The Introduction of Nudity in Anime
By John Falco (@MercuryFalcon)
The presence of nudity is one of the most noticeable characteristics separating Japanese animation from its foreign counterparts. In the west, it’s not uncommon for a dirty joke, vague sexual reference, or maybe even a shot of a character’s butt to appear in a children’s cartoon. These instances are often short and indirect with an emphasis on humor as opposed to overt sexuality. What makes animation from Japan so different is the sheer volume, frequency, and uninhibited approach to the subject, with strong emphasis on the sexual aspects overtaking any intended humor. Many foreign fans of Japanese animation see the taboo around nudity and sexuality as a strictly western practice; but if we were to look back into the history of Japanese animation, you’ll see the unrestrained nature of the medium was something that developed over time. Though the west has seen censorship in the past due to religious sentimentalism, it is also true that the amount of sexual content in Japanese animation is overwhelming even compared to the standards of other Asian countries.
Last year, Tatsunoko’s Time Bokan series, an animated franchise started back in 1977, released its latest installment titled Time Bokan 24. The series follows two middle school kids as they travel through time while meeting historical figures who are diverging from their intended historical path, and having adventures as they try to return history back to normal. It’s obvious that the series is intended for young children as it features younger characters and serves an educational purpose. Strangely, one of the two main characters, a young girl named Kallen, wears an outfit consisting of a pink leotard and transparent skirt. Though the series doesn’t outright sexualize the character, the outfit does make you wonder what they were thinking, dressing such a young girl like a cage dancer at a techno rave. Not long after its premiere, the series was picked up by Cartoon Network in South Korea where several edits were made to the footage. Along with replacing instances of Japanese text with Korean text, the opacity of Kallen’s skirt was raised to make it a solid light blue color as opposed to transparent.
In Thailand, TV stations are far stricter regarding the content aired when it comes to animation. In fact, Thailand’s TV broadcasts of Japanese anime are notorious for their immense levels of censorship, blurring out any shots of women in swimsuits regardless of how tame or tasteful they may be. Surprisingly, women aren’t the only ones being covered up as scenes of men’s bare chests and shots focusing on character’s feet are also blurred for cultural reasons. It should be noted though, that these edits are not mandated by the Thai government and are done totally at the discretion of the TV broadcasting station. This means that although the TV airings are heavily censored, the region still receives uncut home releases. The question remains, why is Japan as lax on subjects so many other countries find taboo?
For starters, animation in Japan appeals to wider demographics than in other regions. With shows intended for teens and adults, it makes sense that we’d see an influx of mature content including greater violence and sex. What’s strange though is that even in animation aimed at younger children, Japan maintains its perverse sense of humor that doesn’t seem to be present anywhere else in the world. To discover the origin of this precedent, we have to look back into the early days of Japanese TV animation, starting with a likely ‘usual suspect.’ In 1973, the legendary Japanese manga artist Go Nagai created a magical girl series titled Cutie Honey. The series was intended to air at 7:00 p.m. on NET, a time slot dedicated to shows of the magical girl genre. However, Cutie Honey was dropped and the time slot was instead given to Miracle Girl Limit-chan. Cutie Honey was moved to the Maju Kaijin Daihenshin! Hour, which, as the name suggests, featured shows about demons, monsters, and great transformations. Since the new time slot was used by shonen series, or series aimed at young boys, Go Nagai made some changes to the series. Originally, the focus of the story would be the slice of life adventures of Honey, a girl with the power to change her appearance, as she tries to make a boy named Shun Kazama fall in love with her. With the show now airing to a shonen demographic, the focus was changed to make Honey an android with the power to transform in order to fight Kaijins (monster people) working for the crime syndicate Panther Claw. Another change from Go Nagai was the idea that when Honey transforms, she’d appear naked before donning her new outfit. At the time of its broadcast, Go Nagai’s Cutie Honey pulled in decent ratings, and did well enough that Toei even considered extending the series past the intended 26 episodes. Ultimately, they decided to cut the series one episode short as director Shingo Araki had to leave to begin work on a new project, Majokko Megu-chan. Though it didn’t change the industry overnight, Cutie Honey planted the seeds for what would become the genre known as ecchi, or perverted anime, a genre that wouldn’t fully develop until the straight-to-video anime boom of the 1980s.
From the mid-70s to early-80s Japanese animation exploded with new genres and ideas, the most notable of these new genres being the ‘real robot’ genre. In 1979, Japan saw the premiere of Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Mobile Suit Gundam. Though underappreciated on its initial release, the show would go on to spawn a massive franchise that continues to this day with no sign of slowing down. An interesting aspect of Tomino’s works that often goes unmentioned is his use of nudity and sexuality to explore deeper emotional connections between characters as well as pleasing the eyes of his audience. In the original Mobile Suit Gundam, we see the first instance of this in episode 21 when the teenage girl Fraw is bathing the pre-adolescents Katz, Kikka, and Letz. Not only is everyone in the scene nude, but for almost the entirety of the scene, Fraw’s breasts are exposed to the audience. Tomino uses this scene both as fan service and to show the character Fraw developing into the role of an adoptive mother to the children, a role she official assumes in the series’ sequel Zeta Gundam. As Tomino would continue with the series, sexuality would play a larger part in developing characters. In a conversation with Evangelion director Hideaki Anno in the Char’s Counterattack Fan Club Book, Tomino stated, “…you can’t not think about people and characters without factoring in sex.” Tomino even goes on to say that when developing the Char’s Counterattack character Nanai Miguel, “I absolutely had to give some thought to the state of Nanai’s pussy…I don’t want her pussy to seem sad or tired out. If it is, Char will seem pathetic for sticking it in her.”
