Answerman What's With All the Bondage Humor in Anime?
by Justin Sevakis,
what is up with anime and the S&M fetish? I'm not talking about hentai. It mostly comes out in the form of one of the men on the show turning out to be some kind of over the top masochist. I've seen this joke over an over again. Most recently in D-Frag! and in Kill la Kill. I know this is played for gag, but is such a strange gag to see in so many shows.
Japan loves it some bondage! The Japanese traditional rope bondage tradition known as kinbaku (or shibari, as it's known outside of Japan) dates back to at least the edo period, and its invention was born out of a martial arts practice of tying people up, known as hojojutsu. Kinbaku is known for its intricate and aesthetic knot patterns. The tying itself is intended to be the pleasurable part, since the rope is used as an extension of the bondage master's hands. Kinbaku has always been a thing in Japan, enjoying a particular renaissance in the 1950s, starting in magazines and eventually finding its way into pink eiga, live shows, and other media.
Japanese sexuality often tends to cross the line into displays of sub-servitude and discomfort, so kinbaku mingled quite well with bondage subculture from the West. I couldn't find much reference material about the historical origins of modern bondage in Japan, but I would bet money it all started in the post-war era.
As for why it's such a big part of anime? Well, there are lots of reasons, but we probably have Go Nagai to blame. His groundbreaking 1968 manga series Harenchi Gakuen (Scandal School) is often credited with being the first ecchi manga series, and it made a point of pushing the envelope past every conceivable social taboo, though by today's standards it's ridiculously tame. As a launch title in the weekly edition of Shonen Jump, it was a huge hit, and the blowback from PTA groups and the media was fierce. Nagai famously trolled them back by turning the series from a gag comic into a brutal depiction of war and evil forces versus freedom of expression. The PTA in the story ends up killing everyone. Then a few years later, he picked up the story again as if none of that ever happened.
Abashiri Family followed not long after, and other manga and anime like Cutey Honey basically set the tone for boundary-pushing pervy mischief in anime (although TV anime versions to this point were significantly tamed down). A few years later, Yatterman became one of the first outright ecchi children's TV shows in Japan, featuring a bad-girl villain named Doronjo that basically wore leather bondage attire. Yatterman was also a huge, blow-the-doors-off hit, so it too raised the ire of the PTA and other parental groups—which made it even more popular. Things basically escalated from there, to the point where creators were constantly adding more fetish imagery just to see what they could get away with. Before long, aspects of bondage culture just became a somewhat normal aesthetic choice, especially in sexualized anime and manga. Whips and chains also made for easy visual slapstick humor.
When you go back and study the classics of anime from the 60s and 70s, it really is amazing just how much of what we have today is rooted in what came during those decades. The bondage references are no different.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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