Japanese 'Gore Erotica' Is Slowly Catching On In The West [NSFW]

Shintaro Kago
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.

(Originally published 6/30/2016) 

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.

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!”.
Shintaro Kago’s album art for Flying Lotus’s “You’re Dead!”.
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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
Hokusai’s Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife
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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?

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.

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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
Suehiro Maruo
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 Kazuichi Hanawa
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
Shintaro Kago
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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?”

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Suehiro Maruo
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.

Senior reporter at Kotaku.

DISCUSSION

truculentsheep01
Redbrick Hellpigeon

Let me strike a sceptical note here - while guro was getting its literal and figurative freak on in the 20s, Japanese ultra-nationalism was gathering pace and spreading its tendrils like a cancer. As anyone who’s read what later happened at Nanking, to comfort women, millions of Chinese, Malaysian and Korean civilians, POWs and the poor bastards who ended up at Unit 731, depravity of a more literal kind was soon the order of the day, alongside mass rape, mutilation and cannibalism. Media doesn’t corrupt but it does confirm and reiterate the values of the society that produces it. Much like how serial killers first start getting their jollies off torturing animals, how many war criminals first pulled themselves off to Jun’ichiro Tanizaki? One could also mention all the serial killers who flogged dodgy Dōjinshi (fan manga) before doing to their victims what Imperial Japan did to Asia in the 1930s and 1940s.

That guro still does the rounds in Japan does not surprise me; it is another symptom of a society that refuses to properly deal with WW2 and its legacy. Instead, Japan leans towards whitewashing its traumas, emphasising its victimhood, as that corrupt bit of special pleading, Tombstones for Fireflies and a whole genre of lachrymose ‘We Was Victims Too!’ bullshit auto-apologia demonstrate. (This was perfectly summarised in the TV movie follow-up to Tombstones, where excuse after excuse was made for an evil, psychopathic bitch of an aunt, her worst excesses dusted under the carpet via appeals to victimhood and overlooking how she and others helped lead their country into ruin. In that sense, Aunty-Bastard is a perfect metaphor for Japan itself during the war and during the period of rebuilding/forgetting that followed.)

There are exceptions, of course. Barefoot Gen, while it outstayed its welcome, certainly did not pull any punches about Japan during the war, any more than it pulled punches over the horror of nuclear war. Hideshi Hino’s horror manga is as much about guilt, regret, shame and conscience as it is about damnation and diseased, rotting bodies. Go Nagai’s output is full of horror, rape, degradation and violence, but also a deep sense of heartbreak, conscience and a melancholy that betrays how his work has always held a mirror up to Japan itself. Maruo Suehiro’s Planet of the Jap leaves no doubts at all about how the loss of World War 2 may well have saved Japan’s soul, albeit only partly. Zipang takes the issue head on and without equivocation.

Nor can we say that the Japanese are completely in denial. Many are only too aware and honest about the past, even as equally large numbers try to draw a veil over it, or look the other way while dodgy politicians try to (quite literally) rewrite history in the form of schoolbooks. But in a country where guro rubs shoulders with out-and-out child pornography, it is still an... uneasy situation. Guro is a symptom of a deeper malaise, but it should not be celebrated precisely for that reason.

Arguably, it also blights the legacy of many mangaka - it’s hard to know if you should feel embarrassed, annoyed, betrayed or revolted by Hiroaki Samura’s ‘erotic’ snuff-art, even as you enjoy Blade of the Immortal; likewise, some of the more perverse moments of Osama Tezuka’s oeuvre leave a nasty stench in their wake. It’s not Japan’s problem - manga and anime are international phenomena now. Are you condoning this, or just looking the other way?

Sometimes, it’s hard not to wish you can just go to Japan, kick that octopus out of the bed, tell the otaku to stop being weird and just have a shag, for fuck’s sake. The big irony being, of course, that too much perversity can get in the way of the actual sex.