With the success of the Gundam movies in the early 80s, we’d see Tomino’s perversions mimicked on screen by new entries in the real robot genre. Whether it be Jeanne’s shower scenes in The Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, the Emaan of Orguss explaining that in their culture it’s normal for men and women to undress in front of each other, Fyana’s nude jijirium showers in VOTOMS, or Subspace Tactics Srungle with its buxom female protagonist, who is literally named Sexy; Tomino had succeeded in making nudity a staple of the real robot genre. As anime dove deeper into the uncharted territory that was the middle of the 1980’s we’d see the emergence of another new genre, a genre born from the seeds planted by Cutie Honey and nurtured in the wake of Gundam. In 1984, Japan would see the release of the first hentai, Lolita Anime. Lolita Anime consisted of five 30-minute episodes and one 60-minute episode based on a manga by Fumio Nakajima, which was serialized in the lolicon magazine Lemon People. On a side note, Yoshiyuki Tomino actually named the Double Zeta Gundam character Elpeo Ple (pronounced L. People) after the controversial magazine.
Lolita Anime was released to harsh criticism with many complaining about its depiction of underage girls in S&M and rape scenarios. In May of 1984, three months following the release of Lolita Anime, we would see the second hentai anime hit the shelves. This second series was titled Cream Lemon and unlike its predecessor, it was an overnight success spawning over 30 episodes from 1984 to 2006. Though it shared themes with Lolita Anime from underage girls, to rape and BDSM, Cream Lemon handled the subject with just the slightest bit more tact. In episode four of Cream Lemon, a girl named Ryo rides into the town of Neo Cansas city on her hover bike, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the hover bikes from The Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross. There she meets Mai, a waitress at a schoolgirl café who tells her how all the other schoolgirls were kidnapped by a tribe of barbarians. The barbarian leader Zack, who is voiced by the legendary Norio Wakamoto, kidnaps Mai, forcing Ryo to face off with the Barbarians to rescue her. However, Mai falls in love with Zack, forcing him to have sex with her even after he’s lost the will to keep going. The episode ends with Ryo discovering an exhausted Zack and infatuated Mai as Mai goes on about how she can’t wait to get married.
A year following the release of Cream Lemon came another straight to video anime that changed the face of the industry. Megazone 23 was originally planned to be a TV series taking the time slot of Genesis Climber Mospeada. However, after the toy deal fell through, Fuji TV dropped the series from their line-up, and the animation that was already completed was hobbled together into a 90-minute film. The production was rushed as the team struggled to form a coherent story while also adding in a sex scene and more violence in the hopes it would promote sales. Surprisingly, the film was a hit and even saw a limited theatrical run throughout Japan. The success of Megazone changed the game as studios realized they could make commercially profitable anime that didn’t have to abide to television standards and appease advertisers. Throughout the latter half of the 80s, the straight-to-video anime market would explode with works ranging from the gory exploitation that is Violence Jack to the heart-pounding drama of Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket. Lemon People contributors Aran Rei and Toshihiro Hirano even threw their own hats into the ring just seven months after the release of Megazone 23 with Fight! Iczer-1. Iczer-1 was a 30-minute OVA packed with style, gore, lesbian overtones, and even some full frontal nudity. Despite appearing as nothing more than a hentai without sex scenes, Iczer-1 did incredibly well and even received two continuations the following year and two spin-off series in the early 90s.
Looking back, it appears that Fight! Iczer-1 was where anime studios realized they could make a perverted anime that was borderline hentai, but remove the sex scenes and sell it to a wider audience for greater returns. In fact, less than a year after the release of Fight! Iczer-1, we would see the release of the cult classic OVA Project A-ko, which followed that model to a T. Project A-ko went into production as an episode of the Cream Lemon series, but in development, the studio made the decision to remove the sex scenes and release it as a standard OVA, to great success. A year later, in 1987, Japan would see the release of two OVA series that raised the bar in terms of what a studio could do with artistic freedom. These two series were Bubblegum Crisis and Aim for the Top! Gunbuster. Both series starred attractive women in revealing outfits, but at the same time, they offered genuinely interesting stories with characters viewers fell in love with, and not just for their appearance. In his discussion with Hideaki Anno, Tomino says that he found Gundam character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko frustrating as he refused to admit he enjoyed drawing sexually stimulating art. As Japan entered the 90s, the effects of the OVA boom could be seen spreading to TV animation. The once taboo boob jiggle, seen first in Gainax’s Gunbuster, started to appear in TV broadcasts. Ecchi and harem would go from being words simply used to describe a show to becoming their own full-fledged genres.
To this day, the anime industry encourages artists to embrace their perversions and to create animation unlike anything seen from any other country. As a result, many have come to view Japanese animation with a negative connotation, and it is true that too many modern anime rely on sex appeal without offering anything of substance. However, at the same time, it is the willingness to show what so many see as taboo that has drawn so many viewers in and shown them a world unlike any they’ve seen before. Japanese animation has come so far from what we expect from the medium that we specifically refer to it by the name “anime”, as if to say Japanese animation cannot be classified by the same standards as animation from anywhere else in the world. Whether immoral or artistic, the emphasis on nudity and sexuality seen in Japanese animation is certainly interesting.