Shintaro Kago

A bloodied wolf man birthing an unspeakable thing. The top half of a schoolgirl clawing her way across a marble floor. A soldier licking his lover’s eyeball.

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Heads up: This article contains explicit pictures and descriptions of sexual violence and gore.

This is ero guro, a Japanese artistic movement dating back to the early 1800s. Undulating eye sockets, dismemberment by samurai, sub-human body horror and womb explosions are a few common tropes in the genre, all vile and enthralling (but mostly vile). In fact, ero guro (often simply “guro”) and tentacle porn, one of Japan’s less relatable cultural exports, are byproducts of the same early Japanese woodcut themes. Lately, guro has been experiencing a minor renaissance that’s even starting to spread to American pop culture, typically a hentai-free domain.

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Shintaro Kago, a contemporary patron saint of ero guro, illustrated promotional material for electronic music sensation Flying Lotus’s 2014 album, You’re Dead!. Kago’s body horror graced the album’s cover, as well as 19 tarot cards inside, each corresponding to a track. Last year, New York fashion brand Supreme collaborated with artist Toshio Maeda, “The Tentacle Master,” whose work is an thoughtful yet disconcerting blend of horror and hentai. Anointed streetwear brand Mishka just released a series of t-shirts inspired by guro. Sinewy, gored cyborgs and dollfaced dead girls are, it seems, catching on with tastemakers.

Shintaro Kago’s album art for Flying Lotus’s “You’re Dead!”.

The Japanese term “ero guro” actually is derived from English: “ero” for “erotic” and “guro” from “grotesque.” Sometimes, the word “nansensu” is tacked onto the end, taken from the English “nonsense.” Although the term wasn’t coined until around the 1920s, Japanese woodcuts have exhibited the sort of gory erotica that came to be known as guro as early as 1814.

You know that ubiquitous Japanese print of crashing waves, The Great Wave of Kanagawa? The same artist who designed Japan’s most famous postcard also produced The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, which you might recognize from Mad Men:

Hokusai’s Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife

Artist Hokusai’s less tourist-friendly work isn’t savage in the same way as Kago’s manga. But the subject’s unabashed ecstasy while being overpowered by an enormous octopus offers the same emotional dissonance: Nightmarish, violent and sexually deviant things are happening. She seems okay. What gives?

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In the 1860s (the tail end of the edo period), famed woodblock print artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi went through his “bloody print” period, allegedly because his father died. His work during that period was totally brutal, but earned him widespread fame. In one, a samurai is poised to slice up a disfigured, nearly naked gremlin of a man. In another, a chubby fellow is ripping the face off another gentleman. His foot, blood-spattered, is placed on the man’s shoulder for leverage.

Around the 1920s, the macabre erotica of ero guro congealed in literature. Mystery and detective novels proved perfect for the genre to self-actualize (law and order, gore and sex?). Hirai Taro (pen name Edogawa Ranpo) and Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s horror-slash-erotica-slash-mystery took off, verging more on the nansensu side of the genre: One of Taro’s most famous novels, The Blind Beast, describes how a blind and deranged sculptor kidnaps a model and “imprisons her in a psychedelic labyrinth of giant sculpted eyes and other outlandish body parts, before dismembering her in a fearful blood-orgy.” In Junichiro’s “The Gourmet Club,” five gourmands’ experiences of “unbearably delicious flavors would entwine themselves around the tongue until at last one’s stomach burst open.” Decadence—whether sexual or gastronomical—looks all the more decadent when it’s covered in blood.

Suehiro Maruo
Kazuichi Hanawa

However grisly this niche literature got, it sometimes paled in comparison to real life: In 1936, guro found a cult icon in the Japanese sex worker Sada Abe. Allegedly raped at age 15 and then forced into prostitution, Abe famously strangled a lover and cut off his genitals, which she carried in her handbag for three days after his death. The reason, apparently, was that she was jealous of his wife. In the years since, Abe has been memorialized in what are referred to as her “confessions,” transcribed in interview format by renowned author Junichi Watanabe, as well as a number of films.

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Today, guro thrives in manga. Manga artist Suehiro Maruo’s torn faces and dangling eyeballs have earned him a dedicated fanbase of taboo aficionados. Inspired by a combination of early woodblock paints and Tanizaki’s sexualized horror, manga artist Kazuichi Hanawa illustrates epic stories of brain consumption and ruthlessly violent women. After spending time in prison, Hanawa’s manga began to focus on the theme of incarceration (later turned into a live action movie). Shintaro Kago’s “fashionable paranoia,” as it’s been called, has been published in dozens of volumes. Young girls in pastel clothes are often decapitated or sliced into pieces, their mouths still smiling. In other cases, women look bemused as monsters emerge from their insides. Kago was interviewed by VICE in 2008:

“Basically, it’s a question of how many variations of stories I can come up with that revolve around shit and sex. It’s so fucking difficult,” Kago told VICE. “Shit and sex are merely the starting points, and unless you can tick those off you can’t even begin thinking about a narrative. And I do try to feature sweet young girls as the main characters. That’s about it.”

“I don’t think my manga is all that popular with the readers, though,” he added.

Shintaro Kago

Now that he’s got FlyLo’s name behind him, Kago’s art is catching on in the states and paving the way for other guro artists to spread their work to America. Maeda, the “Tentacle Master,” is currently Kickstarting a remastering of his erotic horror manga Urotsukidoji - Legend of the Overfiend. 24 hours after the campaign began, it had already raised $25,000, half of its goal.

Considering cult renown for barely watchable movies along these themes, guro’s marriage of violence and erotica must somehow resonate on a broader level. Films like The Human Centipede and Teeth, both about violently punishing sexually transgressive behavior, boast substantial followings. Everyone saw or heard of “Two Girls, One Cup.” What does this say about is aside from, “Americans really are suckers for shock value?”

Suehiro Maruo

Art historian Jessica Pepper, whom I saw giving the lecture “An Examination of Body Horror in Japanese Animation” at New York’s Morbid Anatomy Museum, told me that horror often reflects cultural fears that fluctuate with the broader political and social gestalt: “In the McCarthy era, it’s giant bugs or aliens. That’s the idea that another entity will come over and destroy us. In the ‘90s, we got serial killers in American horror. Now, we see blatant acts of physical depravity, mixing sex, violence and death, all taken to the extreme. With the internet, it’s very easy to see violence, sexuality, especially kink — the question is, What’s the worst thing we can do to ourselves?”

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Violence and sex have been around much longer than the internet. Our connected age has certainly increased their visibility. Guro is considered art, gaudy and violent proclivities and all; and its creative lineage traces back much farther than the sort of violent internet porn with which it is often associated. It will be interesting to watch so challenging a style rise in prominence in the West, if that is indeed where it’s going: Why the fixation on birthing and womb destruction? Why are women so often the targets of the most brutal maimings? What anxieties are these artists really exploring? And how disgusting can an illustration be and still get featured on an album cover? Assuming guro continues its steady cultural ascent, we may soon find out.