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BBFC Policy: Anime

I was very kindly sent an interview with the BBFC examiner Imtiaz Karim that appeared in Manga Mania January 1996

It is one of the most revealing and open interview with the BBFC that I have read for a long time and gives an excellent insight into their views on Japanese anime. 


My Brother's WifeImtiaz Karim explains that the Board’s examiners have specific areas of responsibility, and his include Indian films, some areas of pornography, and anime. After being initially overwhelmed by Japanese animation, he has now developed a genuine liking for the genre. For the record, most anime goes through uncut. And though we are legally obliged to classify and occasionally cut films for public consumption, I’d like to make it clear that our duty as a whole is to make as many films available to as many people as possible.

However the BBFC’s 1994 Annual Report didn't appear to echo these sentiments and describes anime as an alarming new trend in animation…In all seven hour length manga cartoons required cuts in sexual violence, in some case quite substantial ones. Ferman draws particular attention to the depiction of a number of horrendous rapes, suggesting that in many of these cartoons there seems to be an underlying hatred (or is it fear?) of women, which can only be slaked by destruction of the female principle…It is frightening to view the exorcising of such violent fantasies in cartoons of such technical brilliance.

Manga Mania: What was the Board’s first reaction to adult Japanese animation?

Imtiaz Karim: To be honest, we weren’t quite sure what to make of it. It did present us with problems. Here were cartoons (often featuring large eyed, young looking characters) which had previously been regarded as a children’s genre and would have automatically got a U certificate, suddenly dealing with adult issues and themes. The earlier anime submissions were also less explicit and it’s only recently that we’re getting stronger material submitted. We make a genre allowance for the fact it is animation, but when the subject matter is sex or sexual violence or sexualised violence, we don’t distinguish between animation and live-action. This is because our experience shows that to a youngster, even in their mid-teens, an animated sexual act can be as confusing or as titillating as live action pornographic films. And, frankly, a lot of what we see in the more adult anime is pornography.

MM: What is the distinction between sex, sexualised violence, and sexual violence?

IK: Sex is simply images of sexual acts. Sexualised violence is when violence is taking place with a sexual element in the scene. For instance a naked woman could be in the scene, or one of the victims is naked, but the attack is not of a sexual nature. Sexual violence is when the attack is purely sexual, as in rape, and it’s these scenes which are of the most concern to us. A segment we cut from one of the later episodes of Crying Freeman illustrates this point. The sequence begins as a purely pornographic representation of sex as Freeman makes love to a woman while thinking aloud about his next hit and then abruptly shifts to sexualised violence when he inserts the barrel of his gun between the woman’s legs with his finger still on the trigger.

MM: One of the earliest anime releases was Legend of the Overfiend which has become a legend in its own right. What was the board’s reaction to that film?

IK: The Overfiend series caused much debate within the Board and, after very long discussions, we decided that there were themes and issues which were problematic and needed to be cut. The whole series took us into a very fantastical universe which was so far removed from reality that even with the intense and explicit images of rape, violation and mutilation, we still didn’t treat it as a live-action film or even an animation set in the real world. Legend of the Overfiend was the first anime I ever saw and I was very shaken by it; I had nightmares for days afterwards. I guess I’ve become sort of accustomed to it since then as I’ve probably seen more anime now than most of your readers.

MM: How do you respond to the accusation that these scenes of gross violence have a different meaning for the Japanese people and that we shouldn’t be judging the material from our own cultural perspective?

IK: People often ask us this question, that by cutting or restricting these films we are ignoring the environment in which they were made. But my argument is that it’s the audience in this country which matters, and such scenes of grotesque violation are simply unacceptable in our culture. Fans also often ask if we ever make an allowance for subtitled anime because it obviously appeals to a more specialised and informed audience than dubbed material. We do, but it very much depends on the material in question. If you’re talking about sexually explicit material, a genre allowance wouldn’t be enough for us to leave it uncut or classify it below the adult category.

Take the ‘Rape of Elektor’ sequence we cut from Overfiend 4. This is a scene of sustained anal and oral rape, mutilation and much worse in which the woman is crying repeatedly for the demons to stop. When you show somebody a scene like this there is often very little argument whether we should censor it or not. There may well be an audience which is mature enough to watch this and appreciate and understand the scene in the way the filmmakers intended. But our concern is that this is presented in a very titillating manner which is not appropriate for an audience in their mid-teens. There is no sense of horror or disgust at what the woman is going through; the way it is shot and designed invites the audience to take pleasure from the scene. And scenes like this – multiple rape, gang rape, sexualised violence – are about all we ever cut from anime. If there was a scene like this in a live action film, we would probably hand it over to the police.

MM: Could you explain how "genre allowance" works in practice.

