Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense. Part 1 (Introduction)

Hello, my darklings. It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve composed a new post for this blog. My other projects have managed to keep me away — but I’m back. I’ve decided to rectify this prolonged blog-neglect by posting, over the course of several weeks, excerpts taken from the lecture I gave at the Black Museum in Toronto on the topic of “Erotic Grotesque Nonsense”, a cultural phenomenon that developed in 1920s-30s Japan. I hope you enjoy, and find the posts entertaining as well as informative.

Image by a contemporary ero guro-inspired Japanese artist, Suehiro Maruo.

Image by the contemporary ero guro-inspired Japanese artist, Suehiro Maruo.

Synopsis

The interwar years in Japan were a time of rapid modernization and social change. It was also a time of economic hardship and, as the fascists rose to power, increasingly oppressive politics. During these difficult times, a popular cultural phenomena flourished. Dubbed by the Japanese media as ero-guro-nansensu, or “erotic-grotesque-nonsense”, this movement rejected the narrow standards of conventional morality insisted upon by the fascists, and instead celebrated the deviant, the bizarre and the ridiculous.

In terms of timeline, we are focussing specifically on the years 1923 to the mid-1930’s. Ero guro developed and emerged as a mass-media driven cultural phenomenon shortly after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and faded out by the mid-1930’s due to Japan’s increasing militarism and invasion of China (and, subsequently, WWII).

Defining Ero-Guro-Nansensu

The clearest and most succinct definition I’ve come across for ero-guro is the one by offered by Jim Reichert, a professor of Modern Japanese Literature at Stanford University. Reichert describes ero-guro as:

“… a bourgeois cultural phenomenon that devoted itself to explorations of the deviant, the bizarre, and the ridiculous. […] [Such] works were produced and consumed at a historical moment when Japanese citizens were bombarded by propaganda urging them to devote themselves to such “productive” goals as nation building and mobilization. In this context, the sexually charged, unapologetically “bizarre” subject matter associated with erotic-grotesque cultural products is reconstituted as a transgressive gesture against state-endorsed notions of “constructive” morality, identity, and sexuality.”

Rather than simply a form of escapism, Reichert suggests that ero-guro may have formed (if indirectly) a radical resistance to the totalitarian political state.

Let’s break the phrase up into its three constituent elements:

  • Ero (“erotic”) representing the erotic, or the pornographic. Typical motifs include sexual obsession, fetishism, and other paraphilias. Can often be represented by cross-dressing and fluid gender identities.
  • Guro [hard ‘G’ GUH-ROE] (the “grotesque”). Often represented through physical deformity, also through mental instability, disguises, and the dangerous double or Dopplegänger. It is a common misconception that guro is synonymous with gore. While guro can often be gory, it is not a necessary component.
  • Nansensu (NAN-SAY-SUE] (“nonsense”)
    Representing fantasy, the supernatural, and the absurd. This is the element that can be often overlooked in ruminations on ero-guro — it’s darkly comedic underpinnings.

Ero guro nansensu is a wasei-eigo [ WAH-SAY AY-go ] phrase, meaning that the words are borrowed from English, made to confirm to Japanese and are given meaning as Japanese-derived English (this distinct from engrish). The phrase itself is an example of the Western-inspired modernism that came into vogue during the 1920s in Japan which, in turn, fed into the phenomenon of ero guro. By which I mean that ero guro was initially inspired by Western cultural products such as the gothic-mystery stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which was then absorbed and transformed by ero guro writers like Edogawa Rampo (whom we will discuss in a later post) into very Japanese cultural material.

I began my lecture with a clip of the opening scene from Sion Sono’s 2005 film Strange Circus. My rationale for this was that, in it’s mere two minutes of running time, this scene so perfectly and concisely encapsulates the main themes and motifs that typify ero-guro-nansensu, or “erotic grotesque nonsense”. The scene in question is not available freely online, but below is the trailer, which should at least give you the flavour of Sono’s film.

