“Oh Japan”: Let’s Talk About Criminalising Anime

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They can;t touch you for it: Manga Video advert, 1994ITS DEAD NASTY BUT ITS LEGAL, DO YOU GET IT???

When I’d read Chobits in the Upper Sixth common room, my friends would call it “your porno”. I was like “uuh, NO”, because I was committed to being more beatnik than thou and knowing that, scoff, obviously not all (or even most or even nearly most or practically any, really) manga was porn — and the only people who thought it was were a) reactionary conservatives, b) babies and c) racist, although at that point I did not have too much of a handle on the actual meaning of “racist”.

Of course in hindsight Chi is “turned on” by a switch where a non-robot would quite likely have a clitoris and there’s that whole bit where she doesn’t realise she’s on wank-cam and, okay. That was not 100% “not a porno”.

Pornography: printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement.

There’s a lot of near- and actual-pornographic manga. There’s a lot of intentionally stimulating sexual activity conveyed through every form of media or every form of communication. Sex sex sex, a lot of people like it a whole bunch. That does not make manga, or anime, “a pornographic medium”. Obviously! But here in England, it’s been marketed as one since at least 1994 — a Manga Video advert from the child-inclusive British games magazine GamesMaster can be seen at the head of this post.

The advert fits the atmosphere of the magazine (and of magazine-based, British games journalism in general) at the time, emphasising being rad, bad, and dangerous to know. It was the 90s. We all know what it was like, and we still love it at least a tiny bit. But Manga Entertainment had close to a brand monopoly (there was ADV, I guess) on non-game Japanese import fiction, it was still niche, and this advert is like look at this dirty fuckin’ stuff. If it wasn’t cartoons, you’d be in jail. You could argue it’s specifically violence-coded but look at the cartoon boobs in the Crying Freeman screen shot, bottom left. And when did pop satanism (Doomed Megalopolis, top left) ever not include nubile victims? We could argue it, but this is rape-coded advertising.

This is what made “us” think that anime was sick. This braided in “kinky perverts” to the already sexualised racism that Britain, as a colonialist power with a white supremacist history, had & has not yet removed from its social subconscious. This advert, and the people who designed, approved and ran it, retain a certain responsibility. “Oh Japan“, the people say, right?

森の陽気な小人たち ベルフィーとリルビット Mori no Yōki na Kobitotachi: Berufi to Rirubitto, or, "The Littl' Bits"

As seen on the BBC, The characters of 森の陽気な小人たち ベルフィーとリルビット (Mori no Yōki na Kobitotachi: Berufi to Rirubitto), or, “The Littl’ Bits

When you’re in one country and leave it very little, it can be hard to tell whether a classification of products you’re seeing from another country holds to certain templates, or if this template belongs to the company or companies who import these products. There’s the point to consider that imported anime meant for children was often indistinguishable from “cartoons”, i.e. western-created animated series (both because western properties were often animated by asian studios and because British adults did and largely do not credit children’s animation with any great attention), and so U-rated offerings weren’t counted when the Anime field got a look-over.

My fear is that my perception of the gender and sexual politics of objectification in Japan and Japanese media has been blown to unusable pieces by import trends and this style of advertising. So many fellow fans (and myself, me, I’ve done it with and without irony; I made the decision to stop) of imported and fan-translated Japanese media fall easily into oh Japan when discussing questionable writing choices in fiction that is, yes, from Japan. There are a lot of upskirt shots in this fight scene, I’ll say, and they’ll reply well that’s Japan! It’s a conversation ender.

Is it, though? Is disrespectful art disproportionately common in Japan? (I really, really feel like that’s a harmful assumption.) We heard it with the Manara-Spiderwoman defences; he’s working more in the European style. We hear it with Greg Land — that’s just comics, lol! But “comics” means “American-published comics” in that sentence, and it also means specifically American superhero comics. (You could further identify the publishers. And it goes all the way down to “What did you expect from Greg Land?” Boys… will be… boys…? It’s almost as if talking about demographics as acceptably awful is choosing to abdicate from the discussion about personal, social and political responsibility.)

Yeo Valley Advert, 2014

Oh Britain!!!!!!!!!! Bunch of freaks, right?

There’s context going pre-acknowledged, subconsciously, in these conversations. Japan is far less present in the political and cultural consciousness of Anglicised societies than America is — or even the large and culturally vibrant continent of Europe. We’re still engaging in colonialist thought patterns, which negatively impacts the world in high multiples of nuanced ways! When we say “Oh Japan” we’re shortchanging everyone remotely related to our underripe concept of “a nationality”.

