Sex in Anime and Manga

Sex is one of the most powerful and controversial words in the United States. People blush and giggle. People wince. It is a taboo subject that sells everything from cars to dollies. Sex is a sin, and it is an obsession in American society. All of this influences how sex is perceived by American manga and anime fans. Japanese aesthetics, sexuality, and gender ideas may seem unnatural to us with our “universal” concepts of sexuality and gender (Comog, 2005). However, our views of sexuality and gender are far from universal. They come from our culture. Anime and manga provides a safe way to explore different sexual perspectives. As you can tell, this discussion isn’t safe for work.

American culture associates sexuality with identity. Traditional Japanese society doesn’t wrap identity and sexuality in the same way. Manga and anime inherited this tradition. For example, in traditional Japanese culture men could have homosexual interests. However, this didn’t override their duty to have a wife and raise a family. Homosexuality was just a small part of who they were instead of being one of the defining pillars of their identity. See this article for references and more information. In the United States, sexuality is a defining part of a person’s identity. Anime and manga explore different sexual ideas because it is only a small part of a character’s identity. Sailor Moon, for an example, contains lesbians, transgender characters (female to male), and cross-dressing characters. However, the story doesn’t play up these proclivities as defining identity markers. They are just a part of the character’s overall personality. This ties back to tradition. Homosexuality was a small part of being a samurai. Likewise, transgender and cross-dressing played a part in kabuki. Kabuki began as an all-female production–women would dress as men–until the Tokugawa government stepped in. The government stipulated kabuki had to be all-male because it was “safer for the viewers and the performers alike.” This meant males would play female roles. Many of these men became sex symbols for samurai men with their blurred homosexual and heterosexual interests (Darlington, 2010). The gender-bending stories we see in manga trace to this tradition.

While Japan doesn’t make sexuality the defining part of a person’s character, it is a factor. It put it simply, Japanese tradition views sex as a part of normal life (Comog, 2005).

Japanese Obscenity Laws and Censorship

Tradition has limits, however. As Japan westernized, it adopted some of the West’s ideas of obscenity. Article 175 of the Criminal Code makes the sale and distribution of obscene material a criminal act. Yet, Japan has a constitutional provision for the freedom of expression. This creates similar tension to what we see in the United States. On one hand, you have the desire for uncensored expression of ideas and views. On the other hand, you have the desire to not see material you consider damaging or offensive.

Japan also has a constitutional principle of public welfare, which includes sexuality morality, as defined by the Supreme Court in two cases from 1957 and 1969. The cases defined public welfare as an idea “shared by an average person of good sense, a sense of modesty and shame.” Sex in Japanese culture, though normal, is considered a private affair. This view, coupled with the definition of public welfare meant obscenity became defined by the artistic merit of a work compared to its level of intended sexual stimulation. Basically, if a manga didn’t intend to sexually arouse someone with a beautifully drawn page, it was safe. But if the artwork fully intended to make you horny, it was smut. In other words, the regulation settled on forbidding explicit portrayals of adult genitals and pubic hair. The side effect was the rise of sexual metaphors–tentacles being the most famous. However, throughout the 1990s, the law allowed nonexplicit, nonsexual depictions of adult genitals (Zanghellini, 2009).

Nothing in the law concerns itself with underage nudity. This led to an over-representation of children or child-like characters in manga and anime. Erotic genres used this as a loophole and adapted the kawaii designs of girl’s comics. Many of these stories are essentially child-porn by American standards. The characters may be adults or of legal age, but they certainly don’t look that way.

In the 1950s and 1960s, female artists took over the girl’s comic genre from male artists. Their new, cute designs and more diverse storylines introduced an association with beauty and cuteness with morality. Protagonists were beautiful and cute. Villains were not (Zanghellini, 2009). Erotic genres took these designs to circumvent censorship. The side effect was the development of the lolita.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government passed a law in 2010 that obligated businesses and residents to recognize materials depicting sexual acts of minors as harmful. The regulation stated such materials prevent children from developing a healthy attitude toward sex. Yukari Fujimoto, a professor of girls manga and gender at Meiji University in Tokyo, claims the opposite. She claims the censorship of sexual material hurts children and teens. It bars them from stories that help them cope with their desires and the realities of sex. She claims exposure to sexual material at an early age reduces the chance of committing sexual crimes. She thinks children should gradually learn about sex and censoring manga would prevent this (Fukada, 2010).

The Benefits of Sex in Manga and Anime

Fujimoto’s argument brings us to the benefits of sexuality as seen in manga and anime. The debates surrounding censorship center on harm. Advocates of censorship desire to control exposure of sexual imagery because they see it as harmful. On the opposite side are those like Fujimoto and those who make profit from the sale of sexual content.

The growth of manga and anime here in the States makes this debate important. From 2002-2004, North American manga sales grew from an estimated $60 million to $135 million. Sales peaked in 2007 at $210 million (Brienza, 2014). Even with sales declining, manga remains an important part of the American social fabric. As a small town librarian, I see steady interest in manga, and I see hesitation. Some libraries have banned manga, anime, and books about manga in the past:

A parent of a 16-year-old son was offended by sex scenes in a history called Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, by Paul Gravett. Under pressure, the California library pulled the book. The Chair of the Board of Supervisors stated the library must do more to “protect children from inappropriate books and other materials” (Oder, 2006).

Manga still has association with porn because of its different sexual perspective. Outside of hentai, sex in manga differs from American porn. In many cases, manga’s sexuality is “powerful, vivid, and deeply emotional.” Because Japan lacks “the Eurocentric Christian notion of sex as polluting or dangerous, most manga present sex as physically and emotionally desirable for men and especially for women. (Comog, 2005).” American culture feeds men the idea that they need to be dominating and stoic. Sex is something to be enjoyed because it feels good and because it is “manly”. Manga shows how the emotional aspects of sex isn’t just for women. Powerful moments of tenderness and an openness to emotional connection are masculine. They are more masculine than the usual “male” narrative of dominance and control.

Whereas American porn reduces people to their genitals, many manga and anime stories focus on the exchange of emotion between characters. Again, I am leaving hentai out of this. Part of the appeal of porn is its taboo, dangerous nature. What is forbidden by law or religion becomes desirable. Christianity, for that matter, recognizes this in the book of Genesis. Sex in manga teaches the beauty of deep relationships, and how sex can enhance that connection.

In the 1980s, ladies comics targeting 25-30 year olds gained popularity. These comics presented women’s desires and alternative role models for adult women who were most often housewives. Early ladies comics showed sex as positive and women who enjoyed it. They focused on the female point of view which helped women accept the reality of their sexuality. However, the stories featured post-marriage problems and the darker side of sex. Amane Kazumi’s Shelter deals with a mother who is beaten by her husband. After the death of one of their daughters in an accident, the husband’s violence escalates. The wife and her eldest daughter escape to a shelter for battered women. The story follows her recovery and how she regains her confidence and independence (Ogi, 2003).

