Seedy and Sublime: The Ero Guro Dystopia of Japanese Noir Posters

Stills and poster from Sejin Suzuki films
Stills and poster from Sejin Suzuki films
In the 1960s and 70s, the Japanese film industry (Nikkatsu Studio to be precise) headlined a golden age for East Asian exploitation noir. After years of censorship, first outlined by Japanese Imperial government during the Second World War and later by the occupying Allies, exploitation noir films became a mode of subcultural expression and perhaps even an outlet for social critique. Just as cover art played a major role in selling pulp magazines and fiction in the West, the film posters of post-industrial Japan exhibited talent that was often lacking in the actual production. The eye-popping images of hardened yakuza, rogue detectives, and doe-eyed damsels (often in the nude) are unforgettable, though the same cannot be said about the underfunded, poorly-scripted pinku eiga (softcore exploitation genre known as “pink films.”)

Films: A Certain Killer’s Key (1967) and Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973)
A Certain Killer’s Key (1967) and Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973)

The anonymous designers of these posters are pioneers, experimenting with perspective, angles, color, and scale. Of course, the subjects and themes are quite inspiring—tattooed vixens, katana-wielding warlords, racketeering Buddhist nuns, shiv-brandishing thugs, and vigilante justice-dealers. The film titles, inked in the splashy kanji and hiragana characters, complement the photographic montage in charting a timeless, discordant, and imagined historicism—from swordsmen in feudal Japan in chambara films such as Zatoichi, Lone Wolf and Cub, Lady Snowblood  to the yakuza antiheroes in hyper-modern action thrillers like Branded to Kill, Battles Without Honor or Humanity, and Tokyo Drifter.

Branded to Kill (1967) and Female Convict 701: Scorpion (1972)
Branded to Kill (1967) and Female Convict 701: Scorpion (1972)

One prevailing element that unites Japanese noir posters is ero guro, an aesthetic that unites the erotic and the grotesque. It is a graphic style seen in ancient woodblock carvings called Ukiyo-e dating to the Edo period in the 1800s (some examples being The Dream of Fisherman’s Wife by Katsushika Hokusai or  Twenty-eight famous murders with verse by artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi). Death, decay, and degradation are seen as extreme allegories for deviant eroticism and unfettered sexuality. Of course, the sensationalism of ero guro, based on provocative exaggerations and profane absurdism, unavoidably also evokes a comical response from viewers. There is certainly an undertone of pitch black humor in exploitation noir—and perhaps in all noir.

The Nun’s Gamble (1971) and Escaped Murderer from Hiroshima Prison (1974)
The Nun’s Gamble (1971) and Escaped Murderer from Hiroshima Prison (1974)

I have not even scratched the tip of the iceberg that is the graphic richness of the noir genre, whether it is pulp cover art or cult film posters. The artistic movement brought on by the literary genre is so variegated that it cannot be summarily catalogued. One thing is for sure—the bizzare and beautiful, the lurid and lofty coexist in the visual, textual, and imaginary. 

Images via Hanafuda and Lost Video Archive


Cathy Chen is inspired by post-war Japanese cinema and doesn’t believe in a fair game of hanafuda.

Comments

  1. Peter Takahata

    I like those posters.

  2. Jake Hinkson

    Love this!

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