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Hentai That Isn’t

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:

Porn Plus

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).

Fetish-Action

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.

Sundome

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.

Dirty Comedy

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).

My Predictions About the iPad And The Future Of Computing

While I’m a fairly hardcore tech geek, AAW isn’t (currently) that kind of site at all. Still, I wanted to put some thoughts down in writing mainly so I can refer back to a publicly published opinion in a few years as proof that I either accurately predicted things, or was spectacularly wrong. On account of the thematic mismatch, I’ve intentionally backdated this post so it doesn’t get in the way of the anime goodness.

I also note that nothing here is original—it’s all been said by other people many times. I’m just reiterating the opinions I think are right.

Anyway: The iPad, iPhone, and where computing is heading.

First, just to note (and I had this opinion back when I bought my father an iPad a week after it launched), the people who were saying that it’s just a big iPod/iPhone and the ones who were saying it was revolutionary and was going to change everything were, of course, both right. It is just a big iPod, and that’s exactly why it’s revolutionary—Apple decided, I believe correctly, that the iPhone/iPod Touch is all the computer a substantial majority of everyday folk need or want. Its only limitation was the tiny screen, which inherently limits what you can do with it, so they put exactly the same device behind a bigger screen, and bingo, you have the portable computer for the proverbial everyman.

I’m a geek. I do tech support for a lot of people. And if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that most people do not know how to use their computer. Not because they’re stupid, it just takes a lot more thinking and understanding of the thing than they’re willing to put in, because it’s a tool, not a goal in and of itself. To use the long-since-beaten-to-death car analogy, I don’t know how to rebuild the engine of my car, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid or shouldn’t be driving it. It just means that it’s a complicated thing with a simple user interface. So is the inside of your TV—you don’t know how it works, but you know how to turn it on, change the channel, and adjust the volume.

Computers aren’t like that. They’re supposed to be easy, but they’re not. They’re complicated things designed to give far more options and freedom than the average user needs—or, more importantly, wants.

The iPad strips away the unnecessary options and complexity and interface abstractions to let the average person do what they want—check their email, surf the web, watch some stuff on YouTube, play some games, and download some special purpose apps for whatever it is they  personally want their computer to do. It doesn’t require understanding much of anything, and—very importantly—it doesn’t break (in the software sense). I get paid good money to go to people’s houses and un-screw-up their computers, because keeping a modern all-purpose computer running smoothly is a dark art. I don’t care what you say about how easy or dumbed-down the OS is, or how bulletproof the software is, it just barely works, and people are afraid of breaking it by looking at it wrong. The iPad takes some of that away.

The real analogy is console gaming versus PC gaming. Leaving aside the update-creep in recent-generation console games, it breaks down pretty clearly, and has for the past roughly two and a half decades: If you buy a console, it does nothing but play games, and it isn’t going to look as fancy as an expensive gaming computer, but you’re pretty sure that when you stick the cartridge/card/disc into the thing and push the on button, the game will work. It doesn’t cost all that much, gives a good experience, and is bulletproof. To top it off, most software is heavily vetted (Nintendo Seal of Approval, anyone?), so while there is less of it than in a free-for-all, you’re pretty sure what is there will do more or less what it claims to.

Doesn’t mean that console games are better or worse than PC games, just that there are legitimate tradeoffs, tradeoffs that many—the large majority, depending on how you count—people are willing to make. Like me—I’d much rather spend a couple hundred bucks on a console that I know will be good for several years, and that will just work when I stuff a game in it than a couple of grand on a gaming rig that will be outdated in six months and will require regular updates, patches, driver adjustment, etc to keep in tip-top shape. Other people go for that, and more power to them. Just like other people go for turbocharged, tricked-out Honda Civics instead of reliable, un-tricked-out Civics or even stock, “easy” sports cars like a Corvette or Eclipse .

The point here is that, to date, the only option has been the equivalent of gaming computers—they do far more and are drastically more powerful than the average person cares about. The problem was that there wasn’t a general purpose console computer as an alternative. Until now.

Case in point: My dad. He’s in his mid-80s, and is a very smart guy. He taught me to use a computer, and is quite capable with his desktop computer. But when I got him an iPad—to use as a large-type e-reader only—he took to it immediately, and uses it more than his desktop. I don’t get asked technical questions or to fix things anymore, because it just works. Almost no learning curve at all, to boot.

Does this mean that “traditional” computing is dead? No. It just means that what we’ve treated as a “real” computer to date is, in fact, the souped-up, professional-grade monster that, fact of the matter is, the average person doesn’t actually need. Apple sees this, and that’s why they’re ahead of the curve and Microsoft—who as a company seems to still be convinced that the average user actually wants Windows—is flailing.

My prediction: Apple will, within a year or two probably, release a desktop iMac style computer that runs iOS. People will mock it as a toy, just like they did with everything else Apple has released in the last several years, but it will sell increasingly well. Within ten years—2020, which is a nice convenient Cyberpunk number—the majority of computing devices sold, desktop or portable, will run iOS, Android, or a similarly simplified, console-style OS.

Windows, MacOS, and Linux in their traditional form will still be around, but as “pro” machines for professionals, geeks, hobbyists, and people who actually need that kind of horsepower and flexibility. Photoshop jockeys, gamers, number crunchers, me. But everybody else—including “pros” when they’re not working—will use a console computer. Car analogy, “real” computers (which is a stupid term—”traditional” is what they really are) are big trucks, construction vehicles, and exotic sports cars; console computers are everything else you see on the way to work.

Second prediction: Nobody “wins.” I’m sick and tired of reading how Android or iPhone are “winning” or “losing” the smartphone war. It’s a war, yes, but only in that they’re competitors; there is no reason whatsoever that there be only one “winner.” It happened, more or less, with old-school desktop OSes in the ’90s, but this is not the ’90s. These days if it does email, the web, and maybe sudoku, it’s good enough for a lot of people—that’s all that matters. Document cross-compatability is dying, and along with it the idea that if your platform can’t run Microsoft Office it isn’t worth using. Microsoft probably realized this a long time ago, and that’s why they tried so hard to stall the web with IE6, ActiveX, etc—they could see it would eventually render their monopoly irrelevant, and that’s exactly what has happened. The barrier to entry is far, far lower now.

I don’t think Apple wants, in as much as a company can want anything, to own 100% of the computing market. I think they will be quite happy to own, say, 50-70% of the top third of that market, give or take, plus some portion of the middle tier. I’ll bet that the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch/iWhateverIsNext ends up with, say, 20-30% of the new console computing/phone computing market in five years. And I think they’ll be perfectly happy with that, making snazzy devices and piles of money (don’t forget that Apple is making more profit from 3% of phone handsets than more or less the entire rest of the industry combined—I don’t think they’re too disappointed with that kind of “loss”).

Flavors of Android will probably have a substantial share, including a bunch of the bottom, as will, in all likelihood, the successor to Win Phone 7 (or whatever they’re calling it this week), and maybe HP’s WebOS and other new platforms as well. Nobody will “win” any more than anybody “won” the TV market, or car market, or refrigerator market, or any other appliance market.

We will, of course, see.

To repeat: Console computing is the future, but traditional computers won’t go away entirely either, and nobody is going to win the smartphone war.