Shibari

Shibari

The Exquisite Art of the Knot

At first thought, bondage of any guise draws up associations of unhealthy sexual perversion, power-games and a pervasive threat of violence. Whether the hangover of a Judeo-Christian religious repression of sexuality or not, for many people it speaks uncomfortably of our darkest desires and animality. Bondage is an arena in which we can explore the manifestation of our darker libidinal tones.

The Japanese art of rope bondage, Shibari, involves restraining one’s partner using rope, a few simple ties and, at its most advanced, full body harnesses to suspend them from walls or ceilings. With origins in Japanese cultural history of tying and wrapping going back over a millennium, Shibari has over the past two decades established itself at the heart of the Western fetish scene. More recently the practice has broken into the art world in the works of photographers like Nobuyoshi Araki or Daido Moriyama and in the outsider artist performances of practitioners like Midori.

Author of the first English language book on Shibari, The Seductive Art of Japanese Bondage, Midori has traveled the world teaching private and group classes, performing in night clubs and galleries, doing installations and giving presentations on the history of Shibari and contemporary Japanese sex culture.

At fetish-fashion club Torture Garden during London Fetish Week in October, she performed in a cage overlooking the throbbing dance-floor. Dressed in a green rubber bunny outfit Midori restrained her partner within a tangle of ropelines fixed to the cage’s bars. Whilst the following performance seemed arch and cold in the precision of postures and ties, suggesting a scientific obsession of technique, Midori clambered around the cage like a child, jumping upon the ropes and signaling suggestive with a carrot-shaped vibrator. She was freestyling, doing what she wanted, when she wanted. It was fun, obviously unashamed fun. Culminating with the rabbit mock ‘smoking’ the orange vibrator like a giant Groucho Marx cigar.

The following day Midori taught a Salon at hip celebrity members-club Soho House. Hosted by erotic boutique Coco De Mer, the class was a beginners’ introduction to Shibari held in a mahogany and black leather paneled room with champagne and nibbles laid out for the attendees. Although seeming stern on first impression, with an authority easily understandable given her profession, this petit Japanese lady with a San Franciscan accent has an impish and cheeky character.

The Salon began with a demonstration, Midori tying up her beautiful model, showcasing the specific ties and possibilities inherent in Shibari. What was surprising was the sensuality and care involved. After blindfolding the model with rope wrapped around her eyes in order to shut-out the watching students, Midori ran rope across her skin — activating her whole body with the delicate touch of the course yet soft rope. Varying her rhythm, first slow then quick, Midori disorientated the girl by spinning her around before progressively restraining her movements by tying her arms and legs together in variable combinations.

At the climax, once two carefully positioned knots had been intimately introduced between the girl’s legs, Midori placed a vibrator in the body harness above her stomach with the explanation that the vibrations travel throughout the rope.

Throughout Midori kept returning to the metaphor of cookery, that bondage is like gourmet cooking. “It gives you an outlet to be creative within the bedroom. Something to do that is infinitely variable.” Like fine dining or dining out as opposed to microwave ready-meals at home slouched in front of the TV and “going through your usual sexual repertoire, and with you’re usual repertoire you’re limited by your tools”.

A couple of days later at a Nobuyoshi Araki exhibition at Hamiltons Gallery in London’s upper-crust Mayfair and surrounded by huge photographic prints depicting restrained and suspended models, Midori explained the history of Shibari and the different tropes of Western and Eastern pornography.

Araki has made a career out of documenting Japanese sex culture, from swingers clubs and hostesses, to his personal forays into bondage. The images on show depicted Japanese girls and women from all ages and body types. Some were suspended by ropes, others wearing ornate body harnesses, some were exposed, and others were being penetrated by vibrators or dildos.

The show displayed each of the classic porn genres, with Araki playing off the cultural background of Japanese pornography. In contrast to classical Western pornography, where Barbie and Ken couples go at it hammer and tongs both fully presented in the shot, in classical Japanese pornography the male is often removed from the image — obscured in shadow or reduced by the cut to a disembodied abdomen or hand. For Midori, this displays the very different cultures of sex in the East and West and reflects the wider social structures.

Japan is a culture obsessed with wrapping, “the kimono’s wrapped, the armour is wrapped, the trees and the gardens are wrapped into great shapes, gifts are wrapped”. From kimonos to foot-binding Japanese traditions involve wrapping and binging. For Midori, this layering extends throughout the social order. Once Japanese males leave the wild years of college to enter the wider society through work they enter a rigid hierarchical structure of strict expectations and assigned places. “Clichés are the comically wrapped versions of a cultural ideal; one of the Japanese cultural virtues or personality ideals is endurance”.

In the face of this weight of societal pressure the individual is expected to follow the cultural virtue ‘to endure’. This is in stark contrast to the cultural virtues inherent within the American dream of individuality and entrepreneurship, although perhaps not so far from the British ‘stiff upper-lip’.

