Daily Archives: 12 May 2004

Buruma on Ero Guro Nansensu

When I ordered the Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit book Occidentalism, I took Amazon’s suggestion and ordered another Buruma book at the same time, Inventing Japan: 1853-1964 (Modern Library Chronicles, 2003), which has turned out to be wonderful. It makes me want to read it aloud to anyone who’ll listen.

Here’s a piece of the chapter on “Ero Guro Nansensu,” about the 1920s.

The Ginza in Tokyo, that Europeanized center of “Civilization and Enlightenment,” had changed a great deal since the dark days of late Meiji. Longhaired young men in roido (from Harold Lloyd) glasses, bell-bottom trousers, colored shirts, and floppy ties would stroll down the willow-lined avenue with young women in bobbed hairdos. The more earnest ones, who gathered in “milk bars” to discuss German philosophy or Russian novels, were known as Marx boys and Marx girls. A few years later, the fashionable young would be renamed mobos (modern boys) and their flapper girlfriends mogas (modern girls). Aside from the milk bars, the Ginza abounded in German-style beer halls and Parisian-style cafés, with waitresses who were free with their favors–for a modest fee. Many patrons of these establishments, with such names as Tiger Cafe and Lion Beer Hall, were journalists, who, like the cafe waitresses, were a feature of this bright new age of mass media and entertainment. Up the street, near Hibiya Park, where the riots of 1905 took place, Frank Lloyd Wright was building the Imperial Hotel, where people would take their tea and eat ultrafashionable “Chaplin caramels.”

A tram ride to the east of the Ginza took one to Asakusa, the center of popular entertainment. This is where the latest Hollywood movies were shown in art deco cinemas and lines of half-naked chorus girls kicked up their legs at the “opera.” In 1920, one might have seen The Lasciviousness of the Viper, directed by “Thomas” Kurihara, who had learned his craft in Hollywood. So had another director of silent movies, “Frank” Tokunaga, who insisted on speaking English to his Japanese crews, putting his studio to the unnecessary expense of having to provide an interpreter. There were posters everywhere advertising sword fight movies about Sakamoto Ryoma and other Edo swashbucklers. There were cabaret shows, comic storytellers, Western, Chinese, and Japanese restaurants. And there was some real opera, too. An Italian from Britain had introduced Tokyoites to the delights of Verdi.

Taisho Tokyo was marked by a skittish, sometimes nihilistic hedonism that brings Weimar Berlin to mind. It produced a culture that would later be summed up as ero for erotic, guro for grotesque, and nansensu, which speaks for itself. In some instances, the similarities with Berlin were more than coincidental. Painters and cartoonists did pictures à la George Grosz. Directors of the New Theater put on plays by Hauptmann and Maeterlinck and studied Max Reinhardt and Stanislavsky. Dada, expressionism, cubism, constructivism, new sobriety: All had had their day in Japan–more than a day, in fact, since trends tend to stick around a lot longer there than in their countries of origin. Novelists looked to Europe, too. Tanizaki Junichiro adopted the style of fin-de-siècle French decadents. One of the best movies of the period, Kinugasa Teinosuke’s Page of Madness, owed much to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. He made this film only a few years after appearing himself in another, far more conventional picture, playing a woman in a kimono and a pair of sturdy rain boots to cope with the open-air location–theatrical realism was late in coming, even in the movies. Taisho was a time of radical politics, but also of artistic experimentation and introspection. Individualism was carried to the point of self-obsession. Literary diaries recording every nuance of the author’s moods, known as “I-novels,” were highly popular. Far removed from the earnest idealism of Meiji, artists were keen to explore the limits of romantic love and dark eroticism.

Students at elite institutions were just as eager for new ideas. They cultivated a Sakamoto Ryoma-like slovenliness in their dress, used words like “lumpen proletariat” and “bourgeois liberalism” a great deal, and took a passionate interest in DeKanSho, short for Descartes, Kant, and Schopenhauer. Intellectual young women from wealthy families insisted on learning more than household skills, and in 1918 the first women’s university was established in Tokyo. Even soldiers were brushed by the fresh winds of early Taisho. The army minister, Tanaka Giichi, worried that his troops had “become bold and rebellious in their attitudes,” and one commander complained that “due to the rise in general knowledge and social education,” his men could no longer be counted on to follow orders blindly.

So what went wrong? Why had this freewheeling Japanese Weimar spirit been brought down–though not out–by about 1932?

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