Don’t panic! This stuff definitely isn’t NSFW.
Or is it?
Prima facie, there’s nothing wrong here. Young woman in traditional Japanese dress. Classic 80s drum machines and synths. Techno music. Sounds about as rated G as you can get.
But the more I watch these, I detect a strong sensibility at work, and a very perverse sensibility at that. Not that there is anything wrong with being perverse, of course, the caveat being that everyone wearing the proverbial naughty maid costumes is of consenting age, no one involved is exploiting someone else, and so forth. But in this case I have the uncomfortable feeling that I have been tricked into being a voyeur to someone’s private fantasy.
So when does something with components so utterly benign become porn? It’s a good thing that we have the great Umberto Eco to help us see la luce.
“If, to go from A to B, the characters take longer than you would like, then the film you are seeing is pornographic.” So claims the great Italian semiotician in his essay How to Recognize a Porn Movie.
Eco’s essay is not scholarly in presentation, but any piece by someone with his keen intellect is going to have some deeper subtext. Eco’s point, I think, is this: pornography prioritizes desire over aesthetic experience.
A film–or a novel, or a ballet, or a symphony–is more or less effective in how competently it comes to grips with time. The most common complaint about any art of that unfolds in time is that it is boring. If a successful artwork could be reduced to an equation it would be that its effect on the audience is equal to, or preferably greater than, the effort it takes to experience it. This is why of the many criticisms leveled by people at abstract painting or sculpture target not time but comprehension (i.e., “I don’t have enough information to understand what the artist is communicating to me.”). But since it is very easy to wander from one painting to another in a gallery without drawing too much attention to yourself, the fact that a painting is boring or not does not usually enter into this judgment. That’s not as easy in a theater or a concert hall where social convention dictates that we sit still for a while if we don’t wish to appear unsophisticated to our fellow audience members.
What makes a video unsuccessful or boring, Eco would likely say, is that the journey from start to fin takes “longer than you would like.” How curious, then, that pornography (whether you think porn is art or not is not the discussion here) is successful in creating desire in a viewer by taking “longer than you would like” getting from point A to point B. Since both men and women spent about $11 billion on porn films in 2014 (women do, too, silly–a recent study reveals that about one in three women say they watch porn at least once a week), it seems like there are many instances where humans very much enjoy the experience of wasting their own time by taking a very circuitous route from point A to point B.
To cultivate and nurture desire, porn fusses with details that would weigh down and crush efficient plotting and character development. In order to understand that Hamlet is a young man paralyzed by indecision about how to deal with his uncle and mother, we don’t need to be shown Hamlet resting in bed for hours unable to move. Shakespeare has him say, “To be, or not to be,” and you fully understand that this is a depressed young man who, after seeing some really shitty things humans do to each other, is not exactly sure if life is worth the effort. If Shakespeare attempted to make his point by having Hamlet read aloud hundreds of failed drafts of his suicide notes, no doubt Laertes and not Hamlet would be the real hero of the play.
So a porn film, Eco argues, includes such elements as “people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms.”
For one thing, Eco thinks, since porn is about moral transgression (unless you are the plucky sort who routinely participates in 500-man gang bangs), it is essential that the debauchery “be played out against a background of normality.” Unfortunately, communicating the temporal drudgery of normality can’t quite be captured so pithily in six monosyllabic words as “To be or not to be” does. The only way to do this is to prioritize time over clarity, time over efficiency in transmitting theme or plot.
There is no way around the simple fact that, as Eco argues, normality is difficult to depict in art. Great art–the non-boring kind–is full of piquant stuff like poisonings, incest, and beheadings. People don’t generally like to pay money to see actors in pajamas sit on ripped sofa cushions drinking Fresca, scratching their itchy scrotums, and watching reruns of Seinfeld.
While normality is poison for a good story, it is essential for porn. Mainstream porn presents a universe of moral transgression. People have casual sex, lots of it and in many permutations, with a number of partners, but with no real moral or physical consequences. Such transgression must absolutely be played out against boring old reality presented, as Eco says, “In the way that every spectator conceives it.” Reality is best revealed through the experience of real time. To get an accurate sense of reality in all its time-scarfing banality, you have to watch people in real time doing the boring stuff that humans spend most of their lives doing. The sentence “John and Martha sat inert on the couch for three hours” does not effectively make a reader feel the squandering of time.
