Confession: I am kind of a dick about anime. I rarely follow up on recommendations from my anime-loving friends and never stick with a series long enough to give it a chance. I find the art style off-putting and the structure is often so haphazard that I swear some episodes end where they do because the end credits took them by surprise. I recognize this is partially due to my old, white midwestern narrow-mindedness and I’ll own that.
Above: One of the first Google Image Search results for the word “anime”
But all of those are mere annoyances that I could in theory overcome, in the sense that I enjoyed the last Spider-Man even though I believe depictions of a multiverse are in direct contradiction of the Bible’s teachings. No, what really turns me off is the fact that watching any anime I haven’t carefully vetted in advance is playing a game of Sexualized Child Roulette.
“But Jason,” you might say, “all you have to do is avoid the shows set in high school or, even worse, middle school! Those are for horny teenagers anyway, not adult sex predators!”
See, you’d think that would work, wouldn’t you?
Note: Jason’s next novel is called If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe and it’s available for pre-order now, wherever books are sold. It’s the next book in the John Dies at the End series! The movie is on HBO Max!
For example, let’s talk about JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, currently on Netflix. No schoolgirls in sight: it’s a show about a crew of superhuman adults saying anime shit while doing anime shit while wearing anime shit.
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is, in fact, one of the most popular franchises ever, of any kind, in the whole world. The manga has sold over 120 million copies over the last 35 years and it’s been adapted into so many different movies/shows/games that the series name requires a disambiguation page on Wikipedia. Memes from one of its two hugely popular subreddits hit the front page of reddit daily, each more incomprehensible than the last. This one has over 50,000 upvotes:
Statistically, this means there are probably JoJo fans reading this right now, and every single one of them is saying, “Oh, fuck, he’s going to talk about that episode, isn’t he?”
Yep! We’re discussing Episode 7 of the Stardust Crusaders part of the 2014 JoJo series. From here on out, please imagine you’re a new fan making your way through the series and, in order to help the people around you understand your fandom, you have invited all of your friends, family and co-workers to come watch this episode with you.
We begin with our protagonists adrift in rowboats with a pack of nameless sailors, having survived a shipwreck in the previous episode. Along with them is a frightened little girl in overalls named Anne. She’s drawn the size of a toddler but seems to be 10-11 years old.
JoJo (in the hat) and his crew stumble across an abandoned, clearly-haunted ocean liner and, with no other choice, climb on board. Here it’s obvious from a storytelling perspective what the child’s presence brings to the plot: This crew of superhuman monster-fighters now has the additional burden of protecting a kid who’s only as tall as the protagonist’s belt buckle.
Instantly the clearly-possessed ship begins attacking the protagonists and one of the disposable sailors dies in gruesome fashion. Meanwhile, Anne goes off exploring on her own and immediately runs across an orangutan in a cage — the only living thing they’ve encountered on the ship so far.
Via hand signals and grunts, he attempts to convince Anne to let him out and, when she refuses, he instead lights a cigarette and browses an issue of Playboy he had on hand.
It’s all goofy, imaginative, silly fun. All of the loved ones and acquaintances who’ve packed into your bedroom are probably having a good time. It’s even paced well! Just 11 minutes into the 25-minute episode, we’ve set up a mystery with a trail of delightfully intriguing elements: The protagonists have now searched every corner of the ship — no crew, no passengers, or any sign they were there. They try the radio — nothing. What happened to everyone? Why is this orangutan acting like a horny human? You know the answer is going to be some kind of silly anime nonsense, but hey, that’s what we signed up for! What could go wrong?
From a writer’s point of view, the challenge at this point is doing something the audience truly doesn’t expect. Ghost pirates, sea monsters and even time travel would all feel like cliches; this isn’t anybody’s first fictional haunted ship. Whatever happens here needs to truly take the audience by surprise. Let’s see what JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has up its sleeve!
(CONTENT WARNING: References to child sexual assault ahead)
We check in on Anne, who is alone again. She decides she is sticky from the salt water…
…and, with the lack of forethought that comes with being ten years old, decides then and there that she needs a shower. Fortunately for her, she finds a working shower with hot water and right about here, our hypothetical viewer is getting a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach.
Look. I’m not here to “cancel” JoJo or anime in general, I’m not in the habit of trying to generate outrage clicks and I’m definitely not out to make our anime-loving fans feel bad about themselves. If I’m the one being weird here, just tell me. But it really, really seems to me like the following sequence is framed, shot and edited in exactly the way you’d do it if your goal was to titillate the audience. But, hey, maybe I’m just a prude, or maybe something is lost in the cultural translation or… I don’t know.
Anyway, the camera stays on the child as she slowly undresses one layer at a time…
…then tracks her bare feet into the shower…
…at which point we cut to an oddly adult-shaped “hourglass” nude silhouette behind the shower curtain…
…and here you think, well, it’s still being tasteful, it’s granting the little girl her privacy and if that shadow on the curtain makes you imagine a naked child in your head, you’re the pervert! You glance over at your parents, who have been fairly into the episode up to now, but are beginning to have doubts. “Don’t worry,” you say to them, “this is JoJo, not one of those shows!” You didn’t mean for it to rhyme.
