University of Utah
- A useful framework for understanding the type of social reality constructed and reinforced by these images is provided by Catherine MacKinnon and her views on the use and function of pornography in American society. MacKinnon writes:
Pornography does not simply express or interpret experience; it substitutes for it. Beyond bringing a message from reality, it stands in for reality; it is existentially being there. This does not mean that there is no spin on the experience – far from it. To make visual pornography, and to live up to its imperatives, the world, namely women, must do what the pornographers “say.”… Pornography makes the world a pornographic place through its making and use, establishing what women are said to exist as, are seen as, are treated as, constructing the social reality of what a woman is and can be done to her, and what a man is in terms of doing it. (MacKinnon 25)
For MacKinnon, the defense that pornographic images (and, in our present context, I believe we can include racist imagery, too) do not “say” anything but are instead inherently meaning-less and that they only acquire meaning through an encoding process by the consumer, is untenable and unacceptable. Such a view, MacKinnon argues, would require us to believe that such images are harmless, and that any possible harm that can be related to these and other images is the result of people who project their own beliefs, fantasies and ideologies into them. The images, then, are empty containers waiting for semantic content to be added by viewers. In opposition to this viewpoint – which is, incidentally, the viewpoint that provides some sort of protection to these and other images under current legal frameworks – MacKinnon argues that such images are much more active, that they do function in a meaningful way and, more importantly, that they function as imperative speech acts:
Pornography contains ideas, like any other social practice. But the way it works is not as a thought or through its ideas as such, at least not in the way thoughts and ideas are protected as speech. Its place in abuse requires understanding it more in active than in passive terms, as constructing and performative rather than as merely referential or connotative.
In this “image as speech act” view of pornography, the visual is indistinguishable from the linguistic. Furthermore, the linguistic reality of such images function through a process of identification (“Women are this … ”) as well as action (“Do this to women because they are nothing but … ”).
The message of these materials, and there is one, as there is to all conscious activity, is “get her,” pointing at all women … . (MacKinnon 21)
- We can see these processes of identification and the potential for enactment at work in the ways critics of Zorn’s imagery equate torture with S/M practices. Hisama writes how “the ‘Japanesing’ of sadomasochism in Torture Garden emerge[s] from Zorn’s obsessive need to associate the unfathomable and alluring Orient with sex generally, and S/M particularly … . Zorn’s attempts to aestheticize torture in his use of sonic and visual images trivializes the suffering of millions of people for whom torture [is] neither a postmodern game, nor a choice” (Hisama, “John Zorn” 80).
- But are S/M practices and torture interchangeable? Taken on their own and devoid of any context, the images on Torture Garden and the images accompanying Leng Tch’e might appear to present the same idea.11 Indeed, the practice of Leng Tch’e describes a form of torture used in China during the Manchu dynasty whereby the accused is kept alive with opium as they are slowly cut into 100 pieces (“Leng Tch’e” translates as “100 Pieces”). The photos represent the last time this form of torture was employed in China – possibly from April 10, 1905 – and show Fu Chou Li, a young man convicted of killing Prince Ao Han Ouan, being cut apart.12
- Casual viewers of S/M scenes (if there can be such a thing) might easily conflate the performances of sadomasochistic behavior with real-life torture scenes. To do so, however, is to overlook some fundamental differences between the two. First, victims of torture have no say in how they are treated. There is no way that torture victims can exert their will into the process; indeed, the whole point of torture is to destroy the will of the victims, to force them to impart some information needed or wanted by the torturers, those who are in power. In “typical” S/M scenes, by contrast, the power resides in the “dominated” (the submissive, or the “bottom”). It is the bottom who calls the shots (determines what is “wanted”) and is able to call off the entire scene if he or she feels that things are getting out of hand. Second, with torture, the infliction of pain is the means by which a torturer will gain something; the torturer gains at the expense of the victim’s loss. S/M scenarios, however, more closely resemble religious asceticism where the pain undergone by a victim leads to a pleasurable experience for that victim. There is eventual pleasure in the pain endured. Whereas a sense of self is lost or broken for the victim of torture, the self is affirmed, attained, or sought after by the submissive in S/M practices.13
