The Rise of Hentai in America, Part 1

(This paper, and the accompanying presentation I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way, were done in 2006 for a women’s studies course at Ohio State University.  Some of the facts may be a bit outdated, some have been updated, but I still stand by the interpretation of the texts.  And, warning, this posting will include illustrated examples of pornographic cartoons, so it is definitely rated NSFW.  Part 1 here discusses the subject matter; Part 2 compares hentai to live action pornography; Part 3 considers the ramifications of hentai.)

Created by a fan, and named “Jessica Rabbit Naughty Pin-up”.

When Jessica Rabbit, the animated femme fatale of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? uttered the line “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way,” I sincerely doubt her creators knew that a decade later she would be made into an online porn star.  Now, alongside other American and Japanese cartoon women, she has entire websites devoted to her.  Is Jessica being objectified, degraded, and having her rights taken away?  Logically, no, because Jessica is merely ink-and-paint, a figment of someone’s imagination brought to life only by the mechanical and visual trickery of animation.  As she said, it’s not her fault she was drawn to represent a stereotypical male conception of an idealized woman.  Why should we care if people have changed her from a children’s animated figure into an adult porn star?

The purpose of this essay is to answer just that: the reasons we should care, and why research should not ignore cartoon porn, and in particular hentai, when it studies pornography.

According to anime scholar Mark McLelland, hentai is the Western label applied to Japanese anime, manga and games that depict sexually explicit and pornographic images and narratives.  While not used in Japan to label animated films and television series (anime), video and computer games, or graphic novels and comic books (manga) meant for an adult audience, the term is derived from the Japanese word for “perverted”.  Because this discussion concerns the impact of cartoon porn in the United States, I will be using the term hentai to label these materials available to American consumers.

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 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.  One such fantastical depiction, with a history in Japanese illustrated literature, is known as “tentacle rape”, which is simply just that: a woman is raped, usually through more than one orifice, by monstrous tentacles as surrogates for penises.

As is hopefully becoming obvious, a common theme in hentai is the same as that found in live action pornography: the subjugation, degradation and objectification of women.  The main argument of this essay is that hentai and live action pornography share far more commonalities than they do differences, but t is also the differences between them that entreat us as researchers to attend to this “art form.”  Before I launch into this main argument, I want to briefly outline the availability of hentai in America.

According to Laura Kinney, in Japan, it is possible to purchase hentai manga at bookstores, at convenience stores, and even out of vending machines.  Hentai anime is available at regular video distributors,  Of course, both are available online.  Manage and anime alone are a huge industry in Japan, far outpacing the American animation and comics industry in terms of output.  Although hentai is only a fraction of the manga and anime titles offered in Japan, and is less than the live pornography produced, it is still far more of a sizable portion of the marketplace in Japan than erotic comics and cartoons are in the United States.

It is becoming increasingly easier to consume hentai in America, mirroring the rise of anime and manga itself.  Three decades ago, anime and manga were relatively unknown in the United States, being the possession of campus clubs that managed to get bootleg copies.  Since that time, Disney acquired the rights to distribute Japan’s highest grossing anime films by Hayao Miyazaki.  Cartoon Network, owned by Time-Warner, has devoted blocks of programming to air anime television series. Bookstores and libraries across the country have entire sections devoted to manga.  There are English-language websites devoted to streaming and selling anime and manga, such as The Anime Network and Manga Fox.  Thanks to titles like PokemonYu-Gi-Oh, and Spirited Away, anime and manga have become high revenue ventures in America’s marketplace, catering to a loyal and increasing fan base.

The first hentai anime to see big distribution in the United States.

Hentai is showing a similar trajectory, 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 tentacle rape classic Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend, and showing them at midnight theatre screenings and selling them directly to consumers and specialty stores.  It remains uncommon to walk into a store to purchase or rent hentai, but the stores owned by Musicland Co (Sam Goody and Suncoast) began selling hentai, alongside live action porn, in the fall of 2005.  At the time, Musicland was undergoing bankruptcy procedures and has subsequently been disbanded, with its assets sold off to other companies.  This turbulent time for the company may indicate why the chain decided to sell hentai: it may have been a move to distinguish themselves in a competitive marketplace dominated by Amazon and Best Buy.  However, there was an even larger player in the marketplace to compete with: the Internet.

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 addition, other sites offer hentai as an option to rent, such as GreenCine.com, an online independent movie rental site that distributes pornography as an alternative to more mainstream rental sites like Netflix, which does not.  In one night back in 2006, I found 16 official online distributors of hentai anime and manga; I have no doubt that since that time, more retailers have come on-line, and the amount of unofficial retailers (bootlegs and fan-subs) have also increased.  With the safety feature disengaged, the keywords “free” and “hentai” return over 35 million hits at Google and 125 million hits at Bing.  Of course, not all of these hits result in actually having access to free hentai, and a majority of the hits will be to sites that advertise as free but then requires registration or some fee to access the bulk of their collection.

What we have seen is that hentai is becoming as available as live action pornography in the United States.  Yet, in searching for literature on this topic, there is less research on hentai; in fact, Wikipedia and Google Scholar are rather reliable sources of information to find any discussion of hentai around the world.  Should hentai be considered as an equal to live action when we think about research and criticism of pornography?

In Part 2 of this paper, I’ll present my answer to this question, considering the similarities and differences between hentai and live action pornography, and why the differences perhaps matter the most.

6 thoughts on “The Rise of Hentai in America, Part 1

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