With new anime fans, it's not uncommon to hear "I don't get what the fuss was about". Without the context of an era, it can be puzzling why some titles generated the buzz they did. With that in mind, I decided to document some of the controversies in anime. This page is about controversies IN anime (from a fan perspective), not anime as a whole being controversial.
Over time views on what is acceptable changed drastically, and the Japanese are no different. In America's past, skirts above the knees were scandalous, an exposed navel was too erotic for TV, and the word "bitch" was a level of profanity unacceptable for censors. Elvis Presley being shown from only the waste up seems hilariously tame in today's world, but the thinking back then was quite different and it's important to keep that in mind.
Culture clash and an increasingly insular industry which panders to a warped demographic has also been causing more issues as of late. This page is intended to provide context in history, not pass judgement.
Before anime became well known in America, Streamline Pictures focused on importing Japanese animation. As a new market, Streamline decided to take many liberties with anime in order to make it "commercially viable". These decisions included sanitizing anime of Japanese cultural references, major questionable script changes, and character name changes. As anime gained popularity, other anime distributors embraced Japanese culture, and fans liked it all the more. While it is hard to place the blame on a company that had to guess how to approach an entirely new market, they steadfastly stuck to these policies even after they were shown unnecessary. One big issue of contention was over dubbed only releases, with no Japanese subtitled counterparts.
Streamline wasn't unique in this either. Many earlier works were also caught in this kind of limbo. Macross was dumbed down considerably to fit in line with being a kids show. Sailor Moon cut out many episodes deemed to have occult references, and had to change the sex of a character to avoid the topic of a homosexual relationship.
Streamline continued to hold the rights to these titles in a licence lock through the years until they finally went out of business. Some titles were picked up by other distributors who released unmodified versions, but many titles weren't, and some fans were never able to see them in their original form.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)
In its day, Evangelion pushed many boundaries. While tame by todays standards, some of the violence pushed the tolerable limits of censors. The series was first broadcast in a time slot intended for teenagers and didn't gain much attention. Due to the increasing edginess of the show, it was pushed back into a much later timeslot and became a runaway success. This also led to a trend of pushing scheduled anime time slots back.
With its ever increasing abstract approach, and build up to a finally; Evangelion became a relatively hot topic in Japan (for being an anime). The series seemed destined for an ending that would be a shocker, but it turns out the shock was for unexpected reasons. Later episodes of Evangelion built up questions about the characters, the fate of the world, conspiracies which had yet to be explained, and of course what would happen to Shinji; the lead character. The last episode was a Q & A session with Shinji sitting in a chair. It didn't deal with things left to be resolved. Instead it discussed his thoughts, opinions and views of the world. Shinji realizes that his attitudes create his reality, and it ends with the words "Congratulations" (for realizing this).
Some were ok with this, and possibly even liked the twist this put on the end. However, even those people have to admit that the end had nothing to do with the rest of the show. Reception by the vast majority of viewers was far less positive. Regular viewers felt betrayed, and hardcore anime fans became rabid. Sometimes it's noted that writer Hideaki Anno received death threats over this, but it seems that they were more on the level of "hate mail" and calling these as death threats was sensationalism. It was however clear that almost everyone was unhappy with the end.
The poor ending was later set to be rectified by a movie, which managed to create some controversy on its own. One scene has Shinji visiting unconscious Asuka in the hospital. Part of her breast is left exposed, and Shinji masturbates. Mostly controversial because of attitudes towards masturbation in general, but also due to being unexpected and not relevant to the movie.
Not exactly controversial, but also interesting: studio Gainax ended up on the wrong side of the law for tax evasion. Dedicated anime studios such as Gainax generally don't make that much money, and losses aren't uncommon. Essentially they'd take the profits from a successful series, and shuffle it into a rainy day fund. Normally the amount wasn't significant enough to notice, but Evangelion turned out to be far more successful than they ever imagined and amount of capital became impossible to hide. The president and tax accountant for Gainax were both arrested and did some jail time.
Anime has no shortage of extreme sex and violence, especially in the 80s. This was well known to American veteran anime fans (as few as there were at the time), but something which became controversial for the new crop of unprepared anime fans that came during the era of Evangelion. American anime distributors were keen on capitalizing on this popularity explosion, and picked up title licences quickly compared to years past. Kite looked like an ideal anime to licence with attractive designs, abstract plot and lots of action. Kite also involves elements like using children as assassins, brutal violence, perversions in most of the characters, and rape among other things. One of the rape scenes also involves a girl who is shown to be young, although her age is never actually stated.
