What Defines a Work as Mature?


What makes a show “mature” or “for adults?” I see people throw these terms around in a condescending way, saying that shows like Steins;Gate or Madoka are inferior to shows like Monster because they’re aimed at teenagers. Are there any actual guidelines or metrics here?


It has mainly to do with the audience they’re aimed at, not the maturity or worth of the work itself. Many works aimed at teenagers have themes or concepts also or only relevant to adult audiences, many works aimed at any audience have great aesthetic/artistic merits, and many works aimed specifically at adults are as lacking in substance or maturity as any you could find. Plus, most people watch things to be entertained anyway, so if you’re being entertained, then your media is doing its job.

Being concerned about the perceived maturity of your media (or condescending about the perceived superiority of your tastes) is generally a symptom of insecurity, and something that people ironically tend to grow out of after a certain age.


That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t really answer the question. I believe the original poster was asking more about what intrinsic qualities of shows make them mature, not how they’re defined by other people.


You’re right; I was mainly trying to address the sentiment he gets at in his post, and the intention behind the comments I believe he’s responding to.

The reason I didn’t directly answer “What makes an anime ‘for adults?'” is because I believe that’s pretty much a fake concept, and that while shows can certainly contain themes, topics, or subtleties that require a mature and critical (I’m guessing this is what is meant by ‘adult’) mind to parse, people of every age enjoy a wide variety of media, and that’s fine. I can’t stand reality television, for example, and personally find it juvenile and depressing, but many other adults watch plenty of it.

But that’s not really getting at the key issue here. More importantly, I think the kind of ‘adult versus non-adult’ distinction posited here, where Monster passes but Madoka or Steins;Gate don’t, strikes me as a particularly insecure and virulent form of elitism, where a show’s surface aesthetics (gritty, no speculative elements, situated in a specific historic moment) are used as the hallmarks of its maturity, not its level of aesthetic craft, thematic depth, writing, or any other deep-tissue indicator of artistic quality (not that Monster’s a bad show at all, but I wouldn’t place it categorically above the other two as far as ‘for adults’ is concerned). If we wanted to limit the definition of shows that are ‘for adults’ to shows exclusively concerned with themes only relevant to adults, we’d be excluding a great deal of artistically vibrant and meaningful shows; if we instead categorize according to aesthetic merit or strength of writing or thematic resonance or whatever, we have to accept that many shows aimed at younger audiences are worth recognizing.

Basically, I think the categorization of shows as “for” certain audiences based on their aesthetic or specificity of themes is symptomatic of a pretty shallow way of evaluating or appreciating media. Unless we’re only talking about watching shows that are relevant to the viewer’s own experience, in which case… nope, that doesn’t change anything, tons of themes have universal resonance. And again, I’m being specific to art here, not entertainment, which is far more subjective and unique to everyone.

Admittedly, I have my own standards of shows that I believe are worth watching or that are talking down to me or whatever, but I try to keep in mind that my own line is not the end-all-be-all of ‘adult’ merit.

And in the interest of further expressing how silly this quest for maturity in entertainment is (and that I’m not totally oblivious to the subtext here):

  1. Watch whatever you want.
  2. Watch stuff like Naruto with sequential plotting, sneer at level 1.
  3. Watch stuff like Code Geass that maintains self-serious aesthetic, sneer at levels 1 and 2.
  4. Watch stuff like Monogatari that displays some craft, personality, and themes, sneer at levels 1-3.
  5. Watch stuff like Kino’s Journey or Aku no Hana that displays a generally high level of craft, sneer at levels 1-4.
  6. Discover film, sneer at all anime fans.
  7. Read only David Foster Wallace and James Joyce, sneer at anyone who enjoys anything.
  8. Watch whatever the fuck you want, give sneering muscles a rest.


This makes it sound like you’re disavowing the value of age classifications in general, which seems pretty misguided – isn’t age classification still a useful term when describing the expected content or style of storytelling in a show?


I don’t disagree; my complaint is mainly with people using stuff like that as a weapon, not as a tool to explain a show. And I don’t deny that for most people, that aesthetic stuff really is critical to their appreciation, and thus useful when having a show described to them (hell, I’ve actually used Monster’s synopsis to entice a non-anime fan to try the medium, specifically because I feel he evaluates shows largely according to their surface aesthetic).

