Maruo Suehiro’s first book (Bara-iro no Kaibutsu, published in 1982) opens with the picture of a Nosferatu straight from Murnau, sinking his teeth in the offered neck of a sleeping beauty, and grasping with a clawed hand the softness of a naked breast. The next pages reveal an universe of burning desires, mixing sensuality with violence, detailing with a precise line rapes, mutilations and scatology. The vampire is back the next year, in a short story simply titled “Vampire” (in DDT, published in 1983).
Twenty years later, the undisputed master of Ero-Guro — “Erotic-Grotesque” — comes back to the vampire’s myth with his personal touch, delivering with Warau Kyûketsuki a book that is less extreme without loosing any of its interest.
What is striking in the first place, is Maruo Suehiro’s peculiar style, both realistic and strangely alien, describing modern Tôkyô with an atmosphere from another time. This nostalgic fascination is expressed through the caringly outdated school uniforms, a recurrent element of his work ; in the slightly static poses, which sometimes recall propaganda posters ; and finally, in those faces with almond-shaped eyes, and delicate features bordering on androgyny. Those references to a long-lost past are established right from the opening sequence, set in a wartime Japan reminiscent of the Shōwa period kindly remembered by the Japanese in general and Maruo in particular.
Along with the title of the book (“The vampire who laughs”), this introduction also links it to Victor Hugo’s The man who laughs, and in particular to its movie adapation of 1928. Presenting with the Rakuda-onna a mix between Ursus and Gwynplaine — hunchbacked “camel-woman” in echo to the bear, which sometimes hides her face disfigured by a hideous smile — Maruo shows her approaching a tree from which two corpses are hanging, in an almost perfect recreation of the first scenes of the movie.
But Paul Leni’s film only provides a starting point, as Maruo’s own obsessions soon take over — carried away by his recurring obsession for the “beauty of the devil” embodied by the “seishun”, this brief and specific moment of adolescence, the fleeting step between childhood and adult age, full of potentiality but so quickly gone. Moment of awakening to sexuality, but also violence that is often difficult to control, which places the loss of innocence at the center of this story.
Warau Kyûketsuki follows three characters on their initiatory voyage — three characters shown on the cover of the book, and featured in the dramatis personae introduced on the first page : Môri Kônosuke, Miyawaki Runa and Henmi Sotoo, all shown under the menacing shadow of the Rakuda-onna. And showing the two parallel progressions of two opposite forces, Henmi and Môri, pyromaniac and vampire, one killing by pleasure, the other by necessity.
Those two progressions with turn around a third one, Runa’s, the only innocent of this story where vices are all around — drugs, sex and violence. Luster after by the adults, encouraged by her more emancipated friends, she tries and resist even though she is very much aware of her victim status and almost acceptant of it, knowing she is already caught in the webs of the spiders which appear in those pages.
Maruo then deploys his esthetic and refined line, exploring a fundamentally sick universe, built around the sensuality of mutilation, while remaining coldly detached, an approach that culminates in the precise care given to the floral motives serving as backgrounds to rape or murder scenes. In this context, the vampire figure becomes an obvious sexual metaphor — reigning on the night, driven by an irrepressible hunger, open wounds like gaping sexes with blood as a plural symbal (feminine/masculine, virginal blood/sperm). Initiation as a kiss becomes as much about fusion as it is about sensuality, in the disparition of the lines of the mouths.
To the “noble” vampire with a vigilante streak, he opposes the dark side of the pyromaniac — both young and beautiful, and fascinated by the violence and the lust they can cause. But while Kônosuke finds some respite in feeding himself, Sotoo remains in the uncompleted and the frustration, in the yearning and the fantasy, until jealousy takes over and forces the final confrontation.
Stripped of the most extreme aspects of the author’s universe (scatology and coprophagy in particular), Warau Kyûketsuki leaves aside some of the “grotesque”, and ends up being relatively moral behind its horrific attire — the villains of the story being punished in the end, and the young and beautiful couple able to live happily ever after.
And while not exactly for everyone (and by far !), this book is a more palatable introduction to the very peculiar universe of a definitely unique author.
- Corresponding to the reign of the Emperor Hiorhito (from 1926 to 1989), with its post-war part often considered as a Golden Age for Japan because of its simple values of hard work, little pleasures, family cohesion and the belief in a better life for the future.
- Also note that the first story in Bara-iro no Kaibutsu is named “Caligari Hakase Fukkatsu” — “the return of Doctor Caligari”, a direct hommage to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, another expressionist classic from 1920 with Conrad Veidt in the title role.
- Note the choice of rather dated and unusual names — yet my knowledge of Japanese prevents me from reading any symbolic in their writing, except for the obvious Sotoo : “the outside boy”, which could be interpreted as “the misfit”.
- Besides spiders, the reader can find also crows, flies, serpents and other lizards — a cast of necrophages, which, associated with the human skulls of some pages (such as during one of Sotoo’s nightmares) are reminiscent of the Vanitas of the 17th century.
- From pulsions both vampiric and sexual — to the point that, after his first victim, the Rakuda-onna asks him if he has ejaculated.
- Which, in Maruo’s work, always remains on a visceral level, most certainly because of the visuals ; contrary to the writings of the Marquis de Sade, where the systematism of the humiliation mecanisms ends up on a very abstract plane, without any actual desire or sexual asuaging.