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Suehiro Maruo
Suehiro Maruo

The erotic Japanese art movement born out of decadence

Ero guro nansensu translates as ‘erotic grotesque nonsense’ and was groundbreaking for its fascination with the perverse and the bizarre – today its legacy lives on

Ero guro nansensu, or ero guro for short, is not only a literary and artistic movement, but an attitude and a philosophy. It was the poltergeist of ‘20s and ‘30s Japan’s snarling, restless hedonism, a manifestation of its fascination with the erotic, the perverse, the corrupt, and the bizarre. It’s not horror or pornography, although it can contain those elements it often provides searing social commentary and it’s much easier to exemplify than explain. Common refrains are bondage, mutilation, and monstrosity — often at the same time.

The movement’s defining moment was 1936’s Abe Sada Incident, when a failed geisha-turned-prostitute strangled her lover to death during sex, cut off his genitals, and carried them around in her kimono. One of its most famous short stories, written by ero guro godfather Edogawa Ranpo, involves a deaf, mute, and dumb quadriplegic war veteran whose wife is duty-bound to act as his nursemaid and sex slave until she snaps and tortures him. It’s called The Caterpillar.

Today, Western audiences will best recognize ero guro in Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! album, whose cover and liner notes are covered with exploding faces, defecting spinal cords, and auto-vivisecting babes by ero guro artist Shintaro Kago. The movement continues to thrive in Japanese art and film, as well as pockets of international pop culture like American Mary and Moebius. We celebrate its indelible cultural impact with a look at its history.

IT WAS A FORM OF RESISTANCE AND SOCIETAL CRITIQUE

Japan in the ‘20s was always high, the kind induced only by modernity gone off the rails. The country had survived both the Russo-Japanese War and WWI. It was now sandwiched between the nationalist, patriarchal, and aggressively industrialized late Meiji period and the conservative, repressive, and militarist Showa period. Here, the Taisho period ran on social unrest, reckless consumerism, and increased Westernization. The culturati had a hell of a time playing with decadence and radicalism; literature, art, film, mass media, and higher education flourished. One avant-garde artist group distributed a magazine with firecrackers attached to the cover, declaring “One should demand revolution as one demands alcohol and fulfillment of sexual desire.”  

Ero guro had found its perfect breeding ground. Audiences devoured stories about weirdos indulging in erotic cannibalism, sprinkling body parts like breadcrumbs all over Tokyo, and pulling a Moreau-Mengele to "rid Japan of healthy people and fill it with freaks." Historians disagree on why. Was it an exploration of their brand-new sexual, moral, and intellectual freedom? A massive fuck you to state-sanctioned values? A satire of Westernization run amok? All three? As one era bled into the next and the state cracked down on what it perceived to be a festering immorality caused by radical leftists, ero guro became an even darker and more nihilistic form of countercultural resistance. “The Japanese revere this guy called the Emperor, but why do they? Such an emperor should be beaten to death, roasted, and eaten dipped in soy sauce,” read a piece of 1940 graffiti documented by historian Miriam Silverberg.

IT DOCUMENTED A LIBERATION OF WOMEN

In its heyday, ero guro accompanied the explosion of a new youth culture made up of mobo (modern boys) and moga (modern girls) who embraced countercultural Western values and fashions. The moga, with her short bob and long legs, was the Japanese flapper. Like the flapper, she did not consider herself political but was inherently politicized; she was respectable Japan’s scapegoat for the Western corruption of traditional values. She smoked, she shopped, she fucked as she pleased. She languished in European-style cafes and movie theaters. She was completely sexually liberated and financially independent. With the first women’s university opening in 1918, the moga could be anything, from a journalist to a dancer to a typist. But the most moga job of all was the café waitress, who served up sex alongside comestibles to patrons of her choosing.

The most famous café waitress was the titular fille fatale of controversial novel Naomi, about an older man’s plan to groom a 15-year-old girl into his child bride using Western values, which backfires and results in him becoming her cuckolded slave. The moga haunted ero guro literature as both a sympathetic character and a head on a stick for too-Westernized girls, alternating between vengeful, empowered, emasculating, victimized, objectified, and righteously punished in the works of male authors. She also appeared in the work of female critic and author Ozaki Midori, who gave a fiercely feminist slant to the sometimes misogynist genre.

IT SPARKED QUEER VISIBILITY IN THE MEDIA

Ero guro can also be retconned as an early form of genderfuck, an attack on stuffy conservatives by countercultural provocateurs. The “ero” part of “ero guro nansensu” stood for much more than just “the erotic” — it also encompassed cross-dressing, gender non-conformity, and queer sexuality. Although homosexuality was inherently portrayed as deviant, or hentai, in ero guro by nature of the genre, interpretations of ero guro fluctuate between the condemnation and celebration of deviance. Edogawa Ranpo, for example, featured homosexuality prominently in one of his stories, played often with gender and sexuality, and later published a book on queer history.

Either way, ero guro sparked the first wave of media interest in queer sexuality, wrote sociologist Mark McLelland. It was the first time the media talked about lesbian desire at length and as equivalent to gay male desire. And although mainstream papers mainly featured negative, sensationalist portrayals of lesbian relationships gone wrong, some famous lesbian writers wrote publicly about their relationships.

ITS LEGACY EXTENDS FAR BEYOND ITS TIME AND PLACE

Ero guro comes in waves. To thrive, it needs three ingredients: war, protest, and Westernization. In the 1860s, woodblock artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s violent and explicit “Bloody Prints” catapulted him to fame. Japan at the time was wracked by civil war that would later lead to a regime change, modernization and Western influence, and a form of protest called eijanaika that involved crazed dancing, cross-dressing, nudity, and mob violence. Ero guro returned in the 1960s in the form of horror and pink, or pornographic, films. The ‘60s were feverish and disillusioned, reeling from World War II and thrust into U.S. military occupation during the Vietnam War, increasingly Westernized, and swept along by huge protests.

Perhaps the alignment of these circumstances, replacing Westernization with consumerism, provided a hotbed for Western ero-guro to rear its uncanny head: David Cronenberg’s post-Vietnam media satire Videodrome, Cold War treatise on individualism Dead Ringers, and post-Cold War J.G. Ballard adaptation Crash. The vicious American Psycho, published in 1991 and set in a consumerist and superficial ‘80s. 1987’s ennui-and-hedonism-lampooning Hellraiser. Chuck Palahniuk’s short story Guts, released less than three years after 9/11, a slow-mo car crash of sexual repression and deviance that climaxes with a gory masturbation accident.

Today, ero guro artists like Suehiro Maruo, Junji Ito, and Takato Yamamoto continue to skewer Japanese society with their portraits of bondage and blood, sex and death, violence and pain. As the objectively apocalyptic 2016 comes to a close, perhaps they ought to do the rest of us as well.