Attendees at the country’s largest and longest-running pop culture convention have complained about the presence of merchandise featuring sexualized underage anime characters.
Life-size body pillows featuring underage characters, mystery merchandise bags containing panty shots of underage characters, and “Hentai clothing” were among the stock for sale at the recent Armageddon Expo in Wellington.
Armageddon founder and organiser Bill Geradts told The Spinoff that he had not seen much of the sexually charged materials that fans had found offensive but that he had taken action on what he had seen. He said that Armageddon has a zero-tolerance policy for pornography and sexually-explicit content.
Geradts said that Armageddon has been subjected to bad faith attacks since announcing it was banning life-like firearm props after the Christchurch terror attacks, but he reiterated that he takes all complaints seriously.
The Spinoff spoke to a wide range of fans who attended the three-day convention this year, many of whom were regulars at past Expos as well.
Tongsen Su, a 22-year-old Wellingtonian, said he has gone “pretty much every year. This year I went Saturday and Monday”. He said he was uncomfortable with some of the merchandise on sale this year. “Mainly those lewd body pillows, mainly the underage ones”, he said.
Body pillows have a long history in anime culture. Geradts defended them as “no different from a Star Wars duvet. They’re anime characters on a pillow. There’s none that I have seen that are anything close to offensive.” Geradts did say he had restricted them so there are fewer on display.
The problem is when the pillows depict underage characters, critics say, with the implication that the owner wants to sleep with those characters. Geradts rejected this criticism, arguing that any non-sexual pillows are fine. “How is it different from any other pillow?”
Helen Middleton, 23, from Wellington, said the body pillows were in poor taste. “There’s been a few years where I noticed the body pillows. I’m kind of used to it now but if I really stop and think about it, there are a lot of underage characters that have been shown on them.”
Twenty-year-old Sarah Joll, from Karori, agreed. “The worst was body pillows of children in very sexual outfits. In one of the main stalls, the top shelf was full of them. I thought it was disgusting. It was lewds of children, which isn’t appropriate anywhere, let alone in a public event.”
Bridget, 26, from Christchurch, said she had seen specific characters she recognized as underage. “There’s this character, they’re called platelets from the anime Cells at Work and they are pretty unambiguously primary-school-aged girls. You’ve got them on these body pillows like blushing and pawing at their clothes,” she said.
The Spinoff put these claims to Geradts, who said “That’s certainly not anything that we have seen and nothing that we would permit if we did see it.”
Su and others also complained about mystery bags for sale at the event. These opaque paper bags featured branding from popular anime shows and containing a random assortment of merchandise related to the show. Su said his girlfriend bought a mystery bag and described the contents as “not suitable for kids. There was a print of two really young girls naked and kissing each other.”
Geradts said that during the show, one attendee complained about the contents of their bag. He arranged for a refund and personally checked several of the mystery bags for sale but found no sexualized merchandise.
“I didn’t find anything wrong at all,” he said. “In response, we’ve also advised the exhibitor at the next event that while they can remain mystery bags, the variety of items that are included in the [bags] need to be on display so people can see what might be included in the bag beforehand.”
Geradts added that products with images like those described by Su should not be sold at Armageddon.
Jay Nottage, 17, from Paraparaumu, told The Spinoff that “in one of my mystery bags I got a poster of a [16-year-old character], looking up the girl’s skirt. Another friend of mine got one of a literal child who was not wearing any pants and was not leaving much to the imagination.”
Nottage added that “a lot of the mystery bags were for kids animes.” She worried that children would buy them out of appreciation for the show, or just because of the bright colours, and then be exposed to sexual material.
Attendees told The Spinoff that some of this content had been sold at past events but that this year was far worse. One of the new stalls this year was selling “Hentai clothing”. Hentai is a form of animated pornography.
Bridget, an attendee, explained that none of the Hentai merchandise was sexually explicit. Instead, she said, the clothing depicted ahegao. “It literally means ‘panting face’ and it looks like a point-of-view cumshot on a woman, or the face of a woman having an orgasm.”
Geradts said that he asked the retailers selling the Hentai clothing to remove the most graphic merchandise from public view. He said that it won’t be allowed at the next convention, or else will be severely restricted.
Geradts also said that this was an example of a grey area that exists with anime content. “Anime itself, by its nature, is a different kind of art form than general cartoons. Some things are aimed at kids but others are not but still feature younger characters. There can be confusion between between what a non-anime fan sees and what an anime fan sees.” Sometimes that’s understandable, he said, but it makes it challenging to regulate.
“With anime, there is such an eclectic mix of imagery and content that, to some people, it could cross a line, but only if they’re not sure what they’re looking at. That said, there is content that does cross the line, and we actively discourage that or remove it from the show.”
Bridget, who is an anime fan, agrees. “It’s kind of a grey area. When it comes to an animated character, there’s not really a ‘fact of the matter’ of how old they are. You can get situations where a character looks like a child but people so, ‘Oh, no, they’re actually a 700-year-old dragon so that’s fine to show them naked or whatever’. There’s a general consensus that if it looks like a child, and especially if it says that it’s a child in canon, don’t lewd that character because that’s disgusting.”
Despite the difficulty of regulating content in this area, attendees were hopeful that Armageddon would step up as it has in the past.
Middleton said that she wanted to see more checks of what is being sold at stalls. “I really appreciated how well they cracked down on weapons this year. They obviously want to do better so they should get an idea of what kind of merchandise is being sold before approving retailers.”
“The con treats a lot of things with a lot of sensitivity, like with the Christchurch shootings,” Bridget said. “They’ve gotten really proactive about having signage saying ‘Cosplay is not Consent’. This just seems like a massive oversight, that they’re letting this kind of thing keep going when it’s complained about year after year.”
At least two people The Spinoff spoke to said that had raised these issues in annual threads in the Facebook group Cosplay New Zealand and that they were under the impression that Armageddon staff reviewed these threads. Geradts said that he had not previously received complaints about this issue.
The Spinoff was unable to identify or contact the specific retailers selling sexual content at Armageddon. Geradts said that many of the exhibitors were wholesalers or overseas companies and declined to provide their contact information.