Girl, Illustrated

Title: Girl, Illustrated: Japanese Manga, Anime and Video Game Characters
Japanese Title: ガールズグラフ:コミック・ゲーム・ライトノベルのイラストレーターファイル (Girls graph: Comic, game, light novel no illustrator file)
Art Director: Sometani Yōhei (染谷 洋平)
Translators: Shima Miya (嶋 美弥) and Marian Kinoshita (木下 マリアン)
Publisher: Pie Books
Publication Year: 2009
Pages: 205

A few days ago I was killing time in the Borders next to Penn Station in New York City. I love this Borders. Not only do they allow people to sit on the heating vents next to the windows when it’s freezing outside, but they also have the largest and best-stocked manga section of any brick-and-mortar bookstore I’ve ever been inside. Every time I visit this Borders I find something that I had no idea had even been published. This time I found several copies of Girl, Illustrated. While I was flipping through one of them, I kept thinking about the recent New York Times article titled “In Tokyo, a Crackdown on Sexual Images of Minors.”

I am not a big fan of the article. For one, it doesn’t bother to introduce Ishihara Shintarō, his racism, his sexism, or his vocal ultra-nationalist political stance. So, when Ishihara is quoted as saying of the media in question that “These are for abnormal people, for perverts,” his statement seems only natural from a moral perspective. (Although one does chuckle a bit when he says, “There’s no other country in the world that lets such crude works exist.”) Indeed, the media that Ishihara hopes to censor is sensationalized as child pornography, and an impartial reader has no choice but to view it with disgust. It is only in the very last line of the article that someone is quoted as saying, “It’s a completely imaginary world, separate from real life.”

I wish the journalist who wrote the article, Hiroko Tabuchi, had played up this side of the debate more. I wish she had mentioned that, while Ishihara and his cohort are drafting legislation against the depiction of imaginary girls, they are also fighting an ongoing battle against feminists who want to change the law that doesn’t allow a married couple to maintain separate surnames (which hinders the career development of many female professionals). I wish these things because, in the past two weeks, enough people have quoted from or referenced the article that I am starting to fear how it may have influenced a non-specialist’s view of Japanese popular culture.

As all of this ran through my mind while I paged through Girl, Illustrated, I decided that the best way to look at Japanese illustrated images of girls is to actually look at Japanese illustrated images of girls. I would therefore like to review Girl, Illustrated, a bilingual art book published in Japan and available in America through online retailers like Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Tower Books. Before I begin, I would like to state that this book does not contain child pornography. I myself do not support child pornography, and it is not my aim to defend or justify it in any way. Instead, I hope to challenge common notions regarding “anime-style” Japanese illustrations of young women.

The style of illustration in question is known as bishōjo-kei, or “bishōjo style,” with “bishōjo” meaning “beautiful young woman.” A bishōjo (as opposed to a regular shōjo, or “young woman”) is usually a female protagonist or central supporting character in a manga, anime, or light novel that belongs to a genre generally regarded as being targeted towards a male audience, like science fiction or adventure fantasy. Good examples might be Nausicaä (from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), Nadia (from Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water), or Ayanami Rei (from Neon Genesis Evangelion). Bishōjo are rooted firmly in fantasy, whether that fantasy is a post-apocalyptic technological wasteland or a halcyon senior year of high school. They need not be connected to an actual narrative, however, and are often depicted in original artistic compositions.

Girl, Illustrated is a collection of such compositions. Each artist is allotted two pages and four to six full-color illustrations. Accompanying these images is a section for information about the artist, which includes fields for the artist’s birth date, gender, hometown, webpage, inspiration, and comments. More often than not, most of these fields have been left blank, but the information is written in both English and Japanese when it is available. Unfortunately, the translation isn’t always perfect. For example, something like 銃器・武器と女の子を描く (drawing girls with guns or other weapons) might become something like “drawing girls in their underwear with guns,” but these short artists’ comments are still fun to read.