Manga allows people to explore stories, different sexualities, and different cultural perspectives. Gender-bending stories allow people to escape rigid social roles and imagine what it is like to experience life from the opposite gender’s view. Manga allows readers to explore alternative sexual identities and controversial issues about sex without feeling threatened or exploited.

Yaoi, BL, Yuri, and Dojinshi

Yaoi, BL, Yuri, and dojinshi are unique aspects of manga. Yaoi, BL (Boy’s Love), and yuri began as dojinshi, or self-published comics. Better known as fan-fiction, they became genres in their own right. Each tell alternative relationship stories and provide alternative views of sexuality. Yaoi and BL are written by female artists for female readers. BL focuses on the relationships between bishonen, or beautiful boys. While yaoi features explicit relationships between men. Yaoi is an acronym for the Japanese “Yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi.” – “No build-up, no foreclosure, and no meaning.” It is also a backronym–a deliberately formed acronym that fancifully explains the origins of the acronym: “Yamete! Oshiri ga itai!” — “Stop! My ass hurts!” (Zanghellini, 2009).

Yaoi may feature homosexual relationships, but it isn’t aimed at males. Manga of that type are called bara. Japanese homosexual men dislike yaoi because of its unrealistic relationships (Zanghellini, 2009). When yaoi and BL appeared in the 1970s, it shook the male-dominated world of manga. It appeared just as kawaii designs and women began to take over shojo. Yaoi raised eyebrows with its explicit sexuality. BL flew under the censorship radar of the time because of its underage characters. Bishonen are basically the male version of Lolita.

Because of the gender roles of the time, young women were better able to to imagine idealized strong, independent characters if they are male. Manga like Sailor Moon would later change this, but yaoi and BL remained popular among female readers. Despite its content and initial resistance by male mangaka, yaoi was more acceptable than yuri. Yuri, literally translates to ‘lily’, deals with love between girls, which is a taboo subject. While we know women Japanese history, particularly in the Edo period, had sex and relationships with each other, it is not something discussed. Yaoi fell within accepted samurai practices. The most famous yuri manga, Revolutionary Girl Utena broke ground by placing a female character in the role of a male. Utena doesn’t want to be male. Rather she seeks to embody the virtues male characters typically embody: courage, strength, and compassion. The story completely flips the traditional narrative. Utena along with Sailor Moon and other stories, including yaoi, changed the narrative of female sexuality and gender role. They break the Judaeo-Christian narrative that dominates American culture.

The Male Side of Manga Sexuality

Most studies focus on the benefits of manga reading for women and girls. Manga allows Japanese girls to break from their rigid gender roles. It allows American girls to explore taboo sexualities and different cultural perspectives. However, men see many benefits as well. As I mentioned previously, manga allows boys and men to safely explore feelings of affection, tenderness, and other emotions typically reserved for women. Masculinity in America and in Japan is one dimensional. Society expects men to be go-getters, controllers, and sexual conquerors. Some of the issues in American society concerning homosexual men centers on the idea of sexual conquest. Men are expected to go out and “get” women. Gay men defy this cultural norm. They are seen as being “got” rather than “getting.”

Gender-bending stories such as Ranma 1/2 use comedy to explore the different dimension of masculinity. In the story, a boy becomes a girl whenever he is splashed with cold water. Comedy stories like Ranma 1/2 stimulates the imagination and helps male readers consider other possibilities for manhood.

Manga also breaks the equation American romance has: sex = love, love = sex.  Newitz (1995) writes:

Anime offer to the post-sexual revolution generation stories which suggest that young men and women do not need to have sex in order to experience love.

Look at many shonen stories. Male characters often fall in love with female characters, but they never get down to banging like they would in American television. When they finally do, such as in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, it is off camera, and the story clearly shows the consequences: children. Pregnancy and children are a reoccurring theme in manga sexuality. Fatherhood is lauded, unlike in many–perhaps most–American stories. Goku is a dad. Even the goofiest fathers are still active in the lives of their children. This provides an example for male readers of an alternative to the “dead-beat” dad issue found throughout the United States: fathers who have little or nothing to do with their children. It also contrasts against the Japanese salaryman who is never home because of their work schedules.

Manga provides escapism, titillation, and–most importantly–a different perspective. Sex is a part of the human experience. It is wrapped up in identity, morality, and taboo. Sex will continue to spark controversy and provide a means to explore different culture and gender perspectives.

References

Brienza, C. (2014). Sociological Perspectives on Japanese Manga in America. Sociology Compass. 8 (5) 468-477.

Comog, M. (2005). Non-Western Sexuality Comes to the US: A Crash Course in Manga and Anime for Sexologists. Contemporary Sexuality. 39 (3). 1-6.

Darlington, T. & S. Cooper (2010) The Power of Truth: Gender and Sexuality in Manga. Manga in Depth. 157-172.

Fukada, T. (2010) Child sex in ‘manga’ – art or obscenity?: Graphic but healthy, free speech.  The Japan Times

MacWilliams, M. (2008). Japanese Visual Culture 40-42.

Newitz, A. (1995) Magical Girls and Atomic Bomb Sperm: Japanese Animation in America. Film Quarterly. 49 (1). 2-15.

Oder, N. (2006). Manga history pulled from PL. Library Journal, (9). 14.

Ogi, F. (2003). Female Subjectivity and Shoujo (Girls)Manga (Japanese Comics):Shoujo in Ladies’ Comics and Young Ladies’ Comics. Journal Of Popular Culture, 36(4), 780.

Zanghellini A. (2009). ‘Boys love’ in anime and manga: Japanese subcultural product and its end users. Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 23(3) 279-294.

Zanghellini, A. (2009). Underage Sex and Romance in Japanese Homoerotic Manga in Anime. Social & Legal Studies. 18 (2). 159-177.


Yona of the Dawn

Yona of the Dawn takes place in a fictional kingdom of either the Heian period or in China. The dress and names have a distinctly Chinese style, which is rather unusual for anime. The Heian period of Japan featured a strong interest in Chinese culture. The elite classes–this period was before the samurai–adopted Chinese mannerisms and styles. That’s why I’m not entirely certain to the setting.

In any case, Yona of the Dawn is a coming of age story. Yona is cast out of her comfortable, sheltered palace life and becomes a penniless vagabond protected by her long-time time guardian Son Hak. They traveled to the Village of the Wind, Hak’s hometown. Soon after, Yona encounters a seer who tells her of her destiny–to gather the incarnations of the legendary dragons and save the kingdom.

Yona of the Red Dawn is something of a reverse harem. Yona surrounds herself with various types of anime male tropes: the perverted ladies man, the beautiful boy, the childhood friend, the shy boy, and the wild boy. Although, the story is clear about which she prefers.

