“Eels, honey. eeeeeels” said Mae’s mother in Night in The Woods.
An eel restaurant was also where Sada Abe and Kichizo Ishida met. This illustration is also among my zines (which was one of the deliverables for my FYP).
In the next posts, I’ll be posting a few more illustrations from that project, having already done so in my previous post, Dofuku, but this post will aim to document the entirety of this colossal 11 month old undertaking that culminated in my exhibition at our graduation show (which cost me almost a thousand dollars and had me eating instant ramen for weeks).
First, my abstract:
My FYP centres around the instability, liminality and possible transcendence of bodies, and I will be exploring this through an experimental illustrated narrative that explores themes of the macabre, horror, the abject and the abhuman and extrapolates from the story of a murderess.
The work aims to explore the concept of monstrosity in a world of mundanity, creating a hyperbolic dystopia that brings to light the horrors of the everyday. Drawing from the sensational Sada Abe Incident that spurred the ero-guro-nansensu movement in 1930s Japan, the work is a experimental illustrated narrative that reinterprets hellish landscapes, situations and characters. Looking to themes of horror, macabre, monstrosity, the abhuman and studies in abjection, I look to explore surrealist and absurdist illustration while experimenting with the creation and curation of narratives in different forms, informing the experience.
This project draws motivation from my persisting interests in the folk stories, cultures and art history of Japan. I have often been privy to the dark, weird and absurd underbelly the seemingly starched and rigid society hides in plain view. Over the years (and over many essays I have written for the classes I have taken) I have come to realise my own inclination towards the dark. The tales of gothic fiction I devoured as a child — reading the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley and Anne Rice by torchlight after bedtime — spurred my proclivity towards the dark, grotesque and morbid. This FYP is thus a culmination of my interests, an aftermath or consequence of these years of scholarship into the weird.
The narrative of this project purports the journey of Sada Abe, the murderess at the centre of the sensational murder that rocked Japan in 1936. Employing an experimental approach, this illustrated narrative will look towards the creation of artefacts to inform a narrative curated environment aimed at highlighting the richness of subcultures and lore surrounding elements of the created dystopias.
On May 18, 1936, after a bout of rowdy lovemaking at the Masaki teahouse, Sada tightened her obi around Kichizo’s neck, strangling him. Erotic asphyxiation was commonplace in their relationship and Kichizo was quoted to have told Sada not to let go of her obi when asphyxiating him because it was “so painful afterward”, leading Sada to wonder if he wanted her to kill him, though she had thought he was joking. When Kichizo’s face swelled as a result of the asphyxiation, Sada had given him Calmotin tablets to relieve his pain, but dissolved the rest in water when he mentioned returning to his wife.
After strangling Kichizo as he slept, Sada cut off his genitalia, and wrapped them in a magazine cover, taking to the streets with a plan to eventually kill herself.
In the hours leading up to her would-be suicide, Sada treated herself to a shopping spree, and watched a movie, holding within her purse an eerie and macabre reminder of her dead lover. She was, supposedly, sentimental about the good times they had together.
“I took the part of him most dear to me — I wanted to make sure no other woman could have him.” she said.
Sada Abe was eventually found in an inn, expecting the police to turn up sooner or later, so amiable that no one believed her tale till she brandished Kichizo’s severed genitalia as proof. Media outlets pictured her smiling on camera with the police officers that arrested her.
This project incorporates themes of horror, macabre and the grotesque as well as undercurrents of violence, sex and hedonism. It also explores abhuman themes. To facilitate discourse of said themes and expedite understanding of relationships, a preliminary map was created for easy categorisation of my work scope and its highlights. As time went by and ideas were refined, the project took on a more concrete form and focus. As seen in Figure 2, the idea was to pursue the narrative of the Sada Abe Incident within the context of the ero-guro-nansensu movement.
Figure 2: Evolved Preliminary Idea Map
Figure 2 illustrates my foci and the multiplicities within the work. Narrowing down both an illustrative style and a narrative mode I looked towards multiple mediums and potential forms of this project, detailed later within my methodology and case study.
The Concept of the Abhuman
To understand the abhuman, one must first define the abject.
The abject is defined by Julia Kristeva to be the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other.1 Examples may include phlegm, body fluids and hair — these, lacking the context of their human host, bring up feelings of disgust and unease, evident in a later case study by Yobunoshi Araki.
It is argued, however, by Richard Barnett that “images made from (the dissection of the impoverished) portray not the abject but the abhuman2, a term coined by W. H. Hoddson in his works of Edwardian weird fiction and recently revived but the gothic scholars Kelly Hurley and David Punter. In literary studies of Gothic fiction, “Abhuman” refers to a “Gothic body” or something that is only vestigially human and possibly in the process of becoming something monstrous. Kelly Hurley writes that the “abhuman subject is a not-quite-human subject, characterized by its morphic variability, continually in danger of becoming not-itself, becoming other.” 3
The Grotesque in the Context of Japanese Art
The grotesque in the context of Japanese Art is closely associated with eroticism and sex in a style and movement termed and anglicised “Ero-Guro-Nansensu — Erotic, grotesque nonsense. Unlike the grotesqueries in the European world, the anatomical oddities that lined the walls of Nero’s Domus Aurea, or the French Grand Guignol, the undercurrents of sexuality and violence have roots entrenched in traditions, mythology and lore, many of which are, of themselves, violent and horrific.
Shunga, are a subset of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, created by the collaborative efforts of a designer, an engraver and a printer. After the designer creates the illustration on washi paper in the negative, the illustration is transferred to a block of cherry wood, where an engraver engraves the design (ukiyo-e is a reduction process). If the design has multiple colours, the engraver will have to make multiple blocks. These blocks are then sent to the printer who will ink the blocks and press a sheet of paper upon them, rubbing with a baren, to transfer the ink. For designs with multiple colours, the colours will have to be printed before the line art is printed. The most elaborate and colourful ukiyo-e prints are called nishiki-e, which may possess intricacies such as multiple fabric patterns on kimonos. Shunga are made the same way as ukiyo-e, but with different subjects — often sexual in nature. While it was first purported that Shunga started as instructional material for newly weds, they were seen to be enjoyed by all, namely members of the samurai caste who had to leave their families behind as their daimyos (lords) travelled between Edo (present day Tokyo) and Kyoto (the previous capital of Japan). Shunga prints may be considered as one of the inroads to the ero-guro-nansensu movement, often incorporating light hearted themes into the scenes of sexual congress. 4
Created in 1814, Hokusai’s Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Figure 3.1) portrayed a fantasy scene where two octopi are seen impregnating a pearl diver. The translations on the work read as such:
LARGE OCTOPUS: My wish comes true at last, this day of days; finally I have you in my grasp! Your “bobo” is ripe and full, how wonderful! Superior to all others! To suck and suck and suck some more. After we do it masterfully, I’ll guide you to the Dragon Palace of the Sea God and envelop you. “Zuu sufu sufu chyu chyu chyu tsu zuu fufufuuu…”
MAIDEN: You hateful octopus! Your sucking at the mouth of my womb makes me gasp for breath! Aah! yes… it’s…there!!! With the sucker, the sucker!! Inside, squiggle, squiggle, oooh! Oooh, good, oooh good! There, there! Theeeeere! Goood! Whew! Aah! Good, good, aaaaaaaaaah! Not yet! Until now it was I that men called an octopus! An octopus! Ooh! Whew! How are you able…!? Ooh! “yoyoyooh, saa… hicha hicha gucha gucha, yuchyuu chyu guzu guzu suu suuu….”
LARGE OCTOPUS: All eight limbs to intertwine with!! How do you like it this way? Ah, look! The inside has swollen, moistened by the warm waters of lust. “Nura nura doku doku doku…”
MAIDEN: Yes, it tingles now; soon there will be no sensation at all left in my hips. Ooooooh! Boundaries and borders gone! I’ve vanished….!!!!!!
