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Who Are We Kidding: Subliminal Child-Porn Images in Japanese Manga and Anime

Anime historian Kumi Kaoru’s unpopular position brings much-needed attention to the wink-wink-nudge-nudge world of subliminal child-porn imagery in Japanese manga and anime.

Editor’s Note: This is an edited translation of the article Kumi Kaoru, an anime historian living in Japan, contributed to the Huffington Post Japan this past December. KK wrote an insightful analysis in reference to a hot controversy over Japanese society’s insensitivity to child-pornographic visual elements subliminally inserted into anime and manga. This most recent controversy began with a November 30 mention on KK's Twitter, which criticized, from the child-porn viewpoint, an illustration from a popular anime show Sound! Euphonium. KK approached AWN previously about working together to translate, edit and publish pieces regarding what the penetrating anime critic considers an indefensible position taken by some anime and manga publishers in Japan. This is the first of such pieces.

Seeing is believing. Let's take a look at the image on the left: the cover illustration of the young adult novel "Sound! Euphonium: Welcome to the Brass Band Club of North Uji High School." On the right is a new promotional illustration of the anime adaptation of the same title by Kyoto Animation Studios. The novel is now available in Japan with the new cover illustration taken from the anime adaption. 

Let's take a closer look at the image on the right. We see a Japanese high school girl, barefoot, long slender bare legs and a seductive pose (in a classroom!) , giving up an up from under look, in the style of Marlene Dietrich from the 1930 film The Blue Angel. The brass horn euphonium appears cold and metallic against her warm-colored flesh, as if a phallic object is just being inserted between her young thighs. Yes, it’s quite easy to see that the girl's image has been decorated with many sexual and seductive hints within the anime adaptation, though in the original novel, she is a simple country girl in a suburb around Kyoto.               

I am not implying that the anime Sound! Euphonium is child-porn. Quite the contrary, I appreciate it as a heart-warming story of teenage girls' love for music as well as their high ambition aimed at winning the national competition. It makes perfect sense that many anime fans were excited by the news of the theatrically-refined version coming next spring, which is to be followed by the second TV series.

I, however, must say that I do not have any love for young adult anime. To me, it is no more than an interesting subject for a study when we look into the fact that Japanese manga (Japanese comics) and anime have been continually criticized as a weird mixture of sex and violence. Consider the BBC’s controversial report, "Why Hasn't Japan Banned Child - Porn Comics?" (February 2015), released only a few months after a man was convicted in Britain for his possession of Japanese manga titles, which only contained imaginary girls, considered  child-porn under the UK’s anti-child pornography laws.

Is Sound! Euphonium Child-Porn? 

First of all, I’m arguing against the typical criticism that young female characters depicted in anime and manga are products of sexual exploitation of young girls, because I know for certain that they are not derived from child pornography at all.

The United Nation’s protocol defines child pornography as “any representation, by whatever means, of a child engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes.” (Note - See article 2 from "Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.")

In addition, Japan excludes any illustrated fictional child-like figure form classified as an “actual child” under the basis of freedom of expression, as long as human rights of actual children are not violated.

Logically speaking then, in Japan it is inaccurate and a false charge to criticize the depiction of baby-faced fictional girls, also known as the very symbol of Japanese geek (called “Otaku”) culture, as sexual exploitation of actual girls no matter what age these fictional comic and animation characters are described to be.

Subliminally Seductive Images Embedded in Kyoto Animation Studios' Wholesome Illustrations

I, however, wonder if it is possible to clear up the accusation that seductive images of anime girls are downright pornographic even if they cannot be categorized as child-porn under the principle of Japanese law­.

In one particular example, I saw many bits and pieces of seductive elements in Sound! Euphonium illustrations produced by Kyoto Animation Studios (also called Kyo-Ani among anime fans), designed deliberately so that they would inspire subtle sexual fantasies in viewers. Look at the cover illustration of the original novel’s first volume (left) and that of the anime magazine “Animestyle” featuring the Sound! Euphonium anime (right).

