Dementia 21 by Shintaro Kago
“Ero Guro Nansensu” is a slippery categorization: originally coined in the 1930s to describe a particularly decadent movement in Japanese art and literature, it has since seeped outside its borders into increasingly ribald territory. The term itself stems from the English-language cognates “Erotic Grotesque Nonsense,” and the best guro is a three-headed amalgamation of each pillar. It’s not simply pornographic, nor should it rely heavily on violence; guro is a well-tempered unsettledness, pointedly distorted.
Shintaro Kago refers to himself as a kisou mangaka, or a “bizarre manga artist,” and he’s hailed as one of the greatest contemporary guro illustrators out there. Dementia 21, recently published by Fantagraphics, revels in bodily irreverence and pushes corporeality to the limits of the imagination. It is a fine introduction to the strange world of Kago.
Yukie Sakai is a home care nurse who specializes in elderly clients. She’s cute, confident and optimistic, a perfect aide who effortlessly receives rave reviews. A jealous colleague, in an attempt thwart Yukie’s successes, tweaks the system and has Yukie assigned to all the most nightmarish clients in Japan. Each chapter of Dementia 21 is a stand-alone story and details Yukie’s horrific and surreal travails.
In one story, Yukie is assigned to care for an old woman and her two sisters. After a great first day, the old woman’s family enters three more patients into Yukie’s care. Each day following, her number of patients expands exponentially thanks to the indifference of the young: infirm relatives are dropped off at a breakneck pace, until the house is swollen with piles of old people. Yukie attempts to keep her head up and care for everyone. “Thrown out like trash by your own flesh and blood!” she cries out. “Doesn’t it bother you at all?” The bodies grow restless and the house bursts apart. In the last pages, the elderly have glommed together into a single giant being who trudges off in vengeance. “We’ll show them the awesome might of senior power!” they yell.
In another story, a patient’s false teeth take over its host body. In another, a woman with dementia manages to explode everyone she’s forgotten until a miracle cure regrows her lost brain cells. Some stories are viscerally memorable in their sheer strangeness, but there are some standout works that click together into remarkable satire of not just society but also the manga genre. Kago cites the Surrealists as important influences in his work, and while Salvador Dali’s biomorphic forms echo resonantly here, Rene Margritte’s “The Treachery of Images” seems a more apt touchstone. Magritte’s painting depicts a pipe with the words “ceci n’est pas une pipe (this is not a pipe)” painted below. Magritte’s playful self-referentialism and commentary on representation (and painting itself) can be seen throughout Kago’s work, who simultaneously presents his readers with seemingly straightforward manga and blows the entire genre apart. In one story, Yukie cares for a whole cadre of old kaiju monsters and an elderly Ultraman-like robot. In another, Yukie tends to a cartoonist, only to find her own recurring death in his comics. Kago lures his readers, tempting them with familiarly sordid tales, but shows instead what’s beyond the body, past sex and violence and life and death. He deposits them in a realm so strange that they’re forced to think about ideas rather than simply thrills. Underneath the screams, these stories quietly make a statement: Kago peels back the logic of human biology and reveals the satire in the nonsense beneath.