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Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, by Miriam Silverberg. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007, 370 pp., with many illustrations $49.95 (cloth)

From the late 1920s on, the impact of the modern on traditional Japan had become so noticeable that some new terminology was required. It took the form of a slogan: “ero guro nansensu.”

Descriptive, it was also ambivalent. While seemingly critical it could denote admiration, and while ostensibly antimodern (and hence anti-Western) it was to be described through imported terminology — all three words in the slogan are derived from English.

In her long-awaited and richly detailed account of this slogan as descriptive of mass culture of the time, Miriam Silverberg defines its parts. “Erotic,” meaning pornographic, also connoted an energized, colorful vitality. “Grotesque” may designate malformed, but it is also descriptive of the culture of the jobless, the homeless, that underlined this period. “Nonsense” can mean silly, but it also makes an amount of sense if seen as criticism.

In all, the tripartite phrase, in Silverberg’s reading, indicates the vitality of the time. It is “expressive of a politics that was quite cognizant of the power play involved in the attempts of culture to colonize” and the attempts of the Japanese government to paternalize and to control.

To indicate the disparate nature of the qualities suggested in the slogan — ero, guro, and nansensu — Silverberg, ” to create some of the sense of fragmentation and dynamism of Japanese modern culture,” crafts a narrative in the shape of one of the favorite forms of the modernist period: the montage.

The dictionary defines montage as: “Making a composite picture by bringing together into a single composition a number of different pictures or parts of pictures and arranging these so that they form a blended whole while remaining distinct.” We are familiar with the practice in photography and in experimental fiction, also in film.

The theories of the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein are here useful to Silverberg. He maintained that “the principle of montage can be identified as the basic element of Japanese representative culture,” by which he meant not only the written language but also the traditional pictorial culture, as in ukiyo-e and the like. It is thus but natural that montage, the impulse already existing, could have become a major modernist manner in contemporary Japan.

Within this framework Silverberg is able to draw together an enormous number of references and representations. Her itinerary includes the moga (Modern Girl), that “highly commodified cultural construct,” and then moves on to the cafe waitress and the social and sexual expectations anticipated. Then onto movie magazines and their best-selling fantasies, to the modern housewife within the modern family within the modern magazine.

This montage of looming constructs and fascinating details climaxes in a series of chapters on the Tokyo district of Asakusa “as a modern site of desperation and of liberatory energies.” The place was an eroticized modern playground, site of down-and-out (grotesque) social order, and a place where popular “political” theater made nonsense out of governmental intentions.

The notorious Abe Sada with her purloined penis is brought in to testify, as is Charlie Chaplin, the nonsensical comedian almost assassinated on these very shores.

On display are the most popular portions of the Hollywood meat-shop — Clara Bow’s breasts, Olga Baclanova’s thighs, Mary Duncan’s back side, and Maurice Chevalier’s lips — “they drove the moga crazy.”

Girls in very short kimono dance the Charleston and the actors in the “Forty-seven Ronin” parody commit hara-kiri with safety razors.

Concluding is a complete exegesis of Yasunari Kawabata’s masterful summing up of the period, his mannerist montage-novel “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa” — in a way a model for Silverberg.

She writes at the conclusion of her overview: “If this book has revealed anything of the tensions, fissures, and energies released by mass culture that were coursing through the alleyways of early Showa Japan, my montage will have served its purpose.” It also serves to underline the essential seriousness of political nonsense.

As film critic Akira Iwasaki has said, comedy and satire were the only means of expressing antiwar sentiment under capitalism, and as film director Mansaku Itami maintained, nonsense tried to negate that which was treated with respect by society just as the “nonsense” literature of the Tokugawa Period mocked both Buddha and Confucius.

It is this use of mass culture as criticism that Silverberg has most tellingly illustrated in her many-faceted view of one of Japan’s most intriguing periods — late Taisho, early Showa.

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