Kite isn't unique with sex and violence. It is however rare to have these extremes with such high production values. Kite has better animation than most action titles for example. The rights were quickly picked up for American release, but the sex scenes were cut out. Later it was released with some of the sexual content left in, and later still it was released un-cut (18+ only). Kite is also unusual in that the sex scenes are key to the development of the story, so the cut makes far less sense. This created much confusion among anime fans, who discussed the cut and uncut versions as if they were the same despite one version being very different from the other. It also wasn't uncommon for people who didn't want to see the sex picking up the wrong version by mistake.
Death Note (2006)
The moral implications of Death Note are very strong, particularly because the main character is a sociopath. Light Yagami is given the power to kill any person he chooses, by writing their name and cause of death in a black notebook called a death note. Light chooses to use the power to execute people he considers unjust, and thinks of himself as a god. Although Death Note itself is neutral on morality, the premise alone makes the series a touchy subject. As the series gained popularity, some teenagers began create their own "death notes". Seen as threatening behavior, this led to some students being expelled or suspended. A murder victim was found with a death note nearby in Belgium. In the People's Republic of China, some cities have banned the series all together for corrupting the minds of youth.
The thing unique about Death Note's controversy is the matter of philosophy on morality. It's still a topic of discussion in the anime community, but any in depth analysis requires an unusual amount of intelligence in conversation compared to the typical flame wars on a topic. From the perspective of being thought provoking, Death Note can be viewed as a success.
Meloncoly of Haruhi Suzamia Season 2 (2006)
The Meloncoly of Haruhi Suzamia is an anime adaptation for a light novel already wildly popular before the anime was even made. The first season of 14 episodes capitalized on this well and it was a huge success. The show could do no wrong and would be a cash cow on autopilot simply by adapting stories from the light novels. In season 2, studio Kyoto Animation decided to adapt the Endless Eight story arc. In this story, the characters are stuck in a time loop where the events for two weeks are repeated endlessly. Each episode becomes a near repeat of the last. It does this EIGHT TIMES.
The decision to do Endless Eight is an unusual one. Creating a nearly identical episode can work once, but creating the same episodes 8 times in a row becomes nauseatingly repetitive. Despite being called endless 8, the repetition count in the show is actually in the thousands, therefore it's hardly necessary to repeat the same episode 8 times because it has the number 8 in it. While airing on TV, Anime message boards in Japan were flooded with talk of how many times the episode would repeat, and the reaction was overwhelmingly negative. Mind you that on DVD/Bluray skipping content is an option. With TV, the anticipation normally associated waiting for next weeks episode turned to dread. There was particularly a lot of despair around the 6th iteration of the Endless 8 when it became clear the rumors that it would end (at 6) were untrue, and that it would indeed stretch to a full 8 episodes.
At the time, Haruhi was THE talk of the anime world. Looking back now, the series seems to lack the staying power of other titles reaching such popularity. This may or may not be due to endless 8, but everyone agrees that the arc severely marred an otherwise good anime. Sometimes animation studios choose unusual directions, but it's curious why they would go in a direction guaranteed to be poorly received, and use it on a show so popular. Kyoto Animation has never spoken about their decision to adapt Endless Eight, but the director of season 1, Yutaka Yamamoto (who is no longer employed by them and seems to have bad blood with his former employer); did make note of it during a public appearance at Otakon 2009.
To tell you the truth I knew this was going to happen a year ago.
[...] Not to make self excuses or anything. The concept of this idea was floating
around when I was still at Kyoto Animation. And I was against it. I said, "Two
episodes is the most you can do." But as a person who left Kyoto Animation of his
own volition, I can’t help but feel somewhat responsible for the way Haruhi is now.
So, I’d like to say, as a [former] member of the SOS Brigade Production Committee:
I apologize. [link]
An interesting side note on the arc. The second season of Melancholy of Haruhi was first released on DVD in Japan with two episodes per disk. Anime releases in Japan are notoriously expensive, and this time it meant paying high prices for basically the SAME episode repeated across four disks. Despite this, sales were still on par with other popular series, but often rated very low on sites which allow reviews. Japanese anime fans hated this story, complained a lot but bought the DVDs anyway.
