Manga whoopie for the disappoint.
Futari Ecchi; seinen manga, Young Animal/ Young Animal Arashi (extra chapters only)
by Katsu Aki, 74 Volumes, Hakusensha, January 1997 – present
[ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futari_Ecchi ]
WARNING: Adult themes and over-consideration of traditions of Japanese cartoon intimacy, including sex below the cut. Part 1 of a 4 part series on limitations within Japanese vernacular visual narratives depicting intimacy. Snark. Some spoilers.
I have recently noticed something displaced and missing in manga (and anime, probably games too – lets just etc. this). It snuck up on me so quietly that I almost didn’t notice it. I needed a few Josei/ Seinen- ish adult rom-coms and Kio Shimoku’s Spotted Flower, as well as Japan’s premiere vanilla sex-education manga series before I realised that I might have found a thing..
Might even be a big thing.
This is the sixth revision to this essay. By revision #3, I had already split it into multiple sections: not only does it keep going long but it keeps bogging down in polite terms for, well, light porny scenes in mainstream (heterosexual gaze coded) manga (etc.). The entire point of the essay/ investigation/ speculation is also a game of choosing limits and staying within them — which can be difficult because I am investigating how intimacy, including sex gets depicted. But I need to exclude more extreme “hentai” themes because I consider escalation to such measures is part of the problem and not a solution. What I think is far more interesting is everything that a couple would be depicted as doing before and leading up to everybody’s favorite traditional conclusion to a pas de deux; even if the conclusion is reached discretely off-stage.
I have a working hypothesis. Readers, especially heterosexual ones, male and female who venture beyond het-coded romance and ecchi stories and hang out in the ‘dreaming in queer‘ contested zones of BL and Yuri (even Jouso) get, among other things, to see characters expressing far more in the way of casual intimacy, skinship, snuggles, touchy feely warm fuzzies than they can normally find in “straight” romcoms.
Welcome to Japan; only “others” get to cuddle.
An odd hypothesis; lets see if and how well it hold up? Time to go on a cuddle-hunt in romance-ish manga. This could take some time. While that is underway, at least I can indulge a few speculations about how this odd unstated convention came to be while lining up some cherry-picked examples to press my point.
So much for academic rigor.
Exhibit A: Spotted Flower (Que es mas romántico, light bulb o schoolbus?)
This one will require some set-up, as I can’t assume that everyone reading this is up on Genshiken and Spotted Flower, so a summary of sorts then you tell me if it does not ring both true and passing strange at the same time.
Genshiken was a long-running, beloved geek-culture manga (w. anime adapts. too) It sort-of continues with a 10-years after unofficial sequel, Spotted Flower. This blog used to follow it a lot and still keeps tabs on the sequel. A character study puzzle, slice of life ensemble comedy and snarky romcom. The first part; a look inside an early 2000’s Japanese university club full of guy manga/ anime etc fans – otaku – beloved by many readers. The main character, Harunobu Madarame the uber-geek. Women infiltrate the club, Hijinks ensue. The series continued in Genshiken Nidaime, (lit.) The Second Generation with the club passed on to a particular type of young woman fan, who managed to recruit more like-minded young women and then – surprise – one conflicted young guy. The young women of the club were all “fujoshi” or “rotten(fu) girls(joshi)”; somewhat analogous to western ‘slash” fen. (Not knife wounds; swiping two guy characters out of a pop culture property and imagining that they suddenly fall head over heels in lust for each other, even they were previously considered straight. “Hey Google wiki Yaoi!” In case you have not heard — it’s a thing.)
