Yes I Do, Hentai Too
Hi, you may have noticed that this week's Anime in America podcast is all about the 18+ topic of Hentai. *Takes a long drag of a Virginia Slim*. Well, buckle up, because this is the full transcript!
The Anime in America series is available on crunchyroll.com, animeinamerica.com, and wherever you listen to podcasts.
EPISODE 4: YES I DO, HENTAI TOO
Guest: Jacob Grady
Disclaimer: The following program contains graphic material and language not suitable for audience members under the age of 18. Discretion is advised.
Just like with most things in anime in america, hentai got its start with Osamu Tezuka. In the twilight of Mushi Production’s years, having already sold the anime that would be localized as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion to NBC, Mushi produced a series of three animated films called “Animerama,” A Thousand and One Nights, Cleopatra, and Belladonna of Sadness which were commercial failures that likely contributed to the studio shuttering its doors in 1973. All the same, they were revolutionary for their time as “adult” animation, riding on the heels of Japan’s wave of live action “pink” sexploitatoin films gaining popularity during the same period.
While there are surviving animated hentai from as early as 1932 such as “Suzumifune” the content was illegal in Japan during that period. Imagine their surprise, seeing Japan now. The Animerama films were legally produced for theatrical release and popular consumption containing nudity, erotic themes, and even rape during a period where anime was in its infancy, with Mushi and Toei competing to produce almost exclusively child appropriate programming.
I’m Yedoye Travis, and this is hentai in America.
So, back to America. Animerama’s second film Cleopatra was licensed by the American Studio Xanadu and released for limited theatrical screenings. While the movie itself contains erotic themes and a LOT of topless women, Xanadu promoted the film as “porno,” localizing the title as Cleopatra: Queen of Sex. Very creative. It hit theaters April 24th 1972, missing the being “The first X rated animated film to be released in America” by just six days to the American film Fritz the Cat… or that would be the case if Xanadu had actually submitted their film to the MCAA for an official rating. They’d self-assigned the film an X rating, which I don’t think is allowed. I don’t think that’s… I don’t think that’s legal. But they did it to push the pornogapraphy angle.
This ended up backfiring as many customers demanded their money back when they realized they were watching a serious film. An actual movie.
Speaking of which, this seems like a good opportunity to talk a little bit about umm… why? Why hentai? Why- why is it a thing? Anime originally crossed the Pacific out of a need for cheap animation to fill air time on America’s growing menu of TV channels. The demand for porn will always exist but, if you’ll excuse the turn of phrase, we didn’t exactly have any holes that needed filling. Especially after America’s sexual revolution, our proud nation has become one of the biggest porn producers in the world. Unsurprisingly...
Grady: For me, Western pornography it’s like, almost like corney, in a way. What I don’t like about Western pornography is it’s very rarely a realistic scenario. You know, it’s always like “pizza delivery guy comes over and you know ‘Oh! It’s my dick in the box!’” or something like that, and then- as opposed to like a relationship developing and some sort of scenario happening based on that. So the appeal of hentai for me is that I get to invest myself in the story and take part in the story and feel for the characters more than I would in a Western pornography. And it’s very rare for any Western adult material to take that route, where they’re actually creating a plot or a story, and I wish more did because I think that that would be very appealing to a lot of people.
That was Jacob Grady. He’ll become important later.
