Monday, August 01, 2011

The penis mightier than the mosaic

The Japanese cinema-going public may be exposed to as much ultraviolence as filmmakers can throw at them on a regular basis, but they must be protected at all cost from glimpses of genitals, even in a non-sexual context. This bizarre situation has continued for decades and is frustratingly (or rather resignedly) accepted as the status quo by distributors and audiences alike, with the exception of the odd minor online uproar over particularly egregious examples such as the squiggly scribbles that concealed a crucial shot in the Japanese release of “Let the Right One In”, or the overzealous digital mosaics that robbed “Jackass 3D” of much of its humor.

However, a recent police decision has opened the possibility that a certain Hollywood film could become an unlikely touchstone for censorship reform. Asai Takashi of distributor Uplink gave an overview of the issue on his blog.
Currently, an uncensored version of Warner Brothers' “The Hangover Part II” is being screened with an R-18 rating exclusively at Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills. Other cinemas are playing an R-15 version.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) National Police Agency (NPA) carried out an investigation over whether this screening in Roppongi falls under Article 175 of the Japanese Penal Code regarding the display of obscene material.

The point of contention was a scene in which the film's main characters are having a wild time at a nightclub in Thailand, and the male genitals of transgendered club staff can be seen in three places.

As a result of an investigation of Tokyo Customs, the Film Classification and Rating Committee (Eirin), and Warner Brothers, the MPD decided not to prosecute. The reason was apparently that the scene in question was not a still image, and that the film was on the whole a comedy rather than a predominantly erotic work.

First of all, this film passed customs inspection, so Tokyo Customs do not regard it as obscene material. The state has determined that it is not obscene.

It was then inspected by Eirin, the film industry's self-regulating body, and as it was released with the most prohibitive rating possible of R-18, so there is no legal issue whatsoever.

It could be said that the MPD's decision not to pursue criminal prosecution was a proper one, and if it had gone through with it, Tokyo Customs would also have had to be prosecuted as one of the parties involved, and as Tokyo Customs is an arm of the state, the MPD would have effectively been prosecuting the state as a criminal.

Although it refrained from pursuing the case, the MPD has called for Warner Brothers to blur the genitals in the scene in question for the DVD release, as minors would be able to watch it as a still image, but this request has no legally binding force.

However, as many rental outlets display R-18-rated films separately from those for general viewing, selling an uncensored R-18 version would be a viable business option from the manufacturer's perspective.

Recently, customs have been clearing films with shots where male genitals are visible but not erect, such as bathing scenes, although this is not the case with depictions of sex.

I was told by a newspaper reporter that the MPD apparently decided not to prosecute in light of the Supreme Court's ruling regarding a book of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. They must have judged that taking the case to court would only result in defeat.

I'm all for removing blurring from films, and I spent ten years fighting the Mapplethorpe case in court, so if that ruling played a part in the case not being pursued, I couldn't be happier.

It is my hope that Japan Customs and distributors will refrain from exercising self-censorship in future as a result of this development.
This Tokyo Shimbun article claims that soon after the uncensored version began screening at Roppongi Hills, the MPD had received a complaint from some meddling prude about the unobfuscated tackle on display, which supposedly sparked their investigation.

As for Warner Brothers, they could only offer a feeble “No comment” in response to Tokyo Shimbun's inquiry about the issue, despite their laudably defiant act of unleashing unbowdlerized todgers on the ticket-buying public. Whether this will catalyze a change in the ridiculous censorship that has plagued film in Japan for decades remains to be seen, but it does inspire hope that one day the powers that be will trust the good citizens of Japan not to transform into lust-crazed rape monkeys at the sight of a furry dong or two.