Could you give me a really smart, concise, nuanced definition of “nationality”? Unless the answer is “yes, I’ll put it in the comments”, check yourself before you roll your eyes and shrug That’s Japan, Folks!

A l'ouest de Tokyo, Yamada Naito, 2001, ShôdenshaCourse, I have to do my bit too. I’ve covered Go Nagai and Ghost in the Shell here, pointing out their obvious violent and sexual content. I’ve covered other manga, too (and I edit Angel’s Moonie Musings). But I could talk about more manga! Manga that wouldn’t be at home in the adverts on this page. Or manga that would be radically under-described by it. Manga, and anime, that concentrates on beauty and sweetness; thoughtful and intellectually challenging. Manga that’s generous, and motivates you to be too. I’ve got a couple of staff members trying manga for the first time (I accidentally assigned two of them separate Urusawa titles, whoops), a new editor with big experience in manga readership, and a new writer working on manga reviews. Which titles would you like to see covered here? Can you recommend me anything wonderful?

Crying Freeman v7, Ryoichi Ikegami, Kazuo Koike, Shogakukan, Viz, 1986I’ve got notes on Space Adventure Cobra and Yamada Naito’s gorgeous work. I’ve got Battle Angel Alita ready to read. Staff writer Angel and I have put together an intro to manga, for the previously western-inclined reader, and that should be coming up shortly!

Maybe I’ll even re-read a bit of Crying Freeman. Because “tits & not an arrestable offence” is not all there is to say about it.

I hope you’re up for it, reader.

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About Author

The rock that drops on your head. WWAC Chief Comics Ed. Find me at claire.napier@wwacomics.com

7 Comments

  1. I don’t know if you’re reading this, but if you’re specifically looking for manga that is generous and encourages you to be generous too, I would look towards Natsume Yuujinchou/Natsume’s Book of Friends and never ever ever look back again. It’s gentle, it’s sweet, it’s about recovery and disentangling yourself from what you don’t need and making lots of monster friends along the way. This is a great topic! Good luck.

    • That sounds great! Thank you.

      (And you know, you talk about it so nicely here, maybe you’d like to do a guest review?)

  2. Great points, for sure, the trouble is it takes wise readers like yours to be able to make these distinctions. Anime and manga in general are seen as cool and bad-ass to Westerners, so in the middle of the robots and lasers and katanas the “Oh, Japan” misogyny is transmitted as well.

    It is, I think, no coincidence that the misogynerds (or fedoramancers, if you prefer) that are responsible for so much internet harassment lately are also easily identifiable by their anime avatars.

    I think you’re doing readers a service by trying to dig for better examples of the media, but I can’t help but feel a #NotAllManga vibe.

    • Hah! The difference, I think, is that in Anglocentric cultures, “manga” isn’t a dominant classification in the same way that “men” is. If men were niche, it would be legitimate to remind the general public that they aren’t all dangerous. But men are the functional majority, rather than a minority, and so “ahem, not all men” becomes “QUIET, BITCH!”.

      Poor ol’ manga is still an underdog in entertainment economics, so a little defence is worth my time.

  3. “Oh Japan! Oh Japan! You’re a dirty country!”

    Hold yourselves, Europeans, because you guys are the biggest TV porn watchers after Iran and UAE.

  4. I’m not sure how much this is true outside of the UK? Growing up in the US, anime was a kids thing and specifically a poor/black kids thing. Anime was cheap to license and to dub so most of the cartoons on local stations as opposed to cable were things like Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Johnny Sokko, Robotech, Voltron, Battle of the Planets, Teknoman, later Dragonball and Sailormoon… Rather than being “illicit” it was cheap/disposable/for kids, resulting later in, well, 4kids.

    For one example from the late 80s early 90s, the Macross: Do You Remember Love? movie was dubbed in the US by Celebrity Home Entertainment’s Just For Kids label as the 80-minute Clash of the Bionoids, while over there in the UK you got a dub of the 115-minute “uncensored” version.

    I don’t think the situation in the US and the UK is comparable if you were over there calling all anime/manga porn while over here the stigma was that anime was for black people and manga was for girls.

    • This was my experience as well but as a latina/fipilina woman? Anime/manga when the boom went big in the late 80s/early 90s here in the US wasn’t really promoting anything porn related. The stigma wasn’t the same at all. It was more “that’s just weird cartoons for kids!”. And it was so heavily censored and Americanized people just took it as a new/different form of animation. I didn’t even know it was from Japan until I reached middle school. The first time I accidentally rented the sub version of Sailor Moon R I was so confused! And yeah manga was a big “girls” thing even if it was shounen manga.