To add to his, um, his point. Just as anime has found a popular appeal for its unique aesthetic and storytelling, the case is also true for the um… for the not safe for work stuff. Where the U.S. has more of a clear cut separation between what is porngrpahic and what is not, Japan is more of a sliding scale. What would normally be considered pornographic material to an American audience can exist within the context of a greater narrative. I’ll give you an example. So Yasuomi Umetsu’s Kite and Mezzo Forte [trailer for Mezzo Forte plays] were both originally released in the U.S. as grim, high production OVAs [Original Video Animations] featuring battles between assassins, an evil drug ring, and a protagonist overcoming intense childhood trauma. And they all became cult classics in the anime community. [trailer ends]
Later on, both got new Director’s Cut releases that included sex scenes you might find under the “hardcore” tab on certain websites that SHALL NOT be named. PornHub. They were hentai the whole time, but made a name for themselves purely on the production and the story. Whi[laughing]- Which is crazy. Imagine that in American… uh, well, anything. The safe for work cut of Kite is on Crunchyroll right now, actually. So you can check it out and tell me it’s not incredible. And this is just the stuff that involves actual sex. There’s a whole genre of “ecchi” and “eros” content that has sexual themes without including actual sex or even nudity. So while Kite may be an outlier based on the raw quality of its production alongside the, umm, intensity of its adult content, it is not exactly an outlier for the amount of story surrounding the sex. Many hentai have very involved plots spanning from comedy to tragedy, featuring scenarios and characters much more sophisticated than a pizza delivery or a plumbing problem.
When people are telling you they watch hentai for the plot, they… might not be lying. As much as it pains me to say. They might be- I mean they still could be, I don’t know. But the plot definitely exists.
It’s also a much more respected art form in Japan, even outside of contextless black and white photography. Studio SHAFT, one of the most respected and stylistic studios with one of the most ridiculous names in this context, built their reputation entirely on their immediately recognizable visual style. This was an intentional move by founder Hiroshi Wakao who built the studio’s trademark on the work of director Akiyuki Shinbo, who SHAFT hired almost directly out of making hentai under the pseudonym Jyuhachi Minamizawa. SHAFT has Shinbo’s touch all of its work to make sure they keep with his avante garde style. Shinbo himself was also the impetus behind the creation of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
[Clip from a Puella Magi Madoka Magica commercial plays]
Many hentai have found considerable acclaim for their artist’s merit alone or as genre pieces within the genres of romance, science fiction, and even horror. And we will be touching on a few titles as we go.
It wouldn’t be for another 14 years that the first real hentai would make its way to American shores in 1986. Although hentai manga had already been around for a while at this point, no American publishers had bitten quite yet. Localization was still the realm of major studios and broadcast networks, although the proliferation of VHS would allow smaller companies to get into the game with direct video release. The first American license of a manga, First Comic’s release of Lone Wolf and Cub wouldn’t be ‘til the next year.
Instead, the first hentai release in America would be a direct-to-video VHS release of the second ever erotic OVA made in Japan, Cream Lemon. Why the second? I dunno. The first was called Lolita Anime and I’ll leave it at that. Excalibur Films dubbed and localized 3 episodes of the 16-part miniseries and released them into the area behind that black curtain that says “18+” in comic shops and video stores across America under the bizarrely chosen title “The Brothers Grime,” hopefully not to be confused with the children’s anime “Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics” that came out the next year. The literal next year.
In 1990 the first hentai comic would make its way to comic store shelves in the extremely questionable publication “Anime Shower Special” which was basically a magazine that cut shower scenes out of hundreds of different manga that I am pretty sure it did not have the license or permission to use. It’s Canadian publisher, IANVS, would later become part of Protoculture Inc., which produced one of the earliest anime magazines, Protoculture Addicts. Protoculture would then be acquired by Anime News Network in 2005 so I guess you could say they technically got into hentai. Technically.
And that’s not me shaming them or anything like that, just about every company in anime has touched hentai at some point. Central Park Media had Anime 18, Manga 18, and Be Beautiful Manga labels to print hentai anime, manga, and yaoi manga respectively. Media Blasters got their start with hentai, their first title being Rei-Lan: Orchid Emblem and later created Kitty Media to manage their 18+ products. Then there was ADV’s SoftCel Pictures and RightStuf’s hentai label Critical Mass which is just a visual that… that the imagination takes care of, I’d say.
