On Graphic Content in Fiction

Yesterday, in reponse to my latest reblog, a few of my friends brought up that Perfect Blue has some scenes that are plain hard to watch.  Another said that I should warn people about the nudity, sexual violence, bloody violence, and vulgarity contained therein.  That last request I hesitated to meet, but here is my content warning for Perfect Blue: it has bloody and brutal murders, a lingerie/swimsuit photoshoot which turns pornographic, a rather disturbing simulated rape scene, and an infamous masturbation scene.  (N. B. The last is non-explicit enough that one might not realize what’s going on–if memory serves me right–in that five second scene.)  There you have the worst content in the movie.  The question now occurs to me of why was I so loath to write about these details and even angry that they were brought up in regard to Perfect Blue?

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Perfect Blue counts as one of the great masterpieces of anime cinema.  The story concerns a pop idol turned movie star who gradually trespasses moral boundaries.  This and the stress of being in the public eye turns her life into a swirl of confusion where neither she nor the viewer can tell reality from fantasy.  The way Satoshi Kon blends fantasy and reality to create the most surreal anime film ever made counts as its greatest triumph.  (People might say that The End of Evangelion is more surreal, but it’s a terrible movie.)  Almost every anime fan should watch it at some point in their life.  The “almost” derives from the drawback of its graphic content.  So, it requires a certain tolerance on part of the viewer.

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Let me state here that curses, graphic sex, and gory violence are real flaws in the art of storytelling.  They tend to distract from the meaning within the story.  Often, what a movie was really about sticks less in the viewer’s mind than the shocking images they saw.  Fiction has been a standard way of communicating universal truths about the world.  (Cf. Aristotle’s Poetics)  Curses, graphic sex, and gory violence are particular expressions of man’s fallen nature.  Man’s vulgarity, lust, and violence can be conveyed in less unsavory manners.  The actors of Elizabethan England in Shakespeare’s plays refused to curse in public; hence, the exclamation “Zounds!” took the place of “God’s Wounds!”  Also, one does not need to see sex in order to know it happened or the quality of two characters’ relationship.

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Permit me to use random screenshots from this point on.

Realistic violence might deserve separate treatment.  The deadliness and pain of a real sword fight might not have come through in Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal without the sanguine animation.  One might have less of an appreciation for what our veterans suffer if not for the gory wounds in Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge.  But, does this line of thought merely reveal a particular prejudice of mine?  After all, many Europeans have the opposite view: graphic violence is worse than graphic sex.  At any rate, either one detracts from the audience’s focus on the universal truths portrayed in fiction.

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As Aristotle tells us, history is the proper realm for particular truths.  Describing unsavory deeds belongs more to history than to fiction.  I’d read a history which mentioned how King Edward II of Britain died, but I’d avoid a novel with such a scene.  (Or, did King Edward II really die so horribly after all?)  Documentaries and history books tend to less violently affect a person’s psyche than cinema or novels.  Excessive zeal for realism, as in certain of Bernard Cornwell’s novels, can turn people off from a story as easily as a graphic anime.  Even if  it does not delve into the all the horrors of the Hundred Years’ War, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company offers a far better story than Bernard Cornwell’s 1356.

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My main contention is that a writer or director needs to weigh carefully whether to add graphic content to an anime.  It can detract from the message give the impression of the writer or director of being a show-off rather than an author.  (Author derives from the Latin word for authority.)  But, my second message is that some stories are worth watching or reading despite the graphic content.  Thirdly, you should definitely watch Perfect Blue–as long as you have the proper tolerance.

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Yes, I’m avoiding moral questions about graphic content and focusing on the prudential ones.  That will be a topic for another article.  But, what do my dear readers think about graphic content in anime or fiction in general?

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14 comments on “On Graphic Content in Fiction

  1. Gaheret says:

    For me, it can completely ruin the show or the novel. I don´t care about violence, no matter how gross, as long as it is humanized and deals with the pain of the victim so I can share it with him or her: Now and then, here and there is by far my favorite anime and deals with child abuse, bloodsheds and very hard situations, both Solzenytsin´s The Gulag Archipelago and The forty days of the Musa Dagh/Hear the voice by Franz Werfel recreate genocide and men who behave as monsters, Badlands, by María Vallejo-Nájera, leads you through the rape of the protagonist. I feel I´m prepared to walk this paths and come out more human, nearer those who suffer, hopeful. I don´t have a problem either with non-sexual nudity in art or, say, the Song of Songs and its like. But when I detect cruelty or lust in the part of the writer, that is, when I see dehumanization as it happens in pornography and in those violence which is either gratuitous and almost pornographic in nature or presented with the intent of bring desperation (Alan Moore´s Watchmen, for example), I feel disgusted and upset, even mad, and my first impulse is to drop out the entire thing. If for some reason I don´t (for example, if I know that it gets much better or I have to read the book for an assingment), I jump or skip the passage and my enjoyment somewhat decreases…

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    • People are most turned off when they sense a gratuitousness in sex or violence. One ought generally to turn away from these sorts of stories. Difficulty in discernment does come in when the sex and violence seem to add nuances to the story and to draw the viewer in more emotionally. I’m also more lenient of graphic violence used in this fashion than graphic sex: in the ordinary person, the former tends to make one afraid of violence, while the latter can excite the libido in ways that lead to sin. In a normal thinking man, rape or sexual violence is less likely to excite lust than consensual sex; but, man has been especially wounded by the Fall in his sexual appetite, and one would not be surprised if a rape scene later caused a person to think of less abhorrent and, by extension, more dangerous temptations.