IK: Every video is considered on its merits and for classification purposes a 25% genre allowance is made for animation. But there is a huge amount of anime which contains scenes of such a realistic nature, that present sex and violence in such a convincing way that we sometimes have to treat it as though it was a live action film.

Let me show you a scene we cut from Adventure Duo which features teenage heroes who get into all sorts of adventures, such as saving the world from a mad scientist. Yet the film also contains very realistic portrayals of sex including autoeroticism and sexual assault. This is from Adventure Duo 2 which is set in Japan during the Second World War. We are introduced to an impotent scientist whose wife is sexually frustrated and the episode starts with her masturbating in a highly realistic and sexually arousing fashion. Her husband interrupts her and she asks him to make love to her but he refuses and goes back to his laboratory. A few minutes later a group of soldiers arrive and decide to humiliate the scientist by raping his wife in front of him. It’s one of the longest, strongest and highly realistic rape scenes I have ever seen in Japanese animation. And what the Board found particularly worrying is that this woman is forced to admit to the rapist that she is enjoying the experience. And when the woman finally orgasms there’s no doubt that the underlying message is that women can enjoy rape as long as it’s done well.

The Board doesn’t regard any theme as being unacceptable if it is treated intelligently and sensitively. But here our feeling was that this is gratuitous nudity and gratuitous sexual activity and assault that has the potential to arouse and titillate.

MM: But if this is an 18 certificate, surely responsible adults can make up their own minds as to what is or isn’t acceptable to them. Are you more concerned about underage viewing in this case?

No, we take both things into account. Obviously the characters are youngsters, but we felt that this series didn’t have the kind of appeal that say Akira or even Crying Freeman had for a younger audience. I mean, the storyline in Adventure Duo is quite impenetrable, so we didn’t feel that teenagers would particularly go for this material. It’s one of the reasons that we insisted that the name be changed from Adventure Kids to Adventure Duo.

And in cutting this scene, we’re making a decision about the presentation of sexual violence across the board, whether the audience is 18 or 80. It was our view that even if this material isn’t corrupting underage viewers, current social attitudes dictate that this kind of sexual violence is unacceptable. Not only does the law compel us to censor material, public opinion does as well, and public opinion is something we monitor very closely.

MM: How do you do this?

IK: Public opinion is not something you can just look up in the newspapers, although that is one place where it’s found. We spend a lot of time talking to various groups and going to lectures on an individual basis. I follow a whole range of media and keep up to date with youth culture. And, of course, we commission academic research from time to time and regularly conduct market research, and I think we have a fairly good idea of where we are at any given time. But we’re dealing with an entertainment medium and we will always find someone with some objection to something. The majority of letters we get from the public actually ask for more censorship, rather than less.

MM: Have you tried to widen the debate by bringing in opinions from anime fans?

IK: In general we try to seek out viewer feedback, but we haven’t yet done that with anime. However, I think it’s only a matter of time before we meet the otaku face to face. And I also think that it’s only a matter of time before there’s some kind of public debate about Japanese animation, in the way that there’s been one about violence in live action videos in the last couple of years. I think the fact that this is a niche market has protected anime from that level of public inquiry.

And because it’s a niche market, the Board tries to make sure that we know what we’re dealing with and the environments in which the videos are being viewed. To this end I read Manga Mania and most of the anime fanzines. The fact that the average age of the audience for anime is 15 to 18 is of great concern to us as we are under a legal obligation to take into account the possibility of underage viewing.

The other thing that’s become apparent from the running times stated is that Manga Mania and anime fanzines are reviewing predominantly uncut material – probably the distributor’s promotional timecodes. I realise that with your publishing schedules it’s difficult to get around this, but it’s something I wanted your readers to be aware of.

We also know from fanzines that many young adults like this material because of its explicitly violent and sexual nature. Most 15 to 16 year olds don’t have good access to pornography, so some of the more provocative material, even though it is animated, can be sexually titillating.

MM: So the BBFC is, on some level, acting as a proxy parent?

IK: Well, that has only a practical manifestation in a very small number of cases. It hasn’t really affected the way in which we classify anime yet, because most adult anime is very adult orientated. The kind of material where we are most concerned about underage viewing at the moment is teenage action films – Schwarzenegger, Stallone and the like – which are directly aimed at and appeal to a mid teen audience and they often contain scenes of extreme violence which are not appropriate to younger viewers.

The problem for anime is that parents of pre-schoolers can buy the Lion King or Jurassic Park for their kids because they have decided that this is the kind of film that they want their children to see. But parents do not go out and buy Tenchi Muyo or Green Legend Ran or Patlabor. It’s the viewers themselves who decide to buy this material.

MM: And some of these viewers recently inundated the Board with mail complaining about the BBFC’s treatment of Kekkou Kamen.

