Ask John: Should Fans Overlook Minor Editing in Anime?

Question:
Have you read the editor’s letter in this month’s American version of Newtype? He says that fans ought to stop complaining about censorship and start enjoying the anime. He implies that editing some nudity out of anime or manga and switching Japanese cultural references for American ones isn’t a big deal and won’t stop you from enjoying the work. I feel like Gary Steinman is mocking hardcore anime fans by saying that sometimes “hardcore fans are misdirected.” If you could print a rebuttal to this, what would you say?

Answer:
While I’ll gladly provide a rebuttal, sadly my response will invariably be labeled as “elitism” by an outspoken percentage of America’s anime fan community. With that in mind, I want to make it clear from the outset that my opinion is my own, and I share it without a desire for praise, fame, nor notoriety. I care about anime deeply and personally, and feel a personal obligation to defend the honor and integrity of anime because if not for fans like myself, anime would have no voice in America.

I’d like to avoid becoming entangled in categorizations like “hardcore,” “elitist,” “purist,” “dub fan,” and “sub fan.” Instead, I’d like to focus on appreciation of anime in a purely objective, theoretical perspective. I have encountered the opinion that Japanese animation should be localized for American consumers, and that anime fans that are preoccupied with “minor”changes to anime in the name of localization are too obsessive. The theory is that small alterations such as the expurgation of nudity and excess violence don’t fundamentally alter the story. In fact, the argument goes, colloquializing Japanese references and dialogue makes anime more accessible and therefore more appealing. Superficially such arguments seem to make sense, but by extension, those arguments would insist that Romeo & Juliet should be read and performed in contemporary English and include duels fought with guns instead of archaic Elizabethan verse and old-fashioned swords.

In point, changes made to an artistic work, no matter how small, alter the tone, atmosphere, and intent of the work. Whether an anime character is nude or clothed reveals subtle clues about the character’s personality and the setting and circumstances of the surrounding work. The degree of violence in a show establishes a setting, a feeling for how threatening and dangerous the world setting is. Changing that degree of violence even a little bit can dramatically alter the maturity of a show. And in an instance when the change doesn’t make a major difference, one must ask why a change must then be made at all, if it’s effect is so miniscule. In the first episode of Pocket Monster, Satoshi “borrows” Kasumi’s bicycle, wrecks it, and puts his first pokemon in danger. In the uncut Japanese episode, Kasumi berates Satoshi for his irresponsible behavior and slaps him across the face. In the American version of the same episode, “Misty” scolds “Ash,” but the slap is edited out. A critic can argue that the physical violence isn’t necessary and that its exclusion doesn’t significantly change the scene, but the point is that the slap is supposed to be there, and by editing it out Americans aren’t seeing the anime the way it was originally intended to be seen. Even in an example like this, in which the editing doesn’t significantly change the meaning of the sequence, it’s still censoring. I’m conscious of the concept of “necessary evil,” and while American anime fans may have to endure some concessions in order to have legitimate access to anime, there is no obligation to like those compromises.

I personally value the integrity of art- both fine art and commercial art- as a matter of principle. I cannot condone a piece of art being changed by people other than the original artist(s). In fact, I find it ironic and disappointing that America’s consumer market has become increasingly interested in “director’s cut” movies and seeing movies the way their creators intended them to be seen instead of seeing the movies in the format studio executives think will be most profitable. Yet at the same time, America’s anime fans are moving in an exact opposite direction- increasingly insisting that anime not be the way its directors and creators made it.

I believe that the American anime fan community is overwhelmingly guided by a sense of selfishness. In fact, all anime appreciation is a form of self-gratification, but I think that the dominant attitude toward anime in America has become grossly self-centered. Countless times I’ve read and heard the argument that “purists” have no justification for complaint about an altered anime if an unmolested subtitled version is also released. That’s an intensely selfish statement because it concedes that it’s okay to edit and censor anime as long as an uncensored version is also released. But a wrong and a right paired don’t make two rights. The fact that an unaltered version is released doesn’t justify editing and censoring an artist’s work. This may seem antediluvian, but I believe in respecting the integrity and authenticity of anime as a matter of principle.

I watch Japanese animation because I’m interested in Japanese animation. Anime or manga that has been edited no longer conveys the authentic meaning that its creator wanted to express. Even when something “minor” like a nude body is covered or a slap is removed, what I am presented with is suddenly not the ideas of the original artist, but rather the attitudes and moral standards of a translator or distributor. Naturally all translation is subjective, but the work of a translator should be invisible. The role of a translator is to make an original artist’s work accessible to me. When I watch translated anime, my desire is to see the original Japanese creator’s ideas and work; not the obtrusive interpretations of an American distributor, nor an American distributor’s perception of what is and isn’t appropriate for me to see and hear. It may be argued that a translator is obliged to replace Japanese references and jokes with equivalent native ones apropos to the audience, but I disagree. Japanese cultural, social and political references are intrinsic to the anime and changing them literally removes some of the integrity of the original work. To cite my Shakespeare analogy once again, no one would think it appropriate to replace social or political criticism in a Shakespearean play with references to modern day politicos. Not only would such alterations be anachronistic, they’d also eliminate aspects of the social and political context of the original work. Shakespeare’s plays were commercial art and contemporary viewers are expected to research the meaning and implication of their contextual references. So why are viewers not expected to also research the meaning and implication of contextual references in modern Japanese commercial art? I think that simply believing that a comedy anime should be funny or a romantic anime romantic, regardless of language, oversimplifies in a gross desire to be entertained without any sense of responsibility, awareness, or respect.

Inevitably a translation involves compromise and reduction. But I don’t consider that fact to be an open invitation to extensively change Japanese art for the sake of convenience. There are minor edits and changes in context, but in principle any intentional, knowing alteration is major. I’m aware that the demands of business require that anime be altered when it’s exported outside of Japan. I understand that the necessity of translation requires a degree of alteration. But I don’t agree with extensively changing anime, or any art from any culture, just to make it more conveniently consumed. Japanese animation isn’t supposed to be simple for Americans- isn’t supposed to seem like second nature. After all, it’s not American. Anime is foreign film, and the appreciation of foreign film requires, and should require, at least a minimal degree of intellectual effort. When Japanese animation seems so familiar and so easily consumed and so non-foreign because it’s been edited and censored, it’s not Japanese animation anymore: it’s some hybrid amalgamation of Japanese artwork and American sensibilities. In my opinion, that’s not anime, and that’s not what I’m interested in watching.

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