Gengoroh Tagame has a filthy mind. A legendary maker of gay erotic manga, his work is full of men who are bound, humiliated, beaten, tortured, raped and pleasured too. The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame, an anthology of 10 short stories dating from the late 1990s to 2012, is the first time his work has been made available in English translation. The book boasts a foreword by no less a luminary than Edmund White, who sees in Tagame's manga a "delicate, original and bold Japanese sense of rendering ... brought to bear on pictures of cruelty, pain and bondage."
In one of the stories, a city doctor moves to a village. Rather than finding the village's sexual mores to be more conservative than those of the city he came from, after a series of clandestine gay sexual encounters, he's officially made the "village bride." Even the little old lady is in on the secret: She's proud of how hard the doctor works to keep the men satisfied. In another story, a champion street fighter, a "real man," signs on to a circuit of underground matches. What he doesn't know is that the other fighters have been taking drugs that turn them into superhuman rape machines. When his quest to beat them on his own power leads only to a series of humiliating, public rapes, he asks for the drug too. He is instead given something that turns him into an insatiable "sex pig" bottom, a superhero of submission and suffering.
I sat down with Tagame the other day to talk about his work. He's a delightful person, possessed of a magical, wicked giggle. And he made a drawing while we talked:
If you're feeling up to exquisite, hardcore depictions of BDSM, rape and communal gay marriage, you can find The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame here.
Gengoroh Tagame: When I'm doing stories, I know what sort of art I'm supposed to be drawing, and it's predetermined, but when I'm asked to do a sketch like this, it materializes as I start to draw. So until I start the process, I don't even know what I'm drawing. Like, who is this guy? I don't even know. Usually, the story comes to me first, and then in some cases I have a scene in mind, and everything develops around the scene.
Max Freeman: Interviewers often point to Japanese sources for your work, but it seems that ancient Greek and Roman culture is there too. Can you talk about your Western influences?
Tagame: At home, we had anthologies of classical art, and I was highly attracted to and influenced by the Hellenistic period. The most modern I went to was probably Baroque and pre-modern. In what I'm depicting as sexual humiliation, Western religion is a big influence: Caravaggio's depictions of Christ's humiliation or his crucifixion, obviously. Things like that are in line with what I want to depict. Conversely, in the Japanese artistic tradition, there isn't really praising the nude. There are certainly depictions of violence, but there isn't a tradition of just the full male nude body. So in that sense, Western religious art has been a huge influence.
Freeman: Did you have a religious upbringing?
Tagame: I wasn't raised religious, but the kindergarten I went to is a Christian school, so they made me learn the Lord's Prayer and that sort of thing. And in the Christmas nativity play I would play the donkey.
Freeman: When did you start drawing?
Tagame: I started drawing at 4 or 5 years old.
Freeman: When did you start drawing like this?
Tagame: I started drawing like this at 13.
Freeman: And when was your first book published?
Tagame: The first time I published a comic in a magazine, I was 18. My first book was at 29. That's the same year I started G-Men and met my partner.
Freeman: In several of your stories, the characters are called "bad Japanese" or "filthy Japanese." One character claims the "filthy Japanese" invented dildos. As a Japanese maker of filthy comics, what do you think of this stereotype that appears in your work?
Tagame: I haven't given it a lot of thought. It's not calculated. It's just that my readers are Japanese, and humiliation is an S&M device. I want my readers to be humiliated, so I send them abroad and put them in that situation. Racism, for me, is interesting. It's a very serious, true problem, but in sadomasochistic fiction it's also a very good spice. You have your food, but you need spice for it to actually come out.
Freeman: In the village story, a city doctor finds the people of a small village to be less hung-up about sex than he is. Is this a reflection of urban and rural sexual mores in Japan?
Tagame: It's not so much country vs. town but past vs. present. So what I'm trying to spin on its head is this idea that we think people were more conservative in the past and are more liberated in the present, but actually I'm suggesting it's the other way around. As to city vs. country, it is the actual case, of course, that if you're in the city, it's more open or liberal, and more conservative in the countryside. So if I were doing a story that was contrasting those elements, it would probably be a story about a guy from the city coming to the country and getting into trouble having sex with a boy or something like that.
Freeman: Most of these stories happen in an indefinite time and place.
Tagame: There's a piece I did called "Pride" which was very specific in its location and era, and unfortunately that one piece became obsolete faster than any of my other stories. I had characters with beepers and stuff like that, and it took maybe five years for it to just not make any sense. Or I mention cruising spots that just don't exist anymore. I've been afraid of that happening to my other stories, so I calculate if it's going to be modern, I don't mention what year or where exactly something takes place. Just until last month I was running a serial comic in Badi magazine, and it involves someone using their iPhone to take pictures and video of people. I'm positive that by next year it'll already be obsolete.
Freeman: Bondage keeps better than the iPhone.
Tagame: I started drawing comics in middle school, and it was mostly comical comics, funny comics, for classmates and teachers and that kind of thing. And they all liked it a lot. And there was a main character that developed, and he was the captain of the soccer team, who is kind of my first love. I have no idea why, but I suddenly started drawing him getting captured by the rival team and being stripped and humiliated, and this was in middle school, before I came out, or before I was thinking about myself as a gay person, so I was like, "Why am I drawing this?" But I also gave that comic to my friends. They said they liked it, but I don't know what they really thought. And then I started to do manga in earnest in high school, and artistic adult manga were starting to be compiled and sold in regular bookstores, not just in weird adult niches. I'd see stylish adult comics, and it gave me permission to do what I'm doing. That's what I was aspiring to; that's what I originally published at 18, which is very different from what I do now.
Freeman: How was it different?
Tagame: I was much more careful and deliberate about the art then, so it wasn't as much about the story. It was about the graphics. It wasn't pornography, and it didn't depict sex; it depicted eroticism. My early work was gay, but the characters would be pretty boys, and they would be effeminate. In college we went on a European trip to visit the art museums, and I went into the gay shops and found Drama magazine. It's an American magazine, but I saw those illustrations represented the closest thing to the supreme core of my sexual desire. And that's when I realized that this other, butch style was in fact a kind of sexuality, and that's what I was about, so that's when I started to do this kind of drawing in earnest. That first story I published is about a father and son, and the son is this pretty boy who cross dresses to go to the city to meet with his boyfriend, and when his father finds out, they get into this heated argument, and just then the boyfriend walks in on the fight and kills the father! It is for teenagers.