What Is Anime? (And What Isn’t?)

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“Anime” is a Japanese colloquialism which comes from shortening the word “animation.” For the most part, in Japanese, “anime” is synonymous with animation of any kind, just as in English, “cartoon” is virtually synonymous with animation of any kind. On a technical level, there is no inherent distinction between “anime” and “cartoons,” but on a cultural level these words have different connotations, especially in the English language. “Anime” is most typically used to refer to cartoons which come from Japan, and because many fans of anime aren’t necessarily fans of cartoons from other countries, calling oneself an “anime fan” usually refers to being particularly interested in Japanese cartoons exclusively.

However, in recent years, as Japanese cartoons have become more influential even on shows in the West, a lot of debate has been waged over whether or not the term “anime” can be used to describe cartoons from other countries. Here, I am going to argue in favor of the idea that the only debatably meaningful application of the term “anime” is in applying it to Japanese cartoons exclusively.

From the ground up, Japanese cartoons were always influenced by Western cartoons. The father of anime and manga himself, Osamu Tezuka, cited the works of Walt Disney as his biggest influence, and a lot of really old manga and really old Western cartoons are basically indistinguishable–just look at Betty Boop next to Astro Boy, for instance. However, for a long time, the stylistic development of anime and manga was kind of insular, because not a lot of anime and manga made their way outside of Japan. So while