Legitimate companies dealing in hentai was a big risk, both when it came to American promiscuity laws and the popular misconception that all anime is cartoon pornography. So, there’s that. America’s uh, kinda fucked up. Here’s an example: In 1999, Jesus Castillo, a clerk at Keith's Comics in Dallas, was accused of promoting obscenity for selling an issue of the Demon Beast Invasion manga to an undercover officer. He was fined $4,000 and sentenced to a year of unsupervised probation after the original six-month prison sentence was suspended, which is insane. First of all, the heft of that sentence; but second of all, the levity we have with what we perceive as sexual crimes. It’s a very confusing balance of things. But, you know, it’s 1999 I guess.
So why risk their reputation? I mean, the obvious answer why everyone risks their reputation in America: uh, because it’s profitable. Kitty Media’s president John Sirabella claimed that, by 1998, 30-40% of anime’s total revenue in the U.S. came from hentai. 40%! And it was cheap. It was, it was super cheap. You know, you don’t exactly market pornography with billboards or commercials or expensive activations. So they were spending almost nothing on advertising, but hentai VHS and DVD were among their first products to sell out on the dealers floor at anime conventions every time.
So moving on, in 1993 hentai finally made history in the U.S. Central Park Media’s Anime 18 division [Legend of the Overfiend trailer begins] dubbed and released the now infamous Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend in limited theaters on March 11th, [Tailer ends] making it the first animated film to receive the MPAA’s NC-17 rating which had just replaced their old X rating three years earlier in 1990. The film would reach a legendary cult status among porn, science fiction, and horror fans alike. It was also umm, a lot of Americans’ first introduction to umm… [whispered] tentacles. You know- you know tentacles. You’re familiar. The squid? [Whispering ends]
This is unfortunately the part where we talk about tentacles...
To understand tentacles I gotta tell you a little bit about um, about censorship law. This is a, yeah, this is a legal matter. I don’t know what else to tell you, I don’t know how else to prepare you for this. It’s a, it’s a legal matter, so bear with me. I will start by saying tentacles have a long history in Japanese pornography. You may be familiar with the famous “The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife” woodblock print featuring a lady and an octopus doing the thing. It was created around 1814 by none other than legendary Japanese artist Hokusai… you know, the guy who drew that wave that you see everywhere, on all the Uniqlo tee shirts? You know the one. Hokusai’s Wave. If you Google those words, you’ll find it. Anyway, they were far from mainstream but let’s just say they existed in the popular subconscious.
So, when it comes to porn, Japan had and has some pretty specific guidelines requiring what is off-limits. They put a lot less emphasis on scenario and the content of scenes, and instead they focus on the appearance of genitalia. I’m sure you’re familiar, you know they got the whole pixelated mosaic over the, over the junk and the jingles and the jangles, and pretty much anything else goes. This is in stark contrast to America where seeing those parts is basically the point of adult material, but scenario and content of scenes can sometimes get you in trouble. The one where we run into problems most is portrayal of minors. Obviously. That’s uh, obviously it’s fucked up. Japan, on the other hand, has the same age of consent as us but umm… [sigh], man, oo boy, they do not follow that in hentai. I will say no more than that. This has of course led to a very unique relationship between hentai publishers and their American licensors. Some weird conversations, it gets weird.
Often American versions of hentai are LESS censored than those in Japan, with the American distributor receiving the cut before the mosaics are added so you see the original art in all its glory. But then they might have to go in and uh, change some other things, like umm… you know, age. Obviously. A character’s age in anime can be kinda ambiguous sometimes, so they usually get away with changing a reference to class to a reference to like a “college” course, but you know, sometimes scenes would have to be cut out if it didn’t convincingly look like two adults. Which it unfortunately does. Frequently.
Okay, so back to tentacles. The whole censorship thing is a problem in the hentai industry that many young innovators have tried to work around, often using objects reminiscent of uh… of- of the pe- the penis as substitutes. Along came an enterprising creator named Toshio Maeda. His solution to the uh, to the censorship problem was of course, as we have set up for the past couple paragraphs: tentacles. They were alive, they moved around, but they were not dicks. It feels weird to talk about porn this much and not say the word “dick.” I don’t- why am I using so many euphemisms? I’m just gonna say dick, wherever it feels appropriate.
