“Everything is gory. Everything is gory. Everything is gore ”… The words of recent title of Lous and the Yakuza ring in our ears at the sight of Toshio Saeki’s erotic-thanatic illustrations. Split bodies, atrophied limbs, dysmorphic sexes: the scenes tense the body and disturb the gaze, questioning morality. Why are we so uncomfortably drawn to these brutal visions? The mixture of horror and eroticism is not however new in Japanese art, why is it always so explosive? A look back at some hellish postures that the master of Ero Guro loved to sketch, a Japanese artistic movement that is at the very least unsettling …
Toshio Saeki (佐伯 俊男) is a Japanese painter born in 1945 in Miyazaki Prefecture and sadly passed away just before the coronavirus wave, in November 2019. Saeki-san’s painting inherits several artistic traditions. The most striking influence is that of Shunga, these traditional erotic illustrations very widespread during the Tokugawa period (徳 川 時代, l ‘), also called Edo (江 戸 時代) (1603-1868). Of course, these refined sketches to pornographic character which featured newlyweds, courtesans or couples of the same sex, mainly circulated in the underground. Their value was so important thata single erotic print could nourish its creator for several months. They have also ended up becoming rare with the appearance of suggestive photograph, at the beginning of the Meiji era (1868-1912). The work of Toshio Saeki will have thus, one could say, largely contributed to give a second life to this deeply striking artistic heritage.
The contemporary master however reinvents the genre by mixing other inspirations, as a gore and nightmarish dimension come straight from Japanese hellish beliefs. So he dedicates a good part of his paintings to the obscenity of Yokai and other terrible supernatural spirits. Between their claws, humans have been perverted, are having fun, or are in the process of being sacrificed.
It is therefore no surprise that his work has become a benchmark of the Ero Guro (エ ロ グ ロ). This artistic and literary Japanese movement simply associating, since 1930, explicit sexuality and gory elements. If the style obviously recalls the ancient Shunga, the origin of Ero Guro would be more broadly multicultural: one could not, indeed, evoke its features without thinking of dutch vanities from the beginning of the 17th century or to the texts of Marquis de Sade (1740-1814).
To better understand these intertwining of erotic-macabre traditions and what the Japanese find fascinating there: let’s go beyond the discomfort, to visit the dens of the human being, like spectral hell… Here are 5 of the most disturbing works of the master trash, in as many themes.
# 1 Pleasure and death.
Toshio Saeki’s work is rich in meaning and symbols and cannot lend itself to a rigid interpretation. However, we recognize him a lively style on hot themes as about the tension between death and sexuality. Here, voyeurism of middle age, excluded and shy, but well and truly present, makes the main scene all the more disturbing : this is a couple whose pleasure seems obvious, within an embrace quasi-necrophile. The apparent skeleton of the woman suggests that she is half-alive, half-dead or, perhaps, that she embodies a feminine and deceptive Yokai.
Of course, the report sexuality / death, one of the most famous, has been largely wrung out by philosophy. Vision shintoist could however shed more light on the attractiveness of the Japanese public for this pair: on the one hand, carnal pleasures, separated from those of the spirit, are quite valued there. On the other hand, however, the dead body is seen as messy and unclean. That two such antinomic visions of anatomy coexist with such proximity within one and the same tradition inevitably pushes the imagination to clash them: inert skeleton conspired and living flesh respected. The temptation is all the greater than in Japan, sexuality is less taboo. Perhaps this freedom of tone is paradoxically amplified by a society which, under pressure, sometimes censored and whose pornographic cinema is blurred, generates frustrations and potential excesses? Nuance always : all countries are more or less eager to incongruous fantasies, even unthinkable, but not all societies expose its contours in the same way. Japan certainly has this very unique way of symbolizing its fantasies.
# 2 Seduction and Gore.
Seduction, this game of eliciting attention, attraction or affection of others. In this scene, he is explicit: sidelong glances, honeyed smiles, sensual postures. It could even be a literal interpretation of the usual “To run after”, “Run” or “follow me, I run away from you”. Or the gore, what is anglicism? It is essentially assimilated to cinematic genre. Japan is also keen on it and excels at exercise ! But gore means above all ” blood ” in English. Not the one that runs through your veins (blood), but the one that gushes out of it: a kind of blood that would not be in its place. A bloodthirsty vision, in short.
