I was well aware I would regret it when I said that it’d be hard to top Kanokon for pushing the envelope between a dirty TV show and outright hentai. I do wish it had taken a little longer before I noticed KissxSis (more readably and accurately written Kiss×Sis, if you can figure out how to type a multiplication sign), though. In my defense, it’s not quite the same thing—Kiss×Sis is full-on, unequivocal adults-only from more or less the first scene; it just coincidentally (at least in comic form) develops a little personality down the line.
This got me thinking about things that dance around that line, and one particular manga series that defies expectations in the process. Some categories, because I love creating arbitrary categories:
Kiss×Sis is simple: it started out as a light hentai manga series (no excuses—it’s certainly not full-on hardcore, but it’s hentai) with almost nothing past the dirty situations. Being less about gynecology and more about desire (it’s make-out porn, so to speak), you don’t technically see much, and the shenanigans get cut off before they get too far out of hand. They also get cut off well after the point at which it’s left risque behind and crossed into the territory of softcore H.
Then, after the protagonist graduates from junior high into high school, the manga actually gets less dirty. On one hand, the characters are pretty amusing, so it’s nice to see them given a little personality. On the other, it’s an awkward transition—after having gone more or less all the way already, suddenly toning down the lascivious come-ons seems silly, and the excuses for cutting things off exceedingly weak. There are also a trio of secondary love-interests/harem-bait added, which removes the one mildly unusual thing about Kiss×Sis—the fact that it was less a harem and more a willing tag-team—and replaces it with pointless harem situations and improbable excuses.
Essentially it evolves from passably erotic softcore twin-sister H into a generic harem comedy with the safety off.
This category, I’ve dubbed porn plus, as in “porn that eventually evolved a plot or interesting characters.” Adam Warren’s Empowered is squarely in this category (and, unlike Kiss×Sis, is a great series—a manga-style classic superhero parody comic series with a lot of personality once it evolves past a string of bondage jokes).
The action-centric variant of the same thing. Seikon no Qwaser, for example—it may have a high budget, nice art, stylish action, a good voice cast (how does someone with as much talent as Ayako Kawasumi keep ending up in crap like this?), and a rocking end theme, but it’s porn. Softcore, but porn—the point of it is the violent, misogynistic breast fetish, and everything else is just designed to support that and broaden the market appeal. Ikki Tousen is another one in this category.
Hardcore Transplant Victims
These are those occasional oddball things that are a decent movie/show with raging hardcore porn spliced in for no good reason. Kite tops the list, and Mystery of the Necronomicon is another. Edit the porn out of either and they’re both at least reasonably entertaining, nor would you know anything was missing.
Now Sundome, this weird little series is a different beast, and almost in a class by itself—porn with integrated plot that isn’t just window-dressing.
I’ll confess it was the wickedly alluring cover that grabbed my attention, but it’s the content—and not just the dirty stuff—that held it. 10% lowbrow school comedy, 20% budding femdom romance, 30% dark coming-of-age psychodrama, and 40% fetish porn, it’s like the bastard child of a hentai show, Kimagure Orange Road, and The Ping Pong Club, composed of the best parts of all three.
This series is interesting because it’s the sort of thing you’re not likely to ever see animated (at least not properly); it’s unquestionably full-on adults-only stuff, so it’s never going to get sold outside that genre, yet there’s far too much characterization and plot to sell alongside simple skin flicks.
What’s really interesting about it, and where it differs from both Kiss×Sis—which it sounds similar to—and the above-mentioned Kite genre, is that the erotic content and the emotional drama are inextricably intertwined. The porn is the drama, and the story would not have the same depth or character without it.
It’s a story about power, control, and treading the line between devotion and obsession, in which the erotic content is an integral part of how the charaacters relate—it’s who these people are. Further, the fetishes aren’t just there “because”; the protagonist falls into them naturally, so you can see how something goes from a coincidence, to a turn-on, to an unnatural (and possibly unhealthy) focus of his attention.
