Nami, a student nurse in the Japanese cartoon "Koihime," slumps into an overstuffed chair and kicks off her shoes after a long day at the hospital. As her eyes close, the girl--who looks like a human version of Hello Kitty--slips into a surreal dream where amorous monsters chase her and tug at her white uniform. Suddenly, she's grabbed by an alien and pulled onto its gray gelatinous body.
"My goodness, this is odd," she says as the creature rips off her dress. "Whatever you are, do your worst!" Alien tentacles and other appendages begin to fly--just another animated-Japanese-school-girl-meets-alien love story.
Springing out of the furthest edges of animation is the world of hentai, a genre of triple-X cartoons that explores the sexual frontiers in an incongruously childlike format.
The star is typically a perky, doe-eyed female in a high school uniform. Her co-stars range from slobbering businessmen and sadomasochistic school officials to hormonal extraterrestrials. When the two groups meet, their escapades are often a mix of graphic violence, weird sex and plot lines that can only be described as over the top.
Hentai, which literally means "perversion," is a product of the multibillion-dollar Japanese animation industry, better known on these shores for such animated, G-rated favorites as "Sailor Moon," "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service."
With the rise of the global Internet, the fantasy pornography of hentai has moved quickly to the U.S. and evolved into one of the more prevalent--and legal--forms of erotica. Today, hentai films can be easily bought online or through mainstream outlets, including Tower Records and Fry's Electronics, which stock small collections of the genre. Though such tame outlets don't carry triple-X videos with real actors, many of the hentai titles available at these locations are labeled: "All characters depicted in sexual conduct or in the nude are aged 19 years or older."
Despite those labels, the genre has fallen into the heated legal battle over morality and technology. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in April that "virtual" child pornography--no matter how realistic it appears--is protected by the 1st Amendment as long as real children are not a part of it. Pending federal legislation is trying to get around the ruling, and the House Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the Child Obscenity and Pornography Prevention Act of 2002 today.
Even if the measures become law, hentai is considered relatively obscure, and so far sits near the bottom of the Department of Justice's priorities.
That there is even a market for hentai in the U.S. underscores an economic reality in the triple-X world: As sexual imagery becomes standard fare of mainstream media, the exhibition market is crammed with competition. "At a certain point, what's different will sell," said Joe Giarmo, vice president of production at Van Nuys-based NuTech Digital Inc., one of the leading producers and distributors of Japanese animation, karaoke and hentai DVDs.
Companies have rushed to draft American porn stars to dub hentai in English, an assignment few industry veterans will refuse. Still, when these actors and actresses review the tapes they will be working on, the fantastical acts they see shock even their jaded sensibilities. Many are taken aback by the success of their cartoon competitors.
At a recording studio in Burbank, adult-film actress Kobe Tai watches a television monitor play back a scene in "Koihime." As the gray gelatinous alien undresses Nami, the actress casts a skeptical glance at the technicians in the sound booth as if to say: "Are you kidding?"
The technicians nod in agreement.
"It's twisted, no doubt," Tai said.
Much of the strange activity in hentai, assumed by critics to be purely for shock value, evolved from artists who exploited loopholes in Japanese obscenity laws, said Jonathan Clements, co-author of the Anime Encyclopedia.
One 1918 code specified that the adult "pubic area need not be hidden, but there should be no anatomical details to draw the reader's attention."
Instead of blocking artists from creating pornography, illustrators and pornographers thwarted the law by depicting sexual organs in shadow or outline. Body parts were colored blue or green--signifying that they couldn't possibly be human--or were depicted as part of a monster. And animators began drawing female characters that looked like busty preteens--devoid of pubic hair, and thus theoretically outside the boundaries of the regulation. To Western eyes, the characters appear childlike. But to Japanese viewers, the distinction is not as clear.
Over time, the seduction or sexual violation of such girlish characters evolved into a socially acceptable catharsis within the sexually repressed Japanese culture, an exorcism of fantasy that is taboo in the real world, according to author Helen McCarthy, co-author of "The Erotic Anime Movie Guide."