SMALL OCTOPUS: After daddy finishes, I too want to rub and rub my suckers at the ridge of your furry place until you disappear and then I’ll suck some more. “chyu chyu..”
While Hokusai did not exclusively produce shunga, this work may be considered a prelude to the ero-guro-nansensu work produced later, incorporating, for one of the first times, an erotic scene which was grotesque in its involvement of amorous sea creatures, yet bizarrely nonsensical with its amusing onomatopoeia.
Figure 3.1: Hokusai , The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife
More explicit examples of works that may be considered to embody ero, guro and nansensu followed. While the nonsensical aspect (nansensu) may not have been immediately visible, the tendency towards a more “guro” aspect is evident. For example, in 1867, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi started a series that focused on reimagining murder scenes in ukiyo-e styles (Fig 3.2)
Figure 3.2: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi , Excerpt from Eimei nijūhasshūku (Twenty-eight famous murders with verse, 1867
Ero Guro Nansensu
Ero Guro Nansensu was a movement in the 1930s based on the need for escapism in a period plague with political strife and the threat of war, characterised by eroticism, gore and nonsense. Tenets of ero guro nansensu art included acts of disembodiment, decapitation, body horror and the abject combined to form a scene which could be disturbing, amusing, and erotic at the same time. In ero-guro-nansensu, the more senseless and absurd the scene the better. Ero Guro Nansensu was spurred on by events such as the ni-ni-roku incident where a military coup threatened ties with neighbouring China and unleashed the threat of war. In the turmoil bubbling within the populace, socially, economically and politically, rose this movement, and with it, the desire for an escape. Ero Guro Nansensu art and media allowed many to transcend the very real threats to their crumbling society. Through the fantastic, the strange, and often humorous graphic horror, many found their solace. The zeitgeist remained, throughout this age, one of morbid curiosity and fascination. An example of this is seen below, in Suehiro Maruo’s Torture Garden (Figure 4).
Fig 4: Maruo Suehiro, frame from Torture Garden
However it is imperative to note that this is not merely a movement with manifestations in art, but temperament, perspective and lifestyle as well. Celebrity culture at the time surrounded poison women, female criminals convicted of murder, theft and counterfeiting. Serialised novels and confessionals featured these women and sensationalised their stories. Even before the popularity of Sada Abe’s story within the context of ero-guro-nansensu influenced Japan, women who had stolen, killed or committed theft were a popular version of the femme fatales. Staged confessions, kabuki shows and serial novels in newspapers dotted the artistic landscape sometimes even featuring the criminals themselves. 5 In the time of Sada Abe, and even before that, the celebrity of pleasure and hedonism perpetuated media and art in the form of ukiyo-e pictures of the floating world which often highlighted the Yoshiwara pleasure district and its inhabitants.
Artists who dabbled in this field included Junji Ito, Kagi Shitaro, Makoto Aida, Takoto Yamamoto and Tengu Guro among many others. As later elaborated, these artists influenced my work in a large way. My narrative style, in turn, is a combination of influences from the likes of Lemony Snicket and Edogawa Rampo. Also looking to convey the brutality and liminality of the human body, I looked to Sylvia Plath’s seminal poem “Lady Lazarus”
The Grotesque in the Context of European Art
In my process towards the understanding of the grotesque, I looked toward a comparison of the European grotesque and the Japanese concept of guro and found that guro more specific links to the concept and movement of ero-guro-nansensu itself rather than the same abhuman, chimera-like grotesquerie that European art deemed grotesque. I have mentioned, previously, the grotesque in Nero’s Domus Aurea as a flashpoint towards the aesthetic development of the term. Remi Astruc argues that the three main tropes of the grotesque are doubleness, hybridity and metamorphosis6 , fitting in with ideas of the abhuman.
