Rokudenashiko's What Is Obscenity? is jam-packed with great ideas and horrifying but hilarious stories. Its only real flaw is that it's incredibly fragmented, a reflection of much of its original serialized nature. There's a lot in here that's also not comics: interviews, photos, newspaper clippings, etc. All of this makes for a choppy and occasionally repetitive reading experience, as we're told several times about how she started to make her unique style of art as well as the circumstances surrounding that arrest. So as a cohesive work of art, What Is Obscenity? is kind of a mess. However, taken in pieces, it's an astounding account of sexism, fascism, hypocrisy and one artist's joyfully laughing response to all three.
Rokudenashiko's (a pen name that means "good-for-nothing girl" in Japanese) story is basically told in two different sections. What the reader sees first is the story behind her arrest for obscenity in her native Japan. She was a strugglcng cartoonist who hit on the whimsical idea to have a mold made of her genitalia and then decorate the results. The resulting "manko" (pussy) art, which she dubbed "Deco-Man", was upbeat, silly and clever. She made the molds into decorated manko cell phone covers. She turned them into dioramas of things like golf courses and gardens. She ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to buy a 3D printer, which enabled her to build a cover for the first manko kayak, which she took out for a spin in a public event. It was an amusing, affirming and above all else, cute, way to reclaim and demystify the ways in which pussy had been either completely sexually objectified by men or else decreed gross and unfit for public consumption (also by men). Cuteness, as she discussed later, was a crucial aspect of what she was doing. When she was doing this in a more serious manner, it got little attention. When she saw a particular pop singer get a huge amount of attention because of her cuteness, she understood that using those kinds of surface trappings would allow her to get attention from the public while getting her point across at the same time. Moreover, she could make that point in an indirect way, allowing the ideas to penetrate in a non-didactic fashion.
Rokudenashiko was arrested for digitally distributing "obscene" files to crowdfunding supporters who donated a certain amount of money. Before any American reader snickers at outdated and hypocritical morals and mores of Japan, one should consider a couple of different cases: Mike Diana and 2 Live Crew. In the latter case, a power-hungry, politically ambitious sheriff in south Florida declared the rap group's very lyrics to be obscene, causing their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be to be banned in Florida and many other places. Of course, 2 Live Crew was famous and made a lot of money, so no real harm came to them. Diana's case is another story. It was another example of a power-hungry lawman looking to climb the political ladder who ordered Diana's violent comic, Boiled Angel. To be sure, Diana's comic was crude, violent and disturbing, which he attributed to simply being a reflection of the things he would see on the news all the time. In a case in the mid-90s where the prosecution built their case on the idea that all comics were for children, he was the only artist in US history to be convicted of obscenity in a backwater Florida court. Among other things, his sentence forbade him from coming within 100 feet of children as well as drawing anything, ever. He was subject to random, unannounced searches of his home to make sure he wasn't drawing.
Obscenity charges are distractions that inflame ignorance and hypocritically moralistic & self-serving agendas, and such was the case for poor Rokudenashiko. Of course, the Japanese government made a mistake in picking her as an opponent, because of her relentless optimism and fighting spirit. From the moment she was arrested, she thought of what a great manga it would make. She spent a harrowing week in lock-up after she was arrested, unable to contact her family and only getting a brief visit from a court-appointed lawyer. Japanese jails are incredibly rigid in terms of one's activities. The police didn't read her her rights, lied about any number of things and were trying to force a confession out of her. They had up to twenty days of locking her up to force a confession, and they cops tried to wear her down. Instead, she unnerved the cops by making them say "pussy" over and over--something that visibly unnerved them. It was clear to Rokudenashiko that in Japanese society in particular, there was a huge double standard regarding male and female genitalia. There were giant penises being celebrated in town festivals, but the mere mention of female genitalia was considered something far too awful for public consumption.
The good news for her was that she was receiving a great deal of public support for her release after the press initially denounced her as a "so-called" artist. She got a great deal of free legal help and was actually freed after her first appeal. There's a hilarious scene where she's getting out of jail and is trying to throw away the pair of panties she had worn when she went to jail that were taken from her. The guards refused to let her do it, and actually chased her down when she just tossed them aside to give them to her. It's a level of sheer spite and meanness on the part of authority when faced with opposition.
The second half of the book traces how and why she became a manko artist. She started in manga, but it was tough for her to really break through in a brutally competitive market. She got the idea to get laser surgery to trim her labia a bit and did a comic about it, and then had the idea to make a mold of her pussy and create art with it, sharing it with others. After some initial success, there was a powerful sequence where she revealed that she was struggling after she divorced her husband (whom she had cheated on repeatedly because of her general unhappiness) and her art was getting roadblocked. Even the manga she made about her surgery was downbeat and dour, as the editor told her to make up an angle about her hating her own body. She felt suicidal until one woman came up to her after an event and told her how much it meant to her, which gave her renewed strength to go on.
In many respects, this book feels provisional, as the trial has not yet occurred and a lot has happened to Rokudenashiko, like getting married and becoming pregnant. A reworked and more cohesive version of both of the stories in the book (her arrest and her origins as an artist) after the trial is over would likely be a far more powerful and effective book. Still, there's a lot to enjoy here, and everyone involved was careful to provide context to American artists regarding a number of her references. Rokudenashiko's line is playful, confident and loose. It added a tremendous amount of humor to her story, was always clear, and was remarkably expressive. At her heart, she is a humorist, and the sharpness and ferocity of her wit came through on every page.