Zerai Naoi makes his living by keeping gore hounds fed on a shoestring budget. If you want to sample his work, it helps to have a strong stomach.
The special effects artist began his career in high school and has crafted rotten body parts and blood spurts for everything from Australian B-movies to stage plays and maid cafes. His home studio looks like someone set off a bomb in a graveyard, while the bookshelves are a mad scientist’s mix of horror movie magazines and Renaissance-period anatomical texts. He takes a seat under the entrails strung on the wall to discuss the history of Japanese visual effects with The Japan Times.
Born in 1972, like most boys from his generation Naoi grew up watching “Godzilla,” “Ultraman” and other rubber-suited kaijū beasts. When VHS tape decks brought Hollywood creature features into Japanese living rooms for the first time in the mid-1980s, a teenage Naoi was spellbound. He knew he wanted to make monsters.
But where to start? There were no special effects schools or hobby shops selling supplies. Japan’s indigenous style of visual effects, known as tokusatsu, focused on miniature models, dioramas and actors in suits. Hollywood’s movie magic came from prosthetic makeup, a foreign technology that domestic studios integrated with tokusatsu sensibilities through trial and error.
“Nobody knew what they were doing back then,” Naoi admits with a laugh as he recalls his first feature, “Battle Heater,” a 1989 horror-comedy about a killer kotatsu (heated table). He got the job by accident when he wandered into the studio looking to buy liquid latex. “Thinking back, I wonder how it got green-lit. But horror and visual effects were novelties. You could get away with anything.”
This holds true today in the direct-to-DVD market. His most recent low-budget projects include “Mai-chan’s Daily Life,” a soft-core torture porn starring an abused maid who regenerates her mutilated body parts, and the “Lust of the Dead” series about virile zombies who can only be stopped via castration. Both fall into the divisive ero-guro subgenre.
The term “ero-guro,” a portmanteau of the English loan words for erotic, grotesque and nonsense (though “nonsensu” was later dropped), first appeared in the 1930s to describe titillating or subversive works that challenged good taste. Postwar ero-guro, on the other hand, tends to be more splatter than subterfuge.
Public fascination with the depraved and bizarre goes back to Edo Period (1603-1868) woodblock prints such as the blood-soaked “Twenty-eight Famous Murders with Verse” by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, and Utagawa Toyokuni’s “The Peony Lantern,” which depicts a man’s engorged member thrust through the pelvic bone of his skeletal lover.
I’m hardly squeamish, though I prefer to keep gore and pornography separate. Naoi suggests that I’m too literal-minded.
“Ero-guro doesn’t differentiate between the erotic and the grotesque — it includes both, but it’s really about neither,” he says. Naoi argues that Japanese pop culture has a history of graphic violence and oblique eroticism that allows the audience to look past the superficial shock value.
“When Studio Ghibli got serious about marketing its films abroad with ‘Princess Mononoke,’ producer Toshio Suzuki pointed out to director Hayao Miyazaki that his storyboards were too violent,” Naoi explains. “I’m talking about heads getting lopped off and flying through the air. Pretty standard as far as anime goes. But you can’t sell that to Disney!”
Naoi also brings up “Doraemon,” the family-friendly manga about a robot cat from the future with a pouch full of gadgets who helps Nobita, his hapless elementary student friend. One running gag involves Nobita’s attempts to peep at Shizuka, his pre-pubescent crush, in the bath. “These scenes aren’t sexual. They inject humor into an everyday situation, in this case, taking a bath. The audience accepts it as entertainment. Of course, you get pitchfork mobs abroad criticizing it as child pornography.”
According to Naoi, ero-guro may be fringe but it’s hardly the taboo it once was.
“In 1995, the anime ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ was a financial smash hit. It made it OK to be a geek,” he says. “Now you have TV personalities whose whole shtick is to be freakishly knowledgeable on a particular topic — celebrity geeks. So people are more comfortable about admitting their hobbies.”
Less shame means more attendees at Tokyo fetish events, namely Enzan, an artist’s alley of big names in the ero-guro scene, and Fetifes, a swap meet and stage show for exhibitionists and those who like to watch. Naoi has a regular booth at both where he applies zombie makeup to visitors and models. Of all the depravity on display, he was most shocked to see that Enzan caters mainly to women.
“Girls seem to have a higher tolerance for brutal imagery. Some of the art is quite savage but they snap it up,” he says.
Once you cut through the ero-guro nonsense, Naoi is primarily attracted to the verisimilitude of practical effects.
“Practical effects are real. They get under your skin. Computer graphics are impressive until you get used to them. ‘Pacific Rim’ set a new bar for CG — now anything below that looks fake. But look at Tom Savini’s work,” he prompts and I instantly recall the finale of 1985’s “Day of the Dead” in which a pack of zombies tear a soldier in half and paw at his guts. “The visuals still have the same impact. The only thing left to innovate is creative ways to kill people.”
Naoi’s output is as far from Hollywood as you can be and he’s all right with that.
“It’s all about entertainment! I like to see the audience enjoy themselves, ” he says. “My job is to let the blood and guts fly.”
The director’s cut of “Mai-chan’s Daily Life” will be previewed at the Fetifes Underground Film Festival in Shibuya, Tokyo, on Nov. 8 (11 a.m. start; ¥2,000). For more information, visit www.fetifes.com/attention.html.