Tentacle Sex and the Politics of Pornographic Pleasure in the Urotsukidoji Saga

Since this article analyzes porn from an academic perspective and contains some images of early examples of the genre, I’d say that this article is definitely not for anyone under the age of 18. It is also not safe for work (NSFW). Furthermore, as Pete so helpfully pointed out, since this paper analyzes tentacle porn, it’s probably not safe for life (NSFL). All snark aside, this paper does deviate from our general tone of keeping the site PG (or PG-13), so please click at your own risk!

That being said, while transcribing the manga and censorship panel at TCAF, I was inspired to return to this paper that I wrote back when I attending Brock University to complete my MA in Popular Culture (also known as my Masters in Comic Books). I presented this paper at two conferences. The first was the 27th Annual Meeting of the Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico (February 8-11, 2006). The second presentation occurred at Mansfield Conference at Oxford University in England at the 4th Global Conference on Monsters and the Monstrous (Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil). My paper was consequently published online, along with the other papers presented at the conference, which occurred from September 18 to September 21, 2006.

While wandering around the Metro Toronto Convention Centre during the 2005 Fan Expo (a local comic book, science fiction, horror, and anime convention), I passed by a vendor’s stalls who had an assortment of anime DVDs laid out on the table. I barely noticed it because I wasn’t looking for anime but the latest issue of Bear (a comic book by most awesome Jamie Smart). I was snapped out of my quest when that stall’s proprietor barked out, “Those aren’t for you!” at a group of teenage boys. I paused, turning to see why the older man had such an intense and almost angry reaction to the boys’ browsing. And there he was, his hand covering the tentacle sex DVDs from the boys’ gaze. While his statement was an appropriate response for those teenage boys, I was left wondering who those DVDs are for and (perhaps most importantly) what those DVDs say about the cultures out of which they are produced and consumed.

I first encountered tentacle sex as a teenager. Several of my male friends were, and still are, fans of the genre – though their interest has shifted from the tentacle sex found within the narratives to the narratives themselves. Tentacle porn was their first experience of pornography of any kind; and they bonded over it, together, as a rite of passage. Last August was, however, the first time that I questioned the genre’s wider socio-cultural implications (other than its role in my mates’ sexual maturation). In this paper, I will explore the social context of tentacle sex in the Legend of the Overfiend or Urotsukidoji saga, specifically how it responds to the anxieties about the changing gender roles in Japanese society. The word Urotsukidoji is a combination of two existing Japanese words: urotsuki, which means ‘scaled’ and doji, which means ‘child.’1 Images of monstrosity – or the scaled child – abound in the saga but the term also refers to the ‘scaled child’ of contemporary Japanese society, that is, the metaphorical child-figure produced from a period of gender role confusion and transition.2 In order to complete my analysis, I will first look, briefly, at the medium of anime, the category of hentai anime, and the tentacle porn genre. I will then move onto how the social anxiety surrounding shifting gender identities in Japanese society has affected gendered representations in tentacle porn. Finally, I will analyse examples of representations of both women and men in the Overfiend saga.

Cartoon and animated pornography allows more diversity in content because the form gives greater freedom to the artist. He/she is not constrained by the limits of either the human body or the technology used to depict it. For example, animation is the only medium that tentacle sex – complete with its phallic tentacles, gargantuan penises, and the mechanics of depicting sex acts with such monstrous creatures – can be depicted. (Even if such fantastic things were to be included in a live-action film, CGI animation would account for some, if not all, of the special effects). Animation, in other words, is a medium of fantasy. Furthermore, since artists do not (necessarily) require human models, taboo or illegal subjects and sexual acts – such as rape fantasies – can be depicted within the medium safely and fantastically. Animation also solves one of the chief problems with live-action pornography: the visual representation of female sexual pleasure. In her analysis of hardcore pornography, Linda Williams argues that “the genre as a whole seems to be engaged in a quest for incontrovertible ‘moving’ visual evidence of . . . women’s [sexual] pleasure” (Williams, 1999, p. 31). Pornography is a genre of and about the body. Its goal is two-fold: it must not only demonstrate the sex act – penile penetration – but it must also represent its culmination in orgasm. In other words, it seeks to make explicit the bodily confession of pleasure for both its male and female participants. The first criterion is fulfilled through the use of close-ups, the hard-core narrative film is able to show the penetrative “meat shot” (p. 72). However, capturing the second – the visual representation of climax – is more problematic. While the “money shot” is visual proof of male climax and ejaculation, there is no visual verification of female orgasm (p. 94). Therefore, the pleasure of the female protagonists in live-action hardcore films cannot be authenticated because of the limits of the body and the technology used to capture those responses. Although there are live-action, hardcore pornographic texts that do feature an ejaculating female, the physical response – unlike its male equivalent – is rare, occurring naturally in a very small percentage of the female population. Female ejaculation, therefore, is not necessarily an accurate market of female orgasm.

