He's Gone To the Next Dimension: Censorship in Kids' Anime in America
"Letters from the New York Otaku"
By David Cabrera
#19 – He's Gone To the Next Dimension: Censorship in Kids' Anime in America
I have mentioned in passing that nearly every anime that aired on American television was somehow altered for US audiences. TV broadcast standards vary from country to country, and some edits are naturally expected... but bad things have happened in this process, leading in part to American anime fans' long-standing distrust for any American-licensed anime product.
The core of the issue is simply that there was a huge amount of content in Japanese kids' anime that was considered unacceptable for American children to see. Alcohol got turned into juice or water (this goes all the way back to Star Blazers, the English version of Yamato).
Name changes were common, as Sakura and Tomoyo became Crystal and Madison. Japanese settings were glossed over as much as possible: for example, whenever a character ate a rice ball in Pokemon it would be referred to by the characters as a donut. Sexy outfits and nude scenes were frequently painted over: in Tenchi Muyo the heroines all got to wear digitally inserted swimsuits to the hot spring.
Violence was okay, but not its consequences, so blood was removed and death was often glossed over or denied. For example, Dragon Ball's flexible afterlife was dealt with by saying killed characters had gone to “the next dimension”. In an extreme case, Sailor Moon's Zoisite was changed from a man to a woman, because having a gay couple in a kids' cartoon would offend many American parents. Similarly, the couple of Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus were made “cousins”.
But some of the American fans knew the shows had been changed, because-- get ready for the dirty secret that all American anime fandom is based on-- we had been passing around tapes of these shows for years. Since the 80s, anime fans had been trading tapes, sometimes with translated scripts on paper and other times with subtitles directly on the tape. As such, many fans knew exactly what had been changed in Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, and later the less drastically altered Cartoon Network shows.
As the fans-- even the ones who weren't passing around tapes-- became increasingly aware, this kind of heavily censored anime started to disappear. The TV broadcasts of big titles like Naruto and Bleach were minimally edited. One Piece was run with heavy editing and was a tremendous failure. Kids know when they're being tricked.
Still, as the fanbase grew up this led to distrust. “Americans ruin anime” is still a very popular thing to say, even though it's been nearly 15 years since anything like this happened (aside from the One Piece disaster) and the overwhelming majority of American anime releases have always been uncensored. Personally, I don't think that this distrust is completely about censored shows from 15 years ago: I think it's just a sentiment that is very popular with anime fans. But, as usual on this column, that is a story for another day.