Maybe you’ve noticed the steady growth in digital art depicting cyber maidens.

The penetration of virtual reality into all areas of life is creating increasing demand for the depiction of female images that are seductive and at the same time belligerently aggressive. Let’s face it: it’s much nicer to be welcomed to the meta-universe by a digital goddess dressed in body-hugging armour than by an angular, standard-issue avatar with a clumsily tacked-on ‘interface’.

To understand why the female image currently used in VR looks as it does, let’s examine the art of the Japanese artist Hajime Sorayama. We’ll put aside (for the moment) Sorayama’s headlining collaborations with street brands and Hypebeast culture and go back half a century, to the beginning of his creative career.

Models from magazines

‘It’s my mania. I’ve been drawing them ever since I was in high school. [...] I guess I could describe it as my own goddess cult.’

Hajime Sorayama was born in 1947. His fascination for drawing began when he was a teenager. He got his basic education at an intermediate school in Imabari, where, inspired by Playboy magazines and the urgings of puberty, he began doing his first sketches of pin-ups. After school, Sorayama continued his studies at Shikoku Gakuin Christian University. His interest shifted to studying English literature and ancient Greek after reading Nandemo Mite yaro (‘I’ll go and see everything’), Makoto Oda’s book on his travels in Europe and Asia.

In his second year at university Sorayama founded the self-published magazine Pink Journal, but it was torn apart by teachers and fellow-students. So in 1967 he ditched university and embarked on a drawing course at Chuo Art School. In 1968, after a year at school, he started working as an in-house illustrator at an advertising agency. He left four years later to go freelance, honing his skills as he created pictures for various clients.

In 1978 Sorayama drew his first robot. Like many brilliant things in art that owe their birth to chance, the idea of creating a new look for the robot came to Sorayama when he was not looking for it. The designer Hara Koichi was preparing to present a poster for Suntory and wanted to use a depiction of C-3PO from Star Wars. There was pressure from deadlines, and the fact that the copyright had not been paid for was also a problem. So Koichi turned to a friend who was an illustrator, Sorayama – and Sorayama found a solution to his problem.

Heirs to S-3PO

A year later, in 1979, Sorayama combined a machine and a seductive female body in a single image: this was the first in his series of ‘Sexy Robots’. The visual reference was the gilded droid from George Lucas’ cinematic universe. ‘Sexy Robot’ inherited from its precursor the traits of the primary prototype – Maria, the Maschinenmensch (machine-human) in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

The figure’s emphatic anatomy, the highlighted joints of the parts of the body, and the elegance of the lines went hand in hand with the material feeling of a hard metal body. Sorayama took this canonical image of the metal cyborg and injected into it the seductive eroticism of the semi-naked girls on American pin-up posters. The sex symbols and models shown in flirtatious poses on calendars and advertising banners embodied idealized ideas of ‘true’ female beauty. And by holding products in their hands, they often played the role of a magnet to draw consumers’ attention. The unwritten rule of successful marketing – ‘sex sells’ – continues to be relevant today, probably because it continues to be effective.

Sorayama’s gynoids have nothing to sell (apart from the author’s personal branding). Their hyperrealistic, idealized forms generally have little in common with pleasures of the flesh. Although Sorayama has repeatedly admitted in interviews that ‘in his sexual attraction for women he sees nothing unusual since it was his fate to be born a man’, in fact, in terms of ideology, his goal has never been to create an image oozing with sexual subtext or desire.  

Hyper-, super-, sur-

Sorayama uses aerography, a technique which he took from works by the illustrator Harumi Yamaguchi, to convey in a hyperrealistic manner the finest details, differences in the textures of human skin and leather clothing, flowing locks of hair, silk dresses, the metallic quality of robotized elements, and the gloss of latex.

The hyperrealism which Soyarama achieves thanks to his mastery of the aerographic technique of drawing is not an attempt to create an illusion or to attain the highest realism of the object depicted. It is a kind of superrealism that reveals more to us than the reality which we can know at the present moment. This is not surrealism (literally: ‘above-realism’), which creates unpredictable variations of a new reality, but futuristic realism, which shows us what no one has yet encountered or what is as yet unknown to us.

This is why we do not associate Sorayama’s female images with an ‘earthly’ female which he has arbitrarily ‘upgraded’ to meet the requirements of the future. These cyborg women are clearly unearthly; they are human-like creatures of a higher state of organization than humans. Possibly, they are goddesses from the future or from another dimension. For us their ‘ideal appearance’ and unattainability may imply the impossibility of the standards of beauty which are created and supported by the vast beauty industry. These fembots’ origin is unnatural, which makes the existence of their like impossible, at least in this reality.

This unnaturalness of origin can be found throughout the process of work on the ‘Sexy Robot’. Sorayama was constantly confronted with the need to strike a balance between human physiology and the incorporation of mechanical elements into human physiology; his response was to carry out artificial manipulations with these creatures. This is almost bio-engineering: strategic additions of parts of machines to the human body, followed by observation of the ‘viability’ of the result. And it is carried out on paper, using paints. Just how much real human biology should be left in the drawing? And how to avoid losing the feeling of corporeality – without ruining these beautiful female bodies by imprisoning them in non-living metal envelopes?

Sorayama has clearly found the ideal mix. In his fembots he selectively retains what is customarily human – precisely what stimulates and attracts the viewer. And with surgical precision fetters the flesh with cold metal, creating an almost tangible obstruction to desire. He creates an object of erotic contemplation – but at the same time leaves in it an element of inaccessibility; he keeps the eroticism to a level where it is abstract and does not overwhelm. He manages to show sexualized images without descending into vulgarity or pornography. This kind of depiction of the human body with its bold but at the same time disengaged treatment of the theme of sex may have its explanation in the cultural traditions which have shaped the Japanese idea of sexuality.

What’s shunga got to do with it?

Like many other phenomena, sexuality in Japan occupies a contradictory position which the European mentality finds it very difficult to gauge. Japanese sexual culture today has strong roots in the traditional views of the dominant religion – Shinto – in which there is no taboo on sexual relations and sex is not a sin. The sexual act itself, the coition of man and woman, is understood as a process of creation of everything important and so is not reproved by traditional religion. The contrary is even true: sex is largely encouraged. This is why Kanamara Matsuri, the festival of the steel phallus, is still celebrated in many rural prefectures to this day.

Sexuality in Japan is not subject to a set of prohibitions as it is in the Christian or Islamic faiths. It can shock the western observer – not with vulgarity, but with other forms of manifestation of sexuality, including its great diversity of types of sex fetish and practice (including shibari or rope bondage, shokushuzeme or tentacle rape, burusera or paraphilia, etc.). It is frank but not troublingly lustful. It is shameless in its treatment of the body as a single complex of biological traits.

To what extent can depiction of the body be physiological? A good example is the traditional ‘spring pictures’ or shunga – frank depictions of coition. Japanese artists have never shrunk from passionlessly depicting all the physiological aspects of the process or from exaggerating genitalia or depicting certain poses and subjects in a fantastic, even unrepeatable manner. These scrolls with xylographs are more like practical manuals; it’s as if they were not created to be objects of aesthetic pleasure. They are executed with elegance and artistry, and it is this that allows them to please our eyes, rather than the fact that they depict naked bodies.

We can see a similar effect in Sorayama’s gynoids: pleasure in their fluid curves is assumed but is not the primary reason why they have been created by the artist. Their sexualized nakedness is self-evident, but at the same time they can be observed at length without embarrassment: their cold, hyperbolized perfection periodically cools the observer’s ardour.

Cyborgs, robots, femrobots

After five years of crossbreeding droids and seductive female bodies, in 1983 Sorayama brought together all the variations of his chrome goddesses in Sexy Robot, a book published by Genko-sha. This was an illustrative manual which described in detail the process of creating pictures using various graphic materials. (Sorayama’s manual is to this day popular with illustrators and is referred to as a textbook at artistic institutions all over the world). The book showed robots in a way never previously seen.

Sorayama’s sexy female robot could be said to have filled the then vacant niche in the ‘range’ of robots and cyborgs used by the cyberpunk movement, which was quickly spreading through all parts of 1980s culture.

All over the world the 1980s were a period marked by the influence of science fiction: computerization, the fast-developing worldwide web, the race to be first in automatization and robotization. Sensing and observing global changes, people were compelled to take a fresh approach to reality and to try to adapt to a life which was gradually migrating into a previously unknown digital space. Sci fi was one way to make sense of a future which was already past.

