Censorship and the Mass Market
By guest columnist Jason Thompson
When Viz acquired the rights to Dragon Ball, I was surprised; pleasantly surprised, of course, because I love Dragon Ball, and as the show started to get popular I was worried it would become another case where the manga licensors never got their act together to capitalize on its anime success. Back in 1998, when the first issue launched, I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that it would be uncensored. Viz rarely censors anything, but when I was working on Game On! USA (the short-lived game manga magazine) some panels in Samurai Shodown were altered to cover up a character's breasts. The reason why these were covered, and Ranma 1/2's, for instance, are not, was because of the perceived market: Game On! USA had newsstand distribution and either couldn't have that stuff, by the distributor's rules, or couldn't risk having it, lest it run afoul of some short-tempered parents. But Dragon Ball was uncensored at first, because it's by Shueisha's star Akira Toriyama, and also because, at that time, Dragon Ball wasn't quite "mainstream."
In marketing terms, the difference between Ranma 1/2 on one side, and Dragon Ball on the other, is that one is "niche" and one is "mainstream." Niche products are those which are sold in comic shops and watched in college clubs, the cozy, small worlds where anime and manga have always been cult hits. The mainstream is anything which is successful on television: Pokémon was Viz's first "mainstream" property. Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z also fall into the mainstream, although thankfully, their rise to popularity was more gradual and grass-roots, meaning their inevitable decline will also hopefully be less precipitious. (Sailor Moon has also had an interesting niche-mainstream history: never quite successful as a franchise, it instead created a whole generation of female anime fans.) Lately, thanks largely to the Cartoon Network, old-school fans have had the interesting experience of watching once-niche series repackaged and sold as mainstream: Pioneer's Tenchi Muyô. Bandai's Gundam Wing and Outlaw Star. Surely, to those ancients who remember when anime wasn't even available on video, this is the promised time! The gates are opening! Anything can happen!
But as Viz and other anime companies have been discovering for the last few years, popularity comes with a price: unwelcome attention from a wider world of parents and censors. Each issue of the million-selling Pokémon: The Electric Tale of Pikachu was scrutinized by Nintendo's licensors (who twice requested changes to Misty's swimsuit in issue #3). Despite these annoying precautions, we still received calls from mothers honestly asking "This may sound a little weird, but…is Pokémon satanic?" (I replied "Well, there are some characters with horns, but not really"), and several outraged phone calls when the word "Damn!" slipped into an issue. Pokémon's censorship was required per the contract with Nintendo. Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z escaped it, sheerly by luck, until "Dragon Ball Four-Packs" started being sold in chain stores. Instantly, we learned to no great surprise that some parents really are deeply offended by 16-year-old girls flashing old men who want to look at their panties. We also learned that, in something considered "children's entertainment", you can't increase sales in New York by advertising it as "Banned in Boston." At the first sign of controversy, after the first customer complaint, Toys 'R' Us instantly dropped Dragon Ball. Toys 'R' Us isn't even considered a particularly conservative chain like Wal-Mart or Blockbuster, but they have tremendous power as a distributor and retailer. Without even trying, they can express a social agenda.
|"...we still received calls from mothers honestly asking 'This may sound a little weird, but... is Pokémon satanic?' (I replied, 'Well, there are some characters with horns, but not really')..."
As can anime. One of the greatest things about anime in America is the fact that it is the product of another culture, in a country which, more than any other in the world, is self-centered and resistant to other countries' cultural imports. The perceived weirdness, the alienness, the unpredictability of anime is one of the things that makes it refreshing when so much American "pop culture" is target-marketed down to the finest detail. (Of course, in Japan, Dragon Ball was target-marketed; but the calculated tastes of Shônen Jump readers are positively exotic in America, and, like all good manga (though not all manga), it owes its existence to one artist, not to a production committee somewhere.) To me, in America's current social trend of blaming the media and demonizing youth culture-a trend which crosses party lines, from Joe Liebermann to John Ashcroft-anime is one of the strongest sources of entertainment media which circumvents this suffocating climate.
Of course, anime fans shouldn't deceive themselves that all anime influences are good either. Ultimately, we watch for entertainment, not because "it's good for you." Few fans (hopefully) would justify Lolita-complex anime or tentacle porn, and if Dragon Ball were a live-action American TV show, aimed at 13-year-olds, but watched by ages down to 5 and 6, which had topless nudity and panty-fetishism (even "just in a few episodes"), most anime fans would probably understand if it created an outrage. Cultural differences are interesting, but as a liberal, I don't want to think that Kame-Sen'nin is making people more tolerant of sexual harassment. If I were a right-wing Christian, I'd have something totally different to complain about, since most anime's treatment of Christian-doctrine-as-exotic-myth (Evangelion, Ninja Resurrection, etc.) is un-fundamentalist to say the least. (There is at least one Christian website about this, which intelligently notes that old shows like Speed Racer and presumably Superbook are relatively benign.) It's pointless to try to please everybody. Even the censored Dragon Ball graphic novels received complaints from parents who thought they were too dirty.
Assuming that it is does not become caught in a censorship backlash (as happened with Urotsukidoji in Britain), anime is almost certain to become mainstream in America. The mainstream importers will try their best to smooth over the cultural rough spots, just as the niche importers (often different divisions within the same company) actively advertise the bizarreness of it all. Whether or not cuts are made, the best thing that can be done for it is not to hide its Japanese origins. I understand why the televised version of Dragon Ball Z is censored, and I don't object, as long as the uncut version is always available on video. What's more of a concern is that censorship carries the added risk of causing self-censorship-even as far away as in Japan. The creative decisions of some anime studios are already influenced by the promise of the American market ("If we don't have blood or nudity in this series, we can sell it on American TV…") As anime producer Scott Frazier has warned, the growing anime market in America carries the risk of changing anime into something unrecognizable. But cultural exchange is rarely one-way. Perhaps we'll just see American imitators of Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z-or perhaps as a better result, "adult animation" (by which I don't mean porn) itself will become a viable market in America, regardless of which country it was made in.
On the other hand, the American manga market is still small enough that it has very little influence in Japan (or America), and so, manga still operates in relative freedom. In the case of the Dragon Ball manga, the forces of good & fandom triumphed, and the 10,000-signature "Bring Back Uncensored Dragon Ball" petition caused Viz to change their minds about censoring it (to the great satisfaction of Trish Ledoux and myself, the past and present editors). The Dragon Ball manga will be sticking around for a while (it will probably have years to go when the Cartoon Network airs its last episode), and by being uncensored, just by being itself, Dragon Ball defies America's Puritan tendency-and the tendency of marketers-to classify everything as black-or-white, bowdlerized children's entertainment or hardcore porn. I'd like the presence of manga to vitalize the entire American comics market. I'd like to live in a country that is less isolated from other cultures, and less afraid of the "impressionable minds" and trigger fingers of its own children. Of course, that's a lot to ask anime and manga to do. So I mostly just ask anime and manga for entertainment, but I don't forget these other things, when the opportunity arises.
Jason Thompson is the editor of VIZ's English adaptations of the manga series Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, No Need for Tenchi!, Silent Möbius, and Uzumaki.