- For those critical of Zorn’s choice of images, the complex power and identity politics of S/M behavior are disregarded and are, instead, unquestionably equated with practices better described as torture. Furthermore, in the readings that I have been able to consult, it is not even mentioned that there are no men engaged in the S/M depictions included on Torture Garden; all of the images show either a single woman or two women.14 Even if the unbalanced or ambiguous gender depictions were noted, I am not sure that this would fundamentally alter the critics’ opinions. Violence against women is depicted in these images and therefore there is only way to read them: from within the social reality of male domination and male power. Andrea Dworkin has even suggested that all representations of female-female sadism are male-dominated and male directed (posed and staged by males, for a male audience, depicting male fantasies of lesbianism while also serving to affirm the idea that women are, at their most fundamental level, dangerous). Furthermore, even in those S/M scenes where the male assumes the role of the submissive, “masochism in the male is transformed into a form of sadism. He suffers to conquer; she suffers to submit” (Dworkin 150). According to this view, within any S/M scenes involving women, the women are either the victims of actual violence directed at them because they are women, or they are simply rehearsing and reinforcing deeply-entrenched gender stereotypes imposed upon them by a patriarchal society. In other words, these women are “acting-out” or performing what is expected of them by men and, if this is the case, these women truly have been robbed of their will and the analogy between S/M and torture becomes much more tenable.15
- For these critics, there is no interpretation necessary in decoding these images: what you see is what you get. An individual’s perception is equated to a singular perception of an unequivocal reality (“one should know when you present an image how it will be perceived.”). As a result, there is no room for “fantasy,” the innocent representation, or the “mere” presentation of ideas. MacKinnon, again, notes:
To say that pornography is categorically or functionally representation rather than sex simply creates a distanced world we can say is not the real world, a world that mixes reality with unreality, art and literature with everything else, as if life does not do the same thing. The effect is to license whatever is done there, creating a special aura of privilege and demarcating a sphere of protected freedom, no matter who is hurt. In this approach, there is no way to prohibit rape if pornography is protected. If, by contrast, representation is reality … then pornography is no less an act than the rape and torture it represents. (MacKinnon 29)16
What is depicted in these images “speaks” about us and to us. Furthermore, MacKinnon argues, what it has to say is incredibly dangerous, and can be compared to hate speech leading, potentially, to hate crimes (MacKinnon 22). Educating Zorn (and others) about the very real dangers of these images is easily understood as a matter of “personal survival” for both his critics as well as those who have been silenced.
The Place and Function of Fantasy in Japanese Culture
- A Westerner visiting Japan in the late-80s and early-90s may well have been shocked by the abundance of nudity and/or sexually suggestive material in everyday Japanese culture (advertisements, television commercials, etc.). Nudity might have been encountered in ads and billboards designed to sell any number of products, or viewed on television both in advertising and in specialty shows (such as those ranking or grading the best massage parlors in town). Even at the train station, sexually explicit and often violent manga would be available for purchase by the businessman or businesswoman making his/her way across town. Whereas in the United States sexually explicit material was typically associated with shops on the “wrong side of town” or in the upper racks of magazine stands, manga and other sexually oriented magazines could be found on the racks of book and magazine vendors at the stations. Oftentimes, no effort was made to hide these items from persons deemed too young or from those who might find such materials offensive. Zorn most certainly encountered and familiarized himself with these and other materials during his extended stays in Japan in the late-80s and early-90s. In this section, I will consider some ways in which such images might have been read, understood, and used in Japanese culture and society.
- Imagine getting on a train in Tokyo and sitting down next to a businessman reading Rapeman, a serialized manga where the main character is a superhero who avenges jilted lovers (both male and female) by seeking “Vengeance through penetration!” Our first instinct, of course, would be to pick up our belongings and move to another seat.17 Why someone would read such materials – in a public setting, no less – would be, no doubt, baffling. Damning a male-dominated industry and its ever-sinking standards of decency in catering to “such people,” it should be noted that a great majority of manga (and, in this case, “erotic manga,” or, eromanga) made and directed towards an audience of women (redikomi) are just as – if not more – explicit in their depictions of rape, violence, and brutality. Writing on women’s eromanga, Setsu Shigematsu describes how:
The pornographic detail of the sex depicted in ladies’ comics is on par with pornographic comics for men. The wild and risqué narratives are combined with illustrations of vaginas, clitorises, penises, anuses, breasts, erect nipples, an excess of bodily fluids, and a no-holds-barred array of sexual practices, ranging from autoeroticism, S/M, same-sex encounters, threesomes, foursomes, orgies, sex with transsexuals and transvestites, various rape and pseudo-rape scenarios, gang rape and rape by strangers, fathers, [ex]-boyfriends, girlfriends and the list goes on. (Shigematsu 140)18
