This review contains profane language. 😉
What Is Obscenity? The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist And Her Pussy is a graphic novel (manga) by Rokudenashiko, the Japanese manga writer and artist who was arrested for obscenity over her vulva-shaped kayak. In her book, she documents her arrest and imprisonment as well as the reasons why she began creating this kind of art. She is a brave and rebellious woman with a delightful sense of humor and her book is entertaining and thought-provoking. It’s written in manga style and reads from back to front and from right to left. In addition to her documentation of her life as a rebel artist, it contains information pages about relevant Japanese culture and some photos of her art.
Rokudenashiko, whose real name is Megumi Igarashi, was arrested in 2014 for what was considered a violation of obscenity laws. She had done a 3D scan of her vulva and used that scan to print a vulva-shaped kayak using a 3D printer. She crowd-funded to pay for her creation and as a thank you gift to her donors, she sent each one the 3D scan of her vulva. They can use this digital file to print more objects shaped as her genitals. News of her arrest spread quickly and she now has a fan following around the world. Instead of being just a struggling manga writer she is now a famous “manko artist.”
“Manko” is Japanese slang for female genitals. The translator of her book translated this word sometimes as vagina and sometimes as pussy. I’ve looked at definitions of manko on Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary and apparently this word can mean vagina, vulva, pussy, cunt, or “to fuck.” (It figures that the same word that means vagina also means to fuck. What does that tell you?) Just so you know what we’re dealing with, manko is not a medical term, it’s colloquial and profane, and probably is equivalent to “pussy” in English.
Igarashi started creating “manko art” quite by chance. As she says in her book, she was a struggling manga writer looking for interesting stories to tell so she could advance her career. She was searching on the Internet for pubic hair removal one day and she came across the possibility of vaginal reconstructive surgery. She had never thought of this before and she quickly decided to do it. It seems that she has a rather casual attitude toward plastic surgery. She had no “complex” about her genitals but she thought the experience would make a good story to write about in her manga. Essentially, she got the surgery just for the heck of it and to write about it.
Since she had just gotten a “beautiful new pussy,” (her words, not mine) and since she’s an artist and a quirky character, she decided to make a mold of her genitals. After she created the mold and looked at her plaster vulva, she thought it looked “boring.” A caption in the side of the cartoon says “Would’ve been better with flappy labia, actually.” That was my thought exactly! Maybe if your “new pussy” looks boring, what it actually needed was more labia! (And I’m definitely not trying to put down anyone with naturally small lips. Just saying, you don’t need to cut yours off to make it look “better.”) Since she thought it looked “boring,” she decorated it with flowers and things. Thus, her manko art was born.
A few other people in Japan started noticing her manko art and some women even came to a workshop to make their own. The women in the workshop really loved making art out of their genitals and Igarashi began to see how much she could inspire women with her art. However, she received a lot of negative backlash from people, mostly men, who thought what she was doing was unacceptable. Men’s responses came in two forms: either making vagina art was obscene, or they thought she must be really perverted and wanted random guys to fuck her. It never fails, if a woman appears in public while not hiding the fact that she has a vagina, random men assume that means she wants them to fuck her. (Porn culture! Rape culture!)
Igarashi’s style is not erotic though. Her style is funny, whimsical, cartoonish, and very “pop.” A lot of her designs are consumer products: an iPhone case with a vulva on it, for example. You can see her artwork on her online store and her Tumblr.
My favourite artwork of hers is the diorama where her vulva is the ground and soldiers are fighting over top of it. This feels like a more ‘serious’ artwork to me, and it’s very spot-on. The female genitals are simply the ground that men walk on, and they’re shooting each other over it.
I also like her vulva T-shirt. I would totally wear that.
Her response to getting negative backlash from cranky men was to make more manko art specifically to piss them off. When one commenter said that manko should only be looked at in the dark under blankets, she made a manko chandelier so that it would shine brightly across the room. Ha! When she made her 3D printed kayak, it was because she wanted to make something really big. What she really wants is to make a vulva-shaped vehicle, but since she doesn’t have a driver’s license, she made a kayak, which she can drive without a license. She really did sail the kayak.
