One of the key reasons for the boom of anime popularity in the west is how it deals with sexuality. It’s no wonder considering how, before shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop were aired on adult swim, we only had the seemingly asexual characters from Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z. Even shows for young girls like Card Captors were censored for Western television to the point that the homosexual relationship between Sakura’s brother, Toya, and Julian was cut out entirely. When more mature anime were aired (although at much later viewing hours) viewers were utterly fascinated when witnessing the first three-dimensional, animated characters that possessed realistic sexualities. Sure, we had witnessed it in the mostly one-dimensional and vanilla sense through tropes like the damsel in distress in Disney films, but nothing of the inner conflict that it creates in real life. The only problem was that we had absolutely no idea how far the Japanese culture intended to take this trend… but thanks to the internet, now we do.
Anime, Hentai and Ecchi
The sexual oddities of anime were brought into the open when the term ‘hentai’ became a word in the majority of anime watchers’ lexicons. For those new to the subculture, hentai is a word used describe any number of perverted people, thoughts or acts, but predominantly it’s used in the west for the large demographic of animated pornography. Before I make the readers feel anymore uncomfortable, let’s take a step back and put this into context. It all comes down to a difference in culture. Anyone who has watched anime for a while can perceive that what’s acceptable to be animated in Japan is much broader than that of Western cartoons. In fact, it’s not uncommon for stores in Japan to openly sell manga and animated series that depict any and every kind of porn known to man. But how does this impact anime?
Thanks to the internet, anime’s relation to sexuality has been somewhat skewed in the direction of the perverse. We all know that sex sells and nothing makes this more obvious than the insertion of ‘fan service’ into anime. Fan service has, to some, become the cancer of anime where nudity or sexually suggestive scenes are purposely put into an anime to increase their sales demographic by means of titillation. In other words, “Something for the Dads.” This became so popular that an entirely new genre of anime known as ‘ecchi’ came about for the sole purpose of developing plots around these raunchy scenes. A perfect example being Seikon no Qwaser in which the protagonist’s powers, and I kid you not, comes from consuming breast milk. One might think that having an entirely new genre would be enough to cordon off these scenes from other genres of anime, but unfortunately selling sex to teenagers is one hell of a cash grab.
How Fan Service has Blurred the Lines
Fan service is being placed in anime targeted at audiences both young and old with certain age demographics blurring the line of what’s acceptable. Anime like Sword Art Online and Kill La Kill are good examples not only of how fan service hidden in anime aimed at young people brings in more money for the studio, but also how controversies of it being pulled from the air in certain countries have made them even more popular. As with all things, someone could argue for either side in this debate. Perhaps these scenes apply the same realism to the characters as in the anime mentioned earlier and that the tentacle and incestuous scenes in them are just there for the deconstruction and parody of these genres of hentai. After all, the director of Neon Genesis Evangelion recently did just this in the short music video ME!ME!ME! which is now being studied by academics as a deconstruction of Otaku culture.
As shown here, the level of these scenes can differ for an abundance of reasons. So what’s wrong so with it? Two words: societal stigma. Would you be fine watching these kinds of anime with your family? With your friends or even with your lover? Different people would give different answers to these questions depending on the anime. With the nature of fan service blurring the lines between anime, hentai and ecchi, one can never be safe on what their parents might walk in on you watching. So to help out in this, using the anime you are already aware of as a guide, the continuum I made above might help give examples of where your comfort levels would be while watching them in the company these groups of people. A quick warning however, some of these titles are NSFW if you decide to google image them.
Yuri, Yaoi and Fetishism
As in the example given in the first paragraph about the homosexual relationship in the anime Card Captors, non-straight sexualities are more widely accepted in anime and other Japanese media, and have been for some time. Unlike much of the west, religious views on the nature of these topics hasn’t been as influential on the culture. Even now, yuri anime has become very popular in the anime community, the most resent example being the acclaimed romance anime Sakura Trick. Just to be clear, yuri is the genre of media dedicated to lesbian romance where yaoi is the term for media presenting gay relationships. The manga authors of Clamp, the creators of Card Captors and Code Geass, are well known for playing of this genre in anime such as X. With anime focusing on these non-straight relationships it allows anime to have more diversity in their audience.
Speaking of diversity, gay and lesbian aren’t the only sexualities portrayed in anime. Fetishes in anime can stretch from furries (humans resembling other animals in anime like Spice and Wolf) to guro (amputations and gore in anime like Pupa) to fetishes based entirely around what the characters are wearing or exactly how old they are. Debates have arisen on whether or not there are risks to the nature of this free expression or if it effects people’s sexuality in real life. The Slippery-Slope is a common fallacy used: The belief that doing one thing inevitably leads to something worse. Although there have been cases where people have tried to play out harmful fantasies in real life, the statistics show that sexual assaults and child abuse have dramatically gone down ever since the proliferation of this media. As for the harmless fetishes it has, it’s my belief that the same liberal principles given to other sexualities should also be afforded to them.
Why There’s a Market for it
One might ask if there is a deeper meaning to these scenes or if it’s truly just a case of “sex sells.” Of course, this answer can vary depending on the anime. Certain anime have nudity or sex scenes that are either censored or vanilla enough to portray nothing more than an attraction or romantic developments between two characters. However, there’s no fooling oneself about the purpose of fan service or the ecchi genre. Adding the equivalent of a strip tease to every episode for those who find anime characters arousing or for those looking to buy a raunchy comedy is the same practice of supply and demand as any media based industry. Attesting to this is the fact that most of the censorship these shows have when released online is only removed in the expensive BlueRay editions which is where the studios make the majority of their money.
Some might think these practices have gone too far to the point that things considered illegal in most Western countries are not only legal but, to an extent, accepted in Japan. Even selling products that serializes young boys and girls in ways unconventional to Westerners is considered widely acceptable in Japan. Though there are many reasons, a major one is a history of Western influence in Japanese culture and its push towards capitalism, free expression and free market. These philosophies completely override the taboo nature of these products. This is why this phenomenon continues to flourish as where there’s a market there is money to be made from it. But why is there a market at all? Why do people desire these things? One reason might be the very fact that it is taboo, a forbidden fruit, but like with any human nature it is generally judged on a case-by-case basis and are questions best left to a psychologist.
Conclusion: Anime’s Stigma
Many people in the anime community complain about how hentai, ecchi or fan service perpetuates the stereotype that all anime is perverted. Although this is obviously not true, sexuality is a big part of this medium, and the more you deny its existence the less ground you have to stand on when defending your interest in it to other people. With anime directed at younger boys and girls incorporating these tropes and parodying these niches it is inevitable that this is going trigger some curiosities. I say all the power to them. Finding your sexual preferences is all a part of becoming an adult. Besides, of ALL the things that someone could be into, drawn images is one form of pornography that is very unlikely to harm actual people involved in its creation. From reading this essay I hope your knowledge of sexuality in anime has increased and you can grow as a fan of this medium in the safe circle of your own personal preferences.
What do you think? Leave a comment.