Powerful feelings, intimacy and sex in Joseimuke anime

By: Jessie Krahn June 12, 20240 Comments
George leaning down to kiss Yukari in bed

Sex is a part of many people’s lives, yet the way that it’s depicted in media often offers a very narrow view of it—and often presumes a certain set of audience expectations and desires when choosing what to depict and how.  Heteronormative porn particularly has a controlling share of representations of sex, depicting it as a predictable story, one that’s often violent towards women and usually ends with men’s orgasms. Foreplay, kissing, comfort, and even conversation are shelved so we can get to a guy’s big sensational finish. The way sex is represented in media can be one-note, draining all the eroticism from the experience. If we want exciting variations on the representation of sex in media, it seems to me that joseimuke (media intended for a female audience) anime are optimal mediums for representing the erotic aspects of sex. 

For a long time, I’ve sought out joseimuke anime because they steep in feelings that other media don’t always devote attention to, a tendency that Berserk creator Miura Kentaro once described as “powerfully expressing every feeling.” His words echo those of legendary feminist philosopher Audre Lorde, who distinguished between the pornographic and what she termed “the erotic.” Where pornography “emphasizes sensation without feeling,” she describes the erotic as “what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we feel in the doing.” In other words, porn tends to be all about the spectacular orgasm, while the erotic is about the entire experience and more, the depth and range of emotions we feel, and how keenly aware we are of our full sensorium. Joseimuke anime are powerful expressions of every feeling, felt to their fullest. What’s more erotic than diving deep into the ocean of sensations and emotions of the human experience?

To explore this a little, I’ve chosen first-time sexual encounters from three joseimuke anime: His and Her Circumstances (aka Kare Kano), Paradise Kiss, and Fire in his Fingertips. Each one depicts a different dimension to sex: the emotional connection, the awkward reality, and the physical pleasure, respectively. This variety in narratives counters the near-monopoly that pornography targeted at men have on collective understandings of sex. Joseimuke anime, erotic or otherwise, show sex as a nuanced, erotic experience, capturing the humanity therein.

Yukino and Arima's faces close together

His and Her Circumstances 

A longtime staple of shoujo, His and Her Circumstances (localized for the manga as Kare Kano) uses metaphorical imagery to focus on the emotional connection that sex can create. The series’ main couple, Miyazawa Yukino and Arima Soichiro, are the stars of their school: charming and attractive with excellent grades. But their outwardly flawless appearances are a ruse. Yukino and Arima are weird, moody people who have to put a lot of effort into their success. The series follows them bonding and stumbling into love as they discover each other’s quirks and flaws, reveling in newfound feelings with wide-eyed wonderment. 

His and Her Circumstances has some of the most elegant representations of a budding erotic connection in anime. It doesn’t flinch from showing Yukino and Arima’s puppy love blooming into sexual arousal as a sublime growth into a new season. In one scene in the back half of the series, Arima asks Yukino if he can kiss her, and she enthusiastically agrees. As they do, a mellow piano shifts into a bright, energetic tune with the shot cutting between stills of their interlocked lips and Arima’s hand moving from Yukino’s shoulder. With each cut, Arima’s hand shifts lower until it lands on her breast. Like a dam has broken, Arima says that he wants to make love to Yukino: “These eyes, hands, lips, everything, exist only to experience you.”

Arima’s confession is so striking because he describes sex as a collection of many feelings. Sex is experiencing the other person in their entirety through sight, touch, and taste. Even before Yukino and Arima have sex, it’s conceptually erotic. Sex about powerfully feeling every feeling, something bigger and more “spiritual” (as Yukino says) than the contact between two people’s bodies. 

Yukino and Arima snuggled together in bed

When Yukino and Arima do have sex, the scene is almost entirely metaphorical, capturing the spiritual and sensual elements of their love that they express through sex in equal measure. Specks of light coagulate into a pulsating star that eventually bursts as a visual metaphor for an orgasm. When Yukino and Arima appear on screen they are children in a pristine meadow. The wind blows Yukino’s hat off her head and Arima catches it. The encounter feels trusting, wholesome, and intimate; Yukino has offered a piece of herself to Arima, and he has accepted it with care. 

