Animation World Magazine, Issue 3.4, July 1998

The Anime "Porn" Market

by Fred Patten

What is Anime?
here is a general awareness today that the market for anime is growing in the U.S. However, there is less awareness--or agreement--as to exactly what "anime" is.

"Anime" or "animé" is the Japanese word for cinematic animation, taken from the English word "animation." To the anime enthusiasts in America, "anime" means any animation produced in Japan, no matter the intended audience--whether a TV cartoon series for young children (Samurai Pizza Cats and Sailor Moon are two recent examples, and there was a Japanese TV animated serialization of Heidi, Girl of the Alps in 1974, eight years before Hanna-Barbera's Heidi's Song feature), an animated adult cultural feature (there have been two feature-length animated productions of The Diary of Anne Frank), or an action-adventure thriller filled with violence and sexual situations.

However, since the main American market for anime consists of teens and adults looking for light entertainment, that is just about all that gets licensed for American release. Most juvenile cartoons and the adult intellectual animation tends to remain on their studios' shelves in Tokyo. As a result, a perception has been growing in America that "anime" is synonymous with violent, sexual animation only. A February 1, 1998 New York Times story on contemporary Japanese animation comments on its wide range, but emphasizes that "animé refers strictly to `adult' Japanese animation ... racy, battle-ravaged animé ... `pornimation,' as some of the steamier romps with Western-looking women, from college girls to the princesses of sci-fi legend, are sometimes called in the United States ... animé is all violence and sex ..." The article also refers to one of Japan's most popular children's TV cartoon stars, the robot cat Doraemon, as "scantily clad;" an innuendo equivalent to identifying Donald Duck or Porky Pig only as cartoon characters who go about in public without any pants on.

This has reached the point that major American animation presenters with Japanese titles in their lineups are trying to disassociate themselves from the "anime" label. Michael Johnson, president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment, said in Daily Variety, February 13, 1998, of Disney's forthcoming U.S. release of Hayao Miyazaki's 1997 Japanese box-office-record-breaking feature Princess Mononoke, "This is not anime ... it's not effects-driven or violence-driven." Mike Lazzo, vice president of programming for the Cartoon Network, assured the public in USA Today, December 18, 1997 that anime is not shown on American TV. "Japan animation is so different from what airs here ... It's far edgier, adult and violent. Anime isn't very story-based ... The story is hard to follow." When it was pointed out that the Cartoon Network shows Speed Racer and Voltron, both juvenile action-adventure TV cartoon series produced in Japan, Lazzo said that "neither show is in the style of anime." (In the original Japanese version of Voltron, the Earth is completely destroyed by the space villains. That episode is omitted from the heavily rewritten American version.)

This evolution of the definition of anime will doubtlessly be intensified by the increasing importation of Japanese animated adult erotic fare, to mix with the action-adventure anime market. When the first anime-genre videos were released in 1990-91 through mail order and direct sales to the comic-book fandom specialty stores, it was understood by this market that these were animated equivalents of movies like The Terminator and Die Hard, full of explosions, blood-'n-guts, adult dialogue, and often a brief risqué nude scene. Around 1994 the anime videos expanded into the major video mass-market chains and became accessible to the general public, which tends to assume automatically that all animated cartoons are safe for children. This resulted in the necessity for warning advisories on the video boxes such as "Contains violence and nudity;" "Contains brief nudity and mature situations. Parental discretion advised;" and, "Recommended for Mature Viewers." But these did not yet include explicit sexual titles.

Osamu Tezuka tried to create a popular acceptance of animation in 1969 with One Thousand and One Nights which contained all the erotic innuendo of the original Persian tales. © Tezuka Productions.
Anime's Beginnings
Asian attitudes towards eroticism have always been more open than those of the West. One of the earliest Japanese TV cartoon series was Sennin Buraku (Hermits' Village), a fifteen-minute late-night erotic humor anthology roughly equivalent to "Playboy's Ribald Classics" which aired from 11:40 to 11:55 p.m. for two months in 1963. Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) is revered as the father of both Japan's comic book and animation industries, writing and illustrating the series known in America as Astro Boy and Kimba, the White Lion. It is less well known that Tezuka also tried to create a popular acceptance of animation with intellectually artistic mature themes. In November 1966, he produced Pictures at an Exhibition, a Fantasia-like transformation of Mussorgsky's famous composition into a modern political cartoon, presenting the musical "pictures" as satirical portraits of ruthless corporate bosses, affectedly aesthetic artists, scandal-mongering journalists, rebellious teens, vapid TV personalities and the like. In June 1969, he released One Thousand and One Nights, a 128-minute adult adaptation of The Arabian Nights full of adventure, Rabelaisian humor, and all the erotic innuendo of the original Persian tales. This was a major theatrical release, intended by Tezuka to be comparable to Western live-action movie adaptations of such adult literary classics as Lady Chatterley's Lover and Lolita.

