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Jan 20 2020

OBITUARY: TOSHIO SAEKI (1945–2019)

by Kylie Yeung

Japanese ero-guro illustrator TOSHIO SAEKI has passed away, aged 74 years old. Courtesy Presspop and Nanzuka, Tokyo.

Pioneering Japanese ero-guro illustrator Toshio Saeki passed away, aged 74 years old, on November 21, 2019, according to the artist’s website, although news of his death was not released publicly until January 16 by his representative gallery Nanzuka via Instagram. Widely regarded as the “godfather of Japanese erotica,” Saeki is best known for his distinctive erotic illustrations combining elements of Japanese folklore with gore and humor—recalling traditional shunga prints—making him an iconic figure in Japan’s underground culture before gaining an international following.

Born in the Miyazaki prefecture in 1945 and raised in Osaka, Saeki was trained in Western art during high school. Fascinated by samurai-period drama and thrillers at an early age, he was inspired by the recurring topics of violence and the supernatural in these films. He was also influenced by the French illustrator and writer Tomi Ungerer whose satirical works arrived in Japan in the 1960s. After moving to Tokyo in 1969 after a brief and unsuccessful stint at an advertising agency, Saeki debuted his illustrations in his self-published art book TOSHIO SAEKI (1970) featuring a collection of 50 drawings, amid the heydays of the city’s sex industry. Following critical success, he became a regular feature in the men’s magazine Heibon Punch, in addition to illustrating book covers from the major publisher Kodansha, among others. His first international solo show, “Saeki Toshio” (1970), was held in Paris, rare for a Japanese artist at the time. In 1972, an adaptation of his depiction of a devil attacking a school-uniformed girl appeared on the cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album, Some Time in New York City.

Saeki gained critical acclaim with his unique and unrestrained take on somber themes of violence and death, controversially intermixing them with provocative sexual contexts, embodying the spirit of Japan’s cultural rebellion and social reinvention in the 1970s. “Leave other people to draw seemingly beautiful flowers that bloom within a nice, pleasant-looking scenery. I try instead to capture the vivid flowers that sometimes hide and sometimes grow within a shameless, immoral and horrifying dream,” he said in an interview with Dazed Digital in 2013.

Saeki’s works have re-emerged from the underground scene, gaining him wide international recognition in recent years, including solo shows at San Francisco’s 111 Minna Gallery, New York’s Glenn Horowitz Bookseller East Hampton Gallery, Paris’s Galerie Da-End, and London’s Print House Gallery, among others. In 2019, he was featured in a popular solo show, “Banshou Kaiki,” at Taipei’s Jiu Xiang Ju Gallery, followed by inclusion in the group show exploring contemporary Japanese art, “Tokyo Pop Underground," at Los Angeles’s Jeffrey Deitch Gallery.

Kylie Yeung is an editorial intern of ArtAsiaPacific.

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