In the illustrations of Toshio Saeki, death, pain and pleasure become one
A new tome from Baron Books collates a vast archive of the late artist’s illustrations, demonstrating his significance within the rich canon of erotic Japanese art.
- Olivia Hingley
- 16 November 2023
Born in 1945, the artist Toshio Saeki is one of the foremost figures in Japan’s erotic-grotesque (ero-guro nansensu) artistic movements. Emerging in the 1960s and 70s, the style merges violence, pain, pleasure and eroticism into one heady mix, and is widely seen as a precursor to the manga and anime styles. Toshio passed away in 2019, and while he has always had something of a cult following, his work has not received the recognition or attention it deserves – perhaps for the nature of its content. But now, Baron Books has collated a vast archive of Saeki’s illustration work, for the fourth edition of its series, The Death Book.
The book’s introduction is written by Euphemia Franklin, a Japanese-British researcher and historian who grew up between south-east London and rural Akita, in Northern Japan. Studying for an MA in the history of design at the RCA and V&A, Euphemia has written papers on Japanese textiles and decorative men’s undergarments from the Edo and Meiji periods, and now works at a rare book dealers, specialising in Japanese books. When approached about the project, Euphemia was instantly intrigued. “What excited me most was the chance to do a deep dive into the Japanese Avant Garde movement and to find out more about Saeki, who was for me a rather mysterious figure,” she says.
Personally, Euphemia finds Toshio’s work “immensely compelling” though she realises the blood, severed limbs and dark themes won’t be to everyone’s tastes. “The gruesomeness of the imagery can be too disturbing and challenging for some, which is completely valid,” she says. Though rather than simply being grotesque – or as some may argue gratuitous – Euphemia sees his works as multi-layered, using surrealism and dark humour to destabilise. She points us to an image of a schoolgirl fighting off male floating heads, and challenging a salaryman; “both images give the young girl character a great sense of power and subvert societal norms”.
Toshio’s work also has deep roots in Japanese visual and narrative history. While his work has a modern feel to it, with stylish graphic lines, block colours and contemporary references, his work sits in the long tradition of shunga erotic woodblock prints, dating back to the Edo period (1603-1868). Like Toshio’s, Euphemia explains that such works refused to “shy away from violence”. Many of his works refer to folklore and well known tales. For example, the image of two old women shaving and licking girls heads is reminiscent of the tale Rashōmon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927).
Now, Euphemia sees Toshio’s work as being widely mimicked, though to “varying degrees of success”, as few are able to conjure the grotesque themes Toshio delved into. “What might disturb people the most is that Saeki’s works depict the thoughts we often don’t allow ourselves to indulge in, because it can be quite frightening to think of death and pain mixed up with pleasure and intimacy,” she says. What also sets Toshio apart is a perceived subtlety. Whereas shunga Japanese erotic prints often put genitalia front and centre, Euphemia noticed that Saeki never does. “Saeki’s work offers an alternative way for illustrators and artists to graphically portray sex,” she says. “In a curious way, his work is both subtle and unsubtle at the same time.”
While researching for the book, Euphemia experienced some “pretty intense dreams”, and immersing herself in the history of sex and violence in Japan in the British Library at points was overwhelming. Though it also sparked conversation, with her often staying up late having conversations with family about how and why this genre of erotica emerged. Euphemia hopes the book will open audiences’ minds, and foster more open-minded interpretations. “There is a lot of fetishisation surrounding manga and anime, as well as online content that sensationalises places like maid cafes and love hotels. From the Western gaze, there is often a problematic sense of judgement imparted on sex and sexuality in Japan,” Euphemia ends. “Through providing some historical context to the work, I hope that readers will look beyond the surface and gain more of an interest in the environment in which Saeki’s artworks were able to flourish.”
GalleryThe Death Book (Copyright © Toshio Saeki & Baron Books, 2023)
The Death Book (Copyright © Toshio Saeki & Baron Books, 2023)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.