‘Metamorphosis’ and the Meaning of Hentai

“In many ways, it was both a tragic and a preachy story, but I wanted ‘Metamorphosis’ to be about seeing the charm of a girl who is going through genuine misfortune” – ShindoL, ‘Afterword’ to Metamorphosis

People like to uphold a firm line between ‘art’ and ‘porn’; there is a difference, they will say, between ‘erotica’ and mere pornography. The former is sexually explicit in a way that conveys some kind of recognizable artistic merit; the latter has no such merit to speak of. But in the maelstrom of stories and drawings and bits of film that seem to serve little other purpose than titillation, like needles in haystacks, we often come across works marked ‘porn’ that strike us as something else by the end.

Pornography occupies a space in media that rebels against the idea that a story needs narrative themes and fleshed-out characters. In traditional narratives, every element combines to serve the audience’s immersion into what will happen next, and the possible greater meanings of what’s happening now. In porn, we know what will happen next – characters will fuck, or be fucked, to engage in some other activity to stimulate the voyeur and make them satisfied with their fantasy. Everything is supposed to serve this end – any narrative matter is just foreplay, or something to encourage the viewer to seek out this kind of fictional fulfillment again. These are the rules, the patterns we trust when we come to enjoy some ‘me time’ with this material.

ShindoL’s Metamorphosis doesn’t play by the rules.

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Recently, TheAnimeMan had a chance to interview ShindoL and get answers to many of the questions hentai readers would love to ask their favourite artists. Joey’s first point of order is discussing Metamorphosis (originally published as Henshin/‘Emergence’), and he cuts right to the heart of what made the manga so memorable: “coming for the hentai but staying for the story”. ShindoL goes on to explain that he wanted such a response:

“back in the 90s or the 80s there were a lot more story-driven hentai manga about; it’s sort of shifted over to the… ‘utilitarian’ purposes for hentai use […] so you’re getting a lot more hentai and a lot less manga”.

ShindoL’s division of ‘hentai’ and ‘manga’ aligns with the previously discussed difference between traditional and pornographic narratives. He clearly sees much untapped potential in the medium of eromanga: why tell the same pornographic story over and over when you can use those patterns and principles as a stage to say something much more provocative in your work? The music video for Teddyloid’s song ME!ME!ME! has this mindset: what starts as an innocent fantasy of sexy dancing anime girls turns into a plot for a perverted otaku fighting against the addiction to smut that cost him a chance at real love.

Like ME!ME!ME!, Metamorphosis is a work of pornography that transforms itself into something else: something much more sincere and heartfelt.  In his Afterword to the manga, ShindoL explains that, at first, he ‘simply wanted to draw a story about a girl becoming a ‘kogal’, a living emblem of a short-skirted fashion culture that has often been associated with ‘enjo-kosai’ (compensated dating that is sometimes a gateway to prostitution). But what started as a simple addition to the reams of hentai manga that fulfill this particular fantasy became the full Metamorphosis we can read today, after the ‘drug angle’ led ShindoL to decide that the heroine would have to die.

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Those who have read Metamorphosis know that Saki’s death has little to do with her own mistakes – she’s a victim of a world that exploited her naivety and then threw her away as garbage, at some points literally into their trash. But it’s worth considering the relationship between the audience and the sex-obsessed girl they follow throughout the story.

The Japanese word ‘hentai’ speaks of perversion, but also mere abnormality. There are parallels to be drawn between the idea of a pervert – the media they consume and the life they live – and that of anyone who is ostracized from the ‘normal’ crowd. In the comments of Metamorphosis‘ page on Fakku, ShindoL explains that he ‘originally had Kafka in mind’ when he decided on the title of Metamorphosis, drawing his work in parallel to the famous novella of an average salesman who wakes up one day to discover he’s transformed into a giant beetle. Kafka’s story deals with society’s inability to understand and care for anything that doesn’t fit into normality. ShindoL’s work deals with how society fails to understand another abnormal transformation – the logical conclusion of a female hentai protagonist.

