The “Dark Carnival” of Ray Bradbury’s small-town America is positively cheerful compared to the one in Suehiro Maruo’s “Shojo Tsubaki” manga. No more veiled hints at the autumnal mysteries of death. Maruo’s barker promises snot, gore, pus and bits o’ brain; once you walk past the vomit-covered curtain, you get much worse than that.
“Shojo Tsubaki” is one of Maruo’s earlier efforts, kin in tone and topic to Todd Browning’s “Freaks,” and was turned into a shocking near-full-length anime, “Midori,” in 1992. The manga was luridly translated into English as “Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show,” but the Japanese title is poetic: “The Girl of the Camellias.” There IS a distant thread between this and the definitive tale of consumption by Alexandre Dumas, fils: the idea of disease-coated romanticism.
And there IS some romanticism to the tale of Midori, an orphan girl who goes from selling camellias on the street to being the all-purpose slave of a traveling freak show. Midori is harassed by a menagerie of monsters that range from a leprous mummy to a bullying hermaphrodite to the eyeball-licking ring-master, Mr. Arashi. (Yes, eyeball-licking is apparently a thing in Japan. EVERYTHING is a thing in Japan.) Eventually, Midori is raped, the rape being perhaps the only moment in the manga where Marou mercifully opts for off-panel suggestion.
But finally (AWWW) love comes to the rescue in the form of a pint-sized magician who devotes himself entirely to protecting Midori.
For a while.
Along with Junji Ito, Hideshi Hino, and Shintaro Kago, Suehiro Maruo defines progressive horror manga, but “Shoujo Tsubaki” looks to the past, (by rotating its head 180 degrees over a scoliosic spine, no doubt), to the Pre-war Showa Era and its nihilist, decadent ero-guro tradition. Maruo also underscores everything with his obvious affection for furikoshos (sound it out) and 1920s kamishibai theater. ( Kamishibai -“paper drama”- is a Japanese form of story-telling, originally full of Buddhist moralizing, half-way between a puppet show and a slide-show.)
“Shoujo Tsubaki” looks even farther back to the woodblock prints and paintings of the notorious Yoshitoshi, the artist behind the “Muzan-e” (the atrocities of the “Bloody Prints.”) Not coincidentally, Maruo lent his considerable imaginative powers to a 1988 updating of the Muzan-e called “The Bloody Ukiyo-e.”
I suspect there are also a few political allusions to radical Japanese nationalism that flew right over this gai-jin’s head like sparrows with blood-dipped beaks. But if at any point Marou meant to make me feel bad about how Western influence displaced gruesome Japanese traditions, he failed miserably.
If he meant to make me throw up all over my bento box, then he succeeded admirably.
POST-SCRIPT: The movie version, “Midori” is in a disturbing class all by itself, very unlike your traditional anime.
Made with little financial backing and with almost obsessive single-mindedness by animator Hiroshi Harada, the movie went unseen for years: the director insisted that it should only be screened as part of a simulated freak show, preferably with a fog-machine covering the terrified audience. Since there is no bigger or more bizarre freak show than the Internet, I think it’s entirely within the spirit of the thing to direct you to the YouTube link. Warning! Not even remotely SFW.