Guts and Grog Tooned Up

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hentai/Guro: The Dead World Gives You Choices

You pick up a volume of manga at the bookstore. You’re interested in the genre, and the cover looks pretty grotesque - pictures of moody-looking women and darkness and maybe a few monsters here or there - but you’re really not sure what you’re getting yourself into. Pretty soon, you’re seeing preteen girls being stripped of their skin, used as chairs, and raped by hair. It’s not the same thing as hentai, that genre of anime and manga that’s basically akin to cartoon porn, but it’s close.

Perhaps your experience with guro is limited to that extreme GIF of a young girl being stripped of her clothes, and then her flesh, by laser beam that recently went viral. It’s a fairly straightforward view of guro - offensive, disgusting, and pornographic in the most explicit sense of the word - but it's also lacking the literary quality that most guro captures in its panels.

That might seem like I'm stretching things a little bit. I mean, pornography rarely has any sort of plot, and if it does, it has something to do with a pizza man delivering more than just a steaming hot pie. Guro as literature is something that doesn't get much recognition; part of that would definitely stem from the lengths and extremities the stories go to be grotesque, the gratuitous rape scenes and full-frontal nudity involved, and the largely misogynistic storylines. But manga in general is also regarded as a lower form of entertainment by the masses. Like comics, anime and manga is reserved for dorky dudes who like fantasizing about colossal boobs and light beams shooting out of hands.

Except those who actually know the niche know that that's not always the case. There is manga that captures the essence of literature, and there is also guro that does the same. Just as Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and the films of Hayao Miyazaki have more to offer than disproportionate women and stuff blowing up, so too does the most horrific guro. And we can learn a lot from the extremes of guro, too, just like we can about the video nasties in horror.

We can start with the works of Junji Ito, a horror mangaka whose stories sit on the realm between extreme horror and guro. Ito is probably best known for his short-running manga Uzumaki, a plot that inspired a spin off live-action movie. Its theme is spirals, and it’s set in a town that’s dominated by the swirling shapes. Everyone begins to suffer from the delusions of spirals; one moment they’re fine, and the next they’re stabbing out their eardrums or breaking their bones to fit their own bodies into circular boxes.

Ito deals with obsession, a common theme in both horror manga and guro. In Japan, ghost stories always seem to have a fetish attachment - in The Ring, there is a video tape, in The Grudge there is a house that’s plagued with the spirits, and in Uzumaki, there are spirals. Obsession can ruin lives, and Ito delves into this with aplomb in his stories. I bring up Uzumaki because it is one of the most well-known of his works, but his other entries - Gyo, Tomie - deal with obsession in different ways as well.

But Ito’s works, despite being grotesque and - like an old gallon of milk - on the edge of spoiling, are not guro per se. They don’t hit the sexual deviances or the surrealist violence of those extreme stories. Demon Beast Invasion is very nearly there, although it is classified more as hentai than guro. This is the realm of tentacle porn, and it’s really just like it sounds. Monsters come to destroy humanity, prompting teenage girls to fight back to stop the destruction. It sounds like any PG-13 anime or mecha series, and yet these girls fight while being raped by the monster’s huge appendages, and sometimes their dicks too. La Blue Girl and Legend of the Overfiend fall into much the same category.

And yet still we haven’t really hit guro on the head. The latter manga entries are too overtly sexual - if we were to classify them in terms of live action films, they would fall squarely into the porno category of “little story, mucho sex.” Guro doesn’t dwell on its sex; at least in this sense, it’s not meant to be used as masturbatory fodder (maybe, if you’re particularly deviant). No, guro is still a whole different beast.
One of the most defining artists in guro is none other than Shintaro Kago. It’s perhaps not such an accomplishment to name someone the master of horror porn, but if there is such a thing as an award, it would go to this man. A master of both surrealism and grue, Kago has created a ton of short manga stories with intense material as its subject matter. Dead fetuses, rape, gross insertion - you name it, Kago has gone there.

That’s not to say that his stories are simply there to disturb or shock. His content is often thought-provoking, reaching the outer realms in an attempt to highlight disturbing societal norms. Take, for instance, a chapter of Taisougi called “The Big Funeral,” where a group of people attracted to funerals begin to try to locate the site of one inside a maze. The surrealist setting allows Kago to explore the dark characteristics within people; there’s a rapist who gets the thrill of attacking his victim in front of her husband’s funeral picture, and a necrophiliac. Kago doesn’t skimp on the detail, and a lot of it is significantly deranged, but it’s also a depiction of society’s darkest secrets.

Kago’s not the only significant artist working in the field. Sueharo Maruo and Waita Uziga are also spectacular artists working with much of the same tropes. Guro might seem to be categorized as something meant to offend and shock - and some might try to persuade that it’s all about young girls being raped - but the most defining moments are those that highlight the depths of human evil.

Lest we forget about those things, guro is there to let us know that they do still exist. A Kago piece entitled “Harakiri” explores the latest trend in Japan where young girls try to outdo each other by committing suicide, because it’s the “cool” thing to do. Kago’s blacker than black humor is far-reaching and extreme, but he gets his point across - there are things in society that we need to deal with, and sometimes it takes broad strokes to let us know that we’ve got some major shit to sort out.

If guro is pornography, it’s an artistic and culturally relevant form of that genre. In its extremity, it seeks to teach us about our own terrible selves; if we’re offended at the grotesqueries of using fetuses as artwork, of using rape as a form of literature, then that in turn helps us to reset our own moral compass. There must be humor in this foreboding world; when it comes from the unrestricting world of guro, it’s meant to be devoured as a sarcastic but critical appraisal of who we are as individuals. Take that to heart the next time you read or see tentacle rape.

- Ryne Barber

Ryne Barber writes and runs his own horror blog, He also writes for He fits in pretty well at Guts & Grog, because when he's not writing or watching horror, he's drinking all types of brews.


Maynard Morrissey said...

Wonderful write-up and some excellent images. Haven't read Uzumaki yet, but I'm totally in love with the bizarre movie adaptation.

Theron said...