Much club goings on take place but the contradictions set in motion first by hardcore fujoshi Chika Ogiue and then by Kenjiro Hato, the crossdressing (only for the club) boy who wants to be a fujoshi (and not relegated to gay boy’s auxiliary club status) grew until a classic BL (Boy’s Love)/ yaoi crush was sneaking up on Hato and the first generation’s uber geek hero. It almost took place. Very dramatically almost. Fans and readers of certain enthusiasms felt completely suckered, trolled and ill-used by the mangaka/ author. They had followed the series for 6 or 7 years and then what??? Old guard stick-in-the-mud guy fans of the first generation who had hung around let out a deep sigh of relief. Sure Hato in girl mode could be devilishly cute; thank goodness Mada no, no, noooooo, didn’t go “that way”.
Fans can get wrapped up in a monthly serialised manga, that’s how fandom (and good storytelling) works. After the series ended an unofficial sequel that had been idling in a neighboring publishing company’s driveway re-introduced a character that was obviously Kenjiro Hato, ten years later and somewhere in the middle of what westerners would call gender transition. Also living with their manager, a fujoshi friend from the old club days, as a virtual lesbian and drawing smutty self-published fanzines (doujinshi, doujins) to sell at conventions. Bit by bit Madarame, who had kept in touch started interacting more and more with the trans author until drunken fear, petulance and a long burning torch conspired to bring the two together for some queer-ish adultery – while our ex-uber-geek-now-salaryman’s wife was in the hospital having just given birth to their first child.
Surprised and shocked that these two characters had finally been banged together by their creator, and curious as to how other fans had taken the news, I posted an ‘Oh what have you fools done?” comment on a forum where more than a few of the old fans who wanted to see this consummation take place hung out…
Long story is long, your point?
One reply I received was surprising, something in the nature of:
“We’ve all moved on after being jerked around by the author. And the way those two finally did it was way too het”
Way Too Het?
Read the Spotted Flower manga yourself and you tell me. One tried to sodomise the other. When that failed the second (off screen) sodomised the first. Granted that the two did not end up in neo-classical muscled naked guys entwined art history poses, but “Too Het”? As well, what of the rest of the manga? It started with the husband flustered by his pregnant wife; how cuddly was that? I saw one frontispiece with her sitting on his lap, followed by one incidence of the two scrunched next to each other on the couch. They hold hands when out in public. The rest of the first 2 volumes are taken up by the pregnant wife’s unsuccessful attempts to get her husband to have sex with her. Some desperate ecchi moments ensue but still only 2/10 on the cuddle-ometer.
I take complaints of “Too Het” as shorthand for a style of depicted intimacy that does some things and more pointedly leaves out others. Left out: lots of slow mutual touchy feely, both to show affection, longing and as extended play/ foreplay. “Too Het” main feature: cut as quickly as possible to penetrative humping because that is “real sex” and how babies get made. Also, I just pulled a fast one on you — did you catch it? Foreplay vs play. If you are going for the “real sex” anything else is mere stimulation to reach the levels of physical arousal needed for easy and successful “real sex”. As opposed to slow, mutual explorative play as sex, as intimacy in its own right.
Another aspect of “Too Het”; active vs passive participants. Later this essay will explore how certain fandoms have really gone to town on this one: did the tradition grow from misapprehension or a parodic impulse?
I would like to dismantle the dissatisfaction at the core of ‘Too Het’ and pull it apart enough to recognise which parts are inexorably linked to girl:guy sexuality and which are a product of alienating conventions. There are no reasons why girl:boy intimacy cannot expand its vocabulary and work to minimise alienated conventions, just as there are no reasons why same-sex/ queer intimacy — especially fictionalised variants created within a heterosexual gaze framework cannot fall into hurried restatements of this error.
Or is a robust vocabulary of romantic intimacy far more difficult to represent than one would first imagine?
What went wrong? Was Bersani right all along?
“There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.”
— L Bersani (1987)
Exhibit B: Et in Acadia Ego.
