Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Jailed for possessing drawings deemed illegal

LO comic as featured in idea (アイデア)design magazine

A man in the US has been jailed for 6 months for possessing manga from Japan. Manga, that is, that represents child sex. Drawn porn.

Is this a tricky question of what's allowable in drawn images, or simply an invasive (mis)use of laws that should rightly protect real children? In this US court case, the question centred around whether there is "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" to the manga - the magazines, which are legal in Japan, could have been legal in the US if they had passed that serious artistic value assessment. Of course, both "serious" and "artistic value" are the troubled area. Is any drawing - and therefore any manga - automatically "artistic"? If so, what makes it "serious" or not? If not, what constitutes "art"?

I've never seen the specific comics the man has been jailed for - my interest in manga generally is passing rather than otaku (obsessive). I have seen fairly explicit father-child incest stories, coincidentally before I came to Japan, legally printed in a translated manga collection and legally available still, from Amazon for example, in both the UK and, in the US. (Though the story in that collection assumes that the 'children' are of age, however youthful they may be in drawn apperance.)

Nevertheless, even if I'd tend to favour the idea that this is an invasive use of law (the man possessed no child pornography using real children and had abused no child), there are obviously valid questions over depiction of children in such manga, but coupled with a solid question of whether anyone should ever be jailed for owning drawings done from the imagination.

Although he was prosecuted over seven particular comics, officials retained 80 books (after returning more than 1,000 as not containing contraband) including many from a comic called LO. (LO, pronounced "el oh", is short for Lolita, as in the name for the genre, lolicon - or "Lolita complex". Perhaps Nabokov would turn in his grave at the amount of appropriation his character has suffered.) That comic LO was retained piqued my interest as a designer, because last September's issue of the established Japanese design magazine idea (アイデア)was a special issue on manga and anime designs and featured some superb design and illustration examples over some 180 pages of the magazine, from excellent contemporary covers to the hand-drawn fonts of Osamu Tezuka - plus a four-page section on LO.

My (perhaps UK-honed) sensibilities over this subject made me double-take on LO's prominent inclusion in a serous design magazine. Design-wise it clearly deserves a spread in such an issue - some of the cover designs and cover illustrations are really good design. But content-wise it's at least debatable that it does - can design ever be successfully judged separately to content? Graphic design is most often a way of presenting clearly, engagingly or expressively that very content. Under that debatable banner, should we expect some commentary at the least - or is that hypocritical if the magazine is legal and being featured in an issue themed around the topic? (After all, a feature on the "serious" and "valued" - and American - outsider artist Henry Darger in an art magazine could probably pass without comment.)

Does a presumably soft genre magazine (I've never seen the inside, only the covers featured in idea) such as LO allow free representation of imagination - and, under one argument, perhaps incidentally "filter out" potential real-world perverts into a mere drawn-image fantasy world - or encourage them in some actual preference for young girls? Should we ever censor drawings (in terms of passing jail terms on individuals owning them) as a society? (As a designer, I'd argue not.) Shouldn't we only prosecute actions or intended actions on real people, not the imagination, however much mainstream society may disapprove?

Many may find it hard to sympathise with an otaku collector of manga - or even ponder whether many in Akihabara or the like couldn't benefit from the enforced psychological tests the man in the US will undergo - but lack of sympathy surely shouldn't degenerate into willingness to see jailed. As a designer, I can only ask the questions.

No comments: