The origins of Japanese adult videos
As the name implies, Japanese AVs were originally released in the form of videotapes that lasted about 60 minutes. Since VHS tapes were prohibitively expensive in the 1980s, Japanese AVs were originally produced for rental outlets but have also been available for purchase since the mid-1990s. Thanks to recent technological advances, Japanese AVs are now available in many different media forms ranging from DVD, cable programs, to digital files. One important result of this technological shift is that Japanese AVs have been substantially lengthened from 60 minutes up to 4 hours (Yasuda and Amamiya 2006: 121). While they are no longer released only in the form of videotape, Japanese AVs are still called ‘adult videos’ or simply ebui (AV) (Yasuda and Amamiya, 2006: 124).
Japanese AVs are a kind of soft-core pornography that first emerged in Japan in the early 1980s. They are referred to as soft-core not because they lack sexually explicit scenes but because their portrayal of the whole genital region including pubic hair and acts of sexual penetration is airbrushed and hidden behind a so-called ‘mosaic’ (a form of pixilation), since the portrayal of pubic hair in media was legally prohibited in Japan before 1996 (Allison 2000). The Nihon Ethics of Video Association (hereafter NEVA), a self-regulatory body established in 1977, even released operational regulations for AV makers in early 1983, prescribing that the genital areas, including pubic hair, be hidden by mosaic in all Japanese AVs (Nishino et al. 1999:13).
Historically, the origin of Japanese AVs can be traced back through two kinds of pornographic materials: pinku eiga (pink movies) and binibon (‘vinyl book’ pornographic magazines). Pink movies comprised a genre of low-budget soft-core pornographic films popular in the late 1960s and 1970s which displayed naked torsos and buttocks (Alexander 2003: 156—57). The popularity of pink movies reached fever-pitch among Japanese viewers in the 1970s not only because they were of high quality but also because they diversified into different genres including rape, incest, rope bondage, sadomasochism, violence and perversion which were profoundly different from previous genres (Sato 1982: 229—34).
‘Vinyl books’ were a kind of soft-core pornographic magazine in the mid-1970s and 1980s which portrayed female models in transparent panties with their legs wide open (Natsuhara 1995: 167). In contrast to pink movies which dealt with edgy subjects such as death and violence, vinyl books tended to focus on portraying and celebrating cute and sweet female models.
These two traditions in turn gave rise to two major styles of production in the Japanese AV industry: tantai (a single-actress) and kikaku (a plan). Tantai is a style of production which portrays a single actress who usually has a beautiful face and fine figure. Tantai is often linked with the bishejo (beautiful girl), the prototypical genre in the Japanese AV industry where the actress is portrayed as either a courtly lady or an innocent young woman (Yau and Wong 2009: 38). This style of production has its roots in the vinyl book publishers which have long specialised in producing cute and sweet female models. Although tantai AVs had been very popular since the beginning of the industry, their sales dropped across the board in the early 1990s because AVs portraying an innocent young woman alone could no longer satisfy the diversifying tastes of the audiences. As a result, AV makers started to produce kikaku AVs. In contrast to tantai, kikaku emphasise storylines and scenarios and whether the actress portrayed is beautiful is less important. There were roughly twenty themes in kikaku AVs including wives, huge breasts, incest, SM, rape and so on in the 1990s. This style obviously draws from the pinku eiga which used sex as a vehicle to explore ‘the struggle between what one thinks and what one physically demands’ (Sato 1982: 233). However, while kikaku AVs offered new genres or scenarios to audiences, they soon lost popularity in Japan. The major reason for this is that too many kikaku AVs were produced and many ofthem were cheap and nasty. In view ofthis, Soft On Demand (SOD), now the biggest maker in the industry, made a daring decision to produce ‘indie AV’ in 1996 which not only emphasised individuality and creativity but also contravened the NEVA’s regulations in that they showed pubic hair and used semi-transparent mosaic so that genitalia were partially visible. As Japanese AVs produced for rental services were covered with full mosaic, indie movie makers ventured into sales and, for this reason, their videos came to be known as sales (that is, vending) videos, as opposed to rental videos (Inoue 2002:18). Since the second half of the 1990s, Japanese AVs can be obtained via rental shops and retail stores located throughout Japan.
From this brief history, we can see that Japanese AVs are fundamentally a kind of soft-core pornography, as opposed to the hard-core style of Euro-American pornography where genitalia and acts of penetration are clearly shown. While it is true that as a result of the emergence of indie movies in the mid-1990s modern AV movies employ a thinner mosaic, their penetration scenes, including views of genitalia, are covered in the same way as traditional rental AVs. This history also reveals that Japanese AVs are primarily produced as a kind of domestic product without any consideration for international outlets. It must be stressed that Japanese AV makers have hesitated to export their products to overseas markets (Yasuda and Amamiya 2006: 187) including Taiwan and Hong Kong because of the potential risks caused by the different censorship laws implemented by the local governments. As we shall see below, all the Japanese AVs available in Taiwan or Hong Kong are of the so-called ‘pirated’ variety.
Finally, this history speaks volumes to the fact that Japanese AVs are a highly heterogeneous product. As mentioned above, there were twenty different genres in the 1990s. We have, however, observed eighty genres advertised on a Japanese pornographic website known as Bump Online Shop in 2004. One reason for this explosion in the number of genres is that website operators tend to specify the content in a very detailed way. For instance, we can find three different genre types given for the singular example of breasts, namely, ‘Beautiful Breasts,’ ‘Big Breasts,’ and ‘Bombing Breasts.’ The emergence of these ever-new genres is a result of the capitalist mode of production which invents distinctions in order to attract new viewers. We need to realise that the invention of ever-new genres is meant to exploit all possible social differentiation by a motivated differentiation of taste (Sahlins 1976:185). Consequently, more and more genres are invented to cater to the tastes of different viewers over the course of time.