Before I proceed, I should re-state my point of view. I too am “Too Het”. Also, not exactly young any more: a straight, cisgendered, pale-skinned, anglo-euroethnic guy. Why am I sticking my nose into this? I should go back to being politely disinterested. Still, here is an entire graphic narrative tradition that did not end up neutered by the Comstock Laws and a Comic Code. Ed Said’s ghost is going to be massively cheesed at me if I get essentialist about this but c’mon, aint Japanese manga known around the world for having its way with human sexuality (and the comedic potentials therof) — at least more than the ole’ puritan USA? Calm thyself oh fearsome shade! I call as character witness Dr Tamaki, who will casually let on that such misunderstandings are inevitable because of essentialised western cognitive biases. We westerners have too much trouble separating fantasy narratives from reality; this must be so — he’s got the psych degrees that let him so opine.
What if depictions of intimacy in vernacular graphic narratives have always been and remain neighbors to that most dangerous of all Japanese locales; The Floating World? Up the street a bit are the serious authors, artists and poets. Down the street the other way are the gates of hell, or in dryer terms, a cultural tradition that still informs aspects modern Japan’s work and entertainment cultures and gender politics. [ https://news.artnet.com/art-world/alternate-art-guide-art-institute-of-chicago-1446262, also; https://soundcloud.com/user-471450445/the-other-audio-tour-the-truth-behind-the-floating-world ] Woodblock posters of Kabuki actors and famous (indentured) courtesans and Shunga books available from the rental library for education and amusement.
In Shunga sex, you could tell that a woman was really enjoying herself when she curled her toes.
All of this by way of oblique introduction to Futari Ecchi, Japan’s premiere Joy of Sex noob manga manual for happy heterosexual sarrarymen and the women who pair up/ put up with them. Submitted (Rod Serling voice ON) for your consideration, an exerpt from the wikipedia entry. This one is, as they say, Big in Japan:
“The series follows a newlywed couple in their mid-twenties, both virgins when they married, and chronicles their sexual explorations. The manga combines erotic elements with factual and informative statistics. Its title Futari Ecchi (“two person ecchi”) is a play on a slang term for masturbation, hitori ecchi (“single person ecchi”). The series has 29.5 million copies in print and is most famous for being a how-to guide combined into a story.
Two spin-off manga have been released, Futari Ecchi for Ladies focusing on the sexuality of women and Futari Ecchi Gaiden: Akira, The Evangelist of Sex focusing on Akira. There are also two sex manuals and an art book. The series was adapted into a three episode live-action television drama that aired on WOWOW in 2000. A four-volume original video animation (OVA) series was produced from 2002 and 2004. In 2011 a twelve-episode live-action web series was streamed on Ustream. Also in 2011, a live-action theatrical film series began. Currently four films have been released. A second three episode OVA series was released in 2014 by Production Reed.
In 2007, the manga series was licensed in North America by Tokyopop as Manga Sutra, only four volumes were released. Also in 2007, Media Blasters licensed and released the OVAs on DVD as Step Up Love Story.
The Futari Ecchi manga has 29.5 million collected volumes in print; 27 million in Japan, including digital copies, and 2.5 million overseas.”
— Wilipedia: Futari Ecchi [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futari_Ecchi ]
Futari Ecchi is soooo vanilla it hurts. Also, I hope the author upped buddy boy’s game through those 74+ volumes because when we first meet him and his wife, he is a complete missionary position, premature ejeculating, “guys. don’t do sex like this, only villains…” fail. Wifey lies there and moans (a tiny bit). Later she paws at his back. If I wanted to induce nausea in certain sectors of the old Tumbler-verse I could have gone on a Futari Echchi panel posting raid. The extreme “normie-ness” of these would have left many queasy. Did I mention the chara drawing style is forever frozen in 1997? A retro charm effect might be in effect.
