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

Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential

Title: Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential:
How teenage girls made a nation cool

Authors: Brian Ashcraft with Shoko Ueda
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 191

When I first looked at the cover of this book, I thought, Wow, so this is the new Orientalism. The coyly smiling teenage schoolgirl with her bling-covered cell phone has replaced the coyly smiling teenage geisha with her understated yet elegant folding fan. A white guy with a Japanese wife tells us about the strange, mysterious, exotic land that is Japan. What is this world coming to, etc. But looks can be deceiving.

While recognizing the international icon status of the Japanese schoolgirl, the authors do their best to treat the girls not as fetishized cultural signifiers but as actual human beings. Even as they attempt to explain the collective power of the demographic as a symbol, Ashcraft and Ueda devote as much space as possible to giving a voice to the actual girls themselves. They accomplish this by interviewing female creators and performers whenever possible. This book is mainly a cultural history of the “Japanese schoolgirl” trope and is thus told primarily from the perspective of popular media, but I applaud the efforts of the authors to incorporate the actual people involved into this history as much as possible.

The book opens with a chapter on Japanese high school uniforms, giving a history of the tradition from its origins in the new educational code of 1872 through the sailor suits of the early Heisei period through the sukeban biker girl style of the 70’s through the designer socks and blazer-style nanchatte seifuku (professionally-designed fake uniforms that are cuter than real uniforms) popular with the after-school crowd today. Numerous photos, interviews with people like the curator of the Tombow Uniform Museum (Tombow being a major Japanese manufacturer of school uniforms), and details about cultural miscellanea (like boys giving their crushes buttons from their uniform jackets and the glue used to hold up the super-baggy socks popular with girls a decade ago) flesh out this chapter and take it well beyond the realm of tired stereotypes.

The rest of the eight chapters follow this model of history mixed with interviews, trivia, and tons and tons of pictures. The second chapter covers teenage idols (and legitimate rock stars, like the uniform-wearing musicians in the punk group Scandal), and the third chapter handles the depiction of schoolgirls in live-action film, including pornography and slashers like Battle Royale, Machine Girl, and, of course, Kill Bill. Chapters four and five are all about fashion, whether it’s on the street or on the cover of a magazine like egg. The sixth chapter begins the transition from reality into pure fantasy with its overview of the female artists in Murakami Takashi’s art collaborative Kaikai Kiki, with a focus on the schoolgirl-infused pop art of teenage prodigy Koide Akane.

The last two chapters handle girl games and anime, respectively. The final chapter on anime and manga is nothing special, although it admittedly does an admirable job of covering the distance from Rose of Versailles to Sailor Moon to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The chapter on “girl game” dating sims (like Air and Clannad) is pure gold, however, with its extended interview of prolific female graphic designer Itō Noizi incorporated skillfully into the main body of the chapter’s narrative. The authors’ explanation of the moe aesthetic is especially worth reading (as is their aside on otome games).

Overall, the topics of discussion and the specific examples used seem to have been very carefully chosen, and all of the facts and information flow together nicely. The prose is intelligent, witty, and easy to read. I would say the photography and illustrations are worth the price of the book by themselves, but Kodansha, in its infinite wisdom, chose to publish every other two-page spread in black-and-white instead of the glorious full color that graces the other half of the pages. That aside, the page layout is flawless, and there are numerous small details that I will leave as pleasant discoveries for future readers. Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential is not only lots and lots of fun but also manages to transcend the schoolgirl icon by coalescing into a rich and informative cultural history. If I were teaching a class about contemporary Japan, you can bet that this book would be required reading.