Article: Standards and Practices
Watching cartoons on WGN-TV in Chicago in the 1950s when I was growing up was, in one respect, great practice for watching anime: it gave me a chance to develop the skill to spot when something was censored.
Now that so many of the older Warner Brothers cartoons have shown up on Cartoon Network, I can finally see what I've been missing. Usually it isn't much. In one Bugs Bunny cartoon, a scene with Bugs and Elmer was deleted in Chicago because in the background of the scene, too small to be readily deciphered, was a "September Morn"-type print on Elmer's wall. This small bit of raciness was too much for the Chicago Archdiocese which, according to Frank Walsh's 1996 book "Sin and Censorship," was the power behind the National Legion of Decency in the early part of this century.
But times change. The Legion sputtered and died in mid- century, victim of the declining influence of Irish Catholicism as an arbiter of morality coinciding with the broader social changes of the Sixties. But censorship lives on.
Anime coming ashore in America carries with it a good deal of Japanese baggage, some of which has trouble getting across the border. Some of the things that have been censored, such as casual nudity or alcohol consumption, are no-brainers, and it's fairly easy to see the holes their excision left behind. But there are other, occasionally surprising instances.
I'm thinking of one episode in particular of "Digimon," Tai is reminiscing about an incident in his childhood. OK, I know he's still a kid when the show happens, but he was a YOUNGER kid back then. So was his little sister, Kari. Hard up for a partner to kick the soccer ball around with, he enlists Kari, who at the time was still getting over the flu or something. In any event, she hadn't completely recovered and Tai wasn't clear on the concept of "recuperation." But she went ahead and did what her big brother told her anyway, and as a result Kari landed in the hospital, probably with pneumonia. The dub never did use the P-word but you have to assume it was serious.
Tai's flashback itself is reminiscent of the cinematography of Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" because while the flashback itself is in black-and-white, there are odd bits of color scattered here and there: these include the flashing red light of the ambulance, and most notably, Tai's cheek beneath his hand as his mother reads him the riot act after Kari's been taken to the hospital.
Why is Tai's cheek red? I'm willing to bet it wasn't embarrassment. You have to think about it, but the answer's clear enough: that's where his mom smacked him, something which didn't get shown on American TV if it was ever a part of the original broadcast.
Alcohol consumption can be finessed in the dubbing process, and Pioneer found a way to paint swimsuits on the naughty bits of Ryoko and Aeka in "Tenchi Muyo!" when the action shifts to an onsen. Spanking is even acceptable if it's being played for laughs. But a mom losing it and slapping her child in the face? No chance.
That's the sort of thing that makes reading Keiji Nakazawa's epic "Barefoot Gen" such a head-scratcher for Westerners. Nakazawa's story is, to a certain extent, his own; his character Gen Nakaoka, like he himself, survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and became witness to the horrors of what happens when a "weapon of mass destruction" is used on a city full of people. Because Gen's father believes the war is wrong and gets beaten up by the police for saying so, Americans get the impression that he's something of a pacifist. Try telling that to Gen and his little brother, both of whom get punched in the head by their father more than once in the course of the story. This is NOT what would be considered good parenting here in the States.
Yet despite the rough treatment, what's happening can't exactly be called "abuse." Gen and his brother take it at face value when their father declares that he loves his children.
Perhaps there's another clue to what's going on in, of all places, "Sailor Moon." Yes, I KNOW there are people out there who'd like to slap some of the characters silly, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm referring to the memory sequence that enables Rini/Chibi-Usa to devolve from being Dark Lady/Evil Lady/however they translate it and be herself again. In that scene, her parents Serena and Darien are walking ahead of Rini, who being a little kid falls down on her face. Yet the two grown-ups continue walking away from her.
It's not indifference or anger that keeps them walking, however. It's the knowledge that Rini is old enough to pick herself up. It's that lynchpin of Japanese ethics: ganbatte. Persevere. Hang tough. I'd almost say that the same principle was behind Jeri's salvation at the end of "Digimon Tamers;" "almost." Her situation was so psychologically complex it's a whole column in itself. Perhaps Tenchi's slap-in-the-face of Yugi at the climax of "Tenchi in Tokyo" is a better example.
Mind you, it hurts me to watch stuff like that. It goes against me to see a child get hurt for whatever reason. Maybe that means I'm too sentimental to be a good parent, I don't know. But I'm not going to make the mistake of automatically thinking that these anime parents are necessarily bad ones.