The new technologies, Atari and Nintendo consoles, the first Macs, and Kawasaki’s robots had a reverse side. Technological progress was now seen from different perspectives. This included at the very least understanding progress’s imperfection as an evolutionary phenomenon and, at most, appreciating the deleteriousness of its universal application. Cyberpunk anti-utopias featuring the imminent decline of human culture and the restriction of human freedoms due to digitalization were a classic topic for works of literature, cinema, and fine art.

Japan was one of the main suppliers of references for all this heritage. It was the Japanese technology company Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd. that in 1968 assembled the first industrial robot. In the 1980s the Japanese government expanded this segment of the market considerably, and in the 2000s Kawasaki became the world leader in exporting robots; the city of Kawasaki was the world’s unofficial capital for robots.

Sprawl, the trilogy by the Canadian writer William Gibson, defined cyberpunk literature for many years to come. Gibson was the first to describe and name virtual reality. He says he based descriptions of many of the locations for Neuromancer, one part of this trilogy, including the Japanese industrial district of Tiba, on accounts by Japanese tourists who had visited Vancouver. When the novel was published, Gibson had never visited Japan himself, but his imagination (possibly prophetic) allowed him to create an image of the future which started out as fantasy but then became reality. Later, in 1982, Gibson discovered he was not alone in his ideas of the future: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner demonstrated a cyberpunk reality that was anti-humanist, gloomy, illuminated by fluorescent neon light, and bore a strong resemblance to urban locations in Japan:

‘Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk. The Japanese themselves knew it and delighted in it. I remember my first glimpse of Shibuya, when one of the young Tokyo journalists who had taken me there, his face drenched with the light of a thousand media-suns – all that towering, animated crawl of commercial information – said, “You see? You see? It is Blade Runner town.” And it was. It so evidently was.’

The interpenetration of cyberpunk and Japanese culture popularized the cyberpunk movement, whose ideology served as the basis for anime and manga. We all recognize the bright-green, glinting digital rain which became the visual DNA of Matrix by the Wachowski sisters. But it is only a few of us who realize that this cult symbol for film enthusiasts appeared for the first time in the Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell, which was published in 1989.

You don’t have to know the subject of this sci-fi action film to be convinced that Masamune Shirow had clearly looked at Sorayama’s Sexy Robot catalogues when he was working on the image of his main heroine: he placed a full-length naked portrait of her on the cover of the original edition. The naked Motoko Kusanagi has traits of Sorayama’s girl cyborgs: highlighted large breasts surrounded by wires, sensors, and sockets, a smooth body – a framework of skin concealing a biomechanical essence. Similar seductive cyber-heroines in sexy armour were an obligatory feature of the sci-fi manga and anime that followed – for instance, Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel (better known in its modern film version as Robert Rodriguez’ Alita: Battle Angel).

Although mass culture was already busy quoting Sorayama’s cyber-girls, his robotized eroticism only received official ‘approval’ from the art industry after Penthouse published his works on its pages for several years in succession. After the publication of Pin-up, Sorayama’s second book, in 1984, Playboy put to him the idea of making a feature film on the evolution and development of the trendy sexy robot.

Four years later, in 1988, Sorayama secured his first solo exhibition at The Seibu Department Store Gallery. His western colleagues discovered Sorayama in 1994, when the Tamara Bane Gallery in Los Angeles presented a solo exhibition of his work, including a limited edition of graphic works (Limited Editions Graphic by Robert Bane). The proximity of the local film studios led to Sorayama becoming involved in the filming process. He created visuals for Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992), Timecop starring Jean-Claude van Damme (1994), and Stuart Gordon’s Space Truckers (1996).

Cyber girls offline

In the middle of the 1990s Sorayama gradually started dressing his naked Sexy Robots. Naturally, he chose appropriate silhouettes and materials for the clothes: leather, latex, silicon, plastic, and body-hugging plexiglass. Imitation of various textures became a new fetish for him. One of the metal costumes he created slipped smoothly into high fashion. There could have been no more fitting fashion designer to create his own version of the sexy robot than Thierry Mugler.

