Meet Toshio Saeki, the Master of Japanese Erotica You’ve Never Heard Of
In a remote Japanese mountain village, a winding road lined with cherry blossom trees and wild boar traps leads the way to Toshio Saeki’s home and studio. The 72-year-old artist, who some have christened the “Godfather of Japanese Erotica,” has lived here since the 1980s, when he left Tokyo to escape its bubble economy. Today, still actively working, Saeki has published 21 monographs of his erotic art, for which he’s earned acclaim and exhibitions all over the world.
Once the best known erotic artist in Tokyo, Saeki has a fervent fanbase spread across the globe and remains a bonafide legend of underground culture. Despite this, his importance to the international art world has long been underestimated, both in Japan and abroad. And his work has never been properly contextualized.
Saeki rose to fame in Tokyo in the 1970s, during the halcyon days of the city’s sex scene. He released an early collection of 50 self-published drawings, which were a critical success. “Toshio Saeki conjures death with a pen,” wrote the late Japanese critic, poet, and playwright Shūji Terayama, in a letter to the artist in 1969. (Terayama was also the first person to buy one of Saeki’s original works.)
In the 1970s, with unbridled explorations of violence, death, and sex in his works, Saeki captured the post-war spirit of cultural rebellion and social reinvention. He was inspired, he says, by a book by French illustrator and writer Tomi Ungerer that arrived in Japan in the 1960s. At art school, he studied Western art, rather than Japanese, finding the latter too often dictated by rules, tradition, and convention.
Primarily creating drawings for Japanese publications at that time, he made his name as an illustrator at a peak moment for Japan’s avant-garde publishing industry. Saeki was a favorite of the popular men’s magazine Heibon Punch, and the major publisher Kodansha; he created numerous book covers, as well as caricatures for Asahi Geinō (a radical weekly gossip, sex, and yakuza magazine); and he made hundreds of erotic drawings as a contributing artist at the BDSM magazine SM Select (which are now being released as a five-volume monograph by French publisher Cornelius).
During his time in Tokyo, Saeki could be found sipping sake until the early hours in one of the tiny bars of the Golden Gai district in Shinjuku (now a tourist trap). “It was a pretty shady place at the time,” the artist recalls. “A lot of cultural figures spent their time there. Most of them are dead now.” His drinking buddies included musicians such as Kan Mikami, Yosuke Yamashita, and Banmei Takahashi.
Despite what one might assume from his work, Saeki was not a visitor to Tokyo’s sex clubs. “I don’t think I could draw these scenes, if I was really into it myself,” he says. “I have to be distanced from it to be able to draw it in this way.”
After his first international solo show in Paris in 1970—a rare event for a Japanese artist at the time—in 1972, Saeki’s art appeared on the cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Some Time in New York City. That illustration depicts a devil figure with a knife, who is attacking a young woman dressed in a sailor school uniform—a commonplace motif in Japanese erotica in the 1970s, when political correctness was not a consideration. Both the late Lennon and Ono have been long-time fans of Saeki’s work, but the artist is reticent about discussing them (or other famous names who have declared their enthusiasm for his work), keen to avoid being a sycophant.
In fact, Saeki has revealed very little about his work and his life. Unlike his artist peers who emerged from the same era—among them, Tadanori Yokoo, Nobuyoshi Araki, Yayoi Kusama, and Ono—Saeki only left Japan once. But his decision to shy away from the public eye has also been crucial for his art; Saeki estimates that it’s allowed him to be bolder, freer, and more daring than any mainstream artist could ever be.
“The visions that I show people are the incomprehensible stuff of ero [erotica] and mystery,” Saeki explains. “If the reality hidden in my soul—even if it is only the smallest fragment of it—is able to evoke something in the viewer, then my intention has been achieved.” He’s always refrained from analyzing himself, his work, and his audience, he says. “I only ever thought about how to appeal to the hearts of the audience.”
Saeki sees himself first and foremost as an entertainer. An avid watcher of jidaigeki samurai films and Yakuza B-movies (thrillers about Japanese organized crime) from an early age, he grew up watching scenes of violence and gore that were intended to make the viewer laugh as much as wince (which is still commonplace in Japanese cinema today). A fascination with these films is evident in Saeki’s work.
Remarkably though, Saeki doesn’t draw from source imagery, nor models. Instead, his imagery is primarily inspired by visions, dreams, and recollections buried deep in his mind—which has led some critics to refer to the artist as a “conjurer.” But there are elements of Japanese culture present in the works, from interior design and textile patterns, to folkloric characters, Shinto spirits, and references to popular stories. His world is a hybrid terrain of the living, dead, and fictionalized.
“The phantoms have no meaning in themselves, but they should never fail to be powerfully suggestive,” Saeki says of the spectral beings in his works. “Please try to find your essence in them,” he beckons.
While Saeki has been exhibited in the West since 1970—in the decades following his first solo in Paris, he would be shown in San Francisco, London, Tel Aviv, and Toronto—more recently, Asian audiences have registered renewed interest in the artist. His work was presented the artist at Art Basel in Hong Kong last month, and in December 2016 there was an exhibition of his work in Taipei at Jiu Xiang Ju Gallery, which proved that Saeki’s audience is evolving.
Jiu Xiang Ju Gallery director Wu Ya-hui admits that Saeki’s exhibition was more popular than they had expected. “People appreciate and admire the eroticism and violence as much as the humor in the work, and his mysterious Japanese atmosphere too,” she says, adding that his clear, simple depictions, like that of a woman “in the subtle expression of sex and happiness,” were surprising, though well-received among visitors. “What impressed me the most about the exhibition was that many young people are paying tribute to Mr. Saeki in their own paintings,” she adds.
It may still take time though before Saeki’s work can be fully accepted into the canon of contemporary art. Many of his images are perhaps still too subversive for certain art audiences, and much of his work can only found in books and magazines, essentially hidden from public view and the internet. What remains clear, though, is that Saeki has done well to test the limits of artistic freedom and to depict expressions of the human soul, while elevating the erotic to a degree that few artists have been able to achieve.