So, what are the “erotic grotesque” elements in this scene?:

    • An audience composed of ‘decadent’, cosmopolitan and stylishly-dressed youth (note the 1920’s style of clothing). These represent the original consumers of ero-guro. Note that Reichert’s definition of ero-guro indicates that this was a “…bourgeois cultural phenomenon”. This detail is key because, although ero-guro was disseminated widely through the use of print and other contemporaneous media, it remained a largely urban, middle-class phenomenon. The reason for this was simply that the more affluent Japanese citizens had the leisure time and finances to patronize the cafes, movie theatres, and dance revues that were the modern playground of ero-guro.

strange1

    • The representation of fluid gender identities and sexualities (which would have been labelled ‘deviant’ in the context of the 1920’s-1930’s). Our host, Black Shadow, would embody these blurred gender boundaries.


strange2

    • Heightened theatricality and performance (motif of the circus and the circus ‘freak’). It could be argued that ‘ero guro’ and the Gothic aesthetic are distant cousins to each other in terms of theatricality. Also, an element of camp can often be present.
    • Violence, either actual or suggested.
    • Underpinning of absurdity and humour. After all, this is erotic-grotesque-nonsense. All three of these elements are conjured in this last image, showing the moment when Black Shadow asks the audience if any of them would want to be guillotined.

strange3

Imperial Japan

During the age of Imperial Japan, a concern for “racial health” and for Japan’s ability to fight wars, expand its empire, and claim its position as a great world power motivated a new societal power over sex by the fascists.

30s_poster_16

A propaganda poster circa 1930’s, urging Japanese women to remain in the home raising the next generation of healthy, productive Japanese citizens.

Public officials, schoolteachers, and sexologists worked together to classify individuals by sexuality and control behaviors that they marked as “deviant.” The cultural phenomenon of ero guro responded to and opposed these life-for-the-empire biopolitics of the fascists by imagining a possible alternative. Cultural critics such as Jeffrey Angles (in his essay “Seeking the Strange…”, published in Monumenta Nipponica), have interpreted the interwar fad for the erotic grotesque as “…reflecting people’s desire to escape the difficult economic circumstances and increasingly repressive political developments of the 1920s and 1930s for an alternative sphere of imaginative play.”

One of the chief sources I consulted for research on the erotic grotesque was Miriam Silverberg’s book entitled Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Modern Japanese Times. This is a densely packed academic text that examines, in great detail, the emergence of the erotic grotesque as a cultural phenomenon. Silverberg offers four major factors that she asserts contributed to erotic-grotesque nonsense:

  • The changing roles of women.
  • Changing attitudes towards sexuality.
  • The emergence of new public spaces.
  • Mass culture & modern consumerism.

silverberg

Following an economic boom of WWI, Japan quickly fell into recession. This economic decline pressured women, who had hitherto remained in the household, to enter the work force. Women belonging to a higher economic/social status entered the “white-collar” work force as secretaries and other office workers. These women were dubbed moga, or ‘Modern Girl’, by the Japanese journalists of the day.

The Modern Girl often wore Western-style clothing contemporary to her time, with short bobbed hair and knee-length skirts. That said, the majority of Japanese still preferred to remain in tradition Japanese dress.

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With her newfound freedom and economic power, the Modern Girl went to the movies, smoked, drank and danced at the various jazz-infused dance halls that began to appear in the trendy Ginza district of 1920s Tokyo. She also, most shockingly, met up with men – unchaperoned — in public spaces. The Modern Girl is imagined to have had a succession of lovers prior to marriage (whether or not that was, in fact, the reality for most Japanese women at the time is another matter – but what is key is the idea of this was even entertained as a possibility).

