The first anime I ever loved was about a bland, uninteresting teenager inexplicably adored by a harem of beautiful space women. It was called Tenchi Muyo. I was 12 years old. I was fat. I was nerdy. I regularly wore polo shirts with fish on them. I had never yet lived in a town significant enough to have a Walmart.
Like all first loves, my love for Tenchi was unhealthy and obsessive. I used to stay up late in my bed imagining, shot by shot, whole new episodes of the show where Tenchi would finally choose my favorite member of his harem, or—even better—where my favorite member of his harem would choose me. I wrote my Social Studies essay about music appreciation about how inspiring it was to hear the Tenchi Muyo theme song, “I Am A Pioneer,” which—I swear to God—used to make me tear up whenever I heard it. Eventually, not even watching Tenchi five times a week on Toonami was enough. I decided I needed my dad to buy me all of Tenchi on VHS tape. My dad, though, was skeptical. He was not a man accustomed to anime. He was a star athlete and a businessman who liked to hike over mountains in order to shoot animals with guns. He had never watched anything from Japan. He wouldn’t even watch movies that included British people because he found their accents sickeningly foreign. When I described Tenchi to him for the first time, he informed me that it sounded like a soap opera and soap operas were for women.
Still he loved me. Once, when I had a nervous breakdown in a mall after realizing I had spent too long picking out my new video game and would miss the premiere of an episode of the Tenchi Muyo spin-off Tenchi in Tokyo, he drove the forty miles of hilly, curvy roads between the mall and our home at seventy miles an hour. We nearly died several times, but thanks to him I was able to catch the last two-thirds of a filler episode where Ayeka and Ryoko did almost nothing but yell at each other about who Tenchi liked more. During a commercial break, he even brought me a bowl of ice cream. Are you glad you could see your show? He asked. Yes, I said. He beamed. This was his weakness. This was my gateway to the garden of anime delights. Every time there was even the faintest whiff that I had earned a present—every holiday, every good report card—I begged him to buy me Tenchi.
There was a serious problem, though, with Tenchi. One day, while trying to figure out how much it would cost my dad to buy me every single Tenchi Muyo VHS tape, I discovered that my beloved Tenchi was rated “TV-MA.” And not just because of graphic space battles where laser swords cut people in half. It turned out the Tenchi I had been watching five times a week on Toonami was not the true Tenchi. Cartoon Network had been heavily editing the show, stripping out the swear words, changing the color of the blood, and covering up the “brief nudity.” I had a panic attack. Even as a child, I knew that the most morally abominable thing on earth was the nakedness of the human body, particularly the female body. Still, I wanted Tenchi so badly. Still, I dreamed at night about Tenchi.
On my favorite Tenchi-themed GeoCities webforum, I pretended to be a parent and began posting messages asking: “How Much Nudity is Actually in the Uncensored Tenchi Muyo?” and “Is Tenchi Muyo Appropriate for a 12 Year Old Boy?” and “Should I Let My Son Watch Techi?” The answers I got back weren’t heartening. Apparently all those scenes in bath houses where the cast battled space demons while wearing strangely fitting, bouncy swimsuits had, unbeknownst to me, actually included copious amounts of full frontal cartoon nudity. And yet there was one aspect of their responses that gave me hope. While they admitted there was a quite a bit of completely gratuitous “fan service” nudity in Tenchi, the show was—they insisted one after another—absolutely still appropriate for a 12 year old. You see, they said, you just had to understand Japanese culture. Unlike Americans, whose thoughts about the body were twisted by centuries of perverse Christian domination, the Japanese were still a free people—still believed in the sacred luminosity of the human form. In Japan, nudity was commonplace. In Japan for a child to see the naked breasts of a cartoon space pirate was not only perfectly acceptable but admirable. To deny a child Tenchi just because of a fear of nudity, they told me—they explicitly told me—was to coddle that child, to deny that child exposure to the superior Japanese way of thinking about the female body—again they (all of whom were men as I recall) explicitly told me—was to be a bad parent.
What I should have done, looking back with the wisdom of my now much more advanced age, was lie about everything. I should have pretended that I had never learned what I had learned and crossed my fingers that my dad who hated science fiction, who hated cartoons, would just buy the VHS tapes without looking at them and never even consider watching them with me. But I was stupid. And young. And honest. The next time I tried to convince my dad to spend his hard earned money on a set of Tenchi VHS tapes and he asked me, Are you sure this is appropriate for kids? I said, Well, you know, there is like a little nudity in it, I guess.
My dad’s face started to turn red.
But barely any!
Like only a couple episodes!
Like only for like two seconds!
But dad, you have to understand Japanese culture!
Anime nerds on the internet may believe wholeheartedly in the superiority of Japanese culture, but nobody else does. Certainly not dads. Certainly not my dad. Within seconds of him finally opening his mouth to respond, I was crying in my room and pounding my fists against my bed. Eventually, after I got bored with my tears, he came into my room with some cookies. He apologized to me for yelling. He told me that he was sorry that he had made me so upset. But he refused to relent. I’ll be damned if I let that sort of perverted filth into my house, he said. You’re too young. There’s no need for it.→