What’s interesting about Aiba is that his behavior borders on disturbed, yet at the same time his increasing devotion to Sahana actually makes him a better person—he gradually becomes stronger, more confident, and more mature, both physically and mentally. Sahana, for her part, has a casual dark side that makes it believable that Aiba could get pulled farther and farther down the proverbial rabbit hole, as she in turn sees how far she can push him and shape who he is. She’s also a marvel of a character for her ability to go from sweet to flat-out creepy depending on mood and situation, sometimes in the space of a single page. Not to mention the little hints of emotional weakness that show she is, indeed, human inside.
From the standpoint of erotica, Sundome is noteworthy for “showing” almost nothing, having no sex at all in the clinical sense, and only revealing the most fleeting bits of nudity, yet being incredibly explicit and flat-out filthy—not to mention wickedly sexy. It succeeds at this in part through a refined sense of chiralism. (That’s a fun Japanese word describing the sexiness of a fleeting glimpse—the onomatopoeia chira—as a form of erotica.) Taking this beyond the average panty shot, Sundome works with brief glimpses or shapes caught through clothing to build sensuality and tension.
That’s where Sahana is unique as a character; she’s hyper-aware of sexuality and how she appears to Aiba, so every casual gesture and sly look is calculated and intentional. It’s manipulative, but in an up-front way—she subtly leads Aiba on, then tells him what he’s thinking and challenges him to admit to it and follow through. And, as a result of her thus-far-unexplained constraint on their relationship—no sex, ever—the follow-through is more willing self-denial than the stuff you’d expect in a normal hentai story. At the same time she uses a similar sort of non-sexual emotional manipulation to challenge Aiba to become more of a man.
The art is near-perfect in this aspect, in part for subtle eye-catching detail, but as much for how Sahana looks—she is sickly and physically fragile, something driven home by the occasional glimpses of her waifish, unsettlingly bony frame. The dichotomy between her frail body and the emotional power she holds over Aiba is memorable, and indeed it’s what the whole core of the series is built on—someone weak controlling someone stronger. In fact, as the next-to-last volume confirms oh-so-casually, making someone else stronger, yet completely subservient to her.
That reveal is the other thing Sundome does spectacularly well: Slip in a sentence that, without saying anything specific, brings major ongoing aspects of the story into sudden focus. In volume six, it was the line “You may not.”—with that, what the whole relationship, and Aiba himself, meant to Sahana snapped into focus. In volume seven, an offhanded comment to her fish hints at exactly what she’s been doing the whole time, and where it’s all headed.
Nowhere happy, of course; the sense of impending doom starts out with casual bits of foreshadowing through the narration and builds to an oppressive sense that something terribly wrong is hiding behind the scenes and will, soon enough, make itself inescapably known. There are only fleeting hints of this early on, but by halfway through the unsettling shadow surrounding Sahana is already strong, and by the end the dark pall is so strong even the erotic content is overshadowed by it. I find it particularly interesting that a series with a playfully dirty dark side at the beginning evolves into a relatively heavy drama while maintaining a strong sense of continuity, and that the characters are strong enough that you care what happens to them. More, in fact, than I ended up caring about the erotic content by the end. I suppose you could say you start reading for the porn then keep reading to find out where the story is going.
It also maintains its sense of humor, at least a bit, and cleverly adds the relationship of a couple of secondary characters to provide a happy romantic end in the next-to-last volume so the entire thing isn’t an overwhelming downer. Even more interesting, those other characters don’t do anything at all dirty—their complete celibacy is a significant plot point. It shows clearly that the erotic content isn’t why the characters exist—the author is perfectly willing to tell parts of the story without resorting to anything unreasonably dirty.
The only other series I can think of off hand that is even close to Sundome in category is Ghost Talker’s Daydream; it’s really more of a seinen-flavored josei drama in which a job as a dominatrix is a part of the character’s life, but a few sections of the manga are explicit enough, and with enough of a focus on the eroticism rather than just necessary detail, to qualify as adults-only (rather than just “R-rated”). You wouldn’t, however, call it outright porn, so it’s not quite the same.
And, to close, there’s this category, which is completely different from the rest even if looks similar—stuff that’s very dirty, but in reality is not porn at all. Sakura Diaries is one example, and the more recent B-gata H-kei surprised me by being another—both are quite explicit with the dirty jokes, but in the end the point is that they’re jokes, not that they’re dirty. That is to say that they’re comedy first, dirty second (or, in the case of Sakura Diaries, comedy/substantive character drama first).