School Days (2007)
Visual Novels are very popular in Japan. They are something like choose your own adventure books. One of the interesting features of Visual Novels, are the variety in endings. Usually these are cheerful and happy, but it's not uncommon for them to involve very disturbing conclusions as well. School Days starts out every other high school romantic comedy drama (and anime has a LOT of them), but unlike other titles, School Days goes down the disturbing path instead.
One of the girls in the story believes she's pregnant, but is jilted by her former lover who is now in a relationship with her (former) friend. After a heated argument, she goes to the boy's apartment and stabs him to death. She receives a text message from his phone the next day to meet on the roof of the school. There she is presented with the head of the boy, stabbed in the neck and dies. Her killer and former friend then cuts into her uterus to discover she wasn't actually pregnant. It ends with her on a boat cradling the decapitated head saying that they can finally be together.
Most of the controversy is due to the unexpected turn to graphic violence that isn't even hinted at in the beginning. Graphic Novel adaptations also drop all (or nearly all) erotic content when made into an anime, but School Days directly deals with this as well. Some view the disturbing change in direction as brilliant, but it wasn't well received by most. Especially in America where there is little familiarity with graphic novels, and no context with School Days specifically.
The last episode was delayed due to murder case involving a a sixteen year old girl murdered with an ax the day before. TV station Kanagawa decided not to air the last episode due to what they viewed as similar violent content. Instead the half hour time slot was replaced with a landscape slide show accompanied by classical music. This wasn't well received by viewers. One of the images included a cruse ship which became notorious on a message board discussing this topic, in which one post stated "Nice Boat". This spread to become an internet meme in Japan for quite some time
Yosuga no Sora (Sky of Connection) (2010)
Japanese perceptions of family relationships are like those most anywhere else in the world. Increasingly hardcore Japanese anime fans (otaku) have become a polarizing force in anime. One reflection of this is the increasing sister-complex content. Anime has a long history of this kind of taboo brother sister relationship, but these shows were uncommon, and the brother and sister were conveniently not related by blood (typically adopted). Visual novels include a wide variety of female characters, and often there is the "sister option". However when adapted to anime, the sister is always a secondary character. Yosuga no Sora however includes the erotic content (in a non explicit way), takes the path of incest, and leaves nothing to the imagination.
What is unusual about Yosuga no Sora is that it doesn't skirt around the issue of incest, and tackles it head on. Other characters in the show are disgusted once the siblings are found out, and it causes a lot of problems for the two involved in a forbidden love.
With the increasing leverage of hardcore otaku, along with the strange sister-complex fascination they continue to have, it's inevitable that one show would eventually go there. Aside from the incest angle , Yosuga no Sora isn't exceptional otherwise. It still manages to generate some discussion when brought up.
Dance in the Vampire Bund (2010)
One of the central characters is a vampire that is pre-teen in appearance. The show is somewhat sexual in parts, and Mina's pre-teen look brings up concerns of child pornography. This is however a good example of how some categorizations fail when applied to fantasy. Mina is hundreds of years old, but LOOKS like a pre teen girl. Do you go by her stated age, or by her looks? Where do you draw the line? Despite an anticipated large scale blow up, this one manged to pass mostly under the radar. The DVD release was even left unedited. This was questionable at first, but found to comply with U.S. law.
The increasing popularity of lolicon (Lolita Complex) in anime and manga is starting to become an issue of contention. The Japanese themselves aren't comfortable with the content, but as anime fans are willing to spend disproportionate amounts of their income on anime (in some cases even forgoing food if they have to), this demographic continues to be overly influential. Conversely the United States has become excessively paranoid about anything that could be interpreted as child pornography. (Which is a lot when we're talking arbitrary interpretation.)
Anime lolicon itself is an odd topic. It doesn't seem as though fans of the genre are interested in under age girls, or even interested in HUMAN BEINGS. They are instead obsessed with some sort of ideal visual (in their minds) in the anime/manga genre. It's unknown how far this culture clash will go, but Dance in the Vampire Bund looks like it will only be one of the titles that will run into this issue, so I am grouping the "controversy" under this title. This is unlikely to be an direct issue in the U.S. since American anime distributors can import titles at their discretion.