The landscape of China’s heavily-censored blogosphere was trembling in ecstasy on the evening of April 11, 2010 – and no political experts could claim to have seen it coming. In a year that saw Google threaten to pull out and news of Liu Xiaobo exposing the limits of the country’s authoritarian rule over its cyberspace, it was a 26-year-old Japanese woman – better known for her pseudonym, Sora Aoi, which means ‘blue sky’ – that caused the most primal cry for freedom of expression.
On that fateful night, now commonly referred as ‘the Night of Sora Aoi’, an internet user in China spotted her newly-registered account (@aoi_sola) on Twitter, which has officially been blocked on the Mainland since June 2009. The news spread like wildfire and the number of Aoi’s followers – formerly lingering at around 2,000 – exploded to tens of thousands overnight, despite the fact that Aoi wrote predominantly in Japanese, and that it takes a bit of technical know-how for the average Chinese netizens to vault over the ‘Great Firewall’ (the national government’s wall of online censorship). Aoi has now accumulated over 130,000 Twitter followers, with the majority of those originating from the Mainland. And she’s put her online popularity to good use, having raised ¥105,000 (HK$10,000) for the rescue mission for the 2010 Yushu earthquake earlier this year. It was all the more astonishing to note that she has yet to sell a single authorised copy of her porn videos in the country.
“It’s unquestionably one of the most memorable moments in my career,” says an animated Aoi, who first made her name as one of the greatest stars in Japan’s adult video (AV) industry in the noughties, before crossing over to mainstream with efforts such as Revenge: A Love Story, the new Hong Kong movie that she’s come to promote this time around. She now splits her time appearing in theatre performances (she says she loves her princess character in Baragaki (2009), a period stage show that also enjoyed a 2010 re-run), TV dramas (she believes she came to fame with the 2005 late-night TV drama series, Joo), commercial movies (check out her ultra-low budget grindhouse movie Big Tits Zombie, now available on video), variety shows, and as a member of Ebisu Muscats – a scantily-clad singing group formed by more than two dozen gravure and AV idols.
Aoi goes on, “It’s only when I saw the news reports in Japan that I realised it was quite a big deal. Back then, I didn’t know about the ban on Twitter in China or that so many people have gotten to know me there. Knowing that they spent so much effort just to see me has made it all worthwhile.” On any other day, “it” would logically be interpreted as the more than 100 films that Aoi has moaned and groaned through since her AV debut in July 2001, under the production label Alice Japan. Alas, this is not one of those days for the aspiring media personality; for the local journalists, it’s hard not to notice the huge elephant in every room that the petite lady – idolised across Asia for her childlike face and G-cup breasts (previously listed as F-cup in her early years) – steps into. But the porn star is not here to talk about porn, and any mention of an illustrious career that she has repeatedly taken pride in on previous occasions is now rebuffed categorically.
Such is the quirk of fate that Aoi, who played an implicit yet important role in accelerating the sexual liberation in Hong Kong and greater China with her healthy porn star image (she rarely took part in simulated rape scenes, threesomes, or rough sex in general), has decided to come clean. On the Mainland, where pornography is illegal, Aoi has grown up with a generation in the digital age, and is often respectfully addressed as Aoi Sensei (meaning ‘Teacher Aoi’) – a strangely ironic turn of events, considering that her initial career plans were to become a pre-school teacher. “When I first started,” Aoi says, “I’ve never thought that so many people abroad would eventually become my fans. They’re still following and supporting me despite our language barrier. This makes me really happy.”
In Hong Kong, Aoi stands as one of the most recognisable faces of Japanese AV, an established industry that has long been making a mockery – if completely incidentally – of our local actresses’ formidably conservative attitude towards onscreen nudity. In fact, Aoi is just one in a long line of famed AV actresses that have been invited to pose naked in our Category III skin flicks: from Saori Hara in the upcoming 3D erotic movie Sex & Zen: Extreme Ecstasyto Manami Amamiya in AV (2005), Yuri Komuro in Naked Ambition (2003), Madoka Ozawa in Don’t Tell My Partner (1997), as well as all those early-1990s erotic movies that flooded the market after the current film classification system came into place in 1988.
It turns out that even Aoi is bemused by our thinly-veiled infatuation with the sex culture of Japan. “From what I know, AV seems to be considered a very Japanese thing in Asia,” she says. “Whenever people talk about AV, they’d think that this is part of the Japanese culture. For the Japanese, however, AV or nudity is not such an unusual thing – they can be found in the media and is part of our culture. I think sex is just part of being human; I can’t really understand why people regard Japanese AV with such curious eyes.”
Then again, Aoi has now stopped getting involved in the promotion of her AV works for more than a year (her blog, for instance, provides no information on her porn career), even if ‘new’ works of hers are still said to be surfacing once in a blue moon. So what’s the biggest difference that Aoi finds between her starring role in Revenge and her previous roles (which boasts such eclectic diversity as a cheerleader, a teacher, a bunny lady, a witch, a café waitress, a dominatrix, and – I’m not kidding you – a mermaid)? “I think the biggest difference is in the story.” Aoi starts giggling. “I’m not playing a Japanese character here, and I’m not speaking Japanese. The gory scenes are also a new experience for me…” She continues, and the awkwardness lingers as she keeps on chuckling uncontrollably for the next 15 seconds.
Aoi knows that she still has a lot to learn and achieve before really putting her mark on the mainstream pop culture, and is content to take it one step at a time. Unlike some of her distinguished contemporaries, however, she is apparently oblivious to the popular debate about porn being a sign of women taking control of their sexuality. “I don’t know what other women think about me,” she says, “but from my work in AV to the current jobs, I’ve always regarded it as a kind of performance. There’s nothing you can do if people perceive you in a negative light. It’s not my objective to assert woman power; rather, it’s how you express yourself and earn recognition that truly matters.”
At 9.15am on November 11, Aoi’s 27th birthday, she has taken the next stab at international stardom by opening an account at Sina Weibo (http://t.sina.com.cn/1739928273), a Chinese micro-blogging site that is China’s equivalent to Twitter. Six hours later, at 3.15pm, the number of her Weibo followers has reached 129,363 – not only has it beaten her Twitter follower number but it has also set a record for the fastest accumulation of followers in the history of the site. (The number stands at 483,413 at press time.) It remains to be seen if her latest effort – in blogging her daily life in simplified Chinese – will ultimately prove enough to distinguish the ambitious performer from her last day job in many a dirty mind across Asia. For now, though, we can at least content ourselves for having learned something about Aoi that can’t be said of every one of her peers: she seems to have a nice personality.
Revenge: A Love Story opens December 2.