I’m gonna paraphrase from an interview with Maeda in 2002. [Music play throughout] Quote: “At that time pre-Urotsukidoji, it was illegal to create a sensual scene in bed. I thought I should do something to avoid drawing such a sensual scene. So, I just created a creature. His tentacle is not a penis as a pretext. I could say, as an excuse, ‘this is not a penis; this is just a part of the creature.’ You know, the creatures, they don’t have a gender. A creature is a creature. So it is not obscene – not illegal.”
Umm… some points were made. The gender thing I feel like is probably… actually, y’know, y’know, that probably, that probably lines up, actually. Depends on how sentient you believe animals are. I guess PETA would disagree. There is- they have a sex, not necessarily a gender, I guess. Huh. Well, look at me learning.
Okay, as far as I can tell, the first manga to actually get an official license and distribution in the U.S. was, much like Overfiend, a hell of an introduction. Prepare yourselves as I speak this next sentence. Bondage Fairies was released by Antarctic Press under their Venus Press imprint in 1994, following the adventures of Pfil and Pamela, a lesbian fairy couple who act as sort of, uh forest police making sure animals don’t… break the forest law? Where Urotsukidoji introduced many Americans to a multitude of new uses for tentacles, Bondage Fairies was a first introduction for many as well, and I hate having to say these two words next to each other, insect beastiality. Also obviously bondage. I don’t know if that was clear in the title.
The ‘90s also saw the first eroge making their way to the U.S., a very popular genre of video games in Japan featuring sexually explicit images, often featuring “visual novel” style gameplay where you navigate through different dialogue choices to reach a number of different branching narrative paths, often to pursue a uh, “happy ending” with one of a number of different female characters, usually with a larger overall narrative. If this is news to you, then you might be surprised to learn you’re already a fan of some of them. Eroge are a pretty common source material for mainstream anime actually, usually with the sexually explicit content removed, obviously. Popular examples are YU-NO, Doukyuusei, Rumbling Hearts, and ummm, yes, the entire Fate franchise. Although that shouldn’t have been hard to guess after the uh, mana transfer scene...
Anyway, the hentai industry was going pretty strong in the ‘90s although that fact was not, it was, you know- it was kept under wraps. A lot of legitimate anime publishers had their hentai labels happily printing, but didn’t exactly want to brag about what proportion of their profits came from porn. Nothing good can last forever, though, because in the mid 2000s when the bubble burst, anime companies started going bankrupt and their hentai licenses along with them.
SoftCel Pictures, which was spun off from ADV, then closed down in 2005 with many of their titles being acquired by RightStuf’s Critical Mass. Central Park Media followed in 2009, many of its licenses getting split between Critical Mass and Kitty Media. The manga side was even worse. Most hentai publishers were about as small an operation as you can imagine. One example, Icarus Publishing, was responsible for the longest running manga anthology in the U.S., called AG. And he did that all by himself. When he fell ill in 2010 he just couldn’t keep it going anymore and he closed down.
The field was narrowing, which was really bad for anyone looking to support the industry because piracy is a lot worse in hentai and all other varieties of porn, because it’s hard to get popular advocacy or any sort of regulatory agency on your side when you’re working with stuff that people pretend doesn’t exist. You know, like what do you look like in a courtroom, just arguing for porn? You know? In the ‘90’s, of course. We’re… [exasperated] moderately more sex-positive these days. I guess.
Now all this was until one man changed everything...
Grady: My name is Jacob. I created Fakku while I was in college, it was originally like a fan website, sort of like [how] Crunchyroll originated. And from that we were able to build an audience and prove that there was a market for this type of content outside of Japan. Because before we started doing it officially, there’d been only a few poor attempts to publish hentai legally outside of Japan. I know of all of them, but almost no one does. Because you know, they, that’s how under the radar it was. So with Fakku, we were able to show our partners in Japan and the publishers and the artists most importantly, “hey, you know there’s people willing to support the stuff you’re creating. Manga, anime, comics, games now, we have, but you’re ignoring the market outside of Japan.” And you may have seen scenarios where like a Japanese publisher might block all foreign IP addresses from viewing their website, because they’re like “oh, foreigners are pirates! They’re scum of the Earth, they’re awful.” That was, that was something that we had to deal with early on, to convince these publishers “hey, no. It’s because you forced the market to this- we just want to read your comics, we just want to watch your anime. We just want to fap to this and fap to that; but because you weren’t providing it, you know, people had to find it any way they could. And if you were to provide a means for them to support officially, we think that people would be willing to do that.” So that’s the argument that we made to the publishers when we first signed our first partners, and it’s been going great ever since [Laughs].
