Warning! Very graphic imagery ahead if you choose to click through to this article.
I had the hypothesis that the type of “body horror” imagery which we see in modern Japanese horror Manga had some kind of historical relationship with Japanese Buddhism, probably via Buddhist meditative practices focused on repulsion. After some study, I am convinced of this hypothesis.
The imagery I saw in these manga reminded me of certain anatomical sketches and grotesque Japanese paintings from the Buddhist tradition. But what really put the idea in my head that there might be a connection between the contemplative practices of Buddhism and these manga was the disturbing experience of actually reading them. Although I’m not a Buddhist or well versed in how these particular meditative practices are supposed to be carried out formally, the straightforward descriptions of these meditations seems at least superficially similar to the experience of viewing grotesque images on paper.
Lets me show you what I mean:
Quotations from the Sutras:
The following is from Ekottarikāgama 12.1, which seems to be a Chinese recension of earlier texts:
““In this case, the practitioner meditates on the body as a body and according to its functions. When he examines it from head to toes or from toes to head, he sees that it is composed of impure constituents, and he is unable to be attached to it. He observes that this body has hair of the head and hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, sweat, pus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, heart, liver, spleen, kidneys. He observes and recognizes urine, excrement, tears, saliva, blood vessels, grease, and observing and knowing them all, he is unattached and regrets nothing. This is the way the practitioner observes the body in order to realize peace and joy and be able to end unwholesome thoughts and remove anxiety and sorrow.”
It even explicitly uses a butcher analogy:
“Just like a skillful butcher or his apprentice might lay out the different parts of a slaughtered cow and distinguish the leg, heart, torso, and head, the practitioner observing his own body distinguishes the Four Elements just as clearly, seeing that this is earth, this is fire, and this is air. Thus the practitioner meditates on the body in the body in order to end attachment.”
One also meditates upon the body’s openings “from which impure substances flow.” Then, one meditates the sequence of the body’s decay with the understanding that one’s own body will pass through these stages. The sutra starts with a rotten corpse being gnawed and eaten by animals, a year old corpse, bloody/fleshy bones, a skeleton, scattered bones, bleached bones, and old yellowing or decomposing bones. The section of the sutra on this subject ends with:
“Thus the practitioner meditates on his own body, abandoning unwholesome thoughts and removing sorrow and anxiety, observing. ‘This body is impermanent, it is something which decomposes.’ A practitioner who observes himself like this outside the body and inside the body and outside and inside the body together understands that there is nothing, which is eternal.”
(source: Sutta Central)
The Maha Sattipatthana Sutta has a slightly different walkthrough, though it is older and forms the outline of the prior sutra. It starts with commanding the Bhikkus to examine and reflect on the body “from the soles of the feet up and from the tips of the hair down” while thinking:
“There exists in this body: hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, membranes (including the pleura, the diaphragm and other forms of membrane in the body), spleen, lungs, intestines, mysentery, gorge, faeces, brain, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, solid fat, tears, liquid fat, saliva, mucus, synovic fluid (i.e. lubricating oil of the joints) and urine.”
It encourages the meditator to view the body like a bag of assorted grain in which one can pick out kernels of different plants. It repeats the butcher analogy in more or less identical fashion as the prior sutra. However its directions on the stages of the corpse is a little different insofar as it encourages the Bhikku to actually physically view corpses:
“And again, bhikkhus, if a bhikkhu should see a body, one day dead, or two days dead, or three days dead, swollen, blue and festering, discarded in the charnel ground, he then compares it to his own body thus: ‘Truly this body is of the same nature, it will become like that and cannot escape from it.'” note44
[To leave no mistake, Buddhanet’s note 44 reads: The meditations based on corpses are best done while or after actually seeing a corpse. By seeing the reality that the body will one day be a corpse too, the mind becomes free from attachment to the body.]
At the charnel ground the Bhikku is also supposed to observe the corpse being eaten by animals, in various stages of progressive decay, then becoming bones which themselves undergo decay until becoming dust all the while thinking of their own body “Truly this body is of the same nature, it will become like that and cannot escape from it.” Again here the purpose of the meditation is for realizing the truth that there is no self let alone an eternal self, and that the body is composed of foul and repulsive substances not worthy of attachment. The sutra ends with a statement of reductionist distance from the body rivaling that of rationalist science (and presaging the anatomical sketches they would eventually lead to): “Thus, bhikkhus, this is also a way in which a bhikkhu dwells perceiving again and again the body as just the body.”