The anime is a bit on the weepy side. Yona spends a lot of time tearing up, but gradually she grows as a character. The biggest problem with this series is the pacing. It feels uneven. At times Yona will regress and then shift forward into her more confident self. However, you can’t expect a princess to go from sheltered to warlord in a single quick montage. The anime does a good job of realistically charting her progress despite being a little uneven. People will regress at times.

The anime suffers from time constraints and a too large cast for the allotted episodes. Many of the characters are trope sketches. Character tropes are useful for conserving time, but they can sometimes be a crutch that prevents character development. In this case, the tropes act as crutches. In Yona most of the time is spent on Yona and Hak, the other characters see little screen time comparatively. They often remind us of what trope they represent: “I am a beautiful boy” is one such line.

Yona of the Red Dawn is a refreshing change from the usual high school schluck. They story draws the historical-fantasy world well. The Chinese aesthetic is a little odd with Japanese language, but it would only bothers those who focus on history. At times modern slang leeches into the subtitles. These phrases feel out of place and break the suspension of disbelief.

As for the anime quality, it is fair. Action sequences remain consistent. Unlike some anime, they rarely reduce to panned still frames. Music is forgettable.

Scenes like this, though meant to be a break from the darker themes, hurt the story’s pacing. It jarred me from the spell the anime attempted to weave. While it helps with characterization, the jarring factor of these scenes made them annoying for me.

Yona spends much of its time exploring class roles. Yona comes from the highest elite class that shelters its members from the lower classes. When she runs into suffering for the first time, the event shakes her world view. The story is similar to what Siddhartha encountered. Siddhartha–later known as Buddha–was a prince shut away from the suffering of the world. He lived in a harem with beautiful women and far away from material needs. One day, he traveled outside the walls of the palace and encountered his first view of sickness and death. This encounter forever changed his outlook and eventually led to him becoming the Buddha and inspiring millions to live with a compassionate outlook on life. The story portrays Yona as having similar potential.

While it seems silly to say an anime like Yona of the Dawn carries valuable lessons, stories are how we learn. One of the most common questions people have as they age deals with suffering. Why does God allow suffering? The answer is quite simple as this anime and the story of the Buddha reveal. Suffering teaches compassion. Without suffering people cannot grow in empathy. Yona and Buddha both were self-centered while shut away from the suffering of others. Only when they see suffering and experience it themselves do they realize compassion. Suffering unites people through its common experience. It breaks down the superficial barriers we put up between ourselves and others. Yona of the Dawn handles this theme well. Yona’s heart expands as she encounters people from different walks of life and perspectives. She suffers, but her soul grows.


Why do Anime Characters Yell Their Names and Attacks?

Anime characters sure yell a lot. They yell their names or demand to know their opponent’s names. They yell their attacks.

Wind Scar!

Anime fans don’t think too much of it, but for those new to the medium this is just weird. However, there are a few reasons why anime has these conventions. Manga’s limitations is one factor. Samurai practices from the time they were mercenary headhunters is the other factor.

Most anime stories started as manga. Manga does a good job at showing action, but as a still-imge medium, it has limits. Sometimes panels become muddled when authors try to show a flurry of action. Because manga is typically black and white, characters can look similar to each other. To fix these issues, mangaka have their characters announce themselves and yell the names of their special attacks. In the flurry of action lines and camera angles, a reader can get confused and lose what is going on. By having announced signature attacks, the reader can have an anchor. This helps clarify who is attacking who. Name announcing and yelled attacks help a page’s flow. Manga page layout is meant to be read in two ways. First, it is read as a whole. The reader looks at the entire page to glean the gist of events. Then it is read panel by panel. The order of the panels depends on the overall layout. The back-and-forth shouts between the villain and protagonist helps the reader determine the order of the panels. The shouts form a cause and effect relationship between the characters’ actions.

These conventions carry over to anime despite not being necessary. Anime uses color and design to better distinguish between characters. It is also linear. Anime can only be “read” one direction, unlike a page of manga. Conventions that make sense in manga’s limitations appear silly in anime. However, there are times when shouting an attack helps clarify what is going on. It can lend a finality to the confrontation when the attack is a “finisher.”

Shonen stories love the exchange of names between fighters. This is sometimes so important that characters will refuse to fight (or stop a fight with) someone who doesn’t give their name. For those of us in the West, this seems silly. Our military heritage stresses killing or subduing an opponent above all other concerns. Our military history teems with nameless casualties of war. We practice total war. That is, complete destruction of an enemy and their ability to make war. Rome can be thanked for that. When Rome finally destroyed its rival city Carthage in the Third Punic War (149-146 BC), Rome razed the city, killing and enslaving the entire population of the city. Roman soldiers even plowed salt into the soil just to prove their point.

Japan had its own version of total war that appeared at various times through its history. However, Japanese military tradition focused on individual conflicts of honor rather than complete destruction of a rival. Casualties remained relatively low in conflicts between Japanese states (O’Neill, 2003). In the early years of the samurai, rivals would face off in well-mannered duels rather than as enemies. This is similar to how duels were handled in Victorian England and colonial America.

Samurai would ride to the enemy’s front lines and call out his lineage and accomplishments in the hopes of finding a worthy opponent. One medieval war epic idealizes this custom (O’Neill, 2003):

Ho, I am Kajiwara Heizo Kagetoki, descended in the fifth generation from Gongoro Kagemasa of Kamakura, renowned warrior of the East Country and match for any thousand men. At the age of sixteen . . . receiving an arrow in my left eye through the helmet, I plucked it forth and with it shot down the marksman who sent it.

Early samurai gained honor by collecting the heads of their challengers. This allowed their lords and fellow samurai to see the people they defeated. The more honor an opponent had, the more honor you gained when you killed him. Over time these customs faded as armies grew in size and foot soldiers from the peasant class began to dominate the ranks, but the ideals continued in literature. And it is from this literature manga pulled the habit of battlefield introductions.

Bleach and Naruto serve as good examples of this literary convention. Battles often begin with a name exchange. Sometimes they even go as far characters arguing about how will pair off with what villain. The bluster associated with this jostling goes back to the bluster of samurai announcing their accomplishments. This is one reason why action anime seems oddly chatty during fight scenes. It also helps readers understand what is happening.

So next time you watch Inuyasha yell Wind scar or a prebattle name exchange you can thank the first samurai.

References

O’Neill, T. (2003). Samurai: Japan’s Way of the Warrior. National Geographic. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/features/world/asia/japan/samurai-text/1

Clements, J. (2010) A Brief History of the Samurai: A New History of the Warrior Elite. Philadelphia: Running Press.