The same year Crunchyroll made the switch to a legitimate anime streaming service, Jacob started up his pirate hentai streaming site Fakku, just one of many pirate pages of the era. He’d spend his days going to school and working at a grocery store stocking vegetables thinking about what he’d like the site to look like, and he would spend long nights coding. Just coding. Think about how much coding that goes into all the porn you watch these days. The site kept growing and traffic increased until Jacob started using his student loans to pay for their server cost. It actually got so bad he almost had to shut the site down, but when he relayed this to his followers the community stepped up and donated until he was able to keep the operation running.
Using Crunchyroll as a model, Jacob made early attempts to go legitimate. After building up a large user base, he started reaching out to the license holders of his sites’ content to see if he could buy legitimate rights, but they never replied. Eventually he would leave college to start working at Bioware and step away from Fakku, handing the operations down to his team. It’s hard to say where his relationship with the site may have gone from there, but everything changed when Jacob received a cease and desist letter from the oldest hentai publisher in Japan, Wanimagazine.
Grady: So originally they reached out to us. So when I first went to Japan and started talking to publishers, you know obviously we were completely upfront with the history of Fakku, what we were doing, and where we came from. And they were all on board with it, which was cool. Because at first, you know the first meeting I had I think we, I was invited out there by this big Japanese publisher, and I was just like “man, are they just going to like, arrest me?” But you know, I went out there and I explained my thoughts and they were like “okay, let’s do it.” And I’m like “umm, really?” And they’re like “yeah, let’s do it.” And they signed us our first licenses, and one of the first things I said was “okay, but you gotta understand. America like, we don’t do that censorship stuff, so like all those black bars and mosaics and giant glowing penises and stuff that they have in Japan, like we’ve gotta get rid of that. Is that possible? Can you get us uncensored stuff?” And they’re like “yeah. We can get you uncensored stuff.” And I was like “REALLY?!” And they’re like “yeah.” And it turns out that with the censorship, it’s actually all produced completely uncensored originally, and the publishers will then go and add varying levels of censorship, those black bars, those mosaics, depending on the medium that the comic or anime is being distributed from, because there’s different laws in Japan. So if it’s sold online it will have some level of censorship, if it’s sold in paper it’ll have a different level, and then if it’s sold internationally it’ll have no censorship at all. So they were on board with no censorship, and I was like “okay, awesome,” but like I hate DRM, right? Like I want to be able to download the comics, read them on my iPad, read them on my phone, read them on whatever, I was like “can we get a deal with no DRM requirements at all?” And they were like “okay,” and I was like “what the fuck? Really?!”
Grady: Yeah, so like I ended up leaving Japan with honestly the best publishing deal probably any company has ever gotten.”
After they had seen the size of the Fakku community, Wanimagazine surprised Jacob with how receptive they were to the idea of working with him, even allowing a slow transition from pirate site to legitimacy rather than cutting out all his pirated content immediately. In 2014, Jacob made the announcement Fakku was going legit.
Grady: They were totally on board with it, obviously. Because it was like the both of best worlds. When we started removing fan content there were people who were upset, because, you know, it’s hard to convince someone to pay for something that they’ve never paid for before. Like hentai? Like, no one had ever been saying “that thing you’ve been fapping to, those thousands of things you downloaded on to your computer, those are actually like worth money. Like that’s, like some artist created that and he’s like trying to get by in Japan, he’s trying to make a living, he’s trying to survive, and like that thing is his livelihood. So you should pay for that.” So that was an early difficulty for us, to convince people to pay for this stuff.
