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  • Seeking the StrangeRyōki and the Navigation of Normality in Interwar Japan
  • Jeffrey Angles (bio)

It was an autumn evening in Tokyo with the town wrapped in a deep mist. The town had awoken to a day in the mist, and was welcoming the end of the day in the mist. Was something happening in these silky shadows that stirred so coldly? Surely, wasn't something going on?

-Sasaki Toshirō , "Ryōki no machi" (A Town for Curiosity Hunting), 1930

People often describe the popular culture of Taishō and the first decade of Shōwa as exhibiting a fascination with ero, guro, nansensu (eroticism, grotesquerie, and nonsense).1 One sees reflections of this fascination in virtually every arena of popular culture, including literature. Throughout the Taishō and early Shōwa periods, readers were captivated by stories about the bizarre, ridiculous, irrational, or fashionably odd, and if there was an extra dimension of eroticism, then all the better. Some of the best-known authors of interwar Japan, including the now-canonical writers Tanizaki Jun'ichirō (1886-1965), Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (1892-1927), [End Page 101] Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), and Satō Haruo (1892-1964), wrote imaginative and fanciful tales combining these elements. The tales' protagonists adopt new identities, participate in dramatic crimes and murders, toy with various forms of nonheteronormative sexuality, and transgress expected gender roles, all to experience the world in new ways.

Fascination for the strange and erotic spilled over into nonfiction as well. Even mainstream newspapers such as the Asahi shinbun and Yomiuri shinbun ran exposés in the 1920s and 1930s about bizarre happenings, and the publishing world put out a seemingly unending flood of new magazines that featured stories-both fictional and nonfictional-about crime, police investigations, and the detectives who solved them. Books, journals, and articles dedicated to the subject of "perverse sexuality" (hentai seiyoku) also flourished. Many such pieces, although written by alleged experts in sexology, left it tantalizingly unclear whether the authors were condemning or celebrating the sexual practices they described.2

Some postwar scholars have tended to think of the fad for ero, guro, nansensu as inspired in large part by publishers, newspaper editors, reporters, and other cultural figures eager to market their products to an ever-growing reading public.3 More recently, other cultural critics have interpreted the prewar fad for the erotic and the grotesque as reflecting people's desire to escape the difficult economic circumstances and increasingly repressive political developments of the 1920s and 1930s for an alternative sphere of imaginative play. By turning to a world of eroticism and the bizarre, these critics argue, people were able to fantasize about lifestyles and moral codes that resisted incorporation into the productive goals of the nation-state.4 Certainly, as the historian Gregory Pflugfelder has noted, the fascination for ero, guro, nansensu represents a "perversion" of conventional values, if not a conscious reaction against them:

The celebration of the "erotic" (ero) in its myriad forms constituted a rejection of the Meiji dictum that sexuality was unsuited for public display or representation unless it conformed to the narrow standards of "civilized morality." The elevation of the "grotesque" (guro) betrayed a similar disregard for prevailing esthetic codes, with their focus on traditional canons of beauty and concealment of the seamier sides of existence. Finally, the valorization of the "nonsensical" (nansensu) signaled a discontent with the constraining nature of received moral and epistemological certitudes.5

In other words, the culture of ero, guro, nansensu allowed rebellion in some small way against the constraints of standard aesthetic, moral, and legal codes and enabled readers to indulge, at least vicariously, in those erotic, thanatotic, and seemingly "irrational" urges ordinarily suppressed by the logical, civilizing [End Page 102] superego of social ethics. More recently, however, the historian Miriam Silverberg has countered that ero, guro, nansensu should not be seen as merely an escapist or reactionary movement in Japanese cultural history; she shows how integral eroticism, grotesquerie, and the nonsensical were in creating the new montage-like modan culture of the 1920s and 1930s, which shaped everything from the lives of working women to the ways ordinary Japanese citizens thought about their empire.6

Although many...


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