Exclusive Interview with Sugiura Norio
I had set up an interview with a hero of mine, the amazing photographer, Sugiura Norio, and when the day arrived to conduct the interview, I forgot all about it!
I was gutted. Completely shattered. At the time, I believed I would never have another chance. That was the knife turning after the initial thrust. I can't describe the agony.
But phone calls were made and emails sent. After awhile it looked like there might still be some hope of salvaging the whole sorry mess. As it turned out, one month later to the day, I was sitting across from the man I had admired from afar for years.
We met in his office in Akebonobashi, east of Shinjuku. I had previously met my translator at the station with a few minutes to spare but finding the address at night proved formidable. We weren't able to find any numbers on the buildings at all.
Finally, my translator saw the building name and we hurried into the elevator. Mr. Sugiura met us at the door, friendly and smiling, even though we had probably arrived about 10 minutes late. I really didn't want to arrive late, especially after the earlier fiasco.
Thankfully, once we got settled in, things went much more smoothly.
WHERE THE WORK GETS DONE
I will just say that Mr. Sugiura's office was not fancy. I'm not sure how long he has been occupying this space, but it really has that lived-in look. This is where he runs his website, Kinbaku Sajiki, and there were a couple of desks with iMacs on them and two young guys still working at the computers -- and it was now after 7 PM. In fact, they were still hard at work when the interview concluded around 9 PM. People work late in Japan.
I had read that Mr. Sugiura has a couple of sons who assist him in the business but didn't find out if these were his sons or not. They just quietly went about their work as I settled in to concentrate on the interview. I did learn that one of these young guys had spent three years in Los Angeles but, like me, isn't too good at picking up foreign languages. We had a nice laugh about that.
Sugiura Norio is perhaps the most acclaimed bondage photographer in the world. He isn't the only renowned bondage photographer -- Tanaka Kin-ichi comes to mind. And Araki Nobuyoshi is certainly more famous than the two put together. But Araki is not primarily a bondage photographer. He is in another category.
Sugiura was born in 1942 in Aichi prefecture. After high school, he spurned the call to higher education, opting to attend a trade school -- in this case, an art institute from which, incidentally, he did not graduate.
Per his recollection, when he was 21 or 22 years old, he got a job as a crew member working at a puppet theater. He was a construction coordinator at the Hitomi-za, a famous puppet theater in Japan.
The puppet shows were televised and Sugiura recalls working at this job for about two years. He stayed there until he found employment at another kind of theater, one that was pretty much the antithesis of a puppet theater.
WORK BY THE MASTER LINK
He began working at the Asakusa Toyo Gekijo (Asakusa Oriental Theater), a job that would ultimately bring him into contact with a writer of SM-themed stories, Dan Oniroku. Dan's star would soon rise and the fateful encounter helped catapult Sugiura to fame in his own right -- through pictures instead of words.
Sugiura worked there initially for about three years as the lighting director. It's tempting to speculate in hindsight whether this experience helped Sugiura hone his skills as a photographer, given that expertly manipulated light plays such a crucial role in his photographic masterpieces.
The Asakusa Toyo Gekijo was a not just a a place where the ladies took off their clothes, although there was plenty of female flesh on display.
In the 60s and even into the 70s, a theater such as the Asakusa Toyo Gekijo was more a burlesque theater than what we know today as a strip joint. I know in the beginning, women typically wore pasties to cover their nipples and there were live bands. Whether pasties and live music were still around when Mr. Sugiura started working there, I'm not sure.
A friend of mine once told me that the end of the 60s was the death knell of the “tasteful” strip tease in Japan. This seems about right.
One thing that was still in effect was scripted shows and, as a result, the need for paid scriptwriters. Just like in any live theater venue, lighting was an important part of the production. Sugiura Norio was one of a large number of staff members.
I had not been aware that Sugiura left the Asakusa Toyo Theater and hitchhiked all the way to the northern tip of Hokkaido. He said he had "no money" to speak of at the time, he just wanted to see how far he could go -- and if he could do it at all. It was a challenge he had to undertake.