This being said, the main draw of Girl, Illustrated is what the artists say with their illustrations. Through affective character design and rich, detailed backgrounds, each of these illustrations wordlessly suggests a story. The vast majority of these images have been created with digital ink in programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, and PaintTool SAI. Although most of the artists choose not to reveal their gender, judging from those that do, it seems that 2/5 are female. Among these female artists are young professional illustrators like Sakizou, Foo Midori, and fukahire. All of the artists, male or female, take beautiful young girls as their subject matter, and there doesn’t seem to be any discernable difference between the themes and style of the male illustrators and those of the female illustrators. For example, this is a piece by the female artist onineko:

And here is a piece by the male artist Ichikawa Takashi:

Both of these illustrated girls seem to be young, pure, and innocent. They are magical beings firmly enmeshed in their respective fantasy worlds, and there is a kind of “Alice in Wonderland” quality about them that probably seems familiar to a Western (and non-otaku Japanese) audience. Illustrations like these won’t raise any eyebrows.

Problems in the interpretation and judgment of these images arise when the girls are not quite so pure and innocent but instead betray hints of sexuality. For example, one picture by the male artist gorobots parodies the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) with the logo NPK (Japan Panty Corporation) and contains the text “When you sit down, I stand up,” double entendre absolutely intended:

Such sexualized images of young women are not just drawn by men, however. Exposed breasts, bums, and panties are also explored in the work of female artists like Higuchi Norie:

The portfolios of other female artists whose work appears in Girl, Illustrated are full of scantily-clad young women enjoying themselves and each other’s company. Regardless of the extent or intensity of the sexualization, however, the fantasy element of these pieces remains strong, and the girls are always more playful than pornographic.

As I mentioned earlier, I am not defending child pornography. Illustrated pornography in Japan is extraordinarily explicit, and it is quite clearly packaged as pornography and sold in separate venues, regardless of the imagined ages of its imaginary protagonists. As for sexualized but non-(overtly-)pornographic images of young girls, though, I might argue that they belong to a different discursive space altogether. Bishōjo simply are not real. They are not real because they are illustrated, obviously, but they are also not real because they are the embodied representatives of pure fantasy. Their world is not our world, and they are our gateways into that world. People who draw and appreciate them do so because of the beautiful otherworld they channel, not because they are fodder for onanistic inclinations. One might draw a parallel between the bishōjo style of illustration and the hyper-sexualized men and women on the covers of American fantasy novels; the tight leather pants and clinging silk dresses of these painted figures are not so much signifiers of pornography as they are emblems of a certain Tolkienian fantasy aesthetic.

The fundamental idea behind the proposed manga (and game and illustration) censorship law in Tokyo is that men are looking at women in a way that is psychologically unhealthy. There is obviously a pornographic gaze that is encouraged and exploited in many aspects of popular and commercial art, but I wonder if perhaps it wouldn’t be unreasonable to posit the existence of something like a “fantasy gaze,” or at least a type of gaze that is less concerned with the image itself than the story behind the image.

Moreover, the sizable percentage of women painting and consuming these bishōjo characters and illustrations complicates the idea of an all-powerful male gaze. One might argue, as have many feminist scholars, that these women have adopted an hermaphroditic gaze. In other words, female viewers have internalized the male gaze and therefore identify with male characters and viewers when they look at sexualized images of women. I myself would like to raise the possibility of a female gaze. This female gaze is responsible for the fanworks featuring male-on-male pairings from popular series like Naruto and Hetalia, of course, but I think it’s also a way for women to portray and look at themselves and other women. By creating and appreciating mildly sexualized images of girls, for example, women can embrace and celebrate a sexuality that lies beyond virgin/mother/whore stereotypes. For women, then, the appeal of bishōjo is not merely the asexual appeal of the fantasy world they represent but also the self-reflexive appeal of being young, beautiful, magical, and, yes, sexual. Furthermore, who is to say that male viewers don’t similarly employ this female gaze when looking at such images?

