Japonism of the 21st Century – Eroge is Culture too! (Part Two)

“Dirty” Cultures Swept Under the Rug

It isn’t only the old things, Japan also tends to reject cultural activities that relate to certain themes. These include creations that have strong political themes or violent scenes, but especially “ero” (the Japanese short for eroticsm) is especially well-known.
Those that are accepted as artistic expression in other places may not be treated in Japan as such, and may even be rejected from art museums and centers of research or preservation. This is in a country where adult magazines are placed on the shelves of convenience stores at every corner. An absolutely baffling situation from the perspective of a Frenchman.
The recent “Shunga” (春画, Ukiyo-e with erotic themes) exhibition is a good example. Shunga is treated as a form of art for its unique expression and is an object of admiration. But in Japan, this form of expression from a century ago is treated more like pornography, a taboo of sorts, rather than a form of art. This makes large-scale exhibitions nearly impossible because of the difficulty of finding sponsors and the fear of complaints. This time, after much difficulty, an exhibition will finally be held in September. At the same time, within the film industry, we have movies like “In the Realm of the Senses”, which haven’t been able to be aired fully in theatres because of their sensitive content.


Shunga Exhibition at Alte Pinakothek in Paris (2014-2015)

“Ero” as Merchandise, “Ero” as Art

Walking around in Shinjuku we can find signboards of brothels and such. At the same time, the shop windows of convenience stores of streets where children often pass by have magazine covers of semi-nude women lined along them. Yet in art museums, cameramen and artists who take their work seriously have their work censored, and movie critics are forced to go to Europe to see certain movies in full. This current situation in a whole is absolutely mind-boggling.
In France, we separate sexual content into merchandise and art, a very clear distinction. Merchandise is kept out of plain sight, but in galleries and similar places, we respect the creators fully to allow for criticism and research. Furthermore, even if something was treated as merchandise, once it has been brought to the realm of art, it will be treated as such from then on, open to admiration and discussion in artistic terms.
We treat this sort of platform as a matter of fact and, of course, sensational works invite their share of criticism. All of that included, this kind of discourse is required for the creation of new works.


One of the Shunga available for viewing at the National Library of France (online digital archive)

Losing Cultural Treasures

Japan hold “common sense” and “order” in high regard, so perhaps art has to be reduced to a position where those can function properly. The preservation of shunga from the Edo period and erotic movies from the 80s have faced resistance because of the taboo on them. Even if we consider other kinds of content, such as products developed as merchandise, or art that has a limited number of audience, or creation that is not recognized as art, the exhibition or research of them is difficult. Game preservation is the ultimate example.
In other countries, games have already been recognized as art and research on the preservation of them has begun. The government and universities of Japan are, slowly but surely, moving towards the same direction, but there is still a strong sentiment that games should not be treated as art. Even Ukiyo-e was originally produced as merchandise. Even some of the works of da Vinci and Bach, whose works are now considered, undeniably, art have some that were ordered, and therefore are merchandise.
If Europeans thought of these as merchandise and not art and discarded them throughout the years, what would be left in our world now? Cultural treasures should not be preserved “after” they are considered a treasure. Japan has lost many of its treasures because of this. It is about time we change this.


The Movie, “Madam Black Rose” (団鬼六 黒薔薇夫人) by Oniroku Dan of Nikkatsu Roman Porno (1978)

Let’s talk about Eroge.

The Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan has announced a consumer game database called the Media Art Database this year. This was a movement to acknowledge games as a part of the culture, along with manga etc., but it excludes information of the eroge of many platforms, including the NES.
I am honestly glad that the country has moved towards accepting games as art but, as with shunga, sexual content being excluded from lists for research and preservation purposes is, I think, wrong. Eroge as a genre is very intriguing as it is unique to Japan and not seen anywhere else in the world. Eroge is different from pornography elsewhere, exhibiting a variety of creative effort, making it display uniquely Japanese characteristics. The eroge of the 80s, especially, did not get introduced overseas because of platform issues. They are so unique and creative that if they were reappraised, I wouldn’t be surprised if an exhibition would be held for it in somewhere in Europe.
Since Japan is exporting anime, manga and other material under “Cool Japan”, they should also do the same for the eroge of the 80s. Instead, they exclude them from their lists and seem to feel a sort of embarrassment of treating eroge as a part of the culture.


The label of the Game “Do Dutch Wives Dream of Electric Eels? ” (1984)

Let’s Act Now, for the Future

Quite often we are told “Don’t tell me you preserve eroge as well” The answer to that is yes we do because we feel that any kind of material may be reviewed in the future and its value rediscovered. More so for material that is ostracized by many other organizations.
I always say that if Japanese games of the 80s degrade and are lost, that would mean they would be erased from history forever. The Japan-made PCs of the 80s only exist in Japan, and the floppy disks from that time are already starting to grow mold and their data are lost. Even if they were made as merchandise, or if they contained erotic content.
These contents are endemic to Japan and are very vulnerable. So Japan should prioritize their protection, shouldn’t they? To entice the world with more Japanese culture, Japan should be cool with preserving and researching erotic content. In that way, Japan can truly be “Cool Japan”. I too love Japan as one of its people, and I will continue to support this country in the field of game preservation so that it can become a cultural power in the world.

Game Preservation Society, Joseph REDON
Translated by Ming TEE

Read part one.

※The copyright of images belongs to their rightful owners.


