Kansai Scene Magazine
 

 

The fine art of being grotesque

KS peers into the dark side of Japanese culture.

The year is 1936 and it is the middle of May. As slowly the Japanese start to embr- ace summer, Abe Sada is about to do an unspeakable crime. Starting off with eroto-asphyxiation, Abe would then strangle her lover, sever his genitalia, carve the kanji for her name into his arm, scrawl a love note on his thigh in blood, and leave wearing his under- wear. While most of Japan would be horrified with the brutal crime, it would prove to be a boost to a movement that had been spreading across Japan for over a decade, ero-guro.

Ero-guro is hard to define. Jim Reichert from the depar- tment of Asian studies at Stanford University called it a "prewar, bourgeois cultural phenomenon that devoted itself to explorations of the deviant, the bizarre, and the ridiculous." The words 'ero-guro' can likewise be traced to media reports terming the age at the beginning of the 1930s as being one of ero-guro-nansensu (erotic- grotesque-nonsense). Accepting these definitions has lead to many people arguing that the roots of the movement can be traced as far back as the wood prints of Yoshitoshi, especially the Eimei nijuhasshuku in the 1860s which depicted 28 murders including the stabbing of a bound, naked woman.

Both of the significant dates offer further hints about the genre. The 1860s were a highly violent time as the outlook of Japan was characterized by the unrest, which would lead to the Boshin War. Likewise the rise of ero-guro as a cultural force in Japan in the 1930s represented the complex feelings of the nation between the World Wars. Professor Silverberg of UCLA summarized this feeling as a "means to make sense of a culture represented as decadent … eager to celebrate the degradation wrought by sensual pleasures while ignoring the pleas of party politics and the unhar- nessed militancy in the streets." Unsurprisingly the movement was banned during the second world war.

A number of famous Japanese artists have dabbled in something that could be termed ero-guro at some time. The most famous example is Akutagawa's book Rashomon especially when the protagonist steals the old woman's clothing at the end. Noted translator Giles Murray wrote that Rashomon's "per- verse eroticism to compelling Poe-like hallucinations"make it a "classic of the ero-guro". Following closely is Edogawa Rampo, especially in the book Koto no Oni (Demon of the Lonely Isle) where political and social commentaries were mixed with horrible shocks. 'The king of cult movies' Teruo Ishii is also known for his horror movies that used ero-guro elements to make them more compelling. Manga is of course well represented notably in the Tokyo Red Hood works of Benkyo Tamaoki. The genre has even reached as far as music with the rock group Cali Gari using many of the signatures of the genre in their musical style.

The difficulty with Ero-guro is what lines should be drawn. While the genre has often embraced important cultural and artistic themes such as war, deformity and sexuality, it has often strayed into obscene or pornographic territory. Even today a number of artists from the Ero-guro school are banned in Europe, some of the more extreme ones are even banned in Japan. Similarly many works have links with a movement known as cultural Marxism, so are often accused of pushing a political agenda. The genres censor-baiting a perfect compliment to cultural Marxism's aim to undermine western civilization by cultural means.

"Unlike other scholars who merely view ero-guro-nansensu in its literal meanings, (it is described as) a complex cultural aesthetic expressed in a spectrum of fascinating mass culture forms and preoccupations." Laura Miller wrote about Silverberg's expert work about ero-guro. This proves an apt summary of the central dynamic of ero-guro, the disgust and twisted erotica, alongside the feeling that this somehow represents a freedom that other arts crave. Art or nonsense? This Halloween, as you enjoy your party with your friends perhaps you might want to turn the lights down low, watch a movie or two and decide for yourselves.

Text: Matt Coslett • Illustration: Michael Napolitano

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The fine art of being grotesque
The dark side of Japanese culture

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