Anime Boobs

I was considering giving this post a more serious title, but “Anime Boobs” seemed to be the most fitting label for a visual essay that I hope will demonstrate that the female torso is fetishized in many animated films and television series from Japan. Since a major goal of much of the early critical work on anime was to show that the animated medium allows for a broad range of content and is just as capable of expressing art and philosophy as it is of being a visualization of juvenile heterosexual male fantasies, an argument that there is still a great deal of heterosexual male wish fulfillment going on might seem a bit reactionary. Still, I think it’s necessary to get some things out in the open, so to speak. Allow me to explain.

On March 6, this video from Kyoto Animation was posted to Youtube:

This is a promotional video for the studio itself, not for an actual anime series (they’ve done these before), but many female fans on Tumblr jumped right in and began enjoying themselves with various fannish activities, such as inventing relationships between the boys, drawing fan art, opening ask blogs, claiming characters for roleplay groups, and so on.

Male fans on Tumblr did not like this. Because of the way that Tumblr works, it’s difficult to link to specific comments and response threads, but some of the comments on the Kotaku write-up of the fandom reaction to the video are representative of the male outrage at this particular female-dominated culture of fandom:

Moist fat fan girls want stupid shit to fantasize about.

Piss off. People like you almost ruined Gundam.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Granted, these comments are tame, and the commenters are adequately called out on their meanness. Deeper within the internet, however, there was genuine outrage, which tended to be accompanied by accusations of reverse sexism (which is a classic derailing tactic, by the way). How dare women subject male bodies to the same sort of erotic gaze that (still, more than forty years after Laura Mulvey’s essay) dominates mainstream media.

To give an example from a discussion I observed:

If this was about idealized girls in skin tight swim suits bending over and shaking their tits would you be as benign about it? I bet you’d have a 10 page rant about the male gaze or something.

When someone pointed out that there are in fact a lot of anime “about idealized girls in skin tight swim suits bending over and shaking their tits,” the response was:

People say this kind of thing and it makes me want to watch anime, thinking it’s going to be nothing but tits, but every time I do I’m disappointed.

The fact that someone can in good faith state that anime, as a broad category of media, is not filled to bursting with many prominent examples of hyper-exposed cleavage is mind-boggling to me. I don’t want to make any value judgments or grand sweeping pronouncements, but I think discussions of the sexualization and objectification of characters in anime might run more smoothly if everyone can agree that “anime boobs” do in fact exist.

While I was waiting for the comment thread I mentioned above to update, I happened to be watching the thirteenth episode of Cowboy Bebop, which is titled “Jupiter Jazz (Part 2).” This episode takes place on the Jovian moon Callisto, which is apparently very cold. While the male lead, Spike Spiegel, covers his customary blue suit with a big fluffy coat…

Spike Spiegel

…the female lead, Faye Valentine, spends the majority of the episode dressed like this:

02 Faye 1

Faye Valentine 2

Faye Valentine 3

Spike gives her a jacket to put on later, thank goodness. I kept worrying about how cold she must be all throughout the episode.

Another candidate for “Wow, she must be freezing” is the character Neko from the recent anime series K, who spends a disproportionate amount of time completely naked. She’s actually a cat, you see, but sometimes she can take human form. This is how the viewer first sees her…

Neko 1

….and this is her as she playfully scampers around the male protagonist’s apartment:

Neko 2

Here’s Awashima Seri, another character from the same anime whose chest is somehow even more on display, even though she’s fully clothed:

Awashima Seri

Moving back in time, an anime classic that’s all about domestic disturbances of the “I just can’t stop tripping and falling into my housemates’ boobs” variety is Love Hina:

Love Hina

Love Hina is based on a manga by Akamatsu Ken, and it was so popular that the artist apparently had trouble ending it. Once it finally wrapped up, Akamatsu started a new project called Negima!, which had even more boobs to trip and accidentally fall into:

Negima!

The bold text at the top reads: “Is everyone looking at the ocean? Or are they looking at you?”

Even though the story is set in a Japanese version of Hogwarts, in both the manga and the anime versions the young male protagonist and his pretty female students find all sorts of opportunities to go swimming, whether it’s at the pool, the ocean, or a hot springs resort. And where there’s water, there are swimsuits… except when they accidentally come off!

Speaking of anime classics, does anyone remember Tenchi Muyo?

Ryoko Hakubi

How about Slayers?

