• remind me tomorrow
  • remind me next week
  • never remind me
Subscribe to the ANN Newsletter • Wake up every Sunday to a curated list of ANN's most interesting posts of the week. read more

Historical Baggage

by Justin Sevakis,

I know most of the country is buried under snow and cold, so it's unseemly to complain about this, but I don't care. It's February, all the trees in LA are in full bloom, and so my allergies are ABSOLUTELY DESTROYING ME right now. I guess I'd better finish this column before my eyes swell shut.

James asks:

Many American fans of Japanese animation and manga believe that Japanese media and culture in general are more liberal-minded on the subject, and accepting, of nudity and sexuality in their media (especially animated media), and cursory glances at Japanese media would seem to confirm this idea (would American ever produce such series as Kiss×sis, Fairy Tail, Highschool DXD, Ikki Tōsen, or Senran Kagura, all of which have extremely copious amounts of fanservice?). However, I have heard it said that the Japanese media can be very strict and conservative at times (and their ridiculous censorship laws for erotic media are evidence of that), so I wonder: between the United States and Japan, which nation and culture is stricter, and which is more lenient, about nudity and sexuality in media? Or is there no clear answer? Can either nation be more conservative or more liberal, depending upon the situation?

I think both Japan and America have a lot of weird cultural baggage, a lot of diverging opinions, and a lot of hypocrisy in how they deal with sexuality and pornography, and are so different in each of these things that it's pretty much impossible to directly compare them.

Historically, there's no question that America, with our societal underpinnings in Christian Puritanism, is the more buttoned-up country sexually. Japan has a tradition based in Shinto and Buddhism, both of which are fairly permissive when it comes to sex. There's also a cultural tradition of communal bathing (though public baths aren't as common as they were). This means that seeing naked bodies, especially of your own gender, isn't really such a big deal. There's also an artistic tradition of depicting shocking subject matter. I mean, we've all seen the Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, the infamous 1814 ukiyo-e of tentacle sex.

But once you get into what it's like on the ground in modern times, things get a hell of a lot more complicated. America has plenty of adult content, a huge porn industry, and plenty of scandalous behavior. What's more, our strong penchant for individualism and civil rights means that negative judgements on sexual behaviors are revisited and challenged. Adult content has been tried in courts and protected as free speech. And now, with the internet, everybody can watch whatever they want with very few barriers in place. Plenty of people openly talk about porn amid appropriate company. We're pretty permissive overall, except in one major way: parents try REALLY, REALLY hard to keep their kids sheltered from sexual impulse for as long as possible. While some of that is rooted in personal belief and values, a lot of it also comes from a fear of teen pregnancy, which was a hot topic in the news media as far back as the early 90s.

Meanwhile, Japan has become somewhat infamous internationally for having the most ludicrous and horrifying porn, obvious and open prostitution, and an underground human trafficking trade to feed it. (All this, despite porn being MORE regulated in Japan: no legal media can be released showing un-censored genitals.) But to the average person on the street, all of that is nearly invisible. People aren't nearly as open with stuff they like over there, so the average person is barely even aware of its existence. People buy and consume their "hobby" content with great discretion, by and large, and so if you're not expressly looking for it, it's easy to forget it's there. The only time it even comes up is when some tabloid TV news program does some scare piece on the subject, which reinforces any fear of the stuff people might have.

It's not that everyone in Japan is OK with fan service, specifically in kids' anime and manga. PTA organizations have decried it as far back as the late 60s (Go Nagai's manga Harenchi Gakuen being a major point of contention), with major protests being raised at Yatterman, and finally with Evangelion, which resulted in tighter regulations over daytime TV programming. But for the most part, late-night time slots, the internet, and the separation of otaku culture from the people that aren't into it has allowed most of it to fly under the radar.

With the above data points, the only conclusion anyone can reasonably draw is that both countries' attitudes to sex and nudity are completely inconsistent and make no sense at all. I'm not sure there's any further conclusion to be drawn by comparing the two. They're just different.

Mark asks:

I've been collecting Anime cels for years now and the market has been about the same for years. My question is why has the art of collecting Cels never really caught on?

Cel collecting was actually much more of a thing back when animation was actually made using cels. There were shops dotting America that specialized in cartoon cel art, some better-stocked comic book stores carried a small selection, and collecting them came up in pop culture from time to time. However, collecting such things was seen as esoteric, largely because back then, cartoons were for kids, and if you were still into cartoons when you were old enough to drop serious cash on a prized cel to hang on your wall, you were most decidedly part of the nerd underground. (Howard Stern fans might remember that show producer Gary Dell'abate collected Hanna Barbera cels, and his mispronunciation of the character Baba Looey and the endless ridicule that ensued gave birth to his now-legendary nickname "Baba Booey".)