Animation, on the other hand, becomes a way that pornography can visualize and verify a woman’s orgasm. A scene in the first episode of the Overfiend saga demonstrates the ability of anime to capture the bodily evidence of female pleasure. When Akemi is raped by Miss Togami, a demon disguised as a human, visual evidence of Akemi’s pleasure can be seen on both Miss Togami’s fingers and on the tentacles that she’s penetrated Akemi with. Presented to the audience as sparkly vaginal secretions, anime is able to call attention to the proof of female pleasure by visually colour-coding it.

As the availability and popularity of anime and manga – anime’s static, graphic form – have increased over the last fifteen years so has its journalistic coverage (Newitz, 1995, p. 2).  Journalistic coverage has often associated all anime with excessive violence and tentacled sex. These representations in popular media ignores the complexity and variety of the texts found within anime. Its generic coverage is the same to that of live-action cinema and includes “everything from politics and history to homosexual romance and hard-core sado-masochism” (Pointer, 1997, p. 49). Both its generic scope and narrative complexity leads Napier (2001) to conclude that anime provides a greater level of “psychological probing . . . [that is] seldom attempted in recent mass-culture Western film or television” (pp. 6-7). In other words, there is more to anime than gratuitous violence and monstrous sex – but even those movies that do contain these elements are more complex than they seem at first glance.

Erotic texts, especially ones dealing with tentacled or monstrous sex, have a long-history in Japan. Classically known as Shunga they date back to the Edo era (1603-1867). Modern Japanese erotic or pornographic texts are known, in the West, as hentai. Hentai differentiates itself from live-action pornography through its use of narrative to frame the sex acts depicted rather than being framed by them. It should be noted that the Japanese rarely use this term, which when translated means “abnormal” or “perverted,” to describe pornographic anime. They differentiate it from non-pornographic texts by shrink-wrapping and labelling them as “not for sale to those under the age of 18,” by calling them H-anime, or by using the term (y-)etchi, signifying an attempt to pronounce the letter H (Drazen, 2003, p. 60). According to Zitomer, the typical hardcore, live-action narrative “consists [solely] of sexual action”. There is “no real story, no characters or character development, [and] no attempt at imaginative camerawork” (qtd. in Pattern, pp. 115-116). The sex displayed in hentai, on the other hand, is only one part of the narrative; it does not comprise it entirely. In other words, if you remove the sex in hentai there is still a plot to carry the narrative forward. Sex, therefore, is used as a means to an end rather than as an end onto itself. Unlike its live-action counterpart, Japanese animated pornography is, therefore, “both thematically wide-ranging and narratively complex” and is also able to differentiate itself from other narratives within the genre (Napier, 2001, p. 64). Hentai artists and animators (therefore) must remain innovative, continually creating more sensationalistic titles to keep the audience’s interest. For example, one way that they can accomplish sustained audience interest is to integrate sex into narratives “that are . . . related to the fantastic, [the horror,] the occult, or science fiction” (Napier, 2001, p. 64).

Its focus on plot and characterization as well as the originality and creativity exhibited by its authors and animators has resulted in some theorists describing hentai as “the next step in animated storytelling” (Pattern, 2004, p. 116). The shift from episodic depictions of sex with very little plot to a plot-centred narrative with some sex scenes marks a dramatic shift in how pornography is presented in Western society. As a testament to the popularity of sex with a narrative storyline you only need to look at the numbers: hentai accounts for anywhere from 15-40% of the anime market in Japan. However, it only enjoys marginalized mainstream success in North America indicating that North Americans still prefer live-action, hardcore pornography. So while anime and hentai are no longer only in the domain of science fiction (and I say this lovingly as I am both) geeks and nerds, “the American general erotic video/TV market does not seem to be interested in tapping into the lode of Japanese animated titles” (Pattern, 2004, p. 118).

