Japan Porn Boom. Hentai in the Times of the Internet

The spark for this article came from a collaboration with the Museo delle Culture in Lugano for the exhibition L'art de l'amour au temps des geishas, opening November 5 at the Pinacothèque de Paris. An extended version appear in the show's catalogue.

It's impossible to discuss pornography today without considering the impact of the Internet in its mechanisms of production, distribution and fruition; but also how, as critics and spectators, we witness a progressive 'pornification' of the real. Furthermore, thanks to the Web, cinema, video clips, manga and video games, pornography made in Japan has become a transnational phenomenon, and the country's export is among the most active in the sector.

From interviews administered to a sample of 60 subjects between 19 and 40, we find that interest in hentai often sparks from dōjinshi (amateur manga) in the style of famous artists (Rumiko Takahashi, Masakazu Katsura, Akira Toriyama, Studio Gainax) and then moves toward original works. Fruition happens online, as the Web offers an array of free or pay sites where materials can be seen by streaming, illegal clips and scanlations.

Most interviewees also admitted to seeking in live action pornography the same themes they found in hentai, which could be why the most common types of pornography are family or school themed, featuring fake molestation and bullying, hospital and workplace abuse, groping on subways. Another often sought porn genre is fetish, where the female protagonist is subjected to an array of bondage practices, sex toys play, more or less fake bodily fluid emissions and degrading practices such as enemas. 

Regardless, the key concept in order to understand Japanese porn is hentai. The term, translated as 'perverted', 'perversion', it indicates a wide subset of erotic Japanese manga, now well known abroad as well. While in Europe the term identifies pretty much any manga with sexual content, including lolicon, child pornography, rape, tentacle sex, bondage, futanari, transgender, bukkake and so on; in Japan hentai is the subset within ero manga that deals in extreme, deviant or abnormal hetero or homosexual contents.

The origins of hentai can be traced back to Meiji era (1868-1912), when the term begins to identify a deviation within the budding discipline of psychology; though its diffusion must be credited to the hentai boom taking place in the sexual revolution of the '60s. From then on, interest never waned, and hentai themes and re-elaborations appear in pop culture, anime, manga, and in the art world, often as parody or critique.

It's the term's success that contributed to its increasingly broad meaning outside Japan, to the point where it becomes difficult to identify the common stylistic cipher of hentai manga. Graphically they don't stray much from mainstream, although a characteristic of hentai is the use of pixelation to cover the sexual organs, or their transformation as in tentacle sex – this in order to dodge Article 175 of the Constitution, which forbids graphic depictions of sexual organs. Very well known is the example of Toshio Maeda's Urotsukidōji (and Hideki Toriyama's OAV), to whom we must credit – as Marco Benoit Carbone explains – the modern paradigm of using tentacles to circumvent legislation. Yet, styles and techniques aside, what remains surprising is the public's enduring fascination with hentai manga and its associated transgression practices – fetish, bondage, bukkake.

Images from master Toshio Maeda's archive

Thanks to Marco de Lazzer for the survey the statistical data given here is based on.

Bibliography:

Giovanna Maina, Spostamenti progressivi del ‘vedere’, in M. Ambrosini, G. Maina, E. Marcheschi (a cura di), I film in tasca. Videofonino, cinema e televisione, Felici, Pisa 2009

Mark McLelland, “A Short History of Hentai”, in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, 12 (gennaio 2006), http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue12/mclelland.html

Marco Benoît Carbone, Tentacle erotica: orrore, seduzione, immaginari pornografici, Mimesis Edizioni, Milano 2013

 
 
 
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