Suehiro Maruo’s Rubber Hell: Showa Horror & Tokusatsu

…I stopped off in Tokyo for a social call, but it turned out to be a visit to the living hell of another world.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! 1956

The shock of this discovery left me flabbergasted for several moments, but just then, I heard the voice of the devil in the mirror screaming at me, “Your tongue is the tongue of a devil! A diabolical tongue cannot be satisfied with anything but food fit for a devil. Eat! Eat everything! Go find diabolical food for for yourself! If you fail to do this, your tastes will never be satisfied!”

The Diabolical Tongue, Murayama Kaita, 1915

For decades, comic author Suehiro Maruo has shocked audiences with a combination of Showa aesthetics and punk shocker sensibilities, his work’s tone simultaneously irreverent and condemning of mankind. Maruo emerged in the early 1980s, a period when the maniac1 followings were coalescing and anime was entering a post-Gundam boom. At a glance, Maruo’s body of work is divorced from contemporaries such as Hisashi Eguchi [Stop!! Hibari-kun!, Perfect Blue] or Katsuhiro Otomo [Domu, Akira], but born in 1956, Maruo is part of the same generation that grew up with heroes like 8 Man and Ultraman. While considered by most to be firmly planted in the realm of ero-guro, Maruo has intersected with critical figures in the world of tokusatsu and has made tokusatsu a recurring and important motif in his work. Maruo’s work inhabits a world of formative nightmares and insecurities, and the worlds of creatures of heroes on TV and film simultaneously represent innocence and subversion that recurs in his work.

Rose Colored Monster [1982] was Maruo’s premiere collection of stories. It was a grisly menagerie of sordid stories, but right off the bat, Maruo invoked genre cinema; using images of Bela Lugosi as Dracula and the Klaus Kinski Nosferatu in collage, followed by a short story modeled after the classic German silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. This pastiche of genre cinema and grotesqueries would set the tone for much of Maruo’s work going forward, with elements of photo collage persistent through his comic and illustration work, though in this particular instance, he alluded more to American and German genre films.

His next collection, Yume no Q Saku [1982], was a particularly gruesome tome. Its aesthetics were rooted in the Taisho and early Showa eras but with scenes reminiscent of John Waters’ Pink Flamingo, Passolini’s Salo, and Phantom of the Opera. The cover depicts Kaiketsu Kurozukin, a revolver-wielding ninja from a series of films in the late 1950s, not dissimilar to Zorro. Originally portrayed by Ryutaro Otomo (of Toei’s The Magic Serpent), Kaiketsu Kurozukin has since languished in obscurity, despite the occasional attempt at a revival2. The back cover of Yume no Q Saku cover depicted the King of the Monsters himself, Godzilla, covered with the character 吸 (meaning to “suck” or “guzzle”). One wonders if Toho sanctioned this appearance, as it was in the initial publication of the manga and print runs into the ’90s, though over time the front and back covers have been changed with new illustrations multiple times.

Maruo has a reputation for being glib during interviews and interviews conducted with him in English numbers in the single digits, so we can only speculate on the significance Maruo has attributed to these images. But it feels deliberate that this collection was sandwiched between imagery of a swashbuckling romanticization of the Meiji era on the front and a rubber-suited herald of a post-nuclear world on the back. 1982 was just shy of the 30-year anniversary of Godzilla’s big screen debut and his comeback film Return of Godzilla [1984]. Maruo’s inclusion of Godzilla in his book and juxtaposing the creature with Kurozukin represented a critical eye toward post-war nuclear trauma and recontextualized Godzilla as a creature from the past whose fans have come of age.

Compared to some of his earlier titles, New National Kid [1989] trafficked much more heavily in imagery related to post-war Japan’s pop culture. With a front cover depicting a character modeled after the boy detectives3 of the Showa era shoving a gun into a girl’s mouth, Maruo’s New National Kid reveled in its corruption of old-fashioned heroes and even featured a title based on the early Toei tokusatsu show, National Kid [1960]4. Very much in the same mold as Prince of Space or Super Giant, National Kid was a hero from space who could be summoned with a special magic radio (courtesy of Matsushita Electric). Most of the stories in New National Kid have a decidedly post-war setting, switching out motifs of the Taisho Era for 1970s pop culture references. Poison Strawberry is about a high school girl named Yamaguchi (modeled after the idol Momoe Yamaguchi) who torments everyone around her but gets away with murder due to her cute exterior and conniving schemes. In one story Yamaguchi burns down her school’s library but doesn’t realize that a boy she goes to school with witnesses her. He invites Yamaguchi back to his apartment and attempts to enact what he sees as justice by trying to sexually assault and blackmail her for the vandalism, under the watchful gaze of an Ultraman figure. Momoe escapes and the boy commits suicide, the Ultraman toy being the sole witness to what transpired.

Maruo also dabbles in science fiction, like many of his contemporaries, but sticks with a visual language that is distinctly his own. Fake Electric Ant (also collected in New National Kid) was a loose adaptation of the Philip K. Dick story The Electric Ant (in the art book Maruograph EX II Maruo mentions being an avid fan of Blade Runner), while Sojin depicts a brief scuffle between cyborgs and mystics set in 1930s Shanghai.

