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|The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (February 2013)|
Adult animation is animation that is targeted at adults. Animated films and television shows may be considered adult for a number of reasons. Some productions are noted for experimental storytelling and animation techniques, or sophisticated storytelling. Others may be noted for a use of risqué themes, portrayal of violence, or sexuality (sometimes cartoon pornography) in a manner that is unsuitable for younger viewers. Many adult animations contain multiple aspects defining the work as adult.
Before the enforcement of the Hays Code, some cartoon shorts contained humor that was aimed at adult audience members rather than children. Following the introduction of the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system, independent animation producers attempted to establish an alternative to mainstream animation. The most successful animated features produced in the United States primarily for adult audiences were directed by Ralph Bakshi, including Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin. Initially, few animation studios in the United States attempted to produce animation for adult audiences, but later examples of animation produced for adults would gain mainstream attention and success.
The earliest cartoon series were based upon popular comic strips, and were directed at family audiences. Most animation produced during the silent film era was not intended to be shown to any specific age group, but occasionally contained humor that was directed at adult audience members, including risqué jokes. The earliest known instance of censorship in animation occurred when the censorship board of Pennsylvania requested that references to bootlegging be removed from Walt Disney's 1925 short Alice Solves a Puzzle. One of the earliest animated pornographic films was Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure, produced circa 1928. It has often been suggested that the film was produced for a private party in honor of Winsor McCay. Rumors suggest that the film was developed in Cuba years after it was completed, because no lab in New York City would process the film. When a print was screened in San Francisco in the late 1970s, the program notes attributed the animation to George Stallings, George Canata, Rudy Zamora, Sr. and Walter Lantz.
The Motion Picture Association of America, then known as the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association, was established in 1922 as the result of public objection to adult content in films, and a series of guidelines were established, suggesting content that should not be portrayed in films. Until the Hays Code was enforced, many animated shorts featured suggestive content, including sexual innuendo, references to alcohol and drug use, and mild profanity. In the 1933 short Bosko's Picture Show, Bosko appears to use the word "fuck", although it has also been suggested that the character is saying "fox", or even "mug". Plus, in the 1940 Merrie Melodies film, The Hardship of Miles Standish, an unnamed dimwit Indian accidentally points an airo to the other Indian who says "Goddammit sun of a bitch". And, in Rebel Without Claws, Tweety says "damn".
The Betty Boop series was known for its use of jokes that would eventually be considered taboo following the enforcement of the Hays Code, including the use of nudity. Betty Boop was initially drawn as a dog, and cast as the girlfriend of another Fleischer character, Bimbo. Betty was redesigned as a human, but the series continued to suggest a love relationship between the two that went farther than the normal relationship between a human and their pets. The short Is My Palm Read contains a scene in which Betty is shown as a child between the ages of four and five, bathing in the nude. In the 1970s, this scene was shown out of context in performances by The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. Concert audiences were not aware that Betty was supposed to be a baby in the sequence.
Another short, Bamboo Isle, contains a sequence in which an adult Betty dances the hula topless, wearing only a lei and a grass skirt. According to animator Shamus Culhane, Fleischer Studios and Paramount Pictures were shocked by the sequence, but because it was a major sequence, it could not be cut out of the film. Culhane also states that he does not remember any instance in which the film was censored.
Following the enforcement of the Hays Code, Betty's clothing was redesigned, and all future shorts portrayed her with a longer dress which did not portray her physique and sexuality. Shorts produced following the enforcement of the Hays Code were also less surreal in nature, and Betty was portrayed as a rational adult.
