Becoming Imperceptible, But Not Exactly

HP Lovecraft, the Weird Body, and the Posthuman in Japanese Popular Culture

Janice Brown , University of Colorado Boulder [About | Email]

Volume 18, Issue 1 (Article 2 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 29 April 2018.


This paper explores contemporary Japanese engagement with Lovecraft by considering themes of transformation and metamorphosis, particularly those brought about by engagement with a nonhuman Other. The Lovecraftian works of Itō Junji and Makino Osamu are considered against a background of pre-modern and modern literary and visual texts through which the works of Lovecraft are read and appreciated in Japan, including the writings of Jules Verne and Edogawa Ranpo as well as folktale and the erotic art of Katsushika Hokusai. Read through the Deleuzean concept of ‘becoming’, particularly becoming-imperceptible, the essay provides a new perspective from which to consider Japanese Lovecraftian horror texts, not only as reworkings of the classic Lovecraft corpus within a very different cultural ethos but also as texts that provoke critical insight into current Japanese fears, uncertainties, and concerns.

Keywords: horror, Japan, H.P. Lovecraft, nonhuman alterity, transformation, becoming-imperceptible.

This is no place. There is nothing here. I am no one. But of course, I’m just kidding. In truth, this is some place, there is something here, and I am myself. Ah, but that is not exactly the truth either.
—Makino, “Necrophallus.”

Shape-shifting monsters, cephalopodic intruders, hidden undersea lairs, protagonists unable to escape dissolution, boundaries between human and non-human blurring and shifting—these brief descriptions may sound like something out of H.P. Lovecraft, yet all are to be found in Japanese tales of horror and the supernatural, often with origins in the pre-modern past. Although Lovecraft had no connection to Japan during his lifetime, his work has received a great deal of attention in that country, inspiring stories, novels, manga, fan fiction, blogs, images, films, toys, and other artifacts that circulate within Japan and beyond. Lovecraft, his writings, and ideas have become a familiar staple of the Japanese horror fantasy market, so much so that one might ask to what extent this appeal can be attributed to the correspondences cited above. Given the unmitigated success of this Lovecraftian transnational crossover, it would seem worthwhile to look more closely at shared motifs, to ask what might be significant about these apparent connections, to probe more fully their power and allure, and to consider commonality and concurrence alongside difference and variation.

In light of the increased scholarly, critical, and creative attention bestowed upon Lovecraft as well as the myriad iterations of his work within contemporary Japanese popular and visual culture, this essay will consider the background of native literary/artistic works against and through which the works of Lovecraft are read and appreciated in Japan as well as important cultural filters that shape such reading. Among the latter I include a common understanding of the world in all its aspects as relational and contingent; the ubiquity of shape-shifting entities and the concomitant production of supernatural hybridities that may incorporate organic and inorganic features; the prominence of dream worlds as well as underwater worlds; and more specifically, the frequent intimate human interaction and association with the nonhuman, particularly the denizens of the deep. While most works by Lovecraft tend to view contact with nonhuman alterity as horrifying and potentially beyond the pale of human experience, this is less the case in Japan, where human-nonhuman exchange is often explored through elaborations of corporeal materiality that foreground the intermingling of bodies, primarily through sexual encounter and/or through re-configuration of the human into human/hybrid entities.

In the modern period, such interactions have continued to inform popular culture and at the same time have provided a ground for the re-thinking or re-imagining of human/nonhuman connection, its affects and boundaries, its possibilities and potentials that in many ways embody a contemporary posthumanist position. By posthumanist, I follow Carey Wolfe (2010), who sees posthumanism as opposing “the fantasies of disembodiment and autonomy inherited from humanism itself” (xv) and envisions the body as a “virtual, multidimensional space produced and stabilised by the recursive enactions and structural couplings of autopoietic beings who share… a ‘consensual domain’” (xxiii-xxiv). At the same time, given the extreme vicissitudes of social and political upheaval in Japan, from modernisation to defeat to recovery to economic collapse, it is not surprising that many popular explorations focus on disjunction and disconnection, on sudden and violent events, often couched in terms of the monstrous or the horrific. Accordingly, this essay will explore the Japanese engagement with Lovecraft by considering themes of transformation, particularly those brought about by engagement with a nonhuman Other, however understood. Such metamorphoses will be read through the Deleuzean concept of ‘becoming’ or becoming-imperceptible (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 248), a useful tool for understanding the processes of interaction and interchange that occur in such encounters, and which allows for a perspective from which to consider some of the ways in which the classic Lovecraft corpus is re-contextualised and re-worked. This essay will show that, unlike the typical Lovecraftian protagonist who meets the cosmic unknowable and dies, disappears, or goes mad, figures in Japanese Lovecraftian horror texts tend to respond differently, their choices, formed through a different cultural ethos, provoking critical insight into current fears, uncertainties, and concerns.

From Under the Sea: Founding Myths, Non-human Brides, and Octopus Lovers

Early myth relates how the Japanese archipelago and its imperial rulers came into being through a series of events that conjured up a respectable lineage conjoining natural topography, family line, and political legitimacy. However, the line of descent includes an oddly alien interloper—Toyotama-hime, eldest daughter of the Dragon King. Betrothed to a Japanese prince searching for a lost fishhook near her father’s undersea palace, Toyotama-hime accompanies the prince to Japan where she gives birth to a son who will become the father of the first emperor, Jimmu. This infusion of dragon blood into an imperial line is not an uncommon trope in East Asian myth, where the divine and powerful dragon is considered a suitable symbol for emperors who are deemed to rule all under heaven. In the Japanese story, however, the dragon princess turns out to be something more than a metaphoric device that bestows divine right to rule. She tells her husband

When their time draws near, people of other lands all give birth in the form of their homeland. So I will now give birth in my original form. Please, I beg you, do not look at me! (Kojiki2014, p. 58).

Unable to overcome his curiosity, her husband peeks into the birthing hut, and is shocked to see his beautiful wife ‘had become an enormous sea beast many arm spans in length that was twisting and slithering around on its stomach’ (Kojiki2014, p. 58). Hoho-demi flees in fright, and Toyotama-hime, humiliated, returns to her home under the sea, leaving the newborn child behind.

Despite the unhappy outcome for the shape-shifting bride, the conjoining of human and non-human realms through erotic encounter resulting in successful procreation is depicted as a foundational element in the establishment of the early Japanese state. Interwoven into the mythico-cultural fabric is the notion that the non-human, associated with the ocean and its mysterious depths, is not necessarily at odds with the human world, and may in fact bring powerful energies and transformative experience as well as new life. From the perspective of the non-human outworld, however, little seems to be gained. The dragon princess, who had hoped to bring the two worlds together, now foregoes love, social status, husband and child:

“I thought that I would always journey back and forth to here along the ocean pathways. But now that you have peeked at my form, the shame I feel is too great for me to bear.” And so saying, she straightaway shut the Sea Slope bordering the world of people and went back to her underwater home (Kojiki2014, p. 58).