Dance revues, jazz clubs, cafes and movie houses gave form to new a landscape of urban modernity. Working-class women found employment as café waitresses, while others worked as professional “taxi dancers” in the dance halls, where tickets for a 3-minute dance could be purchased.

ginza-taxi-dancers

Ian Buruma, a writer and academic working in the U.S. who focuses on the culture of Asia, described the social atmosphere of 1920’s Tokyo as “a skittish, sometimes nihilistic hedonism that brings Weimar Berlin to mind.” A tantalizing comparison can be made between interwar Japan and the short-lived Weimar Republic of Germany, with it’s famous brothels and cabarets of the prewar period. Similarly, Tokyo had the dance halls and cafes of the Ginza district, and its own decadent, jazz-listening pleasure seekers. It is within this atmosphere of newfound social freedom and modern pleasures that the “erotic grotesque” was born.

Next up, we’ll review the writings of Edogawa Rampo, the Godfather of Erotic Grotesque.

Black Museum lecture, May 13, 2015.

Many heartfelt thanks to all those who attended my lecture on Ero Guro Nansensu last Wednesday at the Royal Cinema in Toronto. Sad to hear that the good folks that brought us the Black Museum lectures are not planning to continue with the series, but I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to speak there on a topic about which I’m passionate.

If you’re not located in Toronto, or couldn’t make it out to the lecture, here’s a nice write-up and synopsis by blogger Jay Clarke.

Deviant Desires: Black Museum lecture on Ero-Guro-Nansensu

Suehiro Maruo's now out-of-print manga entitle

Suehiro Maruo’s now out-of-print manga entitled “Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show” (1984). I will be discussing and showing clips from Harada’s animated film “Midori — The Girl in the Freak Show” (1992), which was based upon this graphic novel.

Quick reminder that I’m giving a lecture at the Royal Cinema (in Toronto) as part of The Black Museum: Lurid Lectures for the Morbidly Curious on May 13 at 9:15 p.m. I will be showing clips from five Japanese films, a few of which are difficult to find gems of ero guro nansensu. Details here: http://theblackmuseum.com/?p=1494

May 13, 2015 at 9:15pm
The Royal Cinema, 608 College St, Toronto
Cost: $12 advance / $15 at the door

Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense in Japanese Horror Films (upcoming lecture)

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Hey Gentle Readers! I’m giving a lecture at the Royal Cinema (in Toronto) as part of The Black Museum: Lurid Lectures for the Morbidly Curious in May. I will be showing clips from five Japanese films, a few of which are rare, under-the-radar gems of “ero guro nansensu”. Details here: http://theblackmuseum.com/?p=1494

The interwar years in Japan were a time of rapid modernization and social change. It was also a time of economic hardship and, as the fascists rose to power, increasingly repressive politics. During these difficult times, a popular cultural phenomena flourished. Dubbed by the Japanese media as “ero-guro-nansensu” (or, “erotic-grotesque-nonsense”), this movement rejected the narrow standards of conventional morality insisted upon by the fascists, and instead celebrated the deviant, the bizarre and the ridiculous. The stories of Edogawa Rampo, the first writer of the modern mystery in Japan, were wildly popular during these turbulent years. It is Rampo who best captured the darkly erotic and transgressive spirit of “ero-guro”, and his legacy has lasted until present day in Japan.

This lecture will focus on five films, three of which are adaptations of Rampo stories: Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), Teruo Ishii’s gloriously schlocky, psychedelic mashup of Rampo-with-butoh, Blind Beast (1969), Yasuzô Masumura’s lurid tale of sexual obsession and sadomasochism, and Koji Wakamatsu’s strongly anti-nationalist Caterpillar (2010). Other films to be discussed will include Nagisa Oshima’s infamous art film In The Realm of the Senses (1976) — described by film critic Ian Buruma as “perhaps the only intelligent hardcore porno film ever made” — and the seldom seen, and equally controversial, anime film Midori – the Girl in the Freak Show (1992).

May 13, 2015 at 9:15pm
The Royal Cinema, 608 College St, Toronto
Cost: $12 advance / $15 at the door

 

 

The Erotic-Grotesque Art of Toshio Saeki.

