Why Are Age Ratings On Anime So Inconsistent?

by Justin Sevakis,

Phineas asked:

Is there a stricter bias towards anime age ratings in the United States simply because they're animated? Someone in the Answerman thread two columns ago noted the fact that Monster was 18+ by Viz but was rated M (the equivalent of a PG-13) in Australia. This reminds me of a few other situations, such as Strike Witchesbeing TV-MA in the United States but PG in Manitoba and 12 in the UK, and Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 also getting a TV-MA but every episode but two being rated as suitable for eight year olds in the UK. (The other two were rated 12.) Are ratings sort of a slapped-on thing like "yeah, this has nudity, 18+" or is there someone who actually looks at the work before slapping on an age rating? (I still question how on earth Genocyber got a 13+ on my DVD set.)

Inconsistent (or non-existant) age ratings have been a problem in the anime business since the early VHS era. Back in the day, no VHS anime publisher would put any real warnings of any kind on their boxes, with the exception of hentai releases. No doubt, this caused many issues with some of the more R-rated shows getting rented by kids, and a lot of angry parents. Rental mega-chain Blockbuster Video solved the problem from their perspective by simply putting a sticker on ALL of the anime that indicated it was not for kids. Unfortunately, his "Youth Restricted Viewing" sticker meant that, in their computer system, all anime got treated like an R-rated movie. Surely I can't have been the only kid that had to really heavily lobby his parents to be allowed to rent anime.

Eventually a combination of fan suggestion and retailer pressure led the various anime publishers to put ratings on their boxes. This was largely a slap-dash affair of self-invented age ratings -- Pioneer had a "3up", "13up" and "17up" system that got adopted by a few other publishers, and others used the American TV broadcaster's age rating system. But all of these systems were, and still are, pretty arbitrary. There was never any actual guide written as to what would fall into each rating category. I's completely up to the publishers.

This resulted in the wild inconsistencies you are witnessing. Other countries have central, usually government-related bureaucracies dedicated to assigning age ratings to home video product. But since American publishers can basically put whatever they want on a DVD box cover without being questioned, they end up putting whatever the marketing department thinks is appropriate. Sometimes these are not well-informed decisions from someone who has seen the show. Other times, they're from people who are, perhaps, a little de-sensitized to ridiculously violent or sexual content.

I don't know of a rating system that satisfies everyone. The MPAA, which is the independent body that determines movie ratings in America, gets no end of guff about their sometimes arbitrary or unfair standards, even though they have a giant book drawing as clear of guidelines as are possible. My friends in the UK snark endlessly about the BBFC ratings system they have imposed on them (and which were famously exploited by Manga Video back in the 90s, when they added a bunch of swearing in their shows so they could get a higher, "edgier" age rating). Everyone has their own barometer for what's appropriate and what isn't, and once you add in Japan's constantly changing levels of tolerance, things can really get weird. Are the kids OK seeing cartoon boobs? What about exploding heads?

Luckily now there's the internet, where parents can do a little more research on a title instead of relying on arcane and irrelevant rating systems. I'm not a parent, so I'm not overly concerned with these things right now, but if I were, I would probably have given up already: thanks to the internet, the kids have probably already seen snuff porn.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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