Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, Part V: “In the Realm of the Senses”

This is Part V of my ongoing series of posts relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. You can read all of the previous instalments in the Ero Guro Nansensu category of my blog.

Actors Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda in Nagisa Oshima's controversial

Actors Tatsuya Fuji and Eiko Matsuda in Nagisa Oshima’s controversial “In the Realm of the Senses” (1976).

The next film I’d like to discuss in my ongoing series on ero-guro-nansensu is one of the most notorious Japanese films ever made,  In the Realm of the Senses (1976), directed by the “bad boy” of the Japanese New Wave, Nagisa Oshima.

“Japanese cinema’s preeminent taboo buster, Nagisa Oshima directed, between 1959 and 1999, more than twenty groundbreaking features. For Oshima, film was a form of activism, a way of shaking up the status quo. Uninterested in the traditional Japanese cinema of such popular filmmakers as Kurosawa and Ozu, Oshima focused not on classical themes of good and evil or domesticity but on outcasts, gangsters, murderers, rapists, sexual deviants, and the politically marginalized.”
— (Text excerpted from an essay written for the Criterion collection on Oshima)

This pedigree of Japanese cinema’s “bad boy” makes Oshima an excellent candidate to direct a film adaptation of the already lurid true story of the famous ero-guro era murderess Sada Abe. In 1936 Tokyo, Sada Abe worked as a maid in a restaurant owned by Kichizo Ishida with whom she became romantically involved. After a brief but intense sexual fling, Abe erotically asphyxiates Ishida, afterwards cutting off his penis and testicles and carrying them around with her in her handbag. Abe was eventually arrested and convicted of murder in the second degree and mutilation of a corpse. She was sentenced to six years in prison, and was released after five.


Newspaper photo taken shortly after Abe’s arrest, at Takanawa Police Station, Tokyo on May 20, 1936.

Pre-WWII writings, such as the text The Psychological Diagnosis of Abe Sada (1937) depict Abe as an example of the dangers of unbridled female sexuality and as a threat to the patriarchal system. In the postwar era, however, she was treated as a critic of totalitarianism, and a symbol of freedom from oppressive political ideologies (from Wikipedia). And thus enters the director Nagisa Oshima. The story of Sada Abe, and the persona that developed around her as a “symbol of freedom from oppression” would, of course, speak to the political aims of Oshima. In The Realm of The Senses uses sex as a radical act against the oppression of personal liberty.

If we recall the fascist propaganda poster I included in my introductory post on ero-guro, we can observe that it clearly promoted a very conservative morality of procreative sex between married couples for the purpose of begetting a new generation of Japanese (all for the purpose of ‘nation-building’). The sex we see depicted between the two main characters in Oshima’s film, Kichi and Sada, is the opposite of that. Theirs is not socially sanctioned sex. They are not husband and wife, and Kichi is already married with children. Once their romantic fling begins, they leave the restaurant and hole up inside a nearby inn – thus removing themselves from society and their prescribed roles within in. Their self-imposed exile, and Kichizo’s eventual death, can be see as the ultimate “opt-out” from the ultranationalist agenda and to Imperial Japan.


Why was In The Realm of The Senses so controversial when it was released in 1976? The film features scenes of unsimulated sex between the two main actors, which is quite daring for a filmmaker who’s known as an auteur, rather than a pornographer. In fact, Oshima was charged in his native county with obscenity, and had to go to court to defend his film (charges were subsequently dropped in 1982). Oshima used the language of pornography, but did not create a purely pornographic film. If the aim of pornography is to titillate for the purposes of arousal, then In The Realm of The Senses does not function as pornography. We, the audience, may watch Sada and Kichi have sex, but the camera never places us within the action. We watch at a certain remove. Additionally, the actors in the film are never objectified, reduced to mere performers of sex for our voyeuristic consumption. We empathize with them. Unlike the objectified and dehumanized porn actors, these actors seem very real and very human to us.
The sex between Sada and Kichi is also very visceral. There is no gloss of romanticism or soft-focus lens here – this is real sex that results in the release of bodily fluids, with the resultant wet spots on the futon and funky smells which permeate the inn room in which Kichi and Sada temporarily reside (and which is commented on by the maids who have to clean their room).

At the beginning of the clip below, we see Sada departing from her meeting with her former school principal, with whom she periodically has sex for money as a means of support herself and Kichizo. The principal (rather ungallantly) points out that she “smells like a dead rat”, which we could read as either relating back to the state of complete physical abandon that Kichi and Sada have entered, or could be foreshadowing of Kichi’s death. Later, when Sada reunites with Kichi, she is visibly shaken by the fact that the maids have cleaned the room in their absence. The inn room had functioned as their oasis from the world, but now the outside world was creeping back in and imposing its order and control.

