Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - The Greatest Censorship Fails

by Jason Thompson, Jan 3rd 2013

Episode CXXXIII: The Greatest Manga Censorship Fails

It's always surprised me that there's no giant internet database listing all censorship in English editions of manga. Maybe it shouldn't surprise me; there's been so many little changes it's hard to notice them all, and the manga community is scattered, so fans of Manga X don't necessarily care on principle if Manga Y is censored. Even some people who would defend a tween manga reader's right to fanservice are sadly quick to dissociate themselves from more adult stuff like Christopher Handley's porn collection or Mahô Shôjo Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS dojinshi, both of which were at the center of huge legal cases in the US and Canada with serious implications for free speech.

But (thankfully) most dirty manga doesn't result in legal cases. Instead (less thankfully), most manga companies choose to self-censor, not out of actual fears that their manga will be deemed legally "obscene," but for sales. Manga has always been censored on-and-off in the U.S.—Viz's very first issue of Mai the Psychic Girl in 1987 had a bath scene removed—but in the early 2000s, when manga started getting sold in big retailers like Borders (RIP) and Wal-Mart, those retailers' internal content restrictions affected the whole manga industry. In the heyday of Borders, publishers would actually fax scenes from manga to Borders reps before licensing a series, to see if it was too dirty for Borders to carry or not. Other restrictive buyers included Scholastic Books and Toys 'R' Us, who also pressured manga publishers to follow their censorship decisions.

It's not much consolation that, with manga sales so much smaller than they were a few years ago, there's also less censorship like this nowadays (although there's still iTunes). Speaking as a former manga editor, the big secret is that the entire process was completely arbitrary: decisions about "what to censor" vs. "what's acceptable" would change based on who was head of the Marketing Department that week. This worked both ways; series like Ultimate Muscle and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, which started out heavily censored, would end up uncensored in the later volumes, because Marketing realized that no one was buying it anyway, so it's unlikely that anyone would see it and get offended. Hooray! Thank you, Marketing Department! Japanese publishers have also become more restrictive, removing things like helium snorting in Sket Dance,and nudity in love-com manga, perhaps with an eye towards making it easier to sell in foreign countries. (After all, Americans aren't the only ones to censor manga; lots of countries do. In the '90s, just showing a same-sex kiss was too much for the Korean edition of Hana-Kimi.)

Manga has been censored in a thousand ways, from Baby Goku Penis in Dragon Ball (gotta put some shorts on), to violence and nudity, to offensive racial depictions (maybe if Quentin Tarantino—one of Hiroyuki Takei's favorite filmmakers—had done a live-action Shaman King movie in some parallel universe, he'd have been insane enough to keep the original name of the blaxploitation character, Chocolove). But some attempts at censorship still stand out for their total ineptitude or absurdity. Here, for the New Year, are my picks of the Greatest Manga Censorship Fails.


Vanishing Nipples. These things are the bane of manga editors. Conveniently, some anime and manga (like Hitoshi Okuda's Tenchi Muyô! manga) simply draw breasts without nipples to avoid the controversy. If that fails, they're covered with bras, bikinis or any other object that's handy—but what do you do if the ENTIRE POINT OF THE MANGA is to show nipples? That was the dilemma faced by the editor of Viz's edition of I"s. (Actually, I"s is more about butts, but anyway…) Rather than rewrite entire storylines, he chose to cover the characters' breasts with little stars like on the cover of an old porn video—thus ironically actually drawing attention to the fact that it had been censored. Could this have been the rebellious editor's intention all along? (P.S. I used to be the editor's roommate.)



Vanishing Cleavage. Sometimes, covering up nipples isn't enough. The cover of the 2nd edition of Viz's No Need for Tenchi! manga was actually censored because of excess cleavage. On the cover of Tokyopop's Battle Vixens, even a faint suggestion of butt was too much.