Although she does not return to the human world, Toyotama-hime exchanges poems with her former spouse, and sends her younger sister to serve as wet-nurse to the child left behind. When the child grows up, he takes this aunt as his wife. Their avunculate union results in four offspring, the youngest of whom is Emperor Jimmu. The Kojikidoes not reveal in what form the younger sister of the dragon princess gave birth, but no doubt this would be much less problematic given that her husband was himself half-dragon. From the perspective of modern day genetics, it would appear that the putative first ruler of Japan was not only closely related to the Dragon King on his maternal side but was in fact more dragon than human.

The tendency to view human experience as encompassing possibilities from across a range of environments, both human and non-human, is a feature often associated with the syncretic nature of traditional Japanese culture and society broadly understood, and more specifically, may be linked to the realm of Shintō and its propensity towards a combinative, integrative world view. Accordingly, the narrative concerning the Dragon King heritage of the Japanese emperors offers but one one example of the crossing and melding of what might otherwise be seen as discrete boundary areas. At the same time, however, the connection with extreme Otherness as found in the Kojikiaccount also reveals resistance from the more rigid patriarchal order. In their article on irui-kon(marriage between different kinds), Jason Davis and Mio Bryce (2008) bring this factor to the fore, pointing out that although the non-human bride is a common feature of many Japanese legends and folktales, the result of such unions is generally unhappy due to patriarchal expectations. That is, for the human male partner, social conformity becomes the goal rather than self-discovery, while the female non-human partner is unable to “be herself,” and for her the experiment in cross-species encounter ends in victimisation and exploitation (Davis and Bryce 2008, pp. 203-04).

Such misfortune is not limited to female protagonists, however. A reverse of this situation occurs in the story of Urashima Tarō, a young fisherman who cavorts with the daughter of the Dragon King under the sea, but when contact with the princess is severed, Urashima suddenly ages, and turns into ash upon the beach. In both stories the female and male protagonists fare poorly in their attempt to breach human/non-human boundaries. Nonetheless, this outcome does not demean the initial encounter in which both human/non-human share an abiding mutual interest and attraction. Instead, the deep fascination with the Other suggests in both cases that such relationships are meaningful and significant yet ultimately require a critical and fundamental transformation, one which the former existence may not or cannot survive. When human/non-human consciousness, identity, and environment merge, as in these stories, whether through sexual encounter or irui-kon, both perspectives are irrevocably altered. That is, a new field of experience is brought into being, one in which new differences, and new metamorphoses become possible.

This process of transformation calls to mind the Deleuzean movement of becoming, a process through which new forms of being are generated, not through identification or imitation but through the exchange of elements, influences, and affects. Becomings may encompass myriad possibilities, yet are subject to the forces of attraction; according to Deleuze and Guattari,

Starting from the forms one has, the subject one is, the organs one has, or the functions one fulfills, becoming is to extract particles between which one establishes the relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness that are closest to what one is becoming, and through which one becomes. This is the sense in which becoming is the process of desire(Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 272, italics mine).

Such attraction occurs at all points of becoming, including transformations of the organic and inorganic, of machines and social groupings, of matter itself in all forms including “becomings-animal, becomings-woman, and becomings-elementary, -cellular, -molecular, and even becomings-imperceptible” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 248). Through such movements and connections, both Toyotama-hime and Urashima Tarō are propelled and propel themselves towards becomings that embody symbiotic incorporation with other realms. Just as Toyotama-hime disappears from human account, yet continues as culturo-genetic representation so does Urashima Tarō forego the realm of the undersea dragons to merge with the grains of sand on the beach of his former home, his story proliferating into numberless folk-retellings. Such narratives as these explore the processes of desire that engage the action of becoming or, as seen here, the action of becoming-imperceptible. As Rosa Braidotti observes,

In order to trigger a process of becoming imperceptible, quite a transformation needs to take place in what we could call the self… becoming-imperceptible is the point of fusion between the self and his/her habitat, the cosmos as a whole (Braidotti 2006, p. 154).

Similarly, in the stories of Toyotama-hime and Urashima Tarō, the commingling of separate albeit parallel worlds brings about radical shifts in perception and in being. As in the case of irui-kon, such experiences are indeed inter-connective and transformative but ultimately unstable. Becoming-imperceptible, like all becomings, does not encompass a return to the former self. Whether human or dragon, the self has been replaced, as per Braidotti’s observation, and its nature utterly and irrevocably altered.

Representations of the dragon kingdom under the sea and its often-problematic interactions with the human world are as prevalent in medieval and early modern literary and cultural texts as in early myth and legend. Arguably, one of the richest sources of inspiration is the seventeenth-century narrative, Taishokan(The Great Woven Crown) (Trede 2004, p. 13), an imaginative tale that recounts the story of a female diver who manages to retrieve a stolen jewel from the lair of the dragon king but forfeits her own life in the process. While early Edo representations highlight the self-sacrifice of the diver, later prints focus primarily on depictions of the chase of the diver by sea monsters, the minions of the dragon king (Talerico 2001, pp. 32-33). By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, shungaparodies of the chase begin to appear in woodblock prints, culminating in Hokusai’s well-known Octopus and Diver(Tako to ama, 1814; in English often referred to as The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife) in which the diver, limbs entwined in tentacular embrace, takes erotic pleasure from the lascivious caresses of two cephalopods. In contrast to the unhappy outcomes noted in the narratives of Toyotama-hime and other irui-kon, the late Edo trope of woman and octopus in rapturous connection introduced a new aspect to the human/nonhuman sexual encounter—an explicit and voluptuous focus on mutual physical pleasure and sexual gratification. As part of the pictorial frame, Hokusai’s print includes written text that reveals the thoughts of both woman and octopus as they engage in sexual play. Expertly translated by Danielle Talerico, the witty and titillating thought dialogue reveals the mutual complicity of both cephalopod and diver (Talerico 2001, p. 37). In Deleuzean terms, we might say that the figure of the diver engaged in sexual dalliance with the octopus may be viewed as inhabiting “a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone” (Deleuze and Guattari 1986, p. 13), or more concretely, where both human and animal subjectivities are destabilised, as both species enmesh themselves in a process of erotic co-becoming.

Nonetheless, despite such alliance, this shared becoming also harbours a troubling aspect—the presentation of gender violence as normative and natural. This detail is not readily apparent in the print image, but is revealed in the text of the thought dialogue, and in effect, calls into question the becomings of both octopus and woman. That is, while some boundary areas may be dissolved (human/non-human), others appear to remain intact (gender binaries). Deleuze and Guattari, in their discussion of becoming-animal, note that human societies often find these becomings-animal difficult to accept, given the involvement with a nonhuman Other,

The politics of becomings-animal remains, of course, extremely ambiguous. For societies have always appropriated these becomings in order to break them, reduce them to relations of totemic or symbolic correspondence (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, pp. 247-248).

