We all know by now that this is about the time of year I start rambling about TCAF, right? Because I take this interpreter thing seriously, and that means reading up on all the Japanese guests of the festival, so I don’t go all deer-in-the-headlights when I’m on stage with one of them. Last year, I got to hang out with Aya Kanno and talk to her about the series of hers that I’m translating, conversations which are still helping me with that translation. And this year, Shintaro Kago’s bringing his experimental style to Toronto, alongside Rokudenashiko, who is experimental in a different kind of way.
In case you don’t recognize the name, just google “vagina boat artist”. Yes, Rokudenashiko has been making headlines for the last year or two because of her arrest for making art from her vagina. And she wrote some books about it! The first one Waisetsutte Nan Desuka? is debuting in English at TCAF as What is Obscenity?, translated by Anne Ishii of gay manga and apparel movers and shakers Massive. So hooray! I’m finally talking about a book that you monolinguals can read too!
Rokudenashiko is also featured in the documentary Queer Japan about ye olde LGBTQ life in the land of the rising sun, talking about her pussy and her arrests. So it is double disclosure time: not only do I work for TCAF, I am also working on that documentary. But I promise I am being entirely unbiased when I say that it is going to be a great film, and you should totally support it on Kickstarter and get a signed copy of What is Obscenity?. Or one of the many other amazeball rewards (including limited edition signed prints by Genogoroh Tagame!!).
The first third of Waisetsu collects the comics Rokudenashiko did about her initial arrest in July 2014 and her week-long stint in jail after she was charged with three different counts of obscenity for making art from her vagina. If you know nothing about the Japanese legal system (where prosecutors have a 99% conviction rate), then you will no doubt be shocked at the way she is treated and the lies police tell her (including that a lawyer will be outrageously expensive, so why doesn’t she just forget about that and tell them everything). But this section is also an interesting look at Japanese prison, something I apparently cannot get enough of. You can learn lady prison techniques for plucking rogue hairs!The initial comics section is followed by an explanation of her second arrest and indictment, her own written statement submitted to the court, and an essay from one of her lawyers on the dubiousness of the whole situation. The essay functions a bit as a primer on Japanese law, explaining just what “obscenity” is in legal terms, and then questioning the conclusion that Rokudenashiko’s art is obscene in that definition. As the artist herself notes, how can a part of her own body be obscene? You can see all kinds of sexy scenarios in public in Japan, from metro ads to manga, but her playful art to “free manko” (manko = pussy) is worthy of arrest somehow. Both the artist and her lawyers suggest that she was an easy target for authorities looking to remind people exactly who is in charge here. She’s a woman, not too well known, single, no major connections. Plus her chosen art name literally means “good-for-nothing girl”. Easy to paint her as the villain in the media and reinforce boundaries the government finds acceptable when it comes to women, sexuality, and their place in society.
These ideas are further developed in the following section, a discussion between Rokudenashiko and Sono Sion, a filmmaker known in part for pushing the envelope. Here, Sono points out that sexual desire is the one we’re simply not supposed to talk about. We can say we’re hungry or thirsty or tired, but not that we’re horny. Which seems sort of hilarious at first (imagine being at the dinner table with your parents and declaring that you are so horny!), but then you suddenly wonder why exactly that is hilarious. Their conversation interrogates taboos about sexuality in a way that makes the reader ask themselves the same questions.
This is followed by more comics, this time detailing Rokudenashiko’s path to becoming a manko artist, from her childhood as a book nerd to her career as a manga artist willing to do almost anything for a story idea to the creation of the vagina boat that ultimately led to her initial arrest. Her current position as manko proselytizer is much more a matter of chance that I actually realized before I read the book. We then get another essay from a lawyer, this one more focussed on the idea of obscenity and how it has been treated in the courts. He gives past examples of obscenity cases in Japan, and I was fascinated to learn that both the publisher and translator of Lady Chatterly’s Lover were prosecuted for obscenity. The we get some outside eyes evaluating Rokudenashiko’s art itself in the context of the larger art world in Japan and the sexism that exists there, followed by photos of the obscene art pieces, which are adorable and hilarious.
The book ends with the story of Manko-chan, the manko character Rokudenashiko created. “Why aren’t you allowed to say my name?” the personified pussy asks, and that’s really the question at the heart of the book and Rokudenashiko’s work in general. Why is the word “pussy” taboo? Why can we not talk about female bodies and female sexuality? (The answer is the patriarchy!) Waisetsu is a thorough and entertaining contemplation of these questions (and that answer).