By 1968, the Hays Office had been eliminated, and the former guidelines were replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system. The lifting of the Code meant that animated features from other countries could be distributed without censorship, and that censorship would not be required for American productions. Film producer John Magnuson completed an animated short based upon an audio recording of a comedy routine by Lenny Bruce titled Thank You Mask Man, in which The Lone Ranger shocks the residents of the town he saves when he tells them that he wants to have sex with Tonto. The short was made by San Francisco-based company Imagination, Inc. and directed by Jeff Hale, a former member of the National Film Board of Canada. The film was scheduled to premiere on the opening night of Z, as a supplement preceding the main feature, but was not shown. According to a former staff member of the festival, Magnuson ran up the aisle and shouted "They crucified Lenny when he was alive and now that he is dead they are screwing him again!" The festival's director told Magnuson that the producer of Z did not want any short shown that night. Rumors suggested that the wife of one of the festival's financiers hated Bruce, and threatened to withdraw her husband's money if the short was screened. Thank You Mask Man was later shown in art house screenings, and gained a following, but screenings did not perform well enough financially for Magnuson to profit from the film.
By the late-1960s, animator Ralph Bakshi felt that he could not continue to produce the same kind of animation as he had in the past. Bakshi was quoted in a 1971 article for the Los Angeles Times as saying that the idea of "grown men sitting in cubicles drawing butterflies floating over a field of flowers, while American planes are dropping bombs in Vietnam and kids are marching in the streets, is ludicrous." With producer Steve Krantz, Bakshi founded his own studio, Bakshi Productions, establishing the studio as an alternative to mainstream animation by producing animation his own way and accelerating the advancement of female and minority animators. He also paid his employees a higher salary than any other studio at that time.
In 1969, Ralph's Spot was founded as a division of Bakshi Productions to produce commercials for Coca-Cola and Max, the 2000-Year-Old Mouse, a series of educational shorts paid for by Encyclopædia Britannica. However, Bakshi was uninterested in the kind of animation he was producing, and wanted to produce something personal. Bakshi soon developed Heavy Traffic, a tale of inner-city street life. However, Krantz told Bakshi that studio executives would be unwilling to fund the film because of its content and Bakshi's lack of film experience. While browsing the East Side Book Store on St. Mark's Place, Bakshi came across a copy of R. Crumb's Fritz the Cat. Impressed by Crumb's sharp satire, Bakshi purchased the book and suggested to Krantz that it would work as a film.
Fritz the Cat was the first animated film to receive an X rating from the MPAA, and the highest grossing independent animated film of all time. While the film is widely noted in its innovation for featuring content that had not been portrayed in American animation before, such as explicit sexuality and violence, the film also offered commercial potential for alternative and independent animated films in the United States, as the film offered a mature, satirical portrayal of the 1960s, including portrayal of drug use, political tension and race relations. Bakshi has been credited for playing an important role in establishing animation as a medium where any story can be told, rather than a medium for children. As a result of the acceptance of Bakshi's features, the director suggested that War and Peace could be produced as an animated film.
Because of the perception that Fritz the Cat was pornographic, Krantz attempted to appeal the film's rating, but the MPAA refused to hear the appeal. Praise from Rolling Stone and The New York Times, and the film's acceptance into the 1972 Cannes Film Festival cleared up previous misconceptions. Bakshi then simultaneously directed a number of animated films, starting with Heavy Traffic. Krantz was nervous about showing too much nudity and sexual content, and had several versions of some scenes animated. Thanks to Heavy Traffic, Ralph Bakshi became the first person in the animation industry since Walt Disney to have two financially successful films released back-to-back. Although the film received critical praise, it was banned by the film censorship board in the province of Alberta, Canada when it was originally released.
Bakshi's next film, Coonskin was produced by Albert S. Ruddy. The film, culled from Bakshi's interest in African-American history in America, was an attack on racism and racist stereotypes. Bakshi hired several African-American animators to work on Coonskin and another feature, Hey Good Lookin', including Brenda Banks, the first African-American female animator. After the release was stalled by protests from the Congress of Racial Equality, which accused both the film and Bakshi himself of being racist, the film was given limited distribution, advertised as an exploitation film, and soon disappeared from theaters.