IK: When the Board first saw The Adventures of Kekkou Kamen, we were quite taken aback as we hadn’t seen anything like it before. The series directly associates comedy with violence and sexualised violence. It features a naked superheroine who goes around with only a hood on beating up the bad guys with nunchakus, which are illegal weapons in this country. Though we allowed some scenes to remain in which Kekkou was just holding nunchakus, if a scene glamourised and promoted their use, then it became a problem and was cut.

The other, more troubling issue with Kekkou Kamen is that it is a comedy which has at its heart a sort of sexualised violence. This scene was cut from the first episode. It’s where a group of sadistic schoolteachers make jokes at the expense of a young girl who is hung up and then whipped and tortured by a sadistic Nazi. This is the crux of the sequence, where the girl is stripped with a whip and we get an eroticised view of her breasts and naked torso. This is very over the top and is meant to be a satire on the Japanese education system, but our feeling was that there was enough explicit sexual imagery to undercut the satire and introduce an element of arousal and titillation, which is reinforced by the change of music.

MM: What is the Board’s attitude to violence in anime?

IK: For a start some children’s animation is the most violent entertainment on television, showing acts of gross brutality to animals and people, but it’s usually violence without consequences. I mean Bugs Bunny shoots people in the face but they get up and walk away. In anime, when someone gets shot in the face it explodes and their blood gets splattered across the room.

As an example, here is a scene we cut from Angel Cop. This is a highly political piece of anime, set in the near future where the Japanese government have set up a special task force to deal with terrorists. This is the point where several members of the Red Dawn Communist group are confronted by Angel, who literally blows out the brains of one of the terrorists, which is pure mutilation. And the Video Recordings Act places a legal duty on us to have regard to these kinds of images.

As a comparison, I saw Braveheart the other night, which contained some battle scenes which I found disturbingly violent, and yet it was released as a 15 for the cinema. What distinction would you draw between Angel Cop and Braveheart?

Our view of a film like Braveheart is that it’s a serious historical drama based loosely on real events and its portrayal of violence, you could argue, is intelligent and responsible. It shows warfare and bloodshed in a way that would have happened. The Board didn’t feel that the violence in Braveheart was exploitative, whereas in Angel Cop or Mad Bull, the violence and mutilation are being offered to the audience as pleasure, without any narrative context or rationale for its excesses. For instance, the way people’s heads are shot off in Mad Bull in various stages is drawn purely for aesthetic entertainment.

MM: What about less obvious films like Wings of Honneamise, which I understand had a small cut?

IK: Wings of Honneamise was cut in one place. It was a wholly gratuitous sexual assault in the middle of a film which was otherwise a wonderful experience for younger viewers. But, and this is important as other distributors often do the same, it was voluntarily cut by Manga Video to lower the certificate from its cinema classification of 15 to a PG for the video release. When this happens, it is not registered as a cut.

MM: What about language?

Well there’s a lot of strong language in anime and sometimes I think it’s counterproductive. An excellent film like Patlabor 1 was made 15 solely on the basis of explicit language. I actually think that without the language it would have been passed as PG. By and large the inclusion of strong language will automatically guarantee a 15, but will rarely push it up to 18 unless it is used a great deal. But these are commercial decisions that distributors make about their films.

MM: Another bugbear for some younger anime fans is that classifications can change in the middle of a series.

IK: This also happens with TV series that are later released on video. For instance, you can have 16 episodes of London’s Burning which are PG and one is 15 because of its content. Sometimes distributors will ask us to classify the series as a whole and give it a single category. We will, but it will be the highest category that any individual episode has been awarded. None of the anime distributors has asked us to do this, so we classify each episode of a series independently.

Tenchi Muyo comes to mind as a generally PG series that had one or two episodes which went up to 12 on the basis of some nudity and sexual undertones. Similarly Bubblegum Crisis Hurricane Live 2033 was passed as PG, while its sequel went out as 15 because if some stronger images such as blood gushes, a head explosion and a close up stabbing in the stomach.

 

BBFC Archive  James Ferman Director of the BBFC: 1974-1999
 Computer Hits
 Nunchakas The BBFC attitude to martial arts weaponry
 Anime Interview with a BBFC examiner
 Horror An interview with Richard Falcon speaking about the BBFC treatment of horror in 1995
 Blasphemy Ruling European Court of Human Rights upholds BBFC ban of Visions of Ecstasy in 1996
 The Ferman Chainsaw Massacre remembering the defunct website 'Ban the Board of Film Censors'
 Confessions of a Censor by Ros Hodgkiss, retired film examiner
 Sinful Days in Soho by Maggie Mills, retired film examiner
 Monster Love Carol Topolski tells of being a film examiner under James Ferman