At the end of 2019, ‘The Godfather of Japanese Erotic’ passed away. It’s under this title that those outside of Asia would recognise Toshio Saeki. Although memorable and with the intention of respecting his artistic contribution, it falls short on the true power that the Japanese master could muster. Surreal, comic, beautiful and tragic, Saeki’s paintings captured a thread of Japanese life unlike any other.
Japan, as a whole, is a country that is turned off by sex. Less and less people are having it. The birthrate recorded in the year of Saeki’s death was the lowest on record and, in general, Japan’s relationship to the depiction of sex has always been an oddity. Pixelated genitals reminiscent of The Sims show a true conservative nature, yet graphically animated tentacles molesting schoolgirls points to an acknowledgement of something far darker.
In amongst it all is erotic art, a style the Japanese are particularly fond of and likewise, particularly good at producing. Whilst it’s hard to say for certain why, that it is one shade in the spectrum of extremities referenced above, it’s possible to derive that the Japanese are more comfortable with sexual fantasy than reality.
Saeki’s paintings are just that. In many ways, they could be viewed as the precursor to Japan’s culture of animated sex. Some are cute, others are lurid. All the traces of how we come to think of the Japanese sexual paradox is evident in his works. In one illustration, a young girl sits dreamily against a wall as little alienoid creatures crawl towards her. Whilst not necessarily threatening, there is a clear undercurrent that something is about to happen.
In another, a man is performing oral sex on a woman who has an eyeball protruding from her vagina. The effect is unsettling, almost as if these are acknowledging that sexual at all as being taboo. Rather than showing a comfort, there is a sense of trepidation. Avant-garde poet and director Shūji Terayama one quipped of the artist's early work - “Toshio Saeki conjures death with a pen.” Terayama, it seems, saw past their ability to arouse and at their subtly disturbing tone.
Undoubtedly dark, Saeki made his name in the underground art scene in Tokyo during the nihilistic post-war years where the city’s population took to life with new vigour, embracing their primal and carnal desires in a way that had previously - and since - been repressed. Saeki's own work rejected many of the formulas of Japanese art prior to his own, making him the right man at the right time to encapsulate Japan’s rebellious zeitgeist.
Like Francis Bacon was to Soho, Saeki frequented the seedier spots of Tokyo’s nightlife, mingling with fellow artists, writers and musicians. Although well-known in these circles, Saeki’s refusal to make himself a public face has given his work the license to be bolder than others, to challenge ideas with his name attached, but stand undiminished by any preconception of his personality.
Mystique is a huge part of erotica. It’s the precipice, not the fall. The build-up, not the climax. Creating a holistic identity, in body and being, means Saeki has not only built up an image of his art, but a whole entire feeling that the package can induce. Although seldom, the artist has discussed his own works. Clearly, his intention is to make people feel. Saeki said, on this, “I only ever thought about how to appeal to the hearts of the audience.”
His acceptance and integration as an artistic personality is like Japan's view on sex itself. It swims against the tide, zigs when many others zag. Undoubtedly, Japan is one of the more complex societies to understand - a country that is at once ancient and hyper-modern. Attitudes, though, are impacted less by trends than we can to think.
Things comes and go, but feelings and ideas linger. Saeki manages to capture something essential about Japan - its difficult relationship towards sex and, in its raw and visceral honesty, encapsulates and has become a benchmark of how Japanese art has developed over the last few decades.
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