Ero Guro Nansensu in Manga [NSFW]

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Hey everyone! It’s October, and the weather here is finally cooling down. I, of course, have been replaying my favorite horror video games and listening to industrial metal. In honor of this spooky month, I want to go over one of my favorite artistic movements: ero guro nonsense and its connection to manga.

Ero guro nonsense (or ero guro nansensu) spans a wide variety of Japanese media, from theater and manga to film and music. The name comes from “erotic grotesque nonsense,” the “grotesque” part being what confuses people the most: those living in the West often interpret “guro” to mean “gore.” In actuality, ero guro (エログロ) doesn’t necessarily include depictions of gore, it means the unsettling and the disturbing.

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's Eimei nijūhasshūku (Twenty-eight famous murders with verse, 1867)


Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s Eimei nijūhasshūku (Twenty-eight famous murders with verse, 1867)

Chances are high that you’ve stumbled upon some sort of ero guro in your time on the internet. The always popular “tentacle porn” is an offshoot of ero guro but became so popular that it practically separated from the movement and became its own genre.

While ero guro is believed to have come into existence in the 1930s, it is inspired by much earlier art forms, such as muzan-e (無残絵) from the late Edo and Meiji periods (the mid-1800s). These were woodblock prints depicting excessive violence. There are very few true muzan-e in existence, and all are by two artists: Utagawa Yoshiiku and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.

At its core, ero guro was born as a form of resistance. As Evelyn Wang of Dazed Digital puts it, in the 1920s, “the country had survived both the Russo-Japanese War and WWI. It was now sandwiched between the nationalist, patriarchal, and aggressively industrialized late Meiji period and the conservative, repressive, and militarist Showa period.” What resulted was an explosion of the erotic and the strange, for reasons historians can’t quite agree on. Wang’s article goes into great detail about what the ero guro movement was all about, so I highly recommend it.

I want to deviate from the history and talk about its impact on the manga industry by highlighting three famous manga artists.

Suehiro Maruo

Suehiro Maruo is my personal favorite ero guro artist, so I’m excited to have the chance to write about him. I even dressed up as Midori, the main character from his work Shoujo Tsubaki (少女椿), for Halloween last year.

Suehiro Maruo
Suehiro Maruo

Speaking of Shoujo Tsubaki, let’s get into the origin of the Midori character. Shoujo Tsubaki, literally “Camellia Girl,” was a stock protagonist of kamishibai (紙芝居), a form of theatrical storytelling, in the early Showa period. She is a symbol of the loss of innocence, going from a poor girl selling camellias to being bought off the street and forced into a theatrical routine.

Suehiro Maruo’s interpretation of Shoujo Tsubaki is by far the most popular, made famous through his manga of the same name, which was released as Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show in English. Hiroshi Harada also made an animated film based on Suehiro Maruo’s interpretation, though it is not for the faint of heart (even I haven’t been able to sit down and watch it from start to finish, and I have a strong stomach).

Aside from reimagining kamishibai stories, Suehiro Maruo has made comic adaptations of various works by Edogawa Ranpo, a popular Japanese mystery writer, including The Strange Tale of Panorama Island and The Caterpillar, with the latter being one of my favorites.

Originally banned in 1939 for its content, The Caterpillar (芋虫 Imomushi) is a critique of right-wing nationalism following the second Sino-Japanese war and World War II. A soldier returns home deaf and mute, with a marred face and no limbs. Despite his condition, he continues to force sex upon his unwilling wife. It goes over difficult topics ranging from spousal abuse to what it means to be human. I won’t give away the ending; it’s definitely worth a read!

Suggested reading: Edogawa Rampo: Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination

Toshio Maeda

Toshio Maeda is considered the “Tentacle Master” for his works focusing on tentacle porn (he’s gone as far as to say he wants this inscribed on his tombstone). He is most well known for his work Urotsukidoji, or Legend of the Overfiend, which is credited with popularizing the genre of tentacle porn.

Urotsukidoji, Legend of the Overfiend
Cover of the English version of Toshio Maeda’s Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend

Urotsukidoji (超神伝説うろつき童子 Chōjin Densetsu Urotsukidōji) revolves around Jyaku, a beast-human hybrid who is exiled to Earth for crimes against “the Elder,” who tasks Jyaku with finding the Chojin, a demon God in the body of a man. There is an anime adaptation of Urotsukidoji as well, though it adds in even crueler elements than the manga itself has.

Maeda’s use of tentacles as an erotic device has an interesting backstory. In the past, showing genitals was against the law in Japan and would have resulted in censorship. Maeda worked around this by incorporating tentacles instead, arguing that since they weren’t penises, and that the creatures with tentacles don’t have genders, they could get by censors, as they didn’t fall under the category of “sex scenes” that were banned. 

There is evidence of the tentacle porn genre as far back as 1814, though. In The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife ( 蛸と海女, Tako to ama, Octopus and Shell Diver),  popular ukiyo-e artist Hokusai depicted a woman and two octopuses engaging in sexual intercourse. There are even some netsuke carvings, or miniature sculptures, that also depict cephalopods and nude women from the 17th century.

Suggested reading: Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend

Shintaro Kago

Shintaro Kago may be best known for his illustrations in the West, but his manga are absolutely haunting. Much of his work is satirical, and while he has also written manga without ero guro themes, those including these themes remain to be his most popular. From girls committing harakiri because it’s in style, to women starting collections of their aborted fetuses, to a woman with insects crawling beneath her skin, nothing seems to be off limits to Shintaro Kago.

Shintaro Kago for Flying Lotus
Shintaro Kago for Flying Lotus

One of my favorite comics by him is Abstractions. It starts off relatively normal, but quickly descends into madness. The panels became a rotating, three-dimensional world, becoming more and more disturbing as it turns. It consistently breaks the fourth wall with these panels, until there are multiple “cubicles” on the same page. It’s odd, it’s very NSFW, and I love it.

Shintaro Kago’s work served as the album art for Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead!, and he even designed illustrations for each song that appears on the album.

Suggested reading:Super-Dimensional Love Gun

I’ll cut myself off here before I go on and on endlessly. There are plenty more artists and manga I could go over, but I hope that this has sparked your interest enough that you feel motivated to go looking for some new ero guro artists yourselves! Enjoy the rest of this spooky season!

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