Here is a modern Sinhalese walkthrough of the “Asubha Bhavana” meditation (Cultivation of the Foul meditation) based on the above sutra which in my view emphasizes the disgusting aspects of the meditation even more than the canonical texts with lines such as “The heart has a fish-smell and brings many illnesses to a person” and “When blood is rot, the pus builds up. Pus is a yellowish disgusting liquid with the nature of giving birth to worms.”
There are two other important terms associated with this exercise. One is “Patikulamanasikara” meaning bringing to mind that which is objectionable. This seems to refer to the more directely repulsive aspect of the above sutras. The other is “Maranasati” meaning death mindfulness. There is a sutra called the Maranassati Sutta, but it doesn’t contain anything blatantly foul. Rather it talks about desiring to live for the minimal amount of time necessary to “attend to the Blessed One’s instructions.” From what I can tell though, the former is intended to induce the latter.
The briefest way of describing the type of manga I’m talking about here is that it typically falls in the guro genre, which combines body horror, eroticism, and psychological horror and black comedy. That would include artists like Shintaro Kago, etc. But the manga expression of this phenomenon just the mass media version of a trend somewhat related to things taking place in more “fine art” type circles who work with similar imagery, a decent example being Toshio Saeki. There are also those erotic and horror Manga artists who incorporate highly florid, ornate, or well composed paneling seemingly derived from fine art or wood block prints. An example of that is Suehiro Maruo. But by and large I’ll focus on Manga here.
So anyway. Obviously doing a contemplation on the repulsive isn’t the exact same thing as reading a horror Manga. Some significant differences: There is usually no explicit spiritual or philosophical goal in reading a comic or a graphic novel. The images of corpses and mangled bodies are viewed physically rather than visualized in the mind. More often than not, the mangled body is actually either a still living being, or a monster, not actually a corpse. There is also no explicit injunction for the reader to imagine themselves as the body. Yet, there is almost no need to. Part of the reason why gore images disturb us so easily is that we know our bodies and the bodies of those around us are just as capable of being mangled or rotting. Also, while there is a mental component, these meditations do seem to frequently involve physically viewing corpses on the charnel ground, so visual perception is already put into play by the Sutras themselves. Furthermore, although it isn’t intended, viewing these images does (eventually) dull one’s sensitivity to viewing gore, and acclimates the mind to viewing the human body as little more than a bag of flesh and fluid.
But we do frequently come across the body in all its states of decay, and we see images of realistically rendered the individual organs and substances which we are heeded to consider. If we had no corpses to examine, we could easily page through just a few manga to find all the requisite samples.
Desiccated and gnawed by animals:
Diseased, bloated and emitting foul odors:
Dissected out into its individual components:
Bloody and with exposed flesh and tendon:
At the very least you must acknowledge some superficial connection. But if you still think I’m stretching here, then consider the history of grotesque depictions in Japan, and from what set of ideas these sorts of grotesque depictions historically originate. I’ve assembled an array of source material from actual scholars on this subject.
Grotesque Depictions in Japanese History:
The following is from pages 42-43 of The True Shape of Human Bones — On the Dawn of Anatomical Dissections in Early Modern Japan By Michel Wolfgang.
Contemplating the Decay of Human Corpses
It has been repeatedly pointed out that cutting into a body, even a dead one, does not conform to Buddhist or Confucian notions, and that there was a kind of taboo that inhibited Japanese physicians from disturbing the integrity of a human body. But in a society where members of the samurai class tested their swords on corpses of criminals (tameshigiri 試斬), and executioners made a fortune by incorporating the human brain, liver, and gallbladder into pills for consumption (rōgai 癆 痎 ), some doubts remain about the nature and extent of such barriers. At least there was no shying away from looking straight at decaying corpses, even in Buddhist temples.
Fig. 12 Seventh stage of decomposition. Edo period hanging scroll, Seifuku-Temple (Kyōto)
To liberate the self from sensual desires, contemplations on the impurity of a decaying corpse (Pali Asubha bhāvanā, Jap. fujōkan, 不浄觀), preferably the corpse of a beautiful young woman, have been included in the exercises performed by monks and ardent devotees since the early days of Buddhism in Japan. The roots of such practices go back to the ‘reflections on repulsiveness’ (Pali Paṭikkūlamanasikāra) of the parts of the body (hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, muscle, bone, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, pleura, spleen, lungs, bowels, intestines, stomach, etc.) and all the other impure things a body contains, such as snot, pus, slime, feces, bile, blood, urine, sweat and the gastrointestinal contents. They are described in the Satipaṭṭhāna-Sutta (Jap. Nenjo-kyō 念處經), as well as in the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Sutta (Jap. Dai-nenjo-kyō 大念處經) and the Āgamas (Jap. Agon-kyō 阿含經).
