The hentai question

By Michael Tan
Inquirer
Last updated 02:21am (Mla time) 07/08/2007

MANILA, Philippines – The first time I saw the DVDs on sale in a Quiapo sidewalk, I thought they were just another type of Japanese anime (cartoons) until I looked closely and realized that the illustrations on the cover were, to put it mildly, somewhat risqué.

 

“Bold anime?” I asked the vendor and he answered, “Hentai.”

 

I did get one sample DVD and confirmed it was indeed pornographic cartoons (or, if we want to be more sophisticated, pornographic anime). I’m a very liberal person but I have to say this particular DVD left me disturbed because it featured an incestuous relationship between a mother and her son.

 

I’ve since done some research on hentai, first checking with my students and other young people and then looking at academic research around anime and Japanese sexual culture. I confirmed that these anime are extremely popular with young Filipinos who have discovered them, with a ready supply of pirated DVDs selling as low as P30 each.

 

The term hentai is composed of two kanji (Chinese characters). The hen means “to change” and tai means shape or attitude so hentai has three meanings. One is to change shape, another is metamorphosis (as in a caterpillar transformed into a butterfly). The third meaning is sexual. Depending on the context, its sexual meaning can be “naughty” but an extreme it can mean “perversion.”

 

The term’s origins are intriguing, said to have first been used in 1914 in a translation of a sexology book—Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s “Psychopathia Sexualis,” which was about sexual deviations. The original term was a longer hentai seiyoku, to mean sexual perversion. As with so many terms, an abbreviated form appeared but retained its original meaning, in this case perversion.

 

Hentai as sexual perversions is now used to refer to manga (comic books), anime (cartoons) and even computer games with explicit sex. H-anime (the hentai is sometimes even further abbreviated to “h” or echi) certainly lives up to its name. There’s a lot of bondage (sado-masochism), sexual orgies, with all kinds of fetishes thrown in for good measure, and the occasional incest. There’s something for everyone here with distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual hentai, the latter broken down to gay and lesbian, although there’s likely to be a crossing of boundaries too with, for example, two men having sex even in a production that is supposed to be heterosexual.

 

Like other anime characters, the hentai images are surreal, often androgynous juveniles bestowed with extraordinary powers. X-Men stray into a Sailor Moon anime, Sailor Moon being dominated by female characters and yes, they end up as couples.

 

Hentai is fantasy but it is also defiant, almost as if to challenge Japanese society’s formalism and seeming inflexibility. Some of the hentai have female characters who take the lead with sexual propositions, even dominating the males, and is seen as a a way of challenging the powerful patriarchy.

 

Hentai’s arrival in the Philippines—in the form of both manga and anime—leaves me with mixed feelings. I do not subscribe to the idea that pornography titillates people and drives them to rape. Neither am I concerned about the nudity in pornography, and I can tell you hentai builds strongly on that kind of visual stimulation, with exaggerated genitalia.

 

What I do worry about are the values carried by the imagery, and this is where I would advise parents and guardians to talk with their children. In Japan itself, hentai would be strictly restricted to those aged 18 and over. In the Philippines, younger children can buy them off sidewalks together with X-rated films that depict real people.

 

In Japan, the fantasy aspect of hentai is clear. The eroticism is not really new, given that Japan has a long tradition of shunga (erotic pictures). In the Philippines, hentai is imported at the height of a love of things Japanese without necessarily understanding its context. Over at the University of the Philippines, we even have a student organization dedicated to anime. (I do not know if they include hentai as legitimate anime.)

 

Hentai also comes at a time when cheap DVD technology has led to an explosion of pornography, even as conservatives insist on imposing a silence—in homes and in schools—about sexual issues. Hentai, while sold in sidewalks, is still viewed secretly, with little possibility of rational guidance and discussion.

 

Hentai probably acts as an outlet, as a kind of relief for Japanese who feel hemmed in by their society. With hentai here to stay in the Philippines, we will have to ask, what does it do for Filipinos?

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One Response to “The hentai question”

  1. vagabond Says:

    That’s a good question, and I completely agree with your opinion regarding the understanding of cultural differences.

    I am an American, and I thoroughly enjoy Anime. I’m not one of those hopeless fan-boys that foams at the mouth for everything Japanese, though; I just find Anime and Manga to be much more entertaining on a much broader base than many American shows and graphic novels.

    On that note, I find it continually frustrating that people dismiss Anime on the grounds that they don’t understand what’s going on. The fact is that Japanese culture is vastly different than American culture and that leads to many misunderstandings. This can be exceptionally dangerous when applied to sexual material, when people (especially young, impressionable people) use this material to form their idea of what is acceptable and “normal”.

    The biggest thing people must remember about hentai, is that it (like all Anime) is exaggerated. Take bondage hentai for example; the human body simply cannot take much of the stress depicted in these scenes, and what’s more, even if it -could- it is, in most cases, illegal.

    Hentai has a major problem with the fact that in most cases (not all, but most) there are no consequences for the actions the characters take. That’s part of the fantasy, that’s what makes it fun. In hentai there are girls who will submit to you entirely and do things like have sex in public places, but even if you convinced someone to participate in an act such as this, you will more than likely be arrested.

    There’s not a lot of what would be called “vanilla” hentai because that would be boring. The point is to be extreme, adventurous, over the top, role reversing, gender bending, et cetera; because (like you said) in the Japanese culture, you cannot do any of that.

    Now, I’m not entirely aware of the Filipino culture, would there be any way to impose regulations on the sale of adult material? I’m pretty sure the public is aware of how easy it is to obtain this type of material, so maybe a public movement for parental intervention? Or perhaps civilian boycotts of the vendors who knowingly sell this material to minors?


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