We see Kichi step out from a barber shop and into an empty street. A platoon of soldiers approaches and Kichi walks in opposition (in the opposite direction) to the soldiers. The next instant, a crowd of flag-waving townsfolk materialize. We can only read this scene as symbolic. Kichi is isolated, walking on a different side of the street from the rest of Japan. There is no place for him in Imperial Japan, and he knows it.
The erotic-asphyxiation that Sada and Kichi engage in originates from their mutually shared desire to explore extreme sensory experiences. Eventually, of course, this co-mingling of death with sex leads to Kichi’s wish to transcend this world (the ultimate opt-out).

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The Astounding Thaumatrope

Photo of my thaumatropes in the Magic Gumball Machine of Fate located at Artscape Youngplace in Toronto.

Photo of my thaumatropes in the Magic Gumball Machine of Fate located at Artscape Youngplace in Toronto.

The thaumatrope was an 18th-century toy constructed from a simple disk or card featuring a different picture on each side and attached to two pieces of string. When the strings are twirled rapidly the card rotates on its axis and the two images appear to combine.

The embedded video below demonstrates one of the four different thaumatropes I created as an artist’s multiple for Nuit Blanche 2015 in Toronto**. You can purchase your very own for the princely sum of $2 from the The Magic Gumball Machine of Fate, which will be located at 522 Queen Street West. Bring your twoonies!

**an annual, all-night visual arts event that takes place in the downtown core of Toronto.

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Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, Part IV: “Midori — The Girl in the Freak Show”

This is Part VI of my series of posts relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. Part III, which discussed Teruo Ishii’s “pinky violent” contribution to the ero-guro landscape entitled Horrors of Malformed Men, is found here.

midori_banned 2

Midori — The Girl in the Freak Show
(a.k.a. Shôjo tsubaki: Chika gentô gekiga).
1992, directed and animated by Hiroshi Harada

Much like Teruo Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men, a great deal has been made about the banned status of Hiroshi Harada’s 1992 anime Midori — The Girl in the Freak Show, and similarly, the details concerning its banned notoriety are rather murky. This film has screened at a small number of festivals, but is unavailable on DVD in both the 
Japanese and North American markets. It is only available through a small DVD distributor in France called CinéMalta. To a large extent, the film has been buried due to ongoing issues with the Japanese censors, and Harada has simply chosen not to screen it in his native country. In a videotaped interview that was included as an extra on the Midori DVD, Harada stated candidly:

“The situation in Japan makes it very difficult for films like mine to enter the mainstream. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known in Japan, and his films are seen abroad. If his stories represent the official story of Japan, then “Midori” is a counter-story of Japan, one the Japanese State and powers that be have suppressed and tried to hide away.”

Due to the controversial nature of the content, Harada was unable to secure investors for the project. Thus, he financed and worked on the 52-minute film alone, creating all of the artwork over a 5-year period using the technique of cell animation. This explains, in part, the somewhat limited nature of the animation – i.e. some scenes being just a succession of still images with camera holds, pans and zooms.

Suehiro Maruo's 1984 manga

Suehiro Maruo’s 1984 manga “Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show” (now out of print).

Midori is a very faithful adaption of artist Suehiro Maruo’s underground manga entitled Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show (published in 1984, now out-of-print) that tells the story of an abused flower girl in 1920’s Japan. When Midori, a poor girl about the age of 12, is suddenly and tragically orphaned, she seeks the help of one of her former customers, the mysterious Bowler Hat Man, who had previously extended an offer of assistance. Unfortunately, it is soon revealed that the The Bowler Hat Man has tricked the naïve Midori into becoming a virtual slave for a travelling circus show, where he inhabits the role of impresario. Thus begins the bleak tale of Midori’s cruel mistreatment and repeated rape by the grotesque monsters that work the carny sideshow.

Both Maruo’s manga and Harada’s film adaptation are populated by a now familiar set of erotic-grotesque stock characters —  the carny sideshow impresario and his collection of “freaks” including the magician dwarf, the hermaphrodite, and a limbless performer similar to the “human caterpillar” (which reminds us of Rampo’s short story). Several forms of sexual fetishism are on display, and in particular the fetish of eyeball-licking (called oculolinctus, by the way), which is a favourite motif for Maruo.