Although there Since the Kamakura period (1185–1333), when power shifted from the nobility to the warrior class and Buddhism came into full flower, graphic depictions of the nine stages of decomposition served this purpose in various formats, including hanging scrolls, and handscrolls. Since the late 17th century, books made them available to the general public. In addition to quotations from Buddhist textual sources, poems were added to each of these stages, the most famous among them those written in classical Chinese by none other than the founder of Shingon Buddhism Kūkai.
The anatomical precision of these depictions was low, but they were helpful to overcome fear, anxiety and other emotions vis-a-vis a dead human being. And that was an aim physicians too could easily understand and use them for this purpose.[23, 24] It is not by accident that some of the first hand scrolls depicting anatomical dissections were influenced by the iconography of these ‘nine stages pictures’ (kusō-zu 九相圖, 九想圖). In some cases, even dogs appear, sniffing around the cadaver. Both types of depictions usually end with a grave in a serene landscape. With the growth of anatomical expertise among Japanese physicians, this narrative character of medical illustrations faded away, but for a while, dissection, art, and religion continued to be closely related.
Having grown up in a family deeply rooted in the traditions of Shingon Buddhism, Negoro Tōshuku’s encounter with decaying corpses at one of the many execution sites in the Kinki region must have evoked such pictures. In contrast to the later dissections conducted by Yamawaki Tōyō and others, the mere observation of a naturally decaying body was still within the traditional conceptual framework. Therefore, the step from contemplation (Jap. kansō 観想) to observation (Jap. kansatsu 観察) was comparatively small, especially for an ophthalmologist who believed in the power of the human eye as a mean of gaining new knowledge. (The True Shape of Human Bones — On the Dawn of Anatomical Dissections in Early Modern Japan, Michel Wolfgang, 42-43)
So from Wolfgang we can gather that depictions of the body or corpse in a revolting condition, at least from the early modern period, were composed by Buddhists consciously deriving from the Buddhist tradition of corpse observation. Prior to Buddhism, drawings of the body (usually Chinese or Chinese inspired medical diagrams) avoided corpses and the grotesque, and instead looked more like these sterile depictions:
Whereas Negoro’s depictions look like this:
But the influence on these types of drawings on the artistic and philosophical tragectory which concluded in the production of modern commercial manga is very weak, if existent at all. And if anything, it seems like the genre of anatomical drawings itself got overtaken by influences from the corpse contemplation style of drawing (check out this google image search).
Erotic component: One very strange aspect of this whole thing is the extent to which gore, and body horror and erotic comics are blurred together. But to the reader of a horror manga, the association of the erotic and sexual imagery with the wounds or decay of the bodies serves to poison the sensation of lust. Or at least that is one possible reaction one can have to viewing such images. This is also an object of the classical Buddhist meditation on the repulsive, which is why: “To liberate the self from sensual desires, contemplations on the impurity of a decaying corpse (Pali Asubha bhāvanā, Jap. fujōkan, 不浄觀), preferably the corpse of a beautiful young woman, have been included in the exercises performed by monks and ardent devotees since the early days of Buddhism in Japan.” (Wolfgang, 43.)
The problem here is that given the huge overlap with the erotic genre presence in the erotic genre it is likely that many if not most of the consumers of this sort of media have the opposite reaction. I.e. the horrific aspect of the erotic image behaves like a fetish for them and perhaps after an initial period of disgust, the horrific and erotic images start to possess a certain beauty or a fascinating aspect. (I’m not going to post full on guro hentai on this page. You can google that yourself if you really want to.) But then again, though the Sutras make no mention of it I have to wonder how common this was in Buddhist circles as well. Given that these Buddhists did spend a fair amount of time contemplating and depicting such things with artistry and precision, it would be hard to imagine that they too didn’t find some twisted beauty in it.
