How Eromanga-sensei Made its Mark: Masochism and the Modern Otaku

There are few things the Western anime fandom can agree on, altogether. It’s hard to argue that Neon Genesis Evangelion wasn’t an monument of the medium, or that Berserk 2016 looked okay. But even when we unite on one opinion, we can still end up deeply divided.

This year, Eromanga-sensei was labeled ‘trash’ by both fans and haters, and rightly so. It goes beyond the idea of simply ‘trashy’ media (trash-like, sharing-qualities-with-the-idea-of-trash) and blatantly basks in its identity as a piece of garbage. For its devotees, it was one of the highest quality pieces of animated defecation the ‘idiot otaku gets surrounded by hot chicks of questionable ages and also his sort of his sister and fucks none of them’ genre has delivered. But among its critics, there have been some remarkably unfair judgements. In framing the show as one of his most hated of the year, Super Eyepatch Wolf did more than express his dislike of it: he didn’t believe that anyone could have been passionate about it.

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“It knows exactly what it is and who it is for… but… it feels plastic, something designed to appeal to a very particular audience and not something anyone ever thought was a genuinely good idea in the first place. It’s hard to feel that at any point in the show’s production there was someone who actually believed in it – that there was any soul to the project at all.”

The comments of his video are littered with similar takes: people stating how “Otaku being the ‘lifeblood of the industry’ nearly killed it outright about 10 years ago, with an overflow of pervy moe bullshit. It is NOT a good thing”; how “Miyasaki was right about Otaku”; how fans of Eromanga-sensei simply have ‘shit taste’ and should be ostracized from the anime fandom. To enjoy ultra-artificial, ‘plastic’ media for its artificiality, as so many otaku do, is to be a lower-class citizen in the citadel of anime ‘taste’.

But Super Eyepatch Wolf’s perspective goes beyond even this: it’s not enough to shove these types out. He prefers to say that he doesn’t believe they have any passion for their media at all; he speaks for them, rather than using Eromanga-sensei as a chance to listen to how differently these fans judge the value of the media they consume. It’s an especially odd stance, given that the show is an unabashed celebration of the drive otaku have for their trashy and often utterly unacceptable worlds. In the end, Super Eyepatch Wolf’s slandering of Eromanga’s fans and creators feeds into one of the core ideas that the show drives its simple pornography on: the societal separation between the ‘normal’ and what Eromanga-sensei embodies. Taboo.

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Part of the problem of Eromanga-sensei is the ease with which any audience, outside of its ‘particular’ fanbase, may arrive at the show, see its titillating farces and say ‘I am not attracted to that – I should not be attracted to that’. It’s the right response: Eromanga-sensei is a comedy that basks in the wrongness of its romance and fanservice at every turn. Lolicon and siscon do not deny the wrongness of their virtual desires; it’s that element of taboo as a purely artificial performance, barricaded away from real affection and real people, that they adore.

But above all, one of the most ‘off’ things about Eromanga-sensei is how much it holds back from delivering on explicit content despite being so steeped in what’s morally ‘wrong’. It feels as though the show is aware of this itself in its final episode, offering not a conclusion to the plot but rather an plotless carnival of fanservice; as two of the lead girls are forced to play bikini twister, we are effectively prompted to accept that this show’s sexualized content hasn’t been about displaying or reaching towards contact between the characters. It’s about gazing, and being gazed upon. It’s pornography not for the imagination that drives people to connect, but rather for fantasies that keep matters apart. The siscon from the real sister; the lolicon from any real child; all taboo otaku cultures from the society around them that pressures them to be ‘normal’.

There’s nothing particularly deep about Eromanga-sensei’s storytelling, but the show and its light novel source offer us an opportunity to explore why its audience desires these divides, and why that feels so different to what we expect.

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When discussing sexualized media, whether it displays intercourse or only works through fanservice, there are two major mindsets we need to consider: the sadistic, and the masochistic. These terms come from two authors of erotic literature, the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The former wrote ‘sadistic’ fantasies of man-pleasing excess, while the latter’s imagination was ‘masochistic’ in that it involved the male being in a passive, infantilized state, acted upon by a superior female rather than acting superior to a female.