Aficionados of Japanese animation, known as "anime," say that the high school uniforms and childlike faces are a standard convention of the genre; a cultural fetish long established as merely fantasy. Just wearing a school uniform is also no clear sign that the characters are underage. Uniforms are worn at some junior colleges in Asia, and the girlish look, known as the kawaii style, is favored by women well into their 30s.
Some fans of hentai--which is aimed at an adult, mostly male audience--say they are attracted to the look, not the content, of the videos.
"I've been a fan of Japanese [animation] since I was a kid reading comic books," Samuel Chen, 33, said while shopping for hentai DVDs at Fry's Electronics in Woodland Hills. "I like it the same way I like R-rated movies. It's not for the porn. It's for the art."
But there is no question that hentai, regardless of its cultural cues, goes beyond what many consider acceptable. By the early 1990s, hentai artists, buoyed by several court cases, launched into a kind of nuclear arms race into ever more exotic and strange sub-genres, from alien hentai to demon and robot hentai.
In the classic series "La Blue Girl," high school student Miko Mido, spends her nights battling sex-crazed demons who, among other transgressions, ravage her sister, a girls' volleyball team and, of course, the heroine herself--who turns out to be a ninja with magical powers.
"The whole demon-sex thing is a genre unto itself," said Ken Wiatrek, marketing coordinator for ADV Films, a subsidiary of Texas-based AD Vision Inc. "The whole hentai thing is odd. I know it. You know it. But it makes perfect sense in Japan." The demand for English-translated hentai is small but growing--as is the number of films being created, say American film distributors. Animators released 35 animated porn film titles in Asia in 1997, according to Clements; last year, 96 films were released.
Between the Asian companies that produce the films and the American consumers who buy them is a handful of small companies fighting to dominate this market. At NuTech's warehouse in Van Nuys, stacks of animated Japanese movies cram every spare inch.
Not so long ago, NuTech focused on distributing such G-rated films as "Robin Hood" and "Alice in Wonderland." Now, there is little room for Alice or Maid Marian, as piles of DVDs with such titles as "Immoral Sisters" and "Erotic City" squeeze them out.
The graphic nature of hentai has led American distributors such as NuTech to take steps to try to avoid problems. "We edit out all the clear-cut kids from hentai we license from Japanese companies. But Japanese artists tend to make their characters look far younger than they really are," Giarmo said. "For them, the sky's the limit. For us, it's a balancing act."
So far, hentai has managed to survive both stepped-up attacks by the Department of Justice against online erotica and recent legal battles over what is--and is not--child pornography.
Until recently, federal law made it a crime to sell or possess "any visual depiction" that seems to show a sex act--simulated or real--involving an actor who appears to be a minor. By definition, even cartoons fell under the umbrella of illegality.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the law involving a new generation of "virtual" pornographers who rely entirely on computer images. So long as real children are not depicted--or "morphed" into a sex scene--the image, film or photograph cannot be prosecuted as child pornography, the court said.
Federal investigators countered that the harm rests in the proliferation of material that pedophiles could use to seduce a minor or incite child abuse.
Since then, Senate Judiciary Committee ranking Republican Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has backed a bill in response to the high court's decision to void the Child Pornography Protection Act of 1996, a law that he helped author. The measure "prohibits visual depictions of actual or apparent minors engaging in the most hard-core forms of sexual activity" when the depictions "lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value."
House Crime Subcommittee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), backed by U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, authored a similar measure. The House bill will be reviewed by the Judiciary Committee today.
"Is it child pornography when there's no real child involved?" said attorney H. Louis Sirkin, who represents the Free Speech Coalition, a collection of adult filmmakers who challenged the federal child pornography laws in the Supreme Court case. "How do you prove the person engaged in an activity is over age 18 if the person doesn't even exist?"
For companies in the emerging U.S. hentai market, what matters most is figuring out what customers want to buy.
NuTech, which translates up to 10 new hentai movies a month, expects to release several hundred titles in the U.S. by the end of 2003. And the company says it is in talks with cable television operators to roll out hentai movies on pay-per-view. Rival firms, such as Anime 18, a division of the New York publishing firm Central Park Media, are also adding to the number of titles to hit store shelves each month.
"You can only watch so many girls contort in so many ways before you're bored," said Giarmo of NuTech, referring to traditional pornography. "This is not the same old thing."