By the time he reached the very end of Japan, he had only 500 yen in his pocket and, to this day, this sum has symbolic meaning to him. Like most artists, he has been through thick and thin. There have been good times and there have been lean times. The 500 yen coin reminds him of what he was able to accomplish with so few means at his disposal. And it seems to say: As long as I have 500 yen, everything will be all right.
Sugiura had accomplished one of his goals but much more lay ahead of him. He just didn't know it at the time.
Nearly broke, he managed to get himself back to Tokyo and returned to work at the theater in Asakusa and after another year or two, the meeting with Dan Oniroku occurred.
LEFT TO RIGHT, DAN ONIROKU AND SUGIURA NORIO
He was introduced to Dan by someone who is still well known in Japan, even though he passed away in 1985: Tako Hachiro.
Tako, at that time, was a comedian mostly known by sub-culture types, but he would later go on to become a widely-known and loved comedian in film and television. After his untimely death at the age of 44, a TV station in Tokyo memorialized him.
A poor farm boy from Sendai, he nearly lost the vision in his left eye due to a childhood accident. Despite this, he got into boxing and won the Japanese national title as a flyweight.
Apparently, he was a hard drinker and once got into a fight with another patron at a bar. The other guy bit a huge chunk out of Tako's right ear.
I don't know how much, if any, interest he had in SM, but he joined Dan Oniroku's group known as Oni Pro (Oni Productions) which Dan formed around 1969, The retired fighter had already been appearing as a comedian on the burlesque scene.
A man's gotta make a living and Tako was a very good comedian and since comedy was such a big part of these performances, whether you call them burlesque, revue, strip or pink show, Tako had found his niche and, according to Mr. Sugiura, was the main man, the star of this live theater aspect of Oni Pro.
Sugiura was invited to join Oni Pro in the early 70s and worked as both a stage manager and producer.
Interestingly, at that time, Dan Oniroku was living in the city of Manabe in Kanagawa prefecture, a long way from Tokyo. Presumably, he often traveled to Tokyo for film and photo projects and he must have decided he needed an office in Tokyo. He rented a small apartment in Shibuya.
I'm not sure how Dan met Tako Hachiro but the latter eventually ended up living in this apartment.
In the documentary on the life of Tako Hachiro, there is a still photo of him in a pretty run-down apartment in Shinjuku. I didn't catch the year but I'm assuming this pre-dated his involvement with Oni Pro.
It is also interesting to note that Tako Hachiro had met the legendary figure, Minomura Kou. Of course, I knew that Minomura was a writer, photographer and artist (among other things), but I did not know that he was also a fan of boxing. It's a small world, and the SM world is even smaller, so I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that the two crossed paths.
It is believed they met in the mid-70s, after Tako had joined Oni Pro. Also, around this time, there was a meet-up between Tako, Minomura Kou and the now-famous bakushi, Nureki Chimuo. At that time, Tako was running a small bar in Shinjuku's Golden Gai.
It's difficult to know what Oni Pro actually started out as. We know that Dan was writing novels and scripts in the early 1960s and had been writing more mainstream fare since the 1950s. In fact, he won the “New Face” award of Bungei Syun-Jyuu in 1957. One of his books from this period was even made into a movie by Shochiku, a venerable film studio in Japan.
His SM novel, Hana to Hebi (Flower and Snake), first appeared in the magazine Kitan Club in 1962, long before it was used as the inspiration for the 1974 Nikkatsu movie by the same name.
In fact, there were other movies with the Hana to Hebi as a companion title before the Nikkatsu version. The Nikkatsu film was not scripted by Dan and he was quite unhappy with how far the movie strayed from his novel, and broke off relations with the studio for a few years.
Dan's own writings are inconsistent when it comes to the beginnings of Oni Pro. Did it start as a group producing live theater events, or something else? The record is not clear. We do know that it was involved in four main areas:
theater company (with Tako Hachiro)
pink film production
SM King magazine
One thing seems certain: the business of Oni Pro was doing well. By 1971, the office moved to a larger, and presumably more expensive, location in Shibuya and then to a huge house in Meguro. In particular, Dan has written that the photo books were very profitable. Other sources indicate the theatrical performances were money-makers although Dan wrote that the pink films were not profitable at that time.