The Octopus and Diverwoodblock print demonstrates a comparable ambiguity. That is, even as familiar boundaries dissolve in the face of a shared human-animal becoming, the opening statements of the thought dialogue reveal a concomitant attempt to uphold human social orthodoxy. In effect, both octopuses speak from a seemingly male human perspective, the larger cephalopod taking the initiative, revealing its plan to capture, sexually enjoy, and then imprison the diver in the Dragon King’s Palace. This dominating stance, and the diver’s utter compliance, imparts to the woodblock a familiar symbolic violence found in human relationships of gender and power. At the same time, however, the octopus is depicted as losing the ability to form words and sentences in its sexual ecstasy while the female diver reaches orgasm declaring that all “limits and boundaries are gone” (Talerico 2001, p. 37). Perhaps. But the overall impression remains ambiguous. Despite the apparent dissolution of human/animal distinctions in mutual becomings, the dichotomy of human gender remains intact.

From Across the Sea: Imported Views of Human/Nonhuman and the Crisis of Modernity

The forced opening of Japan to international trade in the mid-19th century and the subsequent scramble by the Japanese to modernise during the latter part of the 19th and the early 20th century altered the country irrevocably. That such sweeping change was brought to Japanese shores from over and across the sea was not missed by the shogunal government or by the succeeding Meiji government. Officials in both cases were quick to respond, establishing modern naval forces and, with the fall of the shogunate, a new imperial navy. Modern shipbuilding and fishing industries followed. Not only did the close connection with the sea help to propel the technological and machinic forces of modernity, it also functioned as a conduit for the transmission of new perspectives and perceptions, not only of the oceanic realm that surrounded the new nation, but also of the alien Other whose cultural and literary productions now began to flood the long sequestered Japanese archipelago. Within a few short years the overseas realms of Europe and America had acquired an exoticism previously accorded the underwater domain of the Dragon King.

The pre-modern fascination with the sea and its mysterious inhabitants found fresh resonance in the works of Jules Verne. Extremely popular in Japan during the 1880s, Verne’s works, especially Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas(Vingt mille lieues sous les mers, 1870),fascinated Japanese reading audiences (Nagayama 2009, pp. 28-33). Verne’s novel offered a new perspective on natural environments by introducing scientific description as a means of accounting for phenomena that in earlier periods might have been considered supernatural, mysterious, or otherwise inexplicable. The depiction of underwater worlds in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seasincorporated not only fantasy adventure but also lengthy and detailed descriptions of marine flora and fauna. As Verne’s state-of-the-art submarine Nautilus skims just under the surface near the Antilles, we read

Amongst other zoophytes, there were there Portuguese men-of-war known as pelagic men-of-war, which are thick oblong bladders with a pearly sheen, spreading their membranes out to be blown in the current and letting their blue tentacles float like threads of silk, charming jellyfish to look at, but authentic nettles to the touch for they secrete a corrosive liquid. Among the articulates there were one-and-half meter long annelids, furnished with pink trunks and 1,700 locomotive organs, which snaked through the water, going through all the colours of the rainbow as they passed by (Verne 1998, pp. 339-340).

The description continues to provide a phantasmagoric montage of tentacular sea life that prefigures one of the most memorable passages of the narrative. As the Nautilus reaches lower depths, the submarine encounters an unexpected, almost Lovecraftian barrier—

High submarine cliffs rose, vertical walls of roughly hewn blocks resting on wide bases, with black holes opening up between them whose ends our electric rays could not penetrate. The rocks were carpeted with huge grasses, giant laminarias, and enormous wracks: a true espalier of hydrophytes worthy of a world of Titans (Verne 1998, pp. 340-341).

And indeed, consistent with the imposing undersea lair, gigantic cephalopods suddenly emerge, with tentacles “twice as big as its body and waving around like the Furies’ hair” (Verne 1998, p. 344). Seizing the Nautilus, the monsters engage in a spectacular battle with the crew, a violent display that for the Japanese reader would likely call to mind the legend of Taishokan, although the violence of the attack occurs at random and for no apparent reason. Within minutes the cephalopods are dispatched, sent as “vanquished monsters, mutilated and terribly wounded” (Verne 1998, p. 347) into the depths. The human victory is total and complete; even the most powerful inhabitants of worlds sous les mersare forced to yield to superior force. Despite Verne’s almost lyrical scientific descriptions, the world of the sea remains distinctly separate from the world of human beings, an object of scientific discovery and human desire, to be catalogued, harvested, exploited; nonhuman others that do not lend themselves readily to such projects are quickly marginalised and dealt with harshly. To be fair, the narrator does speculate on the reason for the cephalopod attack, but concludes that the mollusks’ apparent anger is due most likely to the size of the Nautilus and its encroachment onto cephalopod territory (Verne 1998, p. 344). Human and nonhuman are thus inscribed within the bounds of a thinly veiled colonialist discourse, a discourse that Japan would soon adopt in its attempt to emulate what it had come to perceive as the unmitigated success of the Euro-American colonialist Other.

The depth and extent of Japan’s immediate engagement with the new geopolitical reality can be seen not only in the appeal of popular translations but also in the appearance of domestic literary works that were keen further to demonstrate the thoroughness of Japan’s modernising stance. One of these, Kokukai yume monogatari Ryūgū kaidan (The Black Shell Dream Tale of the Dragon King’s Palace, 1880), recounts the visit of a Meiji reformer to the Dragon King’s Palace under the sea; there he encounters roads paved with brick, gaslights along city streets, and trains running on iron rails. The reformer learns that, similar to the Land of the Rising Sun, the Dragon realm has been visited by foreign ships and forced to open its gates; even more impressive, the formerly hidden realm now boasts a new legislative assembly (Nagayama 2009, pp. 46-47). In keeping with the tenor of the times, the land under the sea is seen as Europeanised, colonised, humanised, its otherness seemingly incorporated into the modernising Japanese archipelago.

In contrast to The Black Shell Dream Tale, however, Verne’s novel lacks such mutuality. With a focus on the manipulation and exploitation of the natural world, Verne presents a radically different perspective, refusing to accord human status to the denizens of the deep. The representation of human and nonhuman as essentially distinct and separate assisted in illustrating and reinforcing European attitudes, so useful to the complementary projects of modernisation and industrialisation. As a testament to the belief in the invincibility of science and the advancement of human knowledge, Twenty Thousand Leagueshas not lost its appeal. Even though Verne’s novel offers only one instance of the wholesale reception and consumption of Europe, its various and diverse cultures, ideas, beliefs, and social practices during the period of Japan’s modernisation, contemporary audiences in Japan today are still reading Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas, the most recent translation appearing in 2012 (Verne 2012), with an upcoming stage performance by the all-female Takarazuka Revue entitled “Captain Nemo and the Mysterious Island,” set for early fall 2017 (TakaWiki 2017). Clearly, the desire for Verne’s undersea fantasy has not abated.