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It’s possible first chapter could be read as a self-contained work of hentai: holding it in a mirror against many other eromanga doujins that depict a shy girl ‘transforming’ into a slut, it would be hard to see a difference. The subtitle for the infamous first page, where panels introducing Saki’s lonely like surround her naive figure, roughly translates as ’28 pages of an innocent girl getting hardcore fucked!’. Fetishes of rape and defloration are immediately foregrounded, and fulfilled by these first 28 pages alone. Attempting build her confidence and become popular, Saki trusts a stranger who ends up taking advantage of her. But after being drugged and raped, Saki doesn’t understand the violence she’s experienced: as in many pornographic works that entertain fantasies of consensual non-consent, the heroine enjoys the sex, and she shows interest in having it happen to her again.

At this point the usual complaints about porn are already abounding: Metamorphosis has given a representation of rape that appears to paint it as positive, as justifiable through pleasure. As any feminist critic worth their salt will tell you, this parallels many myths that people use to justify committing acts of sexual violence against others, perpetuating what many call a ‘rape culture’. It’s okay, some sick people will tell themselves, if I can convince myself she enjoyed it. Or they’ll blame the victim: isn’t it Saki’s fault that she was so naive?

But when we delve deeper into Metamorphosis, we find a narrative that’s conscious of these issues. A story that wants us to understand what would happen if we looked further into the lives of the hentai heroines we discard once our ‘utilitarian purpose’ for them is fulfilled.

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Saki comes to have sexual experiences that she knows are acts of violence against her, from a perverted old man who pays her for sexual favours to her own father who fucks her because he can’t get it up for her mother any more. Rather than make her popular, her life gets turned inside out: she’s harassed at school for sleeping around, and she’s kicked out of her home after her mother is convinced that she raped her father instead of being the victim herself. Losing everything she has, she eventually becomes dependent on the boy who was the first to rape her, and upon much more dangerous illegal substances. At this point the usual ‘hentai’ structure of the chapters has broken down: rather than every part of the story serving the sex scenes, Saki’s sexual encounters contribute to an increasingly tragic narrative of addiction and abuse.

When she revisits the perverted old man who once paid her for sex, fully transformed into a ‘kogal’ and in need of money to keep herself and Hayato afloat, she’s informed that he no longer values her the way he once did because she’s lost her purity. It is hard to not read this man as a reflection of the average reader for defloration hentai: the girl has worth as an object so long as she has purity to lose, but the result of this process becomes a waste product, a character that is simply thrown away like a used condom. This is true for many other pornographic narratives: the vast majority of pornhub viewers do not want to witness the dinner table conversations that follow the brother fucking his step-sister. But if they were treated to such an awkward spectacle, the style of the story would dramatically shift. What begins as porn can transform into something else entirely, in the process rewriting readings of the initial porn scene.

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Saki’s pregnancy brings the final anti-pornographic angle into the story. She’s lost hope for saving her own life, but she clings to the possibility that she could bring something new into the world. But when a group of schoolboys and girls her age encounter her and see her pregnancy, and how ‘transformed’ her body has become, they treat her like an animal that has to be put down, a monster of everything they think is wrong with the world. They think a girl like Saki giving birth would simply create a cycle of lives like hers, and they begin to stomp on her stomach to try to kill the baby themselves.

When Saki is ultimately discarded by society, when not only her own life but her chance at bringing new life into the world are trodden into dust, readers aren’t placed in the position to permit this behavior. Everyone is on Saki’s side. Though the girl who ends the first chapter is the same as countless other virgins who could be consecutively read and thrown away, ShindoL exposes this pattern and challenges his readers to see the abnormality within it. Metamorphosis reinforces the absolute unreality of the pornographic; we can’t read characters in porn as real people, because they, like the narratives of porn overall, must be reduced the servants of sexual action.