Last month, Narwhal Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto presented the first ever Canadian exhibition of the reputed “Godfather of Japanese Eroticism”, artist Toshio Saeki. The exhibition was comprised of original ink drawings from 1977-1983, and a rare series of fifty letterpress prints from Saeki’s 1972 publication Akai Hako (The Red Box). This exhibition also offered a fascinating glimpse into Saeki’s work process, as detailed in the catalogue essay:

Accessing the traditional Japanese partnership employed by the Ukioy-e woodcut masters, Saeki creates his original works as black and white ink drawings which he then overlays with vellum sheets hand marked with colour plans for the visualized finished image. As an “eshi” (artist) he passes his designs to a “surishi” (printer) and they are developed into the final work. Saeki refers to his method of practice as Chinto printing.

 

Above are a small sampling of the black and white ink drawings featured at Narwhal Projects. These scenes are representative of Saeki’s bizarre, darkly-erotic fantasy worlds, where a woman can be seduced by a gang of life size Daruma buddhist dolls, or a man’s disembodied head will obligingly perform oral sex on another female protagonist. A motif common throughout Saeki’s work is that of the young child acting as a witness/voyeur to the strange and typically sexual proceedings which, given the artist’s statement that his imagery stems from “…his photographic memory and childhood experiences through imagination and dreams…” gives his scenes a strongly psychosexual, Freudian element. Apart from his obvious technical virtuosity as an artist, it is his ability to fearlessly delve into the unconscious mind and dredge up every taboo and dark desire that I most admire in his work.

Even though he was born in 1945, the art of Toshio Saeki is highly informed by the ero guro style of 1920-30’s Japan. That being said, Japanese art has a long tradition of shunga that combines eroticism with violent and grotesque imagery, a tradition that predates the ero guro style by a significant span of history. Saeki clearly evokes this tradition in his two colour images below (2nd and 3rd from the left), both of which feature octopuses engaged in some interspecies love with humans. The image on the top left, entitled The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (circa 1814), belongs to the celebrated Edo-period artist Katsushika Hokusai, and is a depiction of a famous legend involving the female abalone diver Tamatori (see description below). The Saeki image immediately below Hokusai’s — regrettably, I couldn’t locate a title for that particular piece — clearly riffs off the famous shunga work by Hokusai, even as he introduces a mysterious, faceless man into the scene.

In Hokusai’s most famous shunga, a large octopus performs cunnilingus on a woman abalone diver or ama, and a smaller one, perhaps his offspring, kisses her and fondles one of her nipples with a tentacle. This print is testimony to how our interpretation of an image can be distorted when seen in isolation and without understanding the text. A recent study by Danielle Talerico (2001: 24-42) explains that this image was initially considered by Western collectors and scholars […] to represent a rape scene. Talerico’s study shows that an Edo audience would have associated the image with the story of Tamatori. In the legend, the abalone diver Tamatori sacrifices her life to save the Emperor by cutting open her breast, where she hides the jewel she has stolen from the Sea-Dragon King in his underwater Dragon Palace. The Sea-Dragon King is accompanied by all nature of sea creatures, including octopuses. The dialogues between the two creatures and the diver express mutual sexual enjoyment (see Talerico 2001: 37, for a complete translation). (p. 161 in ‘Japanese Erotic Fantasies’ by C. Uhlenbeck and M. Winkel) — from http://www.akantiek.nl/hokusai%20p1290.htm

“Ero guro nansensu”: the dark, disturbed grandchildren of Japan’s era of decadence.

An illustration by Takato Yamamoto, a contemporary Japanese devotee of

An illustration by Takato Yamamoto, a contemporary Japanese artist working in the “ero guro” style.