I also kinda think that our standard methods of categorizing media does many works a disservice – one example of this being the “anime” = “cartoons” = “for children” perspective that is pretty much the standard in the West.

Management: The original discussion ended there. However, I think the point I was making scratched at but never fully addressed something fundamental about my perspective on media criticism, so here’s one more attempt to better explain myself.

Brief Aside for the Cynics and the Critics

I know this perspective might come across as devaluing criticism or art evaluation, but I’m not really trying to do that. My main point here is that people should be able to watch what they want to watch, and that our general methods of evaluating media seem to place much more emphasis on creating a reductive hierarchy than actually celebrating a meaningful relationship with art. And when it comes to that meaningful relationship, I think the sharpest of us can sometimes be the worst offenders – cynics who see recycled elements and dismiss an entire show, critics who see tired plot devices and construct an entire narrative of the show’s purpose. As far as that instinct goes, I really just want to emphasize the importance of humility, curiosity, and a genuine love of media.

When you dismiss a show out of hand, you may be right to, but you may also be missing something of true merit, even if it exists within a broken frame. Personally, I rarely watch shows expecting to be swept away and utterly entertained. Obviously: I’m a crusty, jaded, cynical critic myself. What I do watch shows for is to learn, be it through understanding new perspectives, seeing new tricks and pitfalls in various types of storytelling, or simply being more aware of my own thought processes. And to make the most of every show, I feel it’s pretty necessary to engage media from the perspective of asking what it can teach you, not what you can say about it.

Sure, in the end I generally try to synthesize my thoughts and articulate what I think the show is trying to say, and I certainly don’t always maintain this standard of humility (nor should anyone be expected to, nor does every piece of media actually reward this perspective). But I think media appreciation and criticism are pretty much an endless journey towards a fuller perspective, and that when people make hasty dismissals of media, they are denying themselves steps on this journey. Even if your ultimate thoughts still miss something (as all our thoughts regularly do), I don’t think there’s ever a downside to giving a show a chance. So, as pompous and hypocritical and assumptive as this makes me, I just want to say: Embrace humility. Always be curious. There is always something to learn.

7 thoughts on “What Defines a Work as Mature?

  1. First of all, great post. While I basically agree with everything you said and most certainly enjoy my entertainment for the sake of, well, entertainment (and couldn’t care less if it’s “meant” to please me within my age group), I just wanted to add that I actually do believe there are certain shows that appeal more to adult than adolescent audiences. I would not necessarily want to call them “more mature”, though, as there’s always some sort of judgement implied. But there just are certain themes (or a certain way of dealing with those themes) that I do believe appeals more to a 20 years+ audience than an adolescent one. It has nothing to do with violence or profanity, obviously. A violent and bloody show like Shingeki no Kyojin is likely to please adolescent audiences (and did so in the millions). Would I want to watch it with my imaginary 10 year old daughter? Surely not. Does that make the show more “mature” than, let’s say, Princess Tutu (which could be watched safely with probably almost anyone from the age of 8 or so)? Well, that’s up to the viewer to decide. Personally, I wouldn’t say so. Code Geass is another example for a show that, due to it’s violence alone (and the it’s-all-for-the-greater-good justifications for it), I would not want to show to minds too young to reflect for a second before jumping on the MC’s bandwagon without a second thought (a hopeless endeavour, of course). Still, both Shingeki no Kyojin and Code Geass are obviously going to appeal to adolescent audiences big time, with their themes of rebellion against the rules of the world set up by your parents’ generation, finding your place in a world of emotional turmoil etc. I really don’t think calling these shows “mature” or “immature” helps in assessing their value from an artistic, entertainment, or storytelling point of view, though. Or if they’re also going to be great to watch for a 30 somthing year old like myself (which they were).

    Let’s take a different example for a highly popular and successful anime series, Cowboy Bebop, that, at least in my point of view, is an example for a show that’s probably going to be enjoyed by adults more than (most) adolescents – because of it’s main themes, not because of it’s “maturity”. Cowboy Bebop mainly deals with feelings of regret, loss of something once treasured (and the desire, and, sometimes, inability of getting it back), of lost or shattered dreams (or those in need of re-evaluation in sight of reality), of the acceptance of all that was lost and the need to move on – feelings that are much more present in adult’s than most adolescent’s hearts (thank god). The fact it’s also cool as cool can be certainly helped in making it as popular is it still is today, among a wide and diverse audience. Still, I think there will probably be a significant amount of 15 year olds who might simply be bored watching this show.

