Graphic content in manga: one fan's experiences

In light of the recent controversy over Dragon Ball, I want to write a bit about the graphic nature of manga. While I can’t speak in terms of public controversies for the most part, I can speak from personal experience dealing with graphic content and having many different attitudes about it.

When I first got into anime and manga, I was only 13. It was like discovering a treasure trove because, for a young girl in the superhero-dominated world of American comics, shojo (girl’s) manga gave me everything my boy-crazy self wanted: comics with more involved romance than Archie & Friends.

This lead me to start drawing in the typical manga style. It was a great tool for me in many other ways. It cured my boredom, it gave me a creative outlet for art and writing and it helped me make a few friends. I drew everywhere. especially at school.

At first my classmates were curious, so I explained everything. Then they did their own research and found hentai. (Porn in anime and manga form.) Next time I started drawing in school, my classmates accused me of drawing porn and naked people, when I was just drawing the figures before drawing details like clothing. Out of understandable concern, I was brought into the principal’s office and made to explain. I was let go because I really wasn’t drawing porn, but then when I drew some characters kissing each other, I was called out by a classmate again. (I was pretty unpopular.)

The cycle of principal’s office visits repeated until I was banned from bringing my sketchbook to school. As a bored teenager just looking to draw out her tame little romantic fantasies (all my characters did was kiss), I was upset. No one was naked, no one was doing anything sexual, there wasn’t any innuendo either, but if one of my drawings wore a low-cut top, it was hentai. In fact, everything I drew was labeled hentai if one of my classmates caught sight of me doodling. I protested and tried to explain, but no one wanted to listen. This went on for all of eighth grade and high school. Like any parent would be, my mom was concerned for me. She did a bit of research on hentai and yelled at me not to look at such sick and degrading stuff. Despite the fact that I had never looked at hentai ever.

I felt so misunderstood, just like any other teen would have, but not for anything I had actually done wrong. (I still believe I did nothing wrong.) If you had asked me to read something that was actually hentai or was relatively graphic, I probably would have thrown a fit and tried to lecture you into understanding that “not all manga is like that!”

Fastforward to the present. I’m about to graduate college and I don’t draw as much anymore, but I still love writing comics and I’ve just completed an internship with Tokyopop, a manga publisher. And I spent the summer reading a lot of what some people would call porn.

I won’t lie. Some of it really was porn, but most of it just showed a lot more blood, tits and ass than a lot of people would consider putting in an NC-17 film. I really enjoyed it too, which is funny considering how being associated with hentai plauged me as a young fan.

Sure, porn can be degrading to women, (although the hentai I read usually involved gay men) but none of the manga I read really disrespected women. There are a number of real reasons to include nudity, sexuality or innuendo in a story.

Sometimes nudity was a plot tool, such as in Seikon no Qwaser, where the main character needs to “breastfeed” in order to use his powers. Nevermind the fact that the creators are notorious for anime and manga with buxom and scantily clad beauties who regularly find their clothes being ripped off, none of the women were really degraded. The nudity was there. Most of it was consensual, what wasn’t consensual was usually the work of a villain who was quickly defeated. The victim was just as quickly rescued, reclothed and good triumphed. It also served to re-connect the present story to that of the back story, as Seikon no Qwaser revolves around the search for an important painting of Mary Magdalene holding the baby Jesus, which technically makes the breastfeeding symbolic as well. Other than a tendency to show more cleavage, the manga doesn’t really get indecent just by flashing boob.

There is also nudity as comedy. A popular cliche involves a poor girl seen coming out of the bath naked by another character of the opposite sex (usually her intended love interest) or the girl seeing the boy naked in a similar manner.  This situation usually leads to incredible amounts of embarassment for both parties and other comedic moments involving the recollection of that scene. In Seikon no Qwaser, the above cliche is used and the girls playfully tease each other about their bodies while naked together. (Which is more common because of widespread communal bathing practices in Japan.) No one really gets assaulted by anyone else when comedic nudity occurs (Or if they do, it usually never gets anywhere and the assailant is beaten back.) and often offending body parts are artfully concealed.

