So, OK. Yeah, this one started as kind of a joke - “I should show hentai on animation night 69 lmao” - but sexuality is a part of the medium as steeped in history and worthy of investigation as, say, historical dramas or mecha. If, however, this idea is offputting to you, I totally get it and I hope I’ll see you next week!
To give a brief précis: sexuality has been part of animation since just about the beginning, but in most countries it rarely got beyond “haha, the cartoons… are having sex…” (Allegro non Troppo being a pretty illustrative example if anyone remembers that one). It was pretty much only in Japan that erotic animation (ero-anime) became a well-established genre that could start to iterate on and develop its conventions (and even outside of the narrow niche of animated porn, animation would feel comfortable talking and joking about sexuality). That has a very interesting history, which I’m tremendously grateful to @mogsk for helping me research.
It’s only quite recently that other countries have picked up the torch again, between the explosion of indie animated porn using tools like Source Filmmaker, and the appearance of the heavily anime-influenced French studio Bobbypills. But more on that in a bit.
It’s probably safe to say sexuality in animation is a subject that people find a great deal of difficulty approaching, and express quite a bit of embarrassment when they do. (Take for example youtuber Beyond Ghibli’s video, essentially a list of anime that deals with sex in ways he finds interesting, which he decided to title “Degenerate”!) Unfortunately, this reticence makes it a little difficult to research.
A brief history of erotic animation: the West
But as we saw as recently as last week, with Luis Seel’s film Wiener Bilderbogen (1924), erotic anime has been a significant part of this medium from pretty much the start. The secret 13th principle of animation is
horniness libidinal investment, after all.
In the 20s, Animation itself was struggling to figure out its niche in society at the beginning, and the question of who its audience should be - and whether it would be appropriate to deal with sexuality explicitly, implicitly, or not at all - had to be decided. The earliest known example of outright animated pornography is also from 1924, the American ‘stag film’ The Virgin with Hot Pants, a rather abstract depiction of a disembodied penis flying around and a mouse fucking a cat, followed by a series of live action sex acts.
The next work in this vein came in 1929 with Everready Harton in ‘Buried Treasure’, a very goofy sex comedy featuring a man with a giant detachable penis as long as his legs. Supposedly, this may have been made for a party in honour of Winsor McCay. The artists did not attach their names, but allegedly it was a co-production of three studios, variously attributed to “Max Fleischer, Paul Terry and the Mutt and Jeff studio.” (per Ward Kimball) or “George Stallings, George Cannata, Rudy Zamora, Sr., and Walter Lantz.” (per a 1970 screening in San Francisco).
Less anonymous animation would have to deal with sexuality in less explicit ways… and did. The Fleischer character Betty Boop became famous as an animated sex symbol, although this kind of portrayal declined under the Hays Code. And that was, for some decades, more or less it. Animation increasingly became seen as a children’s medium, such that ‘adult animation’ is considered a deviation from the norm that has to be qualified. Not that there wasn’t interest, with the illicit publication of ‘tijuana bibles’ including pornographic depictions of Disney characters, but the Code was very strict.
In the 60s, heterosexual society in many Western countries was shaken up by a ‘sexual revolution’, and it’s here we start seeing the return to ‘what if the cartoons… you know…’ in animation. This seems to have mostly begun in Europe, with films like the Swedish Out of an Old Man’s Head (1968) which consists mostly of animated flashbacks; a lot of these, like Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle (1975), have a horrendously ugly ‘what if newspaper cartoons fucked’ style. You also get films like Il Nano e la Strega (1973) which seem to live entirely on giggling over their character names being dick jokes. At best, you get rather mixed bags like Allegro non Troppo (1973). While these animations tend to portray sex explicitly, it’s usually in a comedic light rather than actually attempting to evoke eroticism.
In America, Ralph Bakshi (last seen on Animation Night 63) joined in with Fritz the Cat (1972), based on a funny-animal strip by Robert Crumb. The film was a hit but seen as largely a cheap indulgence in portraying sex and drugs, an image Bakshi struggled to escape with his next couple of films, Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1975); these films did portray explicit sex, but were broadly attempts to tell more substantial stories and address themes like racism, albeit with rather mixed success, with Coonskin especially provoking heavy controversy and protest over whether its use of blackface and mistrel imagery was a justifiable anti-racist satire or well, just doing the thing.
Later, after a long detour into fantasy films like Wizards, Bakshi would return to dealing with sexuality in films like Cool World (1992) (which we watched on Animation Night 40) and the TV series Spicy City (1997). By this point, erotic anime had started to be distributed in the West, but it had inspired few imitators. In the 2000s, the door started to open a bit more with e.g. Peter Chung’s incredible series Aeon Flux, which I talked about in detail on Animation Night 52; you also had a lot of shortform grossout animation being produced for productions like Spike and Mike’s [Sick and Twisted] Festival of Animation. The arrival of the internet also saw increased use of Flash to deal with sexuality, though again mostly as comedy.
In Canada, the film Heavy Metal (1981) and its sequel Heavy Metal 2000 (2000) would include numerous scenes of sexual violence along with general gore, adapting the grimdark short stories of the Heavy Metal comics magazine (a spinoff of the French Métal Hurlant). They would eventually receive a successor in the Netflix series Love, Death and Robots, which invited a large number of mostly CG studios to animate short adult-oriented films, taking advantage of the lack of Netflix censorship. There’s some good ones in there, but also a lot that are just kind of eh. We may well cover all of these down the line.
It’s a pretty sparse list isn’t it? As far as I can tell, there are no countries that have had anything like as substantial a history with animated sexuality as Japan. It is also almost exclusively catering to the tastes of heterosexual men; while some work such as Bakshi’s may portray gay or trans characters as part of his chaotic, satirical vision of New York, it is basically always as caricature.
The story in Japan is more than a little different. So let’s talk about hentai!
A note on terminology
In the west, sexually explicit anime is universally referred to as ‘hentai’, but this usage has drifted a lot from its Japanese origin. In Japanese, ‘hentai’ (変態) is firstly a much broader word referring to transformation or abnormality; in the context of sexuality, it’s an abbreviation for the phrase ‘hentai seiyoku’ (変態性欲) is quite a derogatory term, referring to abnormal sexuality or perversion. So does that apply to cartoon porn? It kind of depends who you ask. Some commentators insist that only depictions which express some kind of ‘abnormal’ or ‘perverted’ sexuality, e.g. rape (esp. by multiple people), monsterfucking, incest, loli/shota (that is, sexual depictions of children) etc. should be termed hentai. Others would use the term more broadly, e.g. in terms of purpose - so it’s hentai if it’s primarily intended as porn; quite explicit anime and manga may include very explicit erotic scenes without being termed hentai.
For this reason, the generalisation of the word ‘hentai’ in the west allegedly raises some eyebrows for Japanese people who hear about it. It may be that usage has changed over time, with Japanese use of the term coming more in line with the Western one.
What else might people say instead of ‘hentai’? The letter H, pronounced ‘etchi’ (エッチ) in this context is sometimes used (with a similar connotation to ‘dirty’ or ‘naughty’), so you get for example h-games or h-anime. Confusingly, this is originally derived from the word ‘hentai’, but no longer carries such a direct association with ‘perversion’. On top of that, for a person you have ‘sukebe’ (スクベ) with a similar connotation to etchi; there is a slightly stronger and more negative term than h, ‘iyarashii’ (いやらしい); finally there are rating terms like ‘seijin’ (成人) meaning ‘adult’, so you could have a ‘seijin anime’ and R-18 or 18-kin anime after the age rating (18禁アニメ,jūhachikin anime).
The reason why the Western term may have come adrift from its origin has to do with the particular films that were distributed - films like Urotsukidōji (Legend of the Overfiend), pictured above, which is certainly hentai under the stricter definition, were among the first to be distributed, and then the same term was used for more tame erotic anime later. Or maybe this is just weebs being pedantic without knowing as much Japanese as they think. It’s always hard to tell!
For the sake of this post I’m just going to use h-anime for erotic anime in general, and hentai in a qualified sense.
Precursors? - shunga woodblock prints & psychoanalysis
In the long (relative) peace of the Edo period, there was a flourishing of woodblock printing (ukiyo-e) depicting many subjects of interest to the nascent bourgeoisie (chōnin) in the ‘floating world’ of the capital, such as kabuki actors and scenes from mythology; these include some of the most famous Japanese artworks, like Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Many of these prints were pornographic, a subgenre termed shunga (春画). Shunga was very popular, and many renowned artists (including Hokusai) would mix ‘nsfw’ and ‘sfw’ pretty freely.
The Tokugawa shogunate would occasionally make moves to suppress the production of erotic material, starting in 1661 with an edict against koshokubon (erotic literature) and escalating in 1722 (享保の改革) and 1789-1801 (kansei reforms, 寛政の改革), but this was not especially successful. However ultimately what killed shunga was the ability to print photos in the early 1900s, with erotic photography largely outcompeting it into the Meiji era. So while it is commonly said that prints like The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (1814) are the precursors of modern h-manga, especially the use of tentacles in the art of people like Toshiro Maeda, it is unclear whether the link is so direct.
Gay scenes weren’t at all foreign to shunga, and indeed gay relationships were not especially taboo in the Edo period, as Tofugu discuss in some detail here.
The other major background factor to animated hentai is the translation of psychoanalysis books in the early 20th century. Mogs writes:
The beginning of [the association between the term ‘hentai’ and ‘perverse’ sexuality] occurred at the turn of the previous century, when the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis began to make its way to Japan. In this context, ‘hentai’ came to refer to various forms of what could be broadly called ‘abnormal psychology’ which at the time covered all topics of the mind including mental illness, hypnosis, and psychic powers/ESP.
The term came to wider usage via the academic journal Hentai-shinri (Abnormal Psychology), and it was this association that eventually lead to it being used in the translated title of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s sexological opus Psychopathia Sexualis which in Japan was called Hentai Seiyoku Shinrigaku (The Psychology of Perverse Sexual Desires).
This gave rise to the field of Japanese sexology which initially functioned as a way to pathologise sexual behaviours considered deviant or perverse, with self-proclaimed experts publishing essays on the moral dangers which such behaviours represented.
This played a heavy influence on the first art movement known as ‘ero guro nansensu’ (erotic grotesque nonsense), which started turning to see ‘perversion’ as something common to everyone rather than a moral failing. Mark McLelland writes here that:
This interest in perverse sexuality continued into the 1920s and is often summed up in the phrase ero-guro-nansensu or ‘erotic, grotesque nonsense.’ During the early Showa period (1926-89), Japan developed a significant publications’ industry devoted to the discussion of perverse sexuality—in the 1920s at least ten journals were founded that focused, in particular, upon Hentai seiyoku. These included Hentai shiryō [Perverse Material, 1926], Kāma shasutora [Kāma shastra, 1927], Kisho [Strange Book, 1928] and Gurotesuku [Grotesque, 1928].
These journals specialising in sexual knowledge, as well as articles and advice pages contributed to newspapers and magazines by a newly emerging class of sexual ‘experts,’ frequently discussed 'perverse sexuality,’ which included many categories that were particular to Japan, such as shinjū or 'love suicides.’ While (particularly female) homosexuals were considered liable to commit dual suicide, killing oneself over a lover was itself considered to be hentai even if the partner was of the other sex. For instance, in 1919 an article about the death of one of Japan’s first actresses, Matsui Sumako, was entitled ‘Sumako no jisatsu wa hentai seiyoku’ [Sumako’s suicide was perverse desire].
The experts who wrote these articles and analysed the perverse desires of their correspondents did so in a popular medium that appealed to a readership far wider than the medical community. As Fruhstuck points out, by the middle of the Taisho period rising literacy rates and the proliferation of cheap newspapers and magazines meant that reading had become a favorite leisure activity of the working classes, allowing a 'low scientific culture’ to develop. The result was that hentai, signifying sexual interests that were understood to be 'queer’ or 'perverse,’ became a widely recognised term and popular culture was swept by what Matsuzawa describes as a ’hentai boom’,—the first of several explosions of interest in perverse sexuality that were to occur in the Japanese media over the next half-century.
Yet, despite the fact that hentai [perverse] was often invoked as the opposite of jōtai [normal]—it was perversion, not normality, that was obsessively enumerated in popular sexology texts, thus giving 'the impression not only that “perversion” was ubiquitous, but that the connotations of the term were not entirely negative.’ Public interest in perversity fed demand for increasingly detailed and lurid descriptions, and 'what started out as prescriptive literature quickly lost the blessings of educators and police and thus descended into the underground culture.’ Naturally, with the increase in censorship by the state as Japan geared up for war in the 1930s, this genre came under increased scrutiny and publication was largely suspended from about 1933 due to paper rationing.
Ero-guro-nansensu - not to be confused with the post-war ero-guro! - seems to have mostly been a literary movement, although it also included the artistic response response to high profile events like the Sada Abe incident in which Sada Abe, a geisha and sex worker killed her partner by erotic asphyxiation, then cut off his genitals and carried them around in her kimono. The highly sensationalised event was considered the epitome of ero guro nansensu.
Post-war: teh trans
After the war, there was a renewed interest in hentai seiyoku cane in the form of kasutori (pulp) publications, named after low-grade wine; this accompanied a generally much more explicit sexual culture. Mogs notes, drawing on this article:
However, this gave rise to an interesting new phenomenon. Most hentai publications of this era provided space for personal ads in which readers could write in to share their own Hentai Seiyoku with the intent of meeting other people with the same desires. This both brought readers into closer interaction with the authors and medical experts which wrote for the publications, since it gave space for readers to respond and share their own experiences, but it also allowed sexual subcultures to form, most noticeably BDSM and Gay/Lesbian.
It is in this period that the divergence between ‘H’ and ‘hentai’ starts to develop, with ‘ecchi’ coming to refer to sex in general rather than ‘abnormal’ or ‘perverse’ sexuality.
As an aside, the theories advanced in these 1950s journals tended to see sexuality in terms of a rather binary taxonomy; Hitoshi and Takanori write:
At the basis of this dualistic structure lay the 'general theory’ that 'if you look at the character of male and female, the male is a sadist … and the female a masochist,’ an assumption that was taken by most readers and writers to be 'already common sense.’ All perverse desires were assigned a place on one side or other of this dualistic framework as is clearly seen in discussions of male homosexuality.
In this light, gay couples tended to get parsed along ‘this one’s the man’ sort of assignments; the translation uses the kinda weird terms ‘pederast’ and ‘urning’. The masculine, active side was associated with sadism; the feminine, passive side with masochism. The framework gradually fell apart coming towards the 60s, with the greater visibility of gay bars staffed by ‘feminised men’ (in Hitoshi and Takanori’s terms), and a touring performance of trans dancers from Le Carousel from France called ‘Blue Boys’, as well as popular coverage of early genital reconstruction surgery. (Evidently the lines between ‘trans’ and ‘gay’ were very blurry at this point!). In this light, all gay men started to be seen as ‘feminised’.
Meanwhile, in hetero society, the impacts of the ‘sexual revolution’ were being felt. Mogs writes:
With the 60s came the “Sexual Revolution” which was felt throughout several parts of the world, Japan included. However, what this meant was that sex itself was no longer quite as taboo a subject, and so discussion of its no longer had to be limited to the pages of Hentai publications. Amidst the rise of Pinky sexploitation films, the shift of perceptions of the BDSM subculture from being primarily gay to being primarily heterosexual, and the growing acceptability of depictions of women’s bodies in a commodified context, the only such publications that survived were those that shifted to catering to a heterosexual readership.
However as the hentai press developed throughout the 1960s, it became more heterosexual in orientation and stories about both male homosexuality and male cross-dressing, which had been major concerns in the 1950s magazines, dropped from its pages. The emphasis moved more toward sadomasochism and lesbianism—the latter understood as a genre of pornography about women but made by and for men.
While in English, equivalent terms of hentai such as queer or perverse tended to connote homosexuality, hentai in Japanese had a much stronger heterosexual nuance, although it could still be used to denote a range of same-sex sexual activities.
This history may go some way to explain why psychoanalytic themes are so closely associated with depictions of ‘perverse’ sexuality in Japanese media; in any case, that’s how the word ‘hentai’ came to be a ‘sex thing’.
The earliest erotic anime - Osamu Tezuka has a go
The earliest erotic anime can be traced to the ‘father of anime’ himself, Osamu Tezuka, making a last ditch effort to save Mushi Pro from closure with a trilogy of erotic films to capitalise on the 60s sex craze. The first two entries in this series adapted classical history with One Thousand and One Nights (1969) and Cleopatra (1970). The trailer for the latter is really a sight to behold, with an inexplicably green-skinned Caesar leaping off a building onto a trampoline; but also take care because later Cleopatra is threatened with rape by a large line of leering, dark-skinned Egyptian caricatures. Collectively, these three films are known as the animerama.
These first two films were poorly received, but the third, Belladonna of Sadness (1973), broke the trend by earning a lot of arthouse cred. Moving the setting to medieval France, Belladonna is known for its beautiful psychedelic watercolour imagery (mostly in the form of slow, static pans), telling the story of a French woman Jeanne who is raped by an aristocrat and takes revenge on him by making a deal with the devil, leading her village into a massive orgiastic rite.
The story is inspired by an 1862 French treatise Satanism and Witchcraft (La Sorcière), an early a positive portrayal of the witches persecuted by the witch trials as rebels against the Catholic church, practising a secret religion.
I can’t think of anything that looks quite like Belladonna - it’s no surprise it became a cult film. Taking full advantage of Mushi Pro’s suite of limited animation techniques, it composes relatively static shots but also incredible effects animation of flowing hair and fire. I’ve been wanting to see it for ages, so I’m glad to finally get a reason!
How did Belladonna succeed where the other two failed? Well, Tezuka was not at all involved, for one - he left the project early in planning to concentrate on his manga, and under Eiichi Yamamoto, the team instead adopted a more western-influenced art style inspired by the work of Gustav Klimt, Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke (at least, so says Wikipedia) to fit the more serious tone. But Yamamoto also directed 1001 Nights, so it was also probably a matter of picking the right audience - the film was sent to European film festivals and gained a cult following in the West.
Despite Tezuka’s efforts, MushiPro declined considerably, its animators spreading out to new studios such as Madhouse, Sunrise, Pierrot, KyoAni and Shaft. The true rise of erotic animation would come much later, in the 1980s.
BL/yaoi manga and anime
Shōjo manga aimed at girls and women became increasingly popular as we come into the 80s, with a major subgenre being ‘boys love’ (少年愛 shōnen-ai) or ‘yaoi’ (やおい) focusing on gay relationships between boys, often with quite androgynous bishōnen designs. This really picked up steam with the arrival of the Year 24 group of shōjo manga artists, who followed the gritty gekiga manga in portraying more realistic and grounded relationships. Yaoi, initially a doujin fandom term, soon developed its own genre conventions, like the seme and uke (dominant and submissive) roles, and particular styles of drawing which emphasise tall, thin, angular bodies, with a (somewhat infamous!) focus on hands.
This is such a broad genre, and I’m increasingly running out of time, so I think I may need to cover this in much more depth another time. For now, I’ll just note one of our films tonight, Kaze to Ki no Uta (1987) (風と木の詩, lit The Song of Wind and Trees), an adaptation of a 1976-84 shōnen-ai manga series by Keiko Takemiya which was among the first to deal with explicit sexual elements in its romance; the adaptation by Triangle Staff directed by Yoshikzazu Yasuhiko is not especially explicit (presumably a compromise with Takemiya, who wouldn’t accept censorship of the sexual elements), and illustrates the aesthetic dimensions of shōnen-ai at this time quite well. It portrays the romance between two students at a 19th-century boarding school in Provence.
Oh god I guess we have to talk about this - on lolicon
Now to deal with quite a difficult subject: the lolicon boom which lasted from the late 1970s up to the Tsutomo Miyazaki murders of 1989. For this my major source is this article by Matteo Wattzky.
‘Lolicon’ (short for lolita complex, referring to attraction to underage female characters) and ‘shotacon’ (the same for male characters) are today understood to straightforwardly mean pornographic drawings of children (in a particular style) - as such, it’s one of the most widely reviled corners of anime fandom. In its original context, the term is somewhat broader; it refers to a certain movement within the otaku fandom subculture, beginning as a wry self-deprecating term for male fans of the rounded, baroque cuteness of shoujo manga.
The start of lolicon as a distinct movement can be traced to Hideo Azuma’s doujin Cybele. Wattzky writes:
It is in 1979 that Hideo Azuma, one of the first major male shoujo manga artists, published the first Cybele doujin, which notably contained an erotic parody of Little Red Riding Hood. What stood out was not the erotic content of the manga, but rather the art style, which combined round, cute characters inspired by Osamu Tezuka and a search for expressivity and emotion inspired by shoujo manga. In Azuma’s own words, he was pursuing a kind of “cute eroticism” (kawaii ero) [p.31] which would become, as I will show, the central theme of the lolicon aesthetic.
Azuma’s works in the 70’s had always been preoccupied with sexuality, and in that, they were a clear response to both male-oriented gekiga productions and female-oriented shoujo. Both were counter-cultural forms that sought to revise the perception of sexuality: gekiga went for realism and grittiness in order to break societal taboos about sex, while many shoujo represented gay love stories. Azuma wanted to do something different from both, and look for eroticism even further, that is in so-called innocent, children’s manga, such as those by Osamu Tezuka. What was at stake was therefore not so much the representation of child sexuality, but rather, as Patrick Galbraith expresses it, a question of genre and gender dynamics:
“Faced with the overwhelming presence of girls and women at the Comic Market, and the dominance of fanzines by and for girls and women focusing on sexual and romantic relationships between male characters, Azuma and his friends were opening space for boys and men. In fact, even as Azuma was responding to shoujo manga in his bishoujo manga, lolicon fanzines were responding to yaoi fanzines by and for girls and women. If imagined and created relations with, between, and through male characters provided girls and women with space to more flexibly play with gender and sexuality, Azuma and his friends raised the possibility of something similar for boys and men.”
For more on gekiga, see here.
Alongside this came Hayao Miyazaki’s film Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, which we watched back on Animation Night 37, though I never managed to give it a proper writeup. Miyazaki’s film was certainly not explicitly erotic, but the cute soft bishoujo love interest and Lupin’s protective relationship to her inspired a wave of doujin fanart. Fans started to identify this as a particular aesthetic archetype to seek out, and started publishing magazines:
In any case, by the early 1980’s, the “lolicon boom” had started in earnest, but it quickly grew very different from its humble beginnings in the male shoujo fandoms. In February 1982, the first official lolicon magazine, Lemon People, started coming out, and it quickly faced hard competition from the likes of Manga Burikko, Melon Comic, and many others. The actual content of these magazines is interesting, because it translates the tension between the “dark”, pornographic side of lolicon and the “bright”, bishoujo-oriented one. Lemon People, which mostly featured works from Hideo Azuma and his group, published parodic doujin, often but not necessarily of erotic or pornographic nature. The most interesting aspect is that, initially, the magazine included idol photographs; but due to reader demands, it quickly switched to manga only: real bishoujo didn’t interest lolicons, but only fictional characters.
These bishoujo and loli characters started appearing more often in science fiction media such as Macross and Gundam, and we can recognise them in convention introduction films like the famous proto-Gainax Daicon III and IV shorts (currently undergoing official restoration, thank you for getting that ball rolling Femboy Films!), and even more so in similar shorts like (cw: non-lifelike child nudity) the opening for Ezocon in which a series of loli characters have their clothes destroyed by explosions. (More on the Daicon and Ezocon animations here).
In this fandom context, we see the first outright erotic anime since Tezuka: Lolita Anime (1984) which drew controversy due to its sadistic themes, and the more popular Cream Lemon (1984), both being series of episodic pornographic vignettes.
The lolicon boom came to an abrupt halt following a series of rapes and murders of four young girls committed by Tsutomu Miyazaki in 1989. Journalists reported - though the truth of this is apparently disputed - that Miyazaki possessed a lot of VHS tapes of lolicon anime, and suddenly the lolicon otaku were under intense suspicion as future child rapists. They responded in various ways, such as Gainax’s Otaku no Video (1991) which portrayed otaku in a positive light. In any case, lolicon’s day in the sun was over; even if people sought the same ‘cute’ aesthetic, they would be unlikely to identify themselves as ‘lolicons’ since that’s tantamount to saying you’re a pedo nowadays. As we’ll see, bishōjo fans now primarily look to moe aesthetics, which takes the designs in a less childlike direction.
That said, lolicon hasn’t completely gone by any means. It’s hard to take for example Made in Abyss (Animation Night 45) as responding to anything other than lolisho guro, even if the explicit references to sexuality are usually jokes or brief fanservice shots (more so in the manga); like, taken as a horror series it’s unquestionably effective, but it’s hard to imagine the author doesn’t see an erotic component in it.
The rise of tentacles: Toshiro Maeda and Urotsokidōji
One of the most famous tropes of hentai is the tentacle scene. Typically, this will see a girl raped by a tentacle monster who invades all her orifices, although later depictions might be more willing to depict consensual tentacle sex. This is generally said to have been popularised by the OVA adaptation of Toshiro Maeda’s manga Urotsokidōji (Legend of the Overfiend) in 1987. Maeda is quite a character; in a Vice interview here, he seems like a very fun, cheery guy who laughs about referring to his unsupportive parents’ house in a Ferrari he bought from his success as a hentai mangaka.
According to Maeda, the reason for tentacles is to get around the article 175 censorship restrictions which (still!) forbid you to draw a penis or indeed any genitals in published media; and secondly because it allowed him a great deal more freedom to depict characters from different angles. However, the tentacles do not seem to originate with Maeda himself, appearing in works like Dream Hunter Rem (1985) (pictured in the gif) and Guyver: Out of Control (1986); the Wiki page suggests tentacles aren’t actually a feature of Maeda’s original, more comedic Urotsokidōji manga, but he seems to have started making heavy use of them after the OVA’s success starting with Demon Beast Invasion (1988).
Watching Urotsukidōji today (which I did last night lol, albeit just the first ep) is quite an experience; the animation varies between quite solid and very limited, there’s a tonally bizarre synth soundtrack, and despite its reputation most of the screen time is devoted not to sex but to gory yet rather static fight scenes, and various characters trying to guess who the Overfiend is. (Turns out it’s the pervy guy, in a shock to nobody). The characters are paper-thin, the plot weirdly paced, and overall it’s kind of hard to imagine anyone getting off to it. But nevertheless, it was successful both in Japan and to a certain extent the West where it helped establish the reputation of anime as all being tentacle porn; over the 90s, tentacles escaped from the confines of the ero guro movement and became their own subgenre.
Dating sims and the 90s pivot to moe
Returning to Wattzky’s article, the other major aesthetic strand coming into 90s is the rise of erotic dating sim games (eroge). Some of the most successful media franchises originate in eroge (such as Fate/Stay Night); this was also a lucrative line for Gainax in a time when their anime was not particularly paying the bills. These games defined a new way of relating to characters: the player needed to learn about their likes and dislikes, and the fans increasingly categorised them into particular personality archetypes such as tsundere.
According to Wattzky, the word moe first appeared on the official message boards for fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion, commenting on each episode as it appears. Eva is notable for writing characters with a much higher degree of psychological realism than a lot of prior anime, but for its fans, it also served to introduce a major new archetype in the form of the aloof, emotionless girl Rei. Wattzky, paraphrasing Galbraith, writes:
Initially, fans would use expressions such as moe moe or moeru moeru to express their affection for characters. There, they used the verb 燃える, meaning to burn or to get fired up, which can refer to love or sexual desire. However, computers would often automatically convert the kana characters not into the “fired up” verb, but instead in 萌える, pronounced the same way, but which means to bud or to sprout. With time, the original kanji was lost, but this etymology is interesting because it reproduces the duality that had already been present in lolicon. Indeed, the first meaning of moeru would translate to the “dark” side of lolicon, oriented towards sexuality and pornography, whereas the second meaning is more innocent and rather indicates a fuzzier, more affective kind of feeling.
The ‘moe boom’ has not left; indeed the majority of female characters in anime even now have recognisably moe designs (e.g. particular ways of drawing faces and hair, particular expressions of emotion). Certain studios such as Kyoani became famous for portraying moe characters.
Dandelion and Pink Pineapple
Per Mogs, hentai saw a massive rise in the number of the releases during the 90s, with the rise of two hentai-focused studios: Dandelion and Pink Pineapple. These studios were noted for their high production values; she writes:
Dandelion, headed by famous animator and character designer Rin Shin, often collaborated with Green Bunny, the hentai branch of Happinet, itself a subsidary of Bandai Namco, and would eventually go on to success in the mainstream market after renaming itself to Arms, and Pink Pineapple was the hentai branch of the larger KSS Inc which provided production services to other studios as well as creating its own series.
