[NSFW] Guro: The Erotic Horror Art of Japanese Rebellion

Toshio Saeki, Yarai, 1972

In the deranged world of ero guro nansensu, the stranger and grosser an illustration, the more prized it is. Common tropes of the 1930s-born Japanese artistic and literary movement include erotic asphyxiation (based on a real-life case at the time), a samurai slicing up a bondaged girl, snakes with human heads, or a contortionist sucking out the eyes of a young boy, rendered in traditional woodblock printing technique. And these are just milder examples of the surreal and macabre grotesqueries that continue to influence contemporary Japanese artists, including Toshio Saeki, Takato Yamamoto, and Suehiro Maruo.

Suehiro Maruo interpretation of the erotic asphyxiation theme

Takato Yamamoto

toshio.pngToshio Saeki, Renrui, 1972

Not to be confused with pornography or horror, pure ero guro nansensu is distinctive in that it focuses on dark erotic fantasies paired with really disgusting things.The name is taken from the English words "erotic grotesque nonsense," and so blood and violent gore does not always necessarily feature in—a girl with ten eyeballs stuck in her genitals could be just as valid and incongruous. Back in the 1930s, these hand-drawn visuals were a response to the economic and political pressures that had begun to upbraid Japan’s party state. As the country turned increasingly militant, Japan’s already-long history and fascination with erotica thus became an intense exploration into the hedonistic, the sensationalist, the abnormal and taboo, reflecting not just newly-unearthed sensual desires but an eruption of extreme political change.

The genre continued to evolve over the years, and, like a Reddit thread, unraveled into dozens of sub-genres, seeping into literary, musical and cinematic spheres. Flying Lotus’ 2014 album You’re Dead! (courtesy of Shintaro Kago), manga and hentai anime—perverse sexual fantasies—all feature ero guro, the latter spiralling deeper into themes of rape, mutilation, necrophilia and pedophilia. Hints of ero guro even appear in American graphic novelist Charles Burns’ magnum opus, Black Hole. But are modern manifestations of the genre still a socio-political response to Japan? And how does an illustration compete, in terms of delivering a shocking message, with the high-tech hyperrealities available to us today?

Shintaro Kago, for Flying Lotus’ "Never Catch Me" single

One answer is that the hand-drawn or painted picture still tells a thousand words more than one rendered technologically. Currently, two of Japan’s biggest artists—Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara—are known for their non-hyperreal imageries, the former with his superflat postmodern movements and the latter with his roly-poly cartoon girls and pups. Both comment on Japanese society in this non-realistic way. (Art critic Roberta Smith cites the work as revealing an “ancient instinct for human portraiture that feels emotionally real but isn't realistic.”) The flat, unrealistic style of ero guro is a way for contemporary artists to dissect taboos, simultaneously shocking and normalizing the viewers’ perceptions. Toshio Saeki reveals fantastical S&M culture in his traditional woodcuts, with bondaged women having their breasts sliced off, while Takato Yamamoto’s blank-faced characters are intertwined with symbols of death, sex, and excess. No one really looks like they’re in extreme pain. Just like in other movements, like tentacle porn, the subjects in these images are either passively experiencing the abnormal as normal, enjoying the act, or cutely displeasured. In this way, the artists comment on humanity’s continued repression when it comes to acknowledging truly weird, sordid fantasies.   

These images could appear profoundly shocking to those unfamiliar with Asia and Japan’s long history of strange erotica, like the popular 1814 zoophilic woodcut The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. Japan celebrates taboos in these genres, which are safe artistic spaces for interpretations of what "gross" and "taboo" really mean. In this way, eru guro has just as much gravitas in Japan’s cultural tapestry as Robert Burns' bawdy poems in Scottish heritage, and political satire in France’s history of cartooning. It may be gross and dark, but look beyond the bleeding baby demons and snake penises and perhaps you’ll see a deeper critique of political movements and current reservations of social conventions.

Katsushika Hokusai, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, 1814

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Eimei nijūhasshūku, 1866-1867

Toshio Saeki, Nodakagawa, 1977

Suehiro Maruo, Haunted Mansion manga, 1990

Junji Ito, Uzumaki manga, 1998-1999

Toshio Saeki will present a solo show in Ontario’s Narwhal Contemporary in January 2016. To view more of his works, click here.

To view more of Takato Yamamoto’s works, click here.

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