Author: theycott

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.

Encountering 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 up until present day.

My own personal first experience with the style was illustrator Suehiro Maruo’s gruesomely satirical works that filter atrocities of war through horror tropes and pop culture touchstones. I felt his work oddly compelling from the first moment I saw them in a very peculiar way. Being a major fan of western horror movies, seeing such representations of the creatures and tropes of these films obviously interested me. However, the jarring use of historical touchstones against these representations was definitely somewhat shocking. His pieces are definitely intended to illicit shocked responses as they deal with the more controversial aspects of history in a starkly aesthetical way.

Considering my initial response to such texts, my plan is to further investigate more artists working within the style of Ero Guro and similarly look at how their medium reflects their response to Japanese histories. I’ve chosen to first unpack the Ero Guro movement by making extensive research into literature on the movement itself. From here I will then be able to research the various artists and writers working within the movement and hopefully gain a greater understanding of the impetus of such work.

From these findings I hope to create a digital artefact that can be relied upon as a repository for information on the phenomenon as most information I have found on the subject has been sparse and somewhat obscurely located. Therefore, I think creating such an artefact is justifiable as it will be providing information to a relatively rare phenomenon. This artefact will likely be a tumblr or similar style website allowing for links, information, images and video for interested parties. Being a movement that expanded into several different mediums, utilising a website would be best to demonstrate this best. It would also be able to age-restrict access due to the explicit nature of some of the work being shown.

Some of my initial thoughts on investigating further into the Ero Guro subset of works included:

  • Considering this is work from many years ago, it is still pretty shocking
  • Blending of Japanese real world horrors against western medias fictional horrors
  • Seemingly radical even now
  • Obvious connections to manga and anime
  • Nudity used in a non-titillating way, more to further shock
  • Challenging common decency and social norms
  • Fantastical nature, use of supernatural elements/imagery
  • Never less than extreme

Relating Ero Guro to my own experience with western culture is worth noting as well as, in many ways, we don’t have anything as extreme as this. While the art world may have forays into such territory, none is done in such a deliberately pulpy way as in ero guro. Considering cartoons are the most pervasive element of the movement as well, the closest parallel I could draw (unintentional) would be the work of underground comic artists in the 70’s and 80’s. Figures like Robert Crumb, while pushing the comic form further into radical adult territory, still weren’t creating such extreme works as exhibited by artists such as Suehiro Maruo.

While it may have progressed to become more transgressive, it still took American underground comics a far longer time to reach the same level of absurd vulgarity present in ero guro from an early age. With my research, I hope to delve further into the reasons as to why the phenomenon became so and what the main impetus is behind such extreme works of art. I hope to branch further into the different medias of the culture as I’ve only witnessed the works of visual artists so far.

Revisiting ethnography

Revisiting my earlier post on the documentary on 100 yen arcades in Japan, I found myself relegating a lot of my own personal experience to my interpretation of the artefact and how my time in the country informed my viewing experience. This is obviously a somewhat limited perspective to approach it with as I only spent a limited amount of time there. In re-evaluating my own experience, in my earlier life I did spend plenty of time in arcades in my own hometown. However, after it having closed down some time ago, that is only a distant memory. One which is more closely associated with my childhood. Nowadays, in terms of co-operative gaming, it is usually playing splitscreen games on home gaming consoles and board games. Nowadays, in order to attend an arcade, I’d have to travel to Sydney which is a pretty long trip for something so seemingly casual.

Comparatively, in Japan, it remains such a bustling scene with many devoted players willing to spend large amounts of money on arcade machines. According to Takiguchi, 2016, the arcade industry hauls in 450 billion yen a year,” which equates to nearly 6 billion AUD. This is from 5,772 licensed arcades in Japan alongside 10,297 smaller gaming spaces located in malls and other consumer areas. Compared against Australia, we now have only 18 of the once popular Timezone arcades, with the odd cinema and tenpin bowling place having a few arcade machines in them. I think this largely stems from the obvious difference between our nations as demonstrated in the documentary.

While they were specifically referencing America in contrast, what they stated is just as relevant. Tokyo, and Japan more generally, is more densely populated. As a result, it made it easier for youth through to older fans to meet at video arcades in order to play gaming units recreationally. Being that the arcades were usually far closer to travel to makes it easier for younger people to frequent them as well. In Australia it would require you to be able to travel to these places which was usually a more arduous procedure.

In my research on the phenomenon I’ve found some interesting things about video arcades that the documentary didn’t touch on. A more recent article from website Kotaku reports on an arcade game that was seeing lineups when it was released earlier this year. One of the interesting parts about this was the fact that the game, Kantai Collection, began as a free to play game that then spread outwards to anime, manga, and a soon to be released movie. This is the kind of extended franchising that doesn’t really get rivalled in the western world outside of major movie franchises which may see merchandising and video games spun off from the film. However, these are almost always aimed at children and not nearly to the same extent as what is seen in Japan.

Extending on from the material in the documentary, a recent article by The Verge also explores how Japanese arcades remain just as popular as ever in Japan. Citing innovation, variety, and also offering something for everyone, the reasons given as to why the Arcade remains so popular in Japan in the documentary remain as true as ever. Given my own time within them, and the amount of money I dropped on Taiko No Tatsujin, I can certainly attest to that.


100 Yen for your thoughts

Entering this course, I felt as though I may have had something of an advantage over the coursework. I have held an interest in Asian culture for some time now, beginning from the first time I witnessed Pokémon on Cheez TV one early morning before primary school. Ever since then, my interest has proliferated out into other Anime series along with movies (Studio Ghibli), literature (Huraki Murakami), video games (Katamari Damacy) and various other strains. I’ve also had the excellent opportunity of visiting several Asian countries including South Korea and Japan in recent years. How does this impact my interpretation of Asian culture and the way I interact with it?

Being raised primarily in a western based society and being exposed to western media, my flirtations with eastern culture are exactly that, fleeting. Only when one can immerse themselves within the culture do they actively become a part of it I’ve found and nothing demonstrates this better than the documentary we watched in class today, 100 Yen: The Japanese arcade experience. The documentary is concerned with the fascination in Japan of 100 yen arcades and the kind of people that they contain. It involves several talking heads on the subject alongside footage of gaming tournaments, Japanese locations and the arcades themselves.

Having spent time in several of these arcades in my time in Japan, the documentary was not much of a culture shock for me. Having witnessed some of these die hard gamers in the flesh meant that the documentary was nothing new, however, speaking from a western perspective, I still found the behaviour fairly perplexing. A lot of the games many of these people were playing could be played at home on video game consoles for a much smaller price. Also, what was the end goal of taking part in these intense gaming sessions? It would seem that the sheer amount of hours put into these games would turn them into chores over entertainment for myself.

The documentary did well in illuminating the answers to these questions. The element of paying for these games made it more of a challenge as the gamers were wont to make the most of the money. Therefore the element of monetary loss was a means of spurring on the player to do their absolute best. I found this fascinating as (also mentioned in the documentary) arcades have become few and far in between in Australia with my local one disappearing many years back. This also tied in with my second question which was that it was about the community above all.

These people were so invested in these games as it became such an integral part of their personality through the time they spent in these places. As shown in the documentary, it was in these institutions that they found like-minded people to play against and fraternise with. The best way that I could liken it to my own lifestyle would be through my own musical endeavours. In being part of a band and making music, I become involved with like-minded people and frequent the kinds of places where these people congregate. While it may seem obsessive or banal to some outside of it, that doesn’t diminish my own attraction to it and I’m sure this is likely the case with these sorts as well.