II. Comics, Cartoons, and Censorship:
A Cultural Comparison of Japan and the US
Isn't that flower is a little too convenient?
-The US English Dub of Dragon Ball
-The US English Dub of Dragon Ball
On Okuhara: A Refictionalized Childhood
Reiko was sprawled on the living room floor, giggling into her orange juice, the colorful glow of cartoons reflecting in her eyes. On screen, a blue-haired "woman" jiggled “her” breasts in front of Master Roshi’s nose. The old hermit chortled at the tantalizing sight, but little did he know that the round, beautiful boobies squashed against his face actually belonged to an ugly, shape-shifting, male pig named Oolong—another pervert who was just as fond of jiggling breasts! To complete the act of seduction, Oolong popped off his bra and beckoned Roshi to give him a “Puff Puff” right into the bouncing cleavage. As Roshi happily complied, juice snorted out of Reiko’s nose and coated her mother’s knee with a fine, fruity mist. The older woman hardly noticed as she, too, was caught up in her own laughter.
Several birthdays and an American graduate school degree later, Okuhara notices that this seduction scene is missing from FUNimation’s English dub of Dragon Ball: Curse of the Blood Rubies. A hugely popular anime in both Japan and the US, Dragon Ball had been one of Okuhara’s childhood favorites. Like many other imported series, Dragon Ball underwent major surgery when coming to American TV. Scenes were slashed, episodes stitched together. Mainly, FUNimation had a tiff with the show’s plentifull nudity and sexual humor. But while American "Moral Guardians" would be appalled by the idea of their children watching such salacious material, Okuhara only remembers the hilarity of Oolong and Roshi’s antics. And it certainly makes things a bit more complicated when Okuhara cites her own mother as a fellow Dragon Ball fan. Having enjoyed the original Japanese Dragon Ball, Okuhara expresses discomfort towards some instances of US censorship—an “overprotection,” she says (207). Thus, she proposes a question: “Do American children need to be protected from Dragon Ball?” (199) Or, in a broader stroke, do children need to be protected from sexuality and violence in children’s anime? What is the reasoning behind US censorship in Japanese animation?
As Okuhara’s memory details, anime for Japanese children isn’t necessarily clean of—by American standards—The Naughty and The Nasty. Japanese girls’ programs may have “light sexual scenes or nudity because they dealt with love and romance” (199). Peeping Toms lurk behind the bamboo curtain, or a gust of wind might reveal her panties to all (Allison 43). Also, boys’ programs “may be violent and engage with concepts of death” (Okuhara 199). A Westerner who is watching anime for the first time might expect a silly cartoon and may be shocked by the mature content. While cartoons and comics in the West have been demoted to the child’s playpen—a domain regarded, even belittled, as immature and innocent—“cartoons” in Japan hold a much higher status and can be catered to a wide spectrum of audiences (Phoenix 3). Picture scrolls of the Heian period, which laid the foundation for modern manga (Japanese comics), were owned and read by elite classes (10). Also, Hollywood’s grip on the film industry pushed Japanese artists into animation, prompting anime to carry plots and characters more sophisticated than the repetitive, gimmicky Tom and Jerry (7-8). Therefore, it is not entirely surprising that anime is not simply just for kids. And when a series’ intended audience is young children, Japanese norms surrounding sexuality and violence play a role in determining what is acceptable to show on TV.
A. The Naughty.
Japan’s stereotypically plug-and-chug gender roles may lend a willingness to experiment with sexuality and gender in fiction (Levi 149). Japan has long-cultivated a history of gender-bending: in Noh and Kabuki theatre, female roles are played by men, and many male roles in anime are voiced by female actors who specialize in such parts (Ellis 257-8). Androgyny and same-sex relationships were alive in art: youthful beauty and man-boy eroticism carved their way into 17th century woodblock prints, and 8th century texts scripted Japanese gods and goddesses as “distinctly ambisexterous” (Levi 149-50). Only upon the arrival of the West did Japan adopt the rigidity of Victorian morality, as Japan turned to nations like the US as models for modernization (150).
However, Japan has not simply become an Eastern copy of the US. In Japan, female breasts have only recently become eroticized; this is unlike in the US, where the fixation on breasts is almost exclusively sexual, or at least fraught with sexual anxiety (Allison 2). Rather, in Japan, breasts are more often symbols of motherhood and maternal care. During a stay in Japan, scholar Anne Allison witnessed an animated pair of boobs rising “naked, rounded, and full… in a space resembling a sky” on a children’s morning program (1). The image was accompanied by “a song about mothers,” and additional “realistic sketches of mothers nursing and caring for their children” (1). Despite the fact that the images were intentionally “naked and boldly displayed” (1), the image was not intended to be sexual, but maternal. However, most American audiences would probably be offended by such content, as Western society still grapples with breastfeeding in public, let alone when breasts are rising like the sun on TV. Thus, differences between US and Japanese sexual norms are integral to the shaping of children’s media. And consequently, such differences are responsible for the bowdlerization that happens on many a dub.
