Re-evaluating Ero Guro

For my Ethnographic study, I have decided to choose the art style of Ero Guro, which is wasei-ego (Japanese combination/shortening of English words) of the words erotic grotesque. Beginning in Japan in the 1930’s, it was an art movement dedicated to depravity, usually depicting scenarios of extreme violence and sexual hedonism. While influenced by earlier styles such as Shunga and Muzan-e, it was informed by the beckoning nihilism of a nation between world wars and also influence from other modernist movements worldwide. From its original proliferation in the 30’s, it has continued to influence both Japanese and non-Japanese media up until present day.

Looking into the history of the style, it began in the wake of mass censorship and greater control of the media by government bodies. In post WW1 Japan, there was a strong push for greater family values and wholesomeness that was being pushed through propaganda and mainstream media. Ero-guro itself appeared as an underground movement pushing against these notions, one that in its progressive stance has been likened to the similar Weimar period in Berlin by writer Ian Buruma. Considering the trauma caused by the war, and that contemporary art styles such as Modernism were beginning to pervade the world, people began craving a more deviant and hedonistic side to life. As Mclelland, M (2015) points out, “Through this genre, Japanese readers were ‘introduced to the new kinds of pleasures, passions, anxieties, and exhaustions elicited by modern capitalism in Japan’s metropolitan sites’ (Driscoll 2010: 153).”

Interestingly enough, one of the stories that Ero Guro has become most typified by was a real life one. The Sada Abe incident, occurring in 1936, involved a woman erotically asphyxiating her husband and then proceeding to castrate him, the evidence of which she carried around in her Kimono as a trophy. This was a story so steeped in grotesque sexuality and brutal violence that it became canonised within the Ero Guro movement in several books, plays, films and manga. Unfortunately, due to the suppressive nature of censorship in Japan of this period, there are limited surviving accounts of the period during its awakening. One example of media from this time was the writings of Edogawa Rampo and specifically his works The Caterpillar (1934) and The Human Chair (1925). These short stories dealt with elements of body horror, grotesque sexuality, young chaste women, and went on to become canonised works of the ero-guro pantheon.

It wasn’t until Allied Forces intervened after World War Two that Japanese media was once given the artistic freedom to once again pursue more fringe-dwelling/left field notions of sexuality once more. This resulted in, according to Dower, J (1999), “a commercial world dominated by sexually oriented entertainments and a veritable cascade of pulp literature.” As a result, the rather limited world of Ero-guro was now allowed to flourish greater than before resulting in it spreading to all new forms of media such as cinema. Some of the more well known films to come under the term include Horrors of Malformed Men (1969) and Blind Beast (1969). While Japanese filmmaking had existed for the majority of the 20th century, it wasn’t until the 60’s where arthouse films started being produced with the subcategory of “pink” films emerging which usually consisted of softcore pornographic material. This allowed for younger, creative, and more progressive voices to start emerging. Both films mentioned previously had much in common with the Ero-guro movement while mixing them with emerging avant-garde techniques more common with arthouse films from Europe. This saw the original defining traits of Ero guro becoming more diversified and becoming something more than the original authors had envisioned.

This was also occurring within the manga world with the growth of more adult orientated comic books coming into fashion in the 1980’s. Two artists emerged with thematic material borrowed straight from Ero guro, Suehiro Maruo and Takato Yamamoto. Maruo’s work deals with notions of nationalist tragedy (war crimes, atrocities) and couples them with imagery lifted from hammer horror films (vampires, mummies) to create this parallel between them that contains a great deal of comment on Japans history. He also created a work that is considered another defining work in the neo-ero guro pantheon, Midori. Concerning a young orphaned girl being adopted by a travelling circus of freaks, the titular girl is plunged into a world of grotesque imagery and violence. Considering the fact that it is also set in the 20’s/30’s makes it an obvious nod to the period which ero guro was birthed. While originally a manga, it was also adapted into an anime movie by Maruo himself, a self-produced effort that took five years to complete. Yamamoto’s work more draws inspiration aesthetically from Ukiyo-e prints while still depicting scenes of deranged sexual encounters, usually involving young men appearing emotionally listless and distant.

Ero guro is an enduring inspiration within Japanese popular culture, showing a great impact on J-horror, manga, and even the art world. I hope to further investigate this further and better understand the motivations involved as well. I feel that I have only skimmed the surface of a much deeper phenomenon that I’m excited to further investigate.

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