In 1979, an animated film named Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro was released to Japanese theatres. It was an immediate smash hit and a notably unique take on the character of Arsene Lupin III, a travelling master thief and anti-hero. Countless big names were attached to Castle of Cagliostro, including but not limited to Hayao Miyazaki, who made his directing and screenwriting debut. Along with Miyazaki’s debut came his now-iconic “Miyazaki heroines”, a type of female lead character who embodies the usual pluckiness and sense of adventure of a young male protagonist, but with added elements of cuteness and innocence. This first cinematic Miyazaki heroine was Clarisse De Cagliostro, and through a series of strange timing and coincidence, this character ignited what is now known as the “lolicon boom”. No English writer has yet tried to summarize this discomforting – and sometimes horrific – cartoon phenomenon, and I hope to create a piece of reference with this article.
I’ve previously talked about this period in the anime industry. In short, lolicon is a truncation of “Lolita Complex” – a reference not just to the Vladmir Nabokov novel, but to a dissertation by Russell Raymond Trainer. Trainer’s book was written in 1965 and translated into Japanese in the early 1970s. The term “lolita complex” floated around for a few years, soon being condensed into “lolicon”, a noun for an individual attracted to idealized, cartoony young girls.
Part 1: Formation of a Trope
At the centre of this story, just like with Castle of Cagliostro, is Clarisse. She’s a modest, unassuming young girl around the age of 16-17, the orphan heir to the vast treasure and empire. In search of this treasure is the Count of Cagliostro, whom is trying to coerce Clarisse into marriage, which is where Lupin III and his partner Daisuke Jigen find Clarisse.
Lupin III is a beloved, decade-spanning figure in Japanese pop culture. He is habitually a woman-hungry wolf, but Castle of Cagliostro cements a particular rule for his character: in no way will he ever harm children or teenagers, instead becoming a protective older brother towards them. One iconic moment in the film is when Lupin breaks into the castle to check on an imprisoned Clarisse, and gives her a small flower, which soon turns into a string of flags thanks to his slight-of-hand talents. The film pauses to build up the atmosphere around Lupin and Clarisse, and to showcase an internationally-renowned master criminal using his talents just to cheer up a young girl.
This is a stark difference from the Lupin who first debuted in 1969. In Monkey Punch’s original manga, Lupin was a chaotic delinquent and serial rapist. One may chalk this up to different writers having a different grasp on Lupin’s character. But, for many viewers at the time, this likely seemed as if the change was due to Clarisse herself. It could be assumed that she was so vulnerable and innocent that even a sex-driven thief like Lupin III could change his behaviour to protect her. In fact, towards the end of the film, a grateful Clarisse throws herself into Lupin’s arms…while Lupin reacts in shock, not wanting to get too close, but not wanting to break her heart by ending the hug prematurely.
Previous heroines of the time were hardly as vulnerable as Clarisse. Go Nagai’s Honey Kisaragi and Sayaka Yumi, to choose two of his many heroines, were swashbuckling, confident teenage girls who easily competed alongside male protagonists. Media visionary Osamu Tezuka had no shortage of bold female characters, from Chiyoko Wato to Princess Sapphire to Pinoko, and even more. Clarisse was an outlier; a mainstream damsel in distress. She was the stark opposite of Fujiko Mine, a major player in the Lupin III franchise, a classical femme fatale who carried all of Lupin’s wits and tricks herself. As well, while damsels existed in all genres of manga, especially children’s manga, none of them were as accessible nor as character-driven as Clarisse. She was in peril with high stakes around her survival. Castle of Cagliostro‘s audience was compelled to care for Clarisse and want to protect her…and some viewers felt especially strongly for her.
In the pre-internet world, the only way for amateur content creators to distribute their works was through zines, which could be distributed via mail or comic conventions. Individual fan zines in Japan are known as doujinshi, and the fan groups who often produce them are doujin. This newfound appreciation for Clarisse rapidly spread through doujinshi. One such series was Clarisse Magazine, a traditional fanzine that presented anything from Castle of Cagliostro concept art to lovingly-rendered Clarisse portraits. There were also successor doujinshi such as Clarisse Symphony, and Clarisse fanworks begun to appear in contributor-driven serials like Manga no Techou.
With a lack of new canon Clarisse content, some fans begun to seek out Miyazaki’s earlier heroines, such as Lana Lao from the 1978 children’s sci-fi series Future Boy Conan. Lana was a telepathic 12-year-old who served as an ally and love interest to the titular Conan. Even moreso than Clarisse, she was entrepid yet vulnerable, occasionally being kidnapped or captured. Miyazaki himself claimed to have become particularly attached to Lana; two iconic scenes are when Conan catches a falling Lana and buzzes with shock – easily comparable to the aforementioned Lupin and Clarisse hug – and when Lana and Conan kiss underwater. A character archetype was born, of a young girl who was naive but entrepid, and vulnerable but adventurous, all while being modest and doe-eyed. There were no shortage of doujinshi and lookalike characters, either.
Part 2: The Turning
At this point in time, the bi-annual fanworks convention Comic Market (or “Comiket” colloquially) had only been operating for four years. Comikets of the time were predominantly occupied by women, many of whom produced gay romance fan manga. A small but prominent portion of these fan manga were about the teenage protagonists of anime at the time, some of whom found themselves in sexual situations. Homoromantic manga with especially heavy themes, such as Kaze to Ki no Uta by Keiko Takemiya, had also just breached the mainstream. This struck a nerve with many male attendees, including aspiring mangaka Hideo Azuma. Azuma and his colleagues decided to “drive out” the gay male manga by forming a doujin, working under pseudonym, and releasing their own far more sexually explicit doujinshi called Cybelle.
While self-publishing was not a new notion by this point, self-published graphic adult content certainly was. Japan’s federal censorship laws were and still are notoriously strict. Genitalia, whether cartoon or live action, must be obscured with visual censors, and this obscuring can extend to covering the anus or even public hair. These laws made cartoonists have to be particularly creative, if they wanted to legally portray graphic content without sacrificing sensuality. One such method was having tentacles or tendrils penetrating someone instead of phalluses, in a genre known internationally as “tentacle porn” (which would be later animated in 1985). Another method was not drawing pubic hair at all, which made the censoring zone much smaller. However, some artists chose this method for a far more sinister reason; sometimes characters, like many in Cybelle, were too young to have pubic hair.
Cybelle dropped at Comiket 1979 like an anvil. It was especially graphic and taboo in nature, featuring incest and beastiality among other acts. Cybelle and Azuma’s team also introduced fan culture to the term “lolicon”. The aesthetic of doe-eyed cartoony young girls had been building in popularity for some months at this point, and now that a name had been assigned to this phenomenon, it would only continue to plow forward. Many lolicon “enthusiasts” also happened to be staff working on major television anime series.
Part 3: Breaching the Surface
It is not uncommon for animators, storyboard artists, and other anime staff to have either debuted through, or contributed to, fanworks on the side of their mainline work. Many notable mangaka and animators first gained exposure through their standout doujinshi work. The gap between fans and industry was especially narrow during this time, and the lolicon art influence took off in more mainstream products than one could expect.
Cute things have long been a staple of modern Japanese pop culture. As Japan moved into the 1980s, a period of economic and technological boom, cutesy media became big budget with equally big exposure. Almost all of this media was intended for children, but this did nothing to dissuade the overworked Comiket expat animators and the anime enthusiasts, who begun to be known by a new word, “otaku”. An otaku was a diehard fan of a specialized interest, be it sports, anime, or vehicles. The word’s origin can be traced back to a 1983 article in Manga Burikko, a lolicon-centred magazine.
The first wave of Clarisse-inspired character design was a trend I refer to casually as the “Shadow Clarisse”. This was any naive girl with a fluffy bob cut and formal clothing…Manga no Techou’s mascot became a Shadow Clarisse, Hideo Azuma’s Nanako SOS featured a Clarisse in a school uniform (later to have green hair in the anime), Miss Machiko was an adult Clarisse prone to having her skirt flipped up. Some especially brazen Shadow Clarisses wore white blouses and blue shirts, mimicking Clarisse De Cagliostro’s attire: two of these Shadow Clarisses include Tamiya’s mascot Moko-chan, and a girl featured in a film that opened 1981 comic convention Daicon III. Each Shadow Clarisse seemed to reproduce as another colourful soft damsel, appearing in anime, advertisements, and more, in the distinct rounded Azuma-descendant style. The memetic spread of the Shadow Clarisse trend meant these were not Clarisses for long; more and more artists begun designing their own cutesy girls of all types and styles, and they continued to breach mainstream entertainment.
The heyday of this phenomenon was from approximately 1982-1986. The early 1980s saw the emergence of a magical girl anime genre where a young girl would use magic to temporarily transform into an adult woman, so she could go on adventures and/or be a celebrity, things obviously unobtainable to a grade school girl. 1982’s Fairy Princess Minky Momo and 1983’s Magic Angel Creamy Mami were two particularly popular anime from this genre, and they attracted a large older male fanbase comparable to how My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic accidentally drew in “bronies”. Animators on childrens’ television anime during this time seemed to put extra effort into drawing the young girls of their shows in an ecchi manner, which culminated in things such as casual bath scenes and upskirt shots. The ecchi trend carries on to this day, and is even a mainstay in some anime.
The 1986 SNK Famicom game Athena featured the titular bikini-clad heroine with a typical doe-eyed Azuma-descended face. One particularly bizarre mainstream breach was in the 1982 smash hit Super Dimension Fortress Macross. This anime series followed a space colony of humans engaged in war against a race of aliens called the Zentradi. Three Zentradi soldiers are sent to spy on the humans, but soon turn defectors after coming to admire human society; they are particularly drawn to Lynn Minmay, a teenage idol singer. These three pivotal characters are unfortunately named Warera, Rori, and Conda…or, “warera lolicon da”, “we’re lolicons”. The three were renamed Bron, Rico, and Konda in the anime’s English dub.
It was during the aforementioned mainstream window that the OVA was invented. An Original Video Animation was one of the first formats of direct-to-video entertainment, with feature-length animation being released on video cassettes and/or laserdiscs directly to the consumer. In December 1983, Studio Pierrot and Mamoru Oshii produced the first episode of Dallos, a space adventure miniseries. The OVA format was an immediate success both fiscally and with consumers. This emerging media format was rising faster than the lolicon boom. Only two months after Dallos’s release, the first pornographic anime – known as hentai – was released on laserdisc: Lolita Anime (February 1984).
Part 4: Gone South, Gone Sexual
Despite its title, Lolita Anime was not initially meant to resemble the lolicon art style. The first two episodes were based on the manga of Fumio Nakajima; his artwork was much more realistic in style, and his stories mostly focused on young girls enduring intense abuse. These first two episodes and Nakajima’s manga are mere steps away from being full-fledged child pornography. The two OVAs sold so poorly that Nakajima’s influence was scaled back to a name in the credits, and the series underwent a full style change. This included introducing a new flagship character, Miu, a spunky green-haired tween in a contemporary anime style.
Miu’s debut episode, “To Be In The Kitten Shop” (July 1984), follows the antics of a salaryman who stumbles upon a hi-tech brothel/nightclub filled with cutesy anime girls. Miu appeals to his tastes the most, so Miu goes with him for the night…until the salaryman attempts to throw Miu into situations against her desires. The two battle and run through various sci-fi locales, until the salaryman agrees to be gentler. In addition to introducing a superpowered young girl with her own agency, “To Be In The Kitten Shop” featured cameos of numerous characters popular with lolicons during this time: dancing in the nightclub are Nanako, Hibari Ozora, Minky Momo, and of course, Clarisse De Cagliostro. Miu was immediately popular, and she went on to star in two more episodes.
In August 1984, the series Cream Lemon began, with its first episode featuring their own flagship character. Ami Nonomura was a naive 16 year old girl in love with her stepbrother Hiroshi. Cream Lemon went on to be the longest-running hentai anthology series of all time, with numerous contributors, many of whom would go on to create, work on, or star in countless mainstream anime, such as Project A-Ko, Iczer-One, and Gunbuster. The OVA format was not at all limited to pornographic titles, but it gave lolicon artists a venue to distribute their animated works. Anyone could make an OVA if they had the money, effort, and resources. Doujinshi hentai such as Barefoot After School or Shining May carried all the style hallmarks of a mainstream anime, albeit with sexual content and less rigid quality control.
For a while, there was a silent split in the industry: lolicon animators worked on their mainstream day jobs, this time with minimal hidden fanservice, and on the side they would work on hentai creations. This also led to a handful of pornographic parodies of mainstream anime. Magic Rouge Lipstick was a magical girl OVA about a very young girl who used a magic lipstick to become older, all while being in sexual situations, both as a grade schooler and a transformed adult. Balthus: Tia’s Radiance was a half-hour mimicry of Studio Ghibli’s style, bringing the Cagliostro influence full circle. It was a distant clone of Laputa: Castle In The Sky, but with a sex-driven villain, and a facsimile of Sheeta so innocent that she was unaware of whenever she was scantily-clad. For a few years, things were straightforward; the trend of cute anime girls continued to snowball until it became commonplace all over Japanese media. Most, if not all, tittilating material was kept quarantined in the OVA format. The Shadow Clarisse-descendant girls no longer had ulterior connotations, rather, they were now just a regular fixture in animation.
