Nami, a student nurse in the Japanese cartoon "Koihime," slumps into an overstuffed chair and kicks off her shoes after a long day at the hospital. As her eyes close, the girl--who looks like a human version of Hello Kitty--slips into a surreal dream where amorous monsters chase her and tug at her white uniform. Suddenly, she's grabbed by an alien and pulled onto its gray gelatinous body.
"My goodness, this is odd," she says as the creature rips off her dress. "Whatever you are, do your worst!" Alien tentacles and other appendages begin to fly--just another animated-Japanese-school-girl-meets-alien love story.
Springing out of the furthest edges of animation is the world of hentai, a genre of triple-X cartoons that explores the sexual frontiers in an incongruously childlike format.
The star is typically a perky, doe-eyed female in a high school uniform. Her co-stars range from slobbering businessmen and sadomasochistic school officials to hormonal extraterrestrials. When the two groups meet, their escapades are often a mix of graphic violence, weird sex and plot lines that can only be described as over the top.
Hentai, which literally means "perversion," is a product of the multibillion-dollar Japanese animation industry, better known on these shores for such animated, G-rated favorites as "Sailor Moon," "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service."
With the rise of the global Internet, the fantasy pornography of hentai has moved quickly to the U.S. and evolved into one of the more prevalent--and legal--forms of erotica. Today, hentai films can be easily bought online or through mainstream outlets, including Tower Records and Fry's Electronics, which stock small collections of the genre. Though such tame outlets don't carry triple-X videos with real actors, many of the hentai titles available at these locations are labeled: "All characters depicted in sexual conduct or in the nude are aged 19 years or older."
Despite those labels, the genre has fallen into the heated legal battle over morality and technology. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in April that "virtual" child pornography--no matter how realistic it appears--is protected by the 1st Amendment as long as real children are not a part of it. Pending federal legislation is trying to get around the ruling, and the House Judiciary Committee is expected to take up the Child Obscenity and Pornography Prevention Act of 2002 today.
Even if the measures become law, hentai is considered relatively obscure, and so far sits near the bottom of the Department of Justice's priorities.
That there is even a market for hentai in the U.S. underscores an economic reality in the triple-X world: As sexual imagery becomes standard fare of mainstream media, the exhibition market is crammed with competition. "At a certain point, what's different will sell," said Joe Giarmo, vice president of production at Van Nuys-based NuTech Digital Inc., one of the leading producers and distributors of Japanese animation, karaoke and hentai DVDs.
Companies have rushed to draft American porn stars to dub hentai in English, an assignment few industry veterans will refuse. Still, when these actors and actresses review the tapes they will be working on, the fantastical acts they see shock even their jaded sensibilities. Many are taken aback by the success of their cartoon competitors.
At a recording studio in Burbank, adult-film actress Kobe Tai watches a television monitor play back a scene in "Koihime." As the gray gelatinous alien undresses Nami, the actress casts a skeptical glance at the technicians in the sound booth as if to say: "Are you kidding?"
The technicians nod in agreement.
"It's twisted, no doubt," Tai said.
Much of the strange activity in hentai, assumed by critics to be purely for shock value, evolved from artists who exploited loopholes in Japanese obscenity laws, said Jonathan Clements, co-author of the Anime Encyclopedia.
One 1918 code specified that the adult "pubic area need not be hidden, but there should be no anatomical details to draw the reader's attention."
Instead of blocking artists from creating pornography, illustrators and pornographers thwarted the law by depicting sexual organs in shadow or outline. Body parts were colored blue or green--signifying that they couldn't possibly be human--or were depicted as part of a monster. And animators began drawing female characters that looked like busty preteens--devoid of pubic hair, and thus theoretically outside the boundaries of the regulation. To Western eyes, the characters appear childlike. But to Japanese viewers, the distinction is not as clear.
Over time, the seduction or sexual violation of such girlish characters evolved into a socially acceptable catharsis within the sexually repressed Japanese culture, an exorcism of fantasy that is taboo in the real world, according to author Helen McCarthy, co-author of "The Erotic Anime Movie Guide."