It’s hard to see how the list could go on. As someone who has spent a lot of time examining and thinking about the role of ladies’ eromanga, Shigematsu hypothesizes that “instead of being a ‘reflection’ [of women’s repressed sexual desires],” ladies’ erotic comics “function as an alternative site and avenue of eroticism for women, which simultaneously (re)configures and extends the boundaries of publicized sexuality for women by making visible such heterogeneous uses and possibilities of sexual activity. Rather than being a reflection of some pre-existing, hidden desires, ladies’ eromanga provides varieties of sex as entertainment for women, marketing a smorgasbord of sexual possibilities, producing sex as a consumable spectacle” (Shigematsu 140).19
- The notion of “naïve fantasy” as a form of entertainment predicated on its un-believability is a trait present in ladies’ and men’s eromanga and in Japanese pornographic films as well.20 In such manga, for example, the oversized genitalia, breasts, and buttocks are instantly recognized as ridiculous in Japanese society. In other words, the creators of Japanese manga appear to be poking fun at themselves and their own bodily makeup when they draw their characters (many of whom lack defining facial features of Asian men and women) with “extraordinary” genitalia or enormous breasts. At the same time, the acts of violence depicted in explicit manga are unbelievable, where the victims endure incredible amounts of pain, pain that a “real” person could never endure. The “unbelievability” of their pain and injuries is underscored by that fact that these same characters may appear again five frames later in the same strip seemingly with no apparent injuries. An example of such an unbelievable scenario is evident even in Figure 1, where we are (are not?) expected to believe that a young girl who has just had the skin removed from her face can still manage to hug the neck of her attacker in some kind of sick embrace.
- Turning our attention to the screen, production in pornographic films is typically shoddy with little concern for creating realistic on-screen representations. The unrealistic nature of these films is compounded by awkward edits or stylized camera angles that foreground the aura of fantasy.21 In the present context, it is important to point out that Zorn’s images of sadomasochistic practices included on Torture Garden are stills from a Japanese “pink film” that, like many “erotic productions” (eroductions) made and produced in the 60s and 70s, is set in the Yoshiwara district (a regulated “pleasure quarter”) in the pre-modern Edo period where, after a day of killing and terror, the warriors could enjoy themselves in the comfort and safety of the state-regulated brothels. It is, in other words, a period porno film, much like Caligula is to Western audiences.
- The exaggerated bodily makeup of eromanga characters and the poor production techniques and fantastic locations and scenarios of many eroductions are instantly recognizable as unreal by Japanese audiences. Relating these production techniques and representations to aspects of storytelling in Japanese society, Anne Allison has written how “Japanese storytelling … relies far more on a convention of fantasy that is compelling because it engenders rather than suspends belief. To say this somewhat differently,” she continues, “fantasies of sex are often produced along the lines of abnormal, illicit, transgressive, or dirty encounters that leave certain realities off the page and, figuratively, outside representation” (Allison 171).22 What are these “realities” that are absent from eromanga, erotic films, and other sexually explicit and/or violent materials? To answer this question, we need to briefly examine a particular aspect of Japanese law.
- Article 175 of the Japanese Revised Criminal Code – adapted in 1907 as Japan was entering the “modern” world – reads as follows:
A person who distributes or sells an obscene writing, picture, or other object or who publicly displays the same, shall be punished with imprisonment at forced labor for not more than two years or a fine of not more than 5,000 yen or a minor fine. The same applies to a person who possesses the same for the purpose of sale.23
Of course, any potential legal strength (or weakness) of Article 175 depends upon how “obscene” is defined. According to the Misdemeanor Law, Article 1, No. 20, “obscene” is understood as “a person who brazenly exposes thighs, hips, or other body parts at a place exposed to public view in such a manner as to cause disgust to the public…” (Beer 355-356 fn10). At around the same time, Article 21 of the Customs Standards Law (1910) describes as obscene any materials entering the country that “are considered of such a nature as to excite sexual desire and give rise in people to feelings of shame or repugnance” (Beer 337).
- Article 1 of the Misdemeanor Law focuses on the depiction of the body’s lower frontal extremities as constituting an “obscene display” while Article 21 emphasizes a social standard regarding sexual desire and the feelings that may result in consumers of obscene materials. Admittedly, both definitions are vague and open to a number of interpretations. In fact, many took advantage of these vagaries and ambiguities. For example, it was possible – within the purview of the law – to show genitalia without pubic hair. While this would seem to contradict Article 1, No. 20, it was permitted because it was understood as not being sexual, where sexual meant productive, procreative sexuality. At the same time, adult depictions of intercourse could be depicted as long as the genitals were not in view, or if they were cleverly concealed.
