Dr. Geek: The Darker Side of Anime
Although perhaps not as big sales wise as it once was, anime and manga remain highlyinfluential in the United States since exploding unto the scene with the Pokemon universe in the 1990s. The aesthetic qualities and conventions of anime and manga have influenced American artists (I’m looking at you, Joe Madureira) and creators of comic books and animation (see Avatar: The Last Airbender, for example). School libraries and art programs use manga to teach reading and drawing. Bookstores — those that still exist — often have larger manga displays than displays for American comics, either floppies and graphic novels. Today’s kids and teens have been reared on anime and manga.
But what about the more adult side of both?
Now, as you advance in anime and manga, you’ll come across material that seem more mature than what is traditionally considered proper by American society and culture for the target audience of kids and teens. Anime and manga are commonly known for having more adult themes and storylines than their American counterparts. Of course, since the introduction of these Japanese imports into pop and then mainstream culture, this discrepancy has changed, as American comic books and animations have grown increasingly sophisticated. But there are still some titles that parents might not want their children to see — including the original, unedited titles replete with violence, sexuality, and other touchy subjects. Consider those that include sexual content, from highly suggestive flirting to flashes of panties and breasts, what are known as “fan service”. The appearance of this content can be brief, or it can be a running “gag” in the series. Or it could be one step further — into the realm of what we call hentai. And this is where the article takes a turn into definite NSFW territory given the topic, images, and video from here on out.
NSFW Starts Now!
According to anime scholar Mark McLelland, hentai is the Western label applied to Japanese anime and manga that depict sexually explicit and pornographic images and narratives. While not used in Japan to label these media titles meant for an adult audience, the term is derived from the Japanese word for “perverted”. We have a historical analog here in the States, where cartoon porn takes either known or original characters and has them engage in some very adult-like behavior. And it seems that as long as there has been illustrations or animation, there have been people using them to depict sex. Such as early examples from Japan of what would become known in hentai as “tentacle rape” where a woman is raped, usually through more than one orifice, by monstrous tentacles as surrogates for penises.. Or the “Tijuana Bibles” and the following video from the 1920s and 1930s Depression era of the United States.
So cartoon porn is all around us, from all around the globe. For the sake of this article, I am going to lump all of them under the term “hentai” because of the implication of “perversion” associated with it. This term “perversion” comes with two connotations in this matter. First, perversion in the social or cultural sense of representing behaviors not commonly thought of by the majority at the time as moral or decent. Second, in particular to fan works, which I’ll discuss in more depth later, is the idea of how people are perverting canonical texts and characters by depicting them in sexual behaviors.
Like live action pornography, hentai can feature a number of styles and topics in the sexually explicit material it portrays. In fact, according to Gilles Poitras, as with Japanese live action pornography, hentai is commonly more sexually violent and aggressive than its Western counterparts and depicts fetishes not often seen in the West, such as bukkake, which requires a woman to service a large group of men simultaneously, typically in a public place, who all ejaculate on her at the end. Also, because hentai is in cartoon form, it is able to depict events impossible in live action, even with advanced budgets few porn studios can achieve. Such as the fantastical depictions of tentacle rape, as seen below (in a “safer” illustration).
Hentai has shown a similar trajectory to the rise of anime and manga in the United States, although understandably slower. Hentai also was first introduced into America as bootleg copies via campus clubs. It wasn’t until the 1990s that American distributors started bringing in titles, like the classic Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend (the above picture of tentacle rape comes from it) , and showing them at midnight theatre screenings and selling them directly to consumers and specialty stores. Those companies who started selling hentai directly to consumers in the 1990s continue to do so with offerings at their online sites, such as Critical Mass Video (who bought the distribution business from the bankrupt Central Park Media) or the hentai store at AnimeNation.com. In fact, with the safety feature disengaged, the keywords “free” and “hentai” return over 35 million hits at Google and 125 million hits at Bing.
In many ways, hentai is similar to live action pornography (and here I mean pornography, and not erotica, which are differentiated by scholars). Both, when they feature heterosexual couplings, tend to focus on objectifying the women to the point of exaggerating their bodies to impossible proportions and/or deconstructing their bodies by focusing only on their sexual attributes. The woman is commonly the focus of some degradation, such as by having sex forced upon her despite her initial, and sometimes ongoing, heavy opposition to it. However, unlike live action, such objectification and degradation can be heavily exaggerated into realms of absolute fantasy, because the only limitations are those imposed by the creator. There are no physical laws to worry about, and no physical women with identities and the ability to say no.
Now, the lack of physical women can be both a positive and a negative. As a positive, it can be argued that the negative effects of watching live action pornography (large body of scientific research to consult) would not be as likely because one is constantly aware of the cartoon nature of the porn; being a cartoon makes us realize more the fantasy and falseness of the porn. However, as a negative, hentai is malleable because it does not involve the physical world: anything is possible. The hentai girl is malleable, completely at the whim of the creator. Thus, hentai can be easier to create than live action pornography, making it easier for anyone to create and share their fantasies. That’s where it becomes the perversion by the fans come in.
Now there is a rule, one of the unofficial/official cultural protocols of the Internet and a common meme: Rule 34, meaning that “if it exists there is porn of it”. Coming from the online community 4chan, the Rule can be invoked to either interpret an otherwise innocuous seeming image or video, or it can be invoked through the creation of images and videos to depict someone like Jessica Rabbit there, living up to her line “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” Such invocations are fans enacting theirs, or others, fantasies — even if those fantasies are fleeting or in jest.
The trick is to know when it is just in jest, or when it is just some harmless fantasizing to get off. Or when it is something else potentially more dangerous: when people like seeing the objectification and degradation and do not think about the problems the depictions represent or how the malleability of the characters makes such representations possible. After all, these are women without agency: dolls to play with who do not even have the ability to say no to their controllers. And if their controllers think this is how you play with women — well, slippery slope fallacy as it may be, there is plenty of evidence showing how learned attitudes become learned behaviors, and thinking a certain way about women can result in acting a certain way towards them.
Watching one hentai, drawing one tentacle rape image, does not a pervert make. I’d even go so far as watching and drawing many does not make a person a pervert. I’m not about to go around automatically labeling fans without getting to know them. But I will say caution in regards to hentai: sex is a great thing, but like anything else, taken to the extreme and not balanced, it can become a not great thing. Porn can be fun, and useful in relationships, whether its live action or cartoon: but taken to the extreme, without an understanding of what the representations are saying, it becomes a perversion of what sex is supposed to be.