Japanese appreciation of Verne’s novels can be understood further when we consider the centuries prior to modernisation in which western scientific and technical knowledge filtered into Japan through the auspices of the Dutch (ca.1640-1853). However, by and large, the view of the natural world as subordinate and/or in opposition to the human realm was a perspective that did not appear in Japan until the Meiji period (Morris-Suzuki 1998, pp. 35-59). The attempt to reconfigure or re-shape pre-modern ideas about the relationship of human and nonhuman entities may be seen as one significant factor, among other modernising trends, that worked to establish the notion of a modern (that is, western) subjectivity in Japan; yet at the same time, this shift towards valorisation of the human and its concomitant, a human/nonhuman binary, privileged the human heteronormative male body over all others, thereby sanctioning the objectification as well as the abjection of marginal, non-conforming groups or bodies, however gendered, including women, children, and the nonhuman. The normative male body being the Western male body additionally troubled the relationship of Japan to Euro-America, invoking an orientalist discourse that undercut the previously established patriarchal order. The discourse of modernisation in Japan is thus bound in complex ways to re-conceptualisations of the socio-cultural order that took place in the Meiji period and throughout successive decades. The view of the human and by extension, the nonhuman (Verne’s novel being but one example), found fertile ground in the burgeoning interplay of East and West that characterised early twentieth century Japan. Long-held assumptions and beliefs about the body, gender, and the natural world were re-examined and in the process not only were conventional ideas and practices re-worked and transformed but also the obverse, that is, notions of what constituted the unconventional, the monstrous, the weird body also underwent modification, resulting in the creation and elaboration of a new popular culture that became known as ero-guro-nansensu, or more simply, ero-guro.

One of the best-known purveyors of the ero-guroweird tale was Edogawa Ranpo (birth name: Hirai Tarō, 1894-1965), a choice of pen name that ingeniously reflected Ranpo’s great regard for Edgar Allen Poe, an admiration shared in common with contemporary, H. P. Lovecraft (Joshi 1996, p. 153). While both Ranpo and Lovecraft located horror in transformative experience, Ranpo’s works were immersed in the newly hybridised urban culture of 1920s Japan, a milieu in which the exotic and unusual held sway, and reports of crime, mystery, sex, and death flourished. In the words of Mark Silver, Ranpo’s career was distinguished by stories and novels that featured “bizarre impersonations, transformations, and monstrous hybridisations” (2008, p. 132). The Strange Tale of Panorama Island(Panoramatō kidan, 1926) is a case in point, the male protagonist assuming the identity of a recently deceased millionaire whom he closely resembles in order to claim the dead man’s fortune. Thus transformed, the protagonist sets out to build his own utopia,

a huge work of art using nature itself… he would change it as he liked according to his own individuality… In other words, he himself would become God and remake nature’ (Edogawa 2013, p. 6).

The one obstacle that stands in the way of this grandiose scheme is the dead man’s beautiful wife, Chiyoko, who harbours her own suspicions. Choosing a distant offshore island as the scene for his new world, the protagonist undertakes an enormous reconstruction, building a series of panoramas that cover the entire island and extend even under the sea. In a scene reminiscent of Verne’s novel as well as of human journeys to the underwater world of the Dragon King, the false husband escorts Chiyoko through a lengthy undersea glass tunnel, where

giant octopuses cling… to the surface of the glass, spreading their eight tentacles like wheels and distending their large, revolting suction cups, and the shrimps writhing on the rocks like spiders… And in the distance a dense black forest of swarming, jostling monsters created a nightmarish spectacle that one could never imagine existing on land (Edogawa 2013, p. 52).

Although the walk across the seabed recalls the undersea voyage of Verne’s Nautilus, the denizens of the undersea realm are described in extraordinarily negative terms. Parodying Verne’s appreciative scientific descriptions, a wide variety of seaweeds are named, albeit in ways that conjure up ghastliness rather than beauty:

Horrible anameseaweed filled with holes and rotting like the faces of lepers; ezowakameseaweed slimy and quivering like giant spiders with ungainly writhing limbs… and great fields of miruseaweed… tangled together like countless snake heads sporting and quarreling with each other… One spot looked like the aftermath of a huge massacre; there were clumps of amanori seaweed dyed the colour of black blood… (Edogawa 2013, p. 55).

The gruesomeness of the scenario underlines the new modern mentality; it also melodramatically foreshadows the violence to come, providing the tropes for its accomplishment. Fearing Chiyoko will reveal his stolen identity, the faux husband strangles her, the “two muddy bodies stuck together like sea slugs” (Edogawa 2013, p. 91). Later, confronted by a private detective, the husband engages in what amounts to a grotesque ejaculative display, exploding himself in a massive barrage of fireworks that rain fire, blood, and body parts over the magic island. The multiple transformations undergone by the protagonist throughout the course of the story—from idler to schemer to artist to millionaire to murderer to suicide—embody a host of potential becomings that lead only to death. If one hopes to discover in Panorama Islandan affirmative “fusion between self and habitat” described by Rosa Braidotti in her discussion of becomings and becoming-imperceptible, one will be disappointed. What we find instead is a failed world without further transformative possibility.

Lest one suppose that establishing one’s mastery of the world by constructing a paradise on a distant island belongs to the realm of ero-gurodelusion, it is important to note that a similar situation was already underway in the real world of 1920s and ’30s Japan. In response to challenges from colonial and former colonial powers, fueled by unexpected economic collapse and the rhetoric of ultra-nationalism, Japan moved outward, taking control of large areas of China and Manchuria. By the time of the formal acknowledgement of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in 1940, the basic premises that drive the narrative of Panorama Island—the desire for ultimate control and global mastery—were clearly manifest. The puppet regime of Manchukuo provided exceedingly spacious ground for the exercise of colonial desire. Feeding such desire, however, is at best problematic, as in Ranpo’s tale, where the protagonist’s endless cravings result in utter destruction of the island, its manifold artificiality, as well as its artful and desirous human consumers. In the end, with nothing left to control or consume, the host must turn on himself.

A fitting coda to Ranpo’s story and to the violent engagement with modernity it entails can perhaps be found in a short prose piece by modernist poet, Hagiwara Sakutarō (1886-1942), written in 1939, as the war in China headed toward stalemate. Entitled “The Octopus That Does Not Die” (Shinanai tako), Sakutarō’s sketch describes the fate of an octopus left to starve in an aquarium. Overcome by terrible desire, the creature eventually eats its own legs, one by one, and then the rest of its body. Even so, the author tells us, although the octopus vanished, it did not die.

Even after disappearing, he still was eternally alive there. In the antiquated, empty, forgotten water tank of the aquarium. Eternally—most likely through many centuries—an animal with a horrible deficiency and dissatisfaction was alive, invisible to the human eye (Hagiwara 1981b, pp. 484-485).