Part 5: Nightmare
However, ten years after the release of Castle of Cagliostro, the lolicon phenomenon came to a head in a horrific worst case scenario. Serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki was apprehended in 1989 after assaulting, mutilating, and killing four children. When authorities raided his home, they found precisely 5,763 home video copies of anime and horror movies; among them were the Guinea Pig films, Lolita Anime, and Cream Lemon. Later in court, he would attempt to plea insanity, claiming he had been manipulated by the media he consumed. This led to the monster being nicknamed by media outlets as “the Otaku Killer”. In a country with such a low crime rate, the Otaku Killer stood out as a terrifying anomaly. Many began to blame the extreme animation and films in his possession, and a moral panic began around mondo films and the new genre of animated pornography…video stores and hobby shops were raided and scrutinized for any extreme content that allegedly turned a regular man into the Killer. To many families, the sudden rise in hentai‘s popularity was proportional to this sudden spur in violent crime. Ever since then, and still to this time of writing, “otaku” is still a tainted word in Japanese. Many foreigners have innocently adopted the word at its pre-Otaku Killer meaning as a shorthand for an anime lover, but many Japanese people who were alive during the Killer’s capture and sentencing will hear it and immediately think of him.
Historically, this is where the lolicon boom quieted down, at least for another decade. A character trope called “moe” emerged around the mid-1990s, which is its own complicated story for another time. Doujinshi creators were frequently cracked down on obscenity charges, and censorship laws became more detailed and specific. If a single good thing came from the boom, it was the formation of CASPAR, a children’s advocacy group formed the same year the Otaku Killer was arrested. To this day, they still keep an eye on exploitative sexual media and the consumers who handle it.
Hayao Miyazaki has since recognized the lolicon boom, and he regards it sorrowfully: in an interview, Miyazaki said lolicons “just want [cute anime girls] as pets”, which is perhaps the most succinct description of the lolicon boom. Miyazaki has never directly addressed the base phenomenon around Clarisse, only the wider industry trend.
Part 6: Epilogue
It is hard to distill the entire phenomenon of the lolicon boom into a simple conclusion. It is a long, winding road of one small thing leading to another small thing, until the result is entirely out of control. Modern perspectives on the “boom” are polarizing; some are forgiving and consider lolicon to be a side effect of strict censorship and social isolation upon a crop of sexually-repressed Generation X-ers. To other online critics, it can be boiled down to just a shadowy group of creators abusing an art form so as to bring their desires to life. No matter how you look at the lolicon boom now, we are still witnessing its side effects upon modern anime. It is mind-boggling to think about how closely it all stemmed from a film in which a sex-crazy lead character becomes a wholesome man instead.
This whole rabbit hole opened up to me during the Saki Sanobashi investigation. To be candid, I as the author of this essay find lolicon disturbing and abhorrent. I hate child exploitation in general, which I hope isn’t a controversial opinion. But as someone who used to be a tween who watched anime, I remember vividly the feeling of discomfort whenever a female character my age was hugged closely by the camera, had a skirt that could not stay down, et cetera. There was a permeating, ominous fact that this ecchi was aimed at youths my age (at the time), yet produced by people my parents’ age. As previously mentioned, cute anime girls are a commonplace fixture in Japanese media, but even the most mainstream images will have that “wrong” feeling about them. A cute girl promoting a train station is not the same as a cute girl with body-hugging clothing and exposed thighs promoting a train station. Researching the lolicon boom has taught me that it’s all in who drew that girl and why.
Lolicon and moe are now everywhere in anime. Moe tends to be less darksided, but it still entails a female character whom is so non-threatening that she may as well just be a talking doll. It is ironic to think about how Hayao Miyazaki’s trope of sweet-but-entrepid girls accidentally led to the widespread sexualization of that exact character trope. So much of media comes down to a battle of creator intent vs. audience interpretation, and the character of Clarisse De Cagliostro was no exception. Neither is any current anime containing ecchi, which may come across as normal or befitting to its tween audience.
In spite of it all, if you have not yet watched Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, please seek it out. It is a genuinely fantastic animated feature with countless artful moments, and a great stepping stone into the Lupin III franchise. A particular part of its climax known among fans as “the clocktower scene” has inspired countless artists and succeeding films, including The Great Mouse Detective and The Simpsons Movie. And, through it all, there is Clarisse: the endearing young heroine who left an impact that no one could have ever predicted. Do her a favour, and go into the film seeing her as her actual character, rather than the talking doll so many fans turned her into over time.