Ero guro nansensu (a wasei-eigo term that literally means “erotic-grotesque-nonsense”) was a media-driven cultural phenomenon that originated in 1920–1930 Japan. The social climate of Tokyo between the two World Wars can be closely compared to that of Berlin’s Weimar era, with its famous hedonism and nihilistic world view amongst its artists and bohemian fringe. In his essay “Deviance and Social Darwinism in Edogawa Rampo’s Erotic-Grotesque Thriller Koto no Ōni” (2001), Stanford University professor Jim Reichert characterized ero guro as a “prewar, bourgeois cultural phenomenon that devoted itself to explorations of the deviant, the bizarre, and the ridiculous.” The art of ero guro puts its focus on eroticism, sexual corruption, decadence and the grotesque. While ero guro is a specific movement, many of its components can be found throughout Japanese history and culture. In fact, there is a well-established tradition in Japanese ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) of shunga depicting decapitations and acts of violence from Japanese history such as rape, bondage and erotic crucifixion.

Takato Yamamoto.

Takato Yamamoto.

This tradition of morbid eroticism continues in the work of contemporary Japanese illustrators and manga artists Takato Yamamoto and Suehiro Maruo. An obvious and immediate connection can be traced from the aforementioned ukiyo-e prints to Takato Yamamoto’s delicate colour palette and rendering style. Even as his dreamlike scenes reveal bondage and torture, his protagonists — often naked, effeminate boys — are frequently shown staring off in a calm, eerily detached manner. Yamamoto leaves his narratives deliberately opaque: it’s difficult to decipher whether these young boys are willing participants in these sinister proceedings, or have merely resigned themselves to their fate. The horror in Yamamoto’s art — while undeniably present — is tempered by the strange stillness of his scenes, as well as by his beautiful and virtuosic rendering.

The art of Suehiro Maruo.

The art of Suehiro Maruo.

The horror in Suehiro Maruo’s illustrations, on the other hand, is big, bold and shaded bright red. Adopting an illustrative style highly reminiscent of WWII-era Japanese propaganda posters (similar to the Soviet “socialist realism” style), Maruo’s images are typically gorier than those of Yamamoto, though these images are no less beautiful. His favourite motif is the young couple locked in an embrace, a romantic image that Maruo disrupts with the insertion of gore — as seen in the image on the left of the young soldier licking the eyeball of his sweetheart, whose face he’s so tenderly peeled away from her skull. Whereas Maruo’s illustrations tend to celebrate the more grotesque elements of ero guro, they are typically tamer in their representations of sexuality in comparison to the raunchier Yamamoto.

Calamari Love: the curious tradition of Japanese ‘tentacle erotica.’

Katsushika Hokusai, "The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife," 1814.

Tentacle…what? Yes, indeed. In the realm of sexual fantasy, any and all things that can be imagined are possible. Like, for instance, receiving cunnilingus from an obliging octopus, as depicted in the above image by renowned artist Katsushika Hokusai. Known in the West by the title The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, Hokusai’s print is one of the most celebrated examples of shunga (erotic art) from the Edo Period in Japan. According to a scholarly paper written by Danielle Talerico, the Edo audience would have clearly recognized Hokusai’s woman as a depiction of the female abalone diver Tamatori. In the legend, Tamatori steals a jewel from the Dragon King. However, during her egress, the Dragon King and his sea-life minions — including octopodes — pursue her. Evidently, once the minions successfully capture Tamatori, some sexy-time ensues.

The more contemporary version of Japanese ‘tentacle erotica’, known as shokushu goukan, is a darker, violent and sadistic cousin of the gentler, Edo-period erotica. In 1986, manga artist Toshio Maeda created his infamous series Demon Beast Invasion, which featured malevolent tentacled aliens who embark upon a cross-breeding campaign with human females in a bid to rule the Earth. Essentially, Maeda’s rather thin plot-device afforded him the excuse to stuff a large number of phallic ‘tentacles’ into a great many female orifices. The reason for the reliance on tentacles was simple. Until 1993, Japanese law prohibited straightforward depictions of penises and intercourse. So Maeda was obliged to come up with a substitute: tentacles.

So, there you have it. I bet you’ll never look at a plate of deep-fried calamari in quite the same way again.