Yes, boys and girls, today’s topic is the quagmire known as manga ratings. This hasn’t been much of an issue for me until recently, as the only folks reading manga in my immediate environment are my husband and me, with the occasional loan to friends, and those are carefully chosen, as in not giving Battle Royale to a younger female friend who wants to get into manga. (I feel like a manga pimp...) But as I’ve gotten into the reviewing scene, and especially since I’ve become a mom, ratings have become something for me to check while perusing the book cover in the store.
Let me start off with the facts. There is no universal rating system. Each company has its own version, and that’s a business choice in order to make manga more legit and attractive to parental units. As in, publishers don’t have to give their books a rating, but most chose to do so. These rating systems are mostly based off of the MPAA and TV guidelines. That is to say that the labels are more lenient than the conservative ESRB video game system, which I think is a good idea, if only for cultural difference in acceptable violence and sexuality for various age groups.
Here are two systems for the two largest manga publishers in the US, TOKYOPOP and VIZ Media:
A (All Ages) - Appropriate for all ages. No offensive material.
Y (Youth, ages 10+) - Appropriate for ages 10 and up. May contain violence.
T (Teen, ages 13+) - Appropriate for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, profanity, and semi-nudity.
OT (Older Teen, ages 16+) - Appropriate for ages 16 and up. May contain violence, profanity, semi-nudity, and some sexual themes.
M (Mature, ages 18+) - Appropriate for ages 18 and up. May contain graphic violence, nudity, profanity, sex, and intense sexual themes.
A (All Ages) - Suitable for any age group. No swearing or nudity. Fantasy violence only.
T (Teen) - Recommended for early to mid-teens. May contain violence, language, suggestive situations, and alcohol or tobacco use.
T+ (Teen Plus) - Recommended for older teens and adults. Sexually-oriented nudity, but no explicit sex. No censorship on language. Gory violence.
M (Mature) - Recommended for adults. Mature themes and depictions.
As you can see, the systems are alike, but not quite the same. VIZ Media’s All Ages category includes fantasy violence, whereas fantasy violence would fall under TOKYOPOP’s Youth category. Additionally, as these ratings are made by the publishers, they are entirely subjective, and are often labeled for its marketed audience, as opposed to making a decision off of the series’ actual content. (I don’t have a problem with rating books by series, as opposed to by book. If you like a book, you’ll probably buy or at least read the entire series, so why not judge a series by its spiciest content?) Most of TOKYOPOP’s titles run in the range of T and OT, whereas VIZ Media lie in T-land, with a little T+ and A on the side. We can conclude from this that the teen market accounts for the majority of manga purchases, and it is where we should show the greatest concern for content ratings.
Working daily in the school system, I know that teens come in many varieties, from giggling middle school freshmen to college-bound mature young adults. I feel that many of these T titles shouldn’t be in the hands of younger teens. Sure, the written content might be the equivalent of a Sweet Valley High novel, but the visuals might be a little too much. Then again, these kids are probably seeing worse on TV.
That isn’t to say that the publishers aren’t doing a good job. I think most of them are quite conscientious in assigning ratings, especially. But I can’t help but feel that we, as an industry of professionals and of fans, have to be more proactive in keeping manga in the hands of people ready and open to it, and out of the hands of younger folks who just aren’t ready for Sensual Phrase (rated M) or The World Exists for Me (rated T, but “The Book of S&M” plays a major role). Here’s what I feel we need to do.
There needs to be a common rating system, agreed upon by the major publishers. Ratings should be made by an independent advisory panel, using a standard checklist for content. The rating should also explicitly state what elements may be objectionable to some (Bastard!! - Mature for Gory and Intense Violence). Greater effort should be made to educate parents and librarians in the rating system and why Little Jane shouldn’t be hauling home a volume of Angel Sanctuary. (I’m not going to include retailers, as I don’t believe that they should have to be moral police. That’s the job of the guardians of minors. However, I do think that it would be a good idea to group mature material together in the manga section. Not for deterring the nimble hands of kiddies; just to make it easier to find yaoi and other gooshy goodness.)
I know that I’m not the normal parent, in that I’d actually flip through a book and read a page here and there to check for anything I find objectionable or too mature for my child. Thus we need to protect our media from the idiots who would be quite willing to launch a lawsuit and force manga into shrinkwrap and onto the shelves at the back of the store. Remember, rating systems aren’t for the educated buyer; they’re for the general populace in understanding manga at a glance, and for the publisher to filter their books towards a specific audience. Ratings aren’t meant for otaku, young or old, as you’ve either read the book in Japanese or read enough reviews to make your decision in visual literature or pulp comics (depending on the series). Be otaku. Be in the know about your manga.