Like many other people both inside and outside of Japan, the work of artist and activist Rokudenashiko (the pseudonym of Megumi Igarashi) was brought to my attention following her arrests in 2014 on charges of obscenity. Rokudenashiko is a self-described manko (pussy) artist, challenging preconceived notions and taboos surrounding female genitalia by creating clever, fun, and silly sculptures incorporating realistic molds of vulvas as well as designing Manko-chan, a cute anthropomorphized pussy. One of Rokudenashiko’s responses to being arrested was to create the manga What Is Obscenity? about her experience. It was originally serialized in the Japanese political magazine Weekly Friday in 2014 before being collected in a single volume along with other material in 2015. The English-language edition of Rokudenashiko’s comic memoir, subtitled The Story of a Good for Nothing Artist and Her Pussy, was published by Koyama Press in 2016 thanks in part to the editing, translation, and production efforts of the fine folks behind Massive Goods.
In 2013, Rokudenashiko successfully crowdfunded a project to create a kayak molded from a 3D scan of her genitals. One of the rewards given to some contributors of the campaign was a downloadable vector file of the scan which she encouraged others to use to make their own artwork. In July 2014, this file along with her artwork and other personal belongings were used as evidence to support the obscenity charges that were brought against her. Rokudenashiko was arrested and jailed for a week before being released only to be arrested and indicted again in December of that year. She continues to fight the charges in court and her trial process is currently ongoing, although a judgement on her case is scheduled to be pronounced on May 9, 2016.
What Is Obscenity? collects two short series of autobiographical manga—”What Is Obscenity? How I Became a So-Called Artist” about Rokudenashiko’s first arrest, her time spent in jail, and the immediate aftermath and “Why I Became a Manko Artist” which relates the story of how she almost unintentionally became an activist and started creating pussy-related artwork. Adorable illustrations of Manko-chan are found throughout the volume and “This Is My Story,” a short full-color manga about Manko-chan, is featured as well. The English-language edition of What Is Obscenity also includes additional material such as an introduction by Rokudenashiko, examples of her sculptures and artwork, color photography, cultural notes, and an excerpt of a discussion between Rokudenashiko and the controversial film direction Sion Sono.
Freedom of expression, and especially freedom from governmental censorship, is something that I am very passionate about. One of my particular focuses in the various copyright and intellectual property law courses I took in graduate school actually happened to be obscenity law which, as in the case of Rokudenashiko, can be used to attempt to silence and punish artists and other creatives as criminals and which are notoriously inconsistent in their application. But Rokudenashiko isn’t allowing herself to be silenced. Her arrest and trial, as well as her willingness to publicly fight the obscenity charges, made not only national but international news. This has given her a larger platform that has allowed her to bring even greater attention to the absurdity of the systemic injustice of a society that objectifies the bodies of women while at the same time treating them as something shameful and obscene. I greatly and sincerely admire her work and efforts; what Rokudenashiko is doing is incredibly important both artistically and socially.
One of the things that makes Rokudenashiko so remarkable is that even in the face of infuriating and intimidating circumstances she is able to retain an outwardly upbeat, bright, and strikingly personable attitude which is then reflected in her work. Even while dealing with some fairly serious issues, What Is Obscenity? is sweet and charming with a wonderful sense of humor and art to match. As with much of Rokudenashiko’s work, What Is Obscenity? can be silly and fun, though many of the events portrayed were probably not nearly as funny while she was actually living through them. Her experiences, everything from the utter lows of personal and family troubles and the jail time caused by her artwork to the immense joy sparked by the unflagging support of her friends and fans, are recounted with a cheeky candidness that makes her story and the subject matter approachable and entertaining while still getting her message across. With its gentle humor and creative cuteness, What Is Obscenity? and the rest of Rokudenashiko’s work is subversively powerful, inspiring, and empowering.