I have been approached by some parents on occasion with a fairly complicated question:
“My kids are into anime and/or manga. What is it and what do I need to know so I can monitor what my kids are watching?”
The answer is complicated, and when I present it, it invariably provokes a lot of follow-up questions, so I’m going to present this as a sort of FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions. Hopefully this will clear up some of that confusion, and help parents make better decisions about their kids’ viewing material.
NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY: By “Kids” and “Children” I mean any person legally considered a minor in the United States – under the age of 18. This isn’t meant to condescend to people in this age group – this article is meant for parents, including parents of children with disabilities.
Anime is, in short, Japanese animation in general. Manga is similarly Japanese “sequential art” (comics and graphic novels) in general. It is a medium in the same way comic books, movies and television are a medium – a wide variety of stories can be told in anime and manga, from science fiction films which discuss the depth of the human experience (like Blade Runner in film and Ghost in the Shell in anime) to light and fluffy romantic comedies (most of Richard Gere’s films and lots of anime aimed for girls), to risque sex comedies (Porky’s and American Pie in film, and the so-called “Harem” comedy genre), to truly bizarre art films (An Andalusian Dog in film, and Cat Soup in anime). You may have even seen some anime before and not known about it.
“No, I haven’t.”
Have you seen Speed Racer or Astro Boy? How about Robotech, or Star Blazers? Maybe something by Hayao Miyazaki, like My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, or Howl’s Moving Castle? If you’ve seen two of those, you’ll be able to tell how different two different anime works can be from each other.
Anime, unlike American animation, is also made for all age groups. Some shows, like Doraemon and Pokemon, are aimed for younger children, particularly those in grade school. Others, like Bleach, Dragon Ball Z, Naruto and Death Note for boys and Sailor Moon, Fruit’s Basket, Fushugi Yugi and Vampire Knight for girls, are aimed for kids in middle and high school, and are referred to as “Shonen” and “Shojo” series (respectively). Finally, for people for college and older, there are seinen anime and manga for men, like Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Blade of the Immortal, and Black Lagoon. For women there is Josei anime and manga, like X/1999, Paradise Kiss, Honey & Clover, and other series.
However, just because a series is aimed for older audiences doesn’t mean that it necessarily contains nudity or graphic violence. So, before we start getting to what anime is, and what you think your kids should watch, the first question you, as a parent, need to ask is, “What sort of movies, television and books do I think my children can handle?”
“My kids can handle most PG movies, and TV, but I don’t think they’re ready for anything with blood or suggestive content.”
Then outside of Pokemon (which is about as suspenseful as early Disney features) and My Neighbor Totoro (which is even less suspenseful and has no dramatic or melodramatic conflict to speak of, compared to The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, or even Toy Story), anime isn’t for your kids.
Most anime viewers in the US are middle school age or older, and usually learn about it through word of mouth from their peers or by finding manga in the library. (Exception – kids whose parents are anime fans. However, kids whose parents are anime fans likely aren’t going to be reading this – unless they’re looking for a way to explain anime to other parents who aren’t fans.) Consequently, most anime released in the US is aimed to appeal to viewers from middle-school age to adulthood, and not much anime is released in North America for young children.
“Oh, and what about those Pokemon Cards?”
Basically, it’s a game meant to promote the other parts of the franchise – the TV show and the video games. The video games promote the TV show and the cards, and so on. It’s a lot like what Transformers and G.I. Joe did in the 80s, except Pokemon is a little less violent – rarely are characters even implied to be in deadly peril.
“My kids can handle Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Army of Darkness, or CSI.”
Excellent. Your kids may be able to handle Shonen and Shojo anime. Shonen anime usually involves a few mature themes, some suggestive themes, and comically absurd violence without gore. Basically, Shonen anime is the Japanese version of superhero comics. However, unlike DC or Marvel Comics, where everyone is in their respective big universes, Shonen series can have settings as wide ranging as One Piece (where the main characters are pirates in a planet-sized archipelago), Bleach (where the main characters fight supernatural enemies in sword duels in a semi-afterlife), and Death Note (a super-sleuth matches wits with a vigilante with a magic notebook which lets him kill whoever he wants by writing their name in it), all having nothing to do with each other whatsoever.
“My kids can handle Aliens, Terminator II, Saving Private Ryan, or The Dark Knight”
Your children should be able to handle some seinen and josei series, particularly giant robot series like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Armored Trooper Votoms, Akira, X/1999 or Ghost in the Shell. These series often have graphic violence, some gore, nudity, and some mature themes, like the horrors of war, depression, or even an analogy of finding ones identity and coming into adulthood as represented by the violent development of psychic powers.
There are plenty of other series besides these that are fine, like the first season of Full Metal Panic! and Code Geass which your kids should be able to handle. Other shows might not work as well – Black Lagoon is a series about gangsters and pirates in the modern South Pacific, in addition to graphic violence and suggestive content it has plot lines ranging from a former communist revolutionary still trying to come to grips with the post Soviet-block world, to two murderous twin children turned assassins (with the lead trying to find out if the characters are irredeemable monsters or whether they can be “saved”), to some of the characters trying to hold on to, or regain, their sense of Humanity. These are very mature themes. If your kids can handle them, then more power to them, if not, stay away.