What is clear, and of historical import, is that Mr. Sugiura met Dan Oniroku and was invited to join Oni Pro, first as a producer and stage manager for the live events and later as photo editor for the magazine Dan eventually started, SM King.
According to Sugiura, Oni Pro would hold their live events at various theaters around Tokyo. These were, undoubtedly, general-purpose theaters in that they had a stage for live performances as well as a screen for showing films.
A typical evening of Oni Pro entertainment would include two films and a live performance sandwiched in between, for a total running time of three hours.
At first, I wondered about the nature of the films that were shown. Were they standard sex films, or were they SM films? The rules were stricter in those days as to what could be shown, but there was quite a bit of SM fare available by the time Oni Pro formed in 1969. Indeed, Dan Oniroku had written the scripts for several SM-themed movies by that time.
Sugiura cleared this up for me when he said: "Dan was a great scriptwriter. Every time he wrote a script there was a taste of violence in it. He was also a good comedy writer and that's why Tako took part."
And so, it sounds like at least some of the movies shown at the time were films written by Dan himself and, as mentioned, there were other SM movies available with no connection to Dan.
Nudity and bondage were also cropping up in films not specifically dedicated to the topic. One such film was director Suzuki Seijun's Nikutai no Mon (Gate of Flesh) in 1964. Another was Hakujitsumu (Day Dream) from director Takechi Tetsuji, also in 1964.
SCENE FROM DAYDREAM
Of the two, I was mostly taken with Nikutai no Mon. Not only are the photography and set design lovely, the bondage scenes are stunning.
The novel upon which the movie is based first appeared as a play in 1947. The bondage scenes were played out live on stage although I'm not sure if the actresses were nude (as in the movie). This seems very doubtful. In any event, this could possibly be considered the first SM play in Japan. (Ed. -- I am informed that the actress was topless, though seen from behind).
POSTER FROM DAYDREAM
Of course, this was years before Nikkatsu started distributing the titles that would turn Dan Oniroku into a superstar. Actually, Nikkatsu had held back on the subject of pink films. Only after witnessing the popularity of these movies put out by independent studios (and the fact that their mainstream movie business was failing), did they get onboard.
Dan Oniroku was still a junior high school teacher in Kanagawa using a nom de plume when he was writing his earlier SM-themed material. In the 1960s, Dan wrote many scripts, mostly for a company called Yamabe Pro (Yamabe Productions). One accounting has Dan writing more than 23 pink film scripts between 1965 and 1969.
LEFT TO RIGHT, TOP SECRET: WOMEN'S TORTURE, 1968, TANI NAOMI, AND TANI'S LAST FILM IN 1979, ROPE AND SKIN
One such film was Niku no Shi-iku (aka Hana to Hebi, Yori: Niku no Shi-iku). Some English sources refer to this film as Body Discipline.
This film came out in 1968 and Dan Oniroku is credited with the screenplay and a certain actress by the name of Tani Naomi is listed towards the bottom of the credits of this film. It is just one of many with the Hana to Hebi title companion.
TANI NAOMI'S 1967 DEBUT IN THE FILM SPECIAL
According to one source, it is believed that Tani had 200 films to her credit before she signed with Nikkatsu. Not all of them had SM themes but Tani knew her strength lay in the SM genre. And in that category she was a genius. She truly reigned as the Queen of SM.
By the time Nikkatsu had struck gold with Flower and Snake and, later, Wife to Be Sacrificed, neither Tani nor Dan were newcomers to the business. They were seasoned professionals in their respective areas and the Nikkatsu films benefited from this experience.
