Chicks On Anime
Censorship Part 1

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, S. Pocock, Jan 6th 2009

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

Our guest this week is Jason Thompson, a manga editor and also the author of Manga: The Complete Guide. He's one of the country's most knowledgeable manga enthusiasts, and we were extremely excited to have him with us. This is just the first half of the conversation, too-- tune in next week for the continuation!


Bamboo: The topic we'd like to discuss today is censorship in manga. Notably, very recently, a man in Iowa was charged with the alleged possession of obscene manga, and faces up to 20 years in prison. It's something that has created some stirrings in the manga community, and it's something that will undoubtedly provide some backdrop for what we'll be talking about today. However, before we can talk about that, there's a lot of other questions that come to mind... What is obscene? And at what point is something considered censorship? I want to start with the last question first. What do you consider to be "censorship," and can it be okay?
Jason: Well, working as a manga editor, I've seen lots of manga censorship—defining censorship broadly as any editing of manga to eliminate potentially "objectionable" content. It's been a factor in U.S. manga publishing since some of the first translated books, like the nudity excised from Mai: The Psychic Girl in 1987, up to the present. So it's not anything new, although I think publishers go through phases of being more and less touchy about subject matter, as manga has become more popular and thus subject to wider scrutiny.

Basically, I'm opposed to this kind of editing of manga. One of the things that's always appealed to me about manga is the “objectionable” content and the different cultural values, although I suppose that in taking this approach, I could be accused of minimizing the more universally appealing things about manga—the art, storytelling techniques, etc.

Another thing that's worth mentioning is that it's not just American publishers who are responsible for “censoring” manga—Japanese publishers and artists are almost always aware of the changes and approve them, since they think of manga as a mass medium and they don't want to rock the boat over here in the U.S., for the most part. Manga 'editing' and 'censorship' is basically just an attempt to make manga more accepted and popular in America... from changing character names to cutting violence and sex and so forth. But all this is something very different from the specter of government 'censorship' and an obscenity conviction, like in the case of Christopher Handley.

Casey: Well, I think it's hard to talk about censorship without talking about its opposite: freedom of speech. The U.S. actually has some of the loosest free speech laws of any country. The only speech that is prohibited is that which may cause imminent harm to other people, such as the famous example of yelling fire in a crowded movie theater when there isn't really one. Other countries, such as Canada, have much stricter limits on speech. For example, you cannot, in Canada, appear to incite people to violence. No writing "All Jews should die!" on a placard and standing out in the street with it, in other words.

Pornography is a very gray area, of course, falling under "obscenity" laws. But generally speaking, the law is more in the favor of porn in the U.S. than it is in other countries because we interpret freedom of speech so broadly. As far as my own opinion goes, I am very much American in that I believe all illustrated depictions of sex, not matter how reprehensible the acts in real life, ought to be protected. There is no evidence that pornography incites men to violence against women, anyway, though if definitive, empirical proof of it were to be found, I'd have to rethink my stance on the issues.

I'd like to second Jason's comment as well about how manga in Japan is definitely censored...but not just for an American audience. Anyone who has seen any kind of sex scene in manga or anime knows that. Uncensored images of genitalia are illegal. And Japanese people can get angry about "obscenity" in manga as well; there have been prominent book burning and book disposal bin drives over the years. One publisher, Shoubunkan, even got taken to court for publishing an "obscene" manga—a shame spectacle akin to what is happening to Handley.

But moreso even than that is the censorship we don't see. Editors and publishers have a tremendous amount of power over creators, and if they see something they don't want in a title, it's gone. Buh-bye. You'll never even know about it. Japanese publishers are tremendously risk-adverse, more so, I'd argue, than in the West. American book publishing people have a sense of mission when it comes to freedom of speech. Also, even the mildest of complaints from the public can take a title off the shelves entirely, as in the case of Kuni ga Moeru, which depicted the infamous Rape of Nanjing in a way the hard right wingers didn't like.

