Anime's misadventures with Cancel Culture: Dragon Maid to Spy x Family
For as long as anime has existed, so has "cancel culture." From the ignorance of people who think all anime is just s**ual material to people who whine about the politics in several series, a lot of complaints have sprung up revolving around anime since before social media was invented.
Social media, unfortunately, has only added more vitriol to the proceedings as the concept of polite and civilized discourse gets abandoned for tribalism and ultimately "us vs. them" demonization tactics. The predominant discussion today involves a phenomenon known as "Cancel Culture," whereby groups of people attempt to ostracize and "cancel" something or someone over perceived offenses.
While that is a problem nowadays, it's hardly the worst thing that's been done.
Note: This topic is highly politically charged, and will contain discussions of disturbing material inside and outside of anime, especially as it relates to "cancel culture." As such, content warning for discussions of s**ual abuse, extreme violence, and hate speech. This article reflects only the opinion of the author.
Cancel Culture and anime: a history
The pre-internet age wasn't exactly a paradise for geek culture. In the 1950s, the United States experienced the earliest doses of "cancel culture" with comic books.
Comic books were subjected to intense censorship and ostracization due to the depictions of subjects considered offensive to the socially conservative environment of the time, such as drug use, and the potential suggestion of LBGT+ people (comibned with p***filiac suggestions), and the presence of vigilantism.
The less said about the Actual N*zis that attempted to get Marvel's Captain America comic taken out of circulation, including attacks in the offices, the better.
This led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, a censorship board for American comics that screened comics for "appropriateness."
While the CCA is largely thought of as a joke nowadays, this form of "cancel culture" meant that a lot of comics and creators, particularly with works empowering or starring women, people of color, and LGBT+ people, had to tone down their subject matter (be it drug use, LGBT+ people, horror, etc.), or be dragged before Congress like Tales from the Crypt was.
This practice interconnected a lot of bigotry, such as racism, h*m*phobia and s*xism, creating an extremely hostile environment thanks to the rise of the Christian evangelism mixed with conservative beliefs and policies, as a reactionary backlash to social progression.
This form of cancel culture intertwined with the Cold War, as anything dubbed "UnAmerican" was quickly squashed and buried. Dungeons and Dragons were popular targets for this style of moral panic in the 1970s, with video games following suit in the 1990s and early 2000s.
So, what does all this history have to do with anime and manga? Well, by late 1980s and into the 1990s, anime and manga began to be distributed overseas and began to make an impact. Unfortunately, this wasn't without its blowback, as some of the earliest forms of cancel culture started with studios and entire countries.
Pokemon games, for instance, were banned in multiple countries for gambling even after removing the references to gambling, whereas the anime itself was criticized for perceived N*zi imagery in one episode and the violence had to be toned down in a few areas due to complaints.
A legitimate concern would be the Porygon episode "Electric Soldier Porygon" which caused around 600 Japanese children to have seizures. Other examples were PETA using Pokemon as an example of specisim.
While it is common for anime to be toned down from its original release, what is especially grating is when censorship erases identites. LGBT+ identities are frequent targets of this. As if the various flavors of bigotry toward LGBT+ people today aren't bad enough, it seeps into media as well. These go into the cancel culture realm as well, though some tend to not see it that way.
The usual defense is that the cancel culture type mentality for them comes from an area of parental concern as in "won't somebody think of the children?!" as if they were Helena Lovejoy from The Simpsons. Hysterical though that may sound, there have been plenty of examples of people using that very refrain against anything they find offensive, such as book bannings of LGBT material to the defiance of authority in books like Farenheight 451.
Akira had limited screenings abroad for its over-the-top violence, and Violence Jack has been seen as controversial if not outright garbage for likewise despite being credited with the creation of such manga as Berserk. There was also quite the controversy surrounding Sailor Moon.
The original Sailor Moon English dub by DIC had some infamous choices that definitely go into "Cancel Culture" where h*m*phobia is concerned in locationalizations.
The villain Zoisite was made female when Zoisite is male in the manga and in a relationship with male villain Malachite, and the change of Neptune and Uranus from an older l*sbian couple to cousins and cutting out any overt dialogue or scenes. Being LGBT is a nonstarter, but inc*st is fine, apparently.
While that is not the only example, it is certainly huge as plenty of anime have definitely baited their audiences with queer romances before. One example is Mirai Nikki, with the character Aru Akise having one-sided feelings for Yuki, only to get killed off moments after expressing them.
There have been ongoing controversies about the portrayal of tr*nsg*nder identities with the "trap" trope in anime likewise, and LGBT identities being seen primarily as jokes or for humor's sake was a problem in the pre and early internet days.
While this has changed, especially with Yuri on Ice and other anime, it remained under a subtextual lens to evade cancel culture in the early internet era with media like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Sailor Moon being firmly in the minority. This is definitely an example of cancel culture, since it means anything LGBT can be grounds for harassment by fans or the company.