By representing their experience in this way, Yukino’s and Arima’s first sexual encounter comes across as experientially full and new as the world appears to a child. In sharing this moment, they shed the dulling filter of adulthood and experience a new part of the human experience with the sort of awestruck curiosity about the world many lose as they grow up.

Two hands reaching up toward the sky

The symbolism in this scene attends to parts of sex that aren’t seen so much as they are felt between the people having it. There is wonder, love, vulnerability, and safety in this moment. This is a tender-hearted scene that represents sex as a shared experience, coloured by their unique dynamic and given breath by the affection they have for one another. It’s exhilarating and dignified without being sensationalized or voyeuristic. To paraphrase Miura and Lorde, His and Her Circumstances feels fully the profundity of connecting with another human being. 

This abstracted portrayal of the characters’ first times has its disadvantages. It leaves the other very real, pragmatic and less elegant elements of sex untouched. In some ways it’s a missed opportunity, since so much of the series focuses on the pair gradually working to accept their own imperfections. The fact is, the first time many people have sex is not always free of speedbumps. If we’re looking for more diverse representations of sex, we need to cast our net wide to find every feeling, powerfully, even the not-so-sublime ones.

Shot of George and Yukari having sex from behind

Paradise Kiss

First published in the women’s fashion magazine Zipper and aimed at an older audience, Yazawa Ai’s Paradise Kiss strays from the rose-colored bliss of shoujo-esque first times like His and Her Circumstances and instead dives headfirst into the janky reality of sex. Sometimes, sex really is just two people smushing bits of their bodies together. 

The series follows Hayasaka Yukari, a student at a prestigious high school who has been struggling with burnout and lacks a sense of her own identity. Yukari is recruited to model for a motley group of fashion students at the local art school and falls in love with their leader, the aloof playboy Koizumi George. Halfway through the story, George and Yukari decide to have sex while Yukari is staying at their friend Arashi’s apartment. From the moment they lie down, things are ungraceful, completely imperfect. George comments on the cringe-inducing weirdness of having sex in a friend’s bed. Yukari points out that they’re laying on the bed backwards. Yukari struggles to relax enough for George to penetrate her, and when he does, it’s painful. Though they aren’t aware of it, their friend Miwako overhears them from outside of the apartment, and they are almost interrupted by Hiroyuki, Yukari’s former crush. 

Compared to His and Her Circumstances, this is an almost torturously awkward lead-up to their first time. Yukino and Arima are alone during their first encounter, so it’s almost impossible not to immerse the viewer in metaphorical representations of their private little intimacy. For Yukari and George, though, their first time sleeping together is inextricable from these intrusions and disruptions. As mortifying as their situation is, though, it’s also an honest and common sexual experience. Realistically, many people, especially young people, don’t have the independence or privacy to have sex away from prying eyes and ears. Instead of showing Yukari and George in a perfect, uncomplicated dreamscape, Paradise Kiss looks the awkward reality of sex square in the face and dwells in it. 

George and Yukari kissing as they have sex

The lead-up to the sex itself is sensual, with shots of George’s fingers sliding lightly up Yukari’s body. But the experience is still drenched in awkwardness. George comments on his penis is not fitting into Yukari, while Yukari starts crying. When they do manage to fit things in, their eyes meet and they both exclaim, “It went in.” Finally, they smile and embrace. 

Sex is a pragmatic affair. Sometimes people’s bodies need to be prepped, sometimes people can’t find the most suitable place to do it, and sometimes other people bear witness to the clunky project of trying to fit two bodies together. Most representations of sex fail to account for these awkward encounters, insistent as they are that some carnal knowledge will nullify the sticky physics of sex and magically mesh two bodies together, rendering communication obsolete. What I like about Paradise Kiss is it doesn’t frame the inelegant parts of sex as obstacles to the deed. Instead, these awkward and embarrassing bits are part and parcel of the sexual experience. 

Miwako standing at the apartment door

We find the erotic in allowing ourselves to feel every feeling fully, from the embarrassment of banging in your friend’s apartment to the joy of connecting with another person. This is not to say that it’s better than His and Her Circumstances’ sensitive and highly celebratory tone. It’s just to say that Paradise Kiss’s approach is also valuable because it’s matter-of-fact: sex is beautiful and spiritual, but it can be complicated and messy, and all of these qualities are erotic.

