Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, Part VI: “Blind Beast”

Happy holidays, dear readers. After a brief hiatus, I’ve returned to continue with my ongoing series relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. This blog post comprises Part VI of the series. You can read all of the previous instalments in the Ero Guro Nansensu category of my blog.

This post shall explore yet another film adaptation of Rampo: Yusuzo Masumura’s 1969 pinky violence film Blind Beast.

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Blind Beast

In Edogawa Rampo’s 1932 novella, a psychopathic blind sculptor named Michio disguises himself as a massage therapist in order to gain access to young women, whom he abducts. He sadistically murders and dismembers his victims, using their body parts to form strikingly realistic sculptures. He is described by as “crippled, ugly, leering, and with a seemingly endless internal catalog of perversities”. In Masumura’s film, the plot is simplified from many captive girls to a single one, and most of the unsettling and grotesque elements in Rampo’s story are stripped out. The filmmaker maintains the necessary blindness of his “beast” sculptor, but depicts him as significantly less monstrous, opting to make him more sympathetic to his audience.

The film opens with a voiceover from a young artist’s model named Aki. She has arrived at an art gallery early in the morning for a meeting, and observes a lone gallery patron caressing a sculpted nude image of herself with a perverse intensity.

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Aki notes as the man fondles the sculpture that she experiences the sensation of being touched on her own body. This notion of a sculpted “copy” with an otherworldly connection to the “original” body upon which it was based may relate back to the Rampo story. In the novella, the blind sculptor used the actual, severed body parts of his victims to form his sculptures. Masumura’s sculptor is much less monstrous. To create his sculptures, he only needs to feel his model in order to replicate her form. For him, the woman and her sculpted “double” are one and the same.

In the guise of a massage therapist, Michio gains access to Aki in her apartment. Determined to have her serve as model for him, he chloroforms her and, with the aid of his creepily attentive mother, carries her off to their secluded warehouse.

Aki awakens inside the dark interior of Michio’s cavernous studio. This is the scene that’s become emblematic of Blind Beast and, based on its set design alone, it’s easy to see why. As Michio delivers his lengthy backstory, director Masumura gradually reveals a surreal collection of sculpted body parts that adorn the walls of the studio.

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The surreal body parts of Michio’s cavernous studio owe something of a debt to the famous set designed by Salvador Dali for Hitchcock’s film “Spellbound” (1945), although Dali’s set lacks the giant nipples.

After one failed escape attempt, Aki resigns herself to model for Michio, all the while seducing him in order to gain his trust. For his part, Michio is a naïve, child-like man whose knowledge of women is based solely on his relationship with his mother. Aki chides Michio for having “a baby’s view of women”, noting that his giant, recumbent female nude sculptures represent his very Oedipal view of Woman (suggesting a psychological urge to climb back into the womb). And, well, she does have a point.

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Aki skillfully manipulates Michio and turns him against his mother, whom Aki accuses of having an incestuously tinged love for her son. This enrages Mom, and a scuffle ensues. During the fight, Mom strikes her head and is conveniently dispatched. Aki attempts another escape, but is thwarted by Michio who drags her back into the lightless interior of his studio.

At this point, Masumura’s film makes a significant tonal shift from quirky black humour to something much more sinister. In order to demonstrate his masculinity — which had been called into question previously by Aki — Michio rapes her over several days. Improbably, Aki confesses (by way of voiceover) to having developed a “slight affection” for her rapist over this period of time. How should we read this? That Michio can only become an adult by conquering Aki and punishing her for belittling his manhood? Are we to understand that Aki shares Michio’s rape fantasy? These are questions that arise often when discussing “pink films”, and require an entire blog series on their own to explore and critique. Since Masumura’s Blind Beast is not a film deeply anchored in reality, I’m just going to acknowledge Aki’s highly problematic conversion from rape victim to willing sexual partner and move forward with the discussion, though I felt that some mention of it was warranted.

In the latter third of the film, the couple remain in the complete darkness of Michio’s studio where, unable to see, they explore the limits of the other senses through sex and increasingly violent, sadomasochistic acts such as biting, whipping and piercing the skin with Michio’s sharp sculpting tools. In this regard, they remind us of Sada and Kichi from In the Realm of the Senses, having removed themselves from the rest of the world to exist solely in their own universe of pleasure/pain sensuality.

