Ask John: How Did Hentai Become Popular in America?

Question:
How did hentai gain a footing in America?

Answer:
It should really come as no surprise that Japanese comic erotica is relatively popular in America. After all, interest in sex is one of the most fundamental interests of humankind. Interest in sex and procreation, the need for food, fear of pain and death, and the desire for safety and comfort are the basic motivations of all humans. Apart from vital necessity and natural desire, as the adage goes, sex sells. As a diverse art form, it’s natural that erotic manga and anime would exist, and as long as there are Americans interested in manga and anime, there will be Americans interested in pornographic manga and anime. So it could be said that hentai reached America as a result of simple supply and demand. But such a simple explanation isn’t really useful or interesting.

The x-rated American theatrical release of Osamu Tezuka’s film Cleopatra in 1970 probably constitutes the first instance of “adult” anime reaching America, but hentai anime didn’t really begin its American invasion until the second half of the 1980s. Before an American anime industry existed, it was the adult film industry that first discovered and imported erotic anime. Early hentai anime including Cream Lemon: Star Trap, Cream Lemon: White Shadow, and SF Lolita Fantasy OME-1 were dubbed and brought to America through the adult video industry as “X-rated cartoons.” Hardcore fans recognized these episodes as Japanese animation, but their commercial distributors made no effort to promote them as “anime.” Around the same time, erotic manga and anime began filtering into America through a variety of underground channels.

Urotsukidoji, or “Wandering Kid,” as it was known at the time, was a virtually legendary pornographic “Japanime” sold by bootlegers through the mail and at comic book and fantasy conventions. I personally recall watching late night screenings of untranslated imported erotic anime at conventions in the late 1980s. And in the early 1990s the Alt.Binaries.Pictures.Erotica.Anime (ABPEA) newsgroup went live on the internet discussion community Usenet. The ABPEA allowed fans to share erotic manga scans, hentai anime screenshots, and bishoujo game images internationally. At the same time, early websites devoted to hentai art began appearing online. It’s probably these online resources which alerted American fans to the existence of Japanese erotic doujinshi and erotic Japanese fan art.

As the American anime distribution industry began to emerge, some of the first anime series brought to America were either hentai or ecchi titles. Central Park Media caused quite a controversy first by attempting but failing to release the erotic comedy “I Give My All,” on American home video in 1991, then by successfully releasing an officially licensed translation of Urotsukidoji onto American home video and also into limited theatrical release in 1993. AD Vision’s first title was the risqué Devil Hunter Yohko, released in November 1992. Media Blasters’ first American release was the hentai OAV Rei Lan ~Orchid Emblem~, released on May 6, 1997. The independent American comic industry ventured into anime erotica as early as 1990 when IANVS Publications printed its first “Anime Shower Special,” a playful photo collection of screenshots of bathing anime girls. Antarctic Press debuted its English language translation of “Kondom’s” erotic fantasy manga Insect Hunter in America in March 1994 under the title “Bondage Fairies.” Eros Comics followed suit in publishing English translated erotic manga by releasing the first issue of Hiroyuki Utatane’s “Temptation” on August 17, 1995.

From those small beginnings: adult anime filtering into America through non-anime related distributors, and hardcore fans personally importing hentai, interest grew into demand which America’s emerging anime industry noticed and responded to. Since the early 1990s, when erotic manga and anime were first legally imported and marketed directly to the American fan community, interest in the genre has continued to grow.

Article revised on June 4, 2008 with assistance from John C. Watson

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One Response to “Ask John: How Did Hentai Become Popular in America?”

  1. On Bondage Fairies and Complexity | Porno/graphic: comics, sex and censorship Says:

    […] – if there were world enough and time – Bondage Fairies comes into my research as one of the first Japanese eromanga to hit the Anglophone market in translation. Initially published in Japan in 1990 as Insect Hunter, the first book was […]

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