Meet Rokudenashiko, the most 'obscene' comic artist at TCAF

Rokudenashiko, whose real name is Megumi Igarashi, has been battling controversy since 2014 over her art, which includes smiling toy-like sculptures and cellphone cases constructed from real-life moulds.

Artist has battled Japan's legal system over her anatomical work

Japanese artist Rokudenashiko poses with her kayak, made with a 3-D printer using a mold of her vagina. (Courtesy the artist and Koyama Press)

Who is she?

Many people would experience culture shock going from being on trial in a criminal court to being an invited guest at a festival on another continent within the space of a few days, but not Rokudenashiko.

Just days after being found guilty of obscenity charges for her vagina-themed art, the Japanese artist — most famous for creating a 3D-printed kayak modelled after her vagina — landed in Toronto to make an appearance as a featured guest at this year's Toronto Comic Arts Festival and launch her book, What Is Obscenity?, released in English by Toronto's Koyama Press.

Rokudenashiko, whose real name is Megumi Igarashi, has been battling controversy since 2014 over her art, which includes smiling toy-like sculptures and cellphone cases constructed from real-life moulds.

The cover of Japanese artist Rokudenashiko's graphic novel, What Is Obscenity? (Koyama Press)

Back to comics

Rokudenashiko's sculptural work has made international headlines, but with her new book, she's actually returning to her roots of drawing manga. "Rokudenashiko" translates as "good-for-nothing girl." She began using the name as a pseudonym for drawing manga, before her interests shifted to challenging Japanese attitudes towards female genitalia.

"I was finding it very difficult to get paid work [drawing manga]," she says, speaking through interpreter Anne Ishii, who translated Rokudenashiko's book to English and who is assisting with the North American leg of her book tour.

"The work that I do in manga now, it's because I'd gotten arrested and that makes a really good storyline. As long as I have something to say and somebody who's willing to publish it, I'll continue to keep making manga," she says. She's attracted to the "limitless" aspects of both formats, "where there's no rules to the format."

Rokudenashiko's show at Shinjuku Opthalmologist Gallery. (Courtesy the artist and Koyama Press)

Trial is a festival

Igarashi was first arrested on charges of obscenity in Tokyo in July 2014 following a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to 3D print her kayak. That case was dropped after a legal appeal, but she was arrested again in December 2015, with the trial taking place in April and a verdict delivered May 9.

On Monday, the court found her guilty of one charge of distributing indecent material, for distributing the 3D printer files used for the kayak as a reward for contributors to her crowdfunding campaign. She was found not guilty of a second charge of obscenity for her plaster sculptures, which, according to the courts, constituted art.

Going straight from the court to a festival "wasn't shocking, because I think of going to court as a sort of event or a festival, just like this," said Rokudenashiko.

The trial has almost become a part of her art practice. "Everything the police have done has been a form of art process too. For example, they have a $90,000 camera they use to take pictures of my work from every imaginable angle. The pictures they took with this high-tech camera, they had 16 of them printed out and exhibited exactly like you would at a photography exhibition," she says.

A page from Japanese artist Rokudenashiko's graphic novel What Is Obscenity? (Courtesy the artist and Koyama Press)

Where is the kayak now?

Rokudenashiko's famous kayak was confiscated as evidence in her arrest, and currently remains in the hands of the Tokyo police. The kayak is actually composed of two parts – the vagina-shaped top fits over an ordinary kayak.

"The boat wasn't confiscated because it was just too big, they didn't want to lug a huge kayak, but they did take the top, and that's still in police custody," Rokudenashiko says. She's currently fighting to get it back.

Despite the charge of distributing indecent material in the form of the printing file, Rokudenashiko says that nobody has used it to 3D print their own kayak, to her knowledge. She distributed the file as a crowdfunding reward, but also solicited ideas from fans by email for other items that could be printed – the most interesting being an egg-frying pan that would imprint the shape on an egg, although she doesn't believe this person ever printed the frying pan.

A scene from Rokudenashiko's graphic novel What Is Obscenity? (Courtesy the artist and Koyama Press)

Community support

Preparations for Igarashi's book launch and tour have been tense over the past months. As the case went to trial in April, Rokudenashiko's travel plans were left in a state of uncertainty. With the guilty verdict this week, Rokudenashiko received a fine of ¥400,000 – about $4,700 Canadian – but has already submitted an appeal, which she filed the same day the verdict was handed down.

In the period leading up to the verdict, organizers for Rokudenashiko's book tour were unsure what to expect. Ishii started a letter-writing campaign in the winter in support of Rokudenashiko's travel to Canada and the U.S. .

"We knew that she would have problems securing visas to travel," Ishii says. Ishii contacted American free speech organizations, ambassadors, publishers and academics to acquire letters that proved necessary to obtain a visa for Rokudenashiko.

Despite the US Department of Homeland Security's tough stance on visas for travellers with any history of arrests, Ishii says the Canadian visa was actually more difficult to secure, due to a Canadian rule that required court documents from the trial, which weren't available until Monday.

Vagina for Prime Minister

After the trial, Rokudenashiko's next steps are returning to business as usual in her art practice. She runs workshops where attendees can make and decorate colourful plaster casts of their own vaginas. She was advised by her lawyers to refrain from this during the trial, but is excited to start again now that she has been cleared of charges relating to the sculptures.

Japanese artist Rokudenashiko poses in a gallery with her artwork. (Courtesy the artist and Koyama Press)

She's also preparing for an exhibition in July at a Tokyo gallery, the Shinjuku Opthamologist Gallery, where she'll exhibit some newly-returned sculptures along with an interactive installation about freedom of expression, where she'll simulate a mock election before Japan's upcoming election, where viewers can vote or become candidates.

Japanese feelings about vagina-related art are clear from Rokudenashiko's experience. She acknowledges that the country and its art scene still have a ways to go when it comes to feminist art.

"Feminists are loathed by Japanese society in general, but in the arts community specifically, it's difficult even to advertise or promote work as feminist art because galleries don't want to carry it, they say things like 'turnout's going to be poor' or 'it's not interesting to us,'" Igarashi says. "I know a lot of feminist artists who say they've run into a lot of kickback, so a lot of people have to hide the fact that it's feminist art."

Rokudenashiko will be interviewed onstage at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival on Sat, May 14 at the Toronto Marriott Bloor Yorkville Hotel, 90 Bloor E., Toronto at 2:45pm. She will be signing copies of What Is Obscenity? on Sat, May 14 at 1pm and Sun, May 15 at 2pm at the Koyama Press booth on the first floor of the Toronto Reference Library, 789 Yonge, Toronto. Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 10am-5pm. Free to attend.