What is Hentai?

Hentai and Adult Anime: An “Explicit” Look at Two Often-Confused Genres

Most Westerners have a general concept of what the term anime means – or, at least they think they do.

You’ll often hear descriptions like “It’s Japanese animation.” “It’s those weird shows like Pokemon that little kids and nerds like.” “It’s crazy sci-fi or action cartoons showing young characters with huge eyes and strange-colored hair.” Or, often, “It’s perverted Japanese cartoon porn.”

None of those characterizations is exactly right, and some are completely off the mark. Generally speaking, anime is Japanese animation, although some anime is actually produced elsewhere and Disney cartoons are often sold in Japan as “Disney anime.” Some anime is indeed “weird” to American (and even Japanese) sensibilities, and many anime series have lots of fantastical action, sci-fi themes or overtones. But the most popular and long-running anime shows in Japan like Sazae-san focus on everyday Japanese families. Distinctive and unrealistic eyes and hair are common to many anime characters but certainly not all – and then again, take a look at Marge Simpson if you want to see crazy hair and big eyes. Many of the characters (particularly the female ones) do look rather young, but that’s partly stylistic and partly due to historical factors.

As for the comment about perverted Japanese cartoon porn? That gets to the heart of our discussion, as we examine two genres of anime: hentai and adult anime. And in order to understand them, we must first briefly look at the development of Japanese anime.

A Brief History of Anime

The emergence of animated entertainment in Japan ran roughly parallel to the timeline of American cartoon development. The first “cartoons” were publicly displayed in both countries in the 1910s and 20s, they became enormously popular in both East and West during the 1930s (although many anime producers were co-opted by the Japanese government to produce pre-war propaganda cartoons), and the style of late ‘30s anime copied greatly from the work of Walt Disney.

There was an understandable hiatus in the development of anime after World War II, but the cartoons began appearing on Japanese television in the early 1960s, and the work of revered artist Osamu Tezuka (again, using many of Disney’s animation techniques simplified for cost reasons) was largely responsible for the enormous surge in anime’s popularity in the 1970s and the decades that followed. Tezuka’s sci-fi and robot themes became classics, and the stylized look of his work that focused more on art than movement became a hallmark of modern anime. He was also primarily responsible for the “huge eyes” look of many anime characters used to display a wide range of emotions (but originally inspired by the large eyes of Betty Boop), as well the subjective motion look which was all his own.

Many more influential artists followed, anime was mainstreamed in 1980s Japan and elsewhere, and many genres of anime including war, magic and martial arts have developed large groups of devotees both in Japan and in the West. And as might be expected, some of those genres are adult-related or pornographic. That brings us to the subject of hentai.

What Is Hentai?

If an expert was asked to describe both the general meaning of hentai and its relationship to anime, by using Western references in a single sentence, he might say: “All pornos are movies, but not all movies are porn.”

That’s simplifying things quite a bit, but it’s a good start. At its core, hentai is anime that is sexually explicit; most anime is not hentai, even if it’s erotic-themed or adult-oriented. And the actual meaning of hentai is very different in Japan (where it’s officially known as R18) than in the West.

The word “hentai” derives from the Japanese phrase meaning “abnormal sexual desires,” so anime depicting mature themes, soft-core sexual activity or even traditional intercourse is not considered hentai in Japanese culture. On the other hand, the word has been used in Western cultures to sell all sexually-oriented anime productions, whether or not they show “abnormal” sexual activities, desires or practices.

With the bulk of production occurring in Japan, however, those “abnormal” themes are more likely to be depicted than “normal” sex – and the unusual action portrayed in hentai movies has become one of the driving forces behind the popularity of hentai anime around the world.

This leads to the obvious question: what are these abnormal activities that are the focus of hentai? If you’re not already a fan, hang onto your seats.

One of the most common denominators in anime hentai is fetishes, and many have their own sub-genre names. Futanari focuses on characters (with female body characteristics) who are hermaphrodites or sometimes transsexuals, Netorare hentai is devoted to women cuckolding men, Bakunyu involves women with unrealistically large breasts, Omorashi involves a watersports fetish involving sexual arousal caused by a full bladder, Seppuku depicts ritual disembowelment leading to suicide, Lolicon focuses on underaged cartoon girls (and Shotacon involves underaged cartoon boys), and you can certainly guess what the hentai sub-genre “Incest” means.

That’s only scratching the surface, as other popular hentai anime themes concentrate on activities like sadomasochism, infantilism and lactation, public groping, furries, bukkake, rape and gang rape, sex with strange partners from animals to demons, and many other fetishes and “abnormal” themes both somewhat-known and very obscure. One extremely popular sub-genre of hentai deals with sexual penetration, and more specifically penetration by the tentacles of bizarre creatures or monsters.

Believe it or not, the latter scenario has a long and storied history in Japanese culture, and that will provide an important insight into the development of many themes celebrated in anime hentai. An erotic novel written in 1814 was illustrated by the acclaimed Japanese artist Hokusai Katsushika and his most famous work from that effort, known as Girl Diver and Octopi), showed a young pearl diver being satisfied by two women; another depicted the man who stole a jewel from the Dragon King being punished by having sex with the King and being penetrated by his army of octopi. Those works served as the inspiration for the 1980s tentacle works of famed manga artist Toshio Maeda, and led to the inclusion and popularization of the sub-genre in hentai.

