Like it or hate it, own it or disown it, hentai is an inescapable part of the larger anime landscape culturally and financially.
As is the common parlance outside of Japan, hentai is the term given to any anime or manga that is pornographic, erotic, or sexually explicit in nature. Certain elements of it have become universally associated with the sub-genre, from the unrealistic proportions of the women to the use of tentacles as sexual implements. It’s because of the more extreme nature of the sexual depictions, along with just the very nature of it being animated, that hentai, even more so than regular pornography, has a number of stigma attached to it.
The Western definition of hentai differs from the Japanese one which actually has its origins as a word for metamorphosis. The connotative meaning was changed though when hentai was attached to the word for sexual desire, “seiyoku” creating the phrase “hentai seiyoku” meaning perverse sexual desire. From there hentai became more associated as a term of perversion and ultimately wound up as the shorthand term for “hentai seiyoku.” Considering that “hentai” is not used as a label or term for erotic anime in Japan, it’s a bit harder to determine how the word got so definitively attached to the work in English, but it could stem from the Japanese phrase “ecchi” which is related to sexual content and abbreviated as “H.” Tie this into the previously established notion of this material being perverted, and somewhere within that lost in translation mix is the resultant Western hentai definition.
The evolution of what most of us what call hentai has directly followed the path of advancements in visual media. This shouldn’t be too surprising considering that very often; new innovations in technology find themselves being used for sexual or erotic purposes. As odd as it may sound, as steam power and electricity became more compact and economical in their usage, these technologies were applied towards the creation of machines used for sexual pleasure. Some such devices include a steam powered vibrator from the 1800’s and an electric jock strap from 1900, neither of which will be pictured here but both of which you can research to your heart’s content. Hentai would also follow a technological path; drawings turned to animation, animation turned to video games; and the distribution of it all would grow as the physical mediums of print, VHS, and DVD’s, gave way to the digital pathways of the internet.
Even the use of the cliché tentacle has its roots in history, thanks in large part to the 1814 artwork, “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” by Hokusai. Besides blurring the line between what is considered art and what is considered pornography, it also likely inspired the use of the tentacle as an erotic device, especially considering that Japanese censorship laws prohibit the depiction of fully exposed genitalia, requiring some sort of alteration done to the image. Because these laws specifically apply to male and female genitalia and intercourse, a tentacle is exempt from this, as evidenced in the picture above. So in 1987, when director Hideki Takayama decided to adapt the already darkly erotic and supernatural manga, Urotsukidoji into an OVA series, he took a few creative liberties and included a rape scene involving a tentacle, in the first episode. Sure enough, this wasn’t subject to censorship, and so the phallic yet not quite phallic enough tentacle, became a mainstay in hentai.
Not hentai - Shokugeki no Souma
Ecchi is not so much a genre as it is an element to a genre. Ecchi in anime refers to things that are sexually suggestive without going into the realm of being explicit. This can range from situations where a male character might purposely or accidentally find themselves in a female bathhouse for the purpose of sexual based humor, to female characters wearing skirts that allow for none too subtle reveals of underwear, to featuring a character that enjoys making sexual innuendos and being a bit of a pervert. An action anime might therefore have some ecchi elements in it based on the characters or the plot of an episode, and harem anime tend to feature this in droves.
Ecchi normally doesn’t get explicit with nudity or sex. Often the case with nudity is that it'll be playfully obscured with objects or lighting effects, and if full nudity is shown, it’s generally done with some sort of comical purpose in tow. A lot of this depends on the amount of fan service the anime or manga wishes to feature, which is a term we'll get into below.
Fan service is a fairly broad term that’s used to describe when a form of entertainment deliberately gives in to providing its viewers with something they know the audience wants, even if it isn’t exactly integral to the plot. A common example of this in anime would be finding any reason to dress attractive characters in revealing clothing. For example, there might be an episode at a beach where characters are put into swimsuits, clothing that is ripped apart in a fight, setting a scene in a girl’s spa; or any combination thereof. It can even pertain to something in the animation style itself by giving a character excessive proportions or animating a character so that their chest bounces in a way that physics cannot possibly explain.
A famous example of far more explicit fan service is contained within the uncensored Street Fighter II: The Movie where the character of Chun-Li is shown naked in the shower. Was this important to the plot? No. Could it be removed from the film without any adverse effect to the narrative? Yes. So why was it there? Because Chun-Li is a fan favorite character and this film gave people a chance to see her naked; quite literally 'service to the fans'.
As might be expected, hentai is not a genre without its share of controversy. Animation allows for stories, characters, and situations to be depicted that could not exist in the realm of reality. This brings in issues of decency relating to depictions of sex and the participants involved.
For example, a very sensitive subject is that of loli, or the depiction of intimacy involving a character that either is underage, or looks underage. Because of the storylines and animation, a character could be created that is physically or mentally 1200 years old, but has the body of a 10 year old human female. The inclusion of a character like that creates many legal and ethical questions.
Questions surround the subject of hentai in general. Does it degrade women? Is it a perversion? Is it a healthy outlet for sexual desire? Is it art? Does it have artistic merit? There are no easy answers to any of these. But in order for people to ask the right questions and hopefully find answers, there has to be an understanding of what hentai is. Hopefully now, regardless of opinion, you understand a bit more about this anime sub-genre, and why its presence remains a part of the greater anime industry.