Mandalas of severed fingers and eyeballs stare back at you. You wonder what kind of person sits down and actually draws this mess. This feeling of disgust and intrigue is common for those seeing Shintaro Kago’s work for the first time.
After seeing the Japanese manga artist’s soft colored illustrations of scat play and young girls with eviscerated spines a few more times, it almost looks beautiful. The apathetic expression on his characters’ faces as nonsensical labyrinths explode out of their heads is laughable—as satire should be.
It’s a reflection of the strangeness of everyday life. Reality is absurd, after all, with people living in a repetitive loop of mundane existence. Especially in a society running as well oiled a machine as Japan.
Most people who go down the wormhole of Japanese manga will eventually come across the ero guro genre, in which Kago falls into. It’s an abbreviation for “erotic grotesque nonsense” and focuses mostly on dark depictions of erotica and exaggerated gore.
Other notable artists of the genre include Junji Ito, whose work dips more into the horror manga category, and Suehiro Mauro with his graphic sexual nightmare world.
Compared to them, Kago considers himself as more of a “black humor” artist. That is, he really likes “making light of things most people would never laugh about,” as he put it.
The purpose of art is that you want people to feel something they’ve never felt before.
“Shintaro Kago Turns Shit Into Gold,” a Vice Magazine article from 2008, was likely the first time many outside of Japan were exposed to his gory manga style.
His art reached an even bigger western audience in 2014 when the experimental electronic/hip-hop album “You’re Dead” by Flying Lotus dropped. The album featured 19 tracks, each with an original image drawn by Kago and appearances by notable rappers Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg. Kago also drew the cover art.
Warped voiceovers and low-fi beats with song titles like “Descent into Madness” and “The Boys Who Died in Their Sleep” are exact audio representations of Kago’s demented world.
Despite his relative notoriety, Kago has had very few books officially translated into English. Up until 2018, English-speaking fans have had to rely on bootleg translations in the curious corners of the internet.
An interview with the artist himself
As the short, 51-year-old Tokyo native with glasses pulled up a countertop stool to chat with us at a Tokyo cafe, the mystery behind the legendary illustrator faded.
There were so many questions. Why does he like drawing eyeballs so much? Are these scenes that came to him through hallucinogenic drug trips?
Perhaps the most burning question we asked him:
Why are most of your subjects underaged schoolgirls?
“It’s better that way, no?” he responded nonchalantly. “That’s just what Japanese people like.”
Like many of his illustrations, one of his most recent popular drawings Aquarium is centered around what appears to be a high school girl.
“An acquaintance of mine put on a sailor-style school uniform and did some nice poses. We took a few pictures, and I was then inspired to draw this particular postcard,” he said.
“It resonates with people and is more likely to get a reaction out of them. People don’t enjoy looking at something particularly mature. That just wouldn’t be appealing.”
We suppose a drawing of roller coaster tracks coming out of a grandmother’s head would be strange—even for Kago’s body of work. He noted for his manga, however, that a slightly older woman or even a male protagonist is easier for people to relate to.
“It came together organically,” he went on about the postcard. “That was the starting point and then I threw in some fingers and thought, ‘You know, a fish would look nice in there.’ It’s also reminiscent of [1,000 Armed Kannon] which is a traditional Japanese motif.”
From humble manga artist to erotica
Surprisingly, Kago started off as just an average manga artist and didn’t want to make anything erotic at all. You’d hardly be able to tell with themes of bondage and poop play recurring throughout his work.
Life is tough for a manga artist in Japan, though, as everyone wants to be published in popular magazines like Shonen Jump.
“I published my first manga when I was 19 years old,” he said. In 10 years, I only managed to release one book because they just weren’t selling. Then I discovered a magazine called Manga Erotics.”
Rather than focus on just showing naked women, the magazine deeply examined the theme of erotica and used it as a means to tell interesting stories. Intrigued, Kago decided to plunge himself into that world. But of course, to publish in an erotic magazine, he had to start incorporating erotic elements. So he did.
“That was the case about 25 years ago when I first started out, but now the situation is very different.”
People ask why are there so many fingers in there? My answer is because it’s much more interesting to have them there.
Kago’s popularity lies in the genius of his satire that lies beyond the dismembered bodies and utter madness.
His story Iwa to Iemon (Iwa and Iemon), for example, is a parody of the classic Japanese yokai (ghost) story Yotsuya Kaidan (The Ghost of Oiwa) from 1825. The original story follows a woman named Oiwa and her husband who poisons and kills her so he can date other women. The deformed ghost of Oiwa haunts her husband forever. There’s even a famous ukiyoe (traditional woodblock print) of Oiwa’s ghost by Japanese painter Utagawa Kuniyoshi.
In Kago’s version, however, the husband fails at killing his wife, leaving her hideously disfigured. Soon after, he joins a bizarre club of men with similarly deformed wives who boast about whose wife is the ugliest. This is a soft jab at women’s beauty standards in Japan, he told us. One of the wives has an ear coming out of her knee, which the men delight over.
Don’t look too hard for the social commentary, though, as you run the risk of overanalyzing the art instead of simply appreciating it.
“The act of drawing this sort of thing with an antisocial element is just fun for me,” Kago said. “I may have picked up a tendency to make this sort of commentary subconsciously against society, but I don’t set out to do that. I’m maybe 20% conscious of it, and the other 80% is just drawing things I enjoy.”
He doesn’t deny that his work has undertones of antisocial commentary that are seemingly meant to poke fun at mainstream society, but he’s very clear that it’s up to the reader, not the artist, to decide the meaning.
In the end, Kago’s work isn’t about being overtly NSFW (though some of it definitely is) or political.
“People ask why are there so many fingers in there? My answer is because it’s much more interesting to have them there.”
“The purpose of art is that you want people to feel something they’ve never felt before. Of course, it’s good if they find it fun or interesting, but what I’d really like is for them to not know what to feel.”
He’s definitely succeeded.
Here are the few books available in English we recommend reading.
Dementia 21 Vol. 1 (2018)
Kago’s first book officially translated into English follows a home help aide named Yukio Sakai and her encounters with Japan’s strangest elderly residents. From has-been superheroes who can no longer fight due to arthritis to grandpas with mind-controlling dentures, Yukio tends to her patients at all costs—even if it kills her.
Dementia 21 Vol. 2 (2020)
See above. It’s basically flipping the record to Side-B and playing it on repeat.
Princess of the Neverending Castle (2019)
While most of Kago’s books are collections of short stories, Princess of the Neverending Castle is the first time he wrote a long-form narrative. This one explores the theme of parallel universes in a jidaigeki setting which depicts the lives of samurais during the Edo period.