On occassion there is just random nudity for little to no reason, like in Dragon Ball, where the main character regularly practices  martial arts nude. I could understand where this could be a cause for alarm if he was older (who’d want to see that, not even I unless it was covered up by a black bar or something.), but the character hasn’t hit puberty and his genitals are only drawn as a small lump (and an even smaller one inside) to represent his gender.  There is no detail or sexual connotation anywhere. It’s just a kid running around naked, much like we might run around naked in the privacy of our own homes.

Obviously, no one in Japan is bothered by these kinds of nudity, but Americans can be. I can understand this; there is little I find to be truly disturbing in manga, but out-right rape is one thing. I would not want to read a manga that showed me someone being raped, (if it was implied and I did not have to see it happening, I would allow it as part of the story) so it’s only natural that some people just don’t want to read a manga that shows a lot of breasts. Rather, the problem is usually that when nudity or other graphic situations are present in manga, an unfamiliar reader usually doesn’t take the time to understand why.

For example, the nude martial arts scenes in Dragon Ball could be a lesson for the character (and ultimately the reader) to be comfortable in his own skin. I have to ask here, is that really “graphic” content?  The “breastfeeding” in Seikon no Qwaser is not only a means to an end for the story’s hero, but it also acts as symbolism and connects the characters with the religious iconography that the story is centered around. It’s definitely suggestive and borderline sexual,  so it’s rated as mature and usually wrapped in plastic at bookstores so children don’t read it as easily. The post-bath nudity cliche not only provides laughs, but often advances the relationship and the plot further. There’s nothing sexual here either, just a flash of exposed chest at most. I find that all these examples more or less explain innuendo, gore and sexual content in manga as well. But again, these reasons serve a larger purpose.

There are definitely examples of manga that are degrading, senselessly violent and sexual, but I haven’t seen too many of them published in English. The U.S. manga publishing industry is interested in publishing what their customers want, but they’re also highly interested in publishing what is good. Usually overly degrading, violent and sexual manga don’t fit either description.

I chose to enjoy manga with graphic content as I became older because I can see its entertainment value and how it’s important in a story. It’s not important that a manga is showing me some nipples, it’s making me laugh because the character did it to shock some other characters and their reaction is hilarious. I find that it pretty much is just the characters being true to themselves. Just because we, as Americans, don’t want to see Janet Jackson’s boobs flashed at us, (which was an uncontrollable accident) doesn’t mean we have to ban exposed breasts everywhere. It comes down to quantity v. quality. There’s a lot of chest being shown throughout all the various forms of media, but we don’t have to get rid of the chests that are shown for good reason.

Sure, my argument isn’t flawless. It’s a lot of opinions, which are easy to disagree with. Simply put, I’m not right or wrong here, neither is anyone else. In the end, no side should be attacking the other, but making it so that those who shouldn’t be exposed to graphic content are not. Bookstores should check the ratings of everything they sell at the cash registers in order to ensure that those ratings on the back aren’t more or less useless. They should check ID if they have to. Libraries should be carefully reviewing what they stock and who rents it out. They don’t have to stock anything above a certain age rating and they could use library cards to check the age of children checking out manga against a book’s rating. But everyone should be aware that there will be some T&A out there, no matter what they do to stop it.

My friend Chris sent me this tweet shortly after I posted this entry: blahhearts Fascinating! Fun fact: My library cuts panels out of manga. (Dragonball was the first place I noticed it.) Not a bad compromise.

Wow, that’s a little extreme.  Cutting out the panels would pretty much destroy multiple panels on the other side of the page! (Not to mention the flow of the story, etc.)

Does anyone else have stories of what their libraries have done to censor “graphic” manga? I’d love to hear it and include it in this post.

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