With reference to my abstract, this project is an experimental illustrated narrative, featuring hellscapes, perverse but not entirely impossible narratives and abhuman forms. Detailed in this section are the ways I applied my research towards narrative and illustration
The narrative surrounding Sada Abe is diverse, and has gone through many reworkings. According to Christine L. Marran, the narrative of the poison woman has been one that has seen many reworkings due to the sensationalisation of the female monstrous, and female criminals “ha(ve) contributed to the white noise of urban legend, docudrama, and tabloids about women. e literature written about her contributed to the development of a vernacular style and to the cultural fashioning of the modern heterosexual matrix.” 5
Femme fatales have always caught attention not for their crimes but for the mere fact that their sexuality, and sometimes overt sexuality deems them to be guilty, not of the crime but being female. Narratives of poison women like Sada Abe have been woven into plays, short films, staged confessions and even serialised novels within newspapers.
However, I did not want to make this story exclusively about the life and times of Sada Abe, but wanted the viewers to reflect on how society views women, criminality and the darkness within every person and every society. I wanted the viewers to look within themselves throughout the zines, and realise the the undercurrents of the strange and macabre behind the clean facades every society projects. As such, the narrative employs 4 zines, broken up into the titles, We Sada and Kichi, are alone, Dofuku, Headspace, and finally Some Rest for the Wicked.
A slip of tracing paper is inserted into the work linking every zine to the wider context.
We, Sada and Kichi are alone is a primer into the background of the crime, the movement, the zeitgeist, and the relationship between Kichizo Ishida and Sada Abe.
Dofuku is a zine based around the concept of “poison women” coined and searched by Christine L. Marran, and the criminality of the women who are guilty to the media and public, not for the crime only but for being female. This zine is second in the reading order and speaks on the sensational nature of the Sada Abe Incident, as well as previous media interest in the lives and crimes of women.
Headspace: details significant episodes/places in her life, superimposed on the hellscapes that could be reflections of today, insights into her head
Some rest for the wicked: Set of illustrations surrounding what heaven , hell or purgatory might look like and an end. I illustrate the reunion of Sada and Kichi(zo) and a bittersweet ending to the series, that provokes introspection into the love between the two.
According to William Johnston 7, “…the psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva aptly calls love “An unleashing that, in the absolute, can go as far as crime against the loved one.” This can just as easily be a crime against one’s self as against another. Moreover, love is a threat not just to the individuals involved but even to the social order. Kristeva also emphasizes this point: “passionate love can be equated less with the calm slumber of reconciled civilizations than with their delirium, disengagement, and breach” 8 The zines are documented in the booth as in Figure 8, and Figures 9 and 10 document illustrations within the zine. Figure 11 shows the tracing paper insert.
Fig 8: Display of zines in order in the booth
Fig 9: Details of Zine
Fig 10: Details of Zine
Fig 11: Tracing paper inserts with introduction
Illustration and colours
Putting a personal take on the illustrations, I decided to pursue dotwork and linework in black, white and red for the colour’s propensity towards a starkness that may be considered disturbing. The addition of red in the threads signified a changed relationship, ties and tensions. Red thread is often used to tie together those who commit group suicides so they may find one another once more in the afterlife. Through the zines the thread is seen running, turning from red to white. signifying ties between people that stretch and go slack and bleach, tangle and break, ebb and swell (Figures 12 and 13).
Fig 12: My A4 sized illustration of thread pooling
Fig 13: Integration of thread in illustrations throughout the 4 zines.
I wanted my booth to be claustrophobic with the element of the red thread, the most constant element running through the zines, to manifest themselves physically transcending the zine and into the space. I also wanted to draw viewers into the red thread and invite them to intact with an investigative and exploratory aspect of the booth looking into a web to view connections as a detective would. Figure 16 shows the initial booth sketch. I thus tangled up a web of thread and left it with typewritten captions. Figures 17, 18 and 19 show details of the booth. The floor projections are seen in Figure 20.