LEFT TO RIGHT, A HISTORY OF CRIMINAL PUNISHMENT TORTURE BY NAWA YUMIO AND A COMIC CALLED FLESH HELL FROM 1977, APPARENTLY NO CONNECTION TO THE FILM BUT IT WAS WRITTEN BY MINOMURA KOU AND ILLUSTRATED BY OKI SYOJI - RARE
A 1967 film called Niku Jigoku (Flesh Hell) was written by Dan (as Hanamaki Kyotaro). One source credits him as the director while other sources credit Matsubara Jiro as the director. Matsubara was also the director of Hana to Hebi, Yori: Niku no Shi-iku).
Niku Jigoku was also produced by Yamabe, but this was still a couple of years before Oni Pro was formed -- and before he had met Sugiura.
And even before Tani Naomi debuted as an actress, Dan's first film to carry the Hana to Hebi title was produced by Yamabe in 1965. This film was introduced and discussed in detail in Kitan Club.
And so, before Nikkatsu got on the bandwagon, there were many pink films produced that could have been shown at an Oni Pro live theater event – some with an SM twist. Sources indicate that there were 90 pink film production companies in 1965 which produced 218 films!
Although the large studio, Toei (and director Ishii Teruo), made SM films in the late 1960s, the independent pink film companies were the ones that really got the ball rolling -- companies such as Yamabe, World Eiga, Tokyo Koei and a host of others.
The film generally credited with being the first full-on SM movie was A History of Japanese Torture (Nippon Goumon Keibatsu-shi) which came out in 1964. The director was Komori Kiyoshi who also directed Top Secret: Girl Torture (Gokuhi: Onna Goumon) in 1968 which starred Tani.
SCENE FROM THE FILM A HISTORY OF JAPANESE TORTURE
Martial artist and hojojutsu expert, Nawa Yumio, wrote the script for this film and it was based on a book he had written on the subject.
Oni Pro was not the only live theater company operating in those days. Mr. Sugiura recalled about 10 such theater companies.
It was customary for actresses in popular pink films of the day to take part in the live performances. This must have been what really brought in the audience.
This is an area in which I really wish I had gone into more detail with Mr. Sugiura. He described Tako Hachiro's act as "porno comedy", although another way of putting it might be "ero comedy" since the word porn, for the Westerner, tends to conjure up images of hardcore sex acts. It's very doubtful there was anything remotely pornographic in these shows.
But the question arises, did these live performances include any bondage? Alas, it is a question I neglected to ask Mr. Sugiura. However, I have learned that bondage was on display, I'm just not sure to what extent.
For example, I received a report that the previously mentioned Nureki Chimuo wrote about a show he saw in Ginza, a play titled Domesticated Human, Yapoo (a famous SM novel which appeared in the pages of Kitan Club). Surprisingly, Nureki came away disappointed, complaining how Tako Hachiro had made strange sounds while wearing an alien costume!
URAMADO MAGAZINE - URAMADO MEANS REAR WINDOW
Nureki himself wrote scripts for pink shows, although not for anything Tako performed. These scripts can be seen in the pages of Uramado magazine, and they included bondage scenes.
As far as the locations of the theaters, Mr. Sugiura recalled they were in Shibuya, Ginza, Ikebukuro and Shinjuku's Kabukicho district. He was able to remember the name of only one of the theaters, the Odeon, in Shinjuku.
This is interesting in that it is known that Tako Hachiro, while with Oni Pro, performed pink shows at theaters belonging to the Keitsu Group and the Keitsu Group had its theaters in Shinjuku, Ginza, etc. The theater in Shinjuku was the previously mentioned Chikyu-za and it is known that actor Kitano "Beat" Takeshi watched a pink comedy show when he was young, before becoming a comedian himself. I don't know if Takeshi saw Tako's show or not but this is apparently what inspired him to become a comedian himself.
A little known fact is that Mr. Sugiura also worked as an assistant director on films. Who was the director? None other than Motogi Sojiro. If the name Motogi Sojiro doesn't sound familiar, don't feel too bad. I didn't recognize the name either.
But you may be startled to find out that Motogi Sojiro was the producer of such films as Ikiru, Rashomon and Seven Samurai, all from legendary director Akira Kurosawa.
