Yume no Q-SAKU: Suehiro Maruo

Buckle up, my book-loving friends! This book is not for the faint of heart, or the squeamishly inclined. No, seriously. If you haven’t heard of ero-guro before, here is a quick lesson: erotic + grotesque = horrifying shit you cannot unsee that is often hauntingly beautiful. So you can see how Yume no Q-SAKU by ero-guro master Suehiro Maruo might not be exactly safe for work. Or safe to read over breakfast. (Seriously. I made that mistake.) If your stomach turns at the mere mention of knife wounds, you should probably skip this one.

(I’m not going to post any NSFW images or anything, but I will be discussing various aspects of some pretty graphic stuff, violent and sexual, so if you have any triggers, just assume that I will be hitting all of them and go back and read about Akino Kondoh. You’ll like her! So pretty!) 

My stomach is made of that oft-referenced steel. Very little makes me queasy, and I am usually the person bringing up stories of parasitic wasps eating their way out of aphid bellies over supper. But I would be reluctant to recommend reading Maruo’s work while eating anything. Not all of the images are stomach-churning, but you stumble upon one panel of people licking human feces off a plate, and your lunch is basically ruined.

Even so, Maruo’s work draws you in. He makes me have a lot of difficult conversations in my head, ones I doubt he intended for me to have, but such is the nature of art. One very obvious chat I have with myself while reading these stories of various violations is whether or not I, as a woman who is pretty fed up with the whole “man good, woman sucky” narrative, can be okay with page after page of woman after girl after grandmother being raped, slashed, tied up, etc., etc. And this is a conversation that is so context-dependent. I think I would take a lot more issue with these kinds of stories if they were drawn by a Western artist. Which seems sort of hypocritical?

A lot of it has to do with the history of art and sexuality in Japan, which has in general, been a whole lot more anything-goes than any Western society. Like this whole danshoku idea, in which high-ranking samurai and other prestigious members of society took in a younger boy to “mentor”. And yeah, that’s a euphemism for sex right there. Prostitution was pretty much fine until the Meiji restoration, and the country has a creation myth that explicitly has two gods doing the deed to create the islands of Japan. There is a lot of sexuality in Japan, with really none of the shame or puritanical hand-wringing that we see to this day in North America. (Although that’s been changing, the human body is still a normal, non-shameful thing.) So something like the genre of ero-guro feels to me more acceptable, more like a continuation of an exploration that is part of the culture the genre is popping up from. (And not part of the culture in that “well, we’ve always treated women like shit. It’s tradition!” kind of way.)

The other thing that keeps my hackles comfortably resting against my neck is the fact that it is not just the ladies who get it. Maruo has no mercy. The director of a hospital is accosted by a gang of nurses in the garden at midnight, a young ne’er-do-well smashes in the skull of his former father-in-law. There’s plenty of pain for everyone. And plenty of uncomfortable sexuality!

One thing that comes up over and over in this collection of stories from the early eighties is eyes. And I kept thinking of Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye. Although there are several subtle references to the work, like when the grandmother deliberately pushes the tip of her tongue up against her grandson’s eye, “Unko Soup no Tsukurikata” (How to Make Poop Soup) very explicitly points to that notorious work when the heroine pops an eyeball into her vagina and instructs one of her companions to suck it out. Which he does, while her other companion gets to work on on her head, sucking her own eyeball out of its socket.

The various protagonists of Yume get just as crazy as Simone in Story of the Eye. Simone would probably be delighted to join them. They share the same single-minded devotion to their pleasures and depravities. The boy with the eyeball-poking grandmother, yes, of course, he has sex with her. And then when she dies, he is consumed with thoughts of her and goes out in the middle of the night to masturbate on her grave. The young protagonist of “Hatsukoi” (First Love) is obsessed with the woman across the way, who, it turns out is dom to his father’s sub. She rapes him and then ties him down and forces his father to rape him.

All of this happens in Taisho or early Showa Japan (early twentieth century-ish), from the look of the school uniforms and kimono that everyone is wearing, which was a time of some serious upheavals in Japanese society, with the push for modernization, leading to the rise of facism and that whole war thing. (Historians, please don’t get mad at me for glossing over so many important aspects of this time. I am just trying to talk about a book here.) Which gets me wondering about the controlling nature of all these sexual and violent encounters, and whether or not Maruo is making a deeper comment on Japanese society. Deep!

And let’s not forget all the bandages and deformities. I think half of the characters in this volume have an eye patch, which yes, make me think of Story of the Eye again. But there are also missing legs, scars, open wounds, phantom hands, comatose patients and more!

But! All these conversations in my head forget one very important thing. And that is that Maruo is so skilled at depicting all these scenes of torture and debauchery. He is so focused on the details of every little thing, and his art is very reminiscent of early twentieth century style illustrations. I love the sly smiles, the languid kimono, the perfectly formed, slightly pursed lips. And all the beauty he infuses his drawing with offers up just that much more of a contrast with the subject matter he chooses to write about.

He also plays with panels and narrative structures in some really interesting ways. Like in “Fujin Eisei Jiten” (The Ladies’ Health Encyclopedia), which appears to be excerpts from some Taisho ladies’ health guide, complete with all the ridiculous advice you’d expect, including warnings about dangerous sexual tendencies. But it’s all illustrated with Maruo’s own dangerous sexual tendencies. And in “Yukiko-chan no Mita Yume” (The Dreams Yukiko’s Had), a list of the non-rapey dreams Yukiko has had are overlaid on images of rape and bondage.

So basically, not offended by many things/anything? Looking for beautiful art? Want to have a variety of conversations with your own self about your ethics? Check out Suehiro Maruo!