Japanese animated explicitly adult cartoons developed along with the general animated direct-to-video market. The first Japanese Original Animated Video (OAV) title was a science-fiction drama, Dallos, released in December 1983. The third OAV release, on February 21, 1984, was Lolita Anime I: Yuki no Kurenai Kesho * Shojo Bara Kei (freely translated, Crimson Cosmetic on the Snow * Young Girls' Rose Punishment). This half-hour video, first in the short-lived Wonder Kids erotic anime series, consisted of two 15-minute dramas of rape and sadistic sexual torture/murder of schoolgirls, whose spirits exact a gruesome supernatural vengeance. Of the seventeen OAVs released during 1984, six were "general" and eleven were pornographic. In 1985, after the viability of the direct-video market for action-adventure anime had been established, the total was 28 action-adventure titles to just another eleven porno titles. The Japanese domestic OAV market has grown accordingly, over the past decade, with 1997's output of 162 "general" titles and 62 erotic titles (including some multiple volumes of series) being about the average ratio.

The Anime Porn Players
There are differences of opinion as to what constitutes "anime porn," but four anime specialty video producers have special labels for their releases which primarily emphasize nudity and explicit adult sexual situations. These are A.D. Vision's SoftCel Pictures series, Central Park Media's Anime 18 series, Media Blasters' Kitty Media series, and The Right Stuf International's Critical Mass series.

The other anime specialty producers state that they are not interested in getting into the video erotica market. However, most of them have at least one adult feature in their catalogues which includes a brief but intense "shocker" scene such as a graphic rape. For some sensibilities, this is enough to establish the movie as pornography.

Adult-themed or explicit anime releases in the U.S. are usually accompanied by warning labels. Samples shown here are courtesy of Streamline Pictures, Manga Entertainment and Central Park Media.
Two such companies, Manga Entertainment (ME) and Streamline Pictures, feel that their video box art makes it clear to the public that their anime titles are adult action-adventure rather than eroticism. Chicago-based Manga Entertainment's media relations representative, Danielle Opyt, says, "Due to the basic nature of anime, all of our videos bear a distinctive sticker showing our Manga Man cartoon spokesman and our flaming Manga Entertainment logo, with the warning, "Manga Man Says Parental Discretion Advised." This covers everything from strong language to brief nudity and graphic violence." Carl Macek, president of Streamline Pictures in Los Angeles, says, "We have always presented anime for a wide range of tastes, from child-friendly to movies whose main characters are engaged in such obviously mature activities as smoking and drinking cocktails. Those which contain brief but intense adult situations carry an appropriate warning notice. In 1994 we arranged with Orion Home Video to distribute most of our titles, and Orion created a "Not For Kids" sticker which it has automatically put on all the Streamline video boxes. This includes the whole range from PG-level content to R-level content."

Urotsukidoji, the best-known "anime porn" title, and the one which started the American adult video market. Image courtesy of Central Park Media.
Central Park Media and Urotsukidoji
The best-known "anime porn" title, and the one which started the American adult video market, is the notorious Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend; first of the "erotic grotesque" (more popularly known as "tentacle porn") genre. This began in Japan with the January 1987 release of the first of a five-video adaptation of Toshio Maeda's horror comic-book novel, produced by West Cape Corporation, best known in America for its Space Cruiser Yamato/Star Blazers space adventure series. Urotsukidoji is about the invasion and conquest of Earth by oversexed supernatural demons who enslave humanity and use our women as their sexual playthings. Generations pass. There are human plots to destroy the monsters, which often attempt to take advantage of their sexual obsession and turn it against them. The tale becomes more complex when a third group eventually emerges of human/monster crossbreeds, rejected by both parents. They are intellectually inclined to join the humans, but their intense carnal drives are still too uncontrollable to make them comfortable allies for the human rebels. Sequels eventually extended the series to eleven videos.