Starting in 1994, the amount of hentai releases went from numbering 4 or 5 into the double digits, driven primarily by Pink Pineapple’s ability to produce decent quality animation with the financial backing of its parent corporation. This lead to hentai coming to the attention of the growing Western anime fandom, and soon a number of anime distributors began opening their own special hentai brands which localized mostly releases from these two studios.
Arms subsequently became known for works like Elfen Lied, as well as becoming the home of Yasuomi Umetsu, where he produced his post-Mezzo Forte works like Kite, Kite Liberator, Mezzo DSA and Wizard Barristers. There is a decent (but long!) retrospective of the studio here:
The latest decline: the Misshitsu affair
This latest hentai boom came to an abrupt end in 2004, when the manga Misshitsu depicting a series of sadomasochistic fantasies was prosecuted under the rarely-enforced Article 175. Mogs writes:
The father of a teenage boy found a copy of the hentai manga anthology Misshitsu in his son's room, and upon reading a number of the stories within, contacted the authorities demanding to know why such material was allowed to be published. This lead to its creator, Yuji Suwa, and his publishers to be brought up on obscentiy charges in violation of Japan's Article 175, what could be considered the descendant of the old Tokugawa anti-Shunga laws. The publishers each plead guilty and were fined 500,000 yen each, but Suwa refused and was sentenced to 1 year in jail, a sentence that was reduced to paying a fine of 1.5mil yen. He appealed the verdict to the Japanese supreme court in 2007, but his appeal was denied.
The result of the supreme court upholding this verdict caused a wave of concern over the entire hentai publishing industry, leading most retailers who carried hentai material to either severly reduce or completely remove sections dedicated to adult material.
However, in the decades since, extremely overt sexual content has become increasingly common in quite mainstream anime; with series like Redo of Healer (2021) and Goblin Slayer (2018) offering contrived rape themed scenarios that would easily be at home among the edgier 80s hentai OVAs, yet not themselves considered 'hentai'.
Meanwhile, a lot of the erotic artists have taken their work online, publishing on sites such as Pixiv. Their work has found a large Western audience, who use tagging sites like Danbooru or e-hentai to classify and attribute, primarily, anime-style erotic images; I would need to look further to determine what counterparts they have in Japan.
This rise in online erotic animation has seen counterparts in the west; animators may use tools like Source Filmmaker, or else traditional animation. One very interesting example is the work of Telepurte, an extremely talented animator who recently spent a full year creating brief daily animations which are often risque enough to toe the line of what's safe for Youtube (and, indeed, he was briefly banned). Hopefully I can go more into Telepurte's background on a future 'indie animation' night.
Over in France, the studio Bobbypills has recently started to make a more modern, anime-influenced take on 'European animated sex comedy', with series like the satirically educational Peepoodo and the Super Fuck Friends or the upcoming film Nymphopolis. Their work, especially when they collaborate with artists like Baptiste Gaubert, has some real animation chops, so while I don't have anything longform to show I want to include a little of it.
Tonight we're going to be checking out Belladonna, followed by a collection of more or less safe-ish, shorter sexuality-themed animations collected by Mogs. These are:
- Belladonna of Sadness (86min, 1976)—discussed above
- Kaze to Ki no Uta (56min, 1987)—discussed above, a shōnen-ai movie based on a shoujo manga from the 80s about two young men at a 19th century French boarding school
- Weather Report Girl (40min, 1994)—a pinky lesbian comedy about an ambitious weather reporter (and the first anime I [Mogs] ever got via the VHS exchange~)
- Kimera (47min, 1996)—a sci fi story about the romance between a man and an androgynous vampire alien
- Oruchuban Ebichu (24min, 1999)—a series of shorts (by Gainax!) about a hamster who acts as her owner's housekeeper and also endeavors to improve her sex life
- Hen Semi (26min, 2011)—an OVA about a girl who joins a seminar at her college about 'abnormal' sexuality
Along with that, if time permits, I will show some shorter work by Bobbypills and Telepurte!
Animation Night 69 has been delayed by Tumblr censorship, but goddamnit I'm not giving up, please head in and we'll be starting very shortly!