From The Hip

Forget Attack on Titan - China issues its own attack on anime

38 cartoons have been blacklisted by the Ministry of Culture, but is this censorship justified?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 June, 2015, 6:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2015, 1:37am

China has recently enjoyed a rocky relationship with foreign television programmes, removing fan favorites like The Big Bang Theory from streaming sites and airing a heavily edited version of international hit Game of Thrones.

Events last week showed that animated fare is at no less risk of facing the chopping block. According to reports from The Japan Times, 38 Japanese cartoons have been blacklisted from Chinese streaming sites in an effort to, in the words of Ministry of Culture official Liu Qiang, “protect the healthy development of youth”.

Mainland China’s grudge against anime, which is rampantly streamed via easily accessible websites all over the Chinese internet, is nothing new.

A series of regulations that hit the mainland in late March and early April blasted sites for hosting anime that featured “scenes of violence, pornography, terrorism and crimes against public morality”, and this new list of prohibited series, fully viewable on the Anime News Network, seems have to been selected based on this criteria.

Admittedly, the list does include several series with themes inappropriate for pre-teen audiences - Highschool of the Dead, for example, features copious scenes of skimpily dressed schoolgirls shooting zombies in the head, something I’m sure the Ministry of Culture isn’t too keen on.

Death Note is about a boy with a God complex who uses a magical notebook to kill people, and the show caused a ruckus in 2005 when Chinese officials in western Gansu province tried to get it banned on account of being a “bad influence”.

The popular Attack on Titan, known in Japanese as Shingeki no Kyojin and Mandarin Chinese as Jinji de Juren, tells a post-apocalyptic parable about survivors who live in a realm ravaged by gargantuan humanoids.

While gritty and violent, Attack on Titan has also raised many an eyebrow for its political undertones, with democracy supporters in Hong Kong using the show’s imagery during the Occupy protests and even arguing that the series’ titular, ever-encroaching Titans can be interpreted as a metaphor for the Chinese mainland itself.

Highschool of the Dead, Death Note and Attack on Titan are not for children, and a quick look at Chinese social media networks Weibo and Wechat reveal that none of the fans of these shows (which tend to be older, teenaged audiences anyway), are saying otherwise.

What they are objecting to, however, is blatant censorship - as well as the fact that the government is taking very real steps to limit what they can and can’t watch.

Additionally, this list of 38 anime is set to expand over time and may eventually include series that you would be hard-pressed to describe as inciting any “crimes against public morality.”

According to April reports by Want ChinaTimes, citing the Beijing Morning Post, a much longer list was leaked in April that included popular fare like One Piece, a rip-roaring pirate saga, and Sailor Moon, a classic series about magical heroines that most Asian girls seem to have watched at some point in the 90’s.

The worst you could say about One Piece is that it has some intense battles and features a few voluptuous females. As for Sailor Moon, well, I’m not exactly sure what is so offensive about that. I watched it a few times when I was nine years old, and I turned out okay.

It is important to note that neither One Piece nor Sailor Moon were included in the list of 38 banned anime released last week, so it’s possible that they were excluded from the ban upon further review. But the fact that both of these shows were considered is alarming, particularly when they extol themes of camaraderie and remaining loyal to one’s friends much more than any sort of violence, pornography or terrorism.

Mainland China has long desired to guide its populace with a steady moral compass, and president Xi Jinping’s policies have only furthered this mission with a push to purge online materials deemed offensive by the Communist Party. 

Yet censoring or banning popular media is rarely the right path to take, because more often than not, as in the case of China’s bungling attempts to bowdlerise Game of Thrones, the result turns into an embarrassment decried by local fans, who will often jump through hoops to locate the uncensored version via internet VPNs or China’s immense gray market.

The same will hold true of this latest array of prohibited programmes.

Interest in Highschool of the Dead, Death Note and Attack on Titan is only sure to rise, likely driving sales of pirated DVD imports from Taiwan and Hong Kong all over the back alleys of Beijing and Shanghai.

And while streaming sites may have been targeted, plenty of Chinese manga portals hosting scans of the original comic books that these shows originated from are online and accessible this very minute. So while Chinese fans might not be able to easily watch Attack on Titan, they can still read it if they know where to look. Not a very comprehensive ban, at least for the moment.

In the end, perhaps this “ban” is less about protecting young people and more about limiting the exposure of foreign works and promoting China’s domestic animation market. Local cartoons, after all, have long struggled to gain a foothold in the face of Japanese anime and big-budget Western releases by Pixar.

In 2008, when China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television pulled a similar stunt by banning prime-time anime broadcasts in favour of local shows, Beijing cultural critic Chan Koonchung offered some wise words that still ring true seven years later.

“The problem is that the standard of Chinese animation is far behind international standards. Nurturing creativity is the answer to the problem, but to do so, the government has to allow children to be free to choose the cartoons they want to watch," Chan said.

"We are living in a globalised world. The government must be cautious when issuing any bans. It should let the people see as much as possible.”