Problematic Media in Anime

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

By Oli Tajo


Content Warning: This article discusses sensitive topics such as sexual assault and racial violence.


Image via Youtube


Anime, otherwise known as “Japanimation,” is a fast-growing type of media with a huge range of genres, from Astro Boy  (first anime to be aired in 1964), to Makoto Shinkai’s most recent film ’Weathering With You’. The creative aspects and endless possibilities of animation mean that there is so much to enjoy, whether stylized art, Sakuga (where the quality of animation dramatically improves, usually to heighten the action or emphasize the moment), themes, or action. But with many forms of media also comes problematic themes, and anime is no different.


One obvious problem is the sexualization of women in anime. Although most fan service is tailored for money, as the Otaku audience is made of mostly male viewers, the patterns and tropes regarding women have become increasingly worrying. The manner between men and women in anime tends to reflect a power dynamic. Take Free!!, where the anime has fan service for a nearly all-male cast. The fan service is something that is done by them. The poses tend to be full frontal and are close to eye height. It demands some form of respect. But looking at the same fan service with women, it tends to be something done to them. Take sexual assault scenes in anime. Sword Art Online and Kill la Kill both sexualize this for the sake of the viewer, rather than address it as the complex subject matter that it is. The alternative is using assault as shock humor, or playing off the reaction as funny.  It’s humor that plays to Aristotle’s theory of Superiority, creating a joke at the expense of people affected by traumatic events such as assault or harassment. There is also the problem of female protagonists having less of strong character design, in exchange for more fan service, and therefore increasing the already large amounts of misogyny in anime.


Image via Otaku Ohanu. 'Free!!' Is an example of the power male characters hold in anime. Produced by Kyoto Animation Studios. The positions they hold are relaxed, and natural, emphasizing their comfort in this situation. There is also direct eye contact with the viewer, which shows some form of challenge, or authority, unlike Ryuko’s image (see above), where she is avoiding eye contact, and her position is that engaged in combat. She is clearly uncomfortable and not in control of this exposure that she is drawn into.


However, there is the exception of fan service when it is used with intent. For example, the hospital scene, where Ikari assaults Asuka in the film End Of Evangelion, she concludes her status as an object to Shinji Ikari. It also is used as a device to emphasize how Shinji is unable to make decisions for himself, to the point where he immediately goes on instinct, not even thinking of the consequence or implications of what he has done. The words “I’m so f-d up”, as he evaluates what he did, is the only time the f-word is used to add emotional weight to his self-awareness.  Other overly sexual scenes in the show are used to emphasize this through vulnerability, such as the ending of the film, and Misato’s monologues after sleeping with Ryoji.


There is also racism in anime. Most of the time, oppression is played out through taking an “inferior fantasy race,” such as Beastmen in BNA, or the racism of Eldians in Attack on Titan. However, since the portrayal of discrimination itself tends to appear simple in these works, it misses out on the complexities of racism as a system that affects millions of people, not only in Japan but also globally. This is mostly out of ignorance, in defense of the culture, since the population of Japan is 97.8% Japanese. In fact, most offensive or trope designs of black characters, such as Popo in Dragon Ball Z and Michiko’s “angry Black” personality have worrying correlations to the western media that is presented in Japan about black people, specifically. With a general lack of diversity in the country, and with Western influence on perception, it is not a surprise that xenophobia is a major problem in Japanese culture, and that this is reflected in anime.


The last problem in anime comes back to the sexualization of young girls, or in Otaku culture, Lolis. The main argument for sexualizing young minors is that their appearances are offset by highly mature mindsets, for example, Hachekuji in the Monogatari franchise. They are also objectified through complete silence and centering the character around being passive, such as Kanna-chan in Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid. But all this does is indirectly show the audience that since the ‘Loli’ are somewhat ambiguous in their age, it’s okay to sexualize them or allow the older characters to prey on them. But these large age differences not only downplays the seriousness and negative impacts of predatory behavior but also emphasizes the power men hold above women or girls in their interactions sexually through showing a gap in maturity as well.  


Consuming problematic media does not make someone a bad person. The effect and extent of media depends on how it is consumed. For example, simply just watching and accepting that these problems will stay in anime perpetuates the normality of it. But there’s also a problem when someone uses problematic themes in anime, such as the predatory nature of female fan service, to justify their own problematic beliefs. The best way forward, and the only way to ethically consume something, is to acknowledge the context and negative implications inherent within it. As a result, to ethically consume something, by acknowledging the context and the negative implications, is most likely the best way forward.


Written by writer Oli Tajo

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