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!