Midori opens with a succession of images that flash quickly across the screen, accompanied by different voices that seem to call out a disconnected, nonsensical stream of words. According to Harada, these strangely poetic phrases are the sort you’d hear from carnival barkers back in the 1920’s (see clip below).

If you’re a fan of Anime, and particularly the more underground and darker examples of the genre, then Midori is definitely worth tracking down. It’s not an easy viewing – and it does have a relentlessly bleak ending—but it is a very faithful adaptation of Maruo’s “ero guro” classic and effectively conveys the very limited options available to a young girl without the benefit (or protection) of a family or husband in 1920’s Japan. WARNING: some animated puppies are squashed.

You can view the entire film here, at least for now.


Filed under Animation, Ero Guro Nansensu

Tentacled Darling of the Underground.


Hello, gentle readers. This summer — though not quite over yet — has whizzed by at an alarming rate and those crisp mornings so characteristic of autumn are beginning to cool the air, causing us to reach for that added layer of clothing. As many of you may know, I was preoccupied this summer with producing, and then promoting, my latest short animated film Toronto Alice. With this task now complete, I thought I should mention the activities of that other child of mine, La Petite Mort, which has lately become the tentacled darling of the ‘underground’ film festival circuit.

Last night (August 26), La Petite Mort screened at the UnderGround Short Film Festival in Cork, Ireland. (Wish I could’ve been there, but the finances just didn’t allow for a trip to Ireland). Earlier in the summer, this film was also featured in the Montreal Underground Film Festival — which touts the delightful acronym of MUFF — where it was nominated for the 2015 Jury Prize/Nomination pour un prix du jury MUFF 2015. It was also featured in the Planet X program at the Winnipeg Underground Film Festival, a program that promised “some of the weirdest movies you will ever see” (a notion of which I most heartily approve) .

Beyond the underground film fest circuit, La Petite Mort has enjoyed some loving from the, ahem, ‘alternative’ porn film festivals like the PopPorn5 Film Festival in São Paulo, Brazil, and the granddaddy of them all, the Berlin Porn Film Festival. Both festivals categorized La Petite Mort under “fetish”, which is a fact I find endlessly funny. These festivals are not dedicated to (what I would characterize as) the mainstream “bleached blonde, breast implants and long, acrylic nails” brand of American-produced pornography, but rather the “pierced, tattooed and hairy armpits” type of alternative, frequently feminist or LGBT, produced porn — which is something I philosophically support. Below is a write-up on La Petite Mort from Lucie Blush, a filmmaker who produces pornography directed at women.


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BluRay disc of “Toronto Alice”


A big stack of BluRay discs of Toronto Alice ready to ship out to my Indiegogo contributors. Made a few extra for those who didn’t manage to pick up this “perk” during my campaign, but would like to now. BR includes Toronto Alice, my two previous animated shorts “La Petite Mort” and “The Incident in the Nursery”, PLUS a one-hour interview conducted by Elizabeth Fearon and Steve Armstrong. Ships right to your door. WOWZA!

You can purchase the BluRays here.

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Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, part III. “Horrors of Malformed Men” (1969).

This is Part III of my series of posts relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. Part II, which discussed the cultural contributions of Edogawa Rampo, is found here.

The mad Doctor Komoda and one of his 'malformed men' whom, it would seem, possesses a football-sized scrotum.

The mad Doctor Komoda and one of his ‘malformed men’ whom, it would appear, possesses a football-sized scrotum.

Horrors of Malformed Men

(1969, dir. Teruo Ishii, a.k.a. Horror of a Deformed Man or The Horror of Malformed Men)

The first film I’d like to discuss in my Deviant Desires series is Teruo Ishii’s “pinky violent” contribution to the ero-guro landscape entitled Horrors of Malformed Men. By the time Ishii came to helm this film, he had already enjoyed a long and very prolific career as a director. His filmography consists of over 80 films, including the much-beloved children’s science-fiction series Super Giant, and — at the very opposite end of the cinematic spectrum — the infamous sex-and-sadism film Shogun’s Joy of Torture (1968). He was frequently referred to in Japan as “The King of Cult”.

Horrors of Malformed Men is best described as avant-garde theatre meets exploitation film. It’s a hodge-podge of at least four different Edogawa Rampo stories, including “The Human Chair”, ‘The Stroller in the Attic’, ‘The Twins’, and the title story ‘The Strange Tale of Panorama Island’. This film also draws heavily on H.G. Wells’s novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, as well as the 1932 film adaptation entitled “Island of Lost Souls”. Ishii fashioned these different Rampo stories around an overarching tale of an amnesiac young doctor’s search for his missing father.