In the study of ‘gazing’, Laura Mulvey’s coinage of the Male Gaze (1975) is heard too often. This is partly because there are many other female scholars who offer different various other models like Bracha Ettinger and Griselda Pollock, whose voices ought to be heard in the feminist sphere alongside Mulvey’s. But it is more because this particular ‘Gaze’ model operates on a Freudian foundation of phallocentrism. Freud’s ideas and approaches opened up a lot of opportunities for further study of sexuality in cinema, but a lot of his theories become problematic if we let them carry over unchecked. He considered a normal and inherent essence of femininity to be a kind of ‘penis envy’ – his analyses led him to believe that “girls hold their mother responsible for their lack of a penis and do not forgive her for their being thus put at a disadvantage” (Freud, 1933: 124) – which stands directly at odds with modern schools of intersectional feminism and their fight to remove gender identities from being fixed in biological concerns. Most modern applications of the ‘Male Gaze’ media divorce the theory from its psychoanalytical roots, leaving little substance to the framework behind.

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One of Freud’s most irritating contributions came through discussing sadism and masochism; his work laid the foundation for the popularization of treating masochism as just the reflection of the sadism, essentializing the masochist as desiring a sadist. But Deleuze makes a compelling case for considering the two conditions very differently, describing how the respective writings of Sade and Masoch operate in stark contrast when their language is considered. For Masoch, the assailant of the desiring subject-victim is not figured as a sadist, but rather as a revered motherly figure. “Masoch’s fictive world,” Gaylyn Studlar observes, “is mythical, persuasive, aesthetically oriented, and centered around the idealizing, mystical exaltation of love for the punishing woman” (Studlar, 1984: 268). While this woman could also be ‘sadistic’, it is not a prerequisite for the masochistic contract to be formed.

Similarly, while the masochist may feel guilt for something and have that actualized into a desire to receive pain, as Deleuze describes, “masochism is characterized not by guilt-feelings, but by the desire to be punished” (Deleuze, 1991: 104). In the masochistic contract, the subject renders themselves inferior. In a heterosexual case, a male subject may choose to render a female agent as superior, or this may be chosen for him. But he must still choose to take pleasure in it, and accept the inferior position rather than resisting it. All of this is summarized well by Studlar:

 “The masochistic  fantasy  may be viewed  as a situation in which the subject (male or female) assumes the  position  of  the  child who  desires to  be controlled  within   the  dynamics  of  the  fantasy.  The sadistic  fantasy  (while  not  a  simple  reversal  or instinct or aim) is one in which the subject takes the position of the controlling parent who  is not allied with the child  (object)  in a mutually  agreed  upon pact  of  pleasure/pain, but  who  exercises  (within the  fantasy)  a  sadistic  power  over  an  unwilling victim”. (Studlar, 1984: 270)

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We should return to Eromanga-sensei with this divide in mind. The issue with many observations of the show is that they see its sexualization and read it exclusively through a model of sadistic behaviour – they see a vulnerable infant and have that conclude for them that the viewer position is set to be superior. This is not the case with the majority of lolicon media. At the most extreme end of these fantasies, regarding manga containing the rape of infants, Japanese scholar Itou Gou observes a different engagement from reader to text:

“Readers do not need to emphasize [sic] with the rapist, because they are projecting themselves on the girls who are in horrible situations. It is an abstract desire and does not necessarily connect to real desires. This is something I was told by a lolicon artist, but he said that he is the girl who is raped in his manga. In that he has been raped by society, or by the world. He is in a position of weakness.” (Interview in Galbraith, 2011: 103)

The perspective of the artist interviewed by Gou is undoubtedly masochistic – the reader becomes a child and is then visited upon by a kind of pain. This maps onto the implied audience of Eromanga-sensei too. Sagiri’s ero-kawaii character is ripe for masochistic identification with; she embodies the life of the stereotypical shut-in hikikomori while also being a vulnerable girl. Akane Fujita’s performance emphasizes the softness of her whole existence, contrasted against the audacity of what she draws. Her moe behaviour gathers her characterizing cuteness into something for viewers to ‘become’ rather than simply imagine feelings for: “I’m friends with the professional fighter Nagashima “Jienotsu” Yuichiro, who’s a famous otaku, and he’s certainly that way,” Momoi Halko explains: “He cosplays as cute girl characters not because he wants to cross-dress, but because he wants to be that character” (Galbraith, 2014: 76). But Sagiri’s biggest signs of a masochistic fantasy are the motif of her embarrassment towards her identity – ‘I don’t know anyone by that name’, coupled with her mask – and the fact that when Masumune enters into her space, he never becomes superior to her. She is either superior to him, or she shares in the embarrassment he experiences.

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This superiority is represented by the dynamics of the Masamune-Sagiri household. Sagiri’s space is initially closed off, and frequently reclaimed as solitary when Masamune creates too much conflict. From slamming the door on his face to bashing the floor for food, Sagiri is presented as controlling Masamune’s life, and never the other way around. Neither is she a ‘tsundere’ that is softened over the story to the point that this is reversed; the final episode of the series serves as a reminder that she is as in charge of everything as ever before; that her sphere of influence has only grown.

