Recently, I tripped across an online review for my animated short film La Petite Mort on a French-language arts & culture magazine called Wukali. At least, I think it’s a review. The reason for my uncertainty is, of course, the absolutely horrendous French-to-English translation offered by Google Chrome. The author, identified as Pierre-Alain Lèvy, seems to be discussing the difference between erotica — that classy, art-directed tease who promises, but never quite delivers — and her more hardcore sister, pornography. This discussion name-drops a short list of Western civilization’s erotic art heavy-hitters, including Apollonaire, André Breton and Octave Mirbeau — the latter best known for his written anthology of sadism entitled Torture Garden — and alludes to Charles Baudelaire through his mention of Flowers of Evil.
It is notable that most of the names mentioned in the article are 19th and early 20th-century French men (Lèvy also mentions male Japanese artists Dan Kanemitsu and Katsushika Hokusai). Conspicuously absent are the historical women artists working with erotic content. Even the most cursory glance back at the early 20th-century in France summons the names of celebrated women writers Anaïs Nin, Colette, and Pauline Réage (author of the BDSM-themed novel TheStory of O), all of whom would serve as better antecedents to my female-generated erotica than either Mirbeau or Baudelaire.
That said, Lèvy does correctly detect the influence of Japanese erotic art on La Petite Mort. A tiny reproduction of The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by Katsushika Hokusai is prominently placed within the frame, providing a strong hint at what’s to come in the narrative. As with many of my animation projects, the concept for the film began with a single image — the Hokusai print, in this case — and developed outwards from there. I asked myself questions such as: “What happened before that image? And what happened after?” The resulting animation is my response to those questions.
“Masturbation Box”, by Toshio Saeki.
A similar tactic was employed in the development of my most recent animation project Wunderkammer, which grew as a response to an image by Toshio Saeki from his print series Masturbation Box. An astute reader will have already noted that both the Japanese artists I’ve mentioned are men. Regrettably, there are very few Japanese women artists engaged with this type of ero-guro or “erotic-grotesque” imagery — at least, of which I am aware (Junko Mizuno is the one name that springs to mind, though I’d classify her work as more gothic kawaii than truly ero-guro). I consider my animations as female-lensed erotica engaged in a game of call-and-answer with the content produced by these male Japanese artists. Wunderkammer expands the universe surrounding Saeki’s image to a considerable degree, fleshing out the story with my other various fixations such as cabinets of curiosity, oddities, taxidermy, octopuses, and Edwardian-style costumes and furnishings. And, of course, that mysterious box.
Work-in-progress video still from “Wunderkammer” (projected release date Fall 2018).
Below is a screen capture of the Wukali article and here is a link to the original French article, which I imagine makes considerably more sense than the translated version offered here (if you can read French, that is).
Hello, gentle readers. For those of you who are following my series of ero guro themed posts and can’t quite get enough, I have a special treat. Lady Lazarus has been collecting images on Pinterest for her Ero Guro board. Want to learn more about contemporary artists who work with ero guro themes and subjects? Are you a fan of artists such as Junko Mizuno, Takato Yamamoto, Suehiro Maruo, and Toshio Saeki? Then click on the image below and visit my Pinterest board.
NSFW, but of course you knew that. Nothing too porny, though. This is a classy operation.
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 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 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.
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.
The “Edogawa Rampo Reader”, first published in 2008.
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’.
The Caterpillar (1934)
Suehiro Maruo’s manga adaptation of “The Caterpillar”.
The Caterpillar is a short story about an army wife named Tokiko and her severely injured husband, Lieutenant Sunaga. A recent returnee from an unnamed war, Sunaga has unfortunately become a horribly disfigured quadruple amputee who is deaf, mute and dumb. He is, of course, completely dependent on his wife for all his physical needs, and he communicates these to Tokiko through a series of animalistic grunts and the use of his eyes. While Lieutenant Sunaga is literally trapped within the limbless stump of his body, Tokiko is also trapped in an endless cycle of care for her husband because, as she is continually reminded by those around her, it is her “wifely duty” to do so. As she is told by the retired major general in whose cottage the couple now reside, “The loyalty and meritorious services of Lieutenant Sunaga are of course the boast of our Army.”
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.)
The Human Chair (1925)
Junji Ito’s manga adaptation of Rampo’s “The Human Chair”.
Being a manga artist closely associated with horror, Ito’s version departs from the original by adding a framing story involving the great-grandson of the chairmaker and Yoshiko, and elements of horror including two dessicated corpses hidden inside the chair (elements which are not found in the original).
The second Rampo short story I want to discuss is The Human Chair, which was originally published in 1925. The story involves a young woman writer named Yoshiko who receives a mysterious envelope in the mail. At first, she believes it to be a manuscript from an aspiring writer seeking her critique, but as she reads, she quickly realizes it is a rather long and confessional letter penned by an unnamed writer. The mysterious letter-writer, who describes himself as “ugly beyond description”, confesses to a series of increasingly bizarre and perverse crimes. He reveals that he is craftsman skilled in the art of chair-making, and that he had been commissioned by an upscale hotel to manufacture a large, custom chair for its lobby. Deciding that this commissioned chair is his masterpiece, and therefore reluctant to part with it, he opts to fashion a compartment in the inside back of the chair that would accommodate a human being (namely, him). He then accompanies the chair to the hotel lobby, where he hides inside of it during the day, sneaking out of it at night to steal valuable items from the hotel. The chair-maker soon realized, however, that he received a perverse, erotic thrill when female hotel guests sat in his chair — and thus, on top of him.
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.
Toshio Saeki, being the ‘Godfather of Japanese Erotica”, adds a predictably erotic slant to his interpretation of Rampo’s “The Human Chair” 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.
Image by the contemporary ero guro-inspired Japanese artist, Suehiro Maruo.
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 (“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Toshio Saeki. MIDARADONO 11.75 x 17.5″ Ink on paper, 1982
Toshio Saeki. CHIZOMEDORI 11.75 x 18.25″ Ink on paper, 1976
Toshio Saeki. IRODARUMA 11.75 x 18.25″ Ink on paper, 1977.
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.
Katsushika Hokusai, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” 1814.
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
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.
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 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.
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.