In the West, Shigesato Itoi is best known for the Earthbound series of role-playing games. He might challenge game conventions, but his wife Kanako Higuchi challenged Japanese censorship more, changing it forever.
Itoi is no stranger to the limelight. During the 1980s, Itoi hosted an educational program called "You", but he really made his name decades before as a copywriter, defining the art of Japanese copywriting — something Tim Rogers previously discussed in a column this April. Besides doing the copywriting for over fourteen Ghibli films and publishing several books, he dabbled in voice acting with My Neighbor Totoro and in game design for Nintendo, he occasionally appears on variety problems and he even makes t-shirts.
Two years before this Renaissance Man married actress Kanako Higuchi, she released a controversial photobook that showed her pubic hair — an act that stood up to a century old censorship laws (This wasn't out of character for Higuchi, who previously starred in Manji, a film that followed the steamy relationship between two women). In 1907, Japanese censorship law stated anyone who sold, displayed or distributed "obscene material" would be subjected to a fine and prison time. The law did not specify define what "obscene" was, but especially in the years after World War II, it came to be interpreted as pubic hair. (More info here.)
In the past, Japanese woodblock prints were never known to bat an eyelash in their depiction of sexuality and violence. The century-old censorship laws appear to be in reaction to them as well as to the increasingly vivid novels and essays of the day. But as censorship fell into place, the nether-regions became covered by cleverly placed clothing, or even mosaics. Hence, during the years following the war, any copies of Playboy that entered in Japan had to have the model's pubic hair marked through with a big, fat magic marker. There were rumors that two little old ladies in Tokyo Bay were responsible for this.
"Water Fruit" was published in 1991 and depicted full nudes of Kanako Higuchi. Censorship enforcement relaxed during the heady years of Japan's Bubble Economy, making a book like this possible. The book paved the way for Santa Fe, which featured a much younger celebrity Rie Miyazawa completely in the buff and helped pave the way for the "hair nude boom" of the 1990s. The government now views the genitalia region as up for censorship.
Higuchi's photos were shot by photographer Kishin Shinoyama, who has made a career out of creating art out of the "obscene". Shinoyama is one of Japan's most famous photographers, best known for the iconic Double Fantasy album cover and a lifetime of nude stills. His work is often controversial, evident in a police raid last year. It was Shinoyama who photographed an underage Chiaki Kuriyama in 1997, creating controversy and a best seller. "At that time," Kuriyama told me during an interview for Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, "Shinoyama was the most famous person I had ever met."
Higuchi has not left the spot light — neither has Itoi, making an appearance in the newly release film Norwegian Wood, based on the book by his friend Haruki Murakami. In recent years, Higuchi's graceful and classy looks have enabled the 50-something actress to appear in a whole slew of commercials that range from camera and cell phone ads to skin cream and make-up. Yet, in the early 1990s it was Higuchi who helped Japan redefine what exactly is obscene and what isn't.
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