Then you turn back to the screen to find that in the very next shot, we’ve cut back inside the shower and, yeah, the camera just lovingly moves up across Anne’s naked, wet, completely uncensored ass. And while I’m not going to screenshot it because I think that would be against the law(?), I’ll say that the artist (both here and in the manga it’s adapted from) went out of their way to give Anne an adult’s woman’s figure, complete with sideboob, the nipples coyly covered with one arm. It’s basically this…
…only if it turned out that artist had been commissioned to draw a typical ten year-old girl and came back with the above.
Side note: In the previous episode, Anne pretended to be a little boy, with her hair stuffed up under her cap. So upon seeing this the first time, I actually thought the whole point was to reveal that Anne was, in fact, an adult woman pretending to be a child. But, no, that’s just how they chose to draw her.
And now, things in your bedroom have become very awkward. “Did you… find this video on the deep web?” asks your grandfather, who’s squinting at the screen. “I think this is what Q was trying to warn us about!”
You just stay silent, hoping the scene will pass and the episode will move on to something else.
It very much does not.
Instead, the orangutan breaks out of his cage, slaughters the rest of the nameless sailors, then enters the shower with the intention of raping little Anne. The cowering child is reflected in the animal’s eyes, a predatory glint tastefully positioned to hide her bare breasts.
The heroes intervene, at which point they are attacked and restrained by the ship itself, which has seemingly come to life. The orangutan now seems poised to rape the child in front of the helpless protagonists while they watch, but a clever scheme from JoJo, which I still do not fully understand, overcomes the beast. I would show some screen grabs of that action sequence, but I would have to carefully crop them because Anne remains naked for the rest of the episode, clutching a towel to her front but leaving her bare butt exposed. And it really does feel like they go out of their way to make sure said butt is in the frame, over and over.
And that’s the episode. It ends with the status quo restored, the heroes back in their rowboats, having learned and accomplished nothing. A cynical viewer would suggest that the entire episode exists for exactly one reason, to serve a certain segment of the anime-watching audience.
Here’s the thing:
Sexualization of kids is a very sensitive subject among anime fans (and a very bitter subject in Japan). They’ve been hearing the same complaints for decades, it’s not going to change, it’s baked into the medium. For example, the comic this episode was adapted from was published in 1990, this episode came out 24 years later and the only change they made to this scene was to increase the amount of child nudity. It’s a cultural thing, some fans insist, no children are being harmed (“it’s just a drawing!”) and if you think it’s wrong, you don’t have to look at it.
In fact, loyal JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure fans are probably more annoyed than anyone right now, because they’ll say that this is the only time we see anything like this in the series. But that is my entire point. Weirdly sexualized depictions of children are just scattered around the medium like dog turds in a park. And when it comes to anime, that is what I can’t get past.
I know it’s not just me, because I’ve spent my adult life on message boards and have seen the same thread over and over: A fan asks for anime recommendations and then has to specify that they only want shows that don’t sexualize children. Respondents often find that somewhat difficult, with someone recommending a show, then someone else having to come in and say, “Well, there is that one story arc you’ll want to avoid, but remember the age of consent is lower in Japan…”
Here’s a random example from Something Awful years ago. JoJo is recommended as a safe choice multiple times (and since it’s on Netflix, readily available) and later someone has to point out that, quote, “The Jojo ape episode has a scene where the 11-yo girl is showering seductively for the camera lens” and notes that the show is “not perfect.” That’s a common sentiment among fans — here’s another message board comment:
“I don’t really watch any anime but got into JoJo because it’s awesome, and that episode in Stardust Crusaders where a 10 year old girl is naked for most of the episode with a bunch of shots of her ass and sideboob almost made me drop the series entirely. Luckily there hasn’t been anything at all like that since. It’s kind of weird though that if I were to recommend the series to anyone that is put off by anime I’d have to be like ‘oh no, it’s not weird and pervy, there’s only one episode that fetishises a child.’”
“This!” would be my single-word reply to that post, if I was a certain kind of obnoxious message board poster. I mean, this is a sprawling franchise spanning every type of media, should this one episode really ruin the entire series for me? Because it totally does!
And what bothers me about it (aside from, you know, the obvious) is that it seems like there’s a real pressure on anime creators to throw this shit in there, a little nod-and-wink fanservice to that certain segment of the audience. But… why? I mean, how is that even good for business? For every one viewer who wants to ogle a child, aren’t there far more who are forever turned off by it? Or is it like the weird, lingering bare feet shots in Tarantino films, where fans just roll their eyes and decide it’s just something they have to put up with? “Yes, I know certain pervs are cranking off to this bit, but that’s none of my business.”
So, sure, feel free to recommend me some anime that doesn’t sexualize children or — and please also read this part of the sentence — any canonically immortal characters who happen to look and act like children. Put your recommendations in the comments, or send them directly to Brockway. Don’t email me. I’ll be too busy trying to unfuck my Netflix recommendations. Happy Anime Week, everybody!
Jason also writes columns at his Substack, his next novel is called If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe and it’s available for pre-order now, wherever books are sold. It’s the next book in the John Dies at the End series! The movie is on HBO Max!