A Retrospective on Manga

The manga produced by otaku, contemporary Japanese geek subcultures, has grown exponentially in popularity since its emergence in the 1980s, as it now constitutes 21% of all printed material published annually in Japan.[1] Japanese artist, curator, and director of the Kaikai Kiki Collective, Takashi Murakami organized a 2005 exhibition at the Japan Society, titled Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture. ‘Little boy’ is the post-war epithet for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and the infantilizing and kawaii (cute) mental image that it provokes represents exactly the thesis of the exhibition: promoting the emergence of manga (comic books), anime (film animation), hentai (hard-core manga), kawaii (cute culture), and similar ‘low culture’ visual tropes as a heroic, and even nationalistic response to the trauma of mass destruction and diplomatic emasculation that followed America’s re-writing of Japan’s constitution.

Murakami glorifies these drawn genres as “a sort of psychological escape zone for defeated spirits,” and the otaku that produce them as the minority in Japan who actually chose to address, rather than repress, memories of wartime trauma .[2] Yet he fails to acknowledge the ways in which these drawn realities, initially created to encourage introspection and reflection, have evolved into spaces where male authors encourage sex as an act of consumption—using visual practices to render mute and de-humanized the objects of their affection.

As Murakami and many scholars have suggested, manga and anime began as venues for reflecting upon post-atomic realities, as cult anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion (1997) exemplifies in its story of evil cyborgs occupying a post-apocalyptic, morally and socially corrupt Tokyo. Naturally, themes of sex and consumption emerged in printed and cinematic material as ways of thinking through changed social and political realities characterized by submissiveness as a psychological effect of defeat in WWII.[3] Hentai is the product of such expressions, and is often characterized by themes of rape, extreme violence, physical distortion (particularly of female characters) and fetish, all presented within a context of great struggle between “forces of good and evil as the result and/or outcome of pulsing libidinal drives.” [4] Female characters in hentai, much like those of Western filmed pornography, are designed around male attraction – as consumable objects with no independent will or emotional structure. It is for this reason that female subjects are commonly portrayed with identifying, often cute characteristics, such as animal ears, tails, fantastical armor, etc. With female objects utterly devoid of internal structure, these serve as a “toehold” for male readers’ desire.[5] This is also why a majority of otaku admit to masturbating to fantasies with their manga or hentai character of choice.[6]

Murakami justifies this development in erotica as a kind of inherited cultural tradition, referencing explicit Edo Period (1603-1868) ukiyo-e woodblock prints, or shunga, as a predecessor for contemporary hentai. A particularly well-known example is Katsushika Hokusai’s Tako to Ama (1814), also referred to as The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, which many consider a precedent for the popular manga subgenre of tentacle porn. He suggests that contemporary manga and its flat use of color and strong outlining of form embraces with pride and perhaps even a sense of nationalism traditional Japanese aesthetic. To say nothing of the undercurrent of essentialism here, he heroicizes the artistic movement for its ability to look inward, rather than westward for post-war influences. In so doing, however, he neglects to recognize that it is exactly this drawn, two-dimensional quality that makes the representation all the more destructive and de-humanizing in its portrayal of women. [7]

Not only is the representation of a female hentai heroine, such as Miko Mido of La Blue Girl, less detailed than a photographic, or say Western cinematic, portrayal, but as such, it also deliberately excludes “any individualizing markers that signify agency and alterity.” [8] This leaves all the more room for an otaku reader’s self-projection and fantasy, in a process that renders the female object both “mute” and easily consumable.[9] It is also because of this quality of 2-dimensionality that otaku generally prefer to draw their own dôjinshi (fanzines) as an expression of their “possessive behavior toward their love objects” rather than collect animated tchotchkes, whose detailed physicality could potentially assert personhood. [10] Needless to say, the drawn quality of a fanzine keeps the hentai character’s existence in the abstract – the same psychological “escape zone” that Murakami has glorified.[11]

What is even more unsettling about the trajectory of manga from its post-war origins to its dehumanizing role at present is how kawaii (ie. cute) culture, and its associations with harmlessness, childhood, and play have disguised this systemized silencing of the erotic woman. Numerous scholars have conceived of kawaii as a subconscious outgrowth of the “infantalism and willful innocence” that followed the diminished military privileges of post-war Japan.[12] On the other hand, kawaii has also been theorized to turn its characters into vessels for introspection by appealing to our sense of empathy and appreciation of “innocence.” [13] In this sense, kawaii should make violence and dehumanization all the more brutal, yet the mass-production of modern manga, anime, and hentai—more concerned with depicting women than post-war scenes—raises the question of whether kawaii art really serves the purpose that scholars extol it for.

Murakami has praised otaku visual culture as both a national artistic legacy and a brave outlet for reflecting upon atomic and wartime catastrophe. In fact, these suggestions constitute only a weak framework within which contemporary manga, anime, and hentai currently operate. Rather than express frustrations with diplomatic “infantilism,” otaku artists apply kawaii practices to render the erotic woman infantile in her passivity and lack of emotional or psychological depth.[14] These drawn genres, by the very nature of their graphic quality, serve to create spaces for the male reader to assert his virility in a post-war culture that has denied him, on diplomatic terms, exactly this expression of manhood.

[1] Paul Gravett, Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics (London: Lawrence King Publishing, 2004), 13.

[2] Geri Wittin, “The Nody, Post Humans, and Cyborgs: The Influence of Politics of Identity and Emergin Digital and Bio-Technologies on Human Representation in Late 20th Century Art,” in Switch 2, no 2. (1996): http://cadre.sj.su.edu/switch/narrative/posthuman/posthuman.html, 66.

[3] Fran Lloyd, “Strategic Interventions in Contemporary Japanese Art” in Consuming Bodies: Sex and Contemporary Japanese Art, (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2002), 69.

[4] Mariana Ortega-Brena, “Peek-a-boo, I See You: Watching Japanese Hard-core Animation” in Sexuality & Culture, no. 13 (2009): 17-31, 19. Proquest.

[5] Tamaki Saito, “The Asymmetry of Masculine/Feminne Otaku Sexuality,” in PostGender: Gender, Sexuality, and Performativity in Japanese Culture, ed. Ayelet Zohar, (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009, 155-170, 166.

[6] Ibid., 157

[7] Ortega-Brena, 21

[8] Ibid., 25

[9] Lloyd, 17

[10] Saito, 157

[11] Wittin, 66

[12] Rachel Pick, “Pop Psychosis: the Influence of the Bomb on Superflat Art,” Post Bubble Culture: Research on Contemporary Japan, accessed January 1, 2013, http://postbubbleculture.blogs.wm.edu/2010/04/19/pop-psychosis-the-influence-of-the-bomb-on-superflat-art/ .

[13] Ivan Vartanian, Drop Dead Cute: The New Generation of Women Artists in Japan, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC., 2005), 11.

[14] Rachel Pick, npag.