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Their sadomasochistic games culminate in extreme mutilation, when Aki requests that Michio amputate all of her limbs, rendering her a flesh-and-blood Venus de Milo much like the limbless female nude torsos that adorn Michio’s studio. Again, like Sada and Kichi, their exploration into the world of the senses cannot be perpetually sustained, and leads to their eventual demise. The world of the erotic-grotesque may provide a diversion from the real world and, for a time, a form of escape. It’s not a world, however, where one can set up a permanent residence.

Someone asked me some questions about ero-guro, and here’s what I answered.

I recently received a message via my Facebook Page regarding some of the ero guro nansensu-themed posts on this blog. I felt that the questions raised were so pertinent to my ongoing discussion on the subject, that I should fashion a blog post around them. Many thanks to Christo KJ for the original message.

Q: Hi, I hope you don’t mind that I’m contacting you like this. I’ve been studying film and television science for the past five years here in Norway. I just read your posts about ero guro nansensu and I found it very interesting. But I do have some questions about the definition of what an ero guro film is.     

Both Italian Neorealism and German Expressionism have very specific rules for what type of movies that are and are not part those movements. Ero guro is of course not a film movement like Neorealism. But are there any similar rules when it comes to ero guro in film, which explains specifically what is and what is not ero guro?

A: That’s an excellent question. The short answer is: no, and yes.

No, in that ero guro nansensu emerged as a mass-media driven cultural phenomenon at a time when the film industry in Japan was still in its early years** and, as you so rightly pointed out, was not a film movement like German Expressionism — which, incidentally, emerged at roughly same time in Germany as ero guro flourished in Japan.

Ero Guro could be best described as a zeitgeist — or “spirit of the times” — that organically developed during the interwar years in Japan. It’s main devotees were the urban youth, artists, and other bohemians, although its influence was also felt outside of the cosmopolitan city centres. It was not a movement created by a group of artists, nor was it guided by a manifesto of any kind that outlined its common goals or philosophy.

Academics like Miriam Silverberg and Jim Reichert have proposed that ero guro formed a kind of collective reaction against the ultraconservative morality touted by the fascists who were rising to power in 1920s-30s Japan. This interpretation of cultural history does seem to carry credibility, and I wrote about this in my previous blog entry.

With all that said, there are some motifs and themes that I would identify as being strongly indictative of ero-guro. These are:

  • the circus, and the circus sideshow “freak”
  • the dangerous double, or doppelgänger
  • “something horrible hidden in plain view”
  • “deviant” sexualities: fetishes, paraphilias, shibari
  • grotesqueries such as malformed bodies, missing limbs, deformity
  • disguises and secret identities
  • a crime, especially a bizarre and excessively gruesome one
  • insanity, obsession
  • absurdity, nonsense, dark humour

Most of these motifs come directly from the writings of Edogawa Rampo, about whom I wrote in another blog entry. You simply cannot discuss ero-guro in any meaningful way without touching upon the work of Rampo.

Q: Are all pink films that contain torture or S&M ero guro?

A: I would argue no, though there does seem to be a lack of consensus on how best to apply the ero-guro label to films. In my opinion, the term ero-guro (sometimes shortened to simply guro) is thrown around too indiscriminately. Since Rampo and his literary contemporaries were so heavily influential in the shaping of ero-guro, I use their work as a gauge against which all work labeled ero-guro is measured. Whereas Teruo Ishii’s pinky violence film Horrors of Malformed Men is undoubtedly ero-guro — partly owing to the fact that it’s a very loose adaptation of at least five different Rampo stories — not all violent pinku-eiga can be categorized as ero-guro. In other words, even though sex, violence and gore are frequently elements found in ero-guro, their presence alone does not indicate a film that is ero-guro.

