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First-ever obscenity ruling against manga

(NOTE: This story is apparently a year old, but recently appeared as new on another website. See the follow-up to this post below.)

What is the world coming to?

Japanese manga, or comic books, have long been infamous for their gleefully gratuitous depictions of sexual perversion beyond what the average person, or even the average porn star, could imagine.

Yes, yes, there is a staggeringly vast variety of manga available, and not all of them include sexual content.

But the ones that do, well, they're really something else. All bets are off. Rape, bondage, and S&M are manga mainstays. One popular recurring story in a widely-read manga features a gang of cuddly, yet horny, cats that regularly molest the nubile young women in a ladies' dormitory. Another stars a sexy dominatrix who struggles to reconcile her passion for tying up and whipping her customers with her day-to-day life as a secretary. (You wouldn't believe the amount of research I had to do for this post, I tell ya.)

Notably, such manga are not sold wrapped in plastic in the red-light district to shady-looking guys with proper ID. They're sold out in the open, in convenience stores and subway newsstands, to suit-wearing businessmen and uniformed high-school students alike. For the true fan, entire series are collected in bound volumes and sold in bookstores. And they're read in the open, too. If you're on a Tokyo subway and your eyes wander, you might glimpse more than you bargained for.

Now, surprisingly, that particular quirk of Japanese pop culture may be headed for extinction. The permalink-deprived Manga News Service reports:

2-17-05 (9:28PM EST)---- First Obscenity Judgement Against Manga

In a landmark ruling in the Japanese court system, the first judgment stemming from obscenity charges has come down against a manga. The key figure in the case is Motonori Kishi (54) who first started his publishing company Shobunkan in 1968. He was arrested pending the release of his manga Honey Room, the charge being distributing obscene material. Tokyo's District Court found Kishi guilty on January 13, sentencing him to one year in prison and suspension for three years. The verdict has the adult rich comics industry in Japan in quite a nervous state. Ashita No Joe mangaka Tetsuya Chiba appeared in court as a defendant side witness. According to the testimony of a Tokyo Metropolitan Police inspector, the investigation was started based on a memo from LDP Diet member Katsuei Hirasawa. The defendant's side argued that charge violated the constitution that secures the freedom of expression. An appeal is currently underway and a hearing is scheduled for March 17th.
Here's a picture of the offending manga:

I'm not about to judge a comic book by its cover, but it hardly seems beyond the pale by Japanese standards. This may be the most inconsistent crackdown since Captain Renault closed Rick's Cafe. Prosecuting a manga publisher for obscenity is like busting a fish for swimming. There's got to be more to the story here, and I expect it will come out soon.

A little research on the Internets suggests that Manga News Service is just a bit out of date on this one. According to The Japan Times, the judgment in question actually came down over a year ago, in January 2004. The judgment followed Kishi's initial arrest in 2003 on suspicion of distributing obscene material.

Back then (via The Comics Journal), the Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Honey Room (密室) may have gone too far even by Japanese standards:
More than 80 percent of the pages contained pornographic images, including depictions of gang rapes and the confinement of women for sexual purposes.
However, The Japan Times quoted Kishi as saying his company "is not the front-runner for such extreme publications."

But it was the Mainichi Shimbun that may have found the key to the puzzle of why Kishi was singled out by the authorities. It reported:
Tuesday's ruling was a landmark decision as it was the first time Japan's courts had to deal with the limits of sexual expression in manga, the comic form the country has given the world.

"Bodies were drawn in a lifelike manner with little attention to concealment (of genitalia), making for sexually explicit expression and deeming the book pornographic matter," Nakatani said as he convicted Kishi.
So that explains why Kishi got busted: He didn't take the time to conceal his characters' naughty bits.

Left out of my above discussion of porno manga was the fact that while the storylines and drawings are ridiculously explicit, the one ground rule is that genitalia are not shown. A penis will be drawn as a banana or an airplane, for example. Alternatively, the space it would occupy is simply left blank, and a eager young lady is shown tenderly ministering to thin air. Women's nether regions, if not drawn as suggestively budding roses, are similarly obscured by plain blank space.

While I have not (and do not plan to) obtain and inspect a copy of Honey Room to verify the nature of Kishi's infringement, it would appear he simply didn't play by Japan's arbitrary but well-known rules on porn.

So, rest easy manga fans. The world is still safe for horny cats and leather-clad secretaries.


Anonymous said...

Heh, we're both hampered by our unwillingness to buy and read rape porn, but if this FAQ:

is to be believed, Misshitsu was not notably more graphic than other porno manga. I guess the FAQ could be wrong (clearly the person who wrote it is strongly on the side of the defendants), but it doesn't seem unlikely to me that they just drew the short straw of fate and became the test case.  

Posted by Matt

Anonymous said...

Hi, Matt! I like your blog and thanks for visitng.

Even if Japan cracks down on the most graphic stuff, what's left is still pretty freaky. 

Posted by GaijinBiker

Anonymous said...

That cover is surprisingly mild when I view it against some of the ones I see in front of my corner bookshop (well, it only deals in magazines and comics, apparently). The owner of the shop, a granny probably in her late 60s or early 70s, has at least 8 different issues out front on the tables; all have women in very suggestive poses; many have bound women; most have bare breasts with a fair amount of sweat (or other fluid) on them; all are at eye level of the elementary school kids who pass by her shop on their way to school. 

Posted by Comrade_Tovarich



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