Ever since I began my manga explorations, I’ve made an effort to check out as many manga genres as I could. But it wasn’t until recently that I availed myself of the opportunity to examine a work of hentai (a.k.a. erotic) manga. I was aware it was out there, of course, and had even skimmed over some of it online. But Chihiro Harumi’s Velvet Kiss (Project-H) is the first full-blown example I’ve read. A four-volume sex comedy, the premiere entry in the series comes shrink-wrapped with a large “Warning: EXPLICIT 18+ Only” label on its cover. The label is an appropriate one.
The hero of Velvet Kiss is a hapless young office worker named Shin Nitta. After a lucky day at work where even the office vending machines seem to be paying off, Shin is dismayed to learn that he’s been tricked into signing a document saddling him with an 80 million yen (just over a million U.S. dollars) debt. This debt will be frozen, he’s told, on one condition: that he befriend and become a companion to a spoiled young buxom beauty named Kano.
Our patsy hero (who never even wonders if this absurd piece of paperwork will hold up legally) has been set up, of course, though to what purpose is clearly meant to be the series’ mystery. Much of the focus in the first volume, then, is on Shin’s introduction to Kano and her world. The girl lives in a hotel, has a bevy of wastrel friends and appears completely unfettered by money worries. She’s also sexually assertive, and through the course of the first book we get a variety of sweat-drenched sex scenes.
If Velvet Kiss’ comic set-up is slight, writer/artist Harumi manages to embed a few sly themes within all the smuttiness. Foremost is Shin’s uncritical fixation on woman beauty (“It’s like gazing upon an entirely different world,” he says as the story opens, “and I don’t really mind what they’re like on the inside.”), a belief that will be tested the longer he gets to know Kano. In its way, the hentai manga has its roots in American screwball comedies of the thirties—the type featuring class-steeped squabbles between couples we know will be clinching by the movie’s end. We never saw Carole Lombard buck nekkid in any of those flicks, of course.
Harumi’s art is crisp and up to the demands of its extensive sex scenes. If all of her sexy babes seem to be of a type (at one point, I was reminded of the old Mad comics parody of Archie which joked about how “different” Betty and Veronica looked), few hentai readers, I suspect, will complain. I did have an odd moment midway into the book where it looked like four color pages were printed in gray scales. The shift made Kano’s hair look darker and for a brief flash I had to wonder whether Shin had changed partners in the midst of the act.
As a simple story, Velvet Kiss comes across more character-driven than a newcomer like myself might have expected: there’s a comic scene, for instance, where Kano makes our hero watch a horror video with her over Shin’s protests. “I guess I got my money’s worth since you’re so scared,” she states after watching her companion’s reaction to the movie. “It’s fun seeing a grown-up get scared or freaked out at stuff like this,” she adds. We suspect that this won’t be the only time that Shin will feeling the fight or flight impulse in this oddly appealing series.