With news of the artist’s passing yesterday, we break down everything you need to know about his life and legacy
Mutilated genitalia, bondage, and beatiality are all words that come to mind when imagining the transgressive work of Toshio Saeki, whose surrealist, fetishistic, and often Freudian explorations of violence and sex earned him the title, the Godfather of Japanese Erotica.
A true artist of the underground, Saeki, who passed away at the age of 74 yesterday (January 15), moved to Tokyo during the halcyon of the city’s sex scene in the 1970s. It was here, amidst the post-war spirit of cultural rebellion and social revolution, that the 24-year-old began to develop his explicit yet playful approach to sexual taboo, characterised by vivid depictions of tentacle porn, mutilated mermaids, vagina-picking crows, and more.
Often featuring references to traditional forms of Japanese erotic woodblock art, samurais, and the second wave of ero guro (erotic gore), an artistic movement that focuses on themes of eroticism and sexual corruption, Saeki – whose work was a favourite among BDSM magazines – peered into the darkest corners of the human psyche to build his subjects, which he based on childhood nightmares, scenes from his everyday life imprinted on his photographic memory, the stars of 'Ginei' movies and western comics.
The result is terrifyingly Freudian: a woman slicing her breast into a kneeling man’s mouth; a four-headed beast assaulting a girl while a child looks on. It’s (literally) what nightmares are made of, and the images toy with the onlookers deepest desires, fantasy, and brutality.
Last time we spoke to him in 2013, the artist was approaching 70, living somewhere in a remote Japanese mountain village. “Leave other people to draw seemingly beautiful flowers that bloom within a nice, pleasant-looking scenery,” he said. “I try instead to capture the vivid flowers that sometimes hide and sometimes grow within a shameless, immoral and horrifying dream.”
To commemorate his tragic passing, here’s everything you need to know about Toshio Saeki.
HE COMBINES OLD AND NEW
Saeki’s extreme, controversial artworks have their roots in both modern and ancient practises. Combining elements of traditional jidaigeki samurai films and yakuza B-movies, his images have a deeply violent yet comical quality, which is common amongst Japanese cinema. Stylistically, they draw on the macabre, sexual grotesque of ero guro (erotic gore), as well as ancient shunga prints (Japanese erotic woodblock art).
The influence of shunga can best be seen through the recurring image of a secret voyeur in Saeki’s work. This peeking onlooker seems somewhat removed from its erotic surroundings, acting as a disruptive component, removed from the surreal ongoings of the artist’s fantastical world. “The appearance of a third person makes the scene more dramatic, whether one likes it or not. By having an onlooker peeping at a secret act, that gives the scene more meaning, and makes the picture more fun,” he told us in 2013.
HE USED IMAGES FROM HIS DREAMS
Saeki never used models or source imagery, preferring instead to pluck images from his subconscious, images inspired by his childhood nightmares and memories of everyday life. “All of it comes from my imagination, although sometimes I use photos or references to check the details like patterns on the lining of a kimono, etc. But overall the picture is all from my head,” he said.
HE MADE ALBUM ART FOR JOHN LENNON AND YOKO ONO
Despite his meteoric success within the Japanese underground (he believed that operating in the underground made it easier to execute his boldest visions), Saeki remained on the fringes of mainstream recognition. In 1972, however, he designed the cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album Sometime in New York City. In the years to come, he exhibited at galleries in Japan and Paris but, for the most part, kept a low profile. By the early 2000s, he’d only left Japan once.
“The appearance of a third person makes the scene more dramatic, whether one likes it or not” – Toshio Saeki
HE DREW MUTILATED CREATURES
One of the most striking characteristics of Saeki’s work is his uncomfortable depictions of (mostly female) mutilation. Think a girl walking through a river of decapitated heads; lovers cutting each other with knives; a woman cutting open her own breast; a man peeling open a woman’s brain as she’s tied in shibari knots, kinda levels. Interestingly, his subjects seem devoid of pain. When asked about this, he said: “Depicting the character’s faces without pain or suffering brings out the effect of the unusual and extraordinary.”