Bakshi avoided controversy by producing fantasy films, including Wizards, The Lord of the Rings and Fire and Ice. Bakshi did not produce another animated feature film after the 1992 release of Cool World.
Although some adult-oriented animated films achieved success, very few animation studios in the United States produced explicitly adult animation during the 1970s, and much of the adult-oriented animation produced in the 1980s and 1990s was critically and commercially unsuccessful. Krantz produced The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat without Bakshi's involvement, and it was released in June 1974 to negative reviews. Charles Swenson developed Down and Dirty Duck as a project for former Mothers of Invention band members Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman under the title Cheap! The film, produced by Roger Corman, was released in July 1974 under the title Dirty Duck, and received negative reviews.
The film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, distributed by Disney-owned Touchstone Pictures, contains a number of risqué jokes that could barely be seen by audiences, but could be viewed by slowing down laserdisc copies of the film. In one scene, Baby Herman walks under a woman's dress, raising his hand up her thighs as he passes, and emerging with an extended finger as he brings his hand down. An animator who worked on the film stated that director Robert Zemeckis never intended to censor the scene, as it was one of his favorite moments from the film. Part of the film was animated in England, and one of the film's British animators drew a sequence in which Jessica Rabbit's crotch was exposed without Disney's knowledge. While the image cannot be clearly seen on the VHS version of the film, it appeared more clearly on the film's laserdisc.
In 1988, San Francisco exhibitor Expanded Cinema screened a compilation of adult-oriented animated shorts under the title "Outrageous Animation". Advertising the package as containing "the wildest cartoons ever", the screenings contained shorts produced outside the United States, as well as independently produced American shorts. Reviews of the festival were mixed. San Francisco Chronicle writer Mick LaSalle hated almost everything screened at the festival, with the exception of Bill Plympton's One of Those Days. In The San Francisco Examiner, David Armstrong gave the show a three-star review and described the films screened as having "some of the rude vitality of the great old Warner Bros. cartoons —and a good deal of the sexual explicitness denied those old favorites from a more cautious age."
In 1990, Mellow Manor Productions began screening films under the title "Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation". Founders Craig "Spike" Decker and Mike Gribble promoted their festival by handing out flyers on the streets rather than with traditional promotional techniques. In 1991, Decker and Gribble screened their first "All Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation", promising "wild and zany films that could never be shown to our 'normal audience'". The festival screened newer independent shorts, as well as older shorts such as Bambi Meets Godzilla and Thank You Mask Man. Although the festival promoted works by animators who would later gain mainstream success, such as Plympton, Mike Judge, Trey Parker, and Don Hertzfeldt, many reviewers dismissed the bulk of the programming as shock value.
In 2003, Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt created a new touring festival of animation marketed towards adults and college students. The Animation Show brought animated shorts into more North American theaters than any previous commercial festival. Though intended for adult audiences, the programming skewed more towards Academy Award nominated animated shorts and foreign films than it did explicit material.
From 1972 to 1974, Hanna-Barbera produced Wait till Your Father Gets Home, an adult-oriented sitcom in the style of All in the Family. The series dealt with subjects such as feminism and the generation gap. In the 1990s, a number of animated television programs appeared which challenged the Standards & Practices guidelines, including The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-head, The Critic, The Ren & Stimpy Show, The Brothers Grunt and Duckman. The Simpsons originated from a series of shorts appearing on The Tracey Ullman Show. Because the shorts and television series aired in prime time, the show was not censored as much as programs intended to air on Saturday mornings. In addition to the show's portrayal of brief nudity and mild language, the series has dealt with mature themes, subjects such as death, gambling addiction, religion and suicide.