The scenes where she forces other girls into posing for her and draws them operate on a sadistic model of gazing upon an unwilling victim, adding other potential fantasies to what’s available when identifying with her. But she more often serves as either a site of shy, moe, optimistic vulnerability for otaku to relate to, or the superior figure to Masamune’s own masochistic existence when viewers relate to him. The motion of these dynamics being in regular flux is part of what made Eromanga-sensei so appealing for fanservice fans.

To some masochists, physical pain brings pleasure; the trope of otaku being struck by those they gaze at in a typical example of sadistic gazing operating. The male begins as a sadistic gazer for an unwilling female victim, but this is so that the male may then assume the position of a naughty child and be controlled by the whims of the female they have violated. In Akashic Records of Bastard Magic Instructor, in the scene described by Glenn Kenny’s controversial article, after stumbling upon the girl’s changing room and announcing his self-awareness at the cliche occurring the protagonist is, in Kenny’s own words, ‘thrown back by an unseen force, blood spurting from his eyes’. This force is the violence the gazer welcomes as a masochistic punishment in this exchange. The details of where exactly it comes from do not matter; it must simply come. Explained or not, these ‘accidental’ fanservice events have their end trajectory towards an impression of social rejection and removal. This is usually reset after the scene – not to ultimately absolve the gazer of his punishment, but to simply reset the trebuchet from which the nosebleeding pervert will soon be fired from again. Many characters are figured in this way – their very presence in a scene begets the expectation that they will end it flying into the sky, or pummeled into the mud.

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In Eromanga-sensei, Masamune is not such a nosebleeding pervert; he seeks a moe relationship rather than opportunities to look up skirts, and events of him gazing only occur by accident and to his own embarrassment as well as Sagiri’s. Aside from violent retaliation, the awkwardness he and Sagiri regularly feel is a key component of the ‘pain’ involved in Eromanga-sensei’s masochistic fantasies. This is bluntly manifested as the girls try to undress him to expose his penis because they want to know what one looks like, a scene that does a good job of gathering every taboo Eromanga-sensei celebrates into one place. In scenes like these, the feminine has agency – the masculine is locked down.

This sexual embarrassment ties into the greater embarrassment of embracing the otaku identity, which becomes its own special kind of violence visited upon Masamune. In the anime adaptation, Masamune has to awkwardly introduce Megumi into the world of otaku perversions. In the fifth volume of the light novels, we also get to see Masamune try to explain the novel he’s written to his aunt, Kyouka. A translation of the scene follows:

Trembling with shame, I tighten my fists.

Speaking of which.

Nowadays there are lots of light novels with embarrassing titles all over the place, but how do the authors explain their own works to their families or their other acquaintances that know nothing about light novels?

I wonder.

“You’re getting that embarrassed just by me reading out loud the title of your book and the names of the author and illustrator? Is this such an ‘embarrassing thing’ for you?”

“Not at all! We take pride in our own work! It’s like our precious child!”

I deny it right away. I can’t have her thinking otherwise.

Kyouka not only found my weakness, but she attacked it.

“Really? Then why are you so embarrassed?”

I look up to her and answer while looking for the right words.

“It’s just… how should I say it… it’s kind of embarrassing to have a normal person – I don’t know if this is the correct way to say it, but – a normal person looking at our work…”

There’s no way I think it’s an embarrassing book, but it’s a bit embarrassing to have an unrelated person looking at it. I wouldn’t really recommend it to the untrained.

I only want it to be read by the chosen ones who have enough HP to endure a subtitle like ~My heart-throbbing first date with my little sister.

It’s a complicated feeling.

I’m sure that fans of the love-comedy genre (especially works that are just a bit erotic) will understand this awkwardness.

Masamune places himself as abnormal, a ‘chosen one’, and figures others as not being able to ‘endure’ the culture he’s accepted as part of his life and self-image. He draws the imagined awkwardness of his readers back into himself. This is the essence of enjoying a taboo because it is a taboo: one imagines a morally superior reader looking at it accusingly while you are, and their voice is introjected into yours. ‘Isn’t this too perverse? Yes, yes it is!’. It’s a mindset that favours social rejection rather than acceptance: it’s part of what keeps hikikomori in their rooms, shut away from society, imaging it pressing down on them. This is not limited to Japan, however: ‘sang’ culture in China approximates to a similar obsession with social rejection.