Pokemon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu. The first Pokémon manga ever released in America, back in 1999, was a huge hit. It was carried by Toys 'R' Us and other sales outlets that had never touched manga before. Unfortunately, Toshihiro Ono, the artist, loved fanservice even more than he loved little cute monsters. Parents (and Nintendo of America) complained, forcing Viz to add tons of fabric to the women's outfits, such as in the manga adaptation of "The Water Flowers of Cerulean City," in which Misty goes from wearing a skimpy bikini to a kind of all-concealing deep-sea-diving wetsuit. Other censored scenes included a Misty-in-the-hot-springs nude scene and lots of fanservice involving Jessie from Team Rocket. The word "damn" in the first edition also prompted angry phone calls from parents.

CMX's Edition of Tenjho Tenge. Back in the 2000s, when DC executives decided to make Tenjho Tenge one of the launch titles of their new manga line, they should have actually read it. Rumor has it they didn't realize until late in the production process that the manga is not merely about insane martial arts, but also explicit sex, consensual and otherwise. Desperate to make it into a 16+ manga, they used every possible censorship jutsu, including: (1) giant SFX covering panty shots; (2) people wearing bras in sex scenes; (3) stuff covering people's middle's fingers to cover up flipping-off scenes; and (4) a gratuitous rape scene almost completely removed. Comparing the covers of the Japanese version and CMX version says it all, although I have to admit, that was clever what they did there. Times change: the recent Viz edition is uncensored.

The Snake Arm in Parasyte.It wasn't originally a snake. (Censored by Tokyopop, uncensored in the Del Rey edition.)



Shadow Star.Dark Horse dropped this dark science fiction manga in mid-series because of the child abuse themes that were about to surface in future volumes. (They also removed a little nudity in early volumes, although nowhere near as much as they did in Cannon God Exaxxion.) When they'd licensed the series, they didn't know what they were getting, but in retrospect, it's clear Mohiro Kitoh (creator of Bokurano) wasn't gonna do a Pokémon style kid-and-monster funfest.

Tanuki Balls. A source of much embarrassment to Disney when they released Pom Poko, Tanukis' shapeshifting nuts are occasionally spotted in anime and manga, although not in Super Mario Bros. 3. (Wikipedia has more information, including the lyrics to a song about Tanukis' balls, sung by Japanese schoolchildren to the tune of "Shall We Gather at the River?") In Shaman King, Ponchi, the tanuki character, has the power to grab people with his massive scrotum, which in the English version was changed to a stomach. As far as Shaman King and censorship go, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Vanishing Guns. In America, if characters kill each other with fists, explosions or swords, it's "fantasy violence," but if characters kill each other with guns, it's serious. In Viz's Dragon Ball Z, it's OK for Cyborg #17 to blow up whole cities, but when he shoots an old man with a handgun, that scene had to be changed. Elsewhere in DBZ, in the Boo saga, there's a scene when some guys are running around mowing down people with machine guns; the scene was too big to remove entirely, but changing the semi-realistic machine guns into weird-looking futuristic Super Soakers made it "fantasy." In one early scene in Zatch Bell, when criminals hold up a bank with a shotgun, the entire gun was removed, so the criminals are just scaring people with their fingers. (Incidentally, Japanese shonen manga is getting more restrictive about guns too; in Death Note Light kills a thousand people in every chapter with the Death Note but all the characters are like, "Eww, guns are for bad people." And notice how in Yusei Matsui's Assassination Classroom, when the students unload their guns into their alien teacher, they have to include some line explaining that they're using special anti-alien airsoft guns that are harmless to humans. WTH, manga. Are you still the proud culture that created Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, or aren't you?)

O-Parts Hunter. For some reason they didn't keep the original title, 666 Satan.



Vanishing Crosses. In Japan, show a character chained to a cross, and that's just drama. To American Christians, not so much. Fullmetal Alchemist, MÄR and Yu-Gi-Oh! are just a few manga where crosses get changed to less offensive objects like poles, chunks of rock and metal grids. In a scene in a cemetery in Shaman King, when I was editor, there were too many cross-shaped tombstones to remove. But a dictate came down from the Powers Above (no, not God) that one particular tombstone was too objectionable, and I had to give the letterer the interesting instructions, "Remove Jesus from cross."



