Book review: Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show

Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak ShowMr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show by Suehiro Maruo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you know what ero-guro is, you know what you’re getting into with Suehiro Maruo’s work. He’s one of the most well-known artists working in this area – the nexus of violence and beauty (or eroticism) – and it’s pretty much a given that if you can’t handle splatter films you shouldn’t really be looking here.

No, I’m serious. I’ve seen some pretty terrible horror films, and the art on display here is fairly heinous, even by those standards. It’s fetishistic and violent, and it takes cute puppy-like things (and actual puppies, at one point) and then stomps all over them. The only thing that causes one to persevere is the incredible artistry on display.

Hear me out: this is the story of an orphan girl, adopted by a diabolically bad travelling freak show. There’s a range of despicable jerks who make her life hell, who love her or hate her (or both, in one bottle-fancying midget’s case, it seems) and the tale hinges on whether this experience will break her; whether she will become one of them.

There’d be no point in drawing only depravity, because there’d be no glimmer of hope. So through the intensely detailed linework in the story, Maruo adds some kind of hope – it’s as if the at times phantasmagorical events are rendered with such precision that they couldn’t possibly be real. There’s particularly touching, wordless elements at the end of the book where the art takes a more cinematic, dreamlike approach – great events are conveyed in single drawings. There’s a beauty in the construction even if the draperies are rotted flesh.

What’s interesting to me is that there is an historical precedent for the sort of grotesque tableaux Maruo presents in his work – the 1860s ‘bloody prints’ known as Muzan-e which detailed murders in graphic fashion. So rather than being shocking for the reasons that any parents’ organisation would find enough to call for bans of sale, it could be argued that Maruo’s work is part of a lineage; one that’s difficult to stomach, but one which hasn’t just turned up yesterday.

The reason this work intrigues is because it is both beautiful and terrible. It twangs something inside that frightens you, but it cannot be dismissed for being purely violent (because of the care taken in its execution) while at the same time it can’t be cherished as fine art (because of the terribleness of its presentation). It takes the purity of its main character and throws it against the rocks of loss, perversion and degradation to see if she’ll weaken. It’s a proper descent into Hell, with the chance of a better life continually paraded and snatched away.

It’s a real no-man’s land, this work, so expect to see some twisted bodies when you explore it. But if you can stomach it, go there.

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