You’ve probably guessed by now that the use of tentacles in manga and hentai was borne out of “necessity” as much as inspiration; Japanese law forbade the depiction of pubic hair and penetration so tentacles became handy stand-ins for penises. This law was also the driving force behind the ubiquitous use of robots, monsters and other fantastical creatures as sex partners in hentai anime, and one reason why even mature female characters in hentai (and anime) often appear to be underage.

There are also many explicit and non-explicit hentai works which focus specifically on male homosexual (Yaoi) and female homosexual (Yuri) themes; most are designed to be viewed by those of the opposite sex.

While many of the themes explored in hentai are unquestionably abnormal, a number of experts have theorized that the nature of those themes provides an important outlet for viewers and explains much of the genre’s popularity. They believe the depersonalization of the characters, and the sexual activities they undertake, allows people to explore forbidden areas of their imaginations and desires without being held back by the taboos which might interfere if the characters were human and relatable. The fantasy nature of hentai, in other words, makes it an arguably-acceptable outlet for fetishes and impulses which might otherwise be completely shameful in the minds of the viewers, not to mention illegal.

We’ve mentioned that some of the sub-genres of hentai which seem to be unfathomable to Western viewers actually have their origins in Japanese history and culture. We’ll consider that next.

What Is The History of Hentai?

It’s necessary to look back beyond the development of modern animation to understand the cultural inspiration which led to anime hentai. Japanese erotic art, known as Shunga, dates back more than a thousand years although much of it was suppressed by the nation’s rulers and seldom seen for centuries; Girl Diver and Octopii is just one of many examples. Around the same time manga developed as an art form, first as “political cartoons” in religious scrolls and then, as the form developed, reproduced as prints. It is believed that some early manga works were used as primitive sex guides by many Japanese in the 17th and 18th century. Manga’s “abnormal” themes served as a major influence in the development of hentai, and historical erotic manga works were one of the major building blocks.

Western influences began to be melded with traditional manga approaches in the 20th century (and at this time, the Japanese phrase translated as hentai was used to describe the scholarly study of abnormal sexuality), but the full-fledged evolution of erotic manga came after the end of World War II as Japanese attitudes toward sexuality changed. At first, the comics were realistic in their character depictions, but they quickly began to take on more of the cartoonish look of Osamu Tezuka’s famed anime works like Astro Boy. Full-fledged pornographic manga debuted around 1980, with the publication of Cybele and other Lolicon works by Azuma Hideo. Within five years, hentai as we know it today was born.

The first “true” hentai anime series was known as Lolita Anime and featured, among other things, BDSM, rape and underage sex. Other similar series including Cream Lemon and Brothers Grime followed, initially with underground distribution and eventually becoming more widely available. Hentai came to the West in the early 1990s with the release of the movie Urotsukidoji; it included extreme violence and tentacle penetration. Many consider the 90s to be the heyday of anime hentai.

The availability of hentai has always been subject to legal considerations – and eventually, to the continuing effect of the Internet on video distribution. Japanese law still prohibits the display of many of the depictions contained in explicit hentai, which is what brought about the familiar censorship effects superimposed on many hentai movies. A recently-passed Japanese child-pornography law does exempt manga and hentai, however. The issues in many Western countries issues involve not only pornography laws, but selective enforcement of them. That makes it almost impossible for consumers, or even lawyers, to know what is allowed in various jurisdictions. For example, it’s less of an issue in the United States and more of a problem in the United Kingdom.

However, the effect that the Internet has had on all forms of video distribution has taken its toll. Less hentai is now produced than in previous years because DVD distribution of all movies, particularly explicit content, has been largely replaced by online distribution and viewing. Online sites have now become the major venue for distribution and viewing of hentai anime.

How Is Hentai Different From Adult Anime?

Early on, we mentioned that anime with erotic themes, nudity or sexual intercourse is not necessarily hentai. In Japan, softcore anime is variously known as etchi (meaning “sexually forward”), ero or simply “H” and widely accepted; seinen is the term sometimes used for hardcore anime (which must be censored in Japan) without extreme elements and targeted at a younger male audience. Early anime examples of these types of works include 1969’s One Thousand and One Arabian Nights which included the sexual elements of the classic, and 1970’s Cleopatra: Queen of Sex.

Since that time, an enormous number of non-hentai anime works have been created with adult themes, and are some of the most popular in Japanese culture. While most in the Western world don’t bother to distinguish between hentai, ecchi and seinen, the Western term that best applies to these genres is adult anime and not hentai, because they don’t include the extreme and “abnormal” sexual themes which define hentai anime.

There are many anime sub-genres which fall into the category of adult anime. They include romance cartoons known as Harem in which many females are vying for the attention of a male character, and Shonen Ai and Shoujo Ai which are non-sexually explicit Yaoi and Yuri anime, respectively. Other forms of ecchi can include anime with themes involving nudity, panties or simulated sex, but none are rigorously considered to be anime hentai.