It’s mid-March, and I’m rounding the final corner on my animation project Wunderkammer. It appears that I’m on schedule to release this short film in late Summer 2018. Details to follow. Below are a few recent images:
Hello! Welcome to the cold, dark days surrounding the Winter Solstice. It’s been a while since I last blogged, so I thought I’d post an update on the progress of my paper cutout animation Wunderkammer. I’m about two-thirds of the way complete, so I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the animation tunnel. It’s a very, very long tunnel. Thus far, the footage amounts to only two-and-a-half minutes which, on the one hand, doesn’t seem like much. On the other hand, it truly is. Twenty-four frames a second, gentle readers.
Now that the Fall term in my teaching job is winding down for the Winter break, my production should pick up somewhat.
Hello, my darklings. Sorry for the prolonged absence from this blog, as I’ve begun working on my new animation project entitled Wunderkammer. This project sees the return of Madelaine, the mysterious Victorian lady from my previous short films La Petite Mort (2013) and An Unfortunate Incident Involving Her Hat (2012). As always, curious happenings befall Madelaine. In the latter film, Madelaine became the victim of a very bizarre wardrobe malfunction, and in the former, she engaged in a romantic — but ultimately tragic — tryst with an octopus. Similarly, in Wunderkammer her uncanny adventures continue.
For those not familiar with the term, a wunderkammer was a Renaissance-era predecessor of the modern museum collection. Below is a definition copied from the Tate Modern web site:
Wunderkammer or curiosity cabinets were collections of rare, valuable, historically important or unusual objects, which generally were compiled by a single person, normally a scholar or nobleman, for study and/or entertainment. […]Exotic natural objects, art, treasures and diverse items of clothing or tools from distant lands and cultures were all sought for the wunderkammer. Particularly highly prized were unusual and rare items which crossed or blurred the lines between animal, vegetable and mineral. Examples of these were corals and fossils and above all else objects such as narwhal tusks which were thought to be the horns of unicorns and were considered to be magical.
— excerpt from “History of the wunderkammern (cabinet of curiosities).”
I include here some pencil sketches of the various items and curios found inside the wunderkammer of my film (subject to change as the project evolves, of course).
Wakamatsu is best known as the director of a number of pink films (pinku-eiga) in the 1960’s and has been called “the most important director to emerge in the pink film genre.” (He also, coincidentally enough, produced Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses). His adaptation of Edogawa Rampo’s short story Caterpillar belongs to a more recent trend in Japanese film to question their military past.
‘The Caterpillar’ (first published in 1934), was the only of Rampo’s stories to have been banned by the Japanese authorities. It was censored at the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937) out of fear it would derail the nationalistic movement at the time.
The film opens with actual footage of Japanese soldiers during the Second Sino-Japanese War. In the original story by Rampo, Lt. Sunaga has been brought home from an unnamed war. Director Wakamatsu unambiguously attaches Rampo’s narrative to Japan’s war with China. Given the story’s previous history of censorship for being ‘anti-nationalist”, it is fitting that Wakamatsu uses Caterpillar as the set piece for his critique of Showa era ultranationalism.
After the war footage is shown during the title credits, we witness Lt. Kurokawa (Wakamatsu changes the names of the main characters) rape and murder a Chinese woman. While the event is not specifically named, this scene calls to mind Japanese war atrocities such as the infamous Nanking Massacre.
In late 1937, over a period of six weeks, Imperial Japanese Army forces brutally murdered hundreds of thousands of people–including both soldiers and civilians–in the Chinese city of Nanking. The horrific events are known as the Nanking Massacre or the Rape of Nanking, as between 20,000 and 80,000 women were sexually assaulted.
This added backstory of Lt. Kurokawa’s past transgressions (a detail not found in the Rampo text) frames Caterpillar partly as a tale of retribution. He has returned home a horribly disfigured quadruple amputee who is deaf and mute. He is, of course, completely dependent on his wife for all his physical needs, and he communicates these through a series of animalistic grunts and the use of his eyes. Given his condition, Kurokawa devolves into something less-than-human and, much like the caterpillar (whose form he now physically resembles), his entire existence focuses solely on food and sex.
Lt. Kurokawa is brought home to his family’s village with much pomp and ceremony, being praised as “an inspiration to all servicemen”. His family, however, appear more shocked and horrified than inspired. For the rest of the film, none of the characters dare acknowledge the “elephant in the room”, which is the fact that the celebrated War God is little more than a stump with a head attached. This element of absurdity is the strength behind Rampo’s short story, and director Wakamatsu underscores this with dry, deadpan humour.
Lt. Kurokawa’s wife Tadashi is burdened with the round-the-clock care of her husband, which is she expected to perform without complaint. This is the same husband who used to physically abuse her for failing to provide him with a son. Her only joy in an otherwise difficult existence are the occasional outings she makes with Kurokawa, whom she dresses in his uniform, his medals proudly displayed.
Wakamatsu’s film looks great, and is somewhat successful in fleshing-out the short story by Rampo. That said, it does feel stretched a bit thin. A 30-minute short might have been better for the Rampo story, rather than a feature-length film. It does, however, remain the most faithful adaptation of Rampo’s The Caterpillar currently set to film.
