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Anime in Europe

A survey of how anime spread through the major countries of Europe and the difficulties it encountered in terms of censorship. John Gosling reports from England.

Bounty Dog © Manga Entertainment

When looking for a common thread to link this article, I was struck by how often anime had ran foul of censorship in Europe, a problem that is certainly something of a sore point with fans here in Britain due to the many cuts imposed on videos by the British Board Of Film Classification (BBFC). To briefly explain the role of the BBFC, its examiners view and then assign certificates to all the films and videos shown in Britain. These certificates place legal age limits on who can watch a film, and range from a "U" for Universal to an "18" for anything of a strictly adult nature. I should point out that an "18" does not equate to the American "X" rating, which is often synonymous with pornography. The BBFC is also able to demand cuts and modifications to bring a film into the realms of public decency and can refuse a certificate completely if deemed necessary.

Naturally the board has long been at the center of controversy regarding issues of personal freedom, and in recent years anime has come very much to the forefront of that debate; but before we delve deeper into the situation in Britain, let us begin with a brief overview of anime in mainland Europe, from where it began, to where it stands at present.

Spain & France

There are a number of European countries where anime enjoys a much broader exposure than in Britain; however, things got off to a difficult start when early imports of television shows came up against local opposition to their content, which, even if made for children, often took a far more relaxed attitude to mature themes than broadcasters and parents were used to. A case in point was the giant robot show Mazinger Z (TranZor Z in America), which in 1980 was picked up for broadcast in Spain by Television Española (TVE), but was discontinued after only 26 episodes because the broadcasters judged it was too violent. The problem is a familiar dichotomy to anime fans wishing to see the genre expand it's appeal. Broadcasters are thrust into a state of confusion, equating cartoons with children, but unable to place anime comfortably in this niche. A similar fate befell Saint Seiya, a series based on the manga of Masami Kurumada, and which took inspiration from both Greek and Norse mythology. However, Saint Seiya got a second chance when the entire series was broadcast by another Spanish channel, Tele-S, and this time the flame caught and started a fire. Now it is possible to see an incredibly broad range of anime on Spanish television, including shows that have almost legendary status with Western fans, such as Lupin III, Kimagure Orange Road, Touch, City Hunter, Ranma 1/2 and Maison Ikkoku. As an interesting aside, the degree of tampering appears to vary with regions in Spain, hence in the Catalan region you can see the Dragonball series with it's original titles intact, while in the rest of the country the show goes out in an edited format.

UFO Robot Grandizer

In France, anime has had a particularly rough ride. The first anime to reach the country was Ribbon No Kishi (Princess Knight), translated as Le Prince Saphir, and Jungle Taitei (Jungle Emperor) as Le Roi Leo, both from the fertile imagination of manga and anime genius Osamu Tezuka. These appeared in 1974 and I can't imagine caused any great stir; but things really heated up in more ways than one in the late 70s. First of all, the series UFO Robot Grandizer was broadcast in 1978 as Goldorak and, like Saint Seiya in Spain, was the catalyst for a boom in anime imports, as it apparently was the most watched program on television at the time. However, during this period a French psychologist also wrote an article which warned of the danger to young children of watching "violent" Japanese cartoons. This event has real parallels with the work of Dr. Frederick Wertham, the psychologist who created a considerable panic in the early 1950s amongst American parents when he proposed a link between delinquency and the horror comic books popularized by publisher EC. A similar hysteria was to be whipped up in France, and in much the same way as America came up with the Comics Code Authority (CCA) to regulate comics, so France was to have it's CSA, or Comité de Surveillance Audiovisuel. The CSA set to work cutting the violence from shows such as Hokuto No Ken (Fist Of The Northstar). Although you can reasonably argue the merits of such a move, worse was to come when the government enacted a law banning advertisements during cartoons.

Macross Plus © Manga Entertainment

Again, this had a worthy ideal, but the response of broadcasters was to use the CSA guidelines to savagely cut anime (not just violence and nudity) to make room for more adverts before and after the programs; this was a rather blatant way of getting round the new law, but one that apparently went unchallenged. Another way in which anime is tampered with in France relates to a further law which stipulates that daily indigenous programming must outnumber imported shows. As a result, many shows are crudely cut down to half their normal length, and broadcasters have commissioned new and poorly animated opening sequences, with new "theme songs," so that they can qualify as locally made.

Germany & Italy

Germany has an increasingly strong base of fandom, but anime has had to struggle to overcome the concerns of parents and there has not yet been a Saint Seiya or UFO Robot Grandizer to create mass appeal. The first anime show to reach West Germany was Mach Go Go Go (Speed Racer) in the early 1970s; but this was branded "brutal" by parents and removed after only a few episodes. One of the more interesting shows to reach German TV in 1980 was Captain Future, based on the books of American science-fiction writer Edmond Hamilton, though this too came in for criticism and was cut. However, many subsequent imports tended toward safe material aimed at young girls, such as Heidi, though even this came under attack, when with others of this type, it was labeled in the German press as a "cheap Far East cartoon." However, things do seem to have improved lately, with shows such as the renowned shoji (girls) series Rose Of Versailles making an appearance in the last 12 months, alongside a flurry of sports based anime, such as Ganbare! Kickers and Attack No. 1.