As a genre of hentai, tentacle sex – also known as tentacle porn or tentacle rape – demonstrates the use of horror, fantasy, and the occult to create sensationalized and creative pornographic narratives. Tentacle sex is form of erotic horror that depicts female characters being penetrated by tentacled monsters and demons. The genre often portrays and explores rape fantasies, bondage fetishes, domination, and humiliation. The earliest instance of the genre is found in Katsushika Hokusai’s Edo-era (1820) woodcut depicting a woman being molested by a pair of octopi titled The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (Weiss, 2002, p. 158). The rape fantasies that tentacle sex explores are typical of the bodice-ripper genre in romance novels where a female protagonist derives pleasure out of being “ravished.” Williams (1999) notes that “Although rape is invoked as a word, the film undercuts th[e] idea of rape as coercive sex by showing the woman enjoying it, an image contrasted to the resistance she is supposed to put up” (p. 164). Coercive sex, therefore, turns into ecstasy for the person being coerced – “her mouth says ‘no!’, but her body says ‘yes!’” In the Overfiend saga, this trope is used. After the Overfiend’s resurrection in a local hospital he rapes a nurse – reminding us of the belief that the best way to affirm that one is, in fact, alive is to have sex. This rape, therefore, represents brute force, coercion, as well as affirming the Overfiend’s rebirth after three thousand (3,000) years. The nurse’s pleas of “No! Stop it!” soon turn into moans of ecstasy as she climaxes. As he penetrates her, visual evidence of her pleasure drips to the floor, demonstrating her body’s compliance in his coercion. It is this bodily consent that becomes the measure of the female’s pleasure. Her orgasm, therefore, ultimately excuses his coercion, his violation.

Modern tentacle sex was pioneered by Toshio Maeda, a famous manga artist in the 1980s. Overfiend – along with La Blue Girl and Demon Beast Invasion – were developed as a response to and a way to circumvent Japanese censorship laws that prohibited penile – but, strangely enough, not tentacled – penetration in manga and anime. Censorship laws were so strict that until 1991, two years after the release of the Overfiend saga in North America, the entire pubic region, whether shaved or not, was so obscene to Japanese society that any representations of it were deemed unpublishable. Though censorship laws have since been relaxed, the genre is still used to explore anxieties of the culture in which it was produced. Tentacle sex is one of the ways in which drastic ideological shifts and the social anxieties that accompany them can be explored and controlled. Changing social roles and the resulting anomie are represented symbolically in “the violent and demonic depictions of both men and women in [pornographic] anime” (Napier, 2001, p. 80). As women have become more independent and powerful in Japanese society, Japanese men have suffered an identity crisis. Though marginal in comparison, the transference of both the medium and the genre to North America indicates North Americans share a similar crisis of gendered identity.

The Overfiend saga is the most famous (and most infamous) example of tentacle porn. It was first published in manga or graphic novel form but was soon produced as an animated series of five episodes. The prevailing belief that all anime is full of sex and violence partly stems from the fact that the saga, which is “the most extreme example of the sex/horror” genre, was the first example of tentacle sex seen by North American audiences (Drazen, 2003, p. 74). The narrative is vast and complex – getting more complicated and convoluted as the series progresses – and, like most tentacle sex anime, the sex is surrounded and supported by a narrative. The narrative chronicles the re-emergence of the Overfiend after an absence for three thousand (3,000) years. He is a creature more powerful than any other and who will merge the universes of men, beast, and demon into one giant universe and rule over them all. However, though the Overfiend will bring unity to these three realms he also brings chaos and destruction.

Napier notes that the female body in hentai can be read as one of abjection and submission; of punishment, violation, and mutilation. However, she argues women’s bodies are also “awesomely powerful” forces within the narratives (Napier, 2001, p. 65). An example of this can be found in the second episode of the Overfiend saga. The sexually-liberated Megumi has sex with a demon. Their frantic thrusting culminates in Megumi’s orgasm which kills the creature, his lifeless body falling to the ground, harmlessly. She emerges from the sexual encounter sated and smiling, saying that “I haven’t come that good for a long time.” When you contrast this scene with the resurrection of the Overfiend and the subsequent rape of the nurse late in the first episode, it demonstrates that both Megumi and the Overfiend have the power of orgasmic destruction.

The female body is both a site of pleasure but also a place of fear. After his orgy goes horribly wrong, Ozaki is caught and consumed by the demon that has killed the three women Ozaki was having sex with. After a brief struggle, Ozaki is pulled into the creature’s belly through an opening in its pelvic area. This scene of consumption reminds the viewer of the myth of the vagina dentata. According to Freud, fear of a “toothed vagina” signifies men’s fear of castration. Though the demon’s vagina lacks teeth, the creature’s distended abdomen, when combined with its vaginal-like opening, suggests that its belly is, in fact, a womb. The scene, therefore, becomes a scene of abjection, a nightmarish inversion of birth where the monstrous mother consumes her offspring. Ozaki is pulled back into the womb through the demon’s “vagina.” The uterus is no longer a place of life, but a place of death – the womb is meant to become Ozaki’s tomb.