The foreground figure in the illustration on the right has a baby-face with disproportionately seductive legs under the windswept short skirt. She is holding a large instrument in her hands as if to show the contrast between her flesh and the symbolic metallic "penis." The figure on the right holds an obedient kneeling pose, as if she is about to pet the tuba with her hands and mouth.                                                            

The girl on the left is put behind the foreground girl presumably because the contrabass cannot make an impression of the contrast between the metal and the flesh. The background girl's trumpet is half-hidden behind the kneeling girl’s head, apparently because it is a little too small to make contrast with her flesh.

In other illustrations from the anime, artists have subtly inserted girls holding seductive poses, also showing short skirts flapping in the wind while keeping their undergarments unexposed, because they know veiling something invokes greater sexual thoughts than overtly exposing it. The girl’s forefinger points to her exposed lower region like a road marker leading to a tunnel, a baton also pointed between the legs. The girls’ breasts are also portrayed much larger than the usual Japanese high school girl, underscored with unnatural shadows to accentuate their size.

Analysis of other illustrations will be saved for another day since there is not sufficient space to highlight a very interesting mechanism behind them. If you would like to claim I should refrain from this analysis as it only shows my own personal fantasy, I recommend you do a Google search with a few keywords, such as ‘ユーフォニアム′(Euphonium), ‘エロ’(ero), and ‘同人’ (fanzine) in Japanese. That will produce for you an enormous pile of very stimulating imagery, further illustrating just how much of this content exists.  

Invoking Sexual Images with Quick Flash

Japanese anime (and manga) always make plausible excuses when they depict pretty, baby-faced girls in sensual poses. (Note: Kyoto Animation Studios used to adapt some of the all-age videogames which were previously designed as adults-only games featuring baby-faced sexy female characters.)  These well planned and deliberate poses invoke thoughts of highly sexual images instantaneously in the viewers’ minds – within a second, the viewers find themselves watching ordinary poses with common objects, including musical instruments such as a tuba or a euphonium, while the sexual fantasies continue to settle into their subconscious minds.                                                                       

The key point here is that although Sound! Euphonium is a touching, innocent, adolescent story, the show invokes the viewers’ sexual desires by imprinting sexual fantasies into the viewers’ subconscious minds through the use of provocative illustrations, not through the show itself.

As mentioned , the production staff has devoted great creative efforts to make the show seem like the most purely innocent, touching, adolescent anime story ever produced. This effort helps the show's admirers act as "evangelists" to silence a pariah like myself who attempts to unveil the subconscious mechanism of the supposedly innocent-looking show.

To my surprise, many Japanese readers got angry at my theory on Sound! Euphonium when I tweeted it one month ago. They apparently perceived my remark as an insult to the pride of brass band players! I am not saying brass band players are all perverts. What I meant was that any innocent instrument, like a castanet, could be used in the context of sexual fantasy when designed by anime creators who are experienced with such subliminal methods of visualization. In fact, Kyo-Ani showed its talents and skill in the context of subliminal pornography a few years ago by bringing up images of high school girls with electric guitars with their illustrations for advertising the TV show, K-On! (“The Light Music Club”).

Many Kyo-Ani fans criticized me by saying, “How could you claim that teenage girls playing the guitar is a metaphor for petting male genitalia?” or “You do NOT suck the brass instrument when you play it! Don’t you know what a mouthpiece is like?” when I tweeted the analysis of Kyo-Ani anime from a viewpoint of sexuality.  Their claims might sound rational, but they ignore the fact that it doesn’t matter whether or not the female characters really touch (or suck) the male genitalia as long as they can invoke subliminal images of sexuality. The issue is the subtle manipulation through the suggestive illustrations. No one can tell the difference from a distance – to see it you have to look closely.

Just for your information, those visual techniques of subliminal sexual suggestion already appeared in the illustrations of American pulp sci-fi magazines in the early 20th century, and they have been used in a huge amount of public advertising elsewhere in the Western world. This technique, however, has become extremely sophisticated in the land of the rising sun, especially in Otaku culture including anime, manga and video games.

