This topic was a recent entry on AnimeNation’s Ask John column. It begs the question of why American anime fans are often vehemently opposed to moe, fan service, or any other type of anime that sexualizes its characters, while anime that feature extreme violence are rarely opposed and are instead praised. The opposite seems to be true in Japan, with the Japanese fandom adoring fanciful, cute series while the dark, violent series are fewer and less adored. So what determines this difference between how American and Japanese fans react to sexuality in anime versus violence in anime?…
In the original post, John brings up the idea that the Japanese have a greater liking for light-hearted, cute, whimsical anime rather than dark, serious, violent anime. The long-time mainstreamed success of Ghibli movies and family-friendly anime series such as Doraemon, Sazae-san, Pokemon, and One Piece could attest to that. Even though One Piece, Naruto, and other shonen series do have a lot of violence and dark themes, for the most part they remain optimistic and wish-fulfillingly fun without getting too adult-oriented. But while you don’t see flat-out nudity in these kids anime, some of them have no qualms about vaguely showing the unclothed female body or talking about private parts. Of course, such a thing would be unheard of for American kids shows. It comes down to a difference in culture that I’ll discuss later.
Even among otaku-aimed anime, the “light,” and often more sexuality aware ones, usually overtake the “dark” ones in terms of popularity among Japanese otaku, as one can see by the sales and variety of merchandise for moe, ecchi, and romance-comedy anime versus other genres. There are exceptions of course, such as the notable popularity of Evangelion, Akira, Gundam, and Type Moon titles for example. But generally speaking, the reason we see so much more moe and slice-of-life anime is because that’s what’s more acceptable and adored by Japanese fans. So, because the Japanese are more partial to “light” anime, that’s why we see so much of it and may be a reason why American fans tend to be opposed to it. As John states in his post:
“We condemn moe because we’re overwhelmed by it, and because there’s so much of it available for relative comparison that we’re easily able to distinguish the outstanding from the mediocre. At the same time, we relish and respect bleak anime because it’s relatively rare. With less available to compare to, even weak or mediocre gloomy shows seem better than they may actually be because viewers overcompensate, coloring the shows with their own grateful sentiment.”
Which brings us to the American side of things now. Unlike in Japan, the average American anime fan is more likely to adore dark, violent anime like Cowboy Bebop, Hellsing, and Death Note, and more likely to condemn easy-going, cutesy anime like K-ON, Hayate no Gotoku, and Ano Hana. More often than not, American fans praise serious depictions of violence in anime, no matter how gory or torturous, and at the same time, cry foul whenever there’s nudity or any portrayal of younger characters as sexual beings. Seeing limbs torn off and heads exploding in Elfen Lied and Ghost in the Shell? That’s A-OK. Seeing the girls in OreImo wear revealing clothes or the Lucky Star girls bathing together in a public bath? That’s just wrong.
So what is it that brings about these different reactions to sexuality and violence in anime from American and Japanese fans? Why are sexual depictions in anime more acceptable to the Japanese while violence is more acceptable to Americans? I think the reason is clear when we look at the culture of the two countries. As I mentioned in a previous post about why “cuteness” is widely adored in Japan, that also ties into why the Japanese prefer light-hearted or melodramatic anime instead of dark, violent anime. Their history after World War II of having no military, no right to bear arms in their constitution, and basically being a very peace-oriented country, is a viable reason for why they’re more into “peaceful” themes in anime such as cuteness and comedic slice-of-life scenarios instead of bleak and violent stories. As for why nudity and sexuality is acceptable in anime, that again comes from a cultural aspect. Nudity is not as big a deal in Japan as it is America, communal bathing being a perfect example. Public bathhouses are all over Japan, so seeing people naked around you is a common thing if you go to these places. Kids go to bathhouses too, so they learn from an early age that naked human bodies are not necessarily taboo to see.
Now let’s look at America with its prominent military, right to bear arms, and emphasis on the freedom of the individual to do what they want – these values could arguably lead to a liking of violence, especially in media entertainment. As John pointed out in the original article, Americans are used to violence in cartoons stemming back to Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry. American society accepts and even glorifies violence in entertainment, but at the same time heavily obscures nudity and sexuality. So while it’s okay for even kids to see violence, only R or X-rated media can feature anything sexual. It’s alright for kids to watch the Harry Potter movies for example, even though they get pretty violent later in the story, but heaven forbid they see a bare female breast. If such a thing were to be seen in anything other than an 18+ work, Americans would be outraged while the Japanese probably wouldn’t think anything of it. I think John summed it up well when he said:
“Even though Americans have seen such fetishization in imported anime since the beginning of the American anime boom in the 1990s, it’s still a foreign and unconsciously offensive idea to typical Americans. We praise the inclusion of intense violence in anime because its presence validates animation as being more legitimate, adult-oriented literature than mere children’s cartoons. To varying degrees, we oppose or reject anime that sexualizes children because such fetishization opposes indoctrinated American morality.”
In short, the reason violence in animation is praised while light-hearted sexual depictions are condemned in America, with the opposite being true for Japan, again boils down to a big different in cultural beliefs and values.