America is acknowledged as the world leader in porn. In fact, like most entertainment, adult material isn't a genre we invented, but it is a genre we defined. However, there's an entire world of erotica, smut, and in some cases, downright filth, that most Americans have little or no awareness of. This sub-category of adult is often inventive, sometimes artistic, occasionally offensive, and often flirts with actual physiological impossibility.
And it all centers on cartoon characters.
Of course, we're talking about the incredibly popular (especially on the Web) branch of Japanese animation and comic books that deals with real - or imagined - sexual situations. As Asian culture continues to influence our Western sensibilities (just as our media has influenced Japan and Hong Kong), insinuating itself into American life in the form of cartoons for adults (like Titan AE and, arguably, Atlantis), Chinese martial arts fables (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and melting-pot-blends of classic American film templates with Hong Kong- or Tokyo-style chop-saki action (Face/Off, Rush Hour, The Matrix), this kind of erotica will only become more popular. It makes sense for adult Webmasters to acquaint themselves with this "new" market, its dynamics, pluses, and pitfalls.
Serious fans of the various Japanese comic books and animated shows are rabid aficionados (think of them as an analog to the very geekiest of domestic Star Trek fans), and more than willing to shell out the cash to feed their need for whatever particular genre they enjoy. In fact, Japanese animation fans will regularly shell out hundreds of dollars for import laserdiscs (in Japan, DVDs are only now beginning to supplant laserdiscs, which achieved much greater market penetration there than they ever did in the U.S.) of their favorite animated series or films. The same is true of the cartoon porn fans.
However, it's impossible to even discuss the topic without absorbing a few salient facts. Like all serious fans of any media, the consumers of Japanese animation and comics hate being talked down to, and can sniff out fake fan sites and posers like a DEA German shepherd nosing around Keith Richards' luggage. If you're even considering dipping your toes into this lucrative pond, a little education would serve you well. Still, cultural literacy can be tough to absorb, especially when dealing with the tricky world of Japanese animation. Like every cultural phenomenon, Asian "cartoon" erotica in its myriad forms has subtleties and nuances that simply can't be conveyed in an article like this. Instead, consider this a primer on the, uh, ins and outs of a specific market that becomes more ubiquitous - ergo, profitable - every day.
The very first principle to absorb about this material relates more closely to Japanese culture overall, which is the idea that everything in Japanese culture has a name. Unlike Americans, who are perfectly happy throwing their media into sloppy categories like "comedy" or "action," the Japanese want their genres to have names. And then they want the sub-genres to have names. And then they want the individual flavors of those sub- genres to have names. And so on.
The only U.S. subculture with a similar vernacular is that of the serious underground music fan. As an example, when most people go to a dance club, they might decide whether they like the music or not, but they probably don't spend a lot of time classifying it. The dance music fanatics, however, do. Not only are there broad categories like house, trance, industrial, techno, etc., there are even more sub-categories, and sub-sub-categories, with an end result of club kids blithely tossing around terminology like "deep retro trance with an acid jazz flavor."
Fans of Japanese animation are worse. The most popular series (most of which feature giant robots) have entire books (meaning dozens) available which consist of nothing but sketches of the various robots that detail what each and every part is called.
This might seem like ridiculous hairsplitting, and it is. But... your potential customers will not only care that you've taken the time to split these hairs, they will know if you haven't. You don't have to drive yourself crazy learning the secret code; just remember that it's important to be able to correctly categorize your content. As a result, a great deal of this "primer" is devoted to sorting out and defining some of those split hairs.
The first hurdle most Americans have to overcome is recognizing that both the cartoon and the comic book hold an entirely different place in the Japanese culture than we're used to. Unlike the U.S., where comics are synonymous with Spider-Man and Batman, and cartoons usually mean Disney, neither media has ever carried that inherently juvenile stigma in Japan. In that country, comics compete with the novel on a level playing field as serious fiction, and animated films are taken every bit as seriously as their live-action counterparts.