As the floating breasts may suggest, animated sexuality in Japan is typically acceptable when the content is portrayed in a serious, realistic, or artistic manner (Kinsella 141). Of course, the usage of the word “sexuality” to describe the rising breasts comes forth from entrenched Western expectations that boobies are sexual in the first place. In Japan, the body itself isn’t necessarily sexual; naked bodies are, well… just bodies. It’s normal. Not a big deal. While these attitudes may sound startling to those living in the US, it’s worth noting that many European cultures have similar attitudes towards nakedness. Therefore, it is the US—not Japan—that is the anomaly! (Turner)
If “serious” sex gets The Okay on Japanese TV, what makes the “naughty” scenes of groping and panty-flashing in children’s anime acceptable? Again, this question rests on the differing cultural definitions of what constitutes sexuality—and, after that, whether that “sex” gets labeled as Naughty or Nice. The prior anecdote with its theme of acceptance “is not to say that all Japanese parents eagerly allow their children to view violent and sexually explicit manga” (Phoenix 16). However, peeping, panty-shots, jiggling boobies, and other devious flirtation don’t immediately raise a parental brow. Japanese culture separates flirtation from the shadier realm of sex that is off-limits to children (Turner). While Oolong and his jiggling assets are encroaching on sexual grounds, his coy act doesn’t mean that anything will happen. In children’s manga/anime, “voyeurism is never followed by any sexual activity” (Phoenix 27). Rather, voyeurism is more of a gender role than a distinctly sexual act. According to scholar Anne Allison, men look and women are on display. In hostess clubs, married men flirt with females, lewdly commenting, even making fun of their breasts. However, there is usually no touching involved, nor do all the participants consider these interactions to be intrinsically sexual (Allison 45). The fact that men look and women are on display is a gender role, one that is considered appropriate to pass on to children through anime (Phoenix 27). Therefore, Oolong’s and Master Roshi’s seduction scene in Dragon Ball is not an act of sexual degeneracy, but a gender-bender prank that is played for laughs.
Perhaps many Japanese audiences believe that such forms of humorous flirtation are not dangerous to children. When recounting her own experiences watching Dragon Ball as a child, Okuhara implies that Japanese audiences may find light, humorous sexuality in children’s anime to be enjoyable and unproblematic. Okuhara acknowledges that adults will understand the sexual implications behind Oolong and Roshi's scene, but writes that many children such as herself will enjoy such jokes “pure[ly],” and that it is “overprotection” to label the scene as “dirty” and prime for censorship (207). Perhaps these jokes are not worth getting worked up over, as Okuhara argues that US entertainment companies need not spring for the censor bar. Furthermore, Okuhara writes that while an anime will have a target audience, that does not mean viewers outside the target range cannot enjoy about the show; a children’s program often has something that will attract teenagers and adults (201). If so, it’s no wonder why they’re so many older people still watching Yu-Gi-Oh!
B. The Nasty
What about violence? Blood? DEATH? The complexity and depth of anime narratives may explain why mature depictions of violence are more likely to pass inspection by the Japanese public. Rather than portraying trite, hack n’ slash spectacles, violence in anime usually functions to complicate characters: Mr. “Big Bad” might be extinguishing society to save his dying sister; or, the blood-soaked hero is forced to face his regretful past. There is also a greater stress on the consequences of violence; a 1981 study investigating Japanese and US programs found that “violent scenes are less frequent in Japanese-produced programs, yet tend to last longer, are more realistic and place a much greater emphasis on physical suffering" (“Media Violence: Japan vs. America”).
On the other hand, US cartoons run rather shallow. The iconic Looney Tunes features innumerous falling anvils, frying pans to the face, characters plummeting from cliffs, and “squishings” (Dickinson)—all without scars, dismemberment, or other crippling effects (or at least, the characters are up-and-running the next episode). American superhero cartoons/comics hardly dig any deeper. Their stories rely on a (primarily) one-man justice system, a “Superman” who responds to crime by thrashing the villain in a bloodless clash. And, violence on the side of justice is hardly ever questioned by unblinking viewers (Phoenix 22-3). The Comics Code Authority (CCA) is responsible for such black-and-white portrayals, for it demanded that “crime and other antisocial behavior be depicted as evil, while American government and other authorities are good” (15). Thus, US audiences—who are used to slapstick stunts and clean-cut superheroes—may not be expecting anime violence to be depicted in such a nuanced fashion. Therefore, US companies that license anime are prone to playing it safe with the censor bar.
Black Bar Bureau
Japan has much looser media censorship laws than the US. In the 60s, Japanese parents’ escalating concerns over violent and sexually explicit children’s manga pressured authorities to act (Phoenix 16). However, legislation was still iffy. The widest law, Article 175 of the Japanese Penal Code, or the Indecency Act, states that ‘indecent’ materials “may not be sold to minors younger than 18 years of age” (Kinsella 140), and penalizes the public display and selling of obscene documents or objects, writing, or images (da Silva). While “obscenity” has traditionally been defined as exposed adult genitalia, hairy pubes, and The Great Sex Act, the law provides no definition of “obscene” or of what may constitute obscene material (da Silva). Astoundingly, getting around this law may be as simple as hiding naughty parts behind a digital mosaic, or bokashi (da Silva).
Still, the law did bring changes; the manga industry responded with self-regulation; some manga/anime became shelved into the adult section, and some stores refused to carry “indecent” material for fear of legal action (Kinsella 140). Other local laws appeared, such as the Youth Ordinance Act in which “materials defined as ‘harmful’” could not be sold to minors (Kinsella 142). This act intended to “tighten regulation on pornographic imagery in manga and elsewhere” (142). Meanwhile, local groups and committees attempted to blacklist particular manga series at the ground level (Phoenix 17).
Overall, "’Japanese law and society had been relatively tolerant of erotic material’" and "’obscenity is primarily regulated not by judicial decisions,… but by self-imposed industry codes’” or local ethics committees (da Silva). Increasingly, some risqué materials roll through the press unscathed. In 1991, a photo book featured teen starlet Miyazawa Rie in the nude (Kinsella 140). And, in 2003, the Japanese Supreme Court overruled a High Court decision that the renowned “Mapplethorpe… violated obscenity laws,” a decision that “might lead to a relaxation of censorship criteria” (de Silva).
In contrast, the US has already had much more heavy-handed history of censorship of children’s materials. The 1934 Motion Picture Production Code cleaned up cartoon raunchiness on the silver screen. The Motion Picture Associated rating system followed it a few decades later, making producers acknowledge the tender minds of younger audiences (Phoenix 13). But the biggest “Comic Book Crackdown” started in Binghamton, 1948, when a torch-loving group of “Moral Guardians” stacked up a mountain of degenerate (read: horror, crime, and sci-fi) comic books and set them aflame. They were determined to purge the “ten-cent plague,” which, if contracted, allegedly had the power to turn their children into juvenile delinquents. Parents even egged on their reluctant children to join them at the bonfire. There was not one bonfire, but many across the country.
The industry had to do something. Anything! From the flames, the Comics Code Authority (CCA) was born.
The CCA’s long list of hard-assed rules prompted a large transformation in American children’s comics and cartoons. Gone are the days of Betty Boop in clingy, low-cut dresses and gun-toting Elmer Fudd, remnants of an era of when US cartoons had an audience wider than just children (Phoenix 12). The CCA led to an institutional standard of sterile, moralistic, TheGoodGuysAlwaysWin!comic books (5). This, of course, put a disheartening damper on artistic license. Do your characters spew cr*psh*tting Christ-f***king language? Asterisks. Gore and physical agony? Bloodless fist-fights and exploding stars only! Stripperiffic costumes? Back to the drawing board. Crime was a “sordid and unpleasant activity,” and kidnapping had a special mention ("The Comics Code Authority"). Plus, there would be no divulging the details and method of the crime ("The Comics Code Authority"), as if in fear that children might be instructed on how to become law-breaking vagabonds. The Code was revised various times in the following years, loosening its tie and straightjacket with each revision; by 1971, seduction could not be shown, but it could be suggested. *wink* (“Code of The Comic…")
Today, the CCA has slipped from its throne of power; in the last years of its waning rule, various comic series didn’t even bother submitting their material for approval (Rogers). The last participating publication ended its affiliation in 2011. Still, the CCA’s long reign familiarized Western audiences with an uptight, clean “censoriousness” in cartoons/comics (Wolk). Thus, there is an expectation for other cartoons aired on American TV, including those imported from Japan, to follow the same standard.