One interesting element to note about Rampo’s Caterpillar is that it very probably was the progenitor of amputee fetish (known clinically as acrotomophilia) as a favourite motif amongst current ero-guro content. This connection of amputee fetish to Rampo’s short story is made much more overt in Hisayasu Sato’s version of Caterpillar, a short segment he directed for the 2005 horror anthology Rampo Noir. Unlike Wakamatsu’s relatively faithful retelling of the Rampo text, Sato’s film focuses tightly on the highly eroticized, BDSM-flavoured power dynamic that exists between the limbless lieutenant and his wife — an element that is only a subtext in the Rampo story. While this turning-of-the-tables in terms of power dynamics is a key feature in Wakamatsu’s version, Sato’s impressionistic and considerably kinkier version deals with this to the exclusion of the rest of the story. Reminiscent of the film Boxing Helena, the lieutenant’s wife applies her surgical skills to render him her helpless and fully dependant sex slave.
Ero guro nansensu served as both a diversion and as a social “pressure valve” — absorbing all of the collective fears brought on by economic recessions, the Great Kanto Earthquake, growing militarism and political conflict, and the rapid social and cultural changes taking place within the Japan of the 1920’s and 30’s. These collective fears (and forbidden desires) were then given expression within the safe haven of ero guro’s imaginative play. The Modern Girl supplied ero guro with the intrepid heroine for its dark, erotically-tinged narratives, and the cafes and jazz-clubs provided the setting for these new, Modernist tales of the macabre.
This is Part II of my series of posts relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. Part I, which introduced and defined “ero-guro-nansensu” is found here.
Invariably, any examination of erotic grotesque nonsense will conjure up the name of the single most artistic contributor to that cultural phenomenon, and that name is Edogawa Rampo. In this post, I will introduce Rampo and briefly discuss his cultural legacy and creative output. Rampo serves as a common thread that links Japan of the 1920s-30s to the films I’ll be discussing in subsequent postings, as well as to the artwork of contemporary artists working with ero-guro style imagery. Of the five films I plan to discuss, three are adaptations of stories written by Rampo.
Edogawa Rampo was the pen name of Hirai Taro and the acknowledged grand master of Japan’s golden age of crime and mystery fiction. He is also a major writer in the tradition of Japanese Modernism, and exerts a massive influence on the popular and literary culture of today’s Japan. That his chosen pen name is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe is a pretty clear indication of his creative inspirations and early passions as a reader.
Even though Rampo has remained a household name in Japan since the 1930s, translations of Rampo’s fiction were not available in the West until 1956, with the publication of Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. This collection of nine short stories remained the only dedicated volume of Rampo available in English-language translation up until the early 21st-century (some short stories had been translated and published in other anthologies, but there hadn’t been a dedicated volume of Rampo available). In 2008, the Edogawa Rampo Reader was published, which contained short stories and some non-fiction prose that had hitherto been unavailable in translation.
While a university student, Rampo read detective stories by Poe, G.K. Chesterton, and Arthur Conan Doyle, which appealed to him precisely because of their use of careful plotting, logic and reasoning, and dark overtones. Many of Rampo’s stories feature a main protagonist in the character of Akechi Kogoro, a private detective very much in the vein of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character. Like Holmes, Akechi is a brilliant but eccentric detective who consults with the police on especially difficult cases. He is a master of disguise and an expert at judo whose genius lets him solve seemingly impossible cases.
It is Rampo’s more bizarre, fantastic and darkly erotic works of fiction, however, that ultimately established him as the Godfather of Ero-Guro. Rampo’s stories were wildly popular during the turbulent interwar years in Japan, and it is their transgressive spirit that best captures the essence of ero-guro-nansensu.
“The Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo has been called the Father of Japanese Mystery Fiction. This statement, while not inaccurate, fails to adequately consider examples of his writing that border on the macabre or the fantastic. Many of his works tap into the elements of strangeness that Japan’s headlong rush into modernity after the Meiji Restoration had unleashed. Far more than conventional mysteries, these stories incorporate elements of the fantastic, the gothic, and the absurd, in ways that thrill and entertain, and also leave the reader unsettled, and they delve deeply into the fear of the unknown that all humans share.”
— (Quote taken from the foreword written by Patricia Welch in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination.)
I’ve selected two of my favourite Rampo short stories to discuss, the first being The Caterpillar, and the second The Human Chair. These are two of his best known and most celebrated stories, and have been adapted in both film and manga form numerous times throughout the years. First published in 1934, The Caterpillar was the only of Rampo’s stories to have been banned by the prewar Japanese authorities for being ‘anti-nationalist’.
Given his condition, Sunaga devolves into something less-than-human and, much like the caterpillar (whose form he now physically resembles), his entire existence focuses on food, and sex. With her new position of power in their relationship Tokiko, resentful of her endless round-the-clock care of her husband, begins to cruelly toy with Sunaga. In a fit of rage at her husband, Tokiko gouges out his eyes with her fingers, thus removing his only sensory connection to the world. The sightless Sunaga manages an insectile crawl out of the cottage and plummets down a well to his death. (I plan to go into greater depth on this story when I discuss the film “The Caterpillar” (2010) directed by Kōji Wakamatsu, in a later posting.)