A Universe in Flux: It also seems like these many of the comics where body horror is a key component play with metaphysical instability quite a bit, which is why they fall into the supernatural and psychological horror classifications as well. Particularly in a comic like Kago’s “Abstraction,” though it isn’t particularly gory. The fear or horror (but also the black comedy?) comes from the unstable nature of these characters and their world, as body parts transform into other parts or objects. Buddhism in general and Zen in particular proffers a view of the universe wherein this sort of “flux” is central. Pandey describes the connection between this concept of flux, and corpse observations as follows:
A basic Buddhist tenet is one which argues that everything is impermanent (Sk. anitya; Japanese mujo ̄) and forever changing. It follows then that there is no self or ego which can claim for itself a lasting identity. Indeed, in Buddhism, the body itself comes to serve as a pedagogical truth of the doctrine of impermanence. The body is essentially foul. Indian Buddhist texts like the Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa spell out at great length the various categories of the foul body—swollen, discoloured, festering, ssured, mangled, dismembered, bloody, worm-eaten and so on (see Figure 6.25) Part of the training of a Buddhist monk involved spending time at the charnel elds in order to observe in minute detail and meditate upon the putrefaction of the human body. The purpose of this training is to recognise the true nature of the body and the self and thereby rid oneself of attachment and desire.26 (The Pre in the Postmodern: The Horror Manga of Hino Hideshi. Rajyashree Pandey, 270)
The indeterminancy of the self, the decentred universe in which human beings do not have primacy of place, the view of life and death as a series of endless transformations and metamorphoses, the open-endedness of narratives which resist neat closure are all features of a world informed by a Buddhist sensibility. They are also emblematic of postmodern culture. That Japanese popular texts can be read as particularly sophisti- cated articulations of the postmodern position is precisely because they are embedded in a history shaped by Buddhist values and ideas. (Pandey, 274)
Other Buddhist Grotesque Art:
I don’t want to be overly simplistic and say that a single buddhist meditation practice is at the root of Japanese gore. Buddhism, at least in certain manifestations, is generally predisposed to think about the body in a negative light. I know its a bit of a meme to say that Buddhism (or for that matter Gnosticism) “hate the body,” but it is also sort of true. These things are intrinsically linked to desire and attachment, and therefore linked to suffering. Heres what Zília Papp has to say about all that:
The Hell, Gaki and Disease Scrolls are important in laying the foundation for a tradition of visual representation of the deteriorated, the gruesome, the filthy, of which yo ̄ kai-ga will be a part of. These scrolls bring into the viewer’s focus the exact themes and topics that one tries to ignore, avoid or avert one’s eyes from, such as excretion, mutilation, or the rotting away of the human body. The Kuso ̄shi Emaki ( ) of the Kamakura period is an outstanding work within this context. It confronts the very question of aesthetics of whether a work that depicts the putrefying proc- ess of a dead body in minute detail could be considered as a work of art (Fig. 4.21). The hell and disease scrolls set a powerful alternative way for art to develop in Japan and deal with the realities of life, decay and death, in parallel with fine art, which is the depiction of harmonious and attractive themes. Still, regardless of the ‘impure’ theme of the scrolls, their aesthetics and artistic merit is present without doubt. The mercilessly realistic depiction of putrefaction or human dismemberment is comple- mented with delicate strokes of compassion and at the same time the artist’s humor- ous treatment breaks the tension within the pictures. Even though the Buddhist scrolls are religious in nature, following predetermined iconography, the free creative genius of the individual artist, although unknown by name, is tangible. This original creativity makes these paintings true works of art while at the same time gain validity for the subsequent art form of yo ̄kai-ga in the nomenclature of Japanese art history. Still, yo ̄kai art will be relatively toned down in theme and depiction compared to the Hell and Disease scrolls. The next moment in time when equally or similarly grue- some art is produced will be in post-war horror manga, within which context Mizuki Shigeru also started his early career. The Hell, Gaki and Disease Scrolls set the tone of explicitness and a psychological background to fall back on when dealing with the gruesome that artists and directors still rely on in the contemporary period.
The artistic value of the scrolls is not overlooked by experts. Ienaga Saburo thus comments on the Disease Scroll parts known as ‘woman suffering from cholera nostras’ and ‘man with anal fistula’:
. . . anal fistula is an abnormality of the anus while cholera nostras is a malady in the intestines, which causes laxity and vomit, but both these pictures frankly portray the ugly moments of giving forth filthy things. If the Hell of Dissection is the extreme of cruelty, these two, together with the section showing ghosts eating excrement, are the utmost of filthiness.
Although dealing with such ugly subjects, the two scenes reveal excellent skill of the artist. That of the man with anal disease, especially, has won universal admiration of experts. . . . The curves of the girl’s contours, her line of vision, the man’s tall clogs, his hand touching the ground, and his hat, can be connected in an uninterrupted circle, and this circle forms the nucleus of the composition in this painting. Considering that compositions of Chinese paintings are always characterized by regularity, precision and stillness rather than dynamic effect, it admits no doubt that such novel composition conceived in a circle was a Japanese invention.
(Kadokawa 1960: 11) (Fig. 4.22)
As Buddhism is based on the fundamental teaching that life is rooted in the Four Sufferings (birth, old age, sickness, death), it is a task of Buddhist art to confront its viewers with such realities. In other words, no topic can escape from being artis- tically reproduced, and the concept of beauty in this case is rendered irrelevant. (“Traditional Monster Imagery in Manga” by Zília Papp, p 61-62)
PS: Here are some additional images which I had saved, but which I couldn’t use in elsewhere. They…. well I won’t explain any further: