Life is much easier for artists who don’t even think of venturing into obscenity. As popular as pornography is to the masses, so too is the public sentiment of moral outrage. Opinion columns, comment threads and social media echo chambers will never cease to be free of reams of outbursts against the latest film that went too far, or how a certain video game has sexual content that isn’t completely consensual between the characters. What is permissible in fantasy seems too often down to what people will be willing to shout about, rather than the taboos in question being examined with care.
The forces of censorship acting on different forms of media – books, film, television, anime, video games, online spaces – are not disparate: they are connected by common threads of government pressure and moral panic expressed by the public. Those who choose to perform thorough research on the value of prohibiting the sale of ‘obscene’ films, images and video games are more often deemed suspect rather than significant. But while lines of acceptance can be easy to draw for one’s self, drawing them for a community requires an appreciation of everything that’s at stake.
Public pressure on works deemed ‘immoral’ can have unexpected consequences. In 2015, an artist called Zamii received torrents of abuse for having drawn certain characters incorrectly, in manners that were racist, sexist and ‘fatphobic’ according to other users of the platform. After posting about ‘going to sleep forever’, she went dark for a few days, and returned to Tumblr with a video of herself at a hospital: she had attempted suicide due to her harassment. Those who had attempted to erase her work and livelihood on the site came close to taking so much more from her, all for the cause of censoring what they deemed obscene.
Sometimes the evasion of one obscenity can encourage creators to simply seek out another. Because horror manga Urotsukidōji and its anime adaptation used tentacles in their erotic scenes, their creators were able to avoid issues with the prohibition of the display of pubic hair under Japanese law until 1991. Early lolicon hentai OVAs such as Lolita Anime also avoided penalization under this law by sexualizing children instead of adults. Indeed, the display of a cartoon child being raped was deemed more acceptable than simply showing a part of the human body.
Scenes of non-consensual sex have always been problematic for creators, publishers and audiences. In 2009, Illusion’s 3D eroge Rapelay was at the center of a controversy regarding Japan’s jurisdiction on obscene media. While some stories employ rape as a device for plot or character development, to various extents of value, RapeLay was primarily a work of interactively pornography that facilitated a fantasy of non-consensual sex. It was a rape simulator, and so it caused concerns that it was teaching impressionable men the wrong ideas about the opposite sex. Part of the goal of the game, after all, was to make the women you violated ‘enjoy’ the experience.
Amazon’s decision to remove the game from sale following pressure from the British Parliament is understandable, but should media of this kind be rendered entirely inaccessible via legal means? Writing for The Escapist, Andy Chalk drew attention the rape-filled media Amazon is still happy to stock, such as Forced Entry. He also emphasized that:
the difference between an AO sticker and an outright ban can look pretty slim, but the bottom line is that an Adult Only game can still be legally sold and purchased by anyone 18 years of age or older. Adults still get to choose.
‘Choose’ is the key word here. Unless you find yourself subject to a sadistic Clockwork Orange-style experiment, no-one is going to force you to watch Forced Entry or any film like it. As long as media isn’t banned, your decision not to interact with it is your own – your moral agency remains your own. The prohibition of the sale of obscene stories tells consumers that the government can’t trust them to draw a line between fantasy and reality. Consequentially, for those who can draw such a line, the attraction towards the taboo media will often only become stronger.
This season, Sword Art Online was another victim or the moralistic cutting-room floor. Viewers began to complain when comparisons between the raw episode and the version streaming in the US showed that a lot of tampering with a rape scene had taken place. This wasn’t your usual beams of light covering the naughty bits: the screen repeatedly cut to black in a manner that effectively increased the tension of the scene, and may have made it even harder to watch. Industry-focused Youtuber TheCanipaEffect began to protest against these complaints, tweeting that:
‘if your hardline stance against censorship also involves wanting to see a more detailed rape scene of a minor, maybe re-evaluate that hardline stance?’.
Amidst the debate that followed, he clarified that he believed the scene shouldn’t have been animated at all. This is ultimately a realistic angle: if Western streaming platforms were never going to be allowed the full scene in the first place, then consistency could have been reached through a creative decision to bypass the scene. But since the staff worked on animating the ‘detailed rape scene’, it’s dangerous to advocate that moral pressure should be allowed to erase their work. It would be more productive for all audiences if both a censored and an uncensored version could be accessible from the streaming service.
With the effect of ‘Cool Japan’ remaining in the bloodstream of Western media, the counter to the ‘weird’ side of this soft cultural power has been this rising trend of ‘cleansing’ Japanese media of its apparent moral wrongdoings as it’s imported. Earlier this year, Crunchyroll landed themselves in hot water after they removed a ‘touching’ feature from their release of DanMachi Memoria Freeze, as the developers doubled down once players began to complain.
“The “touching” feature was removed from the English version of the game, yes. Not as a matter of censorship or depriving non-Japanese audiences of anything, but due to what is appropriate and not appropriate for English audiences. Hope that answers your question!”
A decision was somehow made that, by the virtue of being ‘English’, one audience had to have less of the game than another. Crunchyroll believed that its audience lacks the moral caliber to decide for themselves what they do or do not want to play. The mode that Crunchyroll removed was entirely optional, a bonus feature for fans who wanted a particular kind of fanservice, and arguably fitting for the source material for the game. Removing parts of scene everyone has to sit through in an anime is one thing, but removing the option to have some ‘immoral’ fun in a game is another. If the mode was left in, players who wanted to feel they were taking a moral high-ground could actively choose to ignore the mode. With Crunchyroll’s decision, that choice is made for the player, and only Crunchyroll can claim superiority.
