Cartoon carnage — A cross-cultural analysis of child violence in animation

An image showing the protagonists of "The Promised Neverland," from left to right: Norman wears a white shirt and has short silver hair, Emma wears a white shirt and has short orange hair, and Ray wears a white shirt and has short black hair.
Norman, Emma, and Ray are the protagonists of “The Promised Neverland”, an anime television series adapted from the Japanese manga series of the same name. The manga was written by Kaiu Shirai and illustrated by Posuka Demizu. (Courtesy: ZetaEwigkeit)

Content warning: descriptions of graphic violence

This article contains spoilers for “The Promised Neverland,” “Made in Abyss” and “Hunter x Hunter.

A girl cries tears of blood as she writhes and screams in pain. The part of her forearm that meets her elbow has been tied tightly, preventing the poison in her arm from spreading to the rest of her body.

She is bleeding through her mouth and ears, and her bloodshot eyes are begging her companion to cut off her arm and stop her suffering while she emits coughs of blood and chilling shrieks. She is 12 years old.

I close the tab and exit my browser.

This scene is what caused me to stop watching “Made in Abyss,” an anime that is showered with praises and ranked 20th of all anime on the popular website MyAnimeList. Based on the popular web manga of the same name, “Made in Abyss” tells the story of two kids adventuring to the bottom of an abyss that gapes at the edge of their hometown.

The anime seemed pretty innocuous, considering the characters’ childish appearance and the soft color palette that paints the many different settings. But, as the synopsis on MyAnimeList warns, “[the children] know not of the harsh reality that is the true existence of the Abyss.”

Violence in anime isn’t a surprise to viewers. Nowadays, the most popular anime, usually aimed at teenagers and young adults, have an ample dose of brutality, from the occasional bone-breaking of “My Hero Academia” to the ever-present live cannibalism in “Attack on Titan.”

Western media has its own amount of violence too, no big deal. But interestingly, anime has been showing a trend towards a more specific kind — explicit violence toward children.

Scenes like the one previously described aren’t just exclusive to “Made in Abyss.” In a scene of “The Promised Neverland,” which just aired last season, the sickening crunch of bone and a scream of pain is heard when the leg of main character Emma is twisted by her caretaker.

Violence is not only inflicted on children — anime can also brutalize adults, as seen when main character Killua of “Hunter x Hunter,” one of the most popular anime of all time, extracts the heart of his living adult opponent with his bare hand. Both Emma and Killua are of similar tween ages.

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Explicit violence toward children like this is unheard of in Western animations aimed toward children and teens. This is not to say that there isn’t child violence on TV at all — one only needs to switch on HBO and watch “Game of Thrones” to know this.

Imagine “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” but with people actually being burnt into a crisp instead of miraculously maintaining their uncharred skin from firebenders (people with fire powers). That’s a close equivalent to what’s happening in a lot of anime right now, with widespread popularity and accessibility — although most violent anime air during very late times in Japan. But there even some exceptions to that: “Hunter x Hunter,” deemed public-friendly, used to air on Sundays at 10:55 a.m.

Despite the child violence, popularity of such anime between western and eastern anime fans mirror each other, implying that fans in the West aren’t too disturbed by the general dissonance in victimhood.

In an article published by the New York Times in 2001, network executives said that anime “appearing in the United States have been shown in Japan … with no ill effect,” but leaders of popular American cartoon channels refused to air it.

Previous executive vice president and general manager of Nickelodeon Cyma Zarghami commented that it had “more violence for violence’s sake than [she’d] ever seen.” To this day, anime with explicit child violence have not aired in the daytime on TV, although they are easily accessible online through streaming services like Netflix and Crunchyroll.

Regardless of its demographic, Western animation has also grown in its levels of violence,  although it has not reached the heights of those in popular anime. Shows like “Young Justice,” aimed at teenagers, have fancy footwork and bruisings that should hurt way more than they do, but never anything like limb slicing. “Archer,” popular among adults, has no problem showing people spurting blood from rapid-fire bullets, but has never featured a child victim.

It seems that inspiration, not replication, is the key for western media, though comics have started inching toward violent children. Comics featuring Damian Wayne, the newest iteration of Batman’s sidekick Robin, have no issues with displaying his tween self toting guns and kicking his mother in the face.

Seeing how cultural boundaries are gradually disappearing with global technology and reach, who knows what could happen with western media? Perhaps one day we’ll be seeing some cartoon kid’s head get lopped off on Cartoon Network instead of Adult Swim.

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Nadya Siringo Ringo SC ’21 is TSL’s TV columnist. She is from Jakarta, Indonesia and isn’t super great with gore, despite having written about it twice for TSL.

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