Girl, Illustrated isn’t just a collection of gorgeous artwork. It’s also a way of looking at and thinking about Japanese bishōjo illustrations. Included at the beginning of the volume is a (mostly) translated essay about how bishōjo characters are marketed and used to promote domestic regional tourism in Japan. Are the editors of the volume trying to suggest that perhaps bishōjo are Japan? It’s a stretch, but it’s also an interesting cultural perspective. In any case, this collection is both fascinating and beautifully produced. Even if you’re more interested in fine art than you are in anime, Girl, Illustrated is still an excellent resource for examining both portrayals of the body and the possibilities of new digital media.

Men, Women, and Tentacles (Part Three)

In three of the main genres of Japanese animated pornography, then, female characters are privileged, not degraded. In the osana najimi story, women are not merely bodies to be gazed upon, exploited, and manipulated. They are instead characters in their own right and often developed much more than male characters. These male characters respect the female characters and connect with them just as much on an emotional level as they do on a physical level, and their union is often tied to a narrative of self-realization and maturation for both parties. Certainly, the personalities of the female characters are often based on phallocentric ideals, but the same could be said of many female characters in the mainstream anime from which the pornography draws its tropes. In the self-fulfilling harem story, women are depicted as fantasizing about idealized men as they satisfy themselves sexually, and actual men are not strictly necessary. On a metatextual level, this situation parodies many popular mainstream anime as well the onanistic activities of the male viewer who is erotically drawn to these anime. Finally, occult pornography bestows on its female characters many of the powers given to the protagonists of magical shōjo stories, and these characters are thus able to defeat their tentacles and enjoy them too. Also, these stories locate erotic and other physical experiences in the female body, thus allowing the viewer to receive pleasure by identifying as female.

Of course, not every pornographic story challenges traditional notions of the male as subject and the female as object in these ways. One of the more problematic tropes of animated pornography (which is often embedded in science fiction themed stories like Bondage Queen Kate) is that of the female rape victim who falls in love with her rapist in a case of sexual/romantic Stockholm Syndrome. This is not to be confused with the erotic conversation that often occurs during consensual sexual acts, of which a typical example might be, “No, stop, don’t do that, please stop” (Yamete! Sore dake wa dame. Iya da!). Rather, this trope involves a woman who actively resists and is obviously upset by a traumatic sexual experience only to then blushingly cuddle with her rapist(s) after the act. Closely connected to the rape equals love trope is the idea that it’s not rape if you enjoyed it, which occasionally finds its way into more conventional (and consensual) pornographic narratives. In my experience, however, both of these tropes are infinitely more common in manga than they are in anime, so I will put them aside for a future discussion. (What I will also put aside is the prevalence of both of these tropes in boys’ love pornography, which is written by women and for women.)

In any case, if the generalizing assumption that animated pornography privileges female characters can be accepted, can we therefore state that it isn’t sexist? Does it really treat female characters as subjects with their own agency? To address this question, I’d like to briefly refer to American feminist debates regarding live-action American pornography in the eighties. By 1980, feminists such as Laura Lederer had started to speak out against rape and spousal abuse. To greatly oversimplify the matter, these feminists blamed real-world violence against women on the misogyny present in mainstream media and public discourse. Pornography became a key issue in this movement, with radical feminist Robin Morgan famously stating that “Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice.” The notion that watching pornography directly influences men to commit sex crimes has since been challenged and disproved, but the idea of a “pornographic gaze” that is harmful to women remains, especially when it is joined to the concept of the “male gaze” that has been adapted and re-adapted ever since cinema theorist Laura Mulvey first proposed its existence in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

The concept of the male/pornographic gaze is highly psychoanalytic in nature, and I’m still not sure that I completely understand it; but, to summarize, it is centered around subjects and objects, with the looker being the subject and the person being looked upon being an object that the looker is free to manipulate as he wishes. This type of looking, which denies the agency and humanity of all but the looker, is considered to be extremely psychologically violent to the women who are often the objects of the gaze. Therefore, even if the narrative of a pornographic story characterizes women as powerful and respected by male characters, the way that the camera treats their bodies – forcing them to hold still as it pans over their curves, or rotating around them to show their bodies off to full effect, or taking the position of the male who is sexually penetrating them – cancels out any interiority or agency with which the narrative might have endowed them. Robert Jensen, the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, articulates this argument quite succinctly:

Pornography presents women as objectified female bodies that exist for men’s sexual pleasure. Because women in pornography are not subjects but objects, not fully human, kindness towards them is no more required than would be kindness to any other object. If while out for a walk I picked up a stone and threw it down the road, no one would chastise me for being unkind to the stone. So it is in pornography.