“My kid can handle and understand Saw.”
Then you have absolutely nothing to worry about.
“Wait, what about that Shojo and Josei stuff?”
Well, that’s a little different. Most shojo and josei series focus, more or less, on interpersonal relationships. There might be some female nudity, but for most female audiences that’s nothing to worry about, as readers and viewers are literally not seeing anything that they haven’t seen every day. Here the questions are a little different.
- For Shojo: Can your child recognize that these relationships are idealized relationships based the norms of another culture? Can your child recognize that these situations don’t necessarily represent anything they’d encounter in “American” daily life?If so, then you have nothing to worry about with Shojo.
- For Josei: In addition to the last questions – how do you feel about homosexuality? Is your child able to understand the concept of homosexual relationships? If so, how do they feel about them?The most common genre of josei manga to be brought to the United States are series related to romantic relationships between men, called “Yaoi.” The female counterpart is known as “Yuri.” In some series the characters aren’t closeted, and their sexuality isn’t a plot issue (outside of romantic relationships). In other series, the characters are in the closet, and society treats people who are gay or lesbian is explored in the story’s plot. Still, the series are about people of the same gender in romantic relationships, and if alternative sexualities are a problem for you, or your kids, then josei is not for your family. If they can handle that, and you can handle them being exposed to those concepts, then they can handle josei.
“So, are Seinen & Shonen just for boys and Shojo and Josei just for girls?”
Not particularly. Many Shonen and Seinen series have female readers, and increasingly more and more mangaka (manga writers & arts) are recognizing this when writing series. Similarly, men also read Shojo and Josei are also popular with men as well. The manga circle (group) CLAMP almost exclusively publishes in Shojo and Josei magazines, yet their series are popular with male readers as well.
“Where can I find out more about Anime and Manga?”
Well, first off, if there’s a specific series you’re looking for, a good place to check is often Wikipedia. Wikipedia will often to more into detail about a series plot then other sites will. Anime News Network‘s encyclopedia also has some information about series, though their content advisories are vague at best.
Ultimately, there is no substitute to watching a series for yourself, either on your own or with your child and making the judgment call as to whether your kid can handle the series subject matter.
“Where can I get Anime and Manga?”
Most retailers like Best Buy and Borders have recently scaled back their stock of anime. Consequently, some of the best places to get anime on DVD or Blu-Ray are through Amazon.com and RightStuf.com. Your local county library system probably have some anime, though it will generally be with the general collection, so you may have to look by title instead of by genre. Additionally, more and more anime has been made available on line for streaming, legally. Good places to look are Hulu.com, Crunchyroll.com, AnimeNewsNetwork.com, and Funimation.com.
In addition to Amazon and RightStuf, most book stores still carry a wide selection of all sorts of manga, so you should be able to walk in and browse titles on the shelves. This won’t tell you the intricacies of the plot, but it should give you some content information. Libraries usually carry manga as well, and a librarian should be happy to help you find what you’re looking for.
“I don’t have the time to read or watch anime or manga with my kids? I need info on making a snap judgement.”
Well, some anime will have an age rating somewhere on the cover. RightStuf.com will also provide some age rating guidelines. However, may not have content descriptors. Still, in a pinch, this should suffice.
“Will going to an anime convention like Kumoricon in Portland or Otakon in Baltimore help me learn more?”
Absolutely. However, keep in mind that you are jumping into the deep end of the pool. Most programming at anime conventions is aimed for people who are fans of anime – enough that even if they wouldn’t call themselves “die-hard” fans, they know what they like. However, anime fans tend to be welcoming to newcomers and happy to see people express an interest in the hobby, even if they can be extremely enthusiastic about it (sort of like asking a room full of English majors to recommend a book after saying that you know nothing about literature and want to know more).
“Do you have a book to recommend on the topic?”
Most books on anime are written for fans, but Anime Essentials by Gilles Poitras is a decent, if dated, primer on the topic. Manga: The Complete Guide by Jason Thompson, is also a good primer on manga and a reference guide on various manga series. The list of series is a little out of date, but that’s to be expected as are published every year. The Rough Guide to Anime by Simon Richmond has a brief history of anime, as well as some information on important series, and why they’re important, and where to go if you want to know more. The Anime Encyclopedia by Johnathan Clements and Helen McCarthy covers the same ground as Thompson’s book, but for anime. It’s about 5 years out of date (the most recent edition stops at 2006, before series like Death Note, Black Lagoon, or Gurren Lagann aired), but it still covers over 50 years of films and television series. If this feels overwhelming, don’t worry – it’s a big topic, with lots to learn about.
Parents – have any additional questions? Feel free to post in the comments.