Sex is a fact of life or, if you prefer it more direct: without sex, there is no life. Unless, of course, you happen to be one of those lucky creatures able to reproduce by parthenogenesis or one of the other less exciting methods. Then there can be lots of little yous running around without having to wait for partners to sober up enough to manage intercourse or recover from headaches. So, since we’re all genetically programmed to reproduce, we’re quite interested in the activity from a young age. That means speculating about what it’s going to be like when our bodies mature. In part, we satisfy this curiosity by watching the adults around us, and by studying images. When we finally make it into adulthood, we can access a different range of images. This either becomes sexually stimulating in its own right, or continues the process of education, showing us new things to dream about or try.
Authority figures attempt to set limits on what the images can show. There are streaks of puritanism in every culture. So, in Indonesia for example, the editor of Playboy was recently sent to jail for two years. He’s been branded a “moral terrorist” for publishing images of partly-clothed women. In other, more liberal societies, the line between the “acceptable” and pornography is drawn in different places with different consequences for those involved in distributing or possessing it. Even in the land of the First Amendment, the need to protect vulnerable children from exploitation overrides the right to publish or possess sexual images of minors.
That makes the phenomenon of both manga and anime very interesting since the way in which girls and women are drawn is often highly sexualised. This continues the traditional culture of Shunga, an erotic application of the ukiyo-e woodcut printing system. Now there are manga comics showing preteen girls engaging in sexual activity, sometimes with adults. Not much has changed over the centuries. Even more interesting is the way in which this form of depiction transfers into the real world. Fans call dressing as their heroes cosplay, and it’s common for people to meet and show off their latest creations. There’s also an increasingly brisk trade in the development of child stars or junior idols. Both prepubescent and teen girls are photographed and videoed wearing what some in the West would consider provocative clothing. There’s no actual nudity or “performance” involved, but even some Japanese government figures are beginning to worry that all this sexualised imagery of young girls may be passively encouraging paedophilia. But, despite conservative factions around the world pouring millions into research, hoping to find evidence to justify more laws to ban certain types of imagery, there’s been no success. No-one has proved a direct cause and effect between whatever is defined as “pornography” and unlawful sexual activity. People’s behaviour is shaped by their experiences while growing up in a culture, rather than by exposure to any one type of imagery.
So in most of the different genres of anime, we continue to see highly stereotyped behaviour. In this, one of the more interesting manga and anime series has been Zero no Tsukaima with the initial relationship between Louise and Saito playing out as a soft version of S&M. Louise literally treats Saito as if he was a dog, routinely beating and humiliating him. Yet Saito responds by protecting Louise and, eventually, overcomes his more general lustfulness to fall in love with her. Despite their declarations of love, nothing really changes. She remains pathologically jealous and he’s fixated by girls with big breasts. So we have episodes such as Miwaku no Joshi Furo in which the boys tunnel their way into the girls’ bathhouse to watch them “unprotected”. Similarly, in Yūwaku no Sunahama, Saito and Professor Osmond conspire to persuade the girls to wear Earth-style swimming costumes and then splash each other with water, supposedly as part of a purification ritual. Both episodes are classic voyeurism, allowing the boys and, later, the lascivious Professor, the chance to see the exposed girls. Saito, of course, gets a better view of all the girls with bigger breasts — a distraction that lands him in yet more trouble with Louise. So we share the opportunity vicariously, seeing detailed images of all the girls and their “curves” while the boys drool. When the plot is exposed in Yūwaku no Sunahama, the girls are more than happy to punish Saito with a little bondage, overpowering him and tying him to a rock.
In every way, the themes of this series pander to a whole range of different fantasies about sexual roles and the relationship between punishment, attraction and love. It also allows the artists the opportunity to show off their female creations wearing different layers of clothing and in different situations ranging from dominant warriors to tender lovers. The relationship between the intensely jealous Louise and her maid also offers Saito a “good cop, bad cop” scenario with the maid more obviously “loving” him, but being unable to do much about it because of her role. More generally, Saito’s fascination with breasts and roving eye also complicates the relationship between maid and mistress, given Louise’s lack of endowment. The popularity of the series is a testament to the scale of the market for soft BDSM and voyeurism. It also implicitly confirms that it’s socially acceptable for men to lust after young girls.
Sadly the narrative of Zero no Tsukaima is a rather thin fantasy based on magic, elves and dragons. There’s not really enough substance to make it worth watching unless you are more into the imagery. This is not to say that manga and anime have not managed more sophisticated stories with the same sexualised approach. The big-breasted Seras Victoria in Hellsing fights alongside the vampire Alucard to keep Britain safe, while Witch Hunter Robin keeps Japan safe from the more dangerous people around her. Although the imagery is slightly less obvious, the theme of strong but vulnerable women fighting and finding love seems one of the primary reasons for the success of these series.
In all this, it’s fascinating to see a new ordinance in Tokyo which “bans” the sale of any manga showing violence or sexual content that would fall foul of the national criminal code. An empty political gesture since the penal code self-evidently already applies in Toyko. All it lacks is the will to enforce it. Move outside Japan and there have been prosecutions for distributing the more explicit manga. Yet Amazon continues to sell the books of photographs and DVDs showing young girls in scanty clothes and not quite provocative poses. I watch with interest to see how long this trade continues before adverse comments are made or legal action is taken.