Ask John: Why is Old Anime Less Censored than New Anime?
I’ve noticed that older anime have been able to get away with a lot more, censorship-wise, than today’s current anime. For example in manga like Naruto and One Piece there have been instances with one character giving another the middle finger, with it being omitted in animation format. But when Dragon Ball Z aired 1989 it had several instances of characters flipping the bird and not being censored. As well as brief child nudity, bare breasts on Master Roshi’s adult magazines, and limbs being cut or blasted off on human characters (where in Bleach a character literally cut in half in the anime is merely stabbed). I was wondering how anime was able to get away with more mature visual matter in the past, especially since those series were aimed towards children.
The evolution of anime censorship is a complex subject affected by a web of influences. I doubt that I’ll be able to comprehensively explain the difference between anime content then and now, but I hope to be able to cite at least some of the relevant factors. I’ll strictly focus on anime because differences in content between manga and anime is an entirely different discussion involving an variety of alternate and exclusive circumstances.
The evolution of anime censorship has primarily been affected by developing sophistication of both anime itself and anime viewers, and the influx of money into the anime industry. Anime became particularly provocative in the 1980s. The “shower scene” was ubiquitous in 80′s anime, and shonen fighting anime including Hokuto no Ken, St. Seiya, and Dragon Ball included pronounced violence. Furthermore, during this era, late night anime were a rarity, and TV series were supported primarily via advertising and merchandising rather than home video sales. Different markets for TV broadcast anime and home video version anime didn’t exist, so the way an anime was envisioned to be was the way it was created for TV broadcast. Thus scenes of explicit, gruesome violence, as in Hokuto no Ken, were censored at their earliest creation stage because no one had yet thought of the concept of “director’s cuts” or uncensored home video versions. Violence and nudity, particularly in 80′s anime, may have been prevalent, but frequently weren’t exceedingly gratuitous. Nude children in anime like Mospeada, Vifam, and Dragon Ball weren’t sexually provocative; they were simply realistic. Ranma Saotome running around topless was supposed to be funny and embarrassing more than arousing. TV anime were moderately violent, but really graphic, grotesque sex and violence was reserved for OVAs like Megazone 23 Part 2, Yoju Toshi, and Maryuu Senki.
However, particularly with the broadcast premiere of 1990′s Fushigi no Umi no Nadia, which put OVA quality animation on weekly TV, and the 1991 launch of satellite TV network WOWOW, the distinction between “innocent” broadcast anime and more explicit and intense OVAs began to blur. By 1995 Evangelion introduced intense and shocking sexuality and violence in mainstream TV broadcast anime – content that would traditionally only have appeared in OVA release anime. Late 90′s anime like Berserk and Devilman Lady were far more provocative and intense than any TV anime from the 60s, 70s, or 80s. Anime was getting commendably more mature and sophisticated, but it was also quickly outpacing the limits of what was widely considered acceptable content for mainstream public TV broadcast. Advances in animation skill and technology allowed TV anime to rapidly become more advanced, and the introduction of cable & satellite TV networks and the broadcast of late night anime for adult viewers gave anime the ability to push the envelope like never before. So TV networks and mainstream viewers reacted. Long time anime fans may remember the controversy and outrage in the Japanese otaku community in July 2004 when the explicit, gratuitous nudity in Girls Bravo was artificially censored with digital steam, earning the show the nickname “Steam Girls.” The days of lightly risque 80′s shower scenes were well over by 2004′s bathing scenes in Girls Bravo that featured nude girls with huge, detailed, exposed breasts. Even for premium TV broadcast, that was deemed too graphic for broadcast. Television viewers in the 80s who still largely perceived anime as harmless children’s entertainment, had become more sophisticated and discriminating by the mid 90s. The influence of TV programming on impressionable young viewers had become a conscious concern. TV anime, by that time, had broadcast alternatives like cable and satellite TV, which allowed viewers and networks to insist that controversial and provocative content be restricted to appropriate channels.
Even more recently, Japanese producers and distributors have realized the ability to manipulate censorship to their advantage. Soul Taker aired in prime time in a family-friendly (by Japanese standards) version then in a slightly more explicit version at midnight. Then it home video release was even more revealing. Seikon no Qwaser aired heavily censored. Then the same episodes were streamed online in a lightly censored “director’s cut” version. Then the episodes were released uncensored on home video. Announcements like the first broadcast episode of Gokujyo ~Gokurakuin Joshikouryou Monogatari~ being canceled for being inappropriate for TV broadcast only fueled viewer anticipation to see what was so objectionable that it couldn’t be aired. As home video became more profitable in the 1990s, Japanese distributors realized that they could boost sales by including or advertising previously unseen or previously censored content, which resulted in “uncensored” home video releases for shows like Outlaw Star that really didn’t have anything censored in the first place. Particularly recently traditional censorship itself is being exploited to allow distributors to tease viewers and consumers, tempting them into purchasing home video releases that reveal more than the TV broadcast did.
Anime in the 70s and 80s, in particular, was able to get away with depictions of nudity and violence because those days were a more innocent era, and the depicted provocative content always had a modicum of self-restraint that’s largely absent from contemporary anime. The sexuality and violence present in the 2007 Shigurui TV series, for example, would have been literally unimaginable in 80′s TV anime. These days, after viewer complaints and controversies about TV anime including Evangelion, Area 88, Girls Bravo, and School Days, terrestrial Japanese TV networks are more leary about courting controversy and upsetting viewers and advertisers. So the TV networks insist upon more extensive censorship. And in many cases distributors are willing to comply because censored TV broadcasts encourage more home video sales. We’re in a more cynical, money-oriented era now than we were in the 70s and 80s when TV anime had more modesty and less oversight from broadcast networks, critical parents, and distribution companies, allowing anime to push the envelope, so long as it didn’t push too hard.