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.