Shintaro Kago’s violently captivating guro-absurdism

The works of manga artist Shintaro Kago are interesting to say the least. I first stumbled upon him in conjunction with Flying Lotus’ album You’re Dead!, to which he provided the artwork. On their own, these pictures are undoubtedly a real eye-catcher with their peculiar blend of body horror and spiritual imagery, but it’s in combination with the music that they become especially intriguing, as they so immensely encapsulates the album’s overwhelming nature and themes around death and afterlife.

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Not to mention this awesome album trailer (beware of flicker though).

As these images might suggest, Kago’s works tend to contain pretty explicit content, whether it’s through violence, sex or otherwise, making him righteously considered an artist within the realm of guro manga. (To very briefly summarize what guro is all about, it’s a subgenre that takes the art of exploitation to a whole other level, Japanese style.) What differentiates his works from others I’ve encountered within this genre though is his unfathomable creativity, and his way of using guro’s grotesque nature in order to convey something much more than just grotesqueness for grotesqueness’ sake. This, in combination with an immensely black, often satirical sense of humor, gives Kago’s works a way of storytelling which I find highly similar to absurdist literature.

Initially, absurdism is a philosophy defined by the inherent conflict between two things: the lack of meaning in humanity’s existence, and her desperate attempt to find one. What that basically boils down to fiction-wise is the putting of characters in, as the name implies, absurd situations. Although unlike its arguable cousin surrealism, which seeks to achieve its absurdity by creating a clusterfuck of creative weirdness, absurdism is much more restrained and all about the conflict between reason and unreason. By putting a character in an environment beyond human logic – or sometimes just inserting an illogical phenomenon into the regular environment – he/she gets trapped in a situation which he/she then desperately is trying to make sense of, but is ultimately unable to do so. Absurdism is a very dark and nihilistic form of storytelling with an unpleasantly nightmarish atmosphere, but has at the same time a strangely humorous tone to it.

An absurdist story often revolves around a very simple yet clever idea, which works as the foundation of the plot – a young traveling salesman who wakes up one morning to find out that he’s been transformed into a bug [The Metamorphosis], a man being arrested for an unknown crime that he’s never committed [The Trial], two characters endlessly waiting for a third one that never arrives [Waiting for Godot]. Likewise, a lot of Kago’s stories has the same sort of principle, but instead of exploring the laid idea with ice cold realism like the absurdist writers tend to do (thus creating the contrast between the logical and illogical), he chooses to expand and play with it to its utmost level, like a seed that grows into a sprouting tree of madness. To give and example: in the short story Drunkard Condo Syndrome we first see a woman sitting at the dinner table in her condo waiting for her husband to come home. Although when the doorbell rings, it is not her husband who arrives but the man who lives one floor up. The woman tries to tell him that he’s got the wrong floor, but he is way too drunk to listen, so instead he sexually assaults the woman who he assumes to be his wife. We then cut to the next floor where the man’s actual wife is preparing dinner. As the doorbell rings, the man living yet another floor up arrives just as drunk as the previous one, and does the exact same thing. For each floor, this process is being repeated over and over again, and every time we get to see how each couple’s sexual fetishes are being revealed to the other. It doesn’t take long until it all escalates into complete insanity, as Kago for each floor lets the encounters become even more and more extreme and silly. We get to see a boxer husband punching a non-boxer wife in the face, firemen arriving at the floor where there’s no fire, the Grim Reaper coming to take the wrong woman, and many more. The building itself also seems to be ridiculously high, as the story begins at condo number 614 and then goes all the way up to 78214. But not even at the top floor is the story over, as the woman there gets assaulted by an alien, whose wife then gets assaulted in her spaceship by another man. After that, we zoom out and see how the manga itself that we’ve just nearly finished lies on a working desk in an apartment where a woman is cooking dinner, and in the very last panel she is being attacked by yet another man.

This basic formula – starting at a core and then stretching it out as far as possible – is what really drives Kago’s way of storytelling forward, but also his ability to use this formula in so many different ways. A lot of his stories has an underlying social critique to them, which he so ingeniously conveys by taking advantage of the guro genre’s exploitative style in combination with shameless satire. Like in Closed Hospital, which tells the story of a future Japan where diseases are not only carried on through generations within families, but are even seen as proud family traditions. If you for example belong to the broken bone family you’re born with broken bones, and the more of them you have, the more pride you bring to the family. This quickly becomes a commentary on both segregation as well as patriotism, and more specifically the crazy expectations some people have to fulfill in order to live up to their family.

Or like one of my personal favorites: Harakiri, a powerful satire against the beauty standards among women in today’s society, where the ancient Japanese samurai tradition of ritual suicide is applied to the model industry. We here get to see scenarios of young teenage girls looking in beauty magazines where the models cut their stomachs open, while doing the same thing in order to get more “beautiful”. We even see them compete at school about who is able to cut the deepest wounds, adding a depiction of the social hierarchy that can occur in a school environment. Not only is it a critique against the aforementioned beauty standards in today’s society, but more specifically it can be seen as a commentary on the self-destruction of anorexia amongst young girls.

Where I feel like Kago’s creativity really shines through though is in the stories where he experiments with the medium itself and its attributes. Like in Blow-Up, which begins with a single panel covering the first page, and for each new page there are a double amount of panels as on the previous one. As you flip through it, the panels are just getting more and smaller, until there’s a massive shoal of them that together illustrates the same panel as on page one, creating a sort of puzzle effect. Or like in The Memories of Others, where the local townspeople are infected by a disease called panelithis which makes copies of every last panel one has been in for all to see, as if being publicly haunted by one’s past.

As fantastic as this guy’s works are though, he is a man who’s content is clearly not for everyone. Being the guro artist that he is, you’re required to have a very strong stomach in order to get through some of the manga without losing your lunch, and even then you might just shrug them off as disgusting and tasteless. Although personally I feel like even in the stories that seem to have no other purpose than to create shock value, his endless creativity and sense of humor is prominently present, and I can’t even begin to count all the times his mind-blowing playfulness has left me breathless. So if you feel the slightest of interest in the guy after reading this, I highly recommend checking him out.

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