English fans jumped ahead to scanlate a few chapters out of mid-run volumes when a trans-woman character was introduced. Later a somewhat trans/ masc character also makes an appearance as the series tries to introduce diffuse ‘queer’ and LGBTQ issues to an assumed completely ignorant readership. It does not go well; a metric ton of “okama” hostess and bad anal sex foolishness gets dragged into the story line so that the boys can gawk. It probably meant well …
The main couple remain devoted to each other; “the wife” has resigned from her job and now does what (?) besides ensuring that food and clean clothing is available to the breadwinner. Eventually they try to have a child. Along the way, extra characters are added; the wife’s younger sister who enjoys (male-gaze fantasy) friends-with-benefits relations with a few guys, some horn-dawg guy coworkers and (male-gaze fantasy) husband-stealing Office Ladies… the list of characters slowly grows, yet remains as guy reader friendly as any high-school harem dating sim game, manga or anime. Except that the husband can return home to his waiting wife.
Was there some pre-WWII Imperial rescript to husbands and wives that we all forgot about? Marital duty is heavier than a mountain but death is lighter than a feather? To do (properly married) sex is to do it to completion, as expediently as possible, in a standardised, designed-for-procreation manner so that the “couple” have “done sex”. Insert, pump, ejeculate. There might be some breast chewing and crotch rubbing for a few seconds prior but it is all run “the bases”, roll off and fall asleep. It is assumed the woman also (somehow) derives satisfaction from this exercise and similarly wishes to sleep.
But wait, order now…
If proper completion is in doubt, doing the same thing only slightly more so is authorised, especially for recently paired-off couples. Positions to vary the ole in-an-out are attempted, though the finale usually entails a return to the missionary base. Finally the woman (or analogous character) might try getting on top and when this grows stale, mild play – naughty nickers, school uniforms, naked aprons blah blah blergh – can’t be far in the offing.
Go to sleep. You have to work tomorrow.
Futari Ecchi looks as if it was and remains pitched at young adult through to mid-20’s adult guys. Tiny bits of sex education and information, offered up with heaping helpings of reassurance. No way any guy reader is that lame, if they ever got the chance.. The problem with Futari Ecchi, (and at the same time a good part of its appeal to its fans) is its oppressive repetitiveness. Enough minor interpersonal interactions are added to move the characters around the board between bouts of sex but if the sex itself is somehow no longer fascinating, the entire exercise begins to pale. You start seriously reading the info-dump pages and examining the pie charts.
As a long-running institution, the manga gains some notice for its rudimentary educational value, reassurances and small measures of “that’s not weird, plenty of respectable boring happily married people occasionally do that.” Story lines and educative strategies aside, I cite Futari Ecchi as symptomatic of a greater problem.
Sex in manga, anime, etc., seems to do two things; show the sex for the pr0n (or in Futari Ecchi‘s case illustrative) value vs. show the sex, as a token of sex having happened in the story. Neither use precludes a more sophisticated, humane, imaginative or “creative” approach to depicting intimacy. So where is it? Why does manga sex so seldom demonstrate, visually, that the girl and the boy really really like being with each other, long for each other when apart, and become fascinated with each other’s details whenever they get a chance?
Because it aspires to be a manga Joy of Sex, Futari Ecchi skimps on other, lesser modes of intimacy as well as mundane, affectionate close contact. This is in no way remarkable; far too much manga sex looks like the sex in Futari Ecchi and that makes it suspicious. Why so much two-people-wanking (another way to parse the title) rather than affectionate interaction that leads to unhurried, romantic fun? Ya know, the kind of actions that would demonstrate that two people really, really like and enjoy each other a lot? Also, as in Futari Ecchi, even if they are going to go at hurried through-the-positions-end-in-missionary humping, why can’t they at least be casually touchy feely before, even in the privacy of their own home?
Just to, I dunno, do aspirational fiction that suggests that such a thing might be possible?
We all know how to fuck but what do any of us know of how to love?
Time to throw pasta at the wall. What could be the reason(s):
•Page/ cost restrictions
•”Hitomi Ecchi” demands a cut to the chase.