As the result of the success of The Simpsons, ABC, CBS and NBC each developed animated series to air in prime time, but none of the shows were successful. One series, Capitol Critters, focused on subjects such as gun control, interracial violence and political corruption. In his review of the series, Variety critic Brian Lowry wrote that he felt that the series' approach was "muddled", and that "the bland central character and cartoonish elements [...] will likely be off-putting to many adults, who won't find the political satire biting enough to merit their continued attention. Similarly, kids probably won't be as smitten with the cartoon aspects or look". The series was cancelled after one month. The Critic was somewhat more successful, but achieved low ratings because of ABC's sporadic scheduling, and was cancelled by the network. The Fox Broadcasting Company picked up the series, but cancelled it four months later. While Fox allowed The Simpsons to portray animated depictions of the human buttocks, ABC would not allow similar scenes to appear on The Critic.
Much of the humor of The Ren and Stimpy Show was intended for adults. Four episodes were subjected to censorship by Nickelodeon. The first, "Powdered Toast Man", contained a sequence in which Powdered Toast Man burns the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights to keep warm. Although some viewed the sequence as satirical, Nickelodeon censored the scene in reruns following complaints. Another episode, "Man's Best Friend", was completed, but Nickelodeon refused to air the episode due to its violence, including a parody of a slow motion sequence from Raging Bull. According to series creator John Kricfalusi, Standards & Practices and Nickelodeon administrators approved the storyboards, but the network's executives shelved the episode after it had been completed, claiming it was "too strong". In the episode "Dog Show", Nickelodeon removed all uses of the character name George Liquor. Rumors suggested that a female executive at Nickelodeon believed that the name sounded like "lick her" and referred to a sexual act. Nickelodeon executives denied the rumor, but issued no official explanation for the censorship. The fourth episode, "Sven Hoek", originally contained a sequence which suggested that Stimpy performed fellatio on Ren's cousin Sven, ("An' I'm a sword-swallower!... Whoops"). but this sequence never aired;. Later in 2003, Spike TV (at the time "TNN") Kricfalusi made a comeback with Ren and Stimpy Adult Party Cartoon which, as the title suggested, included more adult themes such as homosexuality between the two title characters, although the adult themes were arguably not Kricfalusi's decision.
Beavis and Butt-head was controversial for its portrayal of brief nudity, profanity and violence. Although the series was intended for adult audiences, it was shown in the afternoons, and multiple parents claimed that their children had imitated the show's characters. The first instance of such an accusation occurred when animal lovers in Santa Cruz, California claimed that someone had blown up a cat after seeing Beavis and Butt-head perform this act on television. In actuality, no such scene had ever been portrayed. When a five-year-old boy in Ohio set his bed on fire, killing his two-year-old sister, critics claimed that the incident was the result of an episode involving fire, although it has never been proven that the boy had ever watched the series. MTV responded by moving the series to a later airtime and adding disclaimers to future episodes stating explicitly not to imitate the actions of the characters, as well as removing all references to fire from the episodes.
Discussions involving a series based upon Trey Parker and Matt Stone's video Christmas card, The Spirit of Christmas, led HBO to contact Ralph Bakshi in order to produce the first animated series targeted specifically toward adults. Bakshi enlisted a team of writers, including his son, Preston, to develop Spicy Detective, later renamed Spicy City, an anthology series set in a noir-ish, technology-driven future. Each episode featuring a different story narrated by a female host named Raven, voiced by Michelle Phillips. The series premiered in July 1997, beating South Park to television by over a month and becoming the first "adults only" cartoon series. Although critical reaction was mixed and largely unfavorable, Spicy City received acceptable ratings. A second season was approved, but the network wanted to fire Bakshi's writing team and hire professional Los Angeles screenwriters. When Bakshi refused to cooperate with the network, the series was canceled.