So, back to our techno geisha videos. What makes these so fetishy is the way they take time to obsess over details that only accidentally have anything to do with music creation. An arsenal of vintage electronic equipment is first shown independently in a still photo. This gives the viewer plenty of time to take in the synths and drum machines and notice how carefully they have been arranged and organized and cared for. We may even begin to covet.
Next, we cut to a static shot of a young woman dressed in kimono and obi sitting formally in front of the electronic gear. The interiors are mostly bland and uninteresting, but are clearly Japanese. In an upper corner is a picture-in-a-picture shot–a side view of the synths and the player’s always well-manicured digits.
So everything is definitely rated G. However, there are details included that are not common to videos of people performing techno. Techno is most commonly performed in dark nightclubs by deejays who are traditionally (and in most cases still are usually) male, not by young women in kimonos under bright lighting in standard domestic interiors. Videos of techno usually depict deejays wearing trendy clothes, bopping their heads along to the beat, spinning vinyl for a room of sweaty dancers. There is nothing trendy in the fashions the videos depict here. The women, who only rarely break character by moving their heads in time to the music or cracking a brief smile, are conservatively presented in a manner in which even a Japanese granny would be proud. Perhaps this is the “normal” background against which the electronic “transgression” seems especially transgressive?.
Just as most mainstream pornography has nothing to do with the real sex average folks have on their Sleep Number beds after putting the kids to sleep, these videos have nothing to do with real musicians creating and performing techno. People generally don’t don traditional cultural dress at home, break out the vintage music gear, and get busy making beats. These videos depict an artificially created world that thrives in the mind of this filmmaker, and we’ve just been invited to take off our shoes, come in, and join everyone on the tatami for a cup of tea.
So what are these videos about? It’s hard to say, exactly. The human tendency to fetishize objects does not follow any universal logic. It is quite possible that the musical machines themselves are the objects of sexual desire and the young women are merely actors underscoring the normality of the scene. After all, what’s more hot: discovering a vibrator in an adult bookstore, or discovering a vibrator in your friend’s bathroom next to the Listerine? Likewise, what makes the design of a drum machine unique is more readily seen in a Japanese living room rather than the showroom of a music store.
The objects of desire could just as well be kimonos, well-manicured hands, young Japanese women, or patch cables. But I think it is reasonably certain that it isn’t music. Not any more than a porn film which depicts sexual relations between a naughty doctor and a randy patient in a hospital is truly about medicine. Any medical accuracy is there to make the transgressive act just that much more transgressive. Any medical devices unskillfully used or machines improperly functioning would only serve to remind the viewer of the sad fact that he or she does not live in a licentious world where sexual relations have no ramifications. Doctors (not the ones I would trust with my healthcare, at least) are generally not aroused by the sight of patients in examination gowns sitting on sheets of examination table paper. Pornography fails to produce desire when the backgrounds are anything other than real, routine, and predictable.
Strangely enough, it is not unusual for the porn viewer to believe that his or her time was wasted with boring details as much as someone watching a dramatic piece. However, Eco asserts, porn cannot exist except again this background of boredom. “This often irritates the spectators,” he writes, “Because they think they would like the unspeakable scenes to be continuous. But this is an illusion on their part. They couldn’t bear a full hour and a half of unspeakable scenes. So the passages of the wasted time are essential.”
Why is it that a wild threesome can justify an evening wasted with trifling details while something as cosmically significant as the death of Hamlet can’t? Why is the climax (pun intended) of dramatic action insufficient to justify a boring and clumsy build-up? Maybe it’s because Hamlet contains everything needed for a complete experience, an Artistotelian catharsis. Pornography, on the other hand, is not a complete experience in and of itself. It exists to stoke desire in the viewer. The catharsis is, so to speak, left in the viewers’ hands.