Organizing and Presenting Manga and Anime

The best way to get to know someone isn’t in conversation. Instead, look at their bookshelves. Your books and DVDs reveal much about your personality, interests, and tastes. My bookshelves are a little messy and eclectic. You will find everything from history to religion, from science fiction novels to video games on them. As books and movies and games turn toward digital, we lose the pleasure of displaying our favorites. Part of the culture of the book (and of the movie) is displaying them. The sight of classic leather covers, the vibrancy of artistic dust jackets, brings as much pleasure as reading. Books and movies are part of your decor. You can use bookshelves as accents or make them central to the room’s look.

Public libraries have many ways of organizing information. The Dewey Decimal System is used for nonfiction. Manga is organized by title or author in most libraries. Anime is alphabetized by title and by genre in some libraries. Organized manga looks great on the shelf, but what’s the best way to organize it? Do you go the library route or make up your own system? Well, it depends on how much you have. Large collections benefit from the library’s alphabetical author method. The problem with this method comes from the different trim sizes some manga has. Some manga are larger than the standard 5.8 x 8.2 inches, 14.732 x 20.828 centimeters.  This can make your shelf look uneven. So one way around this is to separate the books by trim size and then by author or title. Of course, serials look great when organized by volume.

A manga collection at a public library. Notice the space on the shelves that allows for expansion.

A manga collection at a public library. Notice the space on the shelves that allows for expansion.

Most manga collection I’ve seen online lack breathing space. It’s vital to leave room to expand on each shelf. If you don’t leave breathing space, you will have to shift the entire collection to make space for new series. Breathing space helps the collection avoid feelings of claustrophobia and gives an area to display your figures, plants, or art. I like to use breathing space to display the cover art of books. To do this, you can purchase inexpensive photograph stands at your local dollar store. standing a book without a stand can warp the spine over time, so don’t do it!  Breathing space requires you to have a lot of shelving, but it is worth it because of the ease of expansion and nice presentation.

Speaking of presentation, less is more. I’ve seen book collections (including mine) that look cluttered despite being organized. Some collectors try to show off too much at once. Take a look at this collection:

cluttered-manga-collection

The collection has too many figures. They obscure the spines of the manga and make the shelves look busy. Japanese aesthetics follow the less-is-more philosophy. A single flower in a vase gets more attention and appreciation than two thick bouquets. A single wall hanging grabs the eye better than a dozen pictures on a wall. When you mingle your figurine collection with your manga, use this less-is-more philosophy. If you have breathing space on each self, display one to two figurines on each shelf. You may display three if you have long shelves, but don’t cram them. The open space around the figure will draw attention to the figures. If you have a large collection, store them and rotate what is on display. This lets your collection remain fresh. Whenever possible, use groupings of three. Three and multiples of three please the eye.

anime-manga-collection

This collection could use breathing space and bookends. See how the third shelf on the right leans books? This is hard on their binding. But the books are flush with the edge of the shelf. This is good presentation.

Your anime DVD collection can follow the same organization method as manga. Libraries organize DVDs by title. You can organize them by series. If you have the space, you can display the cover art of our favorites. Spine labels on DVDs are much smaller than manga. Alphabetizing anime by title makes them easier to find. Genre is another option, but this can be difficult to determine. Some series can straddle genres. High School of the Dead, for example, straddles ecchi and action genres.

stuffed-manga-collection

Avoid stacking manga on top of shelved books like the above image. This can damage the binding of the books over time. It also looks bad. Avoid direct sunlight. It fades covers. While it is difficult, try to purchase manga that has the same trim size. This helps your presentation and makes shelving easier. I know, I already said this but different book sizes shelved together annoy me. My public library has tiny, thin books shelved with fat hardcover books, and it makes it hard to find the thin books. It’s also ugly.

Invest in bookends. A good bookend reduces wear on your books by preventing shelf sliding. You can also customize bookends if you are crafty. Good bookends are not cheap, but you only need to buy a good bookend once. When shelving books and DVDs, try to keep them close to the opening rather than pushing them against the back. Books neatly lined up and flush with the shelf’s opening looks more inviting than having to reach into the shelf. Just remember to dust behind the books. Dust bunnies like to procreate behind book stacks. The exception to this rule is when your shelving has display lighting. Then you will want to scoot the books back against the back wall.

The image on the left is one of my bookshelves. Please pardon the poor quality of the image. The middle shelf is my Legend of Zelda showcase. I have more Zelda stuff, but I resist placing them all on display at once. See how the three pieces are pleasing? The drawing of Link’s shield is from my younger sister. Absent a bookend, I opted to use my writing notebooks as one. It’s not ideal, but it doesn’t look bad. It’s something you can keep in mind too, but don’t stack the end books too high. Stair-step the book sizes instead. It looks better, and its less of a pain when you want a book from the stack. My organization still needs work, but a book collection is a lifelong work in progress. I wanted to offer my shelf as an imperfect example of everything I’ve discussed. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be pleasing.

The presentation of your library is part of the enjoyment of collecting. A well presented, organized collection spruces up a room and reveals how you value what you own. An organized, neat exterior encourages an organized, calm interior. You can’t be as calm in a cluttered environment as you can be in a neat, organized environment. Your collection is a part of you. Show it well.


The art of benshi: The voices of silent film

At the end of January, I had the privilege to witness a benshi performance, which impressed me immensely. Finally, it led to me writing this blog post. So, what am I actually talking about?

In Japan, silent films were never truly silent

despair Tokyo March silent film

A still from the 1929 silent film “Tokyo March”

Western audiences may be faintly aware that in the first cinemas, at least a pianist used to accompany silent films, if there wasn’t an entire orchestra at hand. As we still experience today, music is very effective in conveying emotion, atmosphere, and a sense of urgency or suspense regarding the story unfolding on screen.

But in Japan, they went far beyond that. The story of cinema in Japan begins with imports of western movies, showing scenes that were strange and exotic to Japanese viewers. Thus, these scenes needed explaining, and this is where the origin of the benshi lies. Literally, the word means ‘orator’ or ‘speaker’, and benshi started out as ‘film explainers’. Soon, however, they also became commentators, narrators, entertainers and voice actors. Some may pinpoint the development to a single person – “Somei Saburo was the first of these narrators who could be called a benshi. Rejecting the oft-assumed role of playing outside observer, Saburo chose to imitate, voice, and personify the characters depicted on the screen.”[i] – but a parallel development seems more likely.

The artists…

Owing to their origin as explainers of western ‘exotic’ contexts, benshi tended to dress in western attire, commonly tuxedo and top hat.

Sawata Midori benshi

Sawata Midori, allegedly the most famous contemporary benshi.

This trend continues until present day, as the most famous of today’s benshi, Sawato Midori, performs in suit and bow tie – despite the fact that, unusual for a benshi then and now, she is a woman. The benshi I watched, Kataoka Ichirō, is one of her students. At the beginning of the performance, he remarked that at the height of benshi popularity, in the 1920s, there were over a thousand of them active in Japan. The most popular of them earned more than the Prime Minister! In fact, cinema goers didn’t go to see a specific movie for its director or its actors so much as for the benshi performing it.[ii] Now, however, there are only about 10 benshi left, and (as Kataoka assured us) he, at least, earns significantly less than the Prime Minister.