- Article 175 was written and worded in such a way so as to conform to Japan’s emerging role in a modern (i.e. Western) society. According to Allison, Article 175 and the varying definitions of obscenity outlined above were understood as a “corrective to [the] western perception of Japanese ‘primitiveness’ … .”
[The laws] were a means of covering the national body from charges that it was obscene. To Japanese at the time … exposing one’s body to bathe or to nurse was considered neither dirty nor sexual. Further, sexuality itself lacked the connotation of dirtiness. Rather, under a Shinto rather than Judeo-Christian religious ideology, these are bodily functions that, along with burping, excretion, and picking one’s nose, are viewed as matters more of nature than of shame. (Allison 163)
The wish to conform to western ideologies regarding decency, obscenity, and morality was made clear by state and legal officials who informed the general population that public nudity or mixed-sex bathing in bathhouses, “although … the general custom and is not so despised among ourselves, … is looked upon with great contempt [by foreign countries]. You should therefore consider it a great shame.” Fukuzawa Yukichi, the “moralist of the Meiji enlightenment,” warned his contemporaries that “sooner or later such conditions in our country will come to the ears of foreigners, exposing us to who knows what attacks and reproaches” (Dore 160).
- Stepping back for a moment, we come to realize that the prohibition against the depiction of pubic hair and genitalia has, to a large extent, allowed many of the graphic images and subject matter commonly found in Japanese manga and erotic films to exist (a possibility suggested by Foucault). The extreme images of sadomasochism, the fetishization of pre-pubescent girls, anal fixations, etc. are all legal under pre-1991 Japanese law.24 Because of the restrictions outlined by Article 175, what has emerged in a great deal of Japanese advertising media as well as entertainment is, as Anne Allison points out, a “public culture in which the conjuring of sex that depends on body imagery … either decenters the genitals or alludes to them indirectly” (Allison 150). Allison mentions alternative (i.e. pubic-free) imagery that includes “peepshots” (upskirt photographs of women and pre-pubescent girls), an obsessive fetishization of other body parts, and acts of sadomasochism, all of which are considered “something other than ‘obscene’ and other than ‘real’ [according to Japanese law]. They are fantasies that can penetrate the public only by covering, effacing, or decentering the pubis” (Allison 150).
- It seems paradoxical (not to mention disturbingly ironic) that censoring any depiction of the genital region actually gave rise to a variety of images and depictions that might probably be considered much more “dangerous.” As Allison continues, however, the “banning of genitals from public images … protects as ‘real’ one region of the social body from the sexualization of mass culture.” This region, she argues, is “family and home and [whose] center of this region is the mother:”
Young girls, whose very lack of pubic hair signifies their feminine immaturity, are featured [in “pornographic” materials] instead, as well as sex acts that have no chance of leading to reproduction – voyeurism, sadism, anal penetration, fellatio. What is prohibited as “obscene” by the state, then, is also that which is most sacred and central to the state’s national identity – stable families, reproductive mothers, and orderly homes. (Allison 151)
- The notion of “sexuality” described by the Customs Bureau would not, therefore, be violated by these seemingly more violent images. In an interesting legal case, importers, distributors, and translators of portions of the Marquis de Sade’s In Praise of Vice and The Travels of Juliette were taken to court on obscenity charges in Japan in the early 1960s. Invoking Article 175, the Tokyo District Court needed to establish three conditions necessary to judge the work obscene: 1) did the work exhibit a “wanton appeal to sexual passion”; 2) did the work cause “offense to the average man’s sense of shame”; and 3) did the work exhibit “opposition to proper concepts of sexual morality.” Although conditions 2 and 3 were understood as being present, the defendants were acquitted when it was ruled that condition 1 was not met. The court explained that the “brutality and unreality of Juliette were such as to preclude fulfillment of the first condition” (Beer 348).25 What was not upset was “real” sexuality, the reality that emphasizes the stability of the family, the role of the mother, and, interestingly, the state.
- Images of anal sex, rape, sadomasochism and/or bondage, are relegated – almost by law – to the realm of fantasy. At the same time, these images paradoxically uphold traditional Japanese values of family, child-rearing, and stability. As a result, the realms of the real and the fantastic exist in an interesting tension in Japanese culture and society, a fact reflected not only in the forms of pulp entertainment we have been considering, but also in city planning. As John Clammer has recognized, “Japan combines conservatism and hedonism in a way that few other societies have managed to do … .”