In 1995 Mugler celebrated the 20th anniversary of his fashion house with a grand show at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris. This event changed how modern female fashion was seen: the supermodels in all forms, complexions, and genders did not walk on the podium but on an improvised stage, demonstrating Mugler’s outfits in a manner that was striking and provocative. Between the catwalk displays there were musical interludes, but the finale of these extensive presentations was more like a wild rave to techno-beat music.

The show culminated in a tribute to the sexy armour of Sorayama’s goddesses: a model dressed in a dark, non-transparent, floor-length dress stripped off layers of ‘yesterday’s fashions’ to reveal, beneath the last layer, a steel robot costume suggestive of Hajime Sorayama’s futuristic cyber pin-ups.

Possibly the most unexpected use of Soyarama’s Sexy Robots occurred in collaboration with Aerosmith. You must have heard their Jaded or Fly Away from Here? The band brought these legendary hits from the 2000s together in an album with the eloquent title Just Push Play, an ironical reminder of the extent of these songs’ popularity. Written in a glamorous italic font, the call to ‘Just Push Play’ is placed against the background of a polished robot by Sorayama.

The pose, the proportions of the body, the fuchsia-coloured, half-open lips and, most obviously, the rhythm with which the femrobot’s dress is hiked up are references to Marilyn Monroe’s famous gesture in Seven Year Itch, where gusts from a metro ventilation grate whisk Marilyn’s skirt into the air. A little later, in 2009, Sorayama was further inspired by the pop diva when he created a series of sophisticated illustrations depicting Monroe.

One of the most poetic and touching events in Sorayama’s life story is probably his work with George Lucas in 2013. Constantly on the lookout for new interpretations of robots and droids, Lucas asked Sorayama to contribute to the collection of Star Wars costumes. Sorayama created a hypersexualized depiction of Bettie-Bot, the luxury droid seen in The Clone Wars. 30 years earlier, he had created an alternative S-3PO; now, after much creative questing for a statement object of his own, he was able to announce its discovery to almost the entire world. At the same time, he made the sexy gynoid part of this cult film franchise’s powerful visual legacy.

ТChronological omissions in this article are not evidence of periods of Sorayama being unproductive. On the contrary, Sorayama is so active an artist that the task of listing all his catalogues, covers for comics, and collaborations with film directors and artists (KAWS, The Weekend, Medicom Toy), designers, and clothing brands (BAPE, Nike, Dior) makes us constantly aware of an obvious truth: Hajime Sorayama is one of the most important artists living today, and his influence is almost impossible to overrate. This is confirmed by the fact that he has applied his creativity in even the most unexpected fields of mass culture. However, what is important is not the sheer number of collaborations he has realized. The latter demonstrates his popularity but says nothing of the important revolution in imagery and visuals he has brought about, even if unintentionally.

At the beginning of the 2000s there was a popular website that allowed you to download ‘wallpaper’ for your PC’s desktop for free. Wallpapers continues to exist to this day, but back then it was awash with all kinds of erotic backgrounds. You could have girls with hyperbolized forms in unsubtle poses splayed seductively across your laptop screen. These girls’ poses, gazes, and clothes closely match the atmosphere of Sorayama’s Sexy Robots: so if you grew up in the age of Web 2.0, you’ll find it difficult to keep these everyday associations from entering your mind.

Digital technologies and computerization are concepts that are almost impossible to avoid when you’re talking of Hajima Sorayama: they have been key both in shaping his creative language and in determining the areas of modern life into which his legacy has spread. Think of the games industry: it teems with attractive and charismatic female
cyber warriors.

Now look at characters in modern cinema: here we find idealized female robots endowed with artificial intellect,
as in the film Ex Machina (2014). And if you go on the NFT marketplaces OpenSea and SuperRare, you may well
find yourself a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of variations of the tokenized cyber-goddess created by
digital artists.

When we turn back from virtual to everyday reality, we may be struck by how the sexuality and perception of the female body are undergoing a renaissance of tolerance. In today’s new world the female image retains the spirit of the cyberpunk heroines – strong, independent, and inaccessible – but is sometimes criticized for an excessive tendency for idealization and sexualization. Possibly for this reason, images created by Hajime Sorayama will continue to productively metamorphose and generate new interpretations in virtual reality.

Human beings, it is now clear, can digitalize almost anything – even sex.