What anime tells us about Japan and America

By Razib Khan | November 30, 2011 1:08 am

A Slate piece on the coming Voltron Renaissance sent me to this interesting juxtaposition of the American cartoon and the Japanese original from which it was culled:

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
MORE ABOUT: Voltron
  • Sid

    It seems as if, in the 80s, the Japanese believed that it was important for kids to get acquainted with a harsh world, whereas the Americans believed in the notion that it’s important for children to maintain their pristine innocence, and thereafter transition to adulthood once they reach their adolescent years. In general, anime in Japan had more violence, nudity and mature themes than American cartoons did during the same period, and anime was often censored when being brought to America.

    This is not something I’m on top of, but every so often, younger folks tell me that Japan has since adopted stricter guidelines on what is aired on TV, and so have Americans. Anime that were acceptable 10 years ago on TV, in America, now are more heavily censored or are held off of TV altogether. (Interestingly, I’ve heard Japanese developers need to tone down the violence on their video games, while ratcheting it up for the American audience. Cartoons are for kids, video games for teenagers.)

  • Cathy

    Even now in the Japanese animation fandom community, the “sub vs dub” war wages on. Many American fans are upset at the editing, intentional or not, that occurs when anime is brought over stateside, which is one reason the fansub community still flourishes (the other reason being the unwillingness to wait a year for an official studio release on DVD of a series in subtitled format.) That too is telling of American culture – the media companies are willing to chop and censor for what they percieve as their core audience (children), but the unintended audience fans are often annoyed by unnecessary changes, and sometimes will take revenge. The most egregious example in recent years has been the Card Captor Sakura dub, which got the Voltron treatment and was basically turned into a different series for its television airing. The subtitled and dubbed versions were so drastically different that the series had to have two separate DVD releases!

  • vel

    always said that to really understand Japanese anime, your civilization has to have been nuked.

  • Oli M.

    Sid, they have become stricter in Japan over the past decades, but even these days most shows produced for kids and teens in mind (often based on manga) still deal plenty with both violence and death. The stepped up censorship tends to focus more on blood and gore than people beating each other up.

    Here’s a mild instance I can remember off hand (comparing manga vs. censored version).

    http://fairytail.wikia.com/index.php?title=Mirajane&image=Mirajane-27s_Injury-jpg

    Even within the same show, they can depict violence comical and good-spirited, or it can be cruel, painful, and hideous–as shown by the context. I think there’s the expectation that kids can tell the difference.

  • coryy

    I wish, in the “sub vs. dub” battle, the option of “both” was available. We DVR’d several Miyazake movies, for example, when they were on AMC, and watched them until the DVR died. Then we hunted up old VCR copies of what we could from local libraries, and watched those. We eagerly bought “Kiki’s Delivery Service” from Target when we saw the Disney re-release. Although it’s been over 3 years, my kids (the 8 year old most of all) STILL complain that the snarky comments Jiji the cat makes in the original have been almost eliminated. That was an instance where an innocuous movie was made completely infantile by the Disney crowd. My kids prefer watching a skippy grainy VCR tape to a butchered but immaculately presented DVD. Although I will admit the some censoring (the “you’re too young for that” kind), and some self-censoring (squeamishness at Princess Mononoke’s more gruesome scenes, for example), occurs in our household, our kids aren’t overly sheltered. They know when movies have been cut and rearranged, and they don’t think highly of it. They only know because they were able to compare the two, and can see the difference for themselves. I wish that choice was more widely available

  • Charles

    I think Sid put it best- the US wants to “shelter” whereas Japan wants more realism. That’s a trend that cuts right down into how both countries present their animation in the first place: Japan seems to prefer “darker” (or a better term might be “ambiguous”) protagonists and doesn’t shy away from showing personal weakness (ex: Shinji Ikari) while the US likes to wrap things up neat and clean. Drawing on another American show from the 80s: GI Joe. Until the android troopers showed up, nobody ever got shot, nobody was ever killed. In fact, when Duke was injured in the movie, that was a big deal…

    Then look at Golion- Shirohane, the soft spoken of the main characters, dies early on (sorry for the spoilers) in a sacrificial inspiration which forces the Princess into battle. That wasn’t part of the US version. Or perhaps more starkly: in the opening to US Voltron, it’s planet Aeris that gets nuked. In Golion, that’s the Earth being wiped out. Not hard to see why they censored it for US audiences. Loss on innocence is a big no-no. So they alter the context of the story entirely in order to make it more “user friendly” to American audiences. Granted, Golion is a rather extreme case, but it still highlights the differences.

    And don’t get me started on Miyazaki…let’s just leave it at “he believes in the faculties of children and would rather not dumb things down for their sake.” Which is something I also agree with. His films are simple and refreshing on the surface, but contain themes and ideas that allow audiences to think critically. Which, interestingly, is a criticism he has made towards Disney in the past- things are too clean to be real.

  • http://www.huxley.net/bnw/index.html Mustapha Mond

    “always said that to really understand Japanese anime, your civilization has to have been nuked.”

    This.

  • Tom Bri

    My kids like both the original Japanese manga and the English versions, but complain they can’t get the originals on line, just the translations. We get stacks of manga from relatives in Japan for birthday presents.

    For movies like Totoro, and Kiki, the English versions are actually preferred. That may be because they heard the English versions first. To my ear, the Japanese versions are flat and uninteresting, the voices pure stereotype.

    Coryy, our English version of Kiki has all the snarky comments.

  • Darkseid

    I’ve always hated anime but I loved Voltron as a kid – i had all the characters and you could connect them to make the full Voltron guy. i didn’t even realize it was anime until i looked it up online 20 years later.