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The pain of having a normal person enter the world of otaku gets furthered by Masamune describing it as ‘torture’ as the conversation continues:

“Uh… so, the boy and girl drawn in this cover are brother and sister?”

“Um, yes.”

“And it’s a love-comedy, so… these two are in love with each other?”

“Well, kinda.”

“Even though they’re brother and sister?”

“Because they’re brother and sister.”

“I don’t understand this at all.”

T-this is torture… The torture has started!

“Let’s move on… I have a question about this character introduction page.”

Kyouka asks with an emotionless voice.

She points at the name of a certain heroine that’s written in the illustration on the opening page.

“Who’s this ‘Little Pervy Human’?”

“Little Pervy Human is the username of a girl.”

“Are you serious?”

“Of course.”

What’s with this dreadful punishment?! Why do I have to explain the story and setting of my own light novel to a straight-laced normal person who holds prejudices on the otaku subculture?

Here again is the language of masochism; the superior figure is ’emotionless’ like a parent taking authority over its child. Their questions are ‘torture’ and ‘punishment’; Masamune is stuck in the painful liminality between acknowledging he enjoys something so wrong, and acknowledging that he enjoys being told it’s so wrong. His otaku identity is built on both what he rejects and upon being rejected by what he rejects in turn. It’s a cycle that buries taboo-loving otaku under layers and layers of disgust for liking the ‘wrong’ media; the kind they faced as the Tsutomu Miyazaki incident gripped the ‘normal’ world. After Tsutomu’s arrest, mainstream Japanese media took deep offense to the existence of ‘otaku’ in their community, with one reporter going as far to comment, on a visit to the 36th Comiket, “Here are 100,000 Miyazaki Tsutomu’s” (Morikawa, 2012: 8). When social rejection gets to this extreme, it causes a backlash. But the everyday feeling of being a ‘reject’ is a badge of shame many otaku wear with pride.

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The scene with Kyouka develops even further:

I desperately defend my own work.

“It’s a fun and funny story about a brother and sister who live under the same roof and aren’t true to their feelings, but through a certain event they start changing their relationship! It’s not at all the kind of work that would approve of unhealthy relationships!”

“I see. Although, you wouldn’t think that unless you read it. Just by looking at the cover, title, and synopsis, you wouldn’t be wrong to think it’s morbid.”

“…”

I’m lost for words. I’m aware of my grim expression.

Kyouka puts a finger on her lips doing what looks like a sadistic gesture.

“Or would you say that you have a basis to assert that your work wouldn’t have a negative influence on the reader?”

“I can affirm with no doubt that it would have a negative influence.”

“Eh?”

Kyouka lets out a cute sound at my unexpected answer.

“Masamune, what… did you… just say?”

“…”

D-dammit! I suddenly answered honestly… What do I do now…

“Well, about that ‘whether it has a negative influence on the reader’ question…”

There’s no getting out of it, so I’ll just say it straight.

“It has. A positive influence and a negative influence, too. That’s why it’s interesting. At least that’s what I think.”

“Is that so.”

While receiving a cold stare, I start regretting my previous statement.

“B-but, wait! Whether it has a negative influence doesn’t matter! I’m properly working within the rules of the publisher! And! I-it’s not like it has an immediate impact!”

If Elf heard this, she would just heave a long sigh at my pathetic defense.

“Those are all my questions for you, Masamune.”

Once emotionless, in keeping with Eromanga-sensei’s love for shifting dynamics, Kyouka now comes to have many expressions – a ‘sadistic’ gesture, a cute sound, a cold stare. The immovable superior being is one model for the masochist to form themselves under, but the constantly changing, always penetrating intelligence is another. Kyouka is fully in charge of this discussion – Masamune asks no questions himself. It is more of a court session than a conversation, and the identification of otaku readers is set firmly within Masamune. It is one thing to know yourself that you keep fantasy and reality strictly separate, but to convince someone who sees them as inextricably tied is an insurmountable tasks.

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Masamune’s situation is one many viewers of Eromanga-sensei will find themselves in, completing the circle of identification. The fiction of siscon and lolicon fantasies is something these otaku never want to become reality – it’s all built on abstract desires, loved for their very artificiality and impossibility.  But Eromanga-sensei places within its representation of those fantasies an experience otaku will find all too real – being confronted for your taboo. The show recommends to its readers and viewers that this is just one of the many kinds of torment you can add to your masochistic personality and culture. Embrace not being able to answer these questions – embrace the thought that the rest of the world simply aren’t the ‘chosen ones’. Let them poke at your perverse bubble – it only increases its pleasures.