Naga the White Serpent

There was also a cute two-episode Slayers knock-off OVA called Dragon Half:

Dragon Half

While we’re on the subject of old school OVAs, there was one particularly bodacious forty-minute one-shot inexplicably tiled Plastic Little:

12 Plastic Little

Around the same time there was another OVA on the U.S. market called Mezzo Forte:

Mezzo Forte

Like its spiritual forbearer Kite, Mezzo Forte is all about how prolonged violent sex scenes empower women with no chins to shoot things with huge guns in clumsily choreographed action sequences set to laughably bad background music. Oh anime.

“Girls with guns” is a popular theme in anime. For these types of shows, it tends to help the female protagonists’ mobility if they are wearing very tight clothing that is easily destroyed, as is the case with Canaan:

Canaan

Sometimes a woman doesn’t wield a weapon, however; sometimes her entire body is a weapon. In that case, it helps if she wears even less clothing:

Elfen Lied

The character pictured above, Lucy, is from the show Elfen Lied. After Lucy escapes from her laboratory, she can’t remember anything about herself, so the young man who adopts her calls her “Nyuu,” which is the only sound that she can make. Poor Nyuu doesn’t know anything about the real world; and, in the second episode of the series, she soils herself in the foyer of someone’s house because he hasn’t formally invited her in to use the bathroom yet. (I could make a joke about female empowerment here, but I’ll pass.)

While we’re on the subject of strange female-coded creatures being adopted by young men, the anime DearS is notorious for its portrayal of quasi-slavery. It’s okay, though, because the girls are aliens:

DearS

This isn’t to say that some anime boobs can’t be self-reflexive. Karina Lyle from the show Tiger & Bunny is well aware of how her “feminine assets” are used to market the character she plays on TV, Blue Rose:

Blue Rose

Moreover, it’s not as if female viewers don’t appreciate sexualized depictions of the female form. In the lesbian gag manga Tokyo Love~ Rica ‘tte Kanji!? (which you can read here, if you’d like a preview), there’s a joke about how proclaiming an interest in the notoriously boob-heavy Cutey Honey franchise…

Cutie Honey Flash

…is sort of like a pick-up line between women.

Still, some shows are just ridiculous. Take Battle Vixens, for instance:

Battle Vixens

There’s also Burst Angel

Burst Angel

…and Girls Bravo

Girls Bravo

…and Princess Resurrection:

Princess Resurrection

When the concept from Witchblade, a Western comic book series, was adapted into an anime, the studio apparently decided that the most important feature of its original lead character is her, um, identity as a mother:

Witchblade

Another fun action series is High School of the Dead:

High School of the Dead

Skintight schoolgirl uniforms are obviously the best defense against the zombie apocalypse.

Speaking of girls in impractical armor, the female warriors in Sacred Blacksmith must buy their battle gear wholesale, because it’s always getting ripped to shreds:

Sacred Blacksmith

Scrapped Princess is equally bad with female armor…

Pacifica Casull

…as is the .hack// franchise:

Hack

If these titles seem too niche, I should mention that anime boobs also appear in mega-franchises such as Bleach

Orihime

…and One Piece:

Nami

One Piece is full of female character designs like the one pictured above. Maybe it’s just the way that Oda Eiichirō draws. This character design is quite common, however. See also the character Lucy Heartfilia, from Fairy Tail:

Lucy Heartfilia

There are plenty of anime boobs on display in Soul Eater, too:

Soul Eater Death

One of my favorite characters is Blair:

Blair

Blair mostly hangs out at home and invites the male protagonists to enjoy her company:

Bathtime with Blair

Despite not appearing much in the show, Blair is a fan favorite who has a large, dedicated fandom. Another character who is loved across broad swatches of anime fandom is Yoko from Gurren Lagann:

Yoko

Gurren Lagann was animated by Studio Gainax, which is still best known for the alpha and omega of all anime franchises, Neon Genesis Evangelion. As a franchise, Evangelion is often represented by a single character, Ayanami Rei:

Ayanami Rei

If Ayanami is not to your taste, however, Evangelion has other young female characters to appreciate. There’s also Asuka Langley…

Asuka Langley

…and, more recently, Makinami Mari:

Mari Makinami

If Evangelion isn’t artistic and philosophical enough for you, feel free to check out one of the most intellectually mature and thematically complex animated movies of all time…

Ghost in the Shell Movie

There’s also a television series based on the Ghost in the Shell manga. In the TV show, the lead character, Kusanagi Makoto, gets to wear a bit more clothing:

Ghost in the Shell TV Anime

Before I wrap this up, I should mention that interest in anime boobs isn’t limited to a small segment of fandom. In fact, the British publication Neo, which regularly features the work of renowned anime writers such as Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements, occasionally puts the boobs right on the cover:

Neo Magazine Issue 92

In conclusion, anime boobs exist. It is entirely possible to watch a wide variety of animated films, television shows, and web shorts from Japan without ever coming across a single skintight outfit or low-cut halter top, but anime boobs are still out there.

