Last week I checked out the latest lecture from The Black Museum presented by Toronto-based visual artist and filmmaker Jennifer Linton.
So, naturally Linton began the lecture by breaking down the meaning of Ero Guro (short for Ero guro nansensu which translates as erotic grotesque nonsense) for which she described as “a cultural phenomenon that devoted itself to explorations of the deviant, the bizarre, and the ridiculous.”
Using a scene from Sion Sono's 2005 film Strange Circus, she pointed out the three main themes that permeate Ero Guro,
-deviant representation of gender and sexuality
-violence, either overt or suggested
-underpinnings of absurdity and humor
Following that, Linton laid out a brief history of early twentieth century Japan that ushered in an environment that gave birth to the Ero Guro. After Tokyo was decimated after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, women joined the workforce to help the rebuild. This, of course, gave way to whole new attitude and, as Linton put it; “it was within this atmosphere of social freedom and modern pleasures that the Erotic Grotesque was born.”
Linton then went on the introduce the most influential figure in Ero Guro, writer Edogawa Ranpo (Tarō Hirai, 1894-1965). He was a writer of mystery fiction and inspired by the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe – you may notice his pen name sounds quite like the latter. In the 1930's, his works began leaning more toward Ero Guro and over the years many of his stories have been adapted. As Linton explained;
“He was known for mystery stories that incorporated elements of the fantastic, the provocative and the disturbed. They have an ability to unsettle and delve deeply into a fear of the unknown that all humans share.”
Linton's favourite tale of Ranpo's was one called The Human Chair. It's a bizarre tale about a chair maker who builds a secret compartment for himself into one of his creations to facilitate his fetish of having ladies sit on his lap.
It was made into the above pictured manga by Junji Ito (of Uzumaki and Gyo fame), although it has also been represented in more overtly sexual ways, as well.
Linton showcased five films that best illustrated the genre, the first of which was 1969's Horrors of Malformed Men by Teruo Ishi.
She did her best to lay out a synopsis;
“This film is best described as avant garde theatre meets an exploitation film. It's a hodgepodge of at least four Rampo stories, including the Human Chair, as well as H.G. Well's novel The Island of Dr. Moreau and its 1932 adaptation Island of Lost Souls. Describing the plot of this movie is a near impossible task... but I will tell you that the story begins with a young doctor named Hirosuke (Teruo Yoshida) who suddenly finds himself in an asylum. The story also involves almost three murders, circus performers, flashbacks, topless girls, snakes, more topless girls and Hirosuke's mysterious double named Genzaburô”
That sounds like one hell of a movie. But the most striking thing I noticed was the performance of Tatsumi Hijikata as the Dr. Moreau character, Jôgorô Komoda. Hjikata was not an actor, but a trained performer and it is fairly obvious that his performance influenced the J-horror genre that would emerge three decades later.
|Tatsumi Hijikata in The Horrors of Malformed Men.|
One cannot see Hjikata in this film and not think of Sadako in Ringu and Kayako in Ju-on. It was really interesting to see.
Next up was Hiroshi Harada's animated film Midori from 1992.
Mostly due to problems with Japanese censors, it is pretty hard to find, only available on DVD through a small French distributor. As Linton explained;
“Due to the controversial nature of the content, Harada was unable secure investors for the project, thus he financed and worked on the fifty-two minute film alone, creating all of the artwork over a five-year period using the technique of cell animation. Midori is a faithful adaptation of Suehiro Maruo's manga Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show.”
Midori is a relentlessly bleak tale about a flower girl, who after being orphaned, becomes the sex slave of a band of circus performers. This trailer (for a past Cinefamily screening) below should give you an idea of the extreme perversity within.
The third film was Nagisa Ôshima's 1976 film, In The Realm of the Senses.
The movie is based on the Sada Abe Incident in 1936 Tokyo. Abe was a waitress who strangled her lover to death, cut off his penis and testicles and proceeded to carry them around in her purse. Wow, THAT'S where that phrase came from? She was subsequently arrested and convicted of second-degree murder and mutilation of a corpse.
|Sada Abe shortly after her arrest.|
After serving five-years of a six-year sentence, she was released. That may seem a little odd, but Linton offered compelling evidence as to why her sentence was so light;
“Pre-war writings such as Sada Abe's 1937 psychological diagnosis took her as an example of the dangers of unbridled female sexuality and a threat to the patriarchal system. In the post War era however, she was treated as a critic of Tokyo's totalitarianism and a symbol of freedom from oppressive political ideologies.”
The fourth film was Yasuzô Masumura's 1969 film, Blind Beast.
Based on one of Ranpo stories, Linton gave a pretty accurate synopsis;
“A psychopathic blind sculptor disguises himself as a massage therapist in order to gain access to young women. He sadistically murders and dismembers his victims using their body parts to make strikingly realistic sculptures. In the film, the many women are reduced down to one and the filmmaker maintains the blindness of the sculptor, but with a significantly less monstrous appearance than in the story to make him more sympathetic to the audience.”
Linton showed a lengthy clip of the film that was pretty awesome – you can see it here if you don't mind there are no subs – and though possibly inspired by Salvador Dali's set design in 1945's Spellbound, Blind Beast certainly added a visual flair largely absent from the other films I've seen with this storyline, such as H.G. Lewis' Color Me Blood Red (1965) and Santos Alcocer's Cauldron of Blood (1970). This still below should give you some idea of what you're in for.
The last film that Linton referenced was Kôji Wakamatsu's 2010 film Caterpillar.
Caterpillar tells the story of a lieutenant returned to his village after the war (now quadriplegic, deaf, dumb and disfigured) to much fanfare. His wife, whom he was previously abusive toward, is now expected to be his caretaker. Even though she is revolted by him, and gains a sense of power in his helplessness, she still feels compelled to fulfill his needs which, mirroring that of a caterpillar, are solely food and sex.
This was another adaptation of a Ranpo tale, one which was banned on its initial release in 1934 for its perceived anti-military sentiment. Wakamatsu embraces this in his film, using it as a critique of ultra nationalism.
The evening concluded with the sad announcement that this was to be the last Black Museum lecture at The Royal. Save for a screening of Dario Argento's Deep Red on 35mm next month, it appears that classes are now done. I'm optimistic that Andrea & Paul will be able to set up shop somewhere else, but I'll guess we'll just have to wait and see. It was a good run either way.