the ties and how they affected the model physically and psychologically and how she reacted to them. It was kinbaku for kinbaku art's sake and was remarkable to see. I was also struck by how carefully sensei had "cast" his project, from the right model to the right photographer in order to breath life into his vision of "kinbaku-bi" (the beauty of kinbaku Art). Clearly Nureki gets good results by getting the best people.
After an hour of intense tying and photography, Nureki finally gave the signal for a break. The model seemed truly drained but happy. The crew seemed only drained.
Sensei then finally broke the ice with us, his visitors. Apparently, we'd proved ourselves sufficiently by staying put when asked, not taking flash photos, chewing gum or knocking over any lights so he sauntered over for a few informal words. To my surprise he first offered not chit chat but advice on how to best treat rope that's about to be used in a photo shoot. To be taken for a colleague was immensely flattering. Was he talking to me?
He then began to speak about his model and their history together, drawing her in to help her settle down after the demanding first half of the shoot. It seems the emperor was human after all. As the break concluded a colleague whispered to me that sensei had noted that I had used a lot of gags in my last book so he was going to include a few more in the next hour's work to conclude the session. Again, if this was true, I was very flattered ... though I didn't have the heart to tell him I used my gags (and blindfolds) to help disguise the real enthusiasts I mostly used in the book ... and then only those who liked being gagged!
And then it happened again!
After a twenty minute break Nureki starts to tie his model for the second part of the session and ... she collapses all over again! Where does he find these people ... and why don't any live in Pomona!?
The second stanza proves as exciting as the first and concludes with Nureki doing an impromptu gyaku-ebi zuri (hog tied suspension). This in spite of the fact the magazine, "might not even use it." A little showing off? Probably. It is Nureki, after all.
For me the shoot seems to end almost before it began with the profusely sweating but satisfied Kei-san indicating he's got enough material, the editor happy and the model blissfully back to earth. As for Nureki, he's still imperious as he stands alone coiling his ropes. It's only later that I learn that he was very pleased with how it all went.
To say it was a privilege to watch this master tie would be a complete understatement. Imagine seeing a legendary athlete up close or, if sports are not your thing, then your favorite artist in the flesh, someone you'd only read about ... only he's right there ... for real.
Beautiful, Unique, Youthful are the adjectives that describe the beauty of Nureki's kinbaku and it was a true privilege to observe him. And I even got a copy of his story boards!
I hope you'll join me next time as my adventures in Tokyo's world of kinbaku continue and I encounter the legendary, brilliant and delightful Yukimura Haruki.