Another notable show that paved the future of adult animation is Space Ghost Coast To Coast which is an animated parody talk show hosted by the 60s Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Space Ghost. It was Cartoon Network's first original program and also the first television show to mix live action and animation. Though it aired at a 11:00 pm timeslot, apart from the mild profanity, sexual references and violence it was not particularly risque like other mature shows at the time. However it did set the path for a new sister channel Adult Swim to be created by the new millennium, and as of such more original programs were made and later would be the home of many popular adult cartoons including Robot Chicken and Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
Although animation has long been perceived as a children's medium in the United States, this perception does not extend to other countries. Animation has been taken seriously as a medium by foreign industries, including those in France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. For many years, it had been problematic to import films that did not meet the approval of the United States Customs Service. In 1972, the Customs Service refused entry of a short film titled Sinderella, depicting scenes of sexual intercourse between characters based upon Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Prince Charming. The film was seized as obscene material, and its distributor filed a court case and an appeal in 1974, but lost both. In 1973 an Italian animated movie King Dick appeared, which became a cult cartoon in the UK.
The first foreign animated film to receive both an X rating and wide distribution in the United States was Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle. A dubbed version, which featured new dialogue performed by American actors and comedians such as John Belushi, Adolph Caesar, Brian Doyle-Murray, Judy Graubart, Bill Murray and Johnny Weissmuller Jr., received an R rating. According to distributor Stuart S. Shapiro, the X rating hurt the film's distribution, but the dubbed version "took the bite out of the film. It lost its outrageousness." Tarzoon was banned by the New Zealand Board of Censors in 1980.
Although animation had long been considered an art form in Japan, it did not become widely known for its adult-oriented animation outside the country until the 1990s, because anime fans emphasized that anime, such as the Ghost in the Shell series, is "not children's cartoons". The earliest association between anime and adult animation occurred preceding the release of Fritz the Cat when American distributors attempted to cash in on the publicity garnered from the rating by rushing out dubbed versions of two other adult animations from Japan, both of which featured an X rating in their advertising material: Senya ichiya monogatari and Kureopatora, retitled One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Cleopatra: Queen of Sex, respectively. However, neither film was actually submitted to the MPAA, and it is not likely that either feature would have received an X rating.
Pornographic anime is known in the west as hentai and in Japan as Ero Anime (エロアニメ). Although some associate all anime with sexual content, hentai only makes up a very small portion of the Japanese animation industry. As the result of the misconceptions about Japanese animation, the country's animation has been the subject of censorship in the United States by American video stores who have classified all anime as being for "adults only", even family-oriented and children's programs. Many video stores have also categorized all adult-oriented animation as anime, including the works of Ralph Bakshi, the French animated film Fantastic Planet, the Canadian animated film Heavy Metal and the HBO television series Todd McFarlane's Spawn.
Since the late 1990s, American audiences became more accepting to adult-oriented animation, through the popularity of American-produced comedic television shows such as South Park, Futurama and Family Guy, in addition to dramatic television programs directed at teen audiences, such as Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men and Invasion America. In 2001, Time Warner established Adult Swim as a programming block on Cartoon Network. Its schedule currently includes original programs such as Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Robot Chicken and reruns of syndicated programs such as Family Guy, American Dad! and King of the Hill (all of which had their original run on Fox). While Adult Swim has been known to air a majority of high impact adult material, there have been some cases where some episodes from certain shows were pulled out of airing schedule for going overboard, one famous example is the animated series Moral Orel. Episodes of this show have depictions of children drinking alcohol and violence against homosexuals. In the notorious episode "God's Chef," the main character, 11-year-old Orel, inexplicably impregnates women with a pastry bag filled with his sperm.
Animated films portraying serious stories began to regain notice from mainstream audiences in the beginning of the 21st century. Persepolis, a 2007 adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel, won the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The Iranian government protested the film's inclusion in the Festival, but later allowed the film to be screened in a censored version, which altered the film's sexual content. The 2008 Israeli film Waltz with Bashir, an animated documentary involving the 1982 Lebanon War, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Independent animators such as Bill Plympton, Don Hertzfeldt, and Nina Paley have also found audiences and commercial success with animated shorts and feature films that are primarily intended for adults.