Repression of one’s libido by a restrictive social structure engenders an atmosphere of impotence within which the presence of another male figure within the pornographic image becomes threatening. Hence to preserve the fantasy and enable the viewer to identify with the image and project his libido through it, the male figure has to be obscured or invisible. The American porn star functions very differently — more as a gladiator or sports star, a totem or avatar of sexual projection.

Midori finds Western ‘safe porn applied with bondage’ of a big guy and petit little girl boring and unchallenging. “Japanese porn displays discomfort. Japanese pornography, sexuality and the undercurrent often play with discomfort, social discord, and humiliation. Humiliation is about discord and off-balanceness of one’s position, of one’s expected place in society”.

The high weight of expectation within this highly controlled, contained culture means that being put off balance or nudged aside from one’s assigned place is the taboo powering much of its sexual imagery. This off-balanceness is echoed in one of the key aesthetic principal in Shibari, to break up the symmetry of the human form, separating the columns, spreading and recombining them into new shapes and configurations. These columns can be any part of the body or of the environment around you, such as limbs, torso, wrist, thigh, chair, bed or wall. Each tie short-circuits the space between the columns, limiting one’s movement through fixing the relation between the affixed points.

The effect is “physically unsettling and thereby creates an emotional discord bringing a person into the here and now. Symmetry and order, it’s an easy place to become complacent.” Shibari certainly makes one “let go of complacency and the habit of anticipating what’s to come, you realize that you’re skill of anticipation is completely not working and that’s a really fresh place to be in.”

Many contemporary Western practitioners of Shibari trace its roots back to the martial art of Hojojutsu, “the military art of restraining people, an art learned on the battlefield for the professional training of soldiers, much in the way that fencing was a combative art and biathlon is an art of combat.” For Midori this is a romanticized myth claimed by those who “want their sexual arts validated by some historical grandiosity” and thus invent a tradition and lineage. Instead, she claims that the lineage of Shibari and the history of its introduction to the West is more fragmentary and piecemeal, involving gradual dissemination through a series of derivative images.

Hojojutsu was the Japanese equivalent of Europe’s medieval torture methods. In the way that “every culture co-opts its methods of incarceration into its darker erotic fantasies and psycho-drama in the bedroom” images of heinous crimes involving Hojojutsu techniques appeared in the tabloid erotic art and Kabuki of the late-Edo period (1603-1868). Now an austere pillar of culture, Kabuki was full of sex, betrayal, murder, rape and bondage much like the brutality found within Shakespearean plays like Titus Andronicus.

The Sengoku period which lasted roughly from the middle of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century and was one of the darkest eras of torture and execution in Japan, inspired cultural images within the nascent print industry and on the Kabuki stage that would stick around Japanese culture much as images of the Jesuits and the Spanish Inquisition would stick around in European culture.

With the advent of photography in the Meiji era (1868-1912) a classically trained painter and artist called Ito Seiu acquired a camera and learnt photography. Seiu took pictures of his wife tied up, restaging the scenes latent within traditional Japanese erotic imagery. Eventually he formed a photo-club for enthusiasts and created beautiful books of their works.

After the economic downturn of the mid- Twentieth Century and WWII, American GIs in Japan started frequenting the brothels and buying the dirty books available. Thus Shibari imagery starts to disseminate, somehow ending up in Australia in the possession of John Willie, an “illustrator who did the Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline, 60s outfits of corseted girls and horny outfits upon which a lot of the images of today’s fetishes are based.” Willie tried to recreate the imagery he found in the Japanese erotic-photo books in his own photographs and the Sweet Gwendoline imagery.

Whilst still very underground, after the war there were simmering pockets of Japanese style bondage on the West coast of America as GIs filtered back bringing the arts and inspiration with them. This continued until the internet suddenly exploded bondage across the mainstream’s subconscious. “People are looking for the next greatest thing after tantra that’s exotic” says Midori of this post-internet bondage boom. With Shibari “presented in two-dimensions – stripped of all cultural context, history and symbolism – people start making up history and meaning, giving it some strange nobility because of the Judeo-Christian Western discomfort with sex.”

Whichever narrative you want to follow, of a tradition of handed down knowledge or of the dissemination of derivative imagery through cultures, Shibari has become hugely prevalent within the West’s fetish scene. Through classes such as those hosted by Coco de Mer and the art of Araki the knowledge and imagery of rope bondage is reaching broader and broader audiences.

At its core the practice is a form of sensual sculpture, using the ropes and ties to restrict the body’s movement whilst simultaneously activating it erogenously. It is this sensual aspect that is crucial for Midori. Although as an art Shibari involves specialist technique and composition it has to remain vital, intensifying and catalyzing one’s libido. Speaking of watching others perform Midori says, “If the performance is passionate then I can drop the teacher head, but if they’re technique focused they’re doing it all wrong… My goal is to affect others with a genuine authentic intensity of the moment.” It’s that immediate intensity of the moment, however we find it, which is what makes us feel alive.

Text: William Alderwick
Images special thanks to Midori

Published in Issue 27 SPICE, 2009

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