Written by C.B.W. Caswell
Genre: Horror, Psychological
Favourite Character: Kakihara (Ichi the Killer)
Summary: With powerful art and avant garde symbolism, Yamamoto pushes manga to its extreme while retaining artistic integrity.
We’re laughing our guts out while a woman is dismembered.
What you get is something that’s blunt and shocking but, more importantly, is meaningful art.
The basement is dark. Machine Girl is one of several movies of the Tokyo Gore genre my friends and I are marathoning. Penises turn into chainsaws. Breasts become machine guns. Wounds bleed with such force they could strip paint off a wall. The mix is sexual and violent and we can’t stop laughing. At some point it just becomes absurd and can’t be taken seriously any longer.
Violence and sexuality are pretty blunt thematic instruments. They hit with enough force that they become the go-to tools for weak writers seeking an easy way to grab attention. But in the hands of a master, like Yamamoto, porn and gore can take on artistic merit—going beyond shock value to become disturbing, a characteristic of elevated writing that is difficult to achieve, that opens us up to confront the way we see the world.
In mangaka Hideo Yamamoto’s work, you’ll see a penis split in half. A person eating their own ejaculate. Someone drilling a hole in their own forehead. Dismemberment, aggressive sexuality, and more. But rather than laughing, you’re left with a haunting sensation, an examination of humanity on a primal level, one that leaves the reader to question their own perspective towards themselves and others’ actions.
Yamamoto’s two series, Ichi the Killer and Homunculus, do this by using these visual elements to veil the psychoanalytical characteristics of his cast, taking what is normally repressed and putting it at the forefront. What you get is something that’s blunt and shocking but, more importantly, is meaningful art.
Ichi the Killer
On the surface, the manga—published from 1998 to 2001—is about two characters: Ichi, the developmentally handicapped protagonist who transforms between a coward and a psychotic murderer, and Kakihara, a torturer and yakuza boss (in that order). Ichi is pitted against Kakihara’s gang, culminating in a fight between the two. As the story progresses, we watch as Yamamoto explores the psychological sexual deviances of both characters — Ichi becoming unintentionally aroused when inflicting pain (sadism), and Kakihara finding erotic ecstasy in inflicting pain upon himself, seen by his many piercings, open Glasgow smile, and permanent bondage (masochism).
In both cases, sexual deviance plays a part in the character’s story. Ichi is a split personality — the mind of a boy that’s filled with fear, but the body of a man that craves violence and sex. Because his conscious mind is incapable of maturing, his subconscious breaks out into uncontrollable fits where he sates these appetites. With Kakihara, the torture he uses as a yakuza is a kind of extrapersonal masturbation, visiting the pain on others that he craves himself.
More than just a revenge thriller, Ichi the Killer becomes a twist on the common love story.
So, in this case, the violence and sex is explained in the character backgrounds and plays an important part in their narrative arc. But Yamamoto really redeems their use in how these themes reveal themselves throughout the story. While Ichi is killing his way across Kakihara’s gang, Kakihara continually finds his men completely massacred, and he begins to lust for Ichi. When they encounter one another at the end of the story, not only are they the perfect adversaries (Kakihara welcomes any pain that Ichi can inflict upon him) but they are the perfect romantic couple. More than just a revenge thriller, Ichi the Killer becomes a twist on the common love story.
Yamamoto’s Homunculus—published from 2003 to 2011—is the story of Nakoshi, a man who undergoes a trepanation operation. This grants him a sixth sense that manifests in how he sees other people: they take on a metaphorical appearance that reveals elements of their personality, or struggles they are currently working through. Not everyone’s appearance changes however, and so Nakoshi is left with the mystery of why he can only see certain people’s metamorphosis, and how this all relates to how he sees himself.
Based largely on Jungian psychology which focuses on every person’s quest for psychological wholeness, along with Freudian psychology that focuses on repression, libido, and many other facets of the subconscious, the more overt pornographic elements of Homunculus are the metaphorical displays of a person’s inward psyche as it relates to their sexual self.
…the more overt pornographic elements of Homunculus are the metaphorical displays of a person’s inward psyche as it relates to their sexual self.
Here, the sexuality is shocking, but serves moreso as a signifier of what the character is personally going through and how they view themselves even if they don’t fully understand it. What Yamamoto has done is visualize the shock or disgust we feel from witnessing aberrant behaviors we don’t understand (exampled by a girl made out of sand who shifts her face over her vagina as a way to entice men), then slowly unpacks the visual metaphor so we have a fuller understanding of what that visualization represents within that character.
Through the clues provided by the character’s appearance, we come from a place of confusion to a place of understanding. Similarly in life, we are able to write off others based on strange behavior, but by examining what initially seems unparseable, we can not only understand other people but help them understand themselves.
As for violence, the ongoing theme of self-discovery is visualized by the protagonist undergoing the trepanation operation, drilling into his own head to reveal new truths. It’s artfully subtle: not as bombastic as being blown up or having your throat cut or anything that is beyond personal experience. Everyone is familiar with a mechanical drill: its noise, its vibration. The act of trepanation hangs over the narrative arc, but it’s only until the last time that we watch him drilling a hole in his own skull.
The tension stored up from the first and second surgeries that are never seen is released in its full glory, attaining the qualities of a sexual climax. It isn’t wasted on the initial viewings for the sake of it. And by the time the audience is watching it happen, they’re rapt to see what it looks like, rather than being bored. Here, the gore is a metaphor for self-examination, and the way it rends us apart like a surgery in the hope of healing deeper wounds. It’s also examined with precision, the moment being broken up over several pages to highlight its importance to the character and as a thematic element in the story.
With Yamamoto, you are made to be uncomfortable, because it is when we are uncomfortable that we are stretched beyond our normal perceptions.
Ultimately, the meaning in Yamamoto’s work is achieved because the shock is a means to an end, not the end itself. The adrenaline we feel is secondary to the point he is trying to make, whether it’s that love comes in many different forms than we have been led to believe by rom-coms, or that we should be looking past things in other people that shock us and even dive deep into those things, as they often tell the most interesting parts of that person’s story, and even our own.
With Yamamoto, you are made to be uncomfortable, because it is when we are uncomfortable that we are stretched beyond our normal perceptions. We have gone beyond what we are used to, and have to recalibrate our worldview around this new information and make it fit within ourselves and our understanding of our existence.
We gain new perspective that we can apply to our everyday modes of thought, and we can address issues we were afraid to approach. We become able to grow. And that is one of the grand purposes of art.