I am not trying to say that all anime sexualizes and fetishizes the female form, because that is not true at all. In any given work that does feature anime boobs, it is also not necessarily the case that every female character will be subjected to the same treatment.

I am also not trying to say that all of the female characters displayed above are nothing more than sex objects, because that is not true, not even a little bit. Although I sometimes couldn’t help making fun of character designs and diegetic circumstances that are blatantly ridiculous, I am not trying to say that sexual depictions of female characters are bad or morally wrong or artistically weak, nor am I trying to say that sexualization and fetishization can’t serve multiple narrative and thematic purposes.

I’m obviously not trying to say that real women with real bodies are somehow ridiculous, or that any woman, real or fictional, should be defined by the shape of her body. Don’t even go there.

For the record, I’m also not saying that all male fans of anime are sexist pigs. Regarding the “swim club anime” with which I began this discussion, I read through a few conversations on Reddit in which people were surprisingly self-reflexive about the male objectification in the video in light of the studio’s other projects. (One of my favorite comments was “I’m a guy and I watched that video ten times,” to which another user immediately replied, “Don’t worry bro, we all did.”)

What I am trying to say is that there is a definite pattern of female bodies being sexualized in anime. It doesn’t happen all the time in every anime, but it happens frequently enough in enough prominent titles to be noticeable even to an impartial observer. The sexualization of female and male characters is a tricky issue; but, if we can agree on nothing else, let us simply come to the consensus that “anime boobs” really do exist.

Men, Women, and Tentacles (Part Three)

In three of the main genres of Japanese animated pornography, then, female characters are privileged, not degraded. In the osana najimi story, women are not merely bodies to be gazed upon, exploited, and manipulated. They are instead characters in their own right and often developed much more than male characters. These male characters respect the female characters and connect with them just as much on an emotional level as they do on a physical level, and their union is often tied to a narrative of self-realization and maturation for both parties. Certainly, the personalities of the female characters are often based on phallocentric ideals, but the same could be said of many female characters in the mainstream anime from which the pornography draws its tropes. In the self-fulfilling harem story, women are depicted as fantasizing about idealized men as they satisfy themselves sexually, and actual men are not strictly necessary. On a metatextual level, this situation parodies many popular mainstream anime as well the onanistic activities of the male viewer who is erotically drawn to these anime. Finally, occult pornography bestows on its female characters many of the powers given to the protagonists of magical shōjo stories, and these characters are thus able to defeat their tentacles and enjoy them too. Also, these stories locate erotic and other physical experiences in the female body, thus allowing the viewer to receive pleasure by identifying as female.

Of course, not every pornographic story challenges traditional notions of the male as subject and the female as object in these ways. One of the more problematic tropes of animated pornography (which is often embedded in science fiction themed stories like Bondage Queen Kate) is that of the female rape victim who falls in love with her rapist in a case of sexual/romantic Stockholm Syndrome. This is not to be confused with the erotic conversation that often occurs during consensual sexual acts, of which a typical example might be, “No, stop, don’t do that, please stop” (Yamete! Sore dake wa dame. Iya da!). Rather, this trope involves a woman who actively resists and is obviously upset by a traumatic sexual experience only to then blushingly cuddle with her rapist(s) after the act. Closely connected to the rape equals love trope is the idea that it’s not rape if you enjoyed it, which occasionally finds its way into more conventional (and consensual) pornographic narratives. In my experience, however, both of these tropes are infinitely more common in manga than they are in anime, so I will put them aside for a future discussion. (What I will also put aside is the prevalence of both of these tropes in boys’ love pornography, which is written by women and for women.)

In any case, if the generalizing assumption that animated pornography privileges female characters can be accepted, can we therefore state that it isn’t sexist? Does it really treat female characters as subjects with their own agency? To address this question, I’d like to briefly refer to American feminist debates regarding live-action American pornography in the eighties. By 1980, feminists such as Laura Lederer had started to speak out against rape and spousal abuse. To greatly oversimplify the matter, these feminists blamed real-world violence against women on the misogyny present in mainstream media and public discourse. Pornography became a key issue in this movement, with radical feminist Robin Morgan famously stating that “Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice.” The notion that watching pornography directly influences men to commit sex crimes has since been challenged and disproved, but the idea of a “pornographic gaze” that is harmful to women remains, especially when it is joined to the concept of the “male gaze” that has been adapted and re-adapted ever since cinema theorist Laura Mulvey first proposed its existence in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