Non-Otaku Mainstream People Can’t Tell Baby-Faced Anime Characters from Child-Porn

Subliminal pornographic images cloaked behind an innocent exterior are not exclusive to Japan. Many studies, such as Wilson Bryan Key’s “Media Sexploitation” (1976) show how other media creators, including advertisement artists, especially in the U.S., have developed and used those techniques for decades. However, it is unquestionably the peculiar way of Japanese pop-culture to put a pile of sexual innuendo into content for children. By comparing the likes of popular anime to Pixar cartoons, for example, Pixar cartoons don’t normally add sexually subliminal images or innuendos into their movies while Crayon Shin-chan, one of the most popular kids' cartoon series in Japan, frequently expresses sexual innuendos, includes sarcastic jokes by a kid about his parents and satirical comments about modern society.

Japan’s Otaku culture has maintained a duality of “for kids” and “for mature audiences” for dozens of years so that a wide range of content, not just subliminally sexual, could drive audiences with ideas outside age-appropriate ethical borders and thus, could produce fantastically entertaining materials. Girls & Panzer is one example. It's a touching young adult story about baby-faced high school girls fighting to win the battle tank competition in a city that really exists in Japan, as if they're challenging each other in the national sports championship.  They drive real-world tanks such as Germany’s Tiger and Japan’s Type Ten. What an exciting youth story! Japanese audiences enjoy such fantastic storylines that would hardly ever appear in Hollywood or be considered appropriate for kids in the U.S.

Both for Kids and for Mature Audiences  

Otaku culture has positioned itself as an innocent-looking, borderline grand orgy straddling the boundary between kids and adults, loaded with adult immaturity by overlooking the age double standard as a kind of joke. Presumably, the baby-faced, underage (sometimes at age or overage) seductive female characters from anime and manga were represented as fascinating examples of Otaku fantasy universe. They would be embedded with sexually suggestive cues even though they may not have fully matured body. These characters became female monstrosities, beasts with child-like faces and seductively designed bodies from the neck down, which could even scare off Chimera and Centaur with such exaggeration. That is why Westerners unfamiliar with the nature of Otaku culture tend to perceive the products featuring those female characters as child-porn.

Japanese do not Know That They Have Been Criticized Since Astroboy in 1963

Japanese are still unfamiliar with the idea that mainstream Westerners see Japan’s Otaku culture as outrageous. They don’t know that Westerners are bearers of the cultural sphere of influence where the adult is ethically required to be superior to the child. When Japan’s first weekly 30-minute TV cartoon show Astroboy aired in the U.S. and then in Europe, the creator Tezuka was surprised by criticism from Western countries where parents complained that the show was too violent, even while their children loved the show. How could a father sell his child out to a circus even if he’s a robot? How come Astroboy destroys his enemy with his superpower every time even if the enemy is not a human being?

At first, Tezuka thought those criticisms did not make sense at all by saying, “Who has produced and enjoyed French mobster movies, Spaghetti Westerns, and Hollywood war movies?” However, after traveling around the Western world and listening to people’s points, he eventually comprehended that they criticized his beloved Astroboy on the basis of a rational reason. He wrote later in his autobiography: “They apparently criticized Astroboy as unsuitable for children in spite of it being for kids. I was surprised to find that they do not permit their kids to watch TV programs for non-kids. The kids turn off the TV as soon as they enjoyed kids shows...[omit] ...not until had I stayed with some families in the western world, I did not believe the story.”