In later years, Ranpo mentions this text as one of his favourite Sakutarō works (Edogawa 2003, p 217). Although Ranpo does not give a specific reason for praising the deathless octopus, his remark comes as part of a recollection of his relationship with Sakutarō and of Sakutarō’s admiration forPanorama Island. Accordingly, we might speculate further on connections between the two texts, particularly with regard to the destructive power of all-consuming desire that is the focus of both. For example, in the Ranpo story, no matter how grotesque, death remains erotically charged and aestheticised while for the octopus, its passing is bleak and devoid of pleasure, yet surprisingly, not a ‘real’ death at all. Somehow consciousness remains and continues to function after its self-consumption. The octopus undergoes the transformative process of death, becoming some thingthat is invisible to human eyes. In the original Japanese, the last line shows that the octopus is an animal but also decidedly something Other: “aru mono sugoi ketsubō to fuman o motta, hito no me ni mienai dōbutsu ga ikite ita”(Hagiwara 1981a, pp. 455-456). In this sense, Sakutarō’s text turns the notion of the pulverised and fragmentising body that explodes outward over the Ranpo panorama back onto itself, envisioning a becoming that turns inward, moving towards imperceptibility, and folding within itself all (im)possible trajectories of ever-increasing desire that can never be realised or released. In the seemingly infinite yet claustrophobic scenario of the aquarium tank, we see intimations of a horrific postwar mythos—an endlessly lingering sense of lack that continues to inform the contemporary cultural moment, conflating the jouissance of modernity and the once heady pursuit of empire with gut-wrenching loss and eventual descent into an unmitigated atomic hell. That the residual shock of unresolved suffering is still manifest in Japan can be seen quite clearly in expressions of postwar contemporary popular culture. Too numerous to name, we can include such articulations as the cultivation of apocalyptic scenarios in anime and manga as well as the resurgence of interest in the erotic-grotesque, the subsequent proliferation of the horror genre in various and diverse formats and subgenres (particularly the film category commonly known as J-horror) as well as in the concomitant popularity of H.P. Lovecraft, a writer who is seen, perhaps in common with Ranpo and Hagiwara Sakutarō, as implicated in the unrelenting contemplation of those dark corners of existence not easily seen and hard to name, those spaces about which Lovecraft himself has famously written elsewhere as embodying “all the snarling chaos and grinning fear that lurk behind life” (Lovecraft 1987, p. 199).

From the Depths: Monstrous Metamorphoses, Trailing Tentacles, and The Politics of Becoming-Imperceptible

The end of Imperial Japan in 1945 brought forward as never before, in the dread and countless anxieties engendered by the long war and ignominious defeat, a sense of general disquiet with regard to establishment views and the reliability of everyday reality. Whether one considers extreme postwar situations, such as that of many hibakusha, who showed nooutward signs of injury yet lived with fear of long-term radioactive contamination that could be passed on to as yet unborn generations or the more ‘common’ experiences of decimated cities, mass death, lack of food and shelter, not to mention the overwhelming shadow of war guilt that was briefly politicised and then largely covered up by the authorities of the Allied Occupation (Orr 2001), the assault on legitimacy, transparency, and truthfulness was nearly total. The ability to make sense of what had just happened and to work through the consequences was essentially denied. Instead, the struggle to reassert past practice was made paramount and, as the old order gradually reinstated itself, misgivings and uncertainties were suppressed, relegated to a psychic underground where they continued periodically and literally to resurface, rising up from the depths of the sea or inside the earth, at times metamorphosing as gigantic monsters, at other times merely suggesting the unseen presence of some unnamable fear.

The so-called monster movies (kaijū eiga) of the early postwar period are of particular note. Giving shape and substance to global fears of atomic annihilation, these films also underscored Japan’s vulnerability as well as exceptionality, owing to its unique albeit horrific experience of atomic Armageddon. Nonetheless, despite the more than seven decades that have passed since the atomic bombings, the exceptionality of Japan’s position continues to haunt the present moment, as seen in such studies as historian and critic Nagayama Yasuo’s Kaijū wa naze Nihon o osou no ka?(Why Do Monsters Attack Japan? 2002). William Tsutsui also considers this phenomenon; he writes

Indeed, the evolution of the Japanese creature features has closely reflected changes in Japan’s political life, economic fortunes, and culture over the post-war period, tracking the nation’s recovery from the ruins of war to the heady days of the ‘miracle economy’ growth and optimism, to the more recent experience of bust in the 1970s oil shocks, followed by boom in the overheated ‘Bubble Economy” of the 1980s, and the hard landing of the “Lost Decade” of economic recession, political drift, and social malaise from the 1990s into the new millennium… the monster movies have remained closely engaged with development in Japanese society and the changing fashions of post-war popular culture (2010, 208).

If, as Tsutsui claims, postwar Japanese crises have been accompanied by a corresponding production of creature features, given the number of socio-cultural calamities, does this not also imply a monstrous accumulation of sorts, a series of troublesome strata laid one atop another, contributing in effect to monsters all the way down?

Such accretion serves to amplify and intensify the extremity of Japanese experience that underlies the upheavals of the modern era. Monsters, too, grow exponentially. Thus, the Draconic rulers of the underwater realm reappear in new guise, conjoining former nonhuman hybridity with immense destructive power. Similar to Lovecraftian realms where monsters are ultimately unknowable and horror ‘unnameable’, the emphasis on emotional and affective charge in the kaijūfilm takes precedence over clear assignment of meaning. Accordingly, the sense of being subjected to or overwhelmed by unknown forces remains dominant, propelling not only kaijū eigabut also providing a major component of subsequent popular horror texts.

While larger-than-life monsters seldom appear outside of kaijū-type entertainment, the notion of the monstrous is ubiquitous in contemporary Japanese horror. Similar to the realm of the kaijū, everyday existence is threatened by the pull of the monstrous, although here the danger lies less with wildly battling behemoths than with an inchoate supernatural horror that threatens to confound the senses, overturn mundane reality, and destroy sanity. This Lovecraftian turn can be found throughout the horror genre, Itō Junji’s horror manga, Uzumaki(Spiral, 1998-1999) providing a prime example. Reflecting historical and cultural contexts resonant with Lovecraft’s particular brand of horror, Itō’s work also draws direct inspiration from the Lovecraft text itself, a connection Itō has often acknowledged. When asked about the use of the spiral pattern in Uzumakias a means of invoking ultimate horror, Itō commented

The “spiral pattern” is not normally associated with horror fiction. Usually spiral patterns mark character’s cheeks in Japanese comedy cartoons, representing an effect of warmth. However, I thought it could be used in horror if I drew it a different way. Spirals are one of the popular Japanese patterns from long ago… I think spirals might be symbolic of infinity. The different stagesof the spiral… were definitely inspired from the mysterious novels of H.P. Lovecraft (Winsby 2006, italics mine).

Intriguingly, Itō finds in the spiral pattern a means through which to denote “different stages” in the generation of horror. In Uzumaki, a spiral contagion infects the inhabitants of the small seaside town of Kurōzu-cho, resulting in obsession and paranoia that lead eventually to madness, death, or worse—the twisting and coiling of the human body into spiral shapes. Whether wrapped around the axle of a car, curled to death inside a tub, or re-embodied as human-snail hybrids, the inhabitants of the town experience a variety of becomings from which there is no escape. The horror of Uzumaki unwinds through the inexorable progression of increasingly monstrous states that challenge the category of the human.

