Chicks On Anime
Censorship Part 2

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, Jan 13th 2009

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

Last week, we sat down with Jason Thompson, manga editor and also the author of Manga: The Complete Guide, and talked about censorship and obscenity. This week, the continuation of the conversation. As always, please feel free to continue the discussion in the forums— last week's talkback thread was filled with a lot of great arguments and talking points, and it was very insightful. Our thanks go out once again to Jason for taking the time to talk with us, and thank you readers, for reading and commenting on these topics.

Part 1

Sara: Has anyone here seen Kirby Dick's documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated? It has direct correlations to what is and is not acceptable for the public in terms of sex and violence. The most current taboos in America are depictions of women's pleasures in sex, no joke, and homosexual sex. More than any kind of violence. It's the reason that a relatively innocent film like But I'm a Cheerleader is rated NC-17 while your typical shoot-em-up film is typically PG13.
Casey: Regarding what you said about public opinion, Bamboo… Manga is a category of books, and books in this country are seen as being the vehicle par excellence of free speech. Also, as I mentioned earlier, publishers see the protection of free speech as their mission, even though they are also commercial entities. Manga, by virtue of being print, gets a bit of a halo. That doesn't mean it's invulnerable to attacks by people who cry obscenity, but it's a bit harder because Americans, I think, tend to...respect books. Also, books are the purview of women, and women don't get targeted in the same was as men like Handley do.
Bamboo: Americans respect books. I don't know if people necessarily respect comic books. Text books will always get more respect than comic books.
Jason: Comics have visuals, which shock and offend people about a hundred times faster than written descriptions. Say "she was naked" and no one gets offended; draw it, and people might get offended. That's the main difference, I think... on top of general cultural biases against comics per se.
Bamboo: Jason... coming off of Sara's last comment... do you happen to know what's currently under the "taboo" umbrella of the current American manga market?
Jason: I don't know what the “taboo umbrella” is. It varies according to every publisher, and I'm not privy to their inner workings. I would say that what's acceptable in a "13+" or "16+" or "all ages" book has gotten stricter over the years, and publishers tend to classify almost everything as at least 13+ to avoid people complaining. I'd like to think that there are small-press and art-comix publishers who would publish material which a publisher like Viz, Tokyopop or Del Rey wouldn't handle, and so that there really is no definite “taboo umbrella.” But on the other hand, "Nymphet" wasn't snapped up by any other publishers after Seven Seas pulled it, so who knows?
Casey: Back to Bamboo's comment for a moment. Just to clarify, manga has become more a category of books than comic books. Manga—including explicit BL—is sold at Borders, which has that air of bourgeois respectability, not to mention femininity, to it. I think Borders these days determines what publishers will and will not put out as far as obscene content goes. Barnes & Noble, due to some controversy over photobooks, is more restrictive.
Sara: Yeah, but graphic novels from Marvel and DC and other publishers are also available at those same stores.
Casey: Manga's most important market is the bookstores, not the comic book stores. Marvel and DC basically lose money on all their print material; their money is in franchising.
Jason: I don't know how it is now, but in the past, American manga publishers have actually talked to buyers at Borders, asking them "Would you carry this manga if we published it?" When the buyer would say "no", they wouldn't license the manga. Currently, all manga “censorship” in the U.S. is "economic censorship."
Bamboo: That's interesting. And that kind of goes back to what I said earlier about people airbrushing out cigarettes and blood. In order to reach a broader market, especially in the US, those are the kinds of unpopular sacrifices that I think some kids-oriented publishers have to make. In the world of hardcore anime fans, Al Kahn is kind of public enemy number one, but he's said countless times that it's the broader kids' market that they're aiming for.

Pleasing hardcore anime fans, quite frankly, doesn't make any money. Fans don't always put their money where their mouth is. They may scream bloody murder about wanting certain titles on the shelf, uncensored, but when it comes to buying it, they flake out. So in cases like that, it's easier for companies to bank on surefire bets, like kids who are casual fans of a given genre.