The concept of the male/pornographic gaze is highly psychoanalytic in nature, and I’m still not sure that I completely understand it; but, to summarize, it is centered around subjects and objects, with the looker being the subject and the person being looked upon being an object that the looker is free to manipulate as he wishes. This type of looking, which denies the agency and humanity of all but the looker, is considered to be extremely psychologically violent to the women who are often the objects of the gaze. Therefore, even if the narrative of a pornographic story characterizes women as powerful and respected by male characters, the way that the camera treats their bodies – forcing them to hold still as it pans over their curves, or rotating around them to show their bodies off to full effect, or taking the position of the male who is sexually penetrating them – cancels out any interiority or agency with which the narrative might have endowed them. Robert Jensen, the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, articulates this argument quite succinctly:

Pornography presents women as objectified female bodies that exist for men’s sexual pleasure. Because women in pornography are not subjects but objects, not fully human, kindness towards them is no more required than would be kindness to any other object. If while out for a walk I picked up a stone and threw it down the road, no one would chastise me for being unkind to the stone. So it is in pornography.

Of course there are many problems with this theory, including, for example, the fact that it ignores the existence of a female viewer who may have an entirely different relationship to the characters on screen. Devil Hunter Yōko may be a sex object to heterosexual male viewers, but my teenage self adored her simply because she is such a badass. It’s also not inconceivable that many male viewers have been similarly captivated by her sword-swinging antics (the show has some awesome fight scenes) without then going to look for porn of the character being raped or otherwise abused.

On a broader scale, I believe that a great deal of Japanese animated pornography out of the (admittedly limited) amount I have seen over the course of the past fifteen years is not at all unkind to its female characters. They have interiority (in that they are often the main character or narrator), they have agency (in that they are usually in full control of what happens to their bodies), and they are often quite powerful characters, even if the viewer is encouraged to ogle their every curve. Certainly the context is quite different than that being addressed by feminists like Robert Jensen and Andrea Dworkin, but I believe that’s why it’s important for Western feminist scholars to pay attention to Japan. The more data there is to add nuance to an argument, the better; and there is a huge amount of data contained within the wide field of Japanese animated pornography. When the very category of gender itself is now accepted as imaginary, perhaps imaginary women themselves deserve a closer look.

To complicate my argument a bit, I feel that it’s necessary to bring up the topic of moe, a style of characterization that either focuses on children or presents young adults as childlike in an attempt to stir an affective emotional response in the viewer or reader. The titles I have been referring to in this essay are from the nineties, and similar stories continue to be released. From the beginning of the past decade, however, moe has gradually crept into mainstream animated pornography; and, even though all of the characters are 100% imaginary, this style of graphic and narrative depiction has often been labeled as child pornography and treated accordingly – with unmasked disgust. (There is even a now-famous case of an American manga collector being jailed for importing this type of pornography.)

It is easy to dismiss this reaction as sexual Puritanism, as sexuality is a fantastic wonderland of the mostly unknown and, in any case, illustrations are just illustrations. However, even non-pornographic anime has adopted a sexualizing moe element, from relatively innocuous series like K-ON to not-so-innocent series like Kodomo no jikan. What is upsetting about moe to me personally is not the sexualization of minors, per se, but rather the minor-ification of sexual subjects. What I have been sensing over the past ten years is a feedback loop between animated pornography and mainstream animation in Japan, the result of which being that an infantilizing pornographic gaze has been increasingly applied to the characters of many popular anime series. A great deal of digital ink has been spilled discussing this topic (and a good place to start clicking on links is the Wikipedia article), so I will defer to other writers, but I simply wish to mention it as an alternate path of inquiry on the topic of female characters in Japanese pornographic anime.

Speaking of deferring to other writers, I’d like to list some of my sources. Eric Cazdyn’s The Flash of Capital has a lot of good information and discussion of pink films and Japanese cinema. Susan Napier’s book on anime has an excellent chapter about occult anime, and Anne Allison’s Permitted and Prohibited Desires has some good chapters on eromanga and the many types of gazes – although both books are a little out of date. Roland Kelt’s Japanamerica has a fun chapter on ecchi anime that’s much more current, and Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals does a nice job of explaining moe. The book Feminism and Pornography does an excellent job of summarizing the feminist and legal debates concerning pornography in the seventies and eighties, and the essay collection Everyday Pornography provides a nice update on the subject from many different voices (plus it has a super classy cover). Finally, the last two chapters of Vera Mackie’s Feminism in Modern Japan summarize the context of postwar Japanese feminist movements, and Ueno Chizuko’s Onna-girai: Nippon no misogyny, published about a year ago, covers everything that’s been happening in the post-postwar period (and is also a fantastic read). As always, if there’s anything I’m missing but should definitely read – academic or otherwise – please feel free to let me know about it!

Part One
Part Two