Despite the homage to Lovecraft, however, Itō undertakes a radical remodel of the standard Lovecraft text. In contrast to the ubiquitous adult male protagonist favoured by Lovecraft, Uzumakiis told from the perspective of Kirie, a high school girl. The youthful female point of view opens the door to a focus on family, friends, and close relationships, in short, on human community and connection, that is not found in Lovecraft. As the horror overtakes the town, however, community and connection are obliterated in an escalating tour de force of monstrous proportions, as familiar bodies morph into vampiric or zombie-like forms, others twist together (often in sexual embrace) to form new entities, while still others cannibalise, self-consume or generate limbs that transform into grotesque tentacular extensions. In the final metamorphosis, bodies are fused together in enormous gelatinous mass. Employing the spiral as a visual representation of the Lovecraftian horror of alterity, Itō steadily draws the entire town into an alien otherworldly abyss ruled by the monstrously compelling pattern. Even though Kirie along with her boyfriend, Shūichi, ultimately succumb to the spiral, Itō’s manga concludes on a most un-Lovecraftian note. As Kirie and Shūichi embrace in the final frames of the story, the progression of the spiral world fuses, folding into itself, turning to stone. The Japanese text reads

And then… The curse of the spiral that had attacked our town came to an end. Before long the strange row houses will decay along with the flow of time, and a new town will be born again, and people will live there happily—until once again, the ruins awake…(Itō 2010, p. 610, translation mine)

The cyclic nature of the conclusion tends to undercut the apocalyptic scenario, and harks back to earlier Japanese narrative traditions that avoid describing “an absolute end” (Tanaka 2014, p. 38) no matter how dire the destruction. Moreover, the notion of a human-world is re-established, albeit one that will continue to be meshed with the spiralic.

In his volume on supernatural horror, Tentacles Longer Than Night, Eugene Thacker takes up Itō’s Uzumakias an example of human characters “confronted with the limit of the human” (2014, p. 11). Thacker postulates four stages in such encounter: first, “anthropic subversion” in which the unhuman is “present… but unrecognised;” second, in which the spiral becomes known in human terms; third, “ontogenic inversion,” in which humans realise the spiral exists antagonistically; and fourth, “misanthropic subtraction,” in which thought falters and description can continue only in negative terms (2014, pp. 137-142). Thacker applies this formula also to the work of Lovecraft, particularly “The Unnameable” (a title that corresponds nicely with Thacker’s fourth stage of ‘misanthropic subtraction’). While this neat encapsulation works fairly well with Lovecraft’s tales, it seems less convincing in the case of Uzumaki. Although the horrific demise of Kurōzu-cho cannot be read as a ‘positive’ event (at least for the human participants), the final description of its end is not couched as negatively as Thacker claims. Instead, Kirie’s consciousness remains alive and fully reflective; there is no descent into madness, nor does she lose the ability to express her thoughts. The spiral is regenerative rather than unnameable. That is, even though the spiral’s unhumanity may operate outside the limits of human conception, the human is located firmly within it, and thus Kurōzu-cho will be built again, and will fall again, in an endless cycle. On this point, Itō’s configuration of horror seems to differ from Lovecraft’s as well as from Thacker’s reading.

The cyclic nature of horror in Uzumakialso underscores the notion of a continuum. If, as Itō speculates, the spiral is “symbolic of infinity,” then in Uzumaki, the world of Kurōzu-cho is inscribed, subsumed, and transformed by an unending process. A host of becomings takes place within this particular environment, or what Deleuze and Guattari would call a plane of consistency (1987, p. 251), a concept the authors illustrate with reference to Lovecraft’s “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” a story Lovecraft wrote with E. Hoffmann Price in 1934. Brought into connection by the contagion of the spiral, no entity is left untouched. As human individuality gives way to the indiscriminate joining of horrifically altered bodies, coiling limb to limb, twisting torso to torso, the melting flesh reminiscent of hibakushaor victims of other wartime fire-bombings, the human mass of Kurōzo-cho becomes siphoned through a spiraling system of conjoined row houses (a vortical image that mimics atomic ground-zero) and are delivered into the depths. In this indiscriminate merging of humanity, becoming-spiral might seem closely tied to becoming-imperceptible. And yet, not exactly. Neither Kirie nor Shūichi suffers the fate of becoming-spiral; even in their final embrace they remain discrete beings, more or less free of spiral entanglement (only one each of their arms twists together). As well, given that Kirie is the narrator of the tale, how are we to account for her ability to relate events after she has supposedly succumbed to the spiral? Many others, too, are not completely engulfed in the mound of flesh. As Kirie stumbles over the coagulating bodies searching for Shūichi, she discovers the heads of her parents turned to stone and jutting up from the hardening surface. Although no longer alive, their eyes remain fixed on the gigantic spiral shapes that populate the weird underground world. So, too, do other victims’ heads protrude from the slowly solidifying mass. With the preservation of individual faciality, it seems the horrific transformation engineered by the realm of spirals does not necessarily result in imperceptibility. Instead the deadly pattern promises repetition rather than release, a cyclic birth, death, and re-birth rather than liberation from difference and differentiation. The hardeningstone ‘ruins’ of Kurōzu-cho and its citizens solidify the inescapable dead-end of such a becoming.

Besides the ability of Itō’s spiral pattern to mesmerise and metamorphose, the spiral is also capable of re-fashioning body parts, such as the tongue or limbs, turning them into tentacle-like extensions. The focus on the tentacular, generally credited to Lovecraft, is not limited to works like Uzumakibut can be found across a wide range of formats, from anime to tentacle erotica. Almost a cliché in global popular culture, the tentacle is invariably associated with the sinister nonhuman; in popular fiction, this cephalopodic appendage has attained near-iconic status, as Ann and Jeff VanderMeer observe in the introduction to their recent anthology of horror tales: “The story of The Weird is often seen as the story of the rise of the tentacle, a symbol of modern weird” (VanderMeer 2011, p. xvi). In Japan, however, as we have seen, the tentacle is also associated with the erotic. Although this aspect is largely absent from Uzumaki, at times the tentacularised limbs and bodies suggest otherwise, as for example, in the protruding tentacle-esque tongues; the coiling of two lovers’ bodies into a snake-like creature that disappears into the sea; and the male-to-male/hermaphroditic mating of two youths who have been transformed into snails. In contrast, in erotic or pornographic manga, tentacles function more specifically as penises, a tactic seen as a means of evading censorship laws regarding the depiction of human genitalia and pubic hair (Captain James 2003). However, the Lovecraftian tentacle in its association with the monstrous Cthulhu and other similar submarine entities does not share the erotic connotation given this appendage in Japan. In fact, Lovecraft’s exploration of sexuality is practically nil. In an assessment of Lovecraft’s rare female figures, Gina Wisker observes that in Lovecraft’s works, women are most often depicted as implicated in “producing the spawn of monstrous beings” (Wisker 2013, p. 46) or as “a dangerous deadly seductress” (Wisker 2014, p. 36). Arguably, the traces of such monstrous femininity can also be observed in the descriptions of the abject alien Others that populate Lovecraft’s texts. Beyond such representations, however, a focus on human sexuality, sexual relationship, or sexual desire is noticeably absent. The issue of gender, however, troubles at least one story, “The Thing on the Doorstep,” where the male protagonist experiences his body being taken over by his wife, but it soon transpires that the wife’s consciousness had been usurped by that of her father, resulting in a gender-bending relationship unique in the works of Lovecraft. Even so, what we find in much of the Lovecraftian writing that flourishes currently in Japan is what we might call contemporary erotic/grotesque, an approach that privileges the erotic and sensual alongside more familiar Lovecraftian elements.