The rise in anime in the US, and with it, South Park and other Western cartoons that challenged the "cartoons are for kids" stereotype, didn't really become commonplace until the late 90s and early 2000s. Unfortunately, that was the very era when things were going digital. Cel collecting as a hobby pretty much missed the boat when it comes to finding a wider audience, because it was gone by the time the audience showed up.

Collecting pop art will probably never be seen as 100% mainstream, but now that nearly all anime artwork is done digitally, there's not a whole lot of reason to collect cels. The vast majority of anime fans have only even heard of a small handful of cel-animated shows these days, and most care more about staying current.

Ben asks:

So Netflix just announced that they're going to be launching their service in Japan later this fall. It's a fairly well known fact that Japan is pretty old fashioned when it comes to adopting new technologies and can be pretty behind the times when it comes to implementing new changes. One thing that I believe has been mentioned before is that digital streaming hasn't really caught on in Japan yet and I haven't heard any news on that having changed. What I wanted to know is has the state of digital streaming in Japan changed even a little bit in the last couple years from the aforementioned status and how successful do you think Netflix's venture into Japan will be?

I honestly have no idea. Japan is a rough, rough market to try and do business, particularly when you have to deal with the local media industry. Hulu tried to enter that market a few years back, only to sell off the remainder of the operation's assets and go home with their tail between their legs.

But if anybody can do it, it's Netflix. They have the resources, the technical know-how, and the connections, so the possibility is there for them to make a compelling, content-rich service for Japanese customers like they do here. However, in order to get anywhere, they're going to have to get domestic Japanese content, and to do that they're going to have to learn how to deal with Japanese talent agencies, who are quite likely to see this new encroaching business model as a threat. Netflix notoriously does not share any viewership data with its content partners, which is likely to raise suspicions even further.

Japan is, indeed, still a couple of years behind the US when it comes to online video. Most people by now use YouTube, otaku use Nico Nico Douga and sites like Ustream are pretty popular, but there are basically no services that legally stream premium content to set-top boxes on demand. Japanese consumers are notoriously finicky when it comes to new businesses that come from overseas, and a regular service like this seems like a hard sell. But who knows.

Netflix has had people in Japan for a while now, as they have been courting anime producers for online rights to new shows as they're made, much as they did with Knights of Sidonia. I only expect that having an increased presence in Japan will make them even more of a presence on the Japanese media stage. What happens as a result, whether they find success among Japanese consumers, or die on the vine, we will have to see.

Jake asks:

I have seen a wide variety of shows and movies that fall under the slice of life or inspired by historical events category, but the one subject matter that seems to be avoided is stories based around WWII. The only two I have ever hear anyone talk about and praise is Graveyard of the Fireflies and The Wind Rises, both of which were done by Studio Ghibli. I am aware of others like Barefoot Gen and Rainbow, but these are not really brought up. Besides these there are tons of fantasy stories the either borrow themes or setting like Pumpkin Scissors, Valkyria Chronicles, and Night Raid or at worst pull a Hetalia or Strike Witches. Why are Ghibli's films the only one that gets any praise? If these were the only ones to be licensed hear I would understand, but that is not the case. Is it that historical series are a hard sell?

There are actually quite a few more WWII anime than the ones you mentioned. Off the top of my head, Leiji Matsumoto's The Cockpit (an OVA adaptation of 3 of his WWII historical fiction stories), Who's Left Behind? (Ushiro no Shōmen Daare), Rail of the Star, and last year's feature film Giovanni's Island all deal with the war fairly head-on.

World War II may have ended 70 years ago, but in today's Japan, the topic is still a contentious one. Public discussion is rife with right-wing conspiracy theory, revisionist history and blind nationalism. The war caused an unimaginable amount of destruction to the country, and many who grew up during the war and its aftermath are still alive, and still politically active. It's such a hot-button issue that it's become kryptonite to broadcasters and sponsors alike. That's why so many WWII anime are basically about kids suffering through it: it's the only realistic story you can tell without really pissing people off. Try to diverge from that, and to get it made you'll have to completely avoid REALLY GLARING and obvious real events, like Night Raid 1931 did with the all the atrocities that came with the Japanese occupation of China. And if you do that, what's the point?

To be fair, I really don't think there's a market for it, either. Anime these days is primarily about escapism. That's what the audience wants. Few want to marinate in the misery of their parents and grandparents' youths, and they certainly don't want to go back to it week after week. A good, honest depiction of WWII that examined what happened and why, on any level other than that of a child survivor, is a total non-starter in Japan right now. completely untenable in today's anime market. And frankly, nobody really wants it. Fans would far rather see cute young people hang out and be cute.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.

discuss this in the forum (26 posts) |
bookmark/share with: short url

Answerman homepage / archives