  • NotQuiteAnonymous

    I seriously had to look at the date on Cathy’s post because it sounds like something out of the 1990s. Outside of the now irrelevant 4kids, no licensing company cuts the anime they import for content when released on DVD. I like how you use Card Captor Sakura as an example of this supposed butchering… when it had a full sub-only release that outsold the editted Cardcaptors by a good margin.

    Stop pushing around myths that have been disproven for years.

  • Tom Bri

    Anime in Japan isn’t just for kids anyway.

  • Matt

    Anime in Japan isn’t just for kids anyway.

    I think anime in Japan also gets the folks who would read graphic comic books watching animation instead or in addition. And comic books are about a wider range of stuff than just superheroes. And they have a culture of animations crossing over from their adult oriented comic book market.

  • coryy

    @ Tom, one of the comments my kids always point out that is missing is around the “crashing into the woods” scene, where Jiji is translating what the birds say for Kiki. It’s the new dvd vs. the older vcr English version. I’d have to dig it out (which probably won’t happen as I’m packing to move next week), but I think it’s “You don’t want to know what they said about you”, and I believe that some of the dialogue between jiji and the dog in the birthday party house is truncated as well. My kids recite the missing lines when I play the dvd, but I’m usually paying attention to my knitting.

    another interesting follow up: my poor daughter (the 8 year old) cartwheeled down my 170 year old staircase last night at bedtime. It was incredibly dramatic, and she is going to be very bruised. Her brother rushed to help and we set her up with popsicles, icepacks, and Nausicaa. It’s her comfort movie (maybe I’ve warped my kids too much?)

  • leviticus

    I’m not sure if the difference is entirely due to post-WW2 Japanese cultural angst, although that might have played a role. Indeed, the difference might not be an example of Japanese peculiarity so much as American or Anglosphere particularism.

    Unlike the US, Japan never experienced 19th-century Romanticism or the emotionalism characteristic of the Victorian era , both of which remain strong influences on American culture, psychology, and child-rearing practices. Protect the children! Putting children, presumably more innocent as they have not been schooled in the decadent ways of civilization, first! Warmed over Rousseauian idiocy, with a dash of zoroastrian dualism.

    . Furthermore, American Protestantism and its secular offspring, such as Humanitarian Interventionism, are manichean systems. Japan, it would seem, is more “pagan”, reflecting the sort of moral ambiguity found in henotheist or polytheist world views. The world isn’t a “bad” place, that children need to be protected from.

    On the comments about GI Joe’s-talk about Reagan era agit-prop- Duke being wounded as a big deal, that ain’t just cartoons, it’s characteristic of the news, and it ain’t necessarily a sign of a benign view of the world. The big, bad foreigners are numbers/villains/non-entities who die/disappear in order for the forces of Light to triumph. In the great balance, one of the “good guys” getting a hang-nail is way worse than five “bad guys” getting off’d. Personally, I find the moral ambiguity of the Icelandic sagas or 1970′s spaghetti westerns to be more adult, less dangerous ways of teaching the young. Dealing with different forms of Christianity, Medieval Catholicism, as corrupt and superstition-addled as it was, is far more nuanced, and preferable to the above described post mid-19th century American world view.

    To counter my own argument, I’m left wondering why so many Americans love Japanese anime and video games. Why do Americans love so much violence and cruel put downs? Why are Americans schools sometimes the site of sadistic hierarchical community building? Is it that this sappy, self-imposed straight jacket ill fits even the American populace and that underneath a dark soul seethes?

  • Sid

    “To counter my own argument, I’m left wondering why so many Americans love Japanese anime and video games. Why do Americans love so much violence and cruel put downs? Why are Americans schools sometimes the site of sadistic hierarchical community building? Is it that this sappy, self-imposed straight jacket ill fits even the American populace and that underneath a dark soul seethes?”

    10 years ago I loved anime in middle school. After I found a rental store, I also got my dad into anime (he especially enjoyed Evangelion).

    Anime was a lot better than American cartoons, because it featured more mature themes, not just in sex and violence, but also in regards to politics, philosophy and the like. The characters were also more three-dimensional. One advantage that anime had over movies was that the stories were paced over several episodes, so that you could grow more attached to the characters and the plots at times were more complex. In contrast, American cartoons were very episodic, where one episode hardly transitioned to the next.

    Anime, of course, is hopelessly shallow compared to real literature. The Iliad and Odyssey put a rest to my interest in anime. Anime is good stuff for nerdy “tweens” who want more than baby milk in their entertainment, but it’s still junk compared to what one ought to read as an adult.

  • chris w

    “Personally, I find the moral ambiguity of the Icelandic sagas or 1970′s spaghetti westerns to be more adult, less dangerous ways of teaching the young.”

    “The Vinland Saga” — a great manga!

    I don’t enjoy anime as much as I used to, but there are a few compelling tales mixed in there — “Death Note” comes to mind. The subjects covered by anime are more diverse than the subjects covered by American television or film, but I think the same principle applies to all: the majority of it sucks, but there are some rare moments of brilliance, if you know where to look.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    “In contrast, American cartoons were very episodic, where one episode hardly transitioned to the next”
    That’s what I like about Law & Order. I don’t have to follow long-running plotlines or remember facts about characters. I can sit down and watch any episode without being left in the dark. I can get annoyed when I keep on having to hear about the issues of the same characters. People’s lives aren’t that consistently interesting that a long tv series could be based off them. The Wire is something of an exception since it was about the city of Baltimore and explored different aspects of it in different seasons with a large cast of characters.

  • ackbark

    I’m wondering if an overweening interest in sheltering children when they’re younger inherently breeds an over-aggressive, crass and cynical backlash in the formative teenage years, an over reaction that badly colors attitudes and manners thereafter.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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