      At any rate, the main problem with graphic sex, violence, nudity, and the like is that they tend to cloud the intellect even when they don’t lead to sin. So, it’s better to substitute romance, action (a Jackie Chan movie as opposed to Die Hard), and modest beauty for those three. But, this attitude of mine does not rule out watching an insightful masterpiece like the ones you mentioned or Perfect Blue.

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  2. Your analysis is well-written, and I would agree that such content is gratuitous and distracting. In addition, I consider it a weak writing device. Too much of anything is in poor taste.

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  3. Foxfier says:

    I dislike graphic violence in anime– or anything else, really. Reality is graphic enough.
    I am able to get the idea, but basically rubbing my nose in it in the middle of a story (like the now traditional loving slow-mo pan over the damage) makes me frustrated— I can’t do anything.
    Prefer when they have the characters react so that I know something about them, but don’t try to get extremely graphic. They usually screw it up, anyways.

    This also allows crowning moments of awesome, like Naruto’s Zabuza in season one. (I had to go look up the name.) There’s some blood in the show all and all, but it’s for effect, rather than an attempt to realistically show things. Stylized.

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    • I can see how a scene of destructive and bloody violence can leave one frustrated. It’s probably what the writer intends to get the viewer more emotionally involved. You remind me of a passage in Tom Holt’s “My Hero,” where a hero in a story meets his author in real life. He complains about her putting a flashback in the middle of a scene of general destruction and chaos, so that he was stuck thinking out his reminiscence as people were dying in front of him. All the while, he could not help them!

      Japanese movies and anime seem especially fond of using blood to further involve the viewer or to make a moment stand out. In Sanjuro, plenty of bloodless action happens on screen until the final duel, where the loser gushes blood. My father explained this veritable fountain to me as marking “a master cut.” Very stylized.

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  4. Samuel Howard says:

    You say that we know that sex occurred by what happens after, but how do you show the trust it takes to take off your clothes, and show someone all your flaws? How do you show the moment of strength when a rape survivor talks their lover through continuing, despite the tears?

    A sex scene is really only gratuitous when it’s about the relationship between a corporate entity’s bottom line and the audience’s genitals. Sex itself is part of the human condition, and has it’s own stories to tell, for those who can handle such content without becoming addicted to it.

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    • Particular nuances of a couple’s relationship can perhaps be better emphasized during sex itself. But, these nuances are so small that I do believe that scenes occurring before or after sex, while sleeping in the same bed, or out of the bedroom entirely can portray the feelings and struggles of the couple without detriment. Sexual intimacy is tied to a couple’s emotional intimacy in general, and one expects them to wax or wane together.

      Being able to handle sexual content without becoming addicted to it opens a whole other can of worms. Media, advertisement, and the general zeitgeist strive to keep the public focused on sex to an unhealthy degree. Even without that, very few can look at a sex scene dispassionately. One would either have to be disgusted with sex or have deadened his sexual appetite. Most in the film industry know that and use sex to draw people to watch their films rather than for high-minded purposes. For those reasons, sex in film can and ought to be avoided; but, its not enough to ruin a good movie.

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  5. David A says:

    Viewing graphic content of that type, specially nudity and sex, wouldn’t be much of a problem in a world without concupiscense… but, in that world these movies or shows wouldn’t exist.

    In these situations, there are two things to consider.

    What is an ocassion of sin, and what should be avoided regardless being an ocassion of sin or not. Like pornograhpy, or blasphemy.

    Is possible to show these dramatic situations without actually displaying them? in these productions, the opposite of “show don’t tell”, would be the moral option.

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    • You hit the nail on the head. I think part of the problem with overly graphic content in movies is how divorced the movie is from a theatrical play these days. People want realism to a fault, when they should want a good story more than realistic bloodshed or nudity or sex.

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  6. Luminas says:

    I think that sometimes we can get so paranoid about this sort of thing in fiction that it obscures the real meaning of what is happening, though. Great example? The kidnapping and forced marriage of princesses by evil villains. You have to understand: In the mind of a young child (Unless they’re an unusually unlucky young child), sex does not exist. It isn’t just that a child doesn’t know what sex looks like— It’s that the child has no idea at all what Mommy and Daddy are doing in the bedroom. So rape doesn’t exist. So as far as the kid is concerned, in every case where the villain’s motive has nothing to do with the political arrangement of the thing, the villain wants to marry the princess because he likes her so much that he doesn’t want to be without her. At least to Kid Me anyway, this conveyed Really Questionable Aesops! 😄

    This also can lead to a kind of morbid fascination with what’s been “hidden” from you all these years, and therefore to much worse sin. Teenage boys obsessed with sex and violence, with what they think is the “adult world.” Hiding something from someone can lead them to develop unhealthy relationships with it.

