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Anime vs. the MPAA

Would it kill Naruto if he got a PG-13?
Would it kill Naruto if he got a PG-13?
Copyright Viz Media & MPAA

I’ve been watching some anime these days as a way to recharge from being a film critic and to look for inspiration for new articles. One of the movies I was watching was “Pokémon: Zoroark: Master of Illusions” on Hulu. It’s been a long time since I watched Pokémon so I can’t claim to really know what’s going on anymore, but I admit to really enjoying watching the film. I don’t want to take anything away from the franchise but it really did feel like a good movie that just happened to be a Pokémon film. In the information box Hulu listed the rating of the film as being PG. When I saw the first five films in theaters (yes kids, I’m old) they were all rated G. I went to the MPAA website to check to see if Pokémon had officially entered PG territory.

Alas, it looks like the film was never officially submitted and Hulu just made a guess. From my perspective PG seemed to make sense in this particular case. It sort of got me thinking about the MPAA ratings and the strange relationship they have had with anime movies over the years (funny how I was watching anime to escape movies and just end up writing about them anyway). Despite how long anime has been around in America the idea of getting the films rated is still a relatively new one. Back in the old days most anime movies went straight to VHS (yes, kids, I’m OLD) and were sold directly to adults, so there was usually no need to send films to get rated. Even movies like “Akira” (which later in life received an R) and “Ghost in the Shell” were released in theaters unrated initially. Sure, they tended to only play at the midnight circuits, but that’s because cartoons were REALLY just a kids medium to Americans back then!

At one point in time anime started to become really popular with kids though. Though “Dragon Ball Z” and “Sailor Moon” are the obvious anime hooks for most anime kids from my generation, the big push into the mainstream was Pokémon. Now some of the anime movies were going to be shown in theaters. Theaters meant everyday people who weren’t always familiar with the content of films. Theaters meant ratings. Aside from a few major releases though most anime films were still not rated and the number of anime films that are submitted for ratings is really sporadic. I actually asked a Viz Media representative this question at Comic Con – in 2005 – and her response was that submitting movies for ratings “wasn’t necessary.” Is that really the best reason they could come up with?

I agree that not all anime movies are sent to theaters, but I do think getting film ratings can help in a few logical ways. The first is that getting a rating from the MPAA makes the movie feel more “official,” like it’s a real movie instead of a direct-to-DVD production (which, I want to point out, send their films to get rated by the MPAA as well). It gives it a Hollywood weight that films without ratings tend to lack for some reason. The second reason is that once anime became more popular with kids I think ratings are needed a bit more. For the most part anime companies self-regulate their anime titles with their own personal recommendations for families. It sort of works but not always. Take “Tenchi Muyo!” for example. Back when Pioneer had the show they recommended it for “Ages 13 &Up.” When Cartoon Network aired it they decided on “TV-Y7” (in an edited less than you might expect form). When Funimation released it they gave it a “TV-MA.”

The point here is that obviously not all companies think the same in terms of content, and having a more standardized board giving the movies ratings that are more familiar with the average person would go a long way. It would also take some of the pressure off the companies if a parent buys their kid something they feel is inappropriate. As it stands the anime companies have to try to explain how their own rating system works. If “Naruto the Movie: Legend of the Stone of Gelel” received a PG rating though and a parent feels that’s too low a rating, all Viz would have to do is say “we submitted the film to the MPAA and they gave us PG. You’ll have to take it up with them.”

With more anime movies coming to theaters this seems more important. When Funimation decided to release “Evangelion: 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone” in theaters they actually submitted the film to the MPAA for a rating (much to my surprise). They received a PG-13 (even more to my surprise). They didn’t do this for the other two films though and instead gave their own (personal) recommendation of “TV-14.” Why get the first one rated and not the other two? I think it’s because the other two would have received R ratings, and with these movies going to theaters they didn’t want theaters to card teenagers (which is where most of the money from anime still comes from). The funny thing though is that without a rating these movies are treated like R rated films anyway, so why not just make it official?

Besides, sometimes the MPAA surprises you. Funimation distributed Mamoru Hosoda’s “Summer War’s” in limited theatrical release and DVD. If they were giving a personal recommendation I think most of the companies would err on the safe side and give something around the lines of ages thirteen and up as an appropriate age group. However this film was submitted to the MPAA and it came out with the much tamer PG. Even though I personally think that was a tad low for that movie it did open the door to be placed in the family section of the rental sites and stores (where kids were more likely to want to watch it). Big stores like Target and Wal-Mart also prefer to have movies they buy rated, and a rated anime film would help keep things smooth if a parent should bring an adult anime movie back because of the violent content.

The final thing about movie ratings though is that I am not naïve in thinking they don’t have an effect on marketing. Movie studios purposefully seek out PG-13 ratings for the very reason that they feel that movies with that rating makes the most money. Also if “Dragon Ball Z: Battle of the Gods” is going to mainly attract kids then a PG-13 could be a bit of a hindrance for parents who are willing to accept a PG rated animated film but not a PG-13 one (we still have a long way to go folks). For me though I feel this should be as far from the anime companies minds right now. Their product is so niche that I seriously doubt any rating will hurt a movie they want to sell. If anything it just makes booking the limited theatrical releases less confusing for the theater vendors. And if one of the Sailor Moon movies got a PG-13 it would probably only make some people more curious.

It is true that it's not required to submit a film to the MPAA, but I wonder why not just do it for all your films if you’re going to do it for some. Why submit “From Up On Poppy Hill” for a rating (PG) but not “Letters from Momo” (they are both going to theaters, only one will be treated like an R rated film when it would like receive a PG rating from the MPAA)? Why not use a system that is transparent to the…well, parents. I’m an uncle now and will soon be introduced my niece Ramona to anime in a few years. Having the MPAA ratings would go a long way in helping her parents have comfort on some of the things I’m bringing over. Course, with how useless the MPAA is in their accuracy maybe it’s a good thing the anime studios don’t play this Hollywood game. Still, I think the reasons for getting official ratings make more sense than the reasons for not.

P.S. I should mention that Funimation did get at least ONE of the animated DBZ films rated: "Dragon Ball Z: Fusion Reborn," which was rated PG for "action violence, thematic elements and some rude humor."

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