But what both Paradise Kiss and His and Her Circumstances lack is that emphasis on the visceral pleasure of sex, something that most pornography over-focuses on. This is where josei hentai fill in the gap—no pun intended.

Souma holding Ryou from behind

Fire in His Fingertips

In 2019, the digital adult manga platform ComicFesta began producing anime adaptations of their series, ushering in a new wave of ecchi series aimed specifically at a female audience. These new series, such as 25-Year-Old High School Girl and XL Boss took a more rounded approach than traditional hentai, bracketing the big sex scenes with character and relationship development. Fire in his Fingertips is one of the series that sparked a wave of interest in this genre of hentai and brought it to a boil, and it is nothing if not flaming hot. 

Fire in his Fingertips follows childhood friends Fujihashi Ryou, a white-collar worker, and Mizuno Souma, a firefighter. After Souma rescues Ryou from a fire in her apartment building, he invites her to stay at his place until she can find new accommodations. What comes next is, of course, constant banging. 

 In their first few sexual encounters, they don’t have penis-in-vagina intercourse. During their very first time, Souma masturbates Ryou to completion, and simulates penetrative sex afterwards by rubbing their genitals together. The episode ends with a smidge of aftercare as Souma kisses Ryou on the forehead. 

Souma kissing Ryou on the forehead

What is most noticeable here is the way everything about the scene’s composition, from how the sex plays out, to the framing of the characters, to the details that are drawn on the character, is clearly targeted at audiences other than the straight male viewer. Penetrative sex is not treated as the endgame the way it so often is in many hentai, and the type of sex Ryou and Souma have still gives them pleasure. Throughout their encounter, Souma’s body is shown in close-up as much as Ryou’s is. One shot actually shows his bare butt right in the foreground while he and Ryou are humping. Souma’s body is generally drawn with a higher line count, such that his ridiculous muscle tone, sparkling eyes and casually tousled hair tally up to a figure who is clearly meant to draw and hold the viewer’s eye. Typically, hentai seems to be produced on the assumption that the viewer doesn’t care about the man’s body nor the woman’s pleasure, so these are refreshing deviations from the norm. 

Fire in his Fingertips toes the line between the pornographic and the erotic, focusing on the sensations as well as the feelings. Even the inclusion of a forehead kiss reminds the viewer that the sex is happening in the context of a relationship between two people. You can’t separate Ryou’s and Souma’s sex from the feelings they have for one another. Ryou and Souma’s relationship, their mutual confusion about whether their friends-with-benefits set-up is purely sexual or a sign of deeper romantic connection are all relevant to the sensations. There are no sensations in the series without all the emotions the characters feel fully. 

Souma putting his shirt from behind

Let’s be honest, too: many people enjoy the pornography in Fire in His Fingertips. A big part of having sex is the sex itself—touching, thrusting, grunting and dirty talking included. His and Her Circumstances and Paradise Kiss, focusing as they do on different aspects of the sexual experience, don’t quite harness the raw, naked pleasure people feel while having sex. As much as I’ve stressed up to now the importance of representing more than just pornography’s typical spectacular “O,” sometimes, sex just feels good, and that’s still worth expressing powerfully.

Fire in his Fingertips has some issues with consent and rape culture—Souma ignores Ryou saying, “No,” or, “Stop,” or interprets it as her playing coy. Still, the story goes to great lengths to humanize Ryou and depict her sexual relationship with Souma as one that is sensual and full of feeling. At one point, Souma gets aroused just from Ryou telling him she loves him, tying the romantic confession to sensuality in a way that is rare for manga. 

Did you finish?

None of the anime I’ve written about here are perfectly healthy representations of sex, and the relationships they depict are flawed. However, I don’t think we need to wait for the “perfect” representation of sex before we applaud anime that show interesting variations of this common human experience. Diverse representations of sex, even within the bounds of heterosexuality, its imperfections, its dimensions, or the way it throws colors when it’s shown in different lights—these can help viewers temper their expectations of sex in their own lives. For the way that joseimuke anime encourage powerfully feeling every emotion, they have the potential to capture the true eroticism in relationships, the sexiest parts of sex.

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