I think a lot of people in my generation go to Japan for the first time expecting everything to be covered in images of anime characters. In some places, like Denden Town in Osaka, the convenience stores in Ikebukuro, and of course Akihabara, this perception is more or less true to reality. However, the vast majority of the street scene in any given place in Japan is devoid of any sort of anime aesthetic. What a casual observer is infinitely more likely to see are advertisements for pornography. Adult bookstores and theaters can be found outside of many train stations in Japan, whether in major metropolitan areas, their suburbs, or in the distant countryside. (Occasionally, if the area is too rural for actual stores, vending machines exist to fill the niche.) In urban entertainment districts, peep shows and “health massage” parlors crowd the tiny side streets and are thus hidden from sight, but the tissues offered to passers-by outside of the district’s train station often contain explicit advertisements for these establishments, and guides to the various sex stores and hostess clubs in the area can be picked up for free just inside family restaurants like Denny’s and Jonathan’s.
So, to make a broad overgeneralization, the sex industry in general and pornography in particular are a bit more immediately visible in Japan than they are in America. Of course, this isn’t to say that the same feminist debates concerning visual (as opposed to verbal) erotica that took place in the eighties in America didn’t make their way to Japan, and it’s not like civilian groups don’t protest the racy posters that get put up in residential areas along the routes that children take to school in the morning. However, if I had to guess, I would say that the relative openness of pornography in Japan is probably due to the prominent place so-called pink films hold in the history of Japanese television and cinema.
When most people think of Japanese cinema, their minds probably jump immediately to auteuristic masterpieces like Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon or Ozu Yasujirō’s Tokyo Story, if not to campy monster movies like the long-running Godzilla series. The truth is, however, that artistic dramas alone were not able to keep the Japanese film industry afloat after the proliferation of television sets in the wake of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; and, although monster movies pulled in their fair share of income, by the mid-seventies most major film studios had to resort to soft pornography, or pink films, in order prevent bankruptcy. With the advent of VHS players in the eighties, the porn industry really took off, and hardcore “AV,” or “adult video,” sprung up like mushrooms on the fertile ground prepared by the still-popular pink films. The concept of AV inspired the creation of OVA, or direct-to-video “original video animation,” which was not constrained by the regulations placed on televised series of work that would be released through a theater run. Not all OVA were explicitly pornographic (some, like Oshii Mamoru’s early piece Angel’s Egg, were just weird), but many obviously were, and that brings us to the topic at hand.
Japanese pornography is a many-tentacled creature, so to speak, and I think it might be useful to delineate the scope of this essay before I begin, since anime erotica is merely one branch of the huge spread of illustrated pornography in Japan. For example, the (admittedly vast amount of) animated pornography is eclipsed by the sheer volume of erotic manga released either in weekly and monthly magazines, which are openly available anywhere manga magazines are sold in Japan, from the convenience store to the train station, or in single-volume anthologies available in both mainstream and specialty. Also, girl games like Air and Clannad are dating sims which often offer the player a varying degree of pornographic content (in the eroge subgenre, that content can get quite explicit). Finally, dōjinshi, or self-published fan manga, is often explicitly pornographic, placing characters from popular titles like Naruto or the Final Fantasy video game franchise within highly erotic scenarios. Also, pornography is not the sole province of men, as women have created their own genres of erotica, such as something called BL, or “boys’ love” (which is referred to as yaoi in Western countries).
In this essay, however, I’d like to limit my focus to heterosexual animated pornography, or ecchi anime, which is primarily written and directed by men for an intended audience of men. Despite the obvious gender bias, I’d like to argue that female characters and their illustrated bodies are often privileged in these narratives. In other words, no matter how much the girl suffers over the course of the video, she always wins in the end. Also, unlike the stereotypical case of live-action pornography, female characters in anime erotica are often allowed both pleasure and agency.
Or are they?