Italy has perhaps the most relaxed attitude to anime and apparently the best approach in Europe to dubbing. Since 1973, Italian television has shown an astounding number of shows, with Go Nagai's UFO Robot Grandizer once again the forefront. Following on from this has come virtually every major show and format, from the top rated giant robot saga Gundam, to Leiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999 and a bevy of "magical girl" shows, such as Minky Momo and Magical Emy.

Patlabor English Language version: ©1995 Tohokushinsha Corporation.

Back in the UK

In the UK, we have no history of anime on television to speak of, and indeed British TV has always walked a careful line in regards to children's programming. For example, the title of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was changed to Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, because the word Ninja had connotations which were felt to be unsuitable for children. Nor does Britain have much in the way of a comic book culture such as in Spain, which I am sure has worked in parallel to help ease anime into the mainstream on the continent. In our somewhat repressed climate, the arrival of anime on video took the BBFC completely by surprise.

What has amounted to a video invasion was launched in 1991 by Manga Video, a subsidiary of Island World. They had tested the waters with Katsuhiro Otomo's sensational cyberpunk film Akira, and such was its success that they formed a new dedicated label called Manga Video. Unfortunately, the company has had a fairly acrimonious relationship with "anime fans," not least because purists objected to the use of "manga" in connection with an anime label, when everyone knows that it refers to Japanese comic books. The real problems, though, began when Manga Video started to release titles in earnest, beginning with some fairly extreme material guaranteed to kick up a stink. The horror story Urotsukidoji did just this, earning an 18 certificate and giving the poor examiner nightmares for days after.

The British press was quick to pick up on the film and several disparaging articles appeared, notably one in The Independent; but there has been no great anti-anime crusade in this country, and the only real disappointment is that the extreme films have overshadowed the true depth and vision of which anime is capable.

However, along with some rather dubious dubbing practices, these negative factors combined to create something of a schism between "manga" fans and "anime" fans; indeed, the mere mention of the company's name at anime conventions tends to evoke calls of derision. This seems to be healing a little now, especially as Manga has since released some classics with wide appeal like Patlabor and Wings Of Honneamise. Meanwhile, the BBFC continue to tread a careful path, having recently refused for the first time to issue a certificate to a video, in this case Manga's La Blue Girl.

Redressing the Balance

Other companies, such as Kiseki, have tried to redress the balance by releasing softer material, but one unfortunate side effect of the massive spending power of Manga Video is that most shops are still to this day displaying their anime titles beneath Manga's point-of-sale displays. Journalists outside the anime press made (and still) make no distinction between what is on the shelf, tending to reinforce the idea that anime = sex and violence; and in my opinion few of those buying Manga titles in the early days were especially interested in the fact that the films originated in Japan, as long as there was plenty of the aforementioned sex and violence.

Of course, most continental viewers started out in much the same state of ignorance. It can't have helped, for instance, that Kei And Yuri of the Dirty Pair TV series became Kate and Julie in Italy and Maison Ikkoku's Kyoko became Juliette in France.

I had rather hoped that, as with other European countries, we in Britain might next see a manga explosion, which in turn would stimulate interest in a broader range of anime. However, despite the success of one publisher with a manga project called Iron Fist Chinmi aimed at children (100,000 sold) there is no sign yet that this has opened the floodgates. Meanwhile, just as happened in Japan during the 1980s, films made directly for video is going where television fears to tread; rather than pushing the bounds of storytelling, the trend is somewhat more basic in intent, with Manga Video launching an "adult" label in Spain and erotic anime are selling very well in France.

On a more positive note, anime is expanding elsewhere in Europe, with Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso and My Neighbor Totoro getting television premieres in Finland and at least 50 titles made available on video. Porco Rosso, considered a masterpiece by many, has also been dubbed and shown on Polish TV.

The Winds of Honneamise © Manga Entertainment

In the last year, the first tentative signs of interest from British television have appeared, with Channel 4, a broadcaster with a broad alternative mandate, running several late night anime seasons--though completely dominated by Manga product. Rather more hopeful for a balanced approach is the news that the BBC has purchased both Patlabor and Wings Of Honneamise. Nevertheless, Britain remains rather the odd man out in Europe, as it does in most things, so no one is expecting to see something like the delightful love story, Kimagure Orange Road in the BBC children's broadcast slot for a long time to come.

John Gosling is a freelance writer living in England. His major credits include numerous anime video reviews for the magazine MangaMania and an article on the use of factual space concepts in anime for Spaceflight, the journal of the British Interplanetary Society.