In fact, it seems Motogi was very active in the SM pink film world. Other films he directed include these releases from Yamabe Pro:
Hadaka no Fukusyu (script by Dan Oniroku as Hanamaki Kyotaro)
Masei no Hitozuma (script by Dan as Hanamaki Kyotaro)
Hana to Hebi Yori, Hone Made Shibari (script by Dan)
Onna no Oku
Ozykuno Onna (script by Dan as Kuroiwa Matsujiro/featured Tako Hachiro)
Jain no Hada
All these films were made in 1966 with Motogi being credited as Takagi Fumio.
Motogi also directed a film, Syojo no Tameiki, in 1967 (also credited as Takagi Fumio) in which Tani Naomi appeared, although this film's producer is listed as Kotobuki Pro, not Yamabe Pro.
SM KING MAGAZINE
Yamabe Pro should be of interest to SM aficionados. The owner was Yamabe Nobuo who was apparently married to Tani Naomi. He was also her manager.
Yamabe Pro seems to have faded out in 1969, about the same time Oni Pro got started. Mr. Sugiura said Oni Pro was a full-fledged company, not just a loose organization of creative "misfits", as it were. At least one other notable figure, Urato Hiroshi (known for tying the ropes in numerous bondage movies), felt that Oni Pro was more of a loose circle of like-minded creative types.
I suppose both interpretations could be true, depending on how you look at things. In any event, neither Oni Pro nor Yamabe Pro were particularly large organizations. One source records Oni Pro as having had just eight members. I suppose in this case, size really doesn't matter. The proof is in the product. Both Yamabe Pro and Oni Pro were exceedingly good at what they did and have left a fascinating legacy from a time when SM was just beginning to be depicted in films.
Yamabe and Tani eventually split up with Tani remaining in Tokyo for a few more years making films. When she retired after her last film in 1979, she returned to her native Fukuoka prefecture to work on her golf game. She also started up a successful bar in Kumamoto and I once read that she had opened a video store which stocked a lot of movies from the good old days.
Yamabe is still active. He now runs another entertainment production company.
Mr. Sugiura told me he had worked as an assistant director to Motogi Sojiro. This is interesting (and perhaps even a new revelation) because Sugiura joined Oni Pro in the early 70s and it appears Yamabe Pro had ceased operations by this time.
This would indicate that Motogi, the producer of some of Japan's (and the world's) most acclaimed films, directed films for Oni Pro. According to one of my sources, solid information as to the possible titles of these films is virtually non-existent, although there are several candidates.
Another interesting piece of data is that Mr. Sugiura never photographed Tani Naomi although they worked together in other ways.
Sugiura became the photo editor of the magazine SM King. In this capacity, Mr. Sugiura did battle with Tani who was a perfectionist herself -- and not shy about expressing her opinion of the photos Sugiura chose to use in the magazine. To put it plainly, the two didn't always agree on the artistic decisions.
Sugiura described Tani as a hands-on person who was keenly interested in approving the results of her photo shoots. If Sugiura thought a particular shot looked fine, Tani often disagreed. A clash would inevitably ensue. While Tani Naomi is known for playing the role of the naked and bound victim in her films, in real life she is no shrinking violet. And she, like Sugiura, took her work very seriously, indeed.
I asked Mr. Sugiura about his relationship with Urato Hiroshi who came to light in the West due to an interview by Master "K", author of the book, The Beauty of Kinbaku. As mentioned earlier, Urato quietly worked behind the scenes tying up beautiful actresses in numerous Nikkatsu SM films, including some of those starring Ms. Tani.
Mr. Sugiura said his impression was that Urato did not have a sadistic personality but, nevertheless, was, associated with the Oni Pro group. Sugiura described Urato as a colleague and said that he was also an editor. Here, he may be referring to Uramado magazine as Urato was an editor there and he worked closely with Minomura Kou and Nureki Chimuo.
Urato, still living, is several years' Sugiura's senior.
As part of the activities of Oni Pro, Dan Oniroku began publishing SM King magazine in the early 70s. Mr. Sugiura wasn't able to recall the exact year of its founding, but remembered it was around the time of the siege of a house in Gunma prefecture involving a faction of the Japanese Red Army. Reliable sources indicate that SM King began in 1972 and this agrees with Sugiura's recollection.
