Masquerade is the story of the Hiraga clan and one of its youngest members, Gen. Recently orphaned, he moves into his grandmother's house and unwittingly triggers the Hiraga clan's curse, which causes nearly every family member to lead a tragically short life. In his grandmother's house, Gen begins to unravel vague memories from a recurring dream he's had. With the help of an American graduate student, they try to uncover the secret of the Hiraga bloodline, the whispered legend of immortality that is locked in his genes, and a way to keep Gen from sharing the same fate that almost every one of his ancestors before him has suffered.
Masquerade is less like a hentai than a pretty good old-school supernatural drama masquerading as one....pardon the pun, but that was hard to resist. For one thing, the plot is actually pretty consistent and enjoyable, even if the premise itself isn't that far off from a lot of other supernatural anime. For another, a surprising amount of talent seems to have gone into making this show. When I first watched Masquerade, I sniggered a bit because Gen looked like an older version of Tenchi Misaki, but the two characters were, actually, designed by the same person, while director Yuusuke Yamamoto's other shows include Welcome to the NHK, B Gata H Kei, and Encouragement of Climb, all of which I'd recommend. I can't guess how exactly they all ended up working on this show, given the lack of information on it, but while hardly free of trouble Masquerade is surprisingly good, as far as hentai go.
The character designs in Masquerade almost feel like a "who's who" of 90's anime. Gen aside, we have not one but two characters who look a lot like Megumi Reinard from Nadesico: the grandmother's maid, Beth, who is immortal and appears to be one of the few people in the family who's escaped this curse, and the school nurse, who (surprise surprise) fixes her students' sicknesses by having sex with them. Well, those scenes are at least consensual, which is not something I can say of a lot of hentai. Meanwhile, Jennifer Collins, the blonde American grad student doing research on the Hiraga family's bloodline, looks almost like a grown-up Lina Inverse, of all things. Characters resembling Naru from Sailor Moon and Jean from Nadia make cameos, too, though neither is involved in any of the sex scenes. All this is to say, the show looks nice and classy enough that it would work fine as a mainstream title: there's no overblown body proportions, ridiculous outfits, or fetishism, just some nice character design, animation that works well for what it has to do, and nice background art. I can't complain about the piano soundtrack, either; it's obviously designed as make-out music, but it works absolutely fine as far as that goes.
And Masquerade does have a pretty good plot, truthfully; it's the only hentai I've seen where I didn't sit through the non-sex scenes just wishing silently (or out loud) that the characters would just shut up and die because they're either so horrible or so stupid that I can't stand it (confession: I've seen Bible Black and I badly regret it). Unlike most male leads in these kinds of shows, Gen is neither a pervert nor an idiot attempting to pass off as a nice person; kind of like, not surprisingly again, Tenchi Misaki, he's a serious and likable everyman. We don't get that much in the way of character development for anyone, but Masquerade rarely tries to pass off any of them as being nice when they clearly aren't, and that's something that makes a lot of other hentai downright repulsive. Sure, Jennifer is a bit of the stereotypical blonde, clingy American, but at least she's smart and capable (and funny, too); you could say variations of this for basically all of the characters. The title refers to the antiquated masks that several of Gen's family members wear, which add to the eeriness of certain scenes; some of the supernatural elements are stupid, such as Beth's being a vampire (?!?), but other moments actually work and are downright spooky. I didn't find the plot to be that predictable, even, and I'll admit I was surprised (though possibly also a bit confused) when the masks came off and the show actually explained their use. There's still some junk, and the OAV does unfortunately end abruptly (a sequel exists, but I haven't seen it and it's rare), but on the whole it's neither boring nor stupid.