[The customs and laws of Japan] paradoxically [support] a conservative sense of public order by legitimating the free play of a very frequently erotic and violent imagination in areas or compartments set aside for this purpose, something which may have to do with the [near] absence of violent crime in Japan. The cheek-by-jowl juxtaposition of a district of love hotels and one of Tokyo’s premier high-cultural sites (the Bunka Mura) in the capital’s Shibuya district is not an anomaly or the accidental result of bad town planning: it represents a fundamental structure of Japanese society at work. (Clammer 59)
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This equation is compounded by the fact that Torture Garden is the name of a book by Octave Mirbeau that most likely served as the inspiration for Zorn’s album title. In this book, a young (Western) woman with a morbid and lurid fascination for torture frequents a prison “yard” / “garden” where she routinely takes pleasure in seeing the Asian prisoners tortured. It is possible to read the S/M photos as re-contextualized forms of torture on Zorn’s Torture Garden record.
These images are reproduced and described in Georges Bataille, The Tears of Eros. Bataille writes that, in Fu Chou Li’s case, Leng Tch’e was chosen because the original sentence handed down – being burned alive – was deemed “too cruel.” (Bataille 204.)
On the goals and practices of torture, see Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, 27-59. Numerous writings address the complex politics and meanings of S/M practices. See, for example, Gilles Deleuze, Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty; Karmen MacKendrick, Counterpleasures; Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins, Chapters 5 and 6; Gini Graham Scott, Erotic Power: An Exploration of Dominance and Submission; Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible.”
Images of male participants in S/M scenes are included on Painkiller’s Rituals: Live in Japan and Talisman: Live in Nagoya. In all of the images on these records, the male is assuming the submissive position.
See the essays in Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis.
For a critique of MacKinnon’s position, see Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative, 65 ff.
Regarding my fictitious example, Aki Kawomoto has explained to me that if a person reading Rapeman is encountered on a train or bus, other Japanese passengers would probably sit next to him (or her) if that reader makes no attempt to hide the manga. If, on the other hand, the passenger appears to be hiding or concealing the name of the manga, other passengers would not be as willing to sit next to the reader. In a personal communication via e-mail, Kawamoto describes how:
In Japanese society, such a [passenger] is considered quite “normal,” “honest,” “open,” “natural,” and even “safe,” whereas someone who reads such a manga secretly is considered “dishonest,” “introverted,” and even “potentially dangerous.”…If we sit next to such an “open” guy, we…feel we are “safe” so we never pick up our belongings. If we sit next to a guy who reads an ero manga but tries to hide it from others, then we might want to [get] away from him because he might be really into that manga (and he might even start masturbating right there...).
A similar observation was expressed to me by Tomomi Nakashima.
See also Deborah Shamoon, “Office Sluts and Rebel Flowers: The Pleasures of Japanese Pornographic Comics for Women.” For a negative reading of manga, see Sandra Buckley, “Penguin in Bondage: A Graphic Tale of Japanese Comic Books.”
Italics in original.
See Donald Richie’s discussion of eroductions (“erotic productions”) in Some Aspects of Japanese Popular Culture.
I should clarify that the “poor production techniques” often encountered in these films are not, I believe, intended to evoke some sort of cinematic realism along the lines of, for instance, cinema verité where rough or shaky camera shots (perhaps from a hand-held camera or videocamera) aim to create a sense of immediacy and intimacy between the viewer and the viewed. Instead, I am referring to the numerous slips in continuity (a half-empty glass in one shot is full in the next or a man’s tie curiously disappears/appears in consecutive shots) and other technical mishaps. For instance, in a number of films I have viewed, it is sometimes possible to see the boom mic at the top of the screen move back and forth between the speaking characters. These and other cinematic blunders are, I believe, the result of the speed with which the film studios made and released these movies.
Allison also investigates the role of fantasy in Japanese business practices in her Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club. The role of fantasy in Japanese culture is also emphasized in Ian Buruma, Behind the Mask: On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters and Other Japanese Cultural Heroes.
Of course, not all commentators agree with such a relatively harmless interpretation of Japanese pornography. See, for example, Kuniko Funabashi, “Pornographic Culture and Sexual Violence.”
Reprinted in Lawrence Ward Beer, Freedom of Expression in Japan: A Study in Comparative Law, Politics, and Society.
In 1991, regulations against showing pubic hair began to relax, partly because of photographs included in Kishin Shinoyama’s Santa Fe, a collection of photographs of the then-popular singer/actress Rie Miyazawa. See Allison, 147 ff.
Emphasis added. The acquittal was later overturned by the Tokyo high court who ruled that Condition 1 had been met. The Supreme Court later turned down an appeal in a “lengthy and complex” decision. On this ruling, see Beer, 349-353.
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