This is a very complicated issue and story I’m choosing to discuss more another time. I recommend you read "Astro Boy and Anime Come to the Americas: An Insider's View of the Birth of a Pop Culture Phenomenon," written by Fred Ladd, who adapted Astroboy for American television. It will tell you how different the ethical border is and where lines are drawn between adults and children and between East (Japan) and West. (Just for your information, I translated the book into Japanese and published it in Japan in 2011)

UN Keenly Watching Japan’s Policy About Manga and Anime as Well as Child-Porn

Last October, Ms. Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, a Dutch jurist and UN Special Rapporteur on child-trafficking, child prostitution and child pornography, held a press conference in Tokyo. After spending seven days interviewing various individuals in her investigation of the current situation of child-porn in Japan, she remarked that 30% of Japanese high school girls are involved in activities called ‘Enjo-kosai’ (patronage dating). Japanese authorities, including the Foreign Ministry of Japan, got nervous and condemned her reporting until she conceded the figure was actually “13%” (it was revealed that the interpreter misinterpreted 13 as 30 after the conference). She conceded that it was merely based on some wrong sources and made sure that the figure would not be included into the report, which is to be published next March.

I, however, believe that we should pay attention to her later remarks rather than whether the figure was true or false: “Lastly, I would like to encourage the Government of Japan to conduct comprehensive research on the root causes, push and pull factors, scope and impact of the various forms of sexual exploitation of children and the sexual commodification of children, in order to inform effective policy-making and public debates on certain topics, including the issue of manga and anime.”  Although there were some misunderstandings about the principle of law in her speech presumably because she only had seven days to study many complicated issues and communicate with Japanese authorities, I believe we should appreciate the fact that she raised important questions about Japanese people’s indifference to debates on manga and anime from a viewpoint of sexuality.

Before Another "Commodore Perry" Comes Again...

Yes, Japan needs to face the subject seriously. In the early 1990s, when relations between Japan and the U.S. were in a poor state due to trade conflicts, a Japanese pressure group formed by an ordinary family, composed of just three members, began condemning Japanese comics as insensitive and racist, in particular criticizing illustrations of black people in popular manga titles. Major American news media, including CNN and New York Times, reported on the group as a symbol of justice on account of their frustration over Japan, the grand empire of industrial capitalism at that time. The result was that Japanese publishers suspended distribution of many manga titles including Tezuka’s early masterpiece "Jungle Emperor" (also known as "Kimba the White Lion" in the West) until they decide to post cautions on the first page of each volume, noting that they contain controversial content and that because of copyright law, it is objectionable to revise the books because the author was not alive.

In short, the Japanese comics industry showed its ignorance and naiveté to the Western world in the face of foreign media’s one-sided attack in the name of social justice.

I know Japanese Otaku are frustrated with condemnations by foreigners who don’t understand Japanese pop-culture in its own cultural context. However, I think they have no choice now but to analyze Otaku sentiment by asking themselves this: how far can their simple explanations stretch in the face of non-Japanese critics who do not share the same sentiment about Otaku justification for the sexualized manga and anime content? Their explanations are as embarrassing and painstaking an effort as trying to explain in public what kind of sexual fantasies they enjoyed while masturbating. In my humble opinion, at the core of Otaku culture, there is something dark and disturbing which they cannot defend, no matter how much effort they put into refuting criticism from Westerners and non-otaku Japanese.

Last month, I say again, I tweeted about Sound! Euphonium from a viewpoint of pornography .  It was a great honor for me to see a sensational keyword “the metaphor of phallus” (I happened to use it in a tweet) ranked 1st in the Twitter trend ranking of Japan.  I’m very sorry that my humble theory has made many Japanese angry. However, they had better keep in mind that I only conducted a simple, simulated attack by gaijins (Japanese equivalent to “unprincipled Westerners”) who do not share any sentiment with admirers of Otaku culture. Karl Marx said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” How effectively could we conduct a counterattack when an actual attack would come somewhere from overseas against the kingdom of manga and anime? That could possibly be a battle we’d have no chance of winning.  I recall the historical fact that Feudal Japan panicked when Commodore Perry’s fleet appeared in Tokyo Bay without any notice in 1853 in order to shove Western values down throats of the Japanese people.

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KUMI Kaoru is a freelance translator and writer best-known for the highly-acclaimed Japanese translation of Larry Tye’s bestselling book "Superman: The High-Flying History of the Man of Steel." KK is also known for insightful studying on the dark side of the Japanese anime industry, a part of which is soon to be published in AWN.


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