In contrast to the tradition, Kataoka dresses in traditional Japanese garb for his performances. About half of the short films he showed to us that night were period pieces, however, so it fit with the general theme.

…and the medium

In the old days, benshi manipulated the films they showed as they saw fit. To this day, they script their own texts for each movie, including the dialogue, even if the original script is available. Their performance unfolds in addition to, or sometimes at odds with, the intertitles. Often, though, Japanese silent films would not even have intertitles, since the directors knew the benshi would take care of narrative coherence and transition. Now, if the benshi’s dialogue took longer to perform than the scene allowed for, he would just instruct the man at the projector to lower the projection speed a little.[iii] This also led to a tendency in Japanese early film to use long, uninterrupted shots to allow the benshi time for his performance. Of cause, if he found a sequence boring, he might turn it into a comedic interlude and crank up the speed to get it over with.

Silent movie animation Monkey Masamune

A still from the silent animated movie “The Monkeys’ Masamune”

In short, the main attraction was the vocal performance, and the film was only the raw material. Sometimes, the benshi would comment on the action, drawing attention to the fictitiousness of the story, in an almost Brechtian fashion.[iv] The relationship between film and ‘explanation’ was in fact reversed: “the images themselves being the illustration of an independently existing storyline.”[v]

Benshi might also use their position for political propaganda, as was the case with the war films during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5[vi]. Korean benshi likewise attempted to instigate rebellion against the Japanese colonial rule.[vii] The benshi‘s immense popularity was a major factor in the comparatively late start of sound film in Japan – but when progress finally took hold, the ‘talkies’ made the benshi obsolete.

Cultural contexts

Japan has a rich history of performance art, and the benshi can be linked to a number of them. The narrators of Kabuki theatre are prominent and visible.

Asou Yata Benshi

Benshi Asou Yata, sporting a very fitting mustache.

So is the chanter of bunraku puppet plays, who also lends his voice to the silent puppet characters, much like the benshi voice the actors on screen.[viii] Furthermore, oral narrative performance art has a long tradition.  In the Middle Ages, you could listen to biwa-hōshi, blind itinerant monks who recited war epics while accompanying themselves on a lute. To this day, there are performances of conversational comedy called rakugo.[ix] (Incidentally, the garments of rakugo performers may be another influence on Kataoka’s costume choice.) Even the master-student training system used by the benshi was adapted from other traditional Japanese arts.[x]

Because of these connections, benshi performing film were not a radically new thing, but rather a development based on older art forms. The links between theatre and film ran so deep that some theatres employed a number of benshi, some of them female, to feature in a single performance of “live dubbing”.[xi] For some time, there were also mixed shows, where part of the action was acted live on stage, part filmed beforehand and dubbed live.[xii]

Narrative: A performance of Kataoka Ichirō

Kataoka Ichiro benshi

Kataoka Ichirô, almost as I have seen him.

It is at the end of January, 2017, in Trier, an ancient but small city in western Germany, close to the borders of Luxembourg and France. The Romans have left some impressive ruins, and Karl Marx was born in one of the strangely diagonal streets south of the market square. Today, the Broadway cinema, in cooperation with the department of Japanese studies of Trier university, presents a short film screening with benshi narration. At that time, I’m struggling to pinpoint the thesis of my Master’s dissertation. I have no clear idea what a benshi is, but it sounds interesting – especially since one of the films on the list is about Jiraiya, the toad mage, for whom I have a soft spot. Upon arriving at the cinema, I buy a bottle of German lemonade with real caffeine and sit down with a book. The performer is here already, and I shyly admire the traditional Japanese clothing he wears. Two other students of Japanese Studies join me at my table and update me on the goings-on in the student council. One of them is very excited because, he says, he is interested in everything about the Taishō period (1912-26). We sit down in the higher part of the screening room; it has a seating capacity of about a hundred and is 2/3 full at least. Someone from cinema management says a few words of greeting and presents Kataoka, not without mispronouncing his name, of course. Then Kataoka introduces himself. He has a pleasant, tough not very remarkable, speaking voice and is quite proficient in English, which is, sadly, quite unusual for a Japanese. At first, the audience is somewhat hesitant to respond to him (German stiffness, probably), but they mellow during the first film.

Lump Theft and Monkeys’ Masamune

Silent movie animation Lump Theft

Tengus’ banquet scene from the silent animated film “Lump Theft”.

“I know this one”, I whisper to my neighbour, the Taishō enthusiast, as the screen flickers to grey and yellowish life. The first film is an animated short, about two old men with lumps and the karmic justice visited on them, quite by accident. “It’s on youtube.”[xiii]

How different it feels now, though! With the onset of the strange music – well, strange to modern Western ears at least, I cannot even discern the instruments – Kataoka’s performance beings. He does so in Japanese, of course, but someone has kindly provided subtitles, tailored to this specific event. As the introductory intertitle appears, the benshi’s voice turns into the solemn, melodious whine of a traditional Japanese narrator. He croaks like friendly raven once he voices the old man, produces the servile chatter of low-rank Tengu mountain goblins, as well as the rumbling laugh and growled anger of the goblin king. This feels just like anime now! If it weren’t for the moments when he, clearly on purpose, speaks even if characters are drawn with their mouths closed, or stays still when they seem to speak.

When that first movie is over, I am sitting on the edge of my seat for the next one, but that’s a fable with a somewhat dubious morale. A hunter trying to shoot an ape is wrong, but cutting a boar in half with a sword seems to be perfectly fine.[xiv] Between films, Kataoka gives us some facts in English about benshi practise and history.

Tarō’s Train

Taro's train live action

Little Tarô, absorbed in his new toy.

Taro's Train animation

Bad mannered hippos!

I am impressed by the third film because it mixes two styles we now mostly see as distinct. In a live-action sequence, a little boy receives a toy train from his father as a present. The dress and movement of the actors give me the feeling that historical knowledge only get you that far. This grainy movie has more life in it than any textbook on the Taishō era. Anyways, the boy finally goes to bed, enamoured with his new toy, and dreams of being a conductor. The dream sequence is animated; and full of anthropomorphic animals.[xv] It’s nice comedy and also instructive, explaining how to behave on a train. Seems to have been effective, since the Japanese are usually very pleasant, and quiet, train passengers. Kataoka takes the comedic tone of the piece to slip in a few jokes of his own, as one of ‘his’ characters metanarratively remarks on this being a black and white movie. In one instance, there was even a self-reflective joke in the subtitles!

Tokyo March

The movie I like best, though, is Tokyo March.[xvi] It’s a complicated, kabuki-esque plot of love found and lost, mistaken identity, rivalry and family secrets, and Kataoka excels in portraying the characters- from young men to an old woman, from the sad heroine to the lecherous and finally gilt-ridden father.

The heroine, foced to become a geisha, is weary of unwanted attention.

Japanese speech patterns, of course, are highly codified by age, gender, class/profession and region. Which intonation, harshness or softness of voice, and what pitch one uses, how one refers to oneself, how questions, commands and states of emotional excitement are marked with specific particles, differs according to these criteria. I guess that makes the benshi’s voice-acting possible, if complicated. As an additional treat, the ending of the movie had some insensely, um, homosocial lines, which made my inner fangirl squee.

bromance silent film classic

“My happiness will never be complete without you, Yoshiki.”

Contrasts

san-sukumi Jiraiya Tsunade Orochimaru

Frog VS Snake VS Slug, the classical threeway tie.

In fact, I keep forgetting the benshi’s presence because I get so absorbed in the characters and their story… I am only jolted out of it when Kataoka’s script diverges from the action. However, here he keeps a superb balance of immersion and alienation. By contrast, in his rendition of the Jiraiya movie, his narration seems to run off course a bit too much. He turns the confusing film into somewhat of a coherent story, but clearly this is only possible by intensively reinterpreting and repurposing the images. Perhaps I am getting tired, too. In any case, if you fancy a pretty young woman transforming into a slug, or warriors beaten back by lawn sprinklers, good entertainment, give it a try.[xvii] It’s the first special effects movie made in Japan, apparently.

The last film is a modern homage to silent film, and in direct contrast with the originals before, the difference is easy to spot. The pictures are too clear, the resolution too high, and the sudden tilts into yellow, blue or red seem exaggerated. There are scratch marks superimposed on the image, but it takes me only a few minutes to notice the repeating pattern. That being said, the story itself, about a jealous samurai and his bloody revenge, is interesting, and Kataoka once again amazes me with the variety of voices at his command.

Quite an experience, that was.

Afterthoughts

Oshin poster

Poster of the most popular “morning drama”, Oshin. This genre makes extensive use of voice-over narration, especially at the beginning of each episode.

Benshi may have all but disappeared, but they sure have left a mark on the Japanese visual narrative. It’s not just Kataoka’s amazing versatility, which reminded me of some modern-day anime voice actors. Or that anime sometimes employ similar speaking styles in voice-over narration. In general, Japanese film features wide angles and long takes – perhaps in memory of the benshi who once needed the time to perform. And finally, voice-over and concluding narration is relatively common in Japanese live-action TV, which might be a legacy of the benshi.[xviii]

In addition, after the advent of sound film, some benshi who had lost their jobs became kamishibai artists. Kamishibai or paper theatre is a street art combining hand-drawn slides and vocal narration.  It is seen a precursor of modern manga – the Manga Museum in Kyōto has a whole room dedicated to kamishibai, with an actor performing in period clothing. So, here we have another direct link with modern visual narrative.

Long story short, if you get the chance to see Kataoka or one of his colleagues perform, I strongly recommend going.

Notes and References

Website Sawato Midori: http://sawatomidori.com/eng/profile.html

An introduction of Kataoka Ichirō: http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2012octdec/benshi.html

Video of a Kataoka Performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-SBXG4xY_M

[i] http://facets.org/blog/misc/the-tale-of-benshi-the-forgotten-heritage-of-japanese-silent-cinema

[ii] Yomota Inuhiko, transl. Uwe Hohmann: Im Reich der Sinne. 100 Jahre japanischer Film. Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 2007, p 26; see also J.L. Anderson: “Spoken Silents in the Japanese Cinema; or, Talking to Pictures: Essaying the Katsuben, Contextualizing the Texts”. In: Arthur Noletti Jr. & David Desser: Reframing Japanese Cinema. Authorship, Genre, History. Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 359-311, p. 261.

[iii] Yomota 2007: 44.

[iv] A slightly different take on the Brechtian comparision: http://www.altx.com/interzones/kino2/benshi.html

[v] Aaron Gerow: Visions of Japanese Modernity. Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: U of California P, 2010, p. 147.

[vi] http://aboutjapan.japansociety.org/content.cfm/a_brief_history_of_benshi. An extensive study of the open-endedness of the benshi performance, and the question if benshi closed or opened the interpretation of the filmic text, see Gerow 2010., chapter 4.

[vii] Yomota 2007: 44.

[viii] Anderson 1992: 265.

[ix] Yomota 2007: 45.

[x] Anderson 1992: 279.

[xi] Anderson 1992: 270. He uses the term katsuben, but I prefer beshi since that is the word Kataoka himself uses.

[xii] Anderson 1992: 271.

[xiii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ShzmzcJM7QI

[xiv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wY9fEdt9NRI

[xv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYyeT9PMNXo

[xvi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0eVO94JQ1Y Sadly, this version has no sound at all, whereas this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AC1pPawxWGY has music but only french intertitles.

[xvii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xt9GRKpeDtU with subtitles, but no music.

[xviii] Suggestions of this kind are made by Anderson 1992: 293 and Yomota 2007: 27, 45.


Considering Japanese Incest, Cultural Obsession, and the Book The Six-Foot Bonsai

Recently, I’ve read a memoir written by Stacy Gleiss that shares her experiences with an abusive Japanese husband and her immersion into Japanese culture. I’ve considered doing a standard book review, but it’s difficult to critique a memoir. By their nature, memoirs share intimate details about a person’s life that I don’t feel right critiquing. However, The Six-Foot Bonsai touches on a darker experience of Japanese culture and media. Gleiss’s experience, shaped by an abusive relationship and her obsession for all things Japanese, brings up topics young otaku fail to consider.

I’ve ran into people who show the same obsessive interest Gleiss writes about in her book. In fact, those people drove me to start JP in the first place. I wanted to speak out against misplaced views about Japanese culture. Through my research, I’ve come to admire some aspects of the culture and dislike other aspects. To my neighbors, I’ve become something of a Japanophile, but my first interest was the Roman Empire (particularly the founding and collapse of Rome) and early Christian history. I own more books on those topics than on Japan, which is saying something. So in many regards, I struggle to understand the extreme love for Japan Gleiss writes about and otaku share. I find Japan fascinating but no more fascinating than the Roman Empire. I tell you this so you can understand that I am lack first-hand experience in culture obsession. Gleiss’s book serves as a better source. If you are obsessed with Japan (that is, it dominates your thinking and how you behave), you need to read her book.