Often labeled under the category “pink film” — which was a type of Japanese softcore pornographic theatrical film produced in the 1960’s and 70’s — the nudity and sex on display in Horrors of Malformed Men is certainly tame by contemporary standards. Even in the Japan of 1969, the occasional glimpses of bare breasts and bum that flash across the screen wouldn’t have alerted the ever-vigilant eyes of the censors. The violence in this film is minimal, and it’s not especially gory nor horrific for a film entitled Horrors of Malformed Men. So, why was it banned in Japan? (Note the text “Banned for Decades! The most notorious Japanese horror film EVER made” emblazoned across the top of the DVD case.) The answer is — quite surprisingly — political correctness in the 1970’s.

Edogawa Rampo zenshu: kyofu kikei ningen

You can use many terms in Japanese to describe malformed or disfigured people, but the one that was actually used in the Japanese title (see above) was the most negative and derogatory possible. Compounding this issue was also the fact that deformity has traditionally been considered a social taboo in Japan, so much so that to have a member of your family born with a congenital deformity was considered a shameful “loss of face” to the entire family. It was likely due to the strong negativity of these traditionally-held beliefs regarding the disabled that the ‘politically correct’ reaction against them in the 1970s may have overcompensated for the years of discrimination.

Describing the plot of Horrors of Malformed Men is a near impossible task, as it contains plot twists so numerous that to chart them all would prove daunting. The story begins with a young doctor named Hirosuke who suddenly finds himself imprisoned inside an asylum. The story also involves two murders, circus performers, hunchbacks, topless girls, snakes, more topless girls, and a mysterious double named Genzaburo whom Hirosuke impersonates upon his death. A series of strange events compels Hirosuke to seek out answers from Genzaburo’s estranged father who lives on a secluded island. On arrival, Hirosuke and his entourage encounter Genzaburo’s father, who is the unhinged doctor Jogoro Komoda. Similar to Dr. Moreau of the H.G. Well’s novella, the mad Jogoro has been subjecting poor kidnapped individuals to nightmarish medical experiments, all for the purpose of creating his utopia of “malformed men.”


Tatsumi Hijikata, who was one of the founders of the avant-garde theatre and dance movement called butoh.

Director Teruo Ishii made a rather inspired choice in his casting of Jogoro Komoda. Rather than an actor, he cast the performance artist and dancer, Tatsumi Hijikata to play the unhinged doctor. Hijikata was the founder of the avant-garde butoh movement in Japan. Created as a reaction to Western forms of dance, which reached upwards towards the divine, Hijikata’s “dark butoh” saw contorted forms writhing on the ground in a tormented display of anguish. Inspiration often came from discomfiting places, such as the movements of the handicapped and the mentally ill. Hijikata famously described the dance as 
“a corpse trying desperately to stand upright”. Butoh performers cover their bodies with white make-up and move in strange, disjointed, often contorted movements. Incidentally the actress Takako Fuji, who portrayed Kayako Saeki from The Grudge is a trained modern dancer who borrowed heavily from the tradition of butoh for her character’s unnerving movements.

My favourite scene from Horrors of Malformed Men opens with the improvised dance of Hijikata (a sequence that Ishii liked so much that he featured it in the film twice). Then, after a brief discussion with Hirosuke, the mad Jogoro takes his visitors on a tour of his island and his “creations.” They witness troupes of butoh dancers performing an array of grotesque tableaux in and around the water. We see hunchbacks with whips lashing screeching, half-naked monkey-women, two strange human-goat hybrid creatures, naked women swimming and behaving as if they were koi fish, and the performance of some mysterious, arcane ritual by the water’s edge.

Hijikata performing his improvished dance on the rocks.

Hijikata performing his improvised dance on the rocks.


Butoh dance troupe.

I sincerely hope this actress was well compensated for having to go ass-to-ass with a goat.

I sincerely hope this actress was well compensated for having to go ass-to-ass with a goat.

Here’s the scene I describe above.

Next up, Hiroshi Harada’s infamous underground anime Midori — The Girl in the Freak Show.


Filed under Ero Guro Nansensu, Horror Films 101

Toronto Alice

After much thought, I’ve decided to post the entire short film of Toronto Alice online for all to see. Even though I’ve submitted to a bunch of festivals, I decided that wider exposure online was worth the risk of disqualifying the film from a handful of festivals.

If you enjoy, then please share widely. Thanks.


Filed under Animation, Art musings and other great profundities