Drawing Sex: Pages, Bodies, and Sighs in Japanese Eromanga

By: Caitlin Casiello


Volume: 07
Issue: 02:2021
ISSN: 2459-2943
DOI: 10.18680/hss.2021.0019
Pages: 97-121
Lic.: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0



This article analyzes eromanga, Japanese pornographic comic books, in terms of the semiotic power of images to create an erotic fantasy space for the reader. Manga are a central part of media culture in Japan. Alongside and closely connected to mainstream manga, eromanga have become important as a negotiation space for new semiotic expression methods. At the same time, they have become a battleground for questions of freedom of expression and defending youth and women from sexual violence, especially as manga ‘otaku’ fan culture becomes increasingly globalized. Focusing on a selection of contemporary eromanga artists, we explore the visual imaginary central to eromanga, a system of visual techniques which stretches the boundaries of the comic panel and the human body into new shapes and forms. Drawing from Thierry Groensteen’s and Natsume Fusanosuke’s theories of comic semiotics and Nagayama Kaoru’s and Kimi Ritodrawing’s work in the developing field of eromanga studies, we argue that eromanga portray sexuality by intensifying the on-page material – layout, bodies, and sighs (sounds as drawn images) – creating a multiple layering of time and fantasy for the reader. Eromanga often employs techniques and ideas that estrange the boundaries of the human body as we usually conceive it. Eromanga artists draw on erotic fantasies subtextual to anime and manga as a whole, making them explicit. At the same time, eromanga feeds into the broader mainstream world of manga, making thus the analysis of eromanga’s semiotics essential to a more comprehensive understanding of manga.

Japanese pornographic comic books or eromanga – more on the terminology and connotations of ‘pornography’ in Japanese and Western contexts in the next section – comprise an essential part of the manga publishing world. These often-overlooked works produce innovations in manga art and are fully integrated into the anime/manga/games fandom subculture. As eromanga focus on sex in forms so explicit as to be out of ‘mainstream’ (i.e., ippan general audiences,’ a clumsy catchall for non-eromanga) manga depictions, their analysis offers an opportunity for looking at manga expressions of desire in their most intense form. Through a semiotic analysis of eromanga, based on Thierry Groensteen’s approach to comics as a system founded on “iconic solidarity,” which “constitutes an organic totality that associates a complex combination of elements, parameters, and multiple procedures” (Groensteen 2007:159), this article offers an analysis of contemporary eromanga works via trends in page structure (‘pages’), transformations of bodies away from a normative realism (‘bodies’), and the use of word-image-sound effects (‘sighs’) to investigate how eromanga create layered spaces of pornographic fantasy for the reader. On the pornographic manga page, sex becomes images layered in series. Bodies jostle against each other across panel frames. Dialogue and sound, drawn, visually interrupt the space.

The dominant form of eromanga analysis in Japanese criticism is a combined semiotic and historical approach to particular styles and forms of signification. Manga critic Nagayama Kaoru1 discusses these signs as ‘memes’ (in Richard Dawkins’ sense), cultural elements that make up the ‘gene pools’ of eromanga and mainstream manga alike (cf. Nagayama 2014:20). Manga researcher Kimi Rito similarly approaches eromanga history through the process of kigōka (記号化), ‘signification’ (the changing into signs, using the same word for the sign as in kigōgaku (記号学), ‘semiotics’) in the development of expressions such as large breasts, nipple movement, and tentacles (cf. Kimi 2017:6). This article builds upon their approach of looking
at expressions common in eromanga, but instead of a focus on the historical origins of a sign or a discussion of creators’ intent in using it, I show how these signs work within the system of eromanga to affect readers’ experiences of erotic fantasy. Essential to this work is the contextualization of eromanga as part of a system of manga meaning-making beyond the legally-defined structure of ‘adult manga.’ Most manga contain elements of eroticism, but it is in eromanga that these elements prevail and are fully developed. Given the importance of debates on Japanese anime and manga concerning sexual expression, a semiotic approach to eromanga allows us to understand how these texts work and how their audiences could read them.


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