Casey: Basically, no blood in American children's media and no uncensored genitals in Japanese porn are symbolic gestures. They aren't really intended to do anything other than for media producers to reassure audiences that they care a little.
Jason: I think the wide availability of scanlations has totally destroyed whatever economic clout "anti-censorship hardcore manga fans" ever had. So many people are proud of just reading the scanlations anyway, there's absolutely zero possibility of a boycott having any effect, if there ever was.
Bamboo: I think what makes the recent Iowa case with Handley so scary is that it's incredibly vague as to what constitutes as "obscene." You could argue in the case of Whorley, the defendant in the child pornography case in Richmond, "Well, maybe it's not fair to condemn him for the manga, but he did have real child porn." But when it comes to something a bit vaguer like, "possession of obscene manga," that's when fans have more to be worried about. I mean, they eventually revealed it to be yaoi.
Casey: Actually, there is one other thing I'd like to bring up in relation to the Handley case. Jason, in your ANN op-ed, you noted that Christopher Handley could have been anybody. While technically I think that is true, in practice I disagree. There always seems to be a specific profile for a person on trial for possession of obscene material in the U.S.—namely white and male. I think this is significant. You don't see minorities—especially women—being put through the same shame spectacle...and this is because the profile for the serial killer, the pedophile, the rapist, is male. Right or wrong, it's important to point out that race and gender in this case are not accidental. It's not just the possession of obscene material which is viscerally compelling and frightening to some people, but the way in which they think—without proof—that it correlates to characteristics that, in a certain demographic, are unequivocally dangerous. Lolicon in Japan gets a bad rap for the same reason—convicted pedophiles/serial killers have also been found to have big stashes in their bedrooms.
Jason: Hmm... that's a good point. Can anyone name any female, or nonwhite, defendants in a U.S. obscenity trial?
Casey: Bingo, Jason. You don't see a woman getting hauled to court over her yaoi stash, because society doesn't see her as a threat.
Jason: Of course, the ironic thing is that if the manga he was convicted for was really BL (or shota-BL), then that's a genre that's "technically" intended for female readers. Although, of course, it obviously has gay male fans as well. Although I think shota has to be viewed in the wider context of lolicon—"what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander"—there are pseudo-pedophilic depictions in imagery in Japanese pornography for men, and thus there are pseudo-pedophilic depictions in Japanese pornography for women. Frankly, I find the world of BL very weird and fascinating for reasons such as these... weird, fascinating and potentially extremely offensive...
Sara: From my point of view, "obscene" manga is just like any other media that is involved in cases like these. I remember when Marilyn Manson was taking a lot of heat because of the Columbine shootings. I think a certain type of person may be drawn to loli manga because of their predisposition, not the other way around. I don't think obscene material, no matter what my personal opnion of the content may be, causes people to commit crimes.
Casey: Actually, in relation to shotacon for women, I believe the reason why it was briefly popular was because Shounen Jump had a bunch of young/young-looking characters in its serials around the mid-90s. Thus, yaoi pairings of those characters—thus, shotacon.
Jason: I agree with Sara, and I'd draw the comparison to the controversy over violent video games, again.
Bamboo: I agree with you, Sara. But I think that's part of the reason why people freak out, because in their minds, "Well, if he's looking at cartoons—what's to stop him from looking for real examples?" No, there's no proof that that's the exact path someone would take, but like I said, public opinion is a powerful force, and their fears are understandable.
Jason: Well, there are trends, of course, but now that the shotacon cat is out of the bag, I imagine it'll always retain a certain fan base... look at some of the Reborn! dojinshi, for instance. Lolicon arose in the early '80s but it's still a force to be reckoned with, under whatever name it's called.
Sara: Oh, definitely. And I find a lot of material in question (such as shotacon) to be morally reprehensible, myself. But like I mentioned earlier, I hope people can realize that just because they find something objectionable doesn't mean it should be summarily banned.
Casey: Of course. But I don't see as many shotacon-ish characters in BL manga anymore, so it seems to be fading. Most of the new shotacon out there is being published for men. Incidentally, some of the earliest unequivocal shotacon doujinshi I've ever seen were produced by and for men. That was early 1990s.
Bamboo: One question, for anyone out there... The manga in Handley's possession--- was that a Japanese print? Or a US one?
Jason: I'm pretty sure it was an imported untranslated manga, but I guess I'm not 100% sure, since the title hasn't been released to the public.
Casey: That was my impression as well. He got nabbed in customs.
Bamboo: I'd imagine it'd be a Japanese print, because I don't think any US publishers would even dare publish anything that could be construed as... jailable, really. With the exception of Nymphet, I suppose, but that one was on shaky grounds. That's one interesting thing to note about the US industry, is that because they are economically driven, I don't think they'd ever import anything that could be construed as "offensive" enough to be dragged to court. Because they know their market—i.e. Americans.
Casey: Well, technically speaking, either it's all "jailable" or none of it is. And publishers are human too; they can be surprised. It's happened before with regards to other types of books and media.
Jason: To give one example of a manga that ran into publishing problems here... "Beauty Labyrinth of Razors" found a willing publisher in Britain, but apparently they couldn't find a printer who was willing to print it, so they had to issue it as an e-book. This has happened to other publishers as well... there's a significant number of printers who, even if the owners don't mind printing “pornography,” have a significant number of employees who are offended by it and won't do their jobs when images of XXX-rated pornography are zooming by on the printing press in front of them. It's been an issue for a couple of American porno-comics publishers.
Casey: Fortunately or unfortunately, the world is flat, and pubs these days can take their business to China.
Jason: Very true.
Sara: There are some things that have been released here under now-defunct publishers that are pretty eyebrow-raising. Like Blast Books' Comics Underground Japan, and Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show. Creation Books published Ultra-Gash Inferno, which is exactly as disturbing as it sounds.
Bamboo: You know, I don't really think the Handley case and the Whorley case can even really be compared, in some senses. Even without the manga, Whorley was boned from the get go. The Handley case is the worrisome one. Can you imagine if those same people rifled through a convention dealer room? All the Harry Potter doujinshi? All the... Hikaru no Go doujinshi? Gundam Wing? Eva?
Jason: I'm not as familiar with the Whorley case, but since he possessed actual photographic child pornography, that does put it on a different level. Apparently one of the victories of the Handley defense, in a sense, is that (even though the PROTECT act is involved) the case is being handled as a plain obscenity case, and not a child-porn case specifically. They apparently have managed to convince the judge that drawn depictions of fictional, underage-looking characters can't be directly lumped with photographs of real children. So that's a victory for all visual representational art.
Casey: Democratization of media—like those doujinshi in the dealer's room Bamboo described!