To confuse matters further, however, I recently stumbled upon this classification of ero-guro-nansensu in a book entitled Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema, written by Jasper Sharp:

“The term [ero-guro] resurfaced in the 1950s to describe the more macabre B-movie gangster, science fiction, and horror works by Shintoho, such as those directed by Ishii Teruo, as well as screen adaptations of writers like Rampo. From the 1980s onward, it has been most commonly used in connection with underground works featuring overt depictions of sex, violence, and grotesquerie…” — Sharp, pp. 60-61

Ultimately, it may come down to personal taste as to which version of ero-guro you prefer. I hold a greater affinity towards the artistry, complex plot twists and exaggerated theatricality of films such as Sion Sono’s Strange Circus (2005), versus the more straightforward softcore-meets-gore of Entrails of a Virgin (1986). Both films deliver on the sex, violence and gore, but Strange Circus does it with a lot more style and panache.

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“Strange Circus”, 2005, dir. Sion Sono.

Q: The Guinea Pig movies by Hideshi Hino have been labeled as ero guro (Directory of world cinema: Japan p.251). The two first movies in this series have little to no plot, it’s just about an hour of torture. So what is the difference between ero guro and Japanese torture porn?

A: I strongly disagree  with the categorization of The Guinea Pig films as ero-guro. I would simply label them Japanese torture porn. As you point out, there’s little or no plot. Ero-guro films not only have plot, but they often have very elaborate, convoluted plots.

Q: Would you consider the movie Grotesque by Koji Shiraishi as ero guro?

A: I’m aware of that film, but have yet to view it.

Q: Would you consider some of Takashi Miike’s movies as ero guro, for example Ichi the killer, Gozu, Visitor Q?

A: Takashi Miike has created a couple of films that I would identify as being ero-guro, but not amongst the films you mention. There’s an excellent pan-Asian compilation DVD called Three…Extremes that came out in 2004 which featured a short film by Miike called Box. A dream-like, atmospheric story that’s uncharacteristically restrained for Miike, Box involves the story of twin girls who work with their father in a magic act. Their trick is to fold themselves into impossibly small boxes. There’s the hint of incest (deviant sexuality), bodies that do not conform to convention (the girls are contortionists), murderous revenge and blurred boundaries between the dreaming and waking world. It’s by far the most ero-guro flavoured film that Miike has done to date. You can get a taste of it here.

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Q: Are there any non-Japanese films that you would consider as ero guro, like for example Pasolini’s  Salo 120 days of Sodom or A Serbian film?

 I haven’t seen either of those films, so I can’t comment. I tried watching Salo once, and found it impossibly boring. I know enough about A Serbian Film to know that I need never watch it.“Newborn porn”? No thanks.

Some ero-guro films that I would recommend:

 

**Interestingly enough, Japan was one of the first countries to develop a film industry, beginning in the latter years of the 19th-century.

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

This is Part V of my ongoing series of posts relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. You can read all of the previous instalments in the Ero Guro Nansensu category of my blog. The previous post, which discussed Midori — The Girl in the Freak Show, can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We see Kichi step out from a barber shop and into an empty street. A platoon of soldiers approaches and Kichi walks in opposition (in the opposite direction) to the soldiers. The next instant, a crowd of flag-waving townsfolk materialize. We can only read this scene as symbolic. Kichi is isolated, walking on a different side of the street from the rest of Japan. There is no place for him in Imperial Japan, and he knows it.

The erotic-asphyxiation that Sada and Kichi engage in originates from their mutually shared desire to explore extreme sensory experiences. Eventually, of course, this co-mingling of death with sex leads to Kichi’s wish to transcend this world.

Next in this series of posts, Yasuzô Masumura’s “Blind Beast.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suehiro Maruo's 1984 manga

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

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

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

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

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

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

My next post in this ongoing series on ero-guro-nansensu discusses one of the most notorious Japanese films ever made,  In the Realm of the Senses (1976), directed by Nagisa Oshima.

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

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

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

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

Horrors of Malformed Men

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

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

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

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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.”

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

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

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

Hijikata performing his improvished dance on the rocks.

Hijikata performing his improvised dance on the rocks.

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Butoh dance troupe.

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

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

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

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.

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    • 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.


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    • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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: 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

 

 

Horror Films 101: Favourite Ghost Stories.