Williams argues that hardcore pornography is a site of masculine “uncertainty and instability” (Williams, 1999, p. xvi). The genre of tentacle rape is no different from live-action hardcore films. In the Overfiend saga, the masculine body is a site of contestation and bifurcation, torn between the feminine and the masculine. The two masculine character types in the Overfiend saga are the “comic voyeur” and the “demonic phallus incarnate” (Napier, 2001, p. 65). The former is embodied by men who are powerless, weak, and social outcasts. The only “powerful” male – that is, one who adheres to the values and norms of hegemonic masculinity – is the popular basketball player, Ozaki, who is killed within the first 28 minutes of the story. The “infantile, passive” males remain and are continually frustrated in their attempts to “see, touch, and ultimately have sex with women,” specifically Akemi (Napier, 2001, p. 65). Their narrative function is to provide comic relief. In the Overfiend, the role of the comic voyeur is filled by the character Amano. When we first encounter him on-screen he is hidden in a closet off of the ladies’ change room at the university. There, he masturbates, watching the cheerleaders change. Amano’s loud climax alerts the women to his presence and he is forced to hide behind some athletic equipment, narrowly escaping detection by Akemi. As the narrative progresses, the audience comes to realize that Amano is the “letch that everyone laughs at,” After Amano is reborn – he is the Overfiend’s human host – Niki takes over the role of the powerless, yet comic, voyeur. To escape this powerless, passive, and pathetic role, Niki is only given one option to acquire the hegemonic masculinity he so desperately desires to have: he must cut off his own penis and replace it with a demon’s. He must then shed the blood of two people to reinforce his status as a powerful male. Masculine power and privilege, however, comes at a cost: self-mutilation. Consequently, Niki’s phallic power is false because comes from the transplanted demon penis (a penis that eventually rots off his body) and not from his own masculinity.

Similarly, the tentacled demons also lack masculinity. They are presented as everything the comic voyeurs are not: powerful, active, and penetrative. The demonic “male body [is the one] that constantly gains sexual satisfaction” but it is also an inhuman one. His “origin, iconography, and substance” makes him the “Other” (Napier, 2001, p. 79). He is “demonic, made of steel, [and] bulging with [phallic] tentacles” (Napier, 2001, p. 79). While the voyeur watches, the demon acts, penetrating his female partner-victim with both his penis and with as many tentacles as is possible. The men in the narrative occupy a tenuous and shifting gender – they are neither male nor female. Literally and figuratively the Other, they are associated with the feminine with their bloated womb-like abdomens, complete with a vaginal-like opening. Both male body types, therefore, demonstrate that there are no “real” men who can access “real” power in the Overfiend saga.

You cannot separate the text from the socio-cultural context out of which it was manufactured. As it is consumed, it reproduces those values, norms, and fears of the culture that informed its production. Going back to the questions I posed at the beginning of this talk (paper), I conclude that both of my questions (“Who are these DVDs for?” And, “What do they have to say?”) are ultimately connected. In general, these narratives are concerned with the postmodern condition: the fluid nature of identity and the fragmented society. They “speak sex” as a way of exploring the resulting anxieties and it is through the “fascination with gender roles and . . . transgressions” that these tensions can be resolved (Williams, 1999, p. 229; Napier, 2001, p. 11).

Notes:

1 My thanks to thanks to Professor David Hopkins of Tenri University, Japan – my co-panelist at the 27th annual meeting of the  Southwest Texas Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico – for pointing this out to me.

2 Another presenter at the 4th Global Conference on Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil, Dr. Natsumi Ikoma (from the International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan) also noted that urotsukidoji can also be translated as the wandering child (from urotsuki, ‘wandering,’ and doji, ‘child’). In this case, then, the title not only refers to the metaphorical product of gender role changes but also the state of gender role anomie – the wandering, child-like normlessness – that precipitated it.

References:

Drazen P. (2003). Anime explosion: The what? Why? And Wow! Of Japanese animation. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.

Kinsella, S. (2000). Adult Manga: Culture and power in contemporary Japanese society. Honolulu: University of Hawai’I Press.

Levi, A. (1996). Samurai from outer space: Understanding Japanese animation. Chicago, IL: Open Court Publishing Company.

Napier S. J. (2001). Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke. New York, NY: Palgrave.

Newitz A. (1995), Magical girls and atomic bomb sperm: Japanese animation in America. Film Quarterly, 49(1), 2-15.

Patten, F. (2004). Watching Anime, reading Manga. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.

Pointer, S. (1997). Transcultural orgasm as apocalypse: Urotsukidoji: The Legend of the Overfiend. Wide Angle, 19(3), 41-63.

Scholdt F. L. (1996). Dreamland Japan: Writings on modern Manga. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.

Weiss A. S. (2002, Winter). The epic of the cephalopod. Discourse, 24(1), 150-9.

Williams L. (1999). Hardcore: Power, pleasure, and the “frenzy of the visible.” Berkeley: University of California Press.

Shelley Smarz is a comic book scholar in her spare time. She’s currently fighting off the flu, which is why it took her three hours to format this post on Word Press (most of it was spent napping). She hates it when she goes brain dead from all the cold and flu meds and is looking forward to when she’s recovered enough to dive back into Planetary.

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