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Having dominated the box office to become Japan’s highest-grossing film ever, a movie adaptation of the smash-hit anime series “Demon Slayer” is finally heading to theaters in the U.S. later this month. There is a catch, however: The movie has been rated R (Restricted) by the Motion Picture Association (MPA), meaning that anyone under age 17 must be accompanied by an adult guardian to be able to watch it in American theaters.

The news of the R rating in the U.S., due to its “violence and bloody images,” as the MPA put it, has been met with surprise in Japan, where the blockbuster has received a much milder rating and carved out a massive fan base among children of all ages.

The difference in attitudes toward the “Demon Slayer” movie is the latest reminder of how anime content that’s made fairly accessible to children in Japan may contain sensitivities such as violence, nudity and crime that could easily upset parents overseas.

That’s not to say that Japanese parents have been entirely unfazed by the hefty dose of gore that has almost defined the hit series — some have taken to social media to express dismay at such scenes. But the relative obscurity of Japan’s parental guidance system has left many others tolerant of — or simply indifferent to — their children being exposed to potentially traumatic depictions of violence.

A tale of an adolescent swordsman who fights demons in his endeavor to save his younger sister, herself transformed into a demon, the series has morphed into a national sensation. Its motion picture adaptation, released last year as “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train,” has dethroned Oscar-winning Studio Ghibli masterpiece “Spirited Away” to rake in box office revenues of nearly ¥40 billion so far, easily the highest tally in Japan’s cinematic history.

The beheading of demons by the young swordsman, Tanjiro Kamado, and his kindred spirits persists throughout the series, making gore and the act of killing an almost indispensable part of it.

It perhaps comes as no surprise, then, that the film got a slightly stricter rating than other popular anime movies in the past when it debuted in Japan last year.

An independent organization called the Film Classification and Rating Organization, commonly known as Eirin in Japanese, is responsible for vetting films. Eirin rated the “Demon Slayer” movie “PG12,” which denotes the need for parental “advice and guidance” for those under age 12.

But since “accompaniment” by parents is not required, films categorized as PG12, the third strictest assessment in Eirin’s four-tier rating system, are in reality readily available to anyone, regardless of age.

Cultural differences

The fact that the movie has been rated R in the U.S. possibly reflects the difference in perceptions of the so-called chambara (sword-fighting) genre deeply ingrained in Japan’s entertainment culture, said Tomoharu Ishikawa, executive director of Eirin.

“People in Japan are used to the portrayal of someone getting killed by a Japanese sword, but an audience over there might be less impervious to the genre and find it cruel,” Ishikawa said.

Movie-goers line up beneath an advertisement for the film
Movie-goers line up beneath an advertisement for the film “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train” outside a movie theater in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district in October. The movie has been given an R rating in the U.S. | BLOOMBERG

In one scene that Makoto Ozaki, one of Eirin’s raters, said may have particularly alarmed his counterparts in the U.S., Tanjiro resorts to repeatedly self-harming with his sword in a bid to awaken himself from the perils of a dreamlike state he was roped into by his enemy.

“That one might have been deemed more violent and inappropriate for children than in Japan, which is generally tolerant” of such depictions, Ozaki said.

When contacted by The Japan Times, the MPA said it doesn’t “comment on the specific details of an individual rating.”

Aside from PG12, Eirin has three other rating levels: G (general audience); R15+ (only for those 15 or older); and R18+ (only for those 18 or older). As much as it’s a far cry from America’s R-rating — which is just short of the MPA’s most prohibitive classification of “NC-17,” which bans anyone 17 or under from attending altogether — PG12 is still a relatively strict rating for an anime movie that has a high affinity with children. Other child-friendly blockbusters in the past, such as “Spirited Away,” “Frozen” and “Your Name.,” were all rated G in Japan, reaching a broad audience including family.

This universality of the G rating has led many production and distribution companies to negotiate with Eirin to push for a G-rating, and the “Demon Slayer” movie was no exception.

“We had a great deal of back-and-forth with (its production company) before eventually settling on PG12,” Ozaki said. “Our judgment was that with the idea of killing and decapitating demons so central to the film’s expression, we just had no other option but rate it PG12.”

Entertainment companies Aniplex of America and Funimation, which are co-distributing the film for a North American audience, both declined to comment on its R rating, including how they think the classification may affect box office revenues.

Anime maturity

Demon Slayer is by no means the first Japanese anime movie to be rated at a level as stringent as R in the U.S. The 2006 sci-fi psychological thriller “Paprika” and the 2006 yakuza-themed action fantasy “Tekkonkinkreet” were both rated G in Japan but rated R upon their U.S. release for “violent and sexual images” and “violent and disturbing images, and brief sexuality,” respectively.

Even in Japan, anime movies can receive a higher rating, one of the most recent examples being the 2020 dark fantasy “Made in Abyss: Dawn of the Deep Soul,” which Eirin rated R15+ due to “depictions of cruel abuse, including the maiming of children.”

But sometimes, the line between films, such as those assigned PG12 and those categorized as R15+ gets blurred, raising questions about the legitimacy of each rating.

One of the most controversial anime movies recently reviewed by Eirin was the 2019 survival horror “The Island of Giant Insects,” a story of a group of teenagers on a school trip who wind up stranded on a deserted island overrun by gigantic, human-devouring insects.

In it, teenage girls are depicted topless and are also shown in separate scenes being eaten by a swarm of newly hatched insects while naked and engaging in sexually intimate behavior while bathing in the sea. Eirin, while acknowledging the film contains “a number of cruel depictions and erotic expressions,” rated it PG12, the same as Demon Slayer.

“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train” dethroned Oscar-winning Studio Ghibli masterpiece “Spirited Away” to rake in box office revenues of nearly ¥40 billion, easily the highest ever in Japan’s cinematic history. | REUTERS
“Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train” dethroned Oscar-winning Studio Ghibli masterpiece “Spirited Away” to rake in box office revenues of nearly ¥40 billion, easily the highest ever in Japan’s cinematic history. | REUTERS

But the same outcome would be nearly unthinkable in the U.S., according to Los Angeles-based film critic Yuki Saruwatari, who said a film with such an abundance of overt nudity would “definitely be R-rated” should it get a U.S. release.

The series of discrepancies between Japan and the U.S. in their ratings underline their fundamentally different perceptions of how mature animation movies can be, Saruwatari said.

“In the U.S., animated movies, in particular those created by Disney and Pixar, are essentially marketed toward children and they need to be enjoyed, first and foremost, by family,” she said. With a few exceptions of vulgar, satirical films tailored for an adult audience — such as the 2016 comedy “Sausage Party” — “it is almost inconceivable for American animated movies to be rated R,” she said.

In this sense, highly sexual depictions of young girls that sometimes appear in Japanese anime, especially those seemingly inspired by male fantasies, “are likely to be strongly frowned upon by an audience in the U.S.,” Saruwatari said.

Parental disinterest

Adding to this attitude gap is the fact that parental guidance appears to be taken much more seriously in the U.S.

A 2018 survey of 1,559 American parents of children between the ages 7 and 16 — conducted by data firm Nielsen on behalf of the MPA — found 91% were either “extremely” or “very” familiar with the ratings system, while 95% agreed that the ratings are helpful tools.

The poll also showed that they cared very much about the appearance of an array of adult material in motion pictures, with 79%, 69% and 67% either “extremely” or “very” concerned about graphic sex scenes, full male nudity and full female nudity, respectively.

In Japan, however, the same level of parental interest in film ratings is arguably absent. Moreover, a parental point of view isn’t prized in Eirin as it is with the MPA, whose rating board is comprised of raters who are parents themselves. In Eirin, parental experience isn’t a prerequisite for becoming a rater. The Japanese ratings board also says it has conducted no major survey to gauge a public awareness of its rating system.

Mami Hosoya, a Tokyo mother of 11-year-old and 7-year-old daughters, says she doesn’t have a clue as to what each film rating in Japan even means. Nor does she go out of her way to research anime shows or movies before letting her children watch them.

Her two daughters are avid “Demon Slayer” fans and have watched both the TV anime series and the movie. Hosoya, however, says she doesn’t particularly mind them being exposed to the scenes of bloodshed rife in the saga.

“There is much more to the show than humans getting killed or demons getting beheaded. Those expressions are only a portion of what the show is about, so I’m not that bothered,” Hosoya, 38, said.

Such a view was echoed by 44-year-old Sachie Komatsu, whose 7-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter have likewise watched all the anime episodes.

“I was a little struck by the first episode,” Komatsu said, referring to a scene in which Tanjiro returns home to discover his entire family — apart from his sister Nezuko — savagely massacred by a demon with their bodies drenched in blood.

“But it didn’t stop me from letting my kids watch it. As the story goes on, you realize those demons have their own tragic pasts or a bit of human sides to them, which is quite moving. My son feels the same way,” she said.

Komatsu said that, so far, her children have shown no outward signs of being traumatized or influenced by the violence depicted in the series. But in one particular way, she has noticed her son starting to act more like Tanjiro.

“He’s been carrying his sister on his back and running around in our house. He’s now more like ‘I need to protect my sister and my family,’” she said. “So I guess you could say he’s influenced by the show, but in a good way.”

This universality of the G rating has led many production and distribution companies to negotiate with Eirin to push for a G-rating, and the
This universality of the G rating has led many production and distribution companies to negotiate with Eirin to push for a G-rating, and the “Demon Slayer” movie was no exception. | BLOOMBERG

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