It’s also important to note that Crunchyroll took a slimy approach as complaints continued to rise: since the trailer for the game had displayed the ‘touching’ feature being available in the Western release, some customers began to file complaints to the Federal Trade Commission. Crunchyroll removed the trailer to cover up the fact they had falsely advertised their product.
Crunchyroll’s decisions regarding Sword Art Online and DanMachi Memoria Freeze may have been more a symptom of government pressure than a sign of the attitudes of their own staff. The gulf that lies between the attitudes of Western and Japanese governments regarding sexual content in media frequently results in fans of anime, manga and Japanese video games being treated as though they do not have the maturity to think for themselves when it comes to obscene fantasies: it seems that Japan believes they do, while their own government thinks they don’t. Saito Tamaki, a researcher who has conducted extensive work on studying otaku and their sexualities, has argued that because Western governments refuse to appreciate the distinction between the real and the virtual as otaku do, they are in fact less mature than the people they claim are suffering from immaturity (Azuma, Saitō and Kotani 2003: 182).
While many fans are speaking up and trying to lessen the differences between how different governments respond to obscenity in virtual media, one company is applying another form of change – pressuring Japanese creators to fall in line with the moral panic of the West.
Senran Kagura: Burst Renewal saw its PS4 release delayed after Sony Interactive Entertainment demanded that the publisher removed a mode than allowed you to fondle characters from the game without their consent. This wasn’t a new feature for the series, but rather a series staple, and the PS4 releases of Estival Versus and Peach Beach Splash had both included the mode. It’s hard to comprehend Sony’s thought process regarding their recent stamping-out of sexually problematic material in games published on their platform, when they already host games with those features. What are they going to do about prior releases for which they permitted this kind of content?
Sony’s only consistency with their new policies is the effect they’ve had on Japanese developers publishing in their own country. The studio behind Dies irae: Amantes amentes, Light, recently shared the struggles they’ve had with getting their new Visual Novel Silverio Trinity released on PS4:
“Right now Sony seems to be moving toward disallowing ports of ages 18 and up titles worldwide. And this games is ages 18 and up, so it’s being subjected to a very strict inspection, and we’re getting all these questions. And like ‘Please write everything in English.’ So we’re in the middle of answering those now, and we’re not sure if we’ll get approved or not. It’s terrible, but in any case, development is done.
“So internally it’s complete, but there are things we can’t do without connecting to Sony’s servers, like Trophies. So everyone is like, ‘When will we be able to add Trophies?’
“And we have a guy who is in charge of translating everything into English and sending it to Sony, but it’s like, ‘Don’t you guys understand Japanese?’ At present we’re thinking we can release early next year if it passes Sony’s inspection… And if Sony says no, then I guess we’ll just find somewhere else to put it.”
Sony’s efforts to avoid exposing its playerbase to certain kinds of sexual content have magnified them instead. Without intervention, the niche audience for Light’s work would have enjoyed Silverio Trinity and the playerbase the game was never intended for would have never cared about the game’s existence. If Light do have to find ‘somewhere else to put it’, it’s likely that even more players will pick up the game. An 18+ experience that’s been subject to censorship is more tantalizing than one that hasn’t had anything get in the way of its release.
A dangerous trend has been set by Sony Interactive Entertainment this year, and as long as other companies like Crunchyroll are acting similarly the gulf between publishers and audiences will only widen when it comes to obscene media. There needs to be a more open conversation about what’s being banned and why, as the increasing globalization of Japanese media will expose the West to more and more ‘immoral’ anime and video games as the years go by.
If we ban something, we need to have clear, exact and research-led reasoning as to why. Censorship can’t be founded upon fear and skepticism. In too many cases, the restriction of an audience’s ability to see or play something as it was initially released in another country only results in the censor giving themselves a moral pat on the back: a brighter spotlight is shone on the ‘obscenity’ that was removed, because you can’t escape people’s ability to discuss things online. When government pressure has been involved, each incident should serve as a reminder that we can’t be passive when it comes to seeing the obscene media we love be blacked out because Big Brother thought we wouldn’t be able to handle it without becoming criminal. We need to speak up wherever possible about the need for companies to be consistent, and ruling bodies to make their decisions from positions of sound research.
Otherwise, it’ll only get harder and harder for creators to find room to properly express themselves. Tumblr recently banned pornography from being hosted on its platform, and users conducted a mass exodus as a result. What happens when no corporate social media platform is willing to support the sharing of smut? The obscene is essential to human civilization, and we can’t just close our eyes to that fact. We should simply close our eyes to what we don’t want to see, and let that be our own individual choice. One adult should never decide what’s too obscene for another.
Hoping you’ll have an awesome and censorship-free 2019! This will be the last UEM! post of this year, and I want to thank those who have been supporting the growth of this blog. Astralius Kard, Ethereal311, JeckyllGeek, Kwan Yuk Sing, Shadow Sneak and Yukino, you’re all amazing. You give me a lot of hope for the future.
UEM! can keep becoming better in 2019, and you can make a huge difference by supporting the blog via Patreon. A Patron-only podcast is coming soon!