BY GARTH GREENWELL
I tend to cover my eyes at horror movies, if I can’t avoid them altogether; I hate violence of all kinds; Law & Order has about as much gore as I can manage. And yet, when I first flipped through this collection of Gengoroh Tagame’s erotic manga, which is obsessed with the domination and torture of burly, hyper-masculine men, all of it depicted in sexual explicitness, my reaction shifted quickly from cringing shock, to fascination, to something like amazement.
In the most brutal of the seven graphic narratives here (there are also helpful essays by Edmund White, Chip Kidd, and Graham Kolbeins), men are kidnapped, drugged, beaten, and raped in horrible ways, often for the entertainment of an audience. In no way is this book for everyone, as Tagame himself acknowledges in discussion with Kolbeins. But neither is it a book only for those whose fantasies tend in the direction of Tagame’s own. I loved this book by the time I finished it, and I found myself lingering over even very brutal panels, not out of titillation but wonder.
This has mostly to do with Tagame’s art. Even in depicting violence, his drawings have an extraordinary delicacy, conveying extremes of emotion—humiliation, pain, despair, but also arousal, relief and, in one story, heartbreaking devotion—with incredible economy. The essays offered here discuss Tagame’s debt to Japanese woodblock prints, and I found myself marveling at the fine textures of his work, the gorgeous patterning of clothing, floor tiles, landscapes, the hairs on a man’s legs or the sweat on his face.
Most of Tagame’s panels are too explicit to be shared here. But my own introduction to his work came through this wonderful short video my brilliant friend Max Freeman made as part of an interview he did with Tagame for the Huffington Post. (Max is also one of the creators of the fabulous queer web series The 3 Bits, whose Kickstarter campaign you should rush over to support.) In the video, Max films Tagame making one of his sketches (this one is rated PG) and talking charmingly about how he became an artist.
For all their beauty as art, the narratives collected in The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame—appearing here for the first time in English—are also compelling as stories. They range across genres, styles, and historical periods, and often have elements of fantasy or science fiction. (One story features a drug that turns men into sexual beasts; another has a detective who receives psychic revelations through sexual experiences of certain kinds.) Though all of them have at their center sexual interactions defined by domination and submission, not all of them are brutal. In four of the stories, the sex is consensual, and in my favorite, the very moving “Exorcism,” a world of samurai warriors is the unexpected setting for almost unbearable tenderness.
It may be precisely this emotional range that lifts Tagame’s manga. In “Missing,” a story of political kidnapping that has some of the most excruciating scenes in the book, what seems like an unremittingly dark narrative transforms suddenly into a story of love, if of a disquieting kind. These kinds of moves elevate Tagame’s stories above simple narrative frames for sexual acts, and they kept me dizzied and invested as I read. As did the intelligence that's everywhere evident in these pages, a restless interrogation of phenomena with which we’re all complicit, whether the ritualization of violence in sport and entertainment or the cult of masculinity that Tagame’s stories repeatedly undermine and exploit.
I don’t think it’s likely I would have found this collection without Max’s video and the recommendation of other friends. Had I stumbled upon it in a bookstore, I’m fairly sure I would have set it down after the briefest of glances. But reading it through I felt what is one of my measures of meaningful art: having spent time in Tagame’s imagination, I turn from it with a richer sense of the world. As I say above, this book certainly isn’t for everyone—but don’t be too quick to conclude that it isn’t for you.
Jason K. Friedman’s ‘Fire Year’
David Levithan’s ‘Two Boys Kissing’
Thomas Glave’s ‘Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh’
Duncan Fallowell’s ‘How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits’
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.