All that changed in the 1990s, when a new art form emerged in Japan. Anime and its adult cousin, hentai, stylized the cartoon into an entertainment platform for mature audiences. Growing up in direct parallel with the home computer generation, Japanimation has developed a solid core of fans, and some astute adult companies have tapped into that market with amazing success.
"Over the past three years, hentai has seen double- digit growth," says John Amatucci, vice president of sales at Adult Source Media. "The growth is not only in the number of units sold but also in terms of the bottom-line number for a lot of the merchants who carry the product. You have a very strong niche market that's dedicated and up to date on everything that's going on in hentai. The bottom line is that those people will always be there and that market continues to grow rapidly — and you're not competing against 400 new releases per week, like in live adult action.
"If I'm a merchant and I'm getting hundreds of new titles every week, what better way to differentiate myself than to bring in this product with its growing appeal while still being underexposed."
Adult Source Media is one of the few companies that has taken the full plunge into hentai. Formed three years ago by Wendy Crawford, Adult Source Media has about 80 titles in its animated catalog. The product is produced solely in Japan, and Crawford's firm acquires licenses from the Japanese studios to distribute them worldwide, with the exception of Japan. After years of experience in this market, Amatucci feels he has drawn a bead on hentai's target audience.
"I'd say the demographic is between 18 and 35 years old," he says. "Educated, and someone who's definitely computer savvy. The customers generally have well-paying jobs."
But locating hentai's fan base is only half the battle in selling the product. Marketing this animated oddity in adult entertainment demands new strategies, and Amatucci believes most companies in the field have dropped the ball in that respect.
"Hentai is very misunderstood in the adult community," he adds, "and there's a valid reason for it. I think all the companies that sell hentai have not done a very good job in educating the adult side of the business about what it really is. Hentai is an absolutely phenomenal market. It has a dedicated niche audience among adult fans and anime fans. It's a unique hybrid product in the sense that not only are we catering to folks who like traditional adult films, we are catering to people who are not adult buyers but who are anime buyers.
"Companies who distribute hentai are not taking advantage of this. Some of it, quite honestly, has to do with laziness. There are companies that simply pursue marketing a product that's doing well, and if it's doing poorly, they give up."
One of the reasons so few companies have tested the hentai market is the high cost to produce these animated DVDs. While the Japanese studios avoid the costs of using live performers, the sheer amount of time and work involved in creating animated features makes them much more costly to produce than live-action films.
And then there's another factor: availability.
"Pricing in adult today always becomes an issue," Amatucci points out. "It's because of the amount of product on the market, and hentai — which costs a considerable amount to produce — is not abundant because the Japanese don't produce a lot of it. They also don't let it go so easily, and when they do finally trust a company here in the states to distribute it, they want to maximize their profit.
"So people in the states need to understand there are costs involved, and this is not the type of adult product that's being shoved down people's throats for two bucks. It's a high-quality product. Anime in general has always maintained a higher SRP, and there are two reasons. First, the costs involved in producing. Even the most bare-boned anime that a studio can acquire right now costs a great deal of money, not including the dubbing and the re-authoring. Secondly, the fan base will pay more for the product because there's not a lot of it out there."
Apparently the higher prices haven't dampened the desire of retailers to test the hentai market. Not only are more adult stores selling hentai today, but new outlets like comic book stores are stocking it. Amatucci thinks he knows why.
"Every day, we get orders from new retail stores who haven't carried the product but want to diversify," he says. "The business is constantly changing, and if you're not carrying a product and your competition is, what do you do? You're afraid to lose sales, so it really puts people in a position to offer hentai. And it's not only adult stores, because this product was traditionally sold through non-adult channels before it was sold through adult channels."
Of course, there are always potential legal hazards when you sell an animated product in a non-adult outlet, where there's potential for contact with children. Adult Source Media puts a disclaimer on all of its products announcing that it's not for sale to anyone under 18. But it's up to the new non-adult retailers to segregate the product into an adult area of their stores.
The success of hentai in recent years has not only spawned new retail outlets, it also has inspired other forms of adult animation from Europe and the U.S. One of the most extravagant examples is the Black Widow release, "The Princess Has Come of Age," which cost a whopping $1.2 million to produce. A full-length 3D CGI movie, "Princess" required three years for cinematographers and graphic artists in Italy to create. According to Black Widow President Ric Williams, it has the look of a "Shrek" or "Toy Story" and is the first of its kind in adult entertainment.
"I figured I'd be lucky to sell 1,000 pieces," Williams said. "But when I saw it, I knew it was hot. So we took it on, and it's sold more than I ever expected."
In fact, it's sold eight times more than he expected, currently at 8,000 pieces and rising. This is in spite of the fact that the wholesale price on "Princess" is 50 percent higher than Black Widow's standard price. And the online sales are even better. Williams says video-on-demand sites his company deals with reported that "Princess" was their most downloaded movie for three months.
Black Widow placed ads for the movie in the trade magazines and also packaged it in a "super jewel" DVD case, similar to those used by video games. But Williams says the biggest boost for his animated hit has been word of mouth.
"We were going for the younger-guy market," Williams admits, "but as it turns out, females love this movie. I guess it's not as threatening as the live adult action movies. This is more of a fantasy thing, and we get a lot of emails from women telling us that they really enjoyed the movie."
Naturally, Black Widow wants to follow up "Princess" with another 3D CGI movie, and the Italian company that produced the movie currently is putting it together.
A similar success story comes from Cherry Boxxx and its only two animated productions, "Pornomation" parts one and two. The latter episode debuted in July, while the first came out 18 months ago and garnered the Best Alternative Release Award at the 2005 AVN Awards.
"Pornomation" is a "computer anime" production, similar to the Xbox animation seen in video games. Like "Princess," it was a very expensive piece of work, put together here in the U.S. by husband-and-wife animation team Sagemonn and Karynna, who also operate the adult animation website Pornotopia.com. The movie blends innovative computer animation, sci-fi fantasy themes and explicit sexual storytelling. Naturally, it is a major departure from the live-action Cherry Boxxx productions.
"This industry is so saturated with your standard type of movies," says Cherry Boxxx Vice President Allen Gold. "You're always looking for something that will make you stand out and be different. We thought that this would, and it did. Animation puts you in a different category."
Adult blog Fleshbot.com called Sagemonn's and Karynna's work "a connoisseur's choice of explicit and gorgeously rendered imagery, including extraterrestrial orgies, auto-cunnilingus aliens and assorted techno-fetish delights."
Fans apparently agree. "Pre-orders have reached over 5,000," Gold told XBIZ. "The style of animation is so different, and that's why it does well. It's not quite a Japanese style of animation, but more dimensional. This style of animation is more computer driven.
"You're not just getting an adult cartoon here. This is state-of-the-art adult animation with an incredible storyline," he said.
And amidst burgeoning sales in this tiny niche, the "different category" of hentai and animation figures to broaden — and make the "Tijuana Bible" just a silly memory.