The Erotic-Grotesque Art of Toshio Saeki.

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

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


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

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

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

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

An illustration by Takato Yamamoto, a contemporary Japanese devotee of

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

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

Takato Yamamoto.

Takato Yamamoto.

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

The art of Suehiro Maruo.

The art of Suehiro Maruo.

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