Japonism of the 21st Century – Eroge is Culture too! (Part One)

The Legend of Zipang

Europeans have had a strong sentiment and respect for Eastern culture since ancient times. We listen enviously to the stories of friends who travel to Japan on vacation. The modesty and sensitivity of the Japanese were a breath of fresh air for boorish Europeans.

The legend of the golden Zipang had been known throughout the western culture since the beginning of the 16th century. But it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century, when the World Expo was held in Paris, that the popularity of Japan exploded. Famous artists like Manet and Van Gogh were mesmerized by Ukiyo-e, while Debussy and others were taken away by exotic melodies. The traditional arts of Japan, such as Ukiyo-e, Noh, and Kabuki, produced many fans amongst intellectuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even now, in the 21st century, many people are still being inspired by them.


Vincent van Gogh, “Almond Blossom” (1890)

“Grendizer”: a New Japonism?

Now, a shamisen placed in front of a Japanese folding screen might make a pretty picture, but there are new aspects of Japanese culture that haven’t been introduced to France in this age of air travel. Yes, that would be anime.

The movie “Grendizer” aired in theaters around in 1978. This was when I was still a child. For whatever reason, the 3rd in the “Mazinger Z” series, which wasn’t even that popular in Japan, was a big hit in France. Even the tv series got aired almost immediately. And with that, the French dubbed version of “Grendizer” was available in the households all over France. Even I, who was a kindergartener then, got so absorbed in “Grendizer” I shouted out the names of Grendizer’s signature moves so much I had to be taught a lesson by my teacher. And actually, “Grendizer” had developed a cult following in France leading to the sales of the French-dubbed version of the movie theme reaching 1.35 million, one of the JASRAC(Japan’s music copyright group)’s best-selling records. By the way, “Grendizer” is known as “Goldorak” in France.


“Grendizer”, the French movie poster

Showa Era Heroes Enter Europe

The popularity of “Grendizer” did not end there. Since “Grendizer” was popular, other works should have the same popularity. And so one after another, Japan’s anime series were dubbed and aired in France. “Candy Candy”, “Captain Harlock” and a variety of other series were among them. “Harlock” was especially popular enough that the creator, Reiji Matsumoto, became a famous figure in France. In fact, his fame sparked a collaboration with Daft Punk in “Interstellar 5555”. In addition to that, “The Mysterious Cities of Gold”, “Ulysses 31” and others were titles which were made in Japan, by request from France, for France airing.

The exporting of heroes and heroines popular with kids in Japan did not end there. It went so far as to include sentai titles that make you think “There’s no way people outside Japan would like this ! “. And yes, even those were big hits for some reason. “Choudenshi Bioman” still comes up as a topic, “Space Sheriff Gavan” was equally popular, “Message from Space: Galactic Wars” is known as “San Ku Kai” and enjoyed nation-wide popularity.


“The Mysterious Cities of Gold”, French label

The Secret to a Hit is the Gaijin Perspective!

Just like how Manet and Van Gogh’s popularity began in France, so did the popularity of the new Japan craze of Showa era anime and sentai titles. There is one thing I would like to emphasize, that is the majority of “cultural exports” of Japan are actually the result of active and enthusiastic importing by the western cultures. These titles are not titles that the Japanese think would sell overseas. It is we, the “Gaijins”, who just thought they were interesting and decided to bring them over.

Today, Japan is using “Cool Japan” as a slogan to export its culture, but it is us, the consumers, the “Gaijins” who actually have an idea about what will sell. What the Japanese consider as “interesting” about Japan, may not necessarily equal to what foreigners consider as “interesting”. If we look at the lineup of anime hits post-1970, we can see that titles that were popular in Japan (Lupin the Third, or Osamu Tezuka’s works) did not get the same reception in Europe. It is those titles that were unpopular in Japan that somehow gained popularity.

The Japonism from a century ago also originated from pieces of Ukiyo-e, which sparked a craze regardless, even in spite of, the evaluation it received in Japan at the time. History repeats itself.

Parts of Culture to “Keep” or to “Discard”

From Ukiyo-e to anime, things that were not regarded that highly within Japan become objects of high-value as an expression of that which is Japanese upon arriving in Europe. This pattern has been repeated over centuries. Items that are generally discarded as things of no value in Japan which are in turn valued by Europeans and kept as art pieces are not uncommon.

Some Showa era anime series have disappeared from Japanese TV studios, whether it is to free up some space or save film costs, and when they want to republish it as DVDs or rerun it on TV, it seems they often reimport it from Europe. A culture that “Discards” used items and a culture which has a sense of duty in “Keep”ing old items, I feel that this might be the difference between Japan and Western cultures.
Europeans feel that anything that is made and enjoyed by people has to be respected and preserved. When one person recognizes something as art, then there is every reason to preserve it as a piece of art. Even if there is no consensus on the value of a piece of art, the act of preserving it for generations to come is essential. Old films, old paintings, and old buildings are all things that people in Europe have preserved over the centuries. These are now the power of the countries in the form of tourism and culture.

Japan replaces the old with the new, and as long as the majority does not identify the cultural value their creations, there will be no action taken to preserve them, especially the originals. The discarding, without mercy, of items that did not have a chance to be acknowledged, whether on its own or as a cultural symbol, is more common than it should be allowed.

Read part two.

Game Preservation Society, Joseph REDON
Translated by Ming TEE