The position of photo editor at SM King played a pivotal role in the course of his career. At first, others were taking the photographs but, according to Mr. Sugiura, the commercial photographers "didn't understand my requests". The only thing left to do, to get the photos he really wanted, was to endeavor to take the pictures himself. He found his true calling this way and his lifelong career as an SM photographer was born.
I asked Mr. Sugiura if he ever applied the ropes in addition to taking the photos. He said he did not. For that, there were experts around such as Nureki Chimuo who, even today at the age of 80, continues to bind women in his own, inimitable style. Another kinbakushi was Marai Masato who, according to Sugiura, learned from Nureki. He said he only worked with Marai a few times and the last time was about 15 years ago.
I was surprised to learn that Sugiura had worked with two other legends, Yukimura Haruki and Akechi Denki, only once each. He has, however, worked with maverick rope artist and self-proclaimed "King of SM", Shima Shikou, on three or four occasions. He was quick to point out Shima's well-known aversion to the now-ubiquitous asanawa (jute rope) in favor of cotton rope.
I asked him about another well-known photographer, Fuji Akio. Mr. Sugiura knew Mr. Fuji and said that Fuji had worked under him for awhile, however, he has lost track of Fuji and is not sure what he is doing these days. Fuji Akio is known for also working with Nureki Chimuo and was the founder of Fuji-Kikaku.
It seems apparent that Nureki Chimuo was Sugiura's favorite bakushi. Just as Dan Oniroku and Tani Naomi were the Golden Duo of SM films, Nureki and Sugiura, teamed up, created some of the most memorable scenes ever committed to film.
For many, Nureki is the greatest living kinbakushi. Just as many would bestow the title, World's Greatest SM Photographer, on Sugiura Norio.
It has been a successful combination, Sugiura says.
Sugiura first met Nureki about 35 years ago and, around that time, also crossed paths with Minomura Kou (aka Kita Reiko and Suma Toshiyuki).
Minomura, originally from Kansai, was a member of the inner circle of Ito Seiu, a figure of almost god-like status among kinbaku aficionados, as he straddled the evolution of Japanese SM from pre-World War II to post-World War II; from what has evolved into modern kinbaku from its roots in hojojutsu.
Nureki Chimuo had become an assistant of sorts to Minomura and, undoubtedly, had learned much from Minomura which later influenced his own style and philosophy. Nureki was an editor of Minomura's magazine, Uramado. Although I neglected to ask, I now wonder if Minomura did not exercise a considerable influence on the young Sugiura as well. Many of Sugiura's most stunning photos, primarily those taken in old, broken down locations, seem to pay tribute to the genius of Minomura Kou.
LEFT TO RIGHT, A WORLD OF KINK: SPECIAL ISSUE OF TSUJIMURA TAKASHI'S KINBAKU AND ONE OF THE TOEI FILMS FOR WHICH HE ACTED AS A KINBAKU ADVISER
Mr. Sugiura also mentioned to me another icon, Tsujimura Takashi, who, along with Minomura Kou, was one of the pioneers of post-war kinbaku in Japan. There is more info here about Tsujimura which I had read prior to my interview with Mr. Sugiura. However, when he mentioned the name, I completely drew a blank. Mr. Sugiura, who had earlier been impressed with some tidbit of knowledge I had shared, was not happy that I apparently had no knowledge of Tsujimura Takashi.
Tsujimura, as mentioned, was one of the most important figures in the Japanese kinbaku arena in the 60s and 70s, however, he then faded into obscurity and is not a well-known figure these days, at least in the West. I have included a photo here of the cover of a book by Tsujimura. The book was published by Dan's company, SM King.
SM King did not have a long life, lasting only 20 issues. But it started Sugiura Norio on the path to a career in SM photography.