Can I let you in on a secret? This hardcore horror fan is scared of ghosts — OK, more specifically, films that feature ghosts. I’ve watched zombie hordes feast on flesh, and vampires drink human blood. I’ve seen the minions of Satan perform gory midnight rituals, and serial killers dispatch their victims in creatively sadistic ways. None of these have frightened or unnerved me to the degree that a good, old-fashioned ghost story can. If anything can cause me to cower beneath the bed covers at night, it’s the suggestive power of a ghost story that relies on psychology rather than gore or cheap scare tactics to frighten the bejeezus outta you. Therein lies its true potency.

Film still from "Ugetsu Monogatari" (1958).

The Lady Wakasa from “Ugetsu Monogatari” (1953).

1. The Japanese have always had a knack for constructing effective tales of the supernatural. Ugetsu monogatari (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) is a beautifully-shot, black-and-white masterwork from Japan’s “Golden Age” of cinema. This film is a  jidaigeki (period drama) set during the Edo period, and is ostensibly a morality play on the theme of personal responsibility. As is customary in many Asian ghost stories, the supernatural co-exists with the world of the living in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way. Ghosts can be the benevolent souls of the dearly departed who dwell on the earth to protect family members, or they are malevolent spirits bent on revenge. The ghosts in Ugetsu are more the former than the latter, although the Lady Wakasa has a definite sinister side to her. I would characterize this film as a tale of misfortune and poor-choices-with-tragic-consequences than as a ghost story whose raison d’être is to merely frighten.

The malevolent ghost-child Samara climbs out of the TV in the now-iconic conclusion to "The Ring" (2002).

The malevolent ghost-child Samara climbs out of the TV in the now-iconic conclusion to “The Ring” (2002).

2. While we’re on the topic of Japanese ghost stories, my next pick The Ring (2002) is the English-language remake of the Japanese film Ringu (1998). When a foreign-language film is remade into an English version, I almost invariably prefer the original film — in fact, I very seldom watch remakes of foreign-language films as I feel that much of the original context is lost in translation (ie. the [REC] films are enriched by their location in Spain, with everyone speaking Spanish, etc). Gore Verbinski’s The Ring is that rare exception where the remake is an improvement over the original. Verbinski maintains the visual aesthetics of the original, but torques up the fright factor. The remake also removes some of the problematic (for a Western audience) gender issues that are present in the original film.

3. Ti West is one of my favourite new directors working in the horror genre. He is the master of the slow-boil, and while the snail’s pace of his 2011 film The Innkeepers is definitely not for the thrill-a-minute horror fan, I truly believe that the slow pace works to amplify the creepy-as-hell finale. West gives us ample time to get to know his two main characters Claire and Luke, two employees — and amateur paranormal investigators — who work at a supposedly haunted New England hotel. I actually switched this movie off twice whilst viewing it. The first time, it was out of sheer boredom. It was 45-minutes into the film, and virtually nothing had happened other than some banal, somewhat-flirty banter between our two protagonists, and the occasional hotel guest complaining that they had no towels in their rooms. I decided to try again. The second time I switched it off, it was because things were finally happening, and the suspense had me too much on edge.  My advice: stick with it, because the ending is worth it.

"I know, Luke. We should totally hang out in the dark, creepy basement of this haunted hotel."

“I know, Luke. We should totally hang out in the dark, creepy basement of this haunted hotel.” Claire and Luke try to record the ghost of Madeline O’Malley in “The Innkeepers”.

Majorly creepy dead guy from "Carnival of Souls" (1962).

Majorly creepy dead guy from “Carnival of Souls” (1962).

4. An overlooked gem from the early 1960’s, Carnival of Souls (1962) has received some well-deserved recognition from genre fans these past few years. An impressionistic, almost surreal black-and-white film that follows the lone survivor of a car accident who’s haunted by visions of a ghoulish man who stares silently at her, grinning. Did she survive the car accident, or is she truly dead and a ghost? That’s the question that torments poor Mary throughout Carnival of Souls, and while the story is somewhat threadbare, the visuals and atmosphere are superb.

5. I’ve already written about Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) in a previous post, but I felt it definitely needed to be on this list. Let’s all pretend that the abominable 1999 remake didn’t happen, shall we? This is such a beloved Gothic ghost story. Watch the clip below to see why: