Anime With Controversial Reputations


“Anime” and “controversy” sometimes go together a little too easily. While most anime are aimed at general audiences, and anime itself has received fairly general mainstream acceptance, it wasn’t always like that — and even today, some titles continue to strike sparks and jolt audiences. Here, in alphabetical order, are some of anime’s most notable controversy-instigators.

Not just for the brutal, nihilistic (and finally apocalyptic) violence; not just for its cynical view of a society devouring itself alive; but also for the sheer expense of the production that culminated in it not performing nearly as well at the box office as hoped. But it’s not remembered today as any kind of white elephant — it’s one of the landmark creations of anime.

The effects of the atomic bombing of Japan has been explored in any number of live-action movies — Black Rain, Dr. Akagi — but a few anime have examined the subject as well. Few have done it as graphically or heartbreakingly as Barefoot Gen, taken from Keiji Nakazawa’s own quasi-autobiographical manga about the bombing of Hiroshima, which Nakazawa himself experienced. The film is unflinching in its depiction of the ghastliness the bomb left in its wake, including the horribly burned hibakusha (atomic bomb victims).

Most people recognize Death Note as a wildly successful anime across the globe, but not an ipso facto controversial one. In mainland China, however, the fad of writing homemade “death notes” caused some schools in the city of Shenyang to ban paraphernalia based on the franchise back in 2008. Students in a few states in the U.S. were also suspended for carrying replica Death Note notebooks with the names of enemies penned in them, sparking further controversy about the marketing of such a morbid series to young people. (The controversy has died down since, thankfully.)

After finding her parents horribly murdered, schoolgirl Sawa becomes a hitman (hitgirl?), using bullets that cause her victims to explode, and causes an astonishing amount of mayhem. If the ultra-violent storyline wasn’t off-putting enough, the graphic rape scene featuring a quite obviously underage Sawa made things even more difficult to choke down. Many editions of the film are censored, although the most recent releases appear to be uncut.

Director Yasuomi Umetsu also garnered another kind of controversy with this production: Kite was something of a pet project for him, and he did all the key animation himself. The same thing happened with the follow-up, Kite Liberator, which partly explains why that sequel took a decade to materialize.

Midori (Shôjo tsubaki: Chika gentô gekiga)

An orphaned girl, Midori, shacks up with a traveling circus and endures endless hardship at the hands of the other performers until a mesmerist joins up with the group and leads Midori down a one-way rabbit hole of revenge and surreal terror.

Based on Suehiro Maruo’s manga (released in English as Mr. Arashi’s Amazing Freak Show), this is an impossible-to-find rarity, and for good reason: director Hiroshi Harada funded the creation of the film out of his own pocket, drawing some five thousand images for it over a period of five years, and intended it for exhibition in a carnival-style roadshow. Unfortunately, he ran afoul of Japan’s censorship laws and withdrew it from circulation, allegedly after parts of it were cut and lost forever. It has since surfaced on DVD in Europe.

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