    I figure the deal with man’s fallen nature is…You benefit most from portraying it as it really, truly is. Where it has no place in a universe, don’t portray it. Where it actually has one, show it, or at least don’t try to hide it from your audience. Good shonen shows have ways of showing fights that involve very little blood…That still show how brutal they are. We wouldn’t have a need for these things in gratuitous amounts if they were was shown for what they were, instead of being exaggerated or over-sexualized or hidden. Ever since the Tree in the Garden of Eden, we have been fixated on what is dangerous, or forbidden.

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    • The problem with showing graphic sex is that it tends to erode the virtue of modesty. The normal reaction of a person to sex is shame, and psychologists like to talk about repression and other things related to feeling shame about sex. Yet, a sense of shame also helps a person keep sex within the proper bounds: marriage. Without modesty, it is far easier for a person to fall prey to his appetites and the host of ills concomitant with such falls.

      One Native American tribe has a legend about there being two wolves inside of a human being: one good and one bad or one noble and one base. Which one will win in the end is determined by which wolf a man feeds most. One feels like full nudity and graphic sex have the tendency to feed the base wolf.

      Though, I think that we are generally on the same page of wishing to avoid excessive violence or sex in stories. Alexandre Dumas is my favorite novelist because he shows human nature precisely as it is. At the same time, he can write about nefarious deeds, violence, and sex without resorting to graphic depiction. Would that more film makers and writers could be like him!

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  7. Sindar says:

    That’s an interesting topic. I can see how graphic scenes can be distracting or too powerful, obscuring the actual message the story has. But at the same time, there are so many goals a story can try to achieve, and there are so many ways you can use a graphic content of any sort, so to me it seems impossible to argue that any particular type of content should be regarded with “better avoid it” attitude.

    Perfect Blue is a great example because both the violence and the sexual imagery were used very deliberately, they helped to tell the story. Of course Satoshi Kon could have made it differently. He could have alluded to Mima’s experiences, show it through her emotional responses. Instead he chose to let the audience experience it while Mima’s reactions remained subtle. And by showing the extreme violence brought upon the guys who, for the lack of better words, worked on exploiting Mima’s sexuality, Kon diverted the audience from feeling anger towards them. One of the things the movie talks about is how labeling things as “inappropriate” on moral grounds can deal a real harm. For example, in the eyes of Me-Mania an acted rape scene somehow justified a real rape attempt, and in the eyes of Rumi destruction of Mima’s image of innocence justified an attempt to kill Mima herself. In that sense the graphic imagery helps the audience to appreciate the problem on emotional level.

    To quote you “As Aristotle tells us, history is the proper realm for particular truths. Describing unsavory deeds belongs more to history than to fiction”. But Kon was specifically interested in the boundaries between illusions and reality, including the unsavory parts of the later, and I don’t think Aristotle should stop him there. To be more precise, I don’t think Aristotle view should be taken as an guide to censor or limit the topics we touch in fiction. By the way, I would be grateful if you point me to where I can read that passage in context.

    I’m glad you chose to write about graphic content referencing Perfect Blue. There aren’t that many other anime where an argument defending such content can be made.

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    • Thanks for your insightful comment, Sindar! Since you give me occasion to quote Aristotle, I’ll take the liberty of quoting him at length:

      “It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. The particular is- for example- what Alcibiades did or suffered.” (Poetics: Section I, Part IX)

      I agree that Satoshi Kon used graphic imagery better than most, and much of what I wrote above shows my particular bias against graphic violence and sex because of how film makers tend to employ it. I don’t want people to lump Satoshi Kon in with more vulgar film makers.

      Despite how well Satoshi Kon uses this imagery, using less graphic images would certainly have given it more universal appeal–even just reducing the content to a PG-13 level. We have more copies of Virgil and Horace because educators used them in teaching students Latin. Conversely, we have but fragments of the Satyricon, and the sole surviving ancient manuscript of Catullus was used to plug a wine barrel. So, because people generally view graphic violent or erotic content as undesirable or degrading, I’d say that it’s better to avoid using it in fiction–even though a rare work like Perfect Blue or The Revenant uses it appropriately.

      “One of the things the movie talks about is how labeling things as “inappropriate” on moral grounds can deal a real harm.” It is true that labeling actions as inappropriate means that we hold people who do these actions in less esteem. An actress who routinely participates in sex scenes is seen as a prostitute. But, disapproving of immoral actions has the positive good of driving people away from those actions, even if it has the undesirable effect of making some people hate the sinner in addition to the sin. Certain people may even have the notion of taking the place of judge, jury, and executioner in regard to the sinner, as we see in Perfect Blue; but, these people are crazy. A right-thinking man will pray for dissolute persons, not kill them. The actions of crazy people ought in no way deter others from declaring sound moral opinions. Still, Kon does an excellent job of showing the sick obsession certain individuals have for celebrities.

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