It was a predictably rocky transition, but Jacob was right on the mark. Once fans knew they had a way to officially source hentai, they were willing to pay up to support the creators… and that was what Jacob really wanted.
Grady: I think that one of the most powerful things about Fakku is our brand. Like I’ve always tried to position it as not a porn company, which sounds weird, but it’s always been important to me to not you know be running a porn company for a few reasons, but like really we wanted to create a brand that was more of a lifestyle brand, where it’s like people want to support you know whatever Fakku’s doing, and right now it happens to be a lot of hentai manga. But you know we also recently as of just a year ago started publishing our first games. And then we got into anime. And then we’re getting into original Western comics. So we’re publishing a few artists from outside of Japan, and having them create original chapters for Fakku, and adult chapters. And then we’re bringing those to Japan and saying “hey, we work with this artist. They want to have their book published in Japan, is that something we can do?” So we’re like almost reverse publishing, you know Western artists in Japan, which is cool. So we’re doing a lot of crazy things.
Jacob did something no one in the industry had done before, pulling hentai out of the dark shadows to build a real community. Fakku isn’t the 18+ print of an official brand, Fakku is the brand. Jacob didn’t treat being a fan of hentai as anything to be ashamed of, but something to celebrate as a community, and the fandom responded. There is a fandom. Need I remind you, there is a fandom. For hentai. And all things anime. Fakku has active social media, hosts convention panels with special guests, industry parties with DJs like Anamanaguchi, art shows, and even custom skateboards. Fakku’s kinda a lifestyle brand that, it turns out, many people are proud to represent… even if it’s in the form of a- of an ahegao t-shirt.
He also never stopped branching out. Since going official, Jacob set up a streaming agreement with Kitty Media, the lone survivor of hentai publishers after the bubble burst and the final resting place of many licenses acquired from its fallen brethren. He also worked to acquire licenses to older visual novel ero games and Fakku even published the first ero guro manga in the west… and that, if you don’t know is like umm… it’s like a portmanteau of erotic and grotesque and umm… my description of the matter ends there. You got Google for that.
Jacob even launched a sub-label for non-pornographic manga called Denpa Books, which I guess is a huge departure from every other company that’s ever done this, and he used that to print niche licenses like the acclaimed Kaiji and ero adjacent works such as Inside Mari, Super Dimensional Love Gun, and even Maeda’s Legend of the Overfiend manga.
Since going legit, Fakku has become massive.
Grady: Like we’ve published ourselves over 1,000 manga artists. We now work with I think seven or eight hentai manga publishers in Japan. Pretty much everyone, we work with in some manner.
So despite all my hesitance to engage in uh, in hentai consumption in general, and across the board, I will say that there is a legitimate audience for it, and you know, whatever is your thing is your thing. And if that’s your thing, there’s a place to consume it, and there’s a rich history behind it. Surprisingly. It’s not just tentacles for tentacles’ sake. It’s a thing that makes sense, unfortunately. You almost wish it didn’t. But it does. It does.
So with that, in conclusion, I leave you… with this: just you know, just like the things you like, and umm maybe, I dunno, for whatever reason do some research and look into why you like those things and why they exist.
This has been Anime in America. I’m your host, Yedoye Travis. Tune into the next one.
Thank you for listening to Anime in America presented by Crunchyroll. If you enjoyed this, please go to Crunchyroll.com/animeinamerica to watch literally NONE of the things we just mentioned!
Special thanks to Jacob Grady from Fakku for joining us. And you’ve heard it before, but please leave us a review and rate the show so more people can discover it, or just share it with a friend.
This episode is hosted by me, Yedoye Travis and you can find me on Instagram at ProfessorDoye, or Twitter @YedoyeOT. Researched and written by Peter Fobian, edited by Chris Lightbody, and produced by me, Braith Miller, Peter Fobian, and Jesse Gouldsbury. Additional research and writing by Mamoudou N’Diaye.