From Family to Pornographic: The Spectrum of Anime

You may have heard the term "anime" (pronounced ANN-ih-may or AH-nee-may) batted around in your family. If so, you may already be the owner of a growing collection of DVDs with colorful covers of big-eyed childlike adults saving the world.

Possibly Japan’s most prominent cultural export, this distinctive animation style has been entertaining North American audiences for decades. If you watched Saturday morning cartoons when you were younger, there’s a good chance Astro Boy or Marine Boy were in your diet at some point.

Currently, anime has moved from its former designation as a cult curiosity to become a mainstream contender for the attention of both children and adults. While purists of this genre may not agree, Pokemon, Digimon and the many other derivations of these commercial pastimes have put Japanese animations front and center on our televisions, movie screens, and toy shelves. With the recent Oscar nomination of Howl’s Moving Castle for Best Animated Feature, it is clear North American audiences in greater numbers are adopting this art form.

Yet, with this embracing, there are concerns—or at least confusion—being voiced by many parents who are wondering what messages these animations may be teaching young audiences. Whether these movies are positive or negative will depend greatly on your religious disposition, where you stand on issues of female role portrayals, and the types of anime your children and teens are interested in.

Hayao Miyazaki is perhaps the best-known anime creator. Howl’s Moving Castle is only his latest undertaking. His company, Studio Ghibli, has created many feature length anime productions, two of which—My Neighbor Totoro and Whisper of the Heart—were released earlier this year on DVD through Disney. (Howl’s Moving Castle is also available on DVD at this time.)

My Neighbor Totoro was my first glimpse at this "new wave" of anime. One of the earliest films I reviewed for my family movie column, I was impressed with the natural way Miyazaki created his young characters who discover strange "forest spirits" in the woods surrounding their home. The latest release of this film from Disney, offers a re-done English version featuring the amazing Dakota Fanning and her younger sister Elle playing the two young sisters around whom the story revolves. The new DVD package sports a prominent quote by Roger Ebert, hailing it as "One of the most beloved of all family films."

I couldn’t agree more. The film promotes family togetherness, appropriate independence for children, and being able to take something that appears initially scary and turn it into a playful friend.

Yet, as I’ve viewed other anime movies (including some of Miyazaki’s), I’ve come to recognize that Totoro doesn’t represent the vast majority of these titles. Many feature far more abstract characters and plots that, I assume, are difficult to interpret if you’re not intimately familiar with the associated Japanese culture.

And virtually every anime title I’ve watched deals extensively with storylines involving metaphysical characters, ranging from the more innocent totoros of the forest to goddesses and other mythical and quasi-religious beings. For some families, these may be reasons enough to avoid this genre, as this reader of my review of My Neighbor Totoro said in an email I received while writing this article:

"I have not seen [My Neighbor Totoro], but from what you said, it sounds like Pokemon, which I stopped letting my children watch because I heard too many Christians say it was full of demons and was a bad influence, in the same way I would not let them play with tarot cards or Ouija boards."

For other parents, concerns about the portrayals of females may be another issue. Anime artwork is infamous for featuring doe-eyed "women" who appear to be acting as adults but often look more akin to a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. These short-skirted figures usually fall into two categories: Helpless waifs who depend on men to save and protect them, or exaggerated female superheroes similar to Hollywood characters like Catwoman or Ultraviolet.

Either way, it is important for parents to help young viewers decipher these images and recognize what motivations the characters have for acting the way they do.

Finally, what is likely the greatest concern of anime is the close relationship it bears to another Japanese animation genre called hentai. Drawn in the same style, hentai in Japanese means "perverted," and is used to describe animation that is sexually explicit—although even that term is an understatement.

Imagine a pornographic world where there are no boundaries of what can be shown, and you have an inkling of what hentai is all about. By drawing your most perverted fantasies instead of having to rely on actors, an artist’s imagination is the only limit, making this form of pornography extremely explicit and potentially offensive.

Hentai can be purchased on DVDs, although it is easily found on-line. Videos and still images are traded in newsgroups, through peer-to-peer services, or through standard web sites. Even more bothersome, many popular anime characters from franchises like Pokemon and Sailor Moon are often recreated into pornographic versions. (I assume this is done without the blessings of the original copyright owner.)

While comparing anime to hentai is like suggesting a Frankie and Annette movie can lead to pornography, a curiosity for all things anime could inadvertently lead a young fan into this area. A search on Google for the words Pokemon and Misty (a major female character in the series) returned many pornographic sites in the first ten results. (Even after turning on Google’s most strict search filtering, one site in the top ten was pornographic photography unrelated to anything Pokemon.)

For parents of children and teens who are attracted to anime’s colorful and detailed productions, it would be wise to help them make good choices. As is often the case lately, don’t assume animation equals "Good for children."

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…