Art by Daniel Munoz

There’s always been a bit of a stigma attached to hentai, a highly sexualised form of Japanese anime and manga. Ditto for any associated cosplay, which can often be explicitly pornographic. Despite this, a German couple is finding some surprising mainstream (for the cosplay world, at least) success combining the two.

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Because I run our cosplay website, I browse DeviantArt (one of the world’s most popular sources for cosplay images) a lot while looking for cool photos, and started noticing an influx of a certain type of photo maybe 6-9 months ago. Every time I’d go and check the site out, I’d see that near the very top of the “most viewed” section of images, right alongside the Harley Quinns and Disney Princesses, would be these photos of a girl, usually dressed as anime character (though video games featured as well), bound and gagged. Sometimes there would be a man alongside her doing the binding, sometimes there’d be a man being bound as well.

At first I thought the images were coming out of a scene I’d never encountered before, some fetish BDSM or shibari community that was finding its feet on the site, but eventually I noticed that it was always the same girl. And there were never any shots of other cosplayers doing the same thing to indicate it was a community. It was just her.

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That girl’s name is Kitty, and along with her husband Jester they’re now caught in the midst of a surprising (and accidental) rise to cosplay fame.

Kitty x Pokemon

The couple, who have been together since 2009 (and married since 2015), met each other through cosplay; Kitty began in 2006 and Jester in 2007, and the pair remain committed to the craft, building their own costumes and attending cons in their native Germany every year. They operate together under the name Natsuko Hiragi.

To set this straight, they began as, and remain outside certain photos, “traditional” cosplayers. They don’t attend cons tied up, nor do they do their bondage stuff with other folks, and every outfit they make is done with regular cosplay in mind. Despite this, bondage is what they’re fast becoming known for, with increasing levels of both support and notoriety.

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“It began as a silly bet”, Jester tells me. “I told my wife about my love for bondage-related stuff and showed her my Deviantart Page”. After some discussion about the possible intersection of two of his interests, Kitty made a bet with him that they would upload a gallery of her in cosplay, bound and gagged, and see how well it did.

If they got less than 200 views in 24 hours, she’d never do it again. If they got more, then she’d do more.

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“By the end of the day, the image had been viewed over 2000 times”, Jester remembers, laughing.

As they released more and more images (and began enjoying the shoots more and more), mostly featuring Kitty tied up—though sometimes with Jester joining in— their fanbase continued to grow. They later began taking commissions, paid requests from people who wanted to see them dressed as certain characters. To capitalize further, late last year Natsuko Hiragi started a Patreon offering regular and exclusive images, which after just a few weeks is already earning them $2000 a month.

That is an insane amount, and is comfortably more than many established cosplay superstars—who have made TV shows, starred in commercials and frequently appear on sites like this one—are making via the platform.

And all this without even being (at least as far as they’re concerned) part of a wider “cosplay bondage” community (though, of course, such a thing exists). Having begun their work on a dare, and remaining strictly softcore in their approach, they’re firewalled from others who do similar and often more explicit work, both in terms of influence and association.

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That softcore angle, coupled with their focus on cosplay, might be what’s been the key to their more “mainstream” success. The pair never appear nude, engage in harm or depict overtly sexual acts; what you see on DA is what you get backing the Patreon, and it’s all very SFW. They’ve never had to post their images on private forums, or hide pics away behind NSFW warnings, everything they do—despite its differences to standard cosplay—can be displayed right alongside “normal” photos on cosplay sites, aggregators and forums.

Which is kinda new, at least in this day of age of cosplay becoming far more visible to the outside world than ever before. It’s a level of exposure that’s clearly benefitting Natsuko Hiragi financially, but it’s also been a double-edged sword, as exposing their niche space in the market to a wider audience hasn’t been without its headaches.

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“There are people who hate us for turning their holy ideal of cosplay into a filthy playground”, Jester says. “Sometimes we get disgusting comments on our DeviantArt page like ‘go kill yourself’, and ‘you’re sick’”. They also have to battle constantly with opponents using DA and Etsy, where their content is often flagged by disgruntled users as being inappropriate, even though it actually meets both sites’ guidelines.

“Honestly, though, we really don’t care. We delete the comments and that’s that, we don’t let ourselves feel bullied”. Helping balance the scales are the constant messages of encouragement they receive from fans, not to mention the very tangible benefits of having so many supporters willing to pay for their content each month that they can clear $2000 every few weeks for doing what they used to do for nothing.

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At the rate their Patreon keeps growing, I wonder, could they ever leave their day jobs and focus solely on bondage cosplay work? “We aim for that!”, Jester says. “But we can’t imagine doing this forever. It’s a very superficial business, and when we get old maybe we’ll have lost our appetite.”

“That said, who knows, maybe ‘granny cosplay bondage’ is in our future? I mean, our fans might grow up along with us...”