Drawing Comparisons: The History of Manga and Classification | British Board of Film Classification
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Drawing Comparisons: The History of Manga and Classification

Historical look at manga films and classification.

Date 20/09/2006

The term ‘manga,’ meaning ‘irresponsible pictures', was first coined by Hokusai, the famous Japanese artist. The production of popular comic books and pictures of everyday life emerged in Japan early in the 19th Century and flourished into the 20th.

It has been adapted easily to the medium of film and become ‘anime,’ the moving-picture branch of manga. The first animated features in Japan were produced in the 1930s and 1940s, but the futuristic fantasy films we know today as anime emerged in the 1950s and owe much to the experience of Japan during and immediately after the Second World War.

The emphasis on the romantic adventure story and on science fiction, coupled with themes such as Armageddon, death and destruction and rebirth through sacrifice and unselfishness, reflect the trauma of Japan’s near-destruction during the Second World War and its adoption of new technology enhanced by a dedication to rebuild the shattered nation.


The ever-present fear of a devastating earthquake, which remains an imminent threat, also contributes to the preoccupation with the post-apocalyptic wilderness.

Anime first made its mark in the UK with the release of Akira in 1991 and since then has become a boom industry, with an increasing  number of distributors marketing this material, the biggest being Manga and Kiseki.

To a large extent, anime is the triumph of form over content, though often the non-linear narrative allows complex themes to be explored. To many non-Japanese, cultural barriers prevent any deep understanding of the  underlying themes and imagery.

Many anime fans watch for the spectacular animation and the breathtaking leaps of imagination. Who needs an understandable storyline when you are being taken on a high-tech mystery tour of a far-off galaxy?

The result of the above is that anime sometimes appears to have little respect for the boundaries of taste and decency. Graphic violence, sex and sexual violence often appear within a medium which, in our western experience, has traditionally been free from such incursions.

Adult themes are starting to be explored through animation in western animated films (the backstory of O-Ren in Tarantino’s Kill Bill is a good example), but this is largely as a result of Japanese influence and ‘cartoons’ are still often seen as a children’s format.



A great deal of anime would seem to appeal to a young audience, populated as it is by teen and pre-teen characters, furry fantasy creatures and robots. However, there is sometimes a mismatch between the theme and the presentation and appeal, and this has presented difficulties for the BBFC.

Some of the most problematic anime works for the board have been those in which children are presented as sexually active. The characters in anime works are often presented as childlike, with their big eyes and high voices. They can change form according to their mood and a character that appears adult in one scene can look like a toddler in the next. Sometimes the only way to tell which character is which is through the consistent nature of their  hair colour and style.

In addition to their childlike features, characters are often presented in school uniform, which usually takes the form of a sailor-style top and shorts or a mini-skirt. Until relatively recently, Japanese university students were required to wear uniform and it is sometimes the case that these uniformed characters are actually supposed to be at college.

However, there is a clear link between school uniforms and the notion of underage sex and the Board is always mindful of this when making classification decisions. Cuts have occasionally been written at the 18 rating for such content.

For example, in the series LA Blue Girl Returns, characters presented as children (dressed in uniforms, physically small) are explicitly involved in sexual activity. It was felt that the link could potentially encourage an interest in underage sex and these scenes were removed.

Other scenes in the same work were removed due to their focus on sexual violence. Women are penetrated by a tentacled beast in explicit detail and, again, we felt these scenes contravened our guidelines. Such ‘tentacle rape’ scenes are a feature of a branch of anime known as hentai, a Japanese term meaning ‘strange appearance.’ The term has come to be used to describe pornographic anime works.

As a form of expressing sexual fantasy, hentai works can include depictions that are deemed unacceptable by society, or run counter to social norms. Such fantasies are often depicted in the extreme, demonstrating subconscious desires or purely carnal motivations.

Sexuality or sexual violence is often perpetrated by fantasy creatures or by humans with abnormal anatomy. Despite the fact that this sexual activity is drawn, the BBFC treats these explicit works as it would live-action sex and explicit detail has been removed or pushed up to the R18 category.

Examples of works which have been cut for sexual detail include Mission of Darkness and Alien of Darkness. Both these works were also cut for instances of sexual violence, which very often goes hand-in-hand with explicit sexual content. A further work in the same series, Sex Beast – Idol of Darkness, was rejected as there was barely any salvageable material once the explicit sex and sexual violence were removed.

Despite these examples, cut works remain a very small percentage of the anime product which comes through the Board. Most works are passed at the 12 category, perfect for Manga Entertainment’s stated target market, 12-19 year old British males.

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