Of course there are many problems with this theory, including, for example, the fact that it ignores the existence of a female viewer who may have an entirely different relationship to the characters on screen. Devil Hunter Yōko may be a sex object to heterosexual male viewers, but my teenage self adored her simply because she is such a badass. It’s also not inconceivable that many male viewers have been similarly captivated by her sword-swinging antics (the show has some awesome fight scenes) without then going to look for porn of the character being raped or otherwise abused.

On a broader scale, I believe that a great deal of Japanese animated pornography out of the (admittedly limited) amount I have seen over the course of the past fifteen years is not at all unkind to its female characters. They have interiority (in that they are often the main character or narrator), they have agency (in that they are usually in full control of what happens to their bodies), and they are often quite powerful characters, even if the viewer is encouraged to ogle their every curve. Certainly the context is quite different than that being addressed by feminists like Robert Jensen and Andrea Dworkin, but I believe that’s why it’s important for Western feminist scholars to pay attention to Japan. The more data there is to add nuance to an argument, the better; and there is a huge amount of data contained within the wide field of Japanese animated pornography. When the very category of gender itself is now accepted as imaginary, perhaps imaginary women themselves deserve a closer look.

To complicate my argument a bit, I feel that it’s necessary to bring up the topic of moe, a style of characterization that either focuses on children or presents young adults as childlike in an attempt to stir an affective emotional response in the viewer or reader. The titles I have been referring to in this essay are from the nineties, and similar stories continue to be released. From the beginning of the past decade, however, moe has gradually crept into mainstream animated pornography; and, even though all of the characters are 100% imaginary, this style of graphic and narrative depiction has often been labeled as child pornography and treated accordingly – with unmasked disgust. (There is even a now-famous case of an American manga collector being jailed for importing this type of pornography.)

It is easy to dismiss this reaction as sexual Puritanism, as sexuality is a fantastic wonderland of the mostly unknown and, in any case, illustrations are just illustrations. However, even non-pornographic anime has adopted a sexualizing moe element, from relatively innocuous series like K-ON to not-so-innocent series like Kodomo no jikan. What is upsetting about moe to me personally is not the sexualization of minors, per se, but rather the minor-ification of sexual subjects. What I have been sensing over the past ten years is a feedback loop between animated pornography and mainstream animation in Japan, the result of which being that an infantilizing pornographic gaze has been increasingly applied to the characters of many popular anime series. A great deal of digital ink has been spilled discussing this topic (and a good place to start clicking on links is the Wikipedia article), so I will defer to other writers, but I simply wish to mention it as an alternate path of inquiry on the topic of female characters in Japanese pornographic anime.

Speaking of deferring to other writers, I’d like to list some of my sources. Eric Cazdyn’s The Flash of Capital has a lot of good information and discussion of pink films and Japanese cinema. Susan Napier’s book on anime has an excellent chapter about occult anime, and Anne Allison’s Permitted and Prohibited Desires has some good chapters on eromanga and the many types of gazes – although both books are a little out of date. Roland Kelt’s Japanamerica has a fun chapter on ecchi anime that’s much more current, and Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals does a nice job of explaining moe. The book Feminism and Pornography does an excellent job of summarizing the feminist and legal debates concerning pornography in the seventies and eighties, and the essay collection Everyday Pornography provides a nice update on the subject from many different voices (plus it has a super classy cover). Finally, the last two chapters of Vera Mackie’s Feminism in Modern Japan summarize the context of postwar Japanese feminist movements, and Ueno Chizuko’s Onna-girai: Nippon no misogyny, published about a year ago, covers everything that’s been happening in the post-postwar period (and is also a fantastic read). As always, if there’s anything I’m missing but should definitely read – academic or otherwise – please feel free to let me know about it!

Part One
Part Two