The first Urotsukidoji episode, a complete story in itself, was dubbed into English by John O'Donnell, president of New York City's Central Park Media (CPM) video distribution company, which had been releasing adventure anime videos since October 1991 under its U.S. Manga Corps label. Urotsukidoji was actually premiered theatrically in London at a two-day anime film festival on October 30 - 31, 1992, where it played to sold-out screenings on both days. Its American release was at NYC's Angelika Theater in January 1993. It began a national art theater tour in June, which resulted in local press coverage practically everywhere it played about how "Japanese animation certainly isn't like American animation!" CPM scheduled it for a video release in August, 1993.

According to Valerio Rossi, CPM's marketing/production coordinator, it was the company's realization that Urotsukidoji was too sexually intense to fit into its U.S. Manga Corps "boys' adventure" line that led to the creation of the separate Anime 18 label. All five episodes were released, both on video tape and laser disc, between August and December 1993. They sold so well, and generated so many requests from anime fans for more of the same nature, that CPM's Anime 18 releases have been appearing steadily since then. Plus, the original 35 mm Urotsukidoji story is still popular on the art theater circuit as a midnight feature.

A Closer Look at the Labeling
A.D. Vision, in Houston, released its first anime video in November 1992. For the next two years, its A.D. Vision Films label included both regular action-adventure anime and some of the milder erotic comedies such as F3 (Frantic, Frustrated & Female) , often with editing of brief explicit scenes to make them suitable for a "Parental Guidance Recommended" warning. The company's first release under its SoftCel Pictures label, reserved for an emphasis of explicit adult scenes, was The Legend of Lyon in November 1994. A.D. Vision put out 19 SoftCel Pictures releases during 1995 and 12 through the first half of 1996, some of which were rereleases of previous A.D. Vision Films titles in their unedited form.

F3 (Frantic, Frustrated & Female) , one of A.D. Vision's earlier releases, is now available in rerelease on its SoftCel Pictures label. Image courtesy of A.D. Vision. © 1994 WAN YAN A GU DA/Pink Pineapple.
Janice Williams, A.D. Vision's production coordinator, says that the company has had very few SoftCel releases since June 1996, but that is not because they have not sold well. "They are almost all still in print and selling very consistently. A.D. Vision made a tremendous investment in mid-1996 to license a great quantity of general anime titles. We are currently working through a big production backlog getting them onto the market before we can produce new SoftCel releases. We constantly get e-mail requests from our fans asking when we are going to put out a new SoftCel title. We will definitely resume them soon."

The Right Stuf International, in Des Moines, does not consider itself really in the adult market. President Shawne Kleckner says, "Manga Entertainment released an edited version of Violence Jack and a lot of fans wanted to see it uncut, so we arranged with ME to release an unedited edition (in November 1996). It was too intense for our regular Right Stuf line, so we created the Critical Mass label. Then in 1997 we had a chance to license a really funny adult comedy, Weather Report Girl, and we did not want to pass it up. We do not have any specific plans at present for any more Critical Mass releases, but there will doubtlessly be more when the right titles come along."

Weather Report Girl, one of a few titles released on the Right Stuf's Critical Mass label. Image courtesy of the Right Stuf. © 1994 O.B. Planning/Toho Co. Ltd.
The newest anime specialty producer/distributor, New York City's Media Blasters, actually began with its adult line, Kitty Media. President John Sirabella says, "Our first video was Rei-Lan: Orchid Emblem, on May 6, 1997, and we have released at least one Kitty Media title every month since then. I was already working in the anime field with the Software Sculptors line through Central Park Media, and I saw that there was a large Japanese adult animation source which was still relatively untapped for this country. The potential American market was very good, but the existing anime distributors were only putting out a few releases. They had solid general release catalogues, and they were nervous about the repercussions of getting into the adult market in a major way. So I started Kitty Media to be the best and biggest company in the adult anime market. Now that we have a solid backlist of over a dozen titles, we are expanding Media Blasters beyond the Kitty Media label. Our first AnimeWorks label release, which carries a "Kid Safe = For Audiences of All Ages!" logo, was Ninku the Movie in March. We are also starting a couple of live-action labels, Kaiju Productions for monster movies in the Godzilla and Rodan vein, and Tokyo Shock for the Japanese equivalent of the Hong Kong action thrillers. It has been the success of Kitty Media that is making this growth possible."

Anime Does Not Equal Pornography
A.D. Vision, Central Park Media and Media Blasters are all happy with the adult market, but they are not as pleased with the public's perception of it as synonymous with pornography. Sirabella says that, "There are varying degrees of adult," some of which do not involve eroticism at all. "One of our new Kitty Media releases, Dark Cat, is definitely not for children. It is a shocking horror film with intense violence, but no sexual situations."

