Rokudenashiko is a Japanese artist who followed her muse into legal and social strife, all documented in her newly translated graphic novel, What Is Obscenity? The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist and Her Pussy.
Yes, Rokudenashiko (real name Megumi Igarashi) makes what can be politely called "vagina art," while her moniker for it in Japanese (manko art) packs a more titillating punch due to the use of a highly colloquial, somewhat profane word for female genitalia. And then there's the matter of the art itself, which involves creating moulds of her own vulva to make cutesy phone covers, a chandelier and, most famously, a working kayak. In case it needs saying, the representation and reproduction of her own private parts is a clear transgression in Japanese society of what is socially acceptable.
Turns out it is legally unacceptable, too. In July, 2014, Rokudenashiko's home was raided by police. She was arrested and jailed a week for violating obscenity laws, which do not clearly define what is considered obscene.
In May, 2016, a Japanese court found her innocent on charges of obscenity but guilty of distributing digital data of indecent material (the result of e-mailing 3-D images of her own vulva). She plans to appeal.
In photos and in person, Rokudenashiko portrays a vivid, cartoonish Japanese schoolgirl image, flashing V signs and always, always a sunny smile. But her chirpy image seems to contrast the deep artistic temerity it takes to challenge a world that places great value in protecting gender behavioural norms. And this juxtaposition challenges our Western assumptions of what a strong artist, and person, looks like.
What Is Obscenity documents a stripped-down self-reflection of thoughts so private that it's many times more revealing than a straight-up likeness of what's in our pants. And in telling her tale of creating manko art, and going to jail for it, she charts the social cost of challenging the deep taboo of our own most private places.
Rokudenashiko was in Toronto recently for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. The interview was translated by American writer and editor Anne Ishii, who translated and co-edited the English version of Rokudenashiko's book.
From what I've read, you first approached your manko art with lightness, like it was a joke. After everything you've been through, what's your relationship with your manko art now?
I did actually start this work with a lightness because it was something I thought would be fun. Going with the flow and going with what I felt like doing. The very first iterations of my manko art, I'd show to my close friends and they would be like, "What is this plaster, weird, decoupage stuff?" and I would say, "It's my pussy." And everybody was like, "What?" Shocked but also delighted. And my friend who is a writer said I should post it online. That's how you will get more work as a mangaka [a professional cartoonist]. But soon as I posted it, I just got so much negative feedback. I was bullied by a lot of people.
There was so much bashing and it was precisely because I was being antagonized that I needed to make more art. I thought, this seems ridiculous. Why is the word manko so contentious? Then I was doing more work online and I was just bashed more and it levelled off every time, the seriousness of the antagonism and the seriousness of my work. So it did become serious. And the last stage of this is the police arresting me, of course, which was very serious, but I actually think it couldn't not become serious because it inspired so much hate and negative reaction, especially from older men. Older men would come to these shows sometimes and expect erotic vagina art, and then be really disappointed, like, "What is this?" It's this, whatever this is. So yeah, I had no choice but for it to become a serious thing.
Previous to starting on this whole manko odyssey, did you identify as feminist?
No, I didn't identify as feminist per se. But, starting manko art, I was married at the time and I did notice in the process of getting married and how that changed my relationship to the world as a wife versus as a woman. It became obvious to me that there's a huge gender discrimination going on. Now if I were drunk in public, my husband would get flak for it, like, "Why is your wife drunk in public?" Whereas if a guy gets really rambunctious, you would just talk to the guy or not at all. That's just one really clear example where a woman isn't allowed to be out there and be obnoxious and drunk or whatever but men are allowed to do that and it's their privilege and for us it's an onus. So I noticed there was an imbalance of appreciation that women are being objectified by men. It was this lens of marriage that called it to my attention.
Considering all the bullying and bashing, as your comics were unfolding in Japan, how did you feel about doing it all over again in English?
I'm just so used to being bashed at this point.
In the book, you talk about your fury and depression but in any photo I see of you, you look so carefree, lively and happy. Do you ever show your anger in public?
I got pretty nasty when I was in prison. I was not smiling.
I think that the fact that all of this stems from the word "pussy" is completely ridiculous and it makes me laugh every time. And then I get mad but then I remember and I laugh all over again. It's just so stupid.
I mean, these are policemen and they're losing their shit over manko. It's like, are you serious? There are so many other problems going on and this is what you're losing your head over?
Do you think you and your critics exist in a symbiotic opposition?
Yeah, absolutely. You needed the bashing for the art to get better and the art to make them angry, gives them something to do. But I absolutely agree, the anger is really the seed of a lot of this work.
Where in the world have you been where you felt like the reception to your art was different from the Japanese reception to your art?
Before I was arrested, there was a Dutch TV program that interviewed me and they expressed interest really early on so that was kind of cool, but then again, the show was like, "Check out these weird people from around the world doing weird things," so the approach was already a little bit funny. But then I did hear a lot of reaction from people in the international community after the arrest. "You're being arrested for what? For this? That's what's causing a scandal?" So that sort of incredulity from the rest of the world has been super-enlightening. I feel like the international community takes my art seriously. They say, "Oh yeah, that's feminist art." Like, duh. Whereas in Japan, it's still considered gross or weird or funny at best. People don't take it seriously, no matter how hard I try to explain what it is and my mission. They can't get past, "This is gross."
You've done a kayak, a book, videos, a chandelier, phone cases. What's next?
I want to make a manko car [laughs]. A whole new meaning of pussy-mobile. But I don't have a driver's licence.
This interview has been edited and condensed.