Nerds who came of age in the US during the 1990s or early new millennium retain a special place in their hearts for Suncoast Video. The dimly lit, neon-accented locations of this mall-based chain gave many geeky young men and women their first exposure to anime and manga. Amidst racks of Hollywood releases, each location devoted prominent floor space to Japanese animation and comics. Suncoast and other retailers were nerdy tastemakers who made big business (US anime video sales in 1996 topped $85 million) out of these kinetic tales of giant robots (Gundam), schoolgirl superheroes (Sailor Moon), fantastic battles (Dragon Ball Z), and more.
While the plots of the most well-known anime were geared toward a younger audience, greater recognition and appreciation of the medium allowed films with more adult content including Akira and Ghost in the Shell to make their way across the Pacific. At midnight screenings on April 6 and 7, Nitehawk Cinema (where, full disclosure, I recently hosted a screening of martial arts classic Lady Snowblood) will offer New York City audiences the rare opportunity to view a 35 mm print of the most notorious adult anime of all time, Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend.
The loose plot of Urotsukidōji focuses on several factions of demon warriors searching for the unbeatable chōjin, the titular overfiend, whose coming is said to herald a new world order. Each faction seeks the disguised chōjin among the student body of the fictional Myōjin University. Epic battles between demons are occasionally interrupted by a stilted romantic subplot. American critics have often admitted to being puzzled by the film’s storyline, but, as William Thomas noted in a capsule review for Empire, the iconic Urotsukidōji is “a must for strong-stomached horror fans.”
The synopsis of Urotsukidōji may seem similar to other anime stories, but its notoriety lies in its extreme violence and visceral visuals. The film’s women get the worst treatment; female students are lecherously lensed, starting with scenes of half-clothed locker room horseplay and continuing in excessive up-skirt shots. Maimed and mutilated female bodies randomly litter the background of other scenes. Perhaps the most prominent atrocities are the repeated scenes of rape, with the film’s most infamous attack featuring phallic tentacles accosting and probing an unwilling victim. This tentacled violation, which occurs in an early scene, is often cited as the representative moment of this feature-length depravity, which sometimes looks like Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder turned the basest elements of their imaginative talents toward animation.
Although cinephiles in the US often fixate on Urotsukidōji’s foray into tentacle penetration, the scene’s origins are uniquely specific to Japanese visual culture. The image of a woman engaging in a sex act with an octopus dates back at least to Hokusai Katsushika’s 1814 woodblock print “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.” In this work, a nude woman reclines in ecstasy as a large cephalopod situated between her legs entwines her in its many arms while performing cunnilingus; a smaller octopus perches near her head, probing her mouth and groping her breast. Director Hideki Takayama smartly appropriated imagery familiar to his primary, domestic audience while evoking the chilling tone of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories that — like Urotsukidōji — are rife with tentacled ancient gods waging war on humanity.
Urotsukidōji was initially released in three parts, between 1987 and 1989, as an original video animation (or OVA). This format involves content created exclusively for home video. By avoiding the scrutiny of broadcast television censors, OVAs allow the type of excess that became Urotsukidōji’s calling card; in fact, the animation features additional horror and violence — including the scene of tentacle rape — not featured in the prior manga from Toshio Maeda. In a recent email conversation, Nitehawk programmer and projectionist Kris King referred to the OVA as the “fully uncut, into the heart of darkness version.” This OVA proved so popular that it spawned four sequel series and a 2002 reboot.
The Western world first encountered Urotsukidōji in 1993, when it arrived in the United States edited into one feature film. The feature cut may have a reputation for extreme content, but it actually removed about 30 minutes of scenes deemed too extreme for stateside audiences. A scene I encountered in my research, where a monster explodes his metal phallus into cheek-piercing spikes inside of a woman’s mouth, assured me that the feature film could indeed have been even more disturbing.
The feature cut arrived at a time when English language audiences were still growing familiar with anime, so Urotsukidōji was uniquely positioned to represent the form as a whole. While the United Kingdom responded to the film with censorship as a “video nasty,” shock and controversy became an integral part of its marketing and appeal in the United States. Press notes from the release make reference to the fact that some scenes from the OVA were deleted from the English language cut for being “so sexually violent that [they] could not be included in the theatrical features.” Reviews of the time even made light of this sexual violence, with Richard Warrington quipping in the Washington Post that the film should be subtitled “Legend of the Oversexedfiends.” This explicit and often difficult sexual content ultimately earned the film an NC-17 rating and a reputation as the cinematic obscenity that forged the stereotype that All Anime Is Naughty Tentacles. While — thanks to Suncoast Video and, later, the wonders of the internet — plenty of quality, adult anime has arrived in the 25 years following the film’s US release, the persistence of this myth is perhaps Urotsukidōji’s greatest legacy.