Jason: I couldn't agree with you more.
Sara: I'm generally anti-censorship. Censorship and comics immediately brings to mind the Comics Code Authority of 1954, which was created to limit and regulate the content of what the CMAA deemed "unsuitable" for the general public. I find this restricting and, honestly, a little Draconian. Personally, there is plenty of material in manga and comics in general I find objectionable, especially when loli and shota become involved, but believe all content should be published as close to the original artist's intent as possible. After all, it's my choice as a consumer to ignore the objectionable content and purchase material that caters to my taste. And I very much enjoy the work of artists like Hideshi Hino and Suehiro Maruo, which can definitely be categorized as objectionable. In the translating of Japanese manga to an American market, especially, I agree with Jason that editing of manga should be left as minimal as possible. This doesn't mean, however, that I don't judge the character of people who buy stuff like shota and loli mercilessly. I just think there's no reason the work itself shouldn't be available.
Bamboo: In terms of censorship, yeah, I'm more lenient of the type brought on by the publishers, such as airbrushing out cigarettes, painting out blood, and what not. I don't want to buy those products anymore, but I do partially understand where they're coming from. They're trying to sell a product, and they're trying to appeal to the broadest demographic. In the US, we're kind of a bunch of uptight prigs. Not the manga community, really, but some of the parents who buy the books for their kids. So in that case, I understand where the publishers are coming from. Would I buy their products? No. But at the same time, it's a business decision. You're not marketing your products towards the hardcore manga fans. You're marketing your stuff towards the casual fans, to the parents who might not want their kids staring at cigarettes. It's stupid, but it's business.

When it comes to the government stepping in, though, I'm a bit more wary of those instances. Frankly, I have no interest in reading manga about little kids having sex. I find that to be really gross. But I'm not going to deny someone else their hobbies, disgusting as I may think they are. And I'd rather someone have an outlet for their interests in fiction, rather than in real life. But "obscene" is something the reader should define—not the government. Something I find to be obscene is not something that someone else may find to be obscene. Telling someone that they can't read something because their beliefs don't line up with someone else's is beyond unfair-- it's unconstitutional.

Jason: I think I'm on the same page with everybody. Casey, you're quite right in pointing out that Japanese publishers are possibly even more risk-averse than American ones.
Casey: I'd like to add, as far as Japanese manga in the U.S. goes, that there is one example of censorship on the part of a U.S. publisher that I wholeheartedly approve of: In Please Save My Earth Vol. 1, the heroine sees what she thinks is a gay love scene. She runs away in embarrassment when they see her peeking at them, and little text in the original Japanese edition says, "I'm scared of AIDS!" VIZ took it out, and I applaud them for it. The book was written back when knowledge of HIV/AIDS in Japan was limited; a statement like that would look bigoted to broadminded people these days in Japan as well, and I sincerely doubt that either the publisher or the mangaka would have allowed that sort of sentiment about gay men to sneak in today. For a book for general audiences such as Please Save My Earth, there was no point in trying to excuse or explain. It was better to just edit it out.
Jason: I didn't know about the PSME thing... wow! Casey, you have a good point... for my own part, I can see why people would get very uncomfortable with some racial depictions in manga, like Chocolove in Shaman King or Mr. Popo in Dragon Ball. I can understand removing this sort of thing. And there's a thin line from approving that, to approving censorship of some of the homophobic and nonconsensual material in BL, or nonconsensual stuff in renai manga like Haoh Airen, for example.

So while I in theory am a free speech absolutist, I guess I have my own biases—I object to manga which could be construed as racist or sexist or homophobic, whereas a more conservative person might object to depictions of religion in manga. But I think that, in general, it's best for manga to be presented "warts and all." I wonder if the Viz editor who edited PSME ever considered adding a translation note in the back about that dialogue change.