Also, is it one of Toshio Saeki’s strengths to have been able to emphasize, not without humor, this fragility of the body full of red blood cells and so easy to self-cut. In particular by a striking contrast of flat areas: colors greedy and lively (pink, sky blue and yellow) are like this stained with red puddles, because of the numerous purple bursts generously ligamentous. The immaculate fundoshi the troublesome suicidal man is, moreover, also affected. Unlike the young girl, innocent and light. The whole thing, of course, is more spied on by a third party, a kind of supernatural and perverse monster housed in a mirror. As to night background, this total and infinite darkness, it is no less worrying.
This kind of skillful compositions, between psychedelia and finesse (in looks, postures, exchanges), allows doubt: is it a nightmare? It would be reassuring, because unreal, but terrifying at the same time of inconceivable possibilities.
# 3 Sex and Mother.
Severed head of the nursing mother while swallowing the ear of the innocent and worried son: a poetry that would give a hard time to Freudian followers. Breastfeeding is common in Japan and is rather present in public spaces. Sure, women can use capes, but overall they are comfortable with their nudity and are displayed once in one of the many dedicated baby rooms. The reference therefore seems to come from the social landscape.
A feeling of unease, however? It’s normal. The theme of motherhood, rather alive, is associated with a rather soft palette: a candy pink, blue, a multicolored toy. But red and black rivers absorb us towards an anxiety-provoking vanishing point and swallow the few bursts of bright colors. To feelings empty space, abyssal nothingness and infinite loneliness, aroused by the background is added a vampiric, ghostly dissonance, between saturated decor and feminine pallor. Finally, the borders of incest, always as untenable as they are embarrassing, are thus transcended by the art of Toshio Saeki which does not spare us.
# 4 Vulva and fishmonger
This illustration of a different kind, rather fun, suggests a comic book insert. We would almost be fooled by its dynamic composition, its graphic features and its retro-pop tones. There is however one of the comparisons the most raw in terms of sexuality: that relating to molluscs and crustaceans. Marine viscosity is a recurring theme to designate genitals or the work of flesh. It is also very present in many Asian works. We could thus refer to one of the central scenes of Miss, the South Korean film Park Chan-wook released in 2016, interfering in the secrets of a house of wealthy Japanese settlers from the 1930s. A room seems to keep a giant mollusk, the object of violent fantasies.
The octopus or the tentacled octopus metaphorize, among other things, the penetration by an agile, precise member, even by several. The reference to molluscs is all the more used as it exacerbates the imagination of viscous, clammy, humid and odorous. In other words: exchanges of bodily fluids.
The runny fish greedily eat their alter egos in sushi, in a dripping taste orgy. And, this time, no blood, but severed limbs and sticky metamorphoses with whitish secretions. A difficult vision of the sexual appetite towards impotent women, reduced to simple objects of consumption.
# 5 Sexuality and Old Age
Nothing beats a unfortunate discovery to sow confusion in the spirits. Is it the young girl who surprised this elderly couple in their relationship or the two old lovers who thought they saw a young girl taking pleasure from theirs? Once again, Toshio Saeki is disturbing.
Besides a mustard yellow pigmented although slightly harsh, the sketch this time is much more muffled, dull and dusty. What give the whole an atmosphere uncomfortably intimate and vicious. Would it have been better not to attend this game of hide and seek ? The art of directing all the essence of unease and perversion, with as much accuracy, could well explain that one does not regret anything.
To get a clear idea of the tormented spirit that animates Toshio Saeki, we will finally be content to observe this selection of inextricable works without commenting on them.
To finish this journey as libertine as it is terrible, let’s leave in an abruptly subtle way with the trailer for the animated series Love, Death + Robots produced by David Fincher and Tim Miller. The American origin of the project offers the opportunity to recall that the attraction for the erotic-gore is not specific to Japanese. However, many designers often dedicate their creations to a tradition that has indeed unfolded more freely on the archipelago : ” It was obvious to us that we wanted to pay tribute to Japanese animation from the 80s-90s like Akira, Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D, Wicked City ” recalls the Studio La Cachette, at the origin of “Un Vieux Démon”, one of the short of the series.
Finally, the question remains open: are these stylized overflows an artistic and cathartic reflection of our nature or rather, do they encourage our societies to be inspired by them, with the traumatic consequences that this can have, in particular on women?
Sharon H. & Mr Japanization