After months of this strange existence, the hotel came under new management and some of its contents, including the chair, were sold to private individuals. Coincidentally, Yoshiko’s husband had purchased an overstuffed chair a short while back at an auction, which his wife loves to sit in whilst she reads (so, you know where this is heading, right?). The letter-writer then goes on to describe the daily routine of Yoshiko, confessing that he had fallen in love with her. Horrified, Yoshiko jumps out of the chair and runs from the room. Within moments, she receives a second mystery missive – this time a telegram – stating that the confessional letter was, in fact, a work of fiction, and that the author hoped Yoshiko enjoyed the effectiveness of the story.
My next post in this series will discuss Teruo Ishii’s gloriously schlocky, psychedelic mashup of Rampo-with-butoh, Horrors of Malformed Men (1969).
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.
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).
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 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?:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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Also available from the Apple store: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/book/id582540445
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.
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 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.
In my previous blog post, I waxed nostalgic over the print advertisements for grindhouse theatres that appeared in the newspapers back in the 1970’s, the heyday of exploitation cinema. I felt the need to establish my long-term relationship with these films, in order to provide context for the discussion that follows. As you’ll soon read, the relationship I have with exploitation cinema is a conflicted one. It’s highly reminiscent of those teenage Bad Boys I yearned for in high school: appealing in their dangerous good-looks and rule-breaking nonconformity, but essentially all abusive jerks. Simply put, exploitation cinema isn’t always kind in its treatment of women.
But before we delve too much further, let’s trot out the standard definition of ‘exploitation film‘ as offered up by Wikipedia:
Exploitation film is a type of film that is promoted by “exploiting” often lurid subject matter. The term exploitation is common in film marketing, used for all types of films to mean promotion or advertising. These films then need something to exploit, such as a big star, special effects, sex, violence, romance, etc. […] The audiences of art and exploitation film are both considered to have tastes that reject the mainstream Hollywood offerings. […] Exploitation films may adopt the subject matter and styling of regular film genres, particularly horror films and documentary films, and their themes are sometimes influenced by other so-called exploitative media, such as pulp magazines.
Typically, the exploitation film was a low-budget B-movie, created as cheap, double-feature fodder for drive-in theatres. In order to attract audiences, they promised risqué content not offered by mainstream Hollywood productions. Sex and violence frequently intermingled, and were served up as an intoxicating cocktail of naughtiness. Hence, many of the exploitation subgenres — including the three I’ll examine here — contain copious amounts of nudity and sexualized violence.
As mentioned in my previous post, I shall focus my discussion on three subgenres of exploitation cinema: nunsploitation, WIP (Women in Prison) films, and Naziploitation. Apart from the fact that I typically write about depictions of gender in film, I wanted to address these particular subgenres for the simple reason that they are variations on the exact same narrative. And this narrative runs as follows:
A sadistic lesbian [Mother Superior/prison warden/Nazi Stalag Commandant] oversees the naked torture and general abuse of her attractive female wards. A young ingénue enters the [convent/prison/concentration camp] and must overcome great obstacles. She ultimately escapes, and her tormentor/s receive their final comeuppance.
Now, let’s parse this narrative. The variable same-sex settings — convent, prison or concentration camp (essentially another form of prison) — provide the excuse and opportunity for lesbian sex. This is the same sort of lipstick-lesbian fantasy that frequents pornography produced for heterosexual men. Presumably, the buxom women that populate these films are (mostly) lesbian by circumstance, rather than true sexual preference. This detail maintains the fantasy element for its predominantly male audience, who can enjoy the lesbian spectacle onscreen, while their belief in the inherent heterosexuality of these female characters remains intact.
The same-sex settings also provide opportunity for a second, considerably more sinister element: violence perpetrated on women by other women. Given the context of the various scenarios, this violence takes the form of ritualized or systematic abuse and torture. The cruel prison warden portrayed by Pam Grier in Women in Cages (1971) derives sadistic pleasure from the physical punishment of her female wards. Similarly, the Mother Superior from Joe D’Amato’s Images in a Convent (1979) vents her sexual frustration on one of her nuns through ritualistic flogging. The Nazi Stalag Commandant from Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974) tortures her female prisoners with the curiously-misguided goal of proving female superiority over men. Is all this girl-on-girl violence merely the cinematic equivalent of a catfight, or is there something more menacing at play here?
One possible theory I have is that girl-on-girl violence seems less sinister and realistic than violence perpetrated on women by men, and thus more palatable to an audience in the context of an exploitation film. It can argued that the poorly-written scripts, implausible scenarios and less-than-stellar acting commonly found in these films tends to undercut any convincing menace in a torture scene. When you also factor in the high camp of a Nazi Commandant whose ample bosom threatens to burst out from her fetishistic SS uniform — well, it all seems more absurd than truly sinister.
But none of this answers the question “why is sex and violence so often paired together in these films?” I’ll attempt to tackle this big question in my next blog post.