Sara: Casey, you're right about censorship in Japan, and it's not related strictly to manga. Japanese producers are as risk-averse as publishers are. One of prominent ero-guro artist Suehiro Maruo's most famous manga titles, Midori (known as Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show) was adapted into an anime that was promptly banned in Japan. The director/sole animator, Hiroshi Harada, couldn't find any kind of funding to create the film, so he spent five years working on it by himself. After some limited screenings in the independent film scene, the only place you can find the film now, outside of the occasional film festival, is a European DVD.

And I going back to things I find objectionable, I agree with Jason that racism, sexism and homophobia in comics and animation really bother me. However, I think they should still be available. I'm an animation enthusiast and I love collecting old short films from the Fleischer studios and so forth, and a lot of those old cartoons (Betty Boop, especially) are horribly, horribly racist. But I'm glad I still have the freedom and option to watch them.

Bamboo: I agree. There's stuff that I wish would be available. I really, really wish Disney would release Song of the South. But there are others who would scream at me for voicing that opinion.
Sara: I can understand why they would scream, but I think first-amendment freedoms are more important than political correctness--especially when looking at a product of a bygone era. Disney is making a wise business decision by keeping it under wraps, but not an honest decision.
Bamboo: Going back a bit to what we were talking about earlier, there are some cases of censorship that kind of baffle me. I could understand taking a kids' manga, and drawing out some blood. But if I recall correctly, it was Tenjho Tenge a few years ago that ended up being somewhat of a debacle. The nipples were drawn out, and replaced with stars. With a case like that, it doesn't make sense to me, because i>t's a m>anga for an older audience, who oughtn't be ashamed of nipples. That got a lot of negative press at the time, and it occasionally still pops up in debates.

Playing the devil's advocate here, though... Jason... you mentioned that you objected to manga that could be considered racist or sexist or homophobic. I know you're not advocating censorship, but suppose someone said, "I strongly object to manga depicting characters who look like they're in elementary school." Why are they more wrong than someone who says, "I don't like people who are [xxx]phobic?" Are they wrong at all? Where does the fine line exist? Isn't someone who says, "Run, they have AIDS!" just as deserving of "free speech" as someone who says, "Hey, I like little girls!"?

Sara: I wanted to make a distinction. I'm very offended by racism and homophobia and especially depictions of little kids having sex, but I think there's a difference between saying "I personally think this is wrong" and "I think this material should be banned." So I think it's ok to complain about content (from a consumer point of view) without calling for it to be outlawed.
Casey: I have an answer to your comment. Remember the principle of harm that I brought up earlier? "Run, they have AIDS!" would not be the same, at least under Canadian law, as saying, "I like pictures of little girls." The former, at a more extreme level, might advocate the systematic destruction of gay men. The latter, presumably, does not advocate the systematic destruction of little girls. Also, I think a lot of needs to be determined on a case by case basis.

The reason why I brought up Please Save My Earth before is that it seems to be a straightforward case of a prejudiced statement that adds nothing of artistic value to the work. Furthermore, as I said earlier, I doubt neither Hiwatari Saki nor her Japanese publisher would be committed to keeping that little aside either. A lot of these cases are not so clear cut, and there may be an ethic of care for other people that could be invoked. Are you gratuitously hurting other peoples' feelings for no good reason? It's a question that's worth at least some consideration.