Vanishing Mosques. Arabs love anime; I have Rose of Versailles and Future Boy Conan on Arabic DVDs that I bought in Amman. Arab anime fans also fansubbed JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, and presumably liked it, but rue the day that some Salafi guy showed up at the Cairo anime club and saw the scene when Dio, the main villain, is shown reading the Quran. (Of course, in the original manga, he's just reading some random book in a tiny panel—making it the Quran was the animators' brilliant idea.) Egyptian preachers, of course, stoked up public outrage, turning some obscure fansub that probably no one had seen into something everybody in Egypt knew about (sound familiar?). Shueisha not only apologized for the anime scene, they also censored some scenes in the manga when minarets of mosques get damaged in a battle. Now, in all new editions of the manga in all languages, the collateral damage instead takes out water tanks & TV towers.



Vanishing Swastikas. Here's something to offend everybody: swastikas! Except that, of course, the manji is an ancient and important Buddhist symbol with was co-opted by weeaboo Nazis, and if you look at maps of Japan, Buddhist temples are represented by swastikas manji. These sometimes manage to stay in translated manga, like in Blade of the Immortal, or the ninja guy in Yu Yu Hakusho, with a cultural explanation in the margins, but in the really popular manga they gotta go, like Neji's manji in the original Naruto, or Whitebeard's pirate flag in One Piece (which, Shueisha succumbing to overseas pressure again, was de-manjified in both the English and Japanese editions).

Vanishing Cigarettes. To Americans, if there's anything more offensive than religion and nudity, it's cigarettes. Scholastic Books regularly complained about cigarettes in Shonen Jump manga, and the general rule is, no All-Ages title, and few 13-and-up titles, can have a cigarette. (One of the few exceptions is One Piece. In the anime, Sanji's cigarette was changed to a lollipop, but in the manga, Eiichiro Oda insisted that the cigarette stay. THANK YOU ODA. It's a good reminder that manga artists themselves have to approve all the censorship in their manga; only now and then, like Yukito Kishiro putting his foot down over political correctness in Battle Angel Alita,do they refuse to let it be changed.)

Selective Translations. One of the easiest ways to obscure offensive content is just to leave it untranslated. Take Zatch Bell: instead of translating the term mamono in the literal meaning of "monster" or "demon," making Zatch Bell a blasphemous manga about demon-summoning, Viz decided to leave the term untranslated, making Zatch Bell a delightful Pokémon rip-off. (Technically, they changed it to "mamodo," thus creating a new, trademarkable term. For that matter, so did Pokémon.) The same thing can be seen in Yu-Gi-Oh! card names and in pretty much any manga with the word kamisama (Kamisama Kiss, Kamisama Kazoku, Dragon Ball…). I've never seen anyone do this with sexual terms, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time ("The protagonist of our manga isn't obsessed with breasts! He's obsessed with bakunyu! It's completely different!"). The brilliant thing about this is that otaku rarely complain, since hardcore otaku want every Japanese term to be untranslated, plus "Gundam" spelled Gandamu and "Light" spelled Raito.

"And I Will Reign Over a New World."Speaking of Death Notethe original, literal translation of this line from Viz's volume 1 reads "I will be the god of this new world." It could just be a 'creative' translation but…really, Viz? Really?

Censored Yaoi. I understand removing penises from stuff that's intended for 10 year olds (except In the Night Kitchen), but if you're censoring porn (I don't believe in the word "erotica"), what's the POINT? Viz removed squishy SFX and blowjob scenes from Descendants of Darkness volume 4. CPM was especially bad about this, cutting whole sequences out of Selfish Love, Golden Cain and Kizuna, and performing the old "he's not in high school, he's in college" switch in Level C, the story of a teenage boy's hookups with a sexy businessman. CPM might have been timid because they were the first major publisher to release Boy's Love, but even in 2007, DMP erased penises from a not-even-that-explicit 18+ yaoi manga by Rie Honjou. In the forums, a DMP representative justified it, saying "Publishing, especially now in a hurting economy, is a touchy business…we have to think of how the buyers and new fans will respond…Juné is the biggest BL imprint in the US, and therefore, it is held to a different standard." So, does that mean I had it backwards at the beginning of the article, and that when manga isn't selling and is only available in tiny niche sales outlets, it has to be censored more? Or is this in fact just a lame excuse? Either way, somehow it seems appropriate that the manga was named Invisible Love.


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