But....I sadly do have to knock the show for one aspect of its premise: in short, the "curse" of Gen's bloodline manifests as golden semen and as an uncontrollable libido. Compared to most hentai, there's relatively little in the way of rape, but this aspect of the premise does mean that the show justifies some aggressive and very inappropriate behavior with the argument that Gen is not in control of himself, and that's pretty problematic. Overall, this show's attitude towards sex is just a bit inconsistent and weird: different characters want to have sex with each other at different times, and it seems to be a loose rule that two characters will never want to do so at the same time. For example, Jennifer tries to seduce Gen in order to have sex with him and take a semen sample; given that he barely knows her, he's unsurprisingly hesitant, and so she eventually obtains it with her hand. Immediately after, however, the "curse" manifests itself and Gen tries to have sex with her; she initially hesitates, but then says "well, I did want it anyway" and the scene proceeds as a good sex scene that would have worked fine if it had just been coded as purely consensual sex. Considering that she had in fact been the first one to want it, it doesn't make sense to me for her to pretend to have no interest one second later (I'll admit that I'm a lesbian who's never gotten the whole "act hard to get" aspect of some straight relationships). It's true that consent one moment doesn't equal consent the next moment, but her attitude changes with no explanation of any sort. In fact, it feels almost as if it was thrown in out of some fear that the idea of a woman initiating sex was weird, which is just stupid.
Still, most of what we see in this OAV isn't rape. All but one of the people he has intercourse with while under this "curse" are people who wanted to do it with him in the first place, and on one occasion, when he is taken over while around someone who has no interest in him, he succeeds in stopping himself (though perhaps a bit more problematically, the two become a couple when he isn't under the spell). But the final episode, when the "curse" has basically fully taken over him, does have a disturbing rape scene and one other attempted rape. I think that Masquerade, unlike most hentai, frames sexual assault as being repulsive, and it notably gives neither scene the level of detail nor the length given the consensual scenes, almost as if the viewer was never meant to enjoy them. It is also telling, certainly, that the show treats this "curse" as something revolting and in need of intervention. Still, it's not realistic by any stretch, nor is it getting a free pass from me anytime soon: there's no justification for rape, and I don't completely buy that his being under this curse "exonerates" him, as the show does more-or-less say.
Yet Masquerade does ultimately deserve at least a bit of credit for not framing those scenes as enticing. I'm not sure that those scenes matter enough or say enough to support their inclusion, since this show, for all of the parts of the plot that are enjoyable, isn't always very intelligent, but Masquerade does take a far more explicitly negative view of them than do most hentai titles. And indeed, the consensual sex scenes are actually rather nicely animated, while neither the voice acting nor the character design is over the top. Since this was made before Japan's censorship laws were relaxed, the show gets around the restriction largely by focusing on the interaction of the partners' bodies rather than solely on their genitalia. That's not to say that this show builds totally realistic relationships, but it's as willing to depict sex as an intimate act as it is to focus on the desire for carnal pleasure. If anything, it's enough to make me feel a bit more forgiving: most hentai don't really aim to do anything besides turn people on, but it's as if Masquerade is trying to be something more than a hentai and more like a show that uses sex as a plot device and wants people to think about when it's actually okay to have sex with somebody. It doesn't completely work, but assuming that's what's going on, I'll give it credit for trying.
Considering that it's technically hentai, Masquerade really isn't bad. I think that the aspects related to Gen's "condition" that I mentioned should be enough to give one pause, and the fourth episode is worse than the others in terms of questionable material. Still, of the very few hentai titles I've seen, this is the only one I'd even consider calling "good". I have a difficult time with a lot of pornography, so I'd say that's pretty high praise.
Way better, nicer looker, and more interesting than most hentai; still has some questionable handling of consent in several scenes. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: Though it's sold as an adults-only title, there's actually no scenes where a naked penis or vulva is fully visible, because of Japan's censorship laws. But there are two or three sex scenes per episode, still. Outside of that, there's mention of incest, plus a few scenes that don't seem to consensual to me....less than basically any hentai I've seen, and, to be honest, not even framed as regular "sex scenes" for anybody's pleasure, but still disturbing.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital Source (Japanese with Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (4/4)
Masquerade © 1998 AIC/Green Bunny
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