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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Porn 'anime' boasts big U.S. beachhead

Fan base swells for 'hentai' content, much to cartoon purists' chagrin

Staff writer

The popularity of Japanese animation overseas was again highlighted in Anime Expo 2006 in California earlier this month, but a growing boom in the genre's pornographic segment is raising eyebrows among the world's fans of Pokemon and other less-graphic content.

News photo
AN ANIMATION figure doll priced at 73,500 yen is among other provocative character goods at Mandarake's toy shop in Nakano Ward, Tokyo. JUN HONGO PHOTO

"The best-selling product overseas now is a pornographic makeover of 'Gundam Seed,' " said Masuzo Furukawa of Mandarake Inc., referring to a popular Japanese animation.

Mandarake, based in Nakano Ward, Tokyo, specializes in the sale of toys and used "manga" comic books. The company and similar shops have seen overseas sales of sexual "anime" grow in the last couple of years.

"Up until several years ago, it was mostly just traders who came over to Japan to purchase this type of merchandise," Furukawa said. "But now, individual customers are willing to buy the products themselves."

The expanding anime market on the Internet is one reason behind the trend.

Mandarake's online division has customers in 26 countries, and adult products account for 30 percent of its international sales.

The general intolerance toward pornographic animation and comic books in the West is another factor for overseas fans to seek out Japanese products, Furukawa said.

"Fans in America seek something special in this anime, and reading them is cathartic," he said.

The pornographic anime boom has even made the word "hentai" (perverted) recognizable among anime fans worldwide. Hentai is now used overseas to describe anime with strong sexual content.

While Mandarake capitalizes on the kinky boom, other retailers are reluctant to export such products.

Satoshi Fukuda of Tokyo-based Animaxis Inc. said hentai began to gain currency overseas around 2001 and online shops saw a corresponding growth in sales of adult products. His company, however, has elected not to focus on the kinky goods and instead continues to provide a wide range of other merchandise.

"There have been proposals within the company to stock a larger number of hentai anime to gain more sales," Fukuda said. The company has opted not to because, he said, it would be "inappropriate."

Fukuda said there will be, and should be, tighter rules against adult anime.

According to a report by the Japan External Trade Organization, the number of Japanese anime DVDs exported to the United States increased from 2.1 million in 2000 to 12 million in 2005.

Experts see the infiltration of sexual content as an inevitable outcome of Japanese anime gaining ground worldwide.

Ryusuke Hikawa, a critic who has collaborated with NHK in producing anime programs, explained that there has been a market for Japanese pornographic anime in the United States since the late 1980s.

"Whether pornographic anime is a good or bad is for each individual to decide," Hikawa said. "But this genre has established a foothold in America because it is unique there," he said at a lecture on anime culture at the Foreign Press Center in June.

Hikawa said Japan tends to be more tolerant of pornographic materials than the West, and even anime not regarded as kinky often includes sexual content and violence.

However, he also noted that Japanese anime in general is unique among art forms in its way of "depicting modern-day Japan."

But whether this depiction is well-received is open to question, as there has been opposition against Japanese anime in the United States.

In April, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors in California ordered the anime reference book "Manga: Sixty years of Japanese Comics," to be banned from the county's libraries, because the book contained "reproductions of pornographic cartoons depicting sex acts, including sex with animals."

Fans of nonpornographic anime in America are also lamenting the kinky craze.

Caroline Silva, president of Harvard University's Anime Society, said, "Most people (in the U.S.) immediately think of hentai when they think of anime."

Yet she also believes in the creators' right to freedom of expression, and does not wish to shut out the genre.

"The way we have chosen to approach that problem is to educate (the general public)," Silva said. She plans to promote the art form for what it truly is by showing "the amazing anime that do exist out there."

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