What tends to be overlooked in this is that fans can be incindery when things do not go their way. A big example in the early internet era is Neon Genesis Evangelion getting a ton of hate mail over not only the end of the series but the movie The End of Evangelion, as most fans expected a happy ending. This also extended to death threats toward cast and crew.
The Early Internet/Web 1.0
While anime fans are no stranger to warring with each other over waifus, or subs vs. dubs, and new vs. old, sometimes horrific behavior reaches critical mass. Which is a way of saying: Welcome to the internet age!
While the early days of the internet were hardly the greatest, some people absolutely prefer them to the social media age of today. Why? Simply put, at least in the older internet age fans were not constantly barraged by cancel culture from fans.
If you were an anime fan, there were websites for that and to recommend anime to others. If you were a super fan of something, there were usually a few fansites here or there that could help.
That is not to say that the "cancel culture" controversy didn't rear its ugly head when it came to the early internet. Aside from the aforementioned NGE, plenty of other anime stirred up controversy, like Death Note.
Death Note faced a crackdown in China and the USA due to students carrying replica Death Notes around, Elfen Lied was given up on due to its seriously gory nature, Axis Powers Hetalia was seen as far too nationalistic and politically tone deaf, among other things. Excel Saga even made an episode that was too much for TV, given that it had far too much nudity and over-the-top violence.
Some would still rather have had that era due to the relative privacy it offered, at least anime and fans could enjoy themselves without feeling like they would be ostracized for it. Others likened the era to the "Wild West" days, where almost anything was acceptable, not positively, however, because of the amount of toxicity.
Cancel culture in Web 2.0 and social media
The rise of social media and video sharing websites like Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and others may have led to more people getting widespread access to express themselves. But for every positive and civilized communication, these platforms have also been used to shed light on some particularly nasty behavior in the industry and for not-so-well-intentioned activities like doxxing and death threats.
Various anime from the 2010s and start of the 2020s have been taken off air or otherwise been censored for overseas production and publication. Some are s**ual in nature, such as Interspecies Reviewers, which got dropped from Funimation and other places for falling outside their standards.
Then there are things that deserve to be forgetton or taken off the air, like Kodomo no Jikan and the disturbing manga Mai-Chan's Daily Life, which featured tons of grotesque material of a s**ual nature that thankfully never got animated. This is not cancel culture - it is just about having good sense.
As far as behavior by the industry goes, there are widespread examples like P.A. Works, the anime studio behind Shirobako, barely paying their animators enough to get by, as was confirmed in the aftermath of tweets from an inbetweener describing a "desk fee" she was to pay for her work there and hardly having enough money to live.
While the company denied the existence of such a fee, the rest of the accusations, including long workdays for too little pay, are all too true alongside other problems with crunch periods and no work/life balance.
These are widespread industry problems that social media has helped uncover as more workers begin to get their voices heard and a push to unionize has begun. This happened to the writer/director of Kemono Friends, a 3D anime about animal girls.
Long story short, Kadokawa Shoten (the studio behind the series) fired the show's main writer/director Tatsuki and resulted in lengthy pushback as the studio claimed that Tatsuki had been using the art assets in violation of copyright, which was proven false. The company could not reach an agreement, and a second season was ultimately produced by a different studio in 2019.
This seems as good a time as any to discuss entitlement and parasocial relationships as it relates to "cancel culture." A parasocial relationship, according to several sources, is the often one-sided obsessive relationship between a fan and the object of their desires, be it a sports team, celebrity, or online persona.
It often leads into entitled and toxic fan behavior when things do not go the way that they expect.
Today, cancel culture is a combination of entilted behavior, some fans and critics completely ignoring context, and others just wanting something off the air. However, it has also been dismissively stated as an overreaction from people to perceived offenses and is usually thrust at more left-leaning causes like the #MeToo movement and others, when in reality it happens regardless of political affiliation. This belies the fact that the industries themselves can be toxic and so can fans.
A good example is Haruhi Suzumiya's actress having her love life leaked all over the internet and being bashed by fans, even going so far as to film them breaking and burning CDs and DVDs. In Japan, that otaku and idol culture has resulted in the emergence of some fans who consider s*x to be a "dirty" thing for their objects of affection.
This isn't exclusive to Japan by any means, however, as Hollywood has the same problem.
Fans participating in cancel culture are easy to spot. When other fans decide to try to make an anime character any type of different skin color, race, or ethnicity, they get accused of so-called "blackwashing," a supposed counter to the actual problem of whitewashing. Whitewashing and colorism are both subsets of racism, and they both have hooks in various anime communities.
Cosplaying as a person of color is likewise considered free range for people to be r*cist against those people just trying to cosplay a character they like. Cancel culture definitely hits here and kinda shows some anime fans as just plain r*cist.
Signal MD's adaptation of Recovery of an MMO Junkie saw its director, Kazuyoshi Yaginuma, getting in trouble for antisemtic tweets, several from 2012, but the updated ones in 2018 were not better. In a more than reasonable reaction to the discovery that a director working on beloved material spouted things like Anne Frank's diary and gas chambers were hoaxes, many people in the industry distanced themselves from the director and the animation studio itself denounced his views.