One such story, by horror writer Makino Osamu, bears the portmanteau-like title, “Necrophallus.” In Japanese, the title has two readings—in Chinese characters, shikabane no kaiken, or corpse dagger, which the author glosses as nekurofuarosu, or Necrophallus (death phallus). The story pits the dark side of contemporary society marked by male violence, murder, and school bullying against the trans-Neptunian other world of Yuggoth. Despite the fact that humans are no match for the Lovecraftian intruders, Makino provides an intriguing twist on the fate of the male protagonist and his becoming. Unlike most Lovecraftian narratives, the story opens with the narrator recounting the story of his transformation afterit has already occurred. In other words, the protagonist of “Necrophallus” has kept his consciousness intact throughout his ordeal. In the flashback that comprises the main narrative, we learn that he accomplished this through his desire to “capture the real” (Makino 2005, p. 239). The ‘real’ means the infliction of pain and terror on unsuspecting women he meets through dating services. One time, when he “was still learning to establish his real,” he killed a woman. He is shocked, not because of the murder but because death prevents him from exercising his real.

I stared down at the corpse. It nearly made me scream. A corpse is a conclusive thing. It is neither more nor less than just that—a corpse. It slapped home the fact that I had let a precise drop of red spill onto a blurry, vague world. My real, which had so far been clinging on precariously, seemed suddenly to lose its grip and plunge into the depths of nothingness. No, I must not kill. Never! (Makino 2005, p. 240).

The ‘blurry, vague world’ is the world of everyday, anathema to the protagonist, or Sensei—he is revealed to be a junior high school art teacher with a wife and small daughter. The thought of eventually merging into this everyday world, that is, becoming just like everyone else, Sensei finds extremely frightening. Blood, like the corpse, violates the boundaries through which he controls his real.

I want to get my edges clear. I want to claw myself out from the rest of the world and make sure of the reality that I am me. Pain and fear—two things that can make me real. Compared with these, everyday life is like a bedtime story, vague and pointless (Makino 2005, p. 249).

The more he is able to indulge his sadistic urges the more ‘real’ he becomes. Nonetheless, when he accidentally witnesses two boys bullying another, his attitude undergoes a sudden shift. Noticing that the “tormentors and victim have the same eyes,” he wonders “Could it be possible that to find my real, what I need, rather than to terrorise someone else, is to become the terrorized myself?” (Makino 2005, p. 242). Before long the protagonist finds out that indeed this may be the case.

Attracted by a young girl in a school uniform, the protagonist follows her to a mysterious, maze-like house where she introduces him to a weird dagger called Necrophallus. Claiming her late grandfather stole the dagger during a geological expedition to Antarctica, the young girl reveals a blade made of an unknown metal, in colour

A light bluish-gray, a pattern like a network of veins running on the surface. It gleams as though oiled, giving off an ominous, frightening light… A horrific light that will corrode and eat away anything it shines upon, like a powerful acid.

Well, shall we start?” the little girl says.

She looks at me. Her eyes seem to give off the same light as the blade of the sword (Makino 2005, p. 246).

Pummelled and beaten by the knife-wielding girl, the protagonist collapses, only to be revived by the mutilated corpse of the woman he murdered. No longer dead, or alive, the corpse has been necrophallusly carved into a ‘pet’ by the young girl, who calls her creation, Chī-chan. It

has no legs, and moves by twisting at the waist and bounding up with the stubs that are left where the thighs should be. The arms have also been chopped off at the shoulders. The entrails are falling out of the slit stomach, and keep bouncing up and down like the tentacles of a sea anemone… Chī-chan dangles its entrails over me. They caress my throat and cheeks and crotch very lovingly. I think I screamed (Makino 2005, pp. 247-248).

The protagonist soon meets a similar fate. The school girl turns out to be a half-human hybrid sent to prepare the world for the return of the elder gods, an assignment she fulfills through the use of the dagger, sculpting the human body into nonhuman shape, a process the protagonist finds excruciatingly painful as well as incredibly erotic. The Necrophallus is a “dagger that gives pleasure in exchange for pain, immortality in exchange for death,” she tells him. His split legs

have now become tentacles of flesh that move according to my wishes. I have turned into something like an octopus. She scooped out my genitals. Words cannot begin to describe the mad frenzy that rocked me when she did that. Now there is nothing there (Makino 2005, p. 252).

Even so, the protagonist continues to climax at every cut, a spectral climax, since the sexual organs have been removed. In clear contrast to Lovecraft’s protagonists who tend to fear metamorphosis, the protagonist welcomes his new body: “It is possible that this is my true form. I feel no contradictions or strangeness in this form. My edges are very sharp, and I can clearly feel that I am Me” (Makino 2005, p. 253). In the few cases where Lovecraft’s heroes do manage to shift shape, such transformations are considered an egregious loss of identity, as in the case of Randolph Carter in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” who reflects

Merging with nothingness is peaceful oblivion; but to be aware of existence and yet to know that one is no longer a definite being distinguished from other beings—that one no longer has a self—that is the nameless summit of agony and dread (Lovecraft 1933b).

Deleuze and Guattari cite the above musings of Randolph Carter to illustrate the process of becoming, yet they break the quote with their own comment, replacing the phrase “that one no longer has a self” with their observation “nor from all of the becomings running through us” (1987, p. 240). In this way the authors are able to interpret Randolph Carter’s transformation as brought about from the outside as well as from the inside. In addition, they are then able to demonstrate that the weird becoming that befalls this Lovecraft protagonist is not a one-time event but a multiplicity of “affects and powers [and] involutions” (1987, p. 241) that is “continually transforming itself into a string of other multiplicities, according to its thresholds and doors” (1987, p. 241).

Sensei’s metamorphosis is similar if less multiplicitous; his encounter with the school bullies in the outer world propels him inwardly in thought and affect toward the Necrophallus. Yet once in contact with the monstrous dagger his experience deviates from the Lovecraftian model. Instead of loss of self, Sensei claims he finally becomes himself, with no blurring of edges, a singular entity in and through which pain and pleasure are conjoined in the ultimate orgasm. How are we to read the significance of such an atypical becoming? Sensei’s confrontation with extreme alterity, despite its horrific aspect, seems to have brought him to his ‘true form’ (honrai no sugata, Makino 2002, p. 203). That is, if we are to trust everything Sensei tells us.