In 1997, Titanic had its overly histrionic ass whooped at the Japanese box office by Mononoke Hime, an animated feature that told a complex Man vs. Nature story which was, at its core, an ecological metaphor. (It was dubbed in English and released domestically as Princess Mononoke, to great critical acclaim.)
It's also important to differentiate between Japanese animation (or "Japanimation," as it is frequently called in the U.S.) and Japanese comics. Animation is known as anime, and comics are known as manga. Between these two media, the characters and stories are often interchangeable; however, it's rare for the continuity of a storyline to continue either from manga to anime, or vice versa.
For example, if a manga is popular, it may become a big-budget animated film with a completely different storyline, and frequently, different characters (or very different representations of characters). If the film is successful, it might spawn a TV series, which again has its own unique plotline, and new variations on these characters. Later incarnations of the show might again remake characters and plots as the creators see fit.
The most popular manga and anime fall into one of several broad genres. In general, different products from within the same genre are so similar, the uninitiated viewer or reader would have no hope of telling them apart. As one would expect from the nation that created Kabuki, the Japanese enjoy strong archetypes with clearly defined roles. These archetypes are then repeated with what would seem, to Western eyes, to be a shameless lack of originality.
There are the giant robot - or mecha - shows, which tend to thrive on warriors piloting anthropomorphic mechanical suits - from human-sized to Godzilla, er, sorry, Gojiro-sized - into combat, usually against invading aliens or monsters. Another common plotline is that of the noir-ish, badass tough-guy, frequently a loner, who finds himself going toe-to-toe with superhuman, alien, and often supernatural enemies. Equally popular are the various cyberpunk shows in which cyborgs, enhanced humans, and androids fight other cyborgs, enhanced humans, and androids - usually in the kind of slow-motion, balletic hail of bullets that gave birth to The Matrix.
To be sure, there are shows that break out of these molds, and often, these are the most popular. There are also dozens of other genres that are worth investigating; of particular interest to those considering anime-based content are the "magical girl" shows. This amazingly popular theme is, alongside mecha, the most intrinsically Japanese genre.
In these plotlines, a young girl (or group of girls) discovers that she has superhuman/supernatural/psychokinetic/magical powers, and after struggling to bring these abilities under control, she battles the superhuman/supernatural/psychokinetic/ magical group or individual set to be her nemesis. These young girls are always depicted in schoolgirl uniforms (many of which look like the sailor suits of old, which has given rise to Americanizations like Sailor Moon).
Given all this, it isn't surprising that erotica and porn have arisen as popular entertainment via the media of comics and animation. In a nation where these art forms are as much for adults as anything else, it was inevitable. Erotic manga and anime fall generally into one of two categories: ecchi and hentai. While there is some disagreement about these classifications, in general, ecchi is the name given to softcore art, while hentai is reserved for hardcore. Or, to put it more simply, ecchi is erotica; hentai is porn.
Under the strictures of Japanese censorship, it is illegal to show genitalia, and by extension, penetration. Most hentai artists get around this by drawing explicit artwork and then blurring the genitals for printing, or putting a pixelated mosaic over the action in the case of anime. When distributed in the U.S., these distractions are normally removed. A handful of artists have developed stylized ways of drawing characters without genitalia, or with featureless genitalia to get past the censors. U.S. manga is expected to have these details drawn back in.
And if you've never delved into this arena before, be prepared... hentai is rough. While there is no legal hardcore in Japan, there is a thriving black market with a long history of supplying everything and anything. Hentai reflects this lack of self-regulation (which is one of the things which makes it so popular in the U.S.). Everything that is taboo in domestic porn is not only available in hentai, it's expected. Demons possess young girls. Aliens assault women with their slimy tentacles. Motorcycle gangs kidnap teenagers and drug them into being sex slaves.