Two CPM staffers are more perturbed by the public's dismissal of all anime as pornography. Valerio Rossi says, "Frankly, we are considerably disturbed by what seems to be a growing trend to consider anime as nothing but sex and brutal violence. That is a complete distortion of CPM's catalogue. Our Anime 18 titles, as popular as they are, account for only about 10% of our anime releases; between 5% and 10%. CPM releases almost a half-dozen anime videos a month among four different labels. There are two or three U.S. Manga Corps releases and one or two Software Sculptors releases every month. Those are popular action-adventure, horror or comedy titles. The U.S. Manga Corps anime is more mainstream and the Software Sculptors titles are more "alternate" or artistic. Our main Central Park Media label, which is our general label for mostly non-Japanese videos such as live-action documentaries, only includes an anime release every two or three months. Those are usually adaptations of Japanese literary works, such as Grave of the Fireflies and the Animated Classics of Japanese Literature series. Our Anime 18 titles average only one a month or six weeks; maybe eight or nine a year. So that's only eight or nine adult titles compared to 45 to 50 anime titles a year without sexual content. That makes it very frustrating to hear someone say, `Oh, yeah, I know about anime. It's those porno cartoons from Japan.'"

Jeff Zitomer, CPM's supervisor of production and marketing, feels that even the anime that emphasizes sexual content is misrepresented by being equated with pornography. "There is an important misconception in thinking of the adult anime labels like Anime 18 as animated pornography. If you look at actual pornographic videos, you'll see that they have no real story, no characters or character development, no attempt at imaginative camerawork--just close-ups of straight sex. The adult anime market is actually aimed at viewers who want intense adult situations in real stories, whether it's dramatic action or humor. There are eleven video volumes in the Urotsukidoji saga, and its story progress is actually more important than the sex. You could fast-forward through the naughty scenes and still have an interesting story to follow. The sexual nature of the story puts it into a unique category; it's not just a horror movie with a lot of sex scenes which could be taken out without changing the story. The Anime 18 line is not a porno line as much as a next step in animated storytelling for mature audiences, as the next step in adventure films beyond PG is an R rating. Our Anime 18 titles are for adults who want even more mature situations and dialogue in their suspense or their comedy, but who definitely want a story and interesting characters rather than just naked bodies engaged in sex."

U.S. Restrictions
However, the sexual content of the adult anime market is undeniable. This has created some special emphases in acquisitions and marketing. John Sirabella says, "There are definite legal restrictions which must be taken into consideration. The main problem is that U.S. child pornography laws forbid showing children in sexual situations, so all the characters in erotic videos have to look 18 or older. But this is not a restriction in Japan. Also, Japanese women are so small that even one who is supposed to be an adult may look underage by our standards. We have to turn down more adult anime titles than we can accept because the characters look too young to be called adult."

CPM's Jeff Zitomer concurs. Due to the American tendency to assume that cartoons are for kids, CPM is very careful that the packaging of every Anime 18 video makes it unmistakable that it contains adult content and is for adult viewers only. This is done in a tasteful manner which emphasizes the story's dramatic content rather than a sex-appeal hard-sell, but which leaves no way that a parent or a video-shop clerk could mistake it as suitable for children or young teens. Also, due to recent federal child pornography laws, the packaging and a special video header at the beginning of the tape states clearly that the entire cast is 19 years old or older.

The adult anime market exists primarily through direct sales: mail-order to customers, and wholesale to specialty shops which cater to anime and to comic-book fans. CPM's Joe Cirillo, sub-licensing coordinator, says that at the anime fan weekend conventions which are spreading around America, "The Anime 18 titles often almost sell out by the end of the first day." All three companies refer to their adult labels as safe, steady sellers. In comparison with the general anime market, there are no best-sellers but no bombs, either. Also, there are almost no adult titles which start off selling strongly but soon taper off. They just sell steadily--and without requiring the advertising expenditures needed to promote the general anime titles.