•A legacy of random morals raids by opportunistic politicians on magazines. Quick humping can be fuzzed out where needed and there is general agreement on what is allowed. Not like you confused and pissed off the public prosecutor’s office by making a kayak that was molded to look like lady-parts.
•Public/ outsider vs private/ insider unconscious bias – depicted intimacy as convention that poses as a private/ insider viewpoint but by agreement between authors and readers remains somewhat outside — which would be an odd way to restate the infamous fantasy is fantasy and reality is reality admonition. In other words, manga (etc.) characters remain performative, even in so-called private moments because readers find other treatments jarring.
•Lazy, hurried and underpaid mangakas
•’The wanting is better than the having‘. The plotting benefits of treating all established relationships as familiar to the point of ennui, if not contempt. Boring couples are (de facto) boring.
Again, any of the above may be in operation but none appear to be the main reason.
Exhibit C: Touch not your lover.
Wotaku ni Koi wa Muzukashii / Wotakoi, Love is Hard for Otaku
Web-manga on Pixiv 2014– / Comic Pool Ichijinsha & Pixiv 2015–
by Fujita. Five volumes, ongoing.[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wotakoi:_Love_is_Hard_for_Otaku]
Wotakoi is interesting because both couples are made up of hard-working high-functioning mid-20-ish adults. The slightly older “beta couple” (https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BetaCouple) were high school sports team captains who snapped at each other until graduation, when they suddenly realised that all that snapping was covering a powerful… Etc. By this measure they must have been circling each other for some eight years. It is unclear if they cohabit but they are fully committed and demonstrate their closeness by continuing to snap at each other over trivial matters. The younger couple are still in the process of getting to know each other and “taking the next step”.While yet to be intimate, they recently nerved up enough to kiss.
The subtext shows their fanatic devotion to their fandoms as both something that pulls them together, yet at the same time leaves them dangerously too comfortable in their mutual acceptance and distracted by their enthusiasms to get serious.
Whatever. Are they touchy-feely? Do they sneak PDA’s?
The fear of the two main characters touching each other is so pronounced and worked into the story that a spurious reason, a threatening bunch of yobs at a festival must be deployed so that Hirotaka-san can grab Narumi-san and whisk her behind a tree. (Myself I was waiting for the broken geta strap or foot blister Princess-carry, but no matter…) A few chapters later, we get two end-panels, one with Narumi-san falling asleep on Hirotaka-san’s shoulder on a train ride home, followed by a panel with Hanako-san and Tarō-san scrunched up together on a couch. The end of chapter 43. We have had to wait…
Later in chapter 45.5, at an onsen, well steamed and tipsy the guy in the beta couple steals a kiss from his girlfriend.
You two lovebirds should get back to your room.
Curious and curiouser. If some informal rule-set or convention/ trope-set has evolved for depicting interaction between girl:boy couples, especially nominally unremarkable heterosexual “every-couples”, it would be valuable to get a sense of when the “don’t touch me!” effect started to creep into romcoms and family slice of life stories.
The 80’s working wife is never shy about hugging Cooking Papa when she gets home and finds that her middle management salaryman husband and all-around manly guy has also managed to whomp up a yummy dinner for the family – illustrated recipe in each chapter. Cooking Papa has been ongoing since 1985 (!) yet there is nothing forced about how the couple feel about each other.
Perhaps we can we find the beginnings of the effect in Rumiko Takahashi’s 1978 to 1987 Urusei Yatsura? Every time buddy boy tries to grope Lum – or she tries to embrace him, he gets electrocuted.
As well, is there a strong correlation between a shortage of cuddles and hurried, mechanical cut-to-the-chase humping in contemporary conventions of depicted intimacy? What of my hypothesis about othered characters and cuddles?
To see what happens when conventon locks into a genre, I will consider fan-made formalisms, fujoshi transformative practice and whether yaoi still exists.
Next post::‘Unlimited Rulebook! Boku wa kime-gao de sou itta’