When she was arrested, ten police officers entered her apartment without permission, raided her apartment for “obscene” artwork, and handcuffed her and tied her at the waist. Ten police officers to arrest a small, unarmed, female artist! Her excellent sense of humor and her gift of storytelling really come through when she describes her arrest. The police kept picking up art objects and asking her what they were. Nearly every time they asked, she said “it’s my manko,” and they were shocked that she would say this word out loud. She started finding it so funny that she began deliberately using the word as often as possible. There is one cartoon where it’s just a picture of her surrounded by speech bubbles, and each speech bubble says “manko.” That one really had me laughing. The idea of her being raided by the police for obscenity and saying “manko” as often as possible is so hilarious and the way she describes it is just adorable. She kept this up when in prison and in court. Every time she was allowed to make a statement, she said “manko” as often as possible just to piss them off. She even got them to read it back to her during times when they had to read her statement, which made them uncomfortable but amused her.
In her book, she initially draws herself as a person, but eventually she starts drawing herself as a large cartoon vulva, with eyes and a mouth and always a relevant facial expression. I get the impression like she felt it was her vulva that was getting in trouble with the authorities.
Igarashi has identified that there is a double standard in Japan with regards to genitals. It’s fine to mention the penis but it’s taboo to mention the vagina. In addition, men have no problem with porn but they have a problem with vulva art created by women. To really illustrate how far the double standard goes, there is actually a festival in Japan that celebrates the penis. Check this out on Wikipedia:
“The Shinto Kanamara Matsuri, (“Festival of the Steel Phallus”) is held each spring at the Kanayama Shrine in Kawasaki, Japan. The exact dates vary: the main festivities fall on the first Sunday in April. The phallus, as the central theme of the event, is reflected in illustrations, candy, carved vegetables, decorations, and a mikoshi parade. The Kanamara Matsuri is centered on a local penis-venerating shrine.”
So it’s okay to have a parade where a big, tacky, ugly steel penis is rolled down the street, but if a woman makes a mold of her vulva, she needs to be arrested by ten police officers and thrown in jail.
Igarashi says some feminist things in her book and in her interviews, although she says she doesn’t necessarily call herself a feminist, and she is definitely a liberal, not a radical. She simply identifies a double standard and an unfairness toward women but she doesn’t theorize about patriarchy or name women as an oppressed class of people.
Of course, I have some theories about women as an oppressed class of people. There are lots of men who lose their shit when women try to represent their own genitals in art. It’s not just the men in Japan. Men in all parts of the British Empire have been losing their shit over vulva cupcakes in recent years. When women simply represent a vulva in their arts and crafts and name the vulva as a female body part, men believe they are being subjected to violence or obscenity, and they immediately shut down the female artist. This has to do with male supremacy and male ownership over women’s bodies. We know that men don’t have a problem with porn—they only have a problem with women’s artwork. That’s because men love depictions of women’s genitals when those depictions are created by men for men and when they represent men’s ideas of what women should be. What they don’t like is when women represent ourselves as we want to be represented. That challenges our status as a subordinated class—it makes us seem like autonomous human beings, and that terrifies men. The reason men shut down vulva cupcake parties and arrest female artists for “obscenity” is because those women are insubordinate, and they need to be taught their place. Our genitals are not for us to own or for us to name and describe or for us to represent in art—they’re for men to use as they see fit. Men can represent our genitals in porn, they can get surgery on themselves in order to wear a fake version of our genitals, and they can use our genitals in real life, through rape, incest, prostitution, and marriage, for their own purposes and against our will, but god forbid we actually take control and name them as our own.
Igarashi’s goals are liberal, not revolutionary. She wants to piss off anyone who doesn’t like the word “manko” by saying it over and over and she wants to make female genitals “more pop and accessible,” through the promotion of vulva-shaped cartoonish consumer products. (And speaking of her being liberal, her book makes references to “designated female at birth” and “cisgender women.” I’m not sure if the sparklegender ideology has made its way to Japan or if it was just her English translator, who is American, who wrote it that way.) It appears that her end goal is just to destigmatize female genitals. I applaud this goal; however, I would like to go even further and liberate the female sex class from oppression. This involves not only destigmatizing our genitals but also creating material changes that allow women everywhere to gain control over our own bodies, so that we can control when and how we reproduce, how we express our sexuality, and how we are viewed and represented in culture.
I was really happy to read this book. I devoured it in a couple of days, I laughed with delight all the way through, and I thought about the significance of vulva art. The fact that she’s a liberal feminist doesn’t stop me from loving her art and wanting to support her future work. I hope she does end up making that vulva-shaped vehicle.