On the set of a shoot, Sugiura is animated, to say the least. Always moving, always hunting for the perfect angle, shouting, coaxing, cajoling -- whatever it takes to get the right expression or last bit of arch in the model's posture. It has been reported that he has left some models in tears. But was this the work of the strict rope work of someone like Nureki or the demands of the perfectionist Sugiura?
Sitting across from Sugiura Norio, you could not anticipate one of his photo sessions. He smiles easily and talks quietly about his passion for photography and the many roads he has traveled over the decades. On the evening of our interview, he had his hair tucked inside a stocking cap.
He certainly has a sense of humor. When I offer that many would consider him the greatest SM photographer in the world, he just grins: "Why don't you call me the greatest in the universe?"
Watching Sugiura in action, I can't help but wonder who the boss is on-set. Who calls the shots? Who gives the orders? In a way, it seems that mixing two masters such as Nureki and Sugiura could be a disastrous concoction. But it works. And anyway, according to Sugiura, the boss is the editor. Since most of his stuff was shot for magazines, pictorials as well as numerous cover shots, he and the kinbakushi were following the editor's outline.
But within that outline was ample space for individual creativity and, Sugiura says, in this sense it was very much a collaboration between Nureki and himself. They would both come up with ideas on how to position the model, then Nureki would do the rope work and Sugiura would make the scene immortal.
The only two things that were really predetermined were the location and the model's wardrobe (for as long as it remained in place, of course).
The editor would usually find the location and determine how the model would start out dressed. After that, Sugiura said there was very little planning as to how the shoot would progress.
"Everyone was very busy and there was no time to plan like this. We would plan things once we got to the studio or the location. Even today I don't plan things out much. The clothing and the location are decided in advance. I don't want to plan too much because I don't want to have to stick to a plan.
"All models are different. Their flexibility, front and back, is different. If a model has a beautiful ass, for example, I may want to emphasize that part."
Sugiura Norio's photos can often be picked out of a crowd. His most interesting work involves the use of light and by this I mean, the use of light to create shadows which serve to dramatize the still image.
It goes without saying that when he first began in photography, there were no digital cameras. Photography meant film. He shot his pictures using a Bronica medium format camera. A frame of medium format film is much larger than a frame of 35mm film and, while 35mm cameras became popular with photojournalists, the larger formats remained popular with portrait photographers, landscape photographers, and the like.
He later switched to an Asahi Pentax 67, also a medium format system.
Sugiura hasn't only taken SM photos. He spent about two years taking regular cheesecake photos before getting into SM photography. For these, he would use an umbrella to disperse light evenly over the model. Or he would use various lights to illuminate all the areas of her body he wished to accentuate. But even when he was taking regular nude photos, he wanted to try using lighting techniques to create more interesting images.
But with his SM photographs he began to really experiment with shadows. The result was astonishing.
But there are many things that go into making a great photo. Sometimes it's hard to put your finger on it. You know it when you see it. Or a stirring in the loins calls your attention to the fact.
One aspect that cannot be overlooked is the location of the photo. Here, Sugiura is known for the dumpy backgrounds that often appear in his work, surrounding the bound and naked model.
He has two locations in Tokyo which are not professional studios, that he is particularly fond of. One is an old house, very beat up, and "almost abandoned", as he describes it. The other is a ryokan (Japanese style hotel) that has seen much better days. These contain old, scuffed up dark wooden floors and tatami mats with the covers ripped off, revealing the rough rice straw.
"When we go to shoot there, we have to fight with the bugs in the tatami," he smiles. "We have to kill the bugs first!"
The subject matter of these photos is not meant to be pristine or perfect. In fact, just as shibari is sometimes done in a less than perfect manner, the location of a photo in a dilapidated room is entirely by design.
Sugiura says it comes form the Japanese concept of wabi sabi and dates from 500 to 600 years ago and the tea ceremony.
Of the locations mentioned above, one is in central Tokyo in Ueno while the other is in Mukojima on the eastern outskirts of Tokyo. Magazine editors discovered these perfectly imperfect locations. And while he sometimes thinks about scouting around for new locations, he keeps going back to these. They just work.