The tentacles, curiously enough, are a frequently recurring theme, enough so to have been dubbed "tentacle-porn." In these scenarios an alien or demon or monster has dozens - or even hundreds - of phallic pseudopodia, which usually end up crammed by the handful into every available orifice of the victim, male or female. It's also fairly common for a man's penis to mutate into a prehensile tentacle. Women's clitorises often grow into enormous penises, or tentacles.
If all this sounds silly, understand that much hentai isn't light in tone. Incest, rape scenarios, extremely hard bondage, fisting, pissing, scat, bestiality, and even storylines with early-teen girls and boys are common.
This last element is particularly problematic for domestic Webmasters. Under the dictates of the so-called Child Online Protection Act (assuming it survives its trip to the Supreme Court this fall), any depiction of underage sex, even if there are no real people involved, is illegal. This means that Webmasters have to be careful to pick and choose their content accordingly.
As to the moral implications of this kind of hentai (which is insanely popular), it might be culturally impossible for Americans to understand this obsession. While no one condones sex with a minor in Japan, the Japanese idea of what constitutes a minor is very different from ours (Japanese law gives conflicting ages of consent; it varies from 13-17 years of age in different locales. However, a new law enacted in 1999 makes it illegal to have sex with anyone under 18 in certain circumstances). Also, the practice of middle-aged men having sex with very young girls isn't demonized there as it is in the U.S. In many circles, such girls are considered lucky to have a patron. In fact, there are vending machines in Tokyo that sell worn schoolgirl uniforms, panties and all, for around $400.
Which brings us to bishoujo. Bishoujo translates as "pretty girl," and is a sub-classification given to... well, no one seems to be able to agree on that part. From fan Websites to folks who work at bookstores that do nothing but import anime and manga, no one has the same definition of bishoujo, or shojo, as it is more frequently called.
Some think it refers to the entire magical girl genre; some think it refers specifically to computer role-playing games set in the magical girl genre; most, however, seem to feel that shojo has a vague, "dirty" connotation (this could be because "shojo" is also Japanese slang for "virgin"), which jibes with the idea that bishoujo is magical girl hentai. Whatever the hell bishoujo actually means to fans, it's popular. A quick Google search reveals hundreds of bishoujo or shojo sites... each, apparently, with a different idea of the term's definition (there's also a bishounen, or shonen subculture devoted to "pretty boys," but this largely deals with the anime romance genre aimed at starry-eyed girls looking for love).
For those Webmasters already working the fans of hentai and ecchi, protecting their content has proven particularly difficult. Not only do the same situations arise again and again in hentai, the style of the medium insists that the characters be remarkably similar. The odds of being able to differentiate one blue-haired, doe-eyed, latex-clad dominatrix from the next are very slim. The low regard in which cartoons are held by most Americans leads Webmasters to consider this material free game in many cases, since they themselves don't take it seriously. Also, legally licensing content from the owners or creators is a particular problem for those who don't have Japanese contacts.
However, the passing around of these images and characters is also part of the Japanese culture. Hentai is largely considered "open" or "give-away" art by the actual artists, meaning they expect it to be taken, used, and modified. In return, they expect to receive the same courtesy. Parody is not a recognized and protected form of speech in Japan, and yet dojin, which is an X-rated parody of any popular anime or manga, is widely accepted. Not only do the creators expect dojin to arise parodying their popular works, it has become a sort of badge of honor. Likewise, the creators of popular hentai expect to spawn doujinshin, which is fan-created work either expanding on, or parodying popular anime, manga, and hentai.
In the final analysis, hentai is a fascinating, sometimes disturbing market whose presence is continually growing in the American consciousness. There are already thousands of sites devoted to these topics, and that fan base is growing every day.
And yet, while we love to consume it, we seem unable to re-create it. There are very successful porn comics from all over the world, and the U.S. is no different; however, virtually every attempt to create actual manga in the U.S. has failed. Somehow, we just don't get it.
Must be the tentacles.
Special thanks to Exclusive Content, www.exclusivecontent.com, for supplying the art that accompanies this article.