What's the deal with Japanese tentacle porn?

November 19, 2010

Dear Cecil:

Sorry if this question is too graphic, but I'm baffled by Japanese tentacle porn. Why are there so many rapist octopuses living in the Land of the Rising Sun?

Cecil replies:

Don't be such a wuss, Michael. Have you looked at much tentacle porn? If you can get past the gang rape and violent death aspects, it's actually kind of cute. More on that below.

In any case, tentacle porn is hardly Japan's only out-there erotic category — try Googling "koonago" sometime. I'm not about to launch into some Lost in Translation-style the-Japanese-sure-are-weird riff, though. The basic phenomenon to be understood here is this: (1) the Japanese create this stuff; (2) we buy it — the U.S. is a big market for comic-book-style (manga) and animated (anime) Japanese erotica, collectively known here as hentai. (Back in Japan this term is reserved for content considered genuinely abnormal.) So there are people all over who get off on things like this. The question is why the Japanese have been so inventive in dreaming it up.

Tentacle porn depicts pretty much what the name suggests: critters getting it on, consensually or otherwise, with nubile maidens via tentacles or similar protuberances. Often cited as the earliest prototype is an 1814 print commonly known in the West as The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife by the renowned Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. It shows a reclining, naked, and apparently willing woman wrapped in the tentacles of a pair of octopuses, one of whom is kissing her and caressing her nipple while the other performs cunnilingus. The work is one of the foremost examples of shunga (erotic pictures) from the Edo period.

A couple things to understand. First, porn in Japan wasn't and isn't the furtive business it mostly remains in the U.S. — shunga were commonly given to newlyweds on their wedding nights. Second, tentacles weren't a big deal at first. Images like Hokusai's were memorable but hardly the only kinky treatment to be found in the catalog of Japanese erotica — other shunga depicted lesbian sex, sex toys, transvestites, and bondage rape.

What turned tentacle porn into a genre of its own was the manga series Urotsukidoji, begun in 1986 by cartoonist Toshido Maeda, and its subsequent anime adaptations, which expanded on the original concept. The plot, in its eventual form: members of a half-human, half-bestial race invade Japan searching for an evil supreme being called the Chojin ("Overfiend"), who 3,000 years earlier created the three parallel worlds of humans, man-beasts, and demons, hopes now to unite them, and, at the moment, lives inside a human teenager.

The initial creative impulse, it seems to me, wasn't that far removed from what led J.K. Rowling to invent Harry Potter. The final product … well, here we see a divergence of artistic sensibilities. As the Chojin manifests himself (in the animated version, anyway) we're treated not only to giant tentacle-penises, but quasi-phalluses swelling to explode people from within and flaming sperm devastating cities. Beauty and the Beast this ain't.

The reason for the reliance on tentacles was simple. Till 1993 Japanese law prohibited straightforward depictions of penises and intercourse. So Maeda was obliged to come up with a substitute: tentacles. In a 2002 interview he explained: "I could say as an excuse, this is not a [penis], this is just a part of the creature … So it is not obscene — not illegal."

Other instances of tentacle sex appear in such classics as Obscene Beast Teacher, Alien From the Darkness, and Advancer Tina. Sometimes the woman is a willing participant — the manga Fiend Without a Face, for example, has the female protagonist defending the tentacled monster from her father. On the other hand, Maeda’s manga Demon Beast Invasion features several women being raped by tentaclelike tree roots and branches, and was graphic enough that Texas courts ruled it obscene.

Tentacle porn is hardly an outlier in the world of Japanese erotica. Hentai frequently features non-tentacular rape and other sexual violence, plus bizarre fetishes and fantasies involving humans, animals, supernatural beings, robots, aliens, and hybrids thereof. Baffled occidentals tend to chalk this up to either (a) artistic ids unrestrained by Western notions of morality, or (b) the rigid conformism of Japanese society, which offers few other outlets for the icky inner you.

Then again, maybe they really do just have a bunch of sickos over there. However, it's not like smut mongers in our hemisphere are always the picture of mental health. The main difference is that Western porn, including the comic book and animated variety, tends to be largely realistic, apart from the gravity-defying boobs. The Japanese, in contrast, are big on fantasy and surrealism. Couple that with the Hello Kitty cuddliness that seeps into even the kinkiest hentai, and the typical sheltered Westerner is going to think: this crap is strange.

Still, the Japanese don’t have a lock on twisted artistic imaginations, as Straight Dope readers know. They may have Toshido Maeda; we've got Slug.

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References

Barnes, R.S.K, Calow, P., and Olive, P.J.W. The Invertebrates: A New Synthesis Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1988.

Beringer, Mark, Ecke, Jochen, and Haberkorn, Gideon (eds) Comics as a Nexus of Culture North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2010.

Berry, Paul "Rethinking "Shunga": The Interpretation of Sexual Imagery of the Edo Period" Archives of Asian Art 54 (2004): 7-22.

Foxwell, Chelsea "Ukiyo-e and the Codification of Aesthetic Values in Modern Japan, 1880-1930" Dekadansu

Gould, Charles B.A. Mythical Monsters Landsville, PA: Arment Biological Press. 1884 (republished 2000).

Greene, David "The Need for Expert Testimony to Prove Lack of Serious Artistic Value in Obscenity Cases" Nexus 10 (2005): 171-178.

Miéville, China "M. R. James and the Quantum Vampire." Collapse (May 2008): 105–128.

Newitz, Annalee "Magical Girls and Atomic Bomb Sperm: Japanese Animation in America" Film Quarterly 49.1 (1995): 2-15.

Ortega-Brena, Mariana "Peek-a-boo, I See You: Watching Japanese Hard-core Animation" Sexuality & Culture 13 (2009): 17–31.

Pointon, Susan "Transcultural Orgasm as Apocalypse: Urotsukidoji: The Legend of the Overfiend" Wide Angle 19.3 (1997): 41-63.

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