In the early days it wasn't easy packing all that photographic equipment to these places. He had to haul six large cases of camera gear to his shoots, not including the tripod. He had one assistant with him to lend a hand.
In addition to SM King, Sugiura's work has appeared in such magazines as SM Select, SM Fan, SM Mania and SM Secret Stories. In the 80s he reached his zenith as a paid professional, respected and admired for his pictorials and cover images. At the height of his powers, and the SM magazine craze, he was earning a yearly income of between fifty and sixty million yen (that would be roughly around half a million USD per year). He looks at me and says, almost apologetically, "I don't make that kind of money anymore."
I was a little apprehensive about asking Sugiura his earnings. "Don't worry," he said. "I like talking about money!" (I told you he had a sense of humor).
Mr. Sugiura has completely switched over to digital photography these days. While film still has its adherents and a certain organic look to it, digital camera technology has come a very long way in a few short years. The most important aspect of digital photography, according to Sugiura, is the sheer convenience involved. No more changing rolls of film, chemicals, darkrooms, scanning and so on and so on.
He started out using a Canon digital camera but switched to a Nikon D3 about six months ago. While both take outstanding pictures, he likes the way the Nikon fits in his hand.
Magazines seem to be on the way out but there is at least one left which Sugiura contributes to: Mania Club published by Sanwa Shuppan. Sugiura contributes a bi-monthly pictorial. But at the same time, he has embraced the digital world and started his own website, Kinbaku Sajiki, five years ago. The site offers two new photo series per month (plus archived photos) as well as videos of the shoots as they happen.
DVD ROM SIGNED BY THE MASTER
DVD ROMs are also produced and I was the lucky recipient of one of these which I was able to get signed by the master. Alas, the DVD ROMs are only available in Japan.
Sugiura thinks digital photography opens the way for more people to take better pictures. With film, he says, "technique was more impotant. But now, sense is more important. Good photos don't come from your head but from your unconscious. With digital, you can take many, many photos." And because you don't have to stop and re-laod all the time, "...your head becomes blank so you can take good photos. With digital there's a good chance your mind will become empty."
I asked Mr. Sugiura about finding models since he has obviously worked with so many. He doesn't like to use agencies. The models they send over are not usually interested in SM and are just there doing a job. Most of his models are not professionals but they have an important characteristic: they like to be bound. Sugiura finds most of his models by way of referrals.
He has noticed something interesting in his decades in the business. He says there are two types of models: those who carry a spark inside that compel them to seek out a photographer such as Sugiura and, in the process of being bound and photographed, discover that they truly enjoy the process and are turned on by it.
The other type of model has already participated in bondage with a lover and then becomes a model. The interesting thing, according to Sugiura, is that the first type don't get as turned on in private SM play. These are the masochists/exhibitionists: the studio setting, the lights, the sound of the shutter and strobe, the crew members, all this is a tremendous turn-on for them.
The second type, on the other hand, while they are into SM, don't work out as well as models. It seems the exhibitionist spark is not as strong. They excel as wives and girlfriends, however.
Time passed too quickly and before I knew it, it was time to wrap things up. This despite the fact the interview went on for much longer than originally planned. I thank Mr. Sugiura for his patience and generosity in this regard.
Before leaving, I found out that Mr. Sugiura has not met together with Dan Oniroku for about a year and a half. This is due to health problems Dan has been suffering.
When you think about it, these two really do go back. Back to a time when SM was just beginning to be seen in films. Back to a time of burlesque and sexy comedy acts, sometimes with an SM twist. Back to a time when there were so many SM magazines, unlike today. And back to a time of some of the most interesting characters to grace the SM scene.
I can just imagine Tako Hachiro, Minomura Kou and Nureki Chimuo hanging out in a seedy bar in Golden Gai, surrounded by other artists and intellectuals, planning their next moves. Their future moves are now in the distant past for us. And we are still trying to discover what they all were.
The Beauty of Kinbaku
I would like to note that the Kinbaku Group on FetLife is a very interesting and useful source of information. Thanks to Demonsix and Reiver (as well as others) who submitted some of the questions for this interview. - KJ