Actually, the world is flat problem relates to censorship as well. Each country becomes beholden in de facto fashion to other countries' censorship laws.

Jason: Good point, Casey. I mean, one side effect of the Internet is that now, people all over the world can theoretically be offended by something you posted just for the entertainment of your friends in San Francisco, or Des Moines, or wherever. The Internet is not solely the domain of lefty big city types... obviously... there's all forms of democratization of media...
Bamboo: Eh... I don't necessarily know if that's true. People can be offended, but people can't be jailed, unless certain factors fall into place, like a server being located in a certain country, or a business owner being registered in a certain country or state, etc. Obviously, the way around that is to move your servers to Papa New Guinea or something.
Casey: Actually, in the UK you can be taken to court for speech violations that occurred in another country. I don't know all the details, but it's something like that. Oh, I remember what it was. Let's say I publish a book that says, "Bamboo eats little kids!" in the U.S. And then Jason takes a copy to the UK, and Bamboo finds out that there's a copy in the UK. She can sue me in the UK for libel.
Bamboo: Ah, but then you're crossing into a different set of laws.
Casey: Yes, but the key here is that the book was never intended to exist in the UK.
Bamboo: I don't think I could sue you unless you were distributing it in the UK... could I? Unless either you or I were British.
Casey: You could sue me even if someone imported the book illegally. That's the ridiculousness at issue.
Jason: Regarding the drawn images thing, it's all such a gray area. The way some manga artists draw teenage, or even adult, characters...
Bamboo: So what can we do about this growing censorship issue? What can we do to help protect our rights?
Sara: For one, we can elect officials who will appoint fair judges. We should do what we can as voters and constituents.
Casey: What we've been doing! Bringing visibility to the issue, finding prominent, respectable spokespeople willing to come out on the issue...and, most importantly of all, working to arrive at a clarified, consistent position about where we stand on censorship and freedom of speech.
Jason: I think all we can do is encourage people to be aware of free speech issues and to have an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and the history of political issues related to censorship.

discuss this in the forum (61 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history

Chicks On Anime archives

Around The Web