Is animated hero Ultraman too violent for kids in China?

Society & Culture

Ultraman is a Japanese cartoon character who has captivated Chinese children since the 1980s. Now he has been purged from the Chinese internet after a government report called him “violent and criminal.”

Japanese cartoon character Ultraman may seem like a lovable monster-slaying titan, but Chinese authorities apparently have seen through his beam-shooting superpower and humanity-defending agenda and labeled him as what he really is: a giant alien that sends the wrong message to children because he carries weapons and regularly engages in violence. 

This morning, Chinese internet users noticed that content featuring Ultraman had been abruptly wiped from a handful of streaming services in the country, including major players like iQiyi and Tencent Video. On Bilibili, the video-sharing platform wildly popular among fans of Japanese cartoons, also known as anime, searches for the term “Ultraman” (迪迦奥特曼) yielded no results.  

None of the websites gave an explanation for the disappearance of the Ultraman-themed videos previously hosted on their platforms, but many observers initially speculated that the removal was related to the Consumer Protection Committee of Jiangsu Province. In April, the government agency released a list of 21 cartoon series containing what it deemed as inappropriate “language, scenes, and storylines,” decrying them for “exerting a negative influence on minors.” 

“In addition to regular plots of Ultraman fighting off monsters, the series also features violent elements like armed assault and battery,” the report concluded, noting that the results were based on a survey of 1,026 parents, who expressed concerns that “violent and criminal” themes in cartoons could negatively impact their children’s behavior. Others on the list included American cartoon and toy brand My Little Pony 小马宝莉, Japanese detective anime Case Closed 名侦探柯南, and Pokémon 精灵宝可梦, the iconic Japanese video game and entertainment franchise. 

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However, government officials in Jiangsu told (in Chinese) the media that taking down the Ultraman videos was a decision made by the platforms, and “had nothing to do with” the committee.

Ultraman, which was created 55 years ago by Japanese studio Tsuburaya Productions, is a long-running fantasy-horror series that helped define live-action superhero shows and popularized kaiju, a Japanese genre of films and television featuring giant monsters attacking cities. Known for its iconic silver and red suit and catchphrase “We still have glittering hope,” Ultraman is not only a household name in Japan, but also a popular character among Chinese born in the 1980s, when the animated series became a local hit in the country.

Online, the sudden disappearance of Ultraman content has sparked an outburst of fury and anguish, with many arguing that it’s absurd to denounce animation, and that it’s the responsibility of parents to teach their kids not to emulate everything they see on television or on the internet. “Growing up, I watched a lot of Ultraman and it was an essential part of my childhood. Now I’m a law-abiding adult who has never committed crimes. If anything, Ultraman developed my sense of justice,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). Another one commented (in Chinese), “Some parents really need to complain less and spend more time working on their parenting skills.”

Without a proper rating system for television and streaming shows, China has some really interesting (read: arbitrary) rules regarding violent content. On the one hand, historical dramas featuring scenes of full-blown wars and gun fights are prevalent, and there’s no requirement for them to carry content warnings. On the other hand, cartoon creators have to tread a fine line in preventing young audiences from imitating common tropes in animation, such as superheroes climbing up skyscrapers and animals falling off cliffs.

China’s war on “dangerous” cartoons has been going on for quite some time. In 2013, the country’s top media regulator ordered the production company behind Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf 喜羊羊与灰太狼, one of the most popular animated series in China, to “comprehensively revise” the content after numerous complaints saying the show was too violent for children. Some cartoons were even found liable for inspiring risky acts by their young viewers: In January, ​​a court in Sichuan Province ruled that Boonie Bears 熊出没, a popular children’s cartoon, was partially liable for an incident in 2018, where an eight-year-old girl died after acting out a climbing scene she had seen on the show.