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Saki’s dream of childbirth at the end concerns the reader with a typical question when it comes to sex: what matters most, pleasure or procreation? After becoming hooked on drugged-up sex, she found her life spiraling more and more out of control. Once she started to desire bringing life into the world instead of simply chasing after sexual pleasure, society had deemed her unfit for motherhood.  In his afterword, ShindoL confirms that it was this ‘drug angle’ that meant she had to die in the end. Drugs present the loss of consciousness control, and foreground the fact that it was the seeking of pleasure without boundaries, from multiple parties, that led Saki to her fate.

If Metamorphosis could be said to have any particular ‘moral’, it would be the necessity for limits when it comes to sexual fantasies. We have to establish and maintain a barrier between the real and the pornographic, and acknowledge that the characters we use to stimulate ourselves shouldn’t be interpreted in any lens that renders them ‘real’ in any way. Porn interpreted as reality renders it advocacy for the objectification of real women, for date rape and other terrible crimes. Just as sex needs boundaries of comfort and consent, pornographic fantasies need to know their place, and we need to know it too. There’s a psychological responsibility when it comes to using pornography: the more we emphasize it, the more we normalize the act of keeping porn within the abnormal.

We can only let objects be treated as objects if we can respect people as people. Considering all the varieties of pornography available to anyone with an internet connection, hentai helps in this regard by binding its taboos and extremes to characters who are expressly flat and abstracted from real people. But Metamorphosis encourages a firmer divide between pornography and reality. The life of a hentai protagonist, and the way we read them, has to be limited by the medium they exist for. Trying to make a reality out of what we see in porn will only lead to suffering for people who deserve much better.

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A huge thank you is in order for all my Patrons, especially Albireo and Pause and Select who have taken UEM! beyond its second funding milestone. The site will be upgrading to a Premium wordpress subscription soon! Now I need to figure out what kind of makeover I want to give this place…

Work and health issues have me pretty beaten down lately, but I’m glad I was able to get this post finished. Until next time!

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2 thoughts on “‘Metamorphosis’ and the Meaning of Hentai

  1. This was an interesting article, Jeko! I particularly liked the part about society’s inability to accept the abnormal, not to mention the article’s thesis regarding the metanarrative on hentai readers and the reinforcement of the divide between pornography and reality. Reminding people that fiction should be treated as such is an important task. I’m also more interested in reading Metamorphosis now.

    Additionally, after watching the linked interview, I wish that ShindoL had provided some examples of hentai manga that supported his perspective on the history of hentai in the ’80s or ’90s.

    Lastly, I found some errors in spelling, grammar and syntax in the article:

    1. “But what started as a simple addition to the reams of hentai manga that fulfill this particular fantasy…”

    Did you mean to write ‘realms’ instead of ‘reams”?

    2. “It’s possible first chapter could be read as a self-contained work of hentai…”

    I think that the sentence would benefit from a determiner between ‘possible’ and ‘first’.

    3. “The subtitle for the infamous first page, where panels introducing Saki’s lonely like surround her naive figure…”

    I interpreted ‘where panels introducing Saki’s lonely like surround her naïve figure’ as ‘where panels introducing Saki’s loneliness surrounded her naïve figure’ but because of the awkward syntax, I initially thought that the panels were showing Saki’s loneliness surrounding her figure.

    4. “Attempting build her confidence and become popular, Saki trusts a stranger who ends up taking advantage of her.”

    I think that ‘Attempting to build her confidence…’ would sound better.

    5. “…we can’t read characters in porn as real people, because they, like the narratives of porn overall, must be reduced the servants of sexual action.”

    I think that the addition of a preposition between ‘reduced’ and ‘the servants’ would make that part of the sentence flow better.

    Like

  2. The only issue I take with this article is your statement that “[everyone] know[s] that Saki’s death has little to do with her own mistakes.” I would argue the reverse is why the story is so captivating. Most of the time nothing bad will happen if a person doesn’t wear a seat belt, but every once in a while it can be fatal. The fact the severity of the consequence doesn’t match the severity of the mistake is a fundamental tension that runs through the heart of the human experience.

    Beyond that, this was a great breakdown of Metamorphosis. I think it’s reaching to make vast claims about porn by using on example, but I know that you’ve actually studied this subject so I’m assuming you have more to back it up.

    Like

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