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 Artist in Horror Cinema.

We all have an idea in our minds of what constitutes the “Artist”: a tormented, misunderstood outsider, compelled by an almost otherworldly drive to create. We recall images like those of Vincent van Gogh’s famous self-portrait with bandaged head, concealing the wound that resulted from severing his own left ear, or we envision the distorted figure of Edvard Munch’s magnum opus The Scream, it’s creator checking himself into a private sanitarium later in life after hearing voices. While these biographical details of Van Gogh and Munch are true and verifiable, this notion of the Artist as a mad, tormented genius is a cultural construction originating from the 19th-century Romantics, as described by scholar Pamela Fletcher in her Victorian Studies text Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century:

[Michael] Wilson’s title essay traces the myth of the artist as a unique genius, alienated from society both by his own commitment to the demands of his art and a philistine public’s inability to value or understand it. Wilson rightly notes that the idea of the artist as a melancholic genius dates back to the Renaissance, but he locates the full flowering of the myth in the Romantic era. — excerpt from “Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century”, by Pamela M. Fletcher.

The Romantic era (approx. 1800-1850) reconfigured the artist as a tragic hero who, in the best case scenario, is a darkly brooding and cynical Byronic hero or, in the worst case, is a half-lunatic hermit who lives on the very fringe of society. Though most-assuredly a myth, this notion of the artist as a crazed — and possibly even dangerous — outsider has persisted even into the modern era.

The genre of horror is fed by our psychological and cultural fears. One of our collective fears is our fear of the Other: those individuals who, whether through a transgression of gender, physical deformity, or mental illness, deviate from the “norm” in terms of their appearance and/or behaviour. (See my previous series of posts on Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, which addresses the topic of women as the Other). These types of individuals tend to make the majority anxious, and therefore they are ideal to occupy the role of the “monster” in horror fiction. Given the Romantic notion of the “mad artist”, it’s hardly surprising that artists have served in this role of the feared Other in horror cinema. Below are a few examples of horror films that have featured visual artists in such roles.

Film still from "Blind Beast" (1969

Film still from “Blind Beast” (1969, dir. Yasuzô Masumura).

1. Blind Beast (1969, dir. Yasuzô Masumura) is a masterpiece of ero guro nansensu from Japan that is based on a story by Edogawa Rampo. A blind sculptor kidnaps a beautiful young model and takes her back to his home to act as his model and muse. He and his mother live in a warehouse which he’s transformed into a surreal sculptural installation of giant body parts, dedicated mainly to the female form. At first, the model only wants to escape from this bizarre scene, but eventually she succumbs to his strange vision and even surpasses his obsession. In true ero guro style, they develop a curiously erotic, sadomasochistic relationship that eventually leads to the crazy, horrific and over-the-top violent finale. Below is the entire film posted on Youtube, though regrettably it lacks English subtitles. Worth watching, if only for its beautiful and bizarre visuals — such as the two protagonists cavorting atop a giant (foam rubber) sculpture of a reclining female nude.

2. As an artist myself, I can fully understand the urge to find the exactly correct hue for a project. On many occasions I’ve paid a princely sum for tubes of Cadmium Red paint because, well, no other pigment is as brilliantly, intensely red (the toxicity of the metal cadmium notwithstanding). Hershell Gordon Lewis, the notorious exploitation-film director who singlehandedly created the splatter-gore film, used this notion of the dangerously obsessive artist to splatter his signature gore in Color Me Blood Red (1965).

"Color Me Blood Red" (1965, dir. Hershell Gordon Lewis.

“Color Me Blood Red” (1965, dir. Hershell Gordon Lewis).

Artist Adam Sorge struggles to find critical and commercial success when he accidently discovers that blood smeared across his canvas provides his paintings with the vibrancy they previously lacked. This discovery provides the rationale for Sorge (and Lewis) to bloodily dispatch a couple of bikini-clad beauties in this lesser offering from Lewis’s “Blood Trilogy”. Low-budget and poorly acted (Lewis often relied on non-actors), what this film lacks in craft, it makes up for with its campy, rough-hewn B-movie charm. You can watch the entire, uncut film on Youtube. Considering that it was made in 1965, it truly is subversively gory.

3. Cauldron of Blood (1970) is a terrible film. That said, I kinda have a soft spot for it. Also known under the title Blind Man’s Bluff, it was cobbled together over a few years, repurposing footage from different films. One reason for this cinematic mess is the fact that its star Boris Karloff was in very poor health, and couldn’t appear in a number of scenes (he died in 1969, before its release). Thus, its creators were obliged to pad the film with previously shot footage. Karloff appears frail and sadly diminished — but even a diminished Karloff is still pretty good. Here’s the short synopsis from IMDB: “A blind sculptor works on his magnum opus unaware that the skeletons he has been using for armatures are the remains of the victims of his evil wife and that he is the next target”.

Again, the entire film is available on Youtube (one assumes distribution companies don’t care about these older films). My advice is to forward to the 1:27 mark and watch the final showdown between Karloff and his gloriously evil wife, where she meets her comeuppance in a vat of acid.

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.