Men, Women, and Tentacles (Part One)

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?

Part Two
Part Three

7 thoughts on “Men, Women, and Tentacles (Part One)

  1. Image credits:

    The two lovely ladies at the beginning of the post were taken from a site called Anime Wallpapers. The rabbit creature at the bottom of the post was taken from the deviantART gallery of Visark (whose work I do not recommend to the faint of heart). The movie poster for the pink film Crazed Fruit comes straight from Wikipedia. The cover of Kyoto Town Search was (poorly) scanned by yours truly.

    Kyoto Town Search is an interesting little publication. You can pick it up for free in most convenience stores in the central downtown area of Kyoto (Nakagyō-ku). It claims on the cover to be a guide to things like restaurants and tourist destinations, but its true purpose is to serve as a guide to host and hostess clubs, among other entertainment-oriented establishments. Tokyo has at least two dozen such publications floating around at any given time, but their covers tend to be a bit, er, raunchier.

    If you’re looking for information about the Japanese sex industry, there’s a photography book called Pink Box that has some interesting introductory essays, an interesting glossary, and then tons of interesting images. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this book is invaluable. To get your hands on your own eromanga, try ordering direct from the press, which in this case would be Icarus Publishing. The best place to find dōjinshi outside of Japan is eBay (your search term would be “[fandom] doujinshi”), but the Over-18 variety is most easily and cheaply acquired through Japanese online stores like MANGAMON. Happy hunting!

    1. Can you tell me what is the title of the ecchi anime leading by those two lovely girls at the beginning of this post? I recognized them but i already forgot the movie they were leading of, can you help me please?

  2. Interesting start, although the title and the last picture are making me a bit wary of what’s to come. Reminds me of when one of my flatmates moved out and left behind a big mysterious box that turned out to be chocablock full of bizarre, bizarre ecchi manga. We sold it at BookOff and made a pretty parcel, but that’s another story.

    In case you’re interested, my supervisor here at Shizuoka University, Konita Seiji, who specialises in all things Edo (especially 黄表紙), mentioned in class the other day that the latest issue of Shinchosha’s 芸術新潮 was a special on 春画. (He talked about it for quite some time, which set quite a few people blushing) I’m not quite sure if 春画 falls into the same category as pornography or whether you’ll discuss it in your essay, but he seems to find it fascinating. I can’t remember the specifics, but I think he said that there were restrictions on standard Ukiyoe, like how many colours were allowed to be used etc, but 春画 were obviously an underground movement so they could flout these restrictions with interesting results.
    Anyhow, here is a link to the official site if you’re interested –>

    1. Thank you so much for the link! I am totally interested.

      I am trying to keep this essay at least moderately safe for work, although I don’t know how I’m going to handle the issue of pseudo child pornography in the last third of it. Arg. Sometimes the internet is a scary place.

      And sometimes BookOff is too, for that matter.

  3. I remember seeing a couple “20歳 only” shops on my commute to Kansai Gaidai back in the day–and accidentally walked into one or two in Osaka. Oops.

    Out here in the sticks, porn magazines are just sold at the conbini, but in the city, there are some stores that cater to anime fans with everything from doujinshi and nude models to regular goods.

    Also, I got to see an exhibit at the International Museum of Manga in Sept. 2009 about one of the most famous anime figurine artists, who does mostly nude figurines. Let me tell you, nothing clears out a crowd of men looking at nude figures like a white woman crashing the party.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series!

    1. Funny story – one of my first experiences of living in Yokohama was visiting my neighborhood book shop. The sign outside said “Books! DVD!”, and I thought Man, I like books and DVDs. Unfortunately, I failed to take into account the fact that the sign was written in pink, so I walked in was like, “………..WHOA.” Welcome to Japan, I guess.

      I also had a few experiences like that in Akihabara. A friend would tell me about a small shop on the fifth floor of some narrow building in a back alley that I just had to visit, but of course they don’t make maps of the area, so I would get lost, go into a store to ask directions, and then immediately regret it. Ah, so this is the rape-themed super-moe figurine store, I would realize while slowly backing away.

      But anyway, did you like the Kyoto Manga Museum? Did you think it was worth the trip? I would love to be able to visit one day. There, and Kyoto Seika Daigaku, which is nearby and has this amazing international faculty of manga scholars. I think Matt Thorn teaches there, along with Rintarō…

      1. The Kyoto Manga Museum is great! I was lucky enough to happen to decide to go while Miyazaki Hayao had his My Ideal Town exhibition, and I was able to read it! Clearly all my Japanese study had been for that day! It’s really close to Shijo in Kyoto, where there is lots of great shopping and food, so definitely worth a go if there’s a good exhibit on.

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