Porn is illegal in China. So the rise of Japanese adult film actress Sora Aoi is all the more remarkable. But can her feel-good strategy on the mainland really make her a nationwide name?
Earlier this month, Sora Aoi, the baby-faced Japanese adult film actress whose film credits include Complete Obedience-Masochist Secretary, Big T*** Zombie,” and “Sora Will Relieve You Greatly,” took to Weibo, the Chinese Twitter clone.
“I ate lunch with me and my friends. Afterwards we made the walk in the park (*´v`),” she wrote. Banal? Yes. But like most of her posts, this one was forwarded and commented on thousands of times by Chinese netizens. In fact, Sora’s every move seemingly turns more and “more heads in China.” A few weeks ago, her appearance at a motor show in the remote provincial capital of Nanchang (think Des Moines) caused such pandemonium that she had to flee the stage after just three minutes.
In recent years, Sora has become famous as a bosomy Japanese AV idol—and branched out to more mainstream acting and singing roles—across Asia. But it’s China, where an increasingly open-minded middle class pushes back against government censorship (porn is illegal in China), where Sora and her team have been concentrating most of their efforts. She refused to talk for this article, but there may be reason for that: she has one audience she’s particularly interested in at the moment.
“Sora is so popular because she has really communicated with Chinese netizens,” says Hecaitou, an influential Chinese blogger. Sora has been publicly practicing her Chinese calligraphy and studying Mandarin. Last year she launched an effort to raise relief funds for a major earthquake in Western China; after the Japanese tsumani hit she posted a message in support of a province in South China which had been hit by a small earthquake at around the same time. It seems to resonate with everyday Chinese men. “There are some AV stars who are very fake,” says William Peng, a 26-year-old Shanghai native who works in sales. “I think Sora’s not too artificial or insincere.”
Japanese adult video actresses and Hong Kong softcore starlets have been popular in China before, but never like this. Sora’s Chinese name has more than 41 million page hits on Google, exceeding that of Mao Zedong, Yao Ming, or Confucius. Not bad for an actress whose vast majority of titles are banned in Beijing (though net-savvy men can evade the Chinese censors and access her work through a proxy server).
Sora has capitalized on her fame to expand into more mainstream acting and singing roles in markets across Asia, including socially conservative Indonesia, where she’s titillated audiences by appearing in horror films, fully clothed. But it’s China, where an increasingly open-minded middle class strains against government censorship, and where fame offers a piece of a rapidly growing entertainment market valued at $200 billion last year that Sora and her team have been concentrating most of their efforts.
That a porn star in China can reach 2.8 million fans on Sina’s Weibo and become part of the domestic debate also shows the widening space for controlled sexual expression in Chinese media. In her public appearances and on her Weibo feed, Sora manages to juggle being engaging to women, sexually suggestive to the men, and subtle enough to stay out of trouble with China’s Ministry of Culture. At the Nanchang festival, Sora told her female friends that she hopes “to become sisters with them;” she also said, with a practiced vulnerability, that she likes her cars “big.”
Porn is illegal in Mainland China. The government routinely conducts campaigns to close down porn websites, and prurience is officially frowned upon by Chinese Mandarins. Yet although prostitution is technically illegal, China has thousands of massage parlors with suspiciously red lighting, and an equally large number of barber shops staffed with suggestively dressed women who have probably never picked up a pair of scissors. Hong Kong allows porn: the recently released Sex and Zen, the world’s first commercially successful 3-D skin flick, has received a healthy box office boost from mainland tourists. While it’s different in rural areas, for those in big cities like in Beijing, “You can ask for porn from the people who sell DVDs under the bridge, and they can take you somewhere that has it,” says Xu Cheng, a 21-year-old student from Beijing. “I have a friend who has like 70 of Sora Aoi’s videos,” says Peng. Although it takes some searching “You can download them online.”
Sora is not just hot in China, but also surprisingly popular. In a widely reported event, a Chinese web celebrity called her a ‘prostitute.’ Sora responded, “I took of my clothes in front of the camera to make a living, while there are some people who wear clothes in front of the camera because of selfish desires and trickery.” Online opinion sided with Sola, which is remarkable sign of the strength of Sora’s brand, if only because Sola has actually starred in the movie Sora Aoi Becomes a Prostitute. As one netizen put it, “Even though Sora has taken off her clothes, she’s just a saint who’s also taken off her clothes.” A police station in northeastern China became a laughingstock when netizens revealed it had set up a Weibo account that only followed Sora. “All of the big news websites have her,” says Xu. “We don’t need to look at the websites we’re not supposed to in order to see her.”
Ultimately though, Sora faces one possibly insurmountable hurdle in her rise to Chinese superstardom. To be blunt: She’s Japanese. Chinese still resent Japanese for World War II, and riots erupt outside Japanese embassies and consulates in China with disturbing frequency. One of Sora’s Weibo fans Wang Liye says, “Her being Japanese doesn’t influence the way we look at people like her.” If the netizens can overcome history is still to be determined.