Day 5: A Historical Perspective on Japanese Women through Hentai

Content Warning: This article will deal with subject matters of sex and oppression including a written section on rape. If you find these topics too uncomfortable or distressing please do not continue reading.


The Sensualist, is, by all accounts, Hentai. Without any doubt there is full blown nudity coupled with all the action it entails. If Hentai is characterized by “overtly sexualized characters and sexually explicit images and plots” then no amount of intellectual aggrandizing can hide the film from this fact. But while it’s main purpose is to ‘entertain’, the awe inspiring talent of Yukio Abe & Eiichi Yamamoto directs the experience in way that provides proactive insight into Japanese courtesan culture.

The original novel that The Sensualist is adapted from, The Life of an Amorous Man, makes little attempt to hide that it’s characters and events are fictional. Yet beneath that is a transparent reflection of the writers feelings on feudal society at the time. It is not a complete account, so a side of caution is needed when translating it to a modern perspective, yet I find that the novel and how it has been somewhat selectively adapted into anime, is worth consideration.

Take for example this opening shot, as the narrator laments his old age:

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Among the typical laundry list of old age complaints; a decline in his hearing, weak legs, a loss of masculine appeal, it is this complaint that stands out the most. At a cursory glance it might seem innocent…and perhaps for the time it might have been. However in a single statement, we learn a lot about Yunosuke’s licentious character. Women placed as a plural. Loved as the past tense. Irritation read through his mention of their own respective signs of aging. It is a world view that reeks of entitlement and casual disregard. More than apparent is that the underlying concern with these women boils down to being not satisfactory enough for him. For someone speaking of love, he clearly only understands such a concept in the narrow framework of lust and eroticism.

The notion that his own aging prevents him from pursuing women is one thing, a symptom of his wanton pursuit of all things sensual as well as his male exclusive freedom to do so, irrespective of consequence in the (then) contemporary society of Japan. Another aspect at play is that the women he once cared for have lost their youth and therefore lost all value to him. It’s a point that sincerely impacted the gendered dynamic at the time and remains relocatable to a modern framework in both Japan and abroad. For reference you only need to look as far as the popular term “Christmas Cake”¹ to see the unfair placement of youth in relation to a woman’s supposed ‘prime‘.

While all these details so far may present Yunosuke as holding sexist attitudes, such perspectives are more predominantly indicative of the time period the story is set in, which frames Yunosuke as a symptom rather than the implicit cause. This of course does not carry as an endorsement for such words and actions but it is useful in exploring the story and the implications it has for the time it was made in.

A condemnation of Yunosuke is more than welcome however and one I give wholeheartedly. While not shown, it is quite clearly and deliberately mentioned that Yunosuke, in his pursuit of sex, felt so entitled to a woman’s body that he took her by force. Likely to him just one more for the tally. In and of itself a horrific crime, the punishment is as shockingly egregious. A clear sign of the double standards and belittlement of women’s suffering in Edo-period Japan, conveniently matching the unabashed haste with which the story offloads this particular detail.

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A short year in jail and a hair shaving. For the crime of rape. If that does not automatically repulse you then I don’t know what could. Instead I’ll draw your attention to the fact the punishment for women typically involved working as slaves and prostitutes in walled Red Light Districts, adding a disturbing undertone to many of the scenes in The Sensualist that are modeled after such areas. While the story does fail to provide such context, it does handily, if coincidentally, reflect the invisible pain that would have been behind the powdered faces of many sex workers. It does not however fail to demonstrate the implicit gendered power dynamics at play.

The film closes with Yunosuke once again lamenting his current predicament as a 55 year old man, before proudly exclaiming he will take his men to a women’s island and that they can have “as many as you want”. While The Sensualist certainly makes for uncomfortable viewing at times, it also provides an insightful window into a small part of Japanese history. While the treatment of women as second class citizens or as commodities is not a new revelation in world history², a film like this allows us to acknowledge and reflect on what happened, however painful it is.

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While I have predominantly spoke on how The Sensualist reflects the struggles of women, it would be amiss of me not to also add that it does make note of the homosexuality present in the original story on multiple occasions³. Given that the subject of The Life of An Amorous Man is perhaps the most infamous and empathetic English translated portrayal of bisexuality, it’s nice to see frequent mention to this side of the main characters exploits, even if they are inexplicably not shown. This factor may be reflective of the context since the film was made in the early 90s with Japanese creators and for an exclusively Japanese audience, perhaps validating the quiet but noticeable lack of public support for LGBT representation at the time. At the very least this indicates a harmful heteronormative angle on a source material that is designed for a much broader view.


Lastly, I sincerely recommend that you watch The Sensualist if you have any interest in Japanese history. For the sake of this piece there is a lot in it I have not mentioned. Least of which is the swathes of powerful imagery and directorial choices. The mere attention provided to the traditions of the time period beneficially underpins all elements presented and allows it to be tackled from more angles than the gendered approach I’ve taken here.

Thanks for reading.

¹ Trends in Japanese Work Ethics and the countries Aging Population Growth suggests the term has become passé despite similar sentiments still being felt culturally.

² It feels important to note that while this piece is obviously critical of the oppressive structures of feudal Japan, it is by nature specialized and by no means designed for quantitative comparison to any other countries, which should be demonstrated by the intentional lack of scope. This is not ‘who had it worse’ or ‘Wasn’t Japan horrible, Go Europe!’.

³ e.g. “Nightly he frequented the gay quarters of Shimabara with such fashionable, if dissolute, men about town as Nagoya Sansa and Kaga-no-Hachi.”  P11, Of Stars A-Wooing

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