So what’s the correct response to Super Eyepatch Wolf’s claim that there was no ‘soul’ to Eromanga-sensei – that its fans and creators have no passion for what they make and consume? The passion for fulfilling masochistic fantasies in the show should be undeniable, but we should observe how ‘normal’ fans like SEW factor into that masochism. They and their fans elect themselves as having ‘superior taste’, to the extent that they feel able to say that an anime’s creators had no desire to make the show themselves. Let them! They form their identity as fans through rejecting other fans; the viewers of Eromanga-sensei may reject such ‘normal’ fans themselves. But the ‘normal’ group fill their rejection with angst and hatred – all kinds of negative feelings. The otaku that love Eromanga-sensei can take pleasure from such fans when they come to lolicon shows and ask ‘what is this? why is this here? why is this allowed?’. Their refusal, or inability, to accept people who like the ‘wrong’ things in purely virtual spaces is exactly what makes those wrong things so valuable in the eyes of their consumers.

I’ll never talk down to someone for enjoying a taboo in fiction; it’s much more fulfilling to pursue a better understanding of why they enjoy it. We’d have more unity as a fandom if being open to trying to understand desires for detestable things in media was the norm; but while it’s not, there’s a lot of fun we can gain from watching some people prance around on high horses, pretending that liking better media makes them better people.

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Thank you very much to Selipse for the light novel translation!


Citations:

  • Deleuze, Gilles, Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty & Venus in Furs (New York: Zone, 1971)
  • Freud, Sigmund, ‘Femininity’ (1933) in The Complete Psychological Works Of Sigmund Freud, The Vol 22: “New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis” and Other Works (London: Vintage, 2001)
  • Galbraith, Patrick W., “Lolicon: The Reality of ‘Virtual Child Pornography’ in Japan” in Image & Narrative, Vol.12, No.1 (2011)
  • Galbraith, Patrick W., The Moe Manifesto (Clarendon: Tuttle, 2014)
  • Morikawa, Kaichiro, “おたく/ Otaku / Geek.” in Working Words: New Approaches to Japanese Studies (2012)
  • Studlar, Gaylyn, ‘Masochism and the perverse pleasures of the cinema’, Quarterly Review of Film Studies Vol 9, No. 4, pp. 267-282

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5 thoughts on “How Eromanga-sensei Made its Mark: Masochism and the Modern Otaku”

  1. Whoa… This point of view is very, very interesting. Thank you for this.

    I was wondering whether to watch the anime or not, then a certain ANN review of the 1st episode convinced me to watch it. Because darn it, that “review” was freaking pretentious!

    I liked it, end of discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is great! Not a lot of people would take the time to analyze something like this.
    Masochism, huh? Perhaps, but I think that the show’s violent tendencies you call masochistic are just byproducts of what it does to make it relatable for its intended audience. I think you would agree that the majority of people who like this show like it because they project onto it. I especially liked your point about how the audience projects onto both male and female characters. Projecting onto a show’s love interest as well as its protagonist allows a whole different level of attachment to her that generally isn’t possible in real life. It’s the same thing in Oreimo with Kirino being an otaku. Digression aside, I would argue that what you say are the “masochistic” elements of a show like Eromanga Sensei are really just there because they make it easier for the audience project into the story. An otaku can project into ostracized and submissive characters because they themselves are ostracized and (stereotypically) submissive (this is why most relationships in anime are female-dominated). There is just enough of the prejudice of reality in the show to make it a more easily inhabitable fantasy – not because the pain or embarrassment is itself pleasurable, but because it aids in projection because of its relatability.
    I agree that the nature of loli and imouto fantasies are just as abstract as you say – most fans of the genres aren’t pedophiles or incestuous, they just like the collection of traits that loli or imouto characters possess in fiction. For Eromanga Sensei, the imouto genre has the perfect setup for ‘convenient’ intimacy that an otaku would fantasize about. For a stereotypical otaku who is removed from society and doesn’t talk much to women, much less initiate a relationship, it is fun to fantasize about a girl like Sagiri who one: already has an established relationship with Masamune, two: already seems to love him head-over-heels, and three: relies on him just enough to make it feel like she needs him.
    But I’ve got to say, I think this show is plastic all the way down. Does it matter? Like you said, something like this isn’t claiming to be highbrow art; it appeals completely to sense and desire almost like pornography, and it isn’t the type of thing that you enjoy through contemplation, just as you probably wouldn’t derive pleasure from pornography from considering it intellectually. If you like it you like it, if you don’t you don’t and that’s pretty much it.
    Thanks again for this article. It’s always interesting to reflect on why instead of what you enjoy.

    Liked by 1 person

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