10 thoughts on “Yume no Q-SAKU: Suehiro Maruo

  1. Ahem…I suppose the manga should contain other pictures that are far more unpleasant?
    Like you, I’ve always had conflicting feelings about this type of works. Most of the time, they would contain excessive gore against women (be it rape, mutilation or over-violent murder) with sexual undertones. I couldn’t deny that sometimes the art is beautiful in its own disturbing way, but it’s hard not to take it personally when women are almost always the objects of those stomach-churning violent acts.

    Out of curiosity, are there any Western comic books with similar genre that you know of? The closest I could remember was Charles Burns’ Black Hole, which I had to admit was pretty fascinating, even if it was not very grotesque. Some Japanese mangas can be a bit extreme (MPD Psycho, for instance),

    • Yes, you suppose correctly. The majority of these pages are NSFW. So consider yourself warned!

      It is definitely hard not to take all the violence against women personally in this genre of stuff. Like I said in the post, Maruo gets a pass from me on that because the violence is really against all the characters in the manga, man or woman. But it is something that I have to really think about when I read a book like this. I definitely don’t want to give attention to someone putting women in horrible positions just because he or she is making beautiful art. I actually debated whether or not to write this book up here at all, but in the end, I do feel that it’s an interesting work from someone at the top of the genre, and I don’t think this work uses the violence to debase women. Or at least no more so than it does any of the male characters.

      I can’t think of any Western comics with similar themes, but that’s an interesting question. I’ll have to ask my friends who are more versed in the world of Western comics and see. I have a feeling that Japanese manga tend to go more to extremes than Western comics do. I think it’s more acceptable to push those boundaries graphically in Japan. I could be wrong about that, though.

      How did MPD Psycho turn out by the way? I started reading it years ago when it first came out, but I dropped it after a few books for reasons I can’t remember now. Maybe I should pick it up again?

  2. I didn’t finish MPD Psycho either. After the third volume, I lost interest. The story didn’t seem to go anywhere so I dropped it. My friend said that there were more twists and turns in the later volumes. I should probably get back to it if I have more time.

    This weekend’s reads had been quite enjoyable. I read the first volume of Furuya’s NIngen Shikkaku. It was good. You told me before that you have it. Have you read it?

    And I read Ekoda-chan,too. Her musings while sitting on the bed smoking, beside some random guy, oh, I can relate to that, really, haha. And the four koma format makes the characters and situations more endearing. I haven’t finished reading the book, but I quite enjoyed it.

    LIkewise, I don’t have enough exposure in the world of Western comics, I like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, though. And there was this lady (Alison Bechdel) who wrote the most amusing, albeit slightly dark autobiographical graphic novel called Fun Home.
    I’d like to read more Western comics, but sadly they are not very cheap (at least in my town) and the selections are quite limited to the super hero genre, which I am not too keen on.

    • Yeah, now that you mention it, the story of MPD Psycho really didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Maybe I’ll go back to it and see if the twists and turns are worth it.

      I haven’t actually read Furuya’s Ningen Shikaku yet. It’s sitting on my shelf waiting for me. Now that all the books have been translated into English, I might use the opportunity for a little bilingual reading, and see how another translator handles it. I’m looking forward to reading it in any case. I love Furuya’s work.

      And I’m so glad you like Ekoda-chan! The smoking in bed thing is one of my favourite recurring moments. Later on, she starts to chastise herself, like she should know better, and yet she always ends up in the same situation. I also think the yon-koma format sort of takes the edge off and makes her more relatable. Like, if it was a long-form comic, she might come off as too strident, rather than so human and understandable.

      I’m with you on being bored by the superhero genre. It’s one of the reasons I stayed (mostly) away from comics for a long time because it just seemed like there was nothing else out there. But then I started finding more indie stuff through fanzines (back in the dark ages before the Internet was something other than an annoying thing that made screechy noises in the phone when you tried to call someone), and I got more into comics. Maybe I’ll try to get some of my super comics friends to recommend some stuff so I can read it and talk about it here. Comics education!

  3. You described perfectly my reactions to Maruo; I’ve just been getting into his work. He gets a pass from me because no matter how repulsive he’s being, it works at a basic level of artistry: he knows how to DRAW!!! If he didn’t, he would simply be sickening. And I agree: I don’t get a woman-hating vibe from him either, (which sounds bizarre when speaking of someone who basically draws rapes and murders for a living, but it’s true.) Have you read “Shojo Tsubaki”? http://thepageaholic.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/the-carnival-never-ends-suehiro-maruo-shojo-tsubaki/

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who reacts to Maruo like this! I agree, he does know how to draw which makes the grotesque things he draws much more palatable. But I don’t think that’s what gives him a pass from me; it’s simply the egalitarian way he doles out his torture. Everyone suffers in his manga! I haven’t read Shojo Tsubaki, but thanks for pointing it out. Looks like something I will have to add to the enormous pile of books I need to read!.

      • lol Yes, I hate recommending books, just like I hate having books recommended. It’s always like: “Yeah, thanks, let me add it to the other fifty thousand books I’m trying to get to before I get kicked out of the planet!”😉

      • The problem is that I really like people recommending books for me because I want to try things that I might not necessarily come across. I just feel bad when they do because I know it will be a long time before I can actually read the recommended book. I’m always crossing my fingers that it will be before I get kicked off the planet!

      • Exactly!🙂 manga and Japanese literature interest me but I’m a dabbler, and looking through your blog I feel like: “Oh well There’s that whole ‘nother vibrant literary culture I’m missing out on.” Darn it, why can’t I have time to read everything ever written??😉

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