Speaking of the comic-book specialty market, CPM is also a publisher (as CPM Manga) of American editions of Japanese adventure comic books, especially those which are the sources of the anime titles which CPM sells. The company is about to launch an adult label, CPM Manga X, beginning in July 1998. The May issue of Diamond Dialogue, the promotional magazine of Diamond Comics Distributor, describes CPM Manga X as "... bringing Japan's best adult manga to American audiences ... in a 32-page, black-&-white format priced at $2.95 per issue. The line will open with the English translation of the manga version of the adult anime classic Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend #1, written and illustrated by Toshio Maeda. The manga will contain many scenes which were not included in the video series ... (A highlight of the first issue for Overfiend fans will be a manga treatment of the film's classic scene in the nurse's office.)"

On the whole, the anime distributors have not been able to get their adult labels into the general home video market yet. Cirillo refers to the major video distributors and video retail chains as "staying clear" of adult anime. Sirabella says that some distributors and chains carry the Kitty Media titles, while others will not take them. All three anime distributors try to produce two versions of their releases (but with some titles this is not possible); one uncut for the adult market and a "general release" version that will be acceptable to the chains like MusicLand and Sam Goody's.

Still Outside the Mainstream
The general American adult TV/video market remains largely untapped. Cirillo says that Penthouse Comix has reviewed some of the Anime 18 videos, but that the adult pay-per-view TV channels are mostly not interested. Sales to the American erotic-shop market have been very small, and the anime distributors have mixed feelings about trying to increase them. Sirabella says, "The adult book and video specialty shops have a bad reputation for non-payment. Also, the American erotic video industry is used to price-points of $9.95 or less, which we can't sell at. And the anime specialty industry is having enough trouble with anime's reputation as nothing but sex & violence for us to want to risk making it all look even more like pornography through guilt by association by increasing anime's visibility in the sex shops."

(Intriguingly, the first adult anime to be released in America appeared in adult book shops in the late 1980s. The Brothers Grime was a three-video cartoon-pornography series produced by Excalibur Films, Inc. of Fullerton, CA in 1986, 1987, and 1988, using titles primarily from Japan's Cream Lemon series, the most popular of Japan's erotic anime before Urotsukidoji. Since Excalibur Films had no creative ties to the anime field, there was no attempt to remain faithful to the original versions. A secretary at Excalibur says that The Brothers Grime is still selling well today, and she has no idea why the company never followed those three videos up with more anime imports. The Cream Lemon series is one in which most of the characters appear to be much too young to be plausibly described as over 18.)

None of the anime distributors are willing to discuss sales figures, but John Sirabella makes a broad estimate that adult anime is about 30% to 40% of the overall anime market. "If the general market is $100,000,000, that means that the adult videos are selling $30,000,000 to $40,000,000 a year." This is disputed by CPM's sales director, Mike Pascuzzi, who estimates that the adult sales only make 15% to 20% of the general market. "Don't forget that there are several other anime video releasers such as Viz Video, Pioneer, AnimEigo and Urban Vision which do not have an adult label at all. They may have a few individual titles which require a Mature Audiences warning due to R-level content, but they are not really in the adult market." This may be a difference in perception as to what constitutes the "adult anime market" as distinct from the general market. Would a raunchy adolescent comedy full of college-fraternity style humor such as panty raids, peeking into the womens'-gym showers and foul-mouthed dialogue, but no explicit sex, count as an adult or as a general sale?

Although the dividing line between general anime and adult anime may be vague, there is a definite adult market. All the anime companies producing for that market agree that sales are steady, and increase as a direct result of the number of titles available. There is no sign yet of any saturation level. As long as production in Japan turns out 50 or 60 new titles per year, there appears to be the potential for unlimited growth. Many, though not all, of the adult cartoon videos range from mild eroticism to explicit pornography. However, there does not seem to be a broad correlation between the anime pornography audience and the market for American-made stag cartoons and live-action sex films. The overlap so far is minor, and the American general erotic video/TV market does not seem to be interested in tapping into the lode of Japanese animated titles.

The immediate concern of the American anime industry is not expanding its adult market share as much as doing damage control to keep a public conception from solidifying that all anime is pornographic, which could be highly injurious to the potentially much larger market for general action-adventure anime. Ironically, anime enthusiasts--the hard-core fans as well as the manufacturers--have been citing for years the theatrical animation of Hayao Miyazaki as well as popular TV series such as Speed Racer and Sailor Moon as examples of the best in anime, which they have hoped will transcend the "anime cult" reputation and popularize Japanese animation with the general public. Now these titles are being marketed to the general public, by major American animation purveyors who are denying that they are anime--who are promoting them as "much better than that notorious Japanese low-quality sex-&-violence anime." The next couple of years may see which definition of anime will become standardized in America.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s.

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