Monday, 27 October 2008

"That Old Chestnut, Again."

The media rolled out the age-old excuse for the ills of the world again recently—namely violent comics/music/film/any entertainment of any sort—in the recent murder case of English Student, Meredith Kercher, in Italy.

The prosecution in the case highlighted the fact that one of the suspects, Raffaele Sollecito, read violent manga (namely Blood: The Last Vampire), implying that he got the idea to kill from a comic.

The Sky News website ran an article that teniously tried to link manga with murder rather unconvincingly, but did give anime/manga/Japanese culture expert Helen McCarthy good room for a rebuttal. However, there was not enough room to print her whole email, discounting the Press' insinuation that the majority of people are weak, feeble-minded sociopaths waiting for the media to tell them how to kill someone. I've reprinted the the statement below, with Helen's permission, as I think it is one of the most concise, erudite, and convincing counter-arguments to the press' continual insistance that violent media breeds a violent society:

"Oh my, this old chestnut again! Ever since David Steel went into a tizzy and The Indepedent did a sensational (and inaccurate) rant in the '90s, Japanese animation and comics have had to carry a mythology that has more to do with us than with Japan.

The argument always hinges on the same issue: finding excuses for our own innate violence and lack of self-control so we don't have to face up to the fact that all human beings, ourselves and our children included, are capable of terrible things.

I can't accept the excuse that "He/she was a nice American/Italian/English kid before finding this sick (insert preferred red herring.)" Do computer games incite violence? Does rap music, or James Bond? They're more prevalent in Western culture than manga. I expect that the suspects also had in their possession other books, possibly some computer games, certainly different kinds of music. Most of the European and American stuff would be things the prosecutor's - and jury's - own children might have in their possession, so it's important to find something that marks out this person as different. The Japanese still carry a heavy load of iconography from World War II in European and American minds, so they're an easy target.
Yes, manga - by which I mean Japanese comics - definitely have negative associations in the UK, starting in the early 1990s when there was quite a bit of negative press around Japanese animation, then erroneously labelled 'manga' by association with the label that issued many of the early British releases, Manga Video. Strangely enough, at that time and since there was widespread knowledge in Italy of Japanese comics, many of which were translated into Italian and available alongside local comics. So one wonders whether previous Italian murder trials have made the link with manga, and if not, why not, since they've been available there for years. (Maybe the particular title found in the suspect's possession was in English, or French, or one of the many other languages into which manga are often translated.)

Of course, this could be due to the fact that Japan is still widely perceived as an alien culture. That's a very backward-looking view and also carries disturbing racist overtones, but it's there, so it needs to be acknowledged.
Am I concerned that violence and rape in manga could inspire a susceptible individual? No. I know that imagery can inspire thoughts of how it would feel to do x or y, but that doesn't mean imagery compels people to go out and do x or y. If I thought in that way, then given the amount of casual violence and sexual crime in the average British early evening soap opera or drama, I'd be too scared to venture outside my own door. Some manga are violent and sexist. So are some films, TV shows and computer games, and these are more likely to be my role models since they all show people of my own race, and sometimes my own gender and age group, getting their kicks from violence. None of this takes away my own responsibility for my actions, however much I might protest that "
Grand Theft Auto made me do it."

If a murder is linked with manga, fans will probably react the same way they have when this has happened in the past. Some won't see what it has to do with them, some will be very distressed, and some will come under social and parental pressure to reconsider their choice of reading so as to conform with the group idea of what 'normal people' do and don't do. Most, I imagine, will feel very sorry for the victim, because most people - regardless of how they dress or what they read - are basically sympathetic human beings.
Very few distributors order in manga from Japan because very few people in the West read Japanese. Most distributors order from one of the network of companies that publishes this material in English. Some even publish manga-inspired comics by Europeans, Americans and other Asians.

Now, there's a thought - maybe the 'manga comic' in the suspect's possession was actually a Western-authored title in manga style. If that's so, the suspect may have been inspired to murder by what non-Japanese think manga should be.

My own thoughts? Some people kill other people. Blaming other cultures and their artforms won't help us find out why it happens or stop it happening again.

- Helen McCarthy"

If it was truly the case—that media causes violent behaviour—then thousands of children would have been beating each other over the head with frying pans after watching a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Recent evidence has actually proved to the contrary with a report—Does Cartoon Violence Beget Aggressive Behaviour in Real Life? An Opposing View—being published by Professor Alison Schwartz stating that "The current belief is that violence depicted in television programmes, particularly cartoons, has a negative impact on young children's behaviour. We found that not to be true... Most pre-schoolers recognise cartoon programmes as make-believe and understand these characters inhabit fictional worlds." This is a universal truth acknowledged by everyone except for extreme right-wingers, Fredric Wertham and attention-grabbing politicians.

"Wake up" - Rage Against the Machine

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