Media Mix, May 29, 2016

A fairly tame example of shunga

A fairly tame example of shunga

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about the obscenity trial of the artist Rokudenashiko, which ended earlier this month in a guilty verdict that she will appeal. As discussed in the piece, much of the trial was taken up with debate on the “artistic value” of the artist’s work and whether or not it was more accurately described as being pornography. The absurdity of this line of reasoning lies in the work itself, which was data that could only be seen or otherwise “appreciated” if it was input into a 3D printer and realized in material form as a mold. From all reports, except for the artist herself, only the prosecution ever did this, meaning that the charge of “distribution of pornography” doesn’t hold water since no one actualized the data into something that could possibly stimulate sexual excitement. Consequently, if the prosecution were to convince the judges that the data were obscene, it had to prove that the prosecution itself was aroused by the final product, because no one else had “experienced” it in that form. The judges themselves eventually ruled that the vagina kayak, the reason for the 3D data, was not obscene because of its stylized nature, so the data’s pornographic qualities were either completely theoretical or subject only to the prosecution’s queasy gaze.

Nevertheless, the trial kicked up some useful debate in the media about art versus pornography. Last fall, the Mainichi Shimbun ran a story about its weekly namesake, Sunday Mainichi, publishing some forbidden shunga—erotic prints from the Edo Era deemed in the West to be exceptional examples of Japanese illustration but banned as pornography in Japan—that were finally getting a public exhibition in Tokyo (at, of all things, a gallery owned by a former prime minister). Mainichi and another weekly, Shukan Bunshun, did not receive warnings from the police for publishing the pictures, apparently because they didn’t include nude photos of women elsewhere in the issue. Here again, the idea of obscenity as being not only purely subjective but dependent on some sort of context was reinforced by the authorities themselves, who, despite the clarity of the law itself, can’t seem to hit on a consistent interpretation of it. Two other magazines did receive warnings from the police because they included photos of the shunga in issues that also featured girlie gravura, but no one was arrested or punished. Ironically, the editor of Bunshun was temporarily relieved of his post by the head of the publishing company, whose actions would seem to indicate that he himself finds shunga to be pornographic. (The editor has since returned to his position at the magazine with a vengeance, generating a series of scoops that have put the mainstream media to shame.)

During the trial, shunga was referenced during a sequence of questions arguing how something once considered and distributed as pornography can become art over time. Even this idea has its detractors. Feminist writer Chizuko Ueno has written that she still considers shunga pornography but more for political reasons: the works, she thinks, are fundamentally misogynistic, since they were created by men for men, though according to the weekly Gendai many young women nowadays appreciate shunga for their “artistic value and sophistication of expression.” On the other hand, cartoonist Jun Miura, who gleefully represents the stereotypically dirty-minded Japanese male view, in his discussion of the case on Bunka Hoso radio talked about how the 19th century painter Seiki Kuroda introduced Western art styles to Japan with pictures of nude women. He said Japanese people who first saw his paintings in the late 1800s were scandalized by them; and Miura himself thinks they’re quite sexy, going so far as saying they give him an erection. Consequently, back in the day, some galleries pinned “underwear” on Kuroda’s work, and on similar paintings by Western artists that made it to Japan. So maybe the police have a point–pornography is what makes you horny, regardless of artistic intention. Still, it doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.

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