Referring to the epigraph from “Necrophallus” at the beginning of this essay (and also the “Necrophallus” narrative itself), we can see that the protagonist-narrator is not entirely convinced that “I am myself.” The lines of text that immediately follow those in the epigraph cast further doubt: “The moment you say something with conviction, it becomes untrue; so, of course, this is also a fallacy” (Makino 2005, p. 239). Given this deliberate ambiguity, the adamant statements of the protagonist, particularly regarding the claims of stable selfhood, deserve further scrutiny. Certainly, the figure of Sensei as he first appears is far from stable. Violently and wantonly misogynistic, he takes great pleasure in inflicting pain upon his female victims. The situation is soon reversed by the Necrophallus, as Sensei is chopped up by the monstrous schoolgirl. In a matter of moments Sensei shifts from sadistic perpetrator to masochistic victim, demonstrating if nothing else the degree to which such roles may “both interchange and depend upon one another” (Moore 2009, p. 28). It is also useful to note that once the hybridic schoolgirl begins to cut Sensei, she no longer refers to him by this formal term of address, but gives him the personal name, “Hiroshi.” In this way, Sensei/Hiroshi demonstrates the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of an SM pairing, reinforcing the notion of a split persona. Nonetheless, this quick about-face also marks Sensei as both perpetrator and victim, the position of victim seemingly the more desirable. Such positioning reflects a prevalent postwar attitude in which Japan came to consider itself a victim of the Second World War with its role as perpetrator often left unacknowledged. Although the text does not specify such a connection, the depiction of Sensei points to a crisis in the masculine order that gestures, however unwittingly, to this complex double-layered consciousness.

Another problematic aspect of Sensei’s claim to have attained a stable self lies in the representation of a body sliced and diced by the Necrophallus. Makino’s treatment of the masochist body shares much in common with the view of Deleuze and Guattari who see the program of pain undertaken by a masochist as a means of dismantling the self (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 151), resulting (potentially) in the creation of a Body without Organs (BwO) that moves beyond the realms of signification and subjectification. While Sensei indeed has been dismantled, his consciousness inhabits a limbo-like dimension that wavers between there and not there, thus contradicting his claim to inhabit a reality that keeps edges clear, with fixed boundaries. Sensei’s BwO seems confused, a parody of modern subjectivity, ultimately incapable of further transformative experience.

The instrument of Sensei’s parodic becoming, the Necrophallus, is the means by which Sensei acquires a stable and unified self. In effect, this weapon re-constructs Sensei’s body at the same time as it re-configures his ability to think and to feel. Controlling the body by inducing the victim to feel pleasure at the same time as experiencing pain, the dagger is able to re-fashion the human body to mimic the alien body, producing beings with streams of tentacles, the multiplicitous phalluses of an alien world. Through these unearthly appendages, Sensei and Chī-chan are able to connect, interact, and most importantly submit to alien command. While the motivations of the monsters from Yuggoth seem unclear, the result for humans is reduction to nonhuman form and an addictive submission to absolute fascistic control. At the end of the story, the nefarious schoolgirl reveals to Sensei and Chī-chan yet another victim of Necrophallus, a caterpillar-like blob of flesh that was once her human grandfather, the former Antarctic explorer. It seems likely that with the Necrophallus always ready to pare, peel, and slice, cutting-edge bodywork will be ongoing, continuing until the victim is no longer a material being. Assuming that consciousness persists, and taking the vivisected body of Sensei as example, we might also infer that, similar to the deathless octopus, Sensei will also become imperceptible, but not exactly.


While the appeal of Lovecraft’s work in Japan can be understood in terms of themes and tropes that resonate in varying degrees with Japanese indigenous expressions and representations produced throughout a long cultural history, the emphasis on bodily transformation seems of paramount importance. What today we might describe as a posthumanist turn in considerations of human/nonhuman interaction and reciprocity has been for centuries a staple of Japanese foundational texts as well as of folklore, literary and performance-based texts, and visual representations. The many possibilities that accompany such conjoinings of human and nonhuman can be read in terms of Deleuzean becomings, where the crossing or breaching of boundaries and/or the alteration or destabilisation of subjectivities bring forth new potentialities and multiplicities, in turn producing further transformations. As we have seen, in the sample of texts considered here, such becomings unfold through the operation of sexual encounter and attraction. Nonetheless, sexuality being “the production of a thousand sexes, which are so many uncontrollable becomings” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 278) the movements and interactions produced by such becomings are as diverse as they are unpredictable.

Evident in ero-gurotexts, such as The Strange Tale of Panorama Islandand “Necrophallus,” where protagonists fall into monstrous becomings that threaten life and sanity, the possibility of transformation no longer generates relations or expands connections; frozen in place and time, they are diminished, contained within controlling regimes from which there is no escape. Uzumaki, too, experiments with erotic becoming, albeit understated and amorphous by comparison. Centred on the complete destruction of an entire town and its populace by the hypnotic power of weirdly cosmic spirals, Uzumakiposits a cyclic return to the same. Rather than growth and discovery, the town and its inhabitants are cursed by monstrous metamorphoses that turn (and return) the occupants to underground ‘ruins’ in which all movement ceases.

Attempts towards becoming-imperceptible, though often suggested by the processes described in these narratives, in various ways fall short. For Deleuze and Guattari, becoming-imperceptible is the end of a process that is not an annihilation but a means of leaving open possibilities for experience and exploration; becoming-imperceptible is also predicated on an elimination of “all that is waste, death, and superfluity… unsatisfied desire, defense or pleading, everything that roots each of us (everybody) in ourselves, in our molarity” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 279). Considered in this way, becoming-imperceptible, approached but not fully realised in the texts of transformation read here, tends to founder on the inability to resolve or overcome overarching power structures, to enter fully into a connecting and communicating world. In contemporary texts that take up Lovecraftian tropes, this inability encourages and generates a specific brand of horror, consisting of two intertwined layers—one, the Lovecraftian, in which menace and horror are located in the loss of the modern self, and two, the local, in which we find the circulation of deep-seated anxieties about failure and loss and the difficulty even impossibility of change. In this way Lovecraft’s depiction of personal decimation and defeat is reconfigured through Japanese concerns of how to come to terms, how to make things right, how to enter into becomings that offer as yet unknown possibilities for the (re)making of a world. Within this doubled awareness, and its horrific representations of all that is waste, death, and superfluity, Japanese Lovecraftian texts and their protagonists undertake to traverse those zones of potentiality and transformation where myriad becomings may take place, may merge and re-emerge, connect and re-connect, exploring infinite possibilities for becomings-imperceptible.


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About the Author

Janice Brown received her PhD in Asian Studies (Modern Japanese Literature) from the University of British Columbia. She has been at the University of Colourado Boulder since 2007, being Department Chair until 2014. Prior to coming to CU-Boulder, she was Professor and Chair of East Asian Studies at the University of Alberta. She is the author of two books on Japanese women poets and numerous articles. In addition to modern poetry, her research interests include gender, sexuality and the body, and contemporary popular and visual culture in Japan.

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