Fig 16: Sketch of space
Fig 17: Booth Space
Fig 18: Details of the web of string on the wall
Fig 19: Hanging string flowing into web
Fig 20: Floor projection within booth (top) Projected video still (bottom)
I would like to propose that for future shows visitors are reminded to be gentle with works in the booths, and the booths themselves. I personally had the typewriter in my booth used so hard that I arrived in the morning to find some of my cards and business cards people had left scattered on the floor.Aside, I would like to perhaps bring up the public need to make a mark on the world. Perhaps typing one’s name in the property of someone else makes people feel more significant or defeats memento mori in a way where they believe they will be remembered when they inexplicably die. Perhaps this is a way these people can feel better about their inevitable demise. Perhaps the need to leave a legacy is something people need to do to quench their egos, to satiate their need for self importance, and they feel better when they infringe on the property of others because this violence enforces the mark of their memory.
I would also like to make recommendations toward the curation of the gallery space. Because of the overhead lighting, the projection I planned on the floor was hard to see. It also cast a blueish tint to the works when viewed, imposing a cold and uninviting tint to the booths.
I would like to thank Professor Ina Conradi, who supervised me over the last two semesters for her constant guidance and support. Special thanks also goes out to Joanna Ang for helping out with all aspects of booth construction (without which I would have been a victim of the 100 nails I’ve hammered into my booth), Benjamin Neo for driving me back and forth, and the graduating batch for being a boisterous, helpful bunch who offered much in terms of emotional support.
Cited articles, journals and books
1. Kristeva, J., & Roudiez, L. S. (1982). Powers of horror: An essay on abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.
2. Barnett, R . (2014) The Sick Rose, or, Disease and The Art of Medical Illustration. United kingdom: Thames and Hudson
3. Hurley, K. (2004). The Gothic body: sexuality, materialism, and degeneration at the fin de siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
4. Goh, B. (2015) The Fantastic in the Erotic Art of Japan, Singapore
5. Marron, C (2007) Poison Woman: Figuring Female Transgression in Modern Japanese Culture, University of Minnesota Press.
6. Astruc, R. (2010). Le renouveau du grotesque dans le roman du XXe siècle: essai d’anthropologie littéraire. Paris: Éditions Classiques Garnier.
7. Johnston, W (2005) Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star, Columbia University Press.
8. Kristeva, J. (1987). Tales of love. New York: Columbia University Press.
Influences on this writer’s thoughts and general reading
Roob, A. (1997). Alchemy & Mysticism: The Hermetic Museum. Köln: Taschen.
Jerrold E. Hogle, The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction page 190 (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Chávez, F. E., & Falconi, D. (2008). A body that could never rest relaciones entre cuerpo y cultura en las tradiciones anglófonas. Barcelona: UOC.
Knappert, J., & Saunders, G. E. (1999). Mythology and folklore in South-East Asia. Oxford: Oxford, University Press.
Cohen, J. J. (n.d.). Monster Culture (Seven Theses)(extract). Speaking of Monsters. doi:10.1057/9781137101495.0007
Halberstam, J. (1995). Skin shows: Gothic horror and the technology of monsters. Durham: Duke University Press.
Introduction. (1986). The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 44(1), 3-11. doi:1. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezlibproxy1.ntu.edu.sg/stable/3258965 doi:1
Mori, K. (1980). Yanagita Kunio: An interpretive study. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies JJRS, 7(2-3), 91-93. doi:10.18874/jjrs.7.2-3.1980.83-115
Silverberg, M. R. (2010). Erotic grotesque nonsense: the mass culture of Japanese modern times. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
Tang, L. (2015). THE MYSTERY GUILD PRESENTS: THE LOCKE DIARIES , DR-NTU
Foster, M. D., & Shinonome, K. (n.d.). The book of yokai: Mysterious creatures of Japanese folklore.
Cather, K (2012) The Art of Censorship in Modern Japan, University of Hawaii Press
Johnston, W (2005) Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star, Columbia University Press.
Gluck, C (1985) Japan’s Modern Myths: Ideology in the Late Meiji Period. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,
Jones, S., & Watanabe, K. (2013). An Edo anthology: literature from Japan’s mega-city, 1750-1850. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. p 22
Foster, M. D. (2015). The book of yōkai mysterious creatures of Japanese folklore. Berkeley: University of California Press.