"Anime" and "controversy" sometimes go together a little too easily. While most anime are aimed at general audiences, and anime itself has received fairly general mainstream acceptance, it wasn't always like that -- and even today, some titles continue to strike sparks and jolt audiences. Here, in alphabetical order, are some of anime's most notable controversy-instigators.
Not just for the brutal, nihilistic (and finally apocalyptic) violence; not just for its cynical view of a society devouring itself alive; but also for the sheer expense of the production that culminated in it not performing nearly as well at the box office as hoped. (The original manga was also delayed in its production no thanks to petty internal problems with the staff.) But it's not remembered today as any kind of white elephant -- it's one of the landmark creations of anime, and still has the power to rattle eyeteeth.
2. Barefoot Gen
The effects of the atomic bombing of Japan has been explored in any number of live-action movies -- Black Rain, Dr. Akagi -- but a few anime have examined the subject as well. Few have done it as graphically or heartbreakingly as Barefoot Gen, taken from Keiji Nakazawa's own quasi-autobiographical manga about the bombing of Hiroshima, which Nakazawa himself experienced. The film is unflinching in its depiction of the ghastliness the bomb left in its wake, including the horribly burned hibakusha (atomic bomb victims). It does end on a slightly more upbeat note than the similarly-themed Grave of the Fireflies, but it's no less powerful or relevant than that film.
3. Cleopatra: Queen of Sex / Tragedy of Belladonna
Two of the feature films created by Osamu Tezuka's animation production company, Mushi Productions ("Mushi Pro"), garnered plenty of attention for their adult content -- rare for an animated film in the late 1960s, to be sure! -- but their failures at the box office caused Mushi Pro to go under. Seen today in retrospect, they're both groundbreaking and goofy. Cleopatra is like one of Tezuka's own adult-oriented manga, with a heavy dose of strangeness, but Belladonna is a psychedelic, sexually-charged fable with fabled Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai providing ... the voice of Satan. Yes.
4. Death Note
Most people recognize Death Note as a wildly successful anime across the globe, but not an ipso facto controversial one. In mainland China, however, the fad of writing homemade "death notes" caused some schools in the city of Shenyang to ban paraphernalia based on the franchise back in 2008. Students in a few states in the U.S. were also suspended for carrying replica Death Note notebooks with the names of enemies penned in them, sparking further controversy about the marketing of such a morbid series to young people. (The controversy has died down since, thankfully.)
5. Elfen Lied
"Lucy" is a "Diclonus," a horned humanoid with a propensity for tearing other human beings to shreds. Her species has a vendetta against all of humanity, no thanks to some of them penning her up in a cage and torturing her in experiments -- but she also has a more innocent, childlike personality that emerges when she's not a killing machine. Aside from the graphic gore and violence, it's the psychological torment in this series that bristled even the coarsest of hairs amongst its viewers. Shameless gratuitous excess or starkly powerful horror-drama? Your guess is as good as anyone's.
It's the Axis Nations of World War II -- Italy, Germany, and Japan -- and they're so cute! Small wonder the very premise of this fan-favorite TV series has also made it anything but a favorite with some viewers. Apart from being deeply politically incorrect, it also reminds some a little too much of the very sort of nationalistic stereotyping going on during the war. Whether or not you find the show funny, or even watchable, depends on how far you can set aside such feelings. Some can't.
After finding her parents horribly murdered, schoolgirl Sawa becomes a hitman (hitgirl?), using bullets that cause her victims to explode, and causes an astonishing amount of mayhem. If the ultra-violent storyline wasn't off-putting enough, the graphic rape scene featuring a quite obviously underage Sawa made things even more difficult to choke down. Many editions of the film are censored, although the most recent releases appear to be uncut.
Director Yasuomi Umetsu also garnered another kind of controversy with this production: Kite was something of a pet project for him, and he did all the key animation himself. The same thing happened with the follow-up, Kite Liberator, which partly explains why that sequel took a decade to materialize.
8. Kodomo no Jikan
A pre-teen girl wants to have a sexual relationship with her teacher in what is ostensibly a black comedy, but audiences on both sides of the Pacific were stupefied that this show was ever created at all. The short-lived English-language adaptation of the source manga was retitled Nymphet -- a strong hint about its tone and intentions -- and it mercifully lasted only a couple of volumes before being dropped. The anime has, obviously, never been licensed for release outside of Japan.
9. Midori (Shôjo tsubaki: Chika gentô gekiga)
An orphaned girl, Midori, shacks up with a traveling circus and endures endless hardship at the hands of the other performers, until a mesmerist joins up with the group and leads Midori down a one-way rabbit hole of revenge and surreal terror.
Based on Suehiro Maruo's manga (released in English as Mr. Arashi's Amazing Freak Show), this is an impossible-to-find rarity, and for good reason: director Hiroshi Harada funded the creation of the film out of his own pocket, drawing some five thousand images for it over a period of five years, and intended it for exhibition in a carnival-style roadshow. Unfortunately, he ran afoul of Japan's censorship laws and withdrew it from circulation, allegedly after parts of it were cut and lost forever. It has since surfaced on DVD in Europe.
No list of controversial anime could be complete without at least some mention of Evangelion. If the edgy mix of religious symbolism and giant-robot violence wasn't striking enough, fans of the show (who have debated its meaning endlessly since the first airing in 1995) nearly had a meltdown over the show's original ending, which was cobbled together at the last minute when the production budget collapsed. The ongoing success of the TV series allowed not just one but two feature films to be completed to explain what the heck had in fact happened.
The meltdown wasn't confined to the audience's heads, either. Series creator Hideaki Anno was having a meltdown of his own during the show's production, something not helped by the death threats he received at one point (look fast for them used as interstitial imagery during one episode). It all made for as unnerving a collision of the personal and public aspects of a creative product as you're likely to get.
The anime that put not one but two terms into the dictionary: hentai and tentacle sex. The former is the generic term for anime that is for adults (in the "absolutely not for kids" sense); the latter is one of the many, many, many examples of why this movie has earned that label. "Over the top" doesn't begin to describe what happens in this film, the first of which was even released theatrically in the U.S. for a very short, NC-17-rated run. We don't see that happening again anytime soon.