There were no calls to cancel the anime, just a lot of people denouncing much of Yaginuma's work. He was a freelance director with Production IG and was let go shortly thereafter.
As another example of a less talked about creator getting into trouble, the mangaka of Rurouni Kenshin, Nobuhiro Watsuki, was hit with legit child p*** charges in 2017 and fined well over 200,000 yen.
As far as fan backlash goes, another good place to find "cancel culture" is a mainstream anime.
Attack on Titan has been the subject of much outcry on social media and elsewhere, for a myriad of reasons including painting the entire Eldia vs. Marley conflict as a fascist's w*t dream (with accompanying tweets from the author from several years back to boot). Death threats were also lobbed at Gabi Braun's voice actress and author following the death of fan favorite character Sasha Braus.
Others include Miss Kobyashi's Dragon Maid, a wholesome anime that came under fire when Twitter trolls decided to use it as a positive comparison of LGBT relationships to rile up western cartoon fans by deliberately using a scene out of context and opening the floodgates of negativity. It is worth noting that whilst the anime has had its detractors, the incident got people riled up into flame wars online.
Original Crunchyroll anime High Guardian Spice was likewise bashed into the ground YouTubers and others on social media. The show itself was the victim of false information, death threats, and other forms of toxic fan behavior.
Goblin Slayer has a bit of a history of controversy, as the premiere of the first episode had some people turning away immediately due to the content, namely that a rookie team of adventurers is torn apart and s***ally assaulted. This didn't help when the streaming service Crunchyroll mislabed it as TV-PG when it first aired.
Crunchyroll issued an apology and has since updated the rating to TV-MA and added a content warning. No real attempt to "cancel culture" the show as the manga and light novels are ongoing and season 2 is in development.
Rooster Teeth's RWBY also has its own fair share of awful fan behavior, as every so-called critic of the show ends up repeating the same points verbatim that have been debunked by the cast, crew, and others: that the creator's are ruining Monty Oum's vision (Monty himself dismissed these claims), the creators are bigoted and horrible writers for not letting the terrorist Adam Taurus and military dictator James Ironwood be good guys, death threats, doxxing, and other toxic behaviors.
They seem to believe in their own form of cancel culture where they want to see RWBY gone, even if RWBY is doing better than it ever has been by spreading disinformation and outright slander about the show and people working on it.
Going back to NGE, the original VA for the character Asuka Langley Soryu stated in 2010 that she had a nightmare of an experience working with the creator Hideki Anno. It involved physical assault, among other things, and there were several people who called for Anno and NGE to ultimately be forgotten.
It didn't materialize as Anno has since moved on and reconciled with everyone involved. It didn't help that some tried to paint Anno as a fascist over comments made in 2007.
For all the examples of voice actors being victimized by cancel culture by being brought down by accusations of assault, several high-profile actors like the former VA of Edward Elric Vic Mignogna still have fans. Long story short, the longtime voice actor was accused of making many inappropriate advances, including several unwanted kisses, touching, and other s**ual acts. Thus, Vic was pushed out of his job at Funimation and Rooster Teeth.
According to those that worked with him, it’s been a long time coming as a result of these behaviors and yet fans blame cancel culture and claim Vic was betrayed.
Despite losing his defamation case against Funimation in 2019, Vic still has fans who maintain he did not do anything wrong despite internal investigations at his place of work and years of testimony from coworkers and organizers at conventions such as ConneticutCon.
Fans on My Anime List have review-bomb anything that elcipses Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood for the top spot in best anime of all time. An Oreimo fan took the threats to the author a step further by trying to locate where the author lived and kill them owing to the treatment of their favorite character. Fortunately, the suspect was arrested before any harm could come.
One Piece fans have blown up on Twitter owing to the need for Toei animation staff to take a break due to burnout, then went berserk saying that Toei should give One Piece to a different studio.
Cancel culture targets Spy x Family
Spy x Family, about a spy needing to fake having a family to get closer to a target, is generally considered a good, wholesome anime by many people, especially for the adorable antics of Anya. The faux controversies that stirred the "cancel culture" cries were extremely short lived. One being a TikTok wherein the person claimed that the show s***alized Anya because she blushed as Loid spun her around. There were others, but they were similarly frivolous and never lasted long.
For all of those cancel culture controversies that spawn from people misunderstanding or misinterpreting shows in the extreme, there are real problems in the industry: A lot of mangaka have come out stating they're overtaxed and overworked, something that took the life of Berserk's mangaka. The industry is rampant with people using othersand dropping them with no notice, underpayment, s**ist treatment of female VAs and talent, and entitled fans.
The arson attack that destroyed Kyoto Animation's studio is likewise a grim example, with 200 death threats being sent and over 30 people losing their lives over one man's obsession over so-called "plaigerism."
"Cancel Culture" is indeed real, but people misinterpreting or misunderstanding shows is hardly a problem compared to literal harassment, death threats, attempted murder, and arson.