August 06, 2008
Japan, the country that shocked the world with its 1937 Rape of Nanking is also a major proponent for Muzan-e otherwise known as "Atrocious Prints." Based on the centuries-old tradition of Ukiyo-e (or Pictures of the Floating World) where artisans like Hiroshige and Hokusai created beautiful prints of the Kabuki world and countryside scenes, artists old and new tried to go out of society's moral boundaries by composing prints full of gore and amputations. It's no wonder why their horrific acts of genocidal brutality are not considered as an isolated episode of madness- it's perhaps in their blood to explore beyond the realms of civilized taste. And since Japan is a "graphic society", it's no wonder also why almost everything and anything is illustrated in ways the Western mind can never imagine.
From images from the Hungry Ghost scrolls depicting demons from hell torturing humans (which is akin to the medieval paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Matthias Grünewald) to modern illustrations of eroguro whereby manga characters lop off their partner's head and used the decapitated portion as a sex toy, Japanese taste for the extreme is quite shocking yet fascinating. For those who are only weaned on the missionary position of procreation, the Japanese can teach these prudes a thing or two, but "that" will be a subject for future rumination.
Generally, muzan-e depicts scenes of heroes, usually samurai, in the throes of their glorious death while they carry out their vengeance for their honor or their master's honor. This makes the print tolerable. But contemporary artists like Suehiro Maruo took the genre to another level. While leaving behind the valiant ideas of Bushido where seppuku is being swooned over and over by the likes of the novelist Yukio Mishima, Maruo took the bloody aesthetics and incorporated modern themes resulting into something more disturbing and blood-curdling. For instance, he explored artistically on the finale of Red Riding Hood's untimely demise, as seen below. It really takes your breath away.
Looking at these prints reminds me that the human mind can be cruel and sublime at the same time. Isn't it strange that such beauty and skill is used to depict madness and chaos? These inspires me to contemplate that at least in modern Japan, such notions of violence are only found in ink and paper, and not in blood and flesh. Fortunately for us, we are not Japanese.