Another recurring motif throughout New National Kid was the early manga and tokusatsu Maboroshi Tantei. Created by Jiro Kuwata, Maboroshi Tantei appeared with a slew of other Showa era tokusatsu heroes emblemized on menko cards (a sort of precursor to pogs) in Maruo’s story Children’s Art Broadcast. In it, a young boy grapples with having his menko taken by bullies and then catching his parents engaged in an S&M tryst. The roiling guilt and grief are juxtaposed with imagery from Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1960 horror classic, Jigoku (posters for Jigoku and Maboroshi Tantei goods have also been spotted in Maruo’s collection).

In a 1997 interview by the artist Romain Slocombe, Maruo briefly mentioned being an avid fan of Ultraman as a youngster, though he does not go into great detail5. There is a theatrical and performative aspect to tokusatsu, especially in many earlier works where the choreographed violence by costumed actors doesn’t have quite as many optical effects or CG to smooth out the rough edges.

The experimental theater troupe Tokyo Grand Guignol was in many ways a contemporary counterpart to Maruo’s work. The Tokyo Grand Guignol represented a bridge between the fantastical violence on the screen and Maruo’s blood-soaked work on the page. Though the lifespan of the troupe was fairly brief (lasting just three years between 1983 and 1986), the reverberations of it are still felt today6.

Often incorporating genre and science fiction elements, performances by Tokyo Grand Guignol such as Litchi Light Club and Mercury utilized effects work reminiscent of tokusatsu of the past. Maruo drew posters for the troupe and appeared in an assortment of small roles. Footage from a 1985 TV appearance of the troupe features Maruo as an assistant to a surgeon played by future tokusatsu luminary and character actor Kyusaku Shimada [Teito Monogatari, Shin Ultraman] as the two enact an ersatz but enthusiastic send-up of the chest-burster scene from Alien, accompanied by a cacophonous soundtrack. Maruo and Shimada would also continue to collaborate indirectly, as Maruo was drawing illustrations for the novel series Teito Monogatari at roughly the same time.

Written by Hiroshi Aramata, Teito Monogatari was a series of novels detailing a supernatural shadow-war happening behind the scenes of nearly every major event in Japanese history, focusing on the Taisho era and WWII. Maruo provided illustrations for the novel series helping define the look of its villain, Yasunori Kato, an ancient Oni in human form enacting revenge on Japan. The series of stories began publication in 1985 and almost simultaneously, with the book’s launch, Tokyo Grand Guignol performed Galatia Teito Monogatari. The play was more comedic in tone, set around the 18th birthday of Kato (played by Yaguruma Kennosuke). Shimada played a mad scientist named Helmut who wished to alter Japan’s weather and previously invented the Oxygen Destroyer as a joke (Helmut produces a recreation of the Godzilla-killing weapon and a music sting from Ifukube’s score is played). Despite the comedic and off-kilter tone of the play, it was advertised alongside the book itself, and I’ll admit I’ve yet to see another fantasy novel do a cross-promotion with an obscure theater troupe. Kyusaku Shimada would take on the role of Yasunori Kato in Ultraman director Akio Jissoji’s film adaptation of Teito Monogatari and become synonymous with the character.

Though Maruo was not involved in the Teito Monogatari film, he would also do work for the legendary Ultraman director later on. In 1998 he illustrated the poster for Akio Jissoji’s cinematic adaptation of the classic Edogawa Rampo mystery story, Murder On D Street, a film that saw Shimada play the detective Akechi Kogoro. Relatedly, Maruo still has an affinity for Ultraman that occasionally emerges. In 2016 he designed two t-shirts for Uniqlo and Tsuburaya Productions as part of a 50th anniversary celebration of Ultraman. One depicted Ultraman and his foe Zetton, while the other highlighted the alien creature Dada. Maruo’s work indicates a particular appreciation for the creature from another world named after an absurdist art movement. A poster for a canceled event from 2020 depicts a circus showgirl wearing an outfit with a pattern modeled after Dada. Even photos of his workspace posted to his Twitter account are decorated with figures of Dada, Metron, and Guts, along with his collection of vintage posters and toys.

Maruo has never been subtle about what he pulls from, and throughout his oeuvre, he has inserted nods to cinematic works most likely more frequently than referencing other manga. Many writers have pontificated on kaiju and their symbolic status as outsiders, the unknowable, and the scarred, and it’s no great leap to see these parallels in Maruo’s own characters, as they cry, lash out, or have their bodies torn asunder. The life of kaiju and tokusatsu heroes is a fraught and violent existence set against the backdrop of post-war Japan, and Maruo’s work is a reflection of that.

Special thanks to @Mach_Dent and @TheEyeOdyssey for help with this article.

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  1. “Maniac” being an earlier colloquial term for anime aficionado that predates “otaku”. Toshio Okada distinguished the two as maniacs having interests more socially acceptable and socializing better than otaku.
  2. Maruo would draw Kurozukin once more for The Stalin’s 1983 album 虫 (insect). More info on Kurozukin can be found here.
  3. A progenitor of the likes of Conan Edogawa in Case Closed, the boy detective subgenre involved plucky youths solving mysteries with fantastical elements. One of the pillars of this subgenre was Edogawa Rampo. While known for his more lurid ero-guro stories, Rampo also wrote kid-friendly stories that took on a life of their own, such as the master thief The Fiend With 20 Faces.
  4. You can see the first episode with English subtitles on Toei’s Tokusatsu World youtube channel.
  5. “Suehiro Maruo: An Interview by Romain Slocombe.” 1998. Suture: The Counter-Culture Arts Journal, Creation Books
  6. Before becoming a manga author Usamaru Furuya worked with the troupe and the plays of Tokyo Grand Guignol also influenced the filmmaker Shinya Tsukamoto. See more here.