Bamboo: The other side would argue, "What's harm?" How do you determine what's harmful or not? You're not actively trying to wipe out little girls, but you'd have a section of people who'd ask, "Are the people who buy kiddie manga the same people who lurk outside elementary schools?" Keep in mind that we live in a very conservative society, where people still don't think that gays should be allowed to marry. Hell, I read a forum comment recently from someone who said he was offended by condom commercials. But I'm offended by his opinions of the gay community, so hey.
Casey: I addressed that earlier. There is no established correlation between possession of porn and real acts of sexualized violence.
Bamboo: No, but i'm talking about public perception. I don't disagree with you. I'm saying that public perception is a strong, strong force. It wasn't that long ago that people thought homosexuals were sexual predators.
Casey: Of course. However… keep in mind that in the U.S., there would have to be an established correlation. In other countries such as Canada and the UK, it's easier to make the argument you're making. Incitement doesn't require anybody actually listen.
Jason: In response to your prior comment, you're right, it's totally subjective. I happen to be fairly easily offended by sexism and homophobia, but another person might be totally shocked by violence, for instance. I would say that the best solution is to err on the side of caution, and to hold the original artist's intentions above all else, although, as Casey said, the original artist might very well say "Sure, why not change it?" if the matter was brought up to them. The "freedom of expression above all" attitude is one which, I think, has been nurtured in American comics. And I agree with it, and with its major spokespeople like Frank Miller and the CBLDF people.

On the other hand... in the case of manga, translation necessarily involves editing choices. When Dragon Ball was first translated, I would see people complaining online "In the original Japanese, Vegeta doesn't say 'darn', he says 'shit'!" Well... yeah, "kuso" could be translated that way, except that this manga is aimed at 12-year-olds, you dumbass. Inexperienced translators throw around a lot of unnecessarily vulgar translations of swear words. But on the other hand, if you're translating something like "Detroit Metal City," speaking of a title which some people might not care to defend, then you've got carte blanche to err on the side of offensiveness. So manga publishing involves issues which the creation of original comics doesn't.

Anecdotal evidence from places like the UK does make me very grateful to live in the U.S. The UK has already had a very public "manga scare" back in the '90s, over "Legend of the Overfiend" and other "video nasties." It's something we've been spared so far in the U.S.

Casey: Regarding your earlier comments about original intent, though… Honestly? I don't usually take the "author's original intent" as equivalent to the Japanese first edition, especially when it is a commercial property, all that seriously. Although some creators are famous for being divas, I think that being a mangaka in Japan requires a high tolerance for editorial interference generally. It's just a part of what it means to be professional. The ethos is more akin to what you might see on network television here in the States.
Jason: You're right. I may be applying an inappropriate ethos to my views on manga... i.e. "Ahh, Masakazu Katsura, including nudity in a comic for 14-year-olds! You're really stickin' it to the man! What a rebel!" Or to give another example, when I first saw Ranma 1/2, I did think "Whoa, this gender-bending is really weird", but it soon became evident that it wasn't intended to be 'transgressive' or anything, it's totally accepted entertainment in Japan. But just as I would consider American comics from a creator-first attitude, I'm going to do the same for Japanese comics.
Sara: It's funny you mention Katsura, because weren't nipples airbrushed out of I"s in the US?
Jason: Yes, the nipples were airbrushed out of the first few volumes...
Bamboo: Nipples have been airbrushed out of a lot of US manga, though. We have weird hangups about nudity.
Jason: Actually, they're back in the later volumes, apparently. I don't know if I should talk about this publicly, but Viz's standards have changed a lot, so what's unacceptable one month, or in a high-selling manga, might be acceptable the next month, or in a lower-selling manga which people aren't paying as close attention to.
Bamboo: Sad as it may be, I don't think public opinion is on our side. It takes almost zero stretch of my imagination to imagine statewide amendments passing to ban virtual, sexually explicit depictions of minors or whatever offensive images comics can throw at people.
Sara: Sexuality of all kinds has always come under more public scrutiny in the United States than violence.
Casey: Okay, I'm hardly ever optimistic, but I don't think that this sort of censorship would stick in the U.S. Besides, even amendments can be appealed in court.
Jason: Perhaps the closest comparison would be the kind of pro-censorship crusaders, like Jack Thompson, who have gone after videogames like Grand Theft Auto. I sometimes wonder, knock on wood, how manga has been so lucky as to have avoided coming under attack in the same manner. On the other hand, the attempts to censor games like GTA have been a resounding failure so far and Thompson was disbarred.

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