    So, is Cowboy Bebop the “more mature” and better show, then? Well, it might be better, but for different reasons. I certainly know that, when I was younger, I wanted all the idealism and rebellion I could get in my entertainment. Today, I’m much more interested in the actual consequences of these things. Which is where people like Urobuchi come in, of course. (Not that Code Geass didn’t heavily address these things as well.)

    But, yeah, if one has to assess the maturity of one’s entertainment in order to enjoy it, one might not be as mature as one would like to believe.

    • Solid points – beyond whatever the perceived “maturity” of a work is, there’s also its base-level appropriateness, as well as the perspective required to find its points meaningful or resonant. I think OreGairu is actually a kinda funny dual example here – to younger audiences, that show might come across as a confirmation of their own feelings, but as someone well past that age it felt like a loving takedown of teenage insecurity and narcissism.

  2. Old post and extremely out there comment but:

    I wouldn’t want to watch an episode of Baby Looney Tunes.

    I think at some point, you do in fact have to draw the line between moral education for developing children and “mature themes”.

    I do want to emphasis that my definition of “mature themes” for the purposes of this post is, “Something that doesn’t have to do with common moral code that we teach to developing children, i.e. stealing is wrong, don’t bully people, etc.”

    But of course, I’m aware that you mean shows other than things than Baby Looney Tunes. I just want to put it out there that if a show’s target audience is children under the age of 6, at that point, I can see why we would have this “mature” classification, although I do agree with your post that such a classification is meaningless.

    In the end, this was probably a less eloquent way of expressing the opinion of Anne (above).

    But allow me to respond to your final aside for a moment:

    I think there is something to lose in giving some shows a chance: time. I generally refuse to watch most harem animes, though I do give them an occasional try if I’m reccommended them repeatedly. I may be missing out on something, but from what I’ve generally experienced, this animes make my skin crawl with their level of female objectification. I feel like I get nothing out of most of the harem shows I have tried (prior to my chosing to not watch these animes, that is) and feel dirty coming out of them.

    There are probably harem animes that I could enjoy if I gave them the chance. But to my experience, most of these shows are crap.

    To make an analogy, I also don’t try spicy food when I go to the Sichaun providence in Chengdu, China. This is because this area is reknowned for having exceptionally spicy food, and I don’t deal well with exceptionally spicy food. It tastes bitter, almost like poison (and funny enough, my father gets a rash).

    So what I’m getting at here is: sometimes, we have to make compromises based on our experiences. If I had infinite time to watch anime, I’d go ahead and give several animes, not just harem animes, a try. There are plenty of good shows that I still haven’t watched because I don’t have to time to watch them, but as is, I can only really follow 3 to 5 shows a season.

    And that has absolutely nothing to do with your main point, but I thought I’d share. Honestly, I think I can be better about this: i.e. gives shows a three episode test, and then quit if it’s crap. Which probably means I agree with you, in a very roundabout fashion (and which my opinions tend to do).

    And as a final note, I do think there is merit in not doubting yourself. Self-confidence is a powerful thing, and though it may walk a fine line against narcissim, it can also be inspiring and mind opening. I perform a lot better when I have confidence in my ability. Sometimes you need to make a decision instead of vascilating between options. But at the same time, it’s even better when you have to capability to acknowledge you’re wrong at the same time.

  3. Holy goodness this is a great blog. Not only do the reviews provide coherent insights to shows’ central messages, but the essays on criticism seem to almost be like words coming from a philosopher, inspiring me to change the way I engage with my media and with my friends’ media.

  4. Do you think true artistic maturity correlates more to a show’s self-consciousness than the target public? I mean, take avatar, the last airbender as an example. It felt mature, and it felt to because it felt that the show was in control, guiding us through it’s path and sometimes making us walk on the shoes of our younger selves. It is arguably a show for children, but it felt mature as the story seemed to be told by an adult, not by a child.

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