With these caveats out of the way, let’s start with my impressions of the book and then lead into cultural obsession and kawaii culture. While I practice Zen, I stand in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It’s through these lens that I view everything. I grew up in a particularly hardcore legalistic branch of Christianity, and its precepts are still written on my bones, despite knowing how wrong  many of them are. Much of what Gleiss accounts with her life troubled my sensibilities. I also struggled to understand how her all-consuming interest in Japan could drive her to drop everything and transplant into the culture. I have an interest in living in Japan as well, but it would be as a Westerner who is respectful of Japanese practices and  with an interest to study their history and folklore rather than trying to become Japanese. The West can learn many lessons from Japanese culture, but in the end, a person born and raised in the West can only adopt another culture so far. Cultures can only be judged in relation to each other, and the person considering the culture needs to have a broad and firm frame of reference. For example, I’ve studied Japanese culture, Persian/Babylonian culture, Hellenistic culture, Roman culture, ancient Hebrew culture, ancient Egyptian culture, and I grew up in rural American Judaeo-Christian culture. Gleiss writes about the importance of cultural comparison as a means to keep perspective:

When I first experienced Japan, I thought this intriguing culture held the secrets to a good life: order, process, and an almost artistic approach to everything. But my blind faith in this culture was sorely misplaced. In fact, placing trust in any culture is risky without a set of standards by which to measure the moral rectitude of any given custom.

In my case, my Judaeo-Christian background with a traditional rural American upbringing serves as my set of standards (with added standards from cultures I’ve studied). In many cases, I’ve observed my otaku friends pursue an interest in Japanese culture as a way to rebel against American individualism. While American individualism is toxic in its present rendition, turning toward a mistaken idea of Japanese culture can be more poisonous because the idea isn’t complete. Rather, it is an idealization. Now, idealizing a culture can be useful. My childhood idealization of the Roman Empire drove me to learn more, including the darker side of Rome–slavery, rape, disease, incest. However, for many, the echo-chamber of the internet prevents them from going past the sections of a culture they enjoy: otaku culture in particular.

Speaking of dark aspects of culture, as Gleiss’s book illustrates, Japan has a problem with objectifying young girls. American culture worships the idol of youth, but Japan takes it to the extreme. Long time readers know that I loathe fan-service. I’ve also explained the origins of lolita culture and kawaii culture.  In Gleiss’s life, she explains how lolita and kawaii culture shaped her abusive ex-husband’s views of sexuality and women. The access to prepubescent sexualized media–the upskirt shots and other sexual poses manga and anime peddle–encouraged his pedophile tendencies.  Buddhism and Christianity warn that the messages we consume shape our thinking. Consuming prepubescent sexualized manga–okay, let’s not dodge the word anymore: child pornography–will shape a person’s view of sexuality.

Child Pornography in Japan

Back in the 1990s, Japan’s child pornography industry flourished. In 1997, Christian Science Monitor wrote:

The child pornography that Japanese officials consider legal falls into two categories. The first features pictures of children in public places photographed with hidden cameras or powerful lenses. This “peeping” material does involve Japanese children, but is not considered a violation of the child-welfare law since the photographers are not “inducing” children to practice “obscene acts,” which the law prohibits.

A second type presents posed pictures of children, very often naked. Most of the children involved are girls from Southeast Asia and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Europe, according to three men who work in the pornography industry. In keeping with the industry’s self-imposed guidelines for pornography involving children under 18, no genitals or sexual activity is shown.

Part of the reason why it flourished in the 1990s was because of obscenity laws that banned displays of pubic hair, creating a loophole for images of prepubescent children. In 2015, the Japanese government banned the private ownership of obscene products involving both male and female children under the age of 18, but the law did little to curb the distribution of such material (Osaki, 2015). I’m sure you’ve seen anime or read manga that featured far-too-young children depicted in voyeuristic poses. These types of poses are so common to the media that they have become expected tropes. Adult women are shown flashing their assets along with teens and pre-teens in mainstream titles. Just look at No-Game; No-Life as one example. Dance in the Vampire Bund is another title that thinly veils this problem by stating that Mina Țepeș is far older than she looks and has an adult form. But that doesn’t stop the anime from objectifying her prepubescent body.

I debated an entire day about whether or not to use this picture. I don’t want to be seen as supporting what amounts to child pornography, but I also wanted to provide an example for discussion. Shiro is 11 years old. There’s no way to call this illustration anything but sexual. Her pose and lack of clothing showcases her budding prepubescent breasts and her lack of hips. This is what sexualization of children in manga and anime looks like. Kawaii culture sees such depictions as normal and even innocently cute. If it was innocent, the illustration wouldn’t depict her in such an outfit and angle. This illustration isn’t out of the ordinary for manga and anime, sadly. While I debated about this image, fans often think nothing of such illustrations.

These types of fan-service are so common that few think much of it. Rei Ayanami, from Neon Genesis Evangelion, is perhaps one of the most fetishized characters. She’s 14, well below the allowable age to have sex according to Japan’s Children Welfare Act (which forbids sex for anyone under the age of 18) but above the age of consent established in the Japanese Penal Code (which is only 13). As you can see, even the law is ambiguous. In the United States, she still falls under child pornography laws, however. In any case, Rei and other characters have become so fetishized that it’s considered a normal part of being an anime/manga fan. Some fans even claim her as a waifu. In fact, relationships with fictitious teen and prepubescent characters are fairly common in the otaku fandom. The confusion surrounding the enforcement of obscenity laws (and how they clash with free expression) contribute to this normalization.

One of the issues surrounding enforcement of Japan’s obscenity laws deals with kawaii culture. Characters may be 20, but look 15. Lobbyists for the Japan Cartoonist Association resist an outright ban on the content (Ripley, 2014):

Ken Akamatsu, who lobbies lawmakers on behalf of the Japan Cartoonists Association, said a total ban on explicit content would damage the entire industry, making creators too scared to put pen to paper in case they risked breaking the rules.
He said the characters were imaginary, so unlike real child porn, no one was hurt.
“Actual children suffering and crying is not acceptable. But manga doesn’t involve actual children. So there are no actual victims,” he said.

Gleiss’s ex-husband echoes this reasoning. In the book, she accounts how her ex-husband claimed to separate reality from fantasy. Many people claim fiction doesn’t affect behavior; however, for most of human history fiction–myths and folklore–taught morals, values, and cultural viewpoints. While some claim fiction lacks victims, the victims are the readers. Their consumption distorts their idea of reality. It does it gradually, in ways that evade notice. In turn, this can shape sexuality and make it difficult to bond with people on an intimate level. Yes, some claim to be unaffected and have happy and healthy relationships. As with everything, fictional relationships and interests can benefit people and their relationships. Obsessive behavior falls outside of these possible benefits.

Incest in Japanese Culture

While Suguha and Kazuto aren’t brother and sister by blood, they were raised that way. This makes Suguha’s romantic affection for him as akin to incest.

Related to child pornography is Japan’s long history of incest. Shinto mythology features incestuous relationships between deities. A region of Honshu has special terms for different types of incest:

  • hiemaki refers to mother-in-law/son-in-law
  • awamaki for father-in-law/daughter-in-law
  • imonoko for father daughter.

This suggests these types of incest were common enough to warrant naming (Kitahara, 1989a). Shinto rituals that purified sins also named forms of incest. This further suggestions a commonality. According to Kitahara (1989a), the practice of co-sleeping and co-bathing may have contributed to historical cases of incest. Kitahara (1989b) examines a book outlining cases of mother-son incest where the mother helps relieve her son’s stress by helping him masturbate or even having sex with him. Kitahara (1989b) writes:

According to a 20-year-old male, when he was 14 and bathing with is mother, he inadvertently experienced erection. The other said: “It is better to discharge it,” and she petted him to ejaculate. They were having coitus since he was 16. Apparently some mothers behave similarly toward their sons, who typically express their reactions by saying “mother helped me to ejaculate” and this usually takes place in the bathroom.

Francis Pike confirms this was a lingering problem in 1997’s article in London magazine The Spectator.

In her book, Gleiss makes no mention of such happening with her ex-husband; however, the awareness of incest through literature and, perhaps through rare events as Kitahara examines, creates a framework that allows him to normalize such behavior. Manga and anime contributes to this as well. Brother-sister relationships have become rather common in recent years. No Game; No Life serves as an example, as does Sword Art Online. All of this points to an undercurrent of incest in Japanese cultural history. Over the last few decades, as Japanese birthrates decrease, researchers have pointed to how men have a mother complex. Back in 1993, Satoru Saito doubted mother-son incest was common, but the relationship between mother and son still defined Japanese society (Mccarthy, 1993):

‘There is no clear distinction between male-female relations and mother- son relations,’ says Dr. Saito. ‘Japanese males are always mixing these two: they want to assert their sexuality, but at the same time they want to be held by their mothers – warm, safe, secure.’

Today, as you can see in this article about dating, people still struggle with this issue. It results in unequal sharing of household work and general inequality in marriage. Again, this ties back into child pornography. Men from households with extreme nurturing–regardless of the sexual elements involved or not involved–struggle to develop adult viewpoints, so it would only be natural for them to develop affection for cute, innocent, and available portrayals of girls and women as media culture pushes.

Obsession and Fault Blinders

Mina from Dance in the Vampire Bund has far too much sexuality for her child form. The show made me uncomfortable throughout.

Cultural obsessions blind people to the culture’s faults, such as Japan’s child pornography and, to a lesser extent, incest. Gleiss’s book shows how a personal obsession can do this, but obsession can also blind a fandom. The normalization of fan-service and soft incest within anime and manga attest to this fact. Sadly, anime with such content sells. Some people argue that fan-service and lolicon are protected under free speech. While this is true, they shouldn’t be normalized. There’s a difference between protecting and normalizing certain types of expression. Yes, such expressions can be useful; they can raise awareness of the problem and–I’m going to stretch here–provide an outlet for people. But consumption of such messages affects how reality is understood. This is why you see some otaku encroach on women.

So far I’ve singled out men, but women suffer from the same issues. However, society places less focus on these issues. There is a double standard when it comes to unwanted sexual advances toward men. A female otaku grabbing a man at a convention doesn’t face the same backlash as a man doing the same to her. But setting that aside, I focused on men because most anime/manga objectify women more often than men. As a male, I expect my fellow men to behave as gentlemen. Check out the blog Art of Manliness if you want to see what I mean.

Gleiss’s book The Six-Foot Bonsai brings up all of these issues and speaks about Japan’s focus on youthfulness and cuteness in the context of her own life. Her book serves as a warning for those who are obsessed with Japanese culture and unable to see the culture’s negatives, and every culture has its darker side.

Now there are some who are obsessed with anime and manga but have little interest in Japanese culture. They just like the stories and the characters. However, obsession of any sort is an issue. Obsessions lack balance and leave a person with a one-dimensional life. You might know of a religious person who does nothing but speak about God and Jesus or Allah. In many cases, these obsessions are based on misconceived ideas and a lack of true understanding about the target of the obsession. They are obsessed with the idea rather than the reality, often in order to escape reality. Eventually, reality will prick the bubble and the shock of it will leave people unable to function. Gleiss suggests she struggled with this problem when her bubble finally burst.

The Long and Short

I want anime and manga to stop with the fan-service and ecchi and soft incest. I want them to focus less on tropes and more on good writing, and anime can do that. Animations have the ability to tell stories live action cannot. But I’m not naive. This will continue until Western and Japanese fans pressure the companies by not purchasing such content. It’s past time for anime and manga to stop with prepubescent sexualization.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any issues with adult nudity. I used to draw and paint classical nudes back when I studied animation and art in college. The difference is intent. Classical art nudes seek to show the beauty of the human body or tell a story about the person. Sexual poses as we see in anime and throughout online art websites intend to arouse. They are not art because they don’t tell a story. Even child nudity can be used to drive home a point, such as the famous photo of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc as she tried to run away from the napalm that burned her during the Vietnam War. But sexualization is a different matter entirely.

If you are obsessed with Japan and/or anime and manga or even video games, you need to reevaluate how it influences your life. Is is a way to escape something that troubles you? In small amounts this is okay, but if there is a problem you need to face it and make corrections if you can. If you can’t you should learn to accept the way reality is rather than avoid it. Everything ends, so even what seems forever will change.

Develop different interests. If you are an extreme otaku, develop interests apart from anime and manga. Take up a creative hobby aside from drawing your favorite characters or writing about them. Diversify.

If you are like Gleiss, you may have to abstain from Japanese culture altogether. She writes about using Japanese culture like it’s a drug. It’s okay to be interested in another culture. It’s different if you are consumed by it. Throughout Gleiss’s book, she write candidly about this consuming influence, which is why I recommend you read her memoir if you too suffer from cultural addiction.

References

Barr, C. W. (1997, April 2). Why Japan plays host to world’s largest child pornography… (Cover story). Christian Science Monitor. p. 1.

Kitahara, Michio (1989a). “Childhood in Japanese Culture”. The Journal of psychohistory (0145-3378), 17 (1), p. 43.

Kiatahara, Michio (1989b). “Incest- Japanese Style.” The Journal of psychohistory. 16 (4), p. 445.

McCarthy, Terry (1993) Out of Japan: Mother love puts a nation in the puch. Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/out-of-japan-mother-love-puts-a-nation-in-the-pouch-1508595.html

Osaki, Tomohiro (2015, October 22). Groups Criticize Japan’s Tolerance of Child Pornography, Call for Stricter Laws. The Japan Times.

Pike, Francis (1997). Where Some Sons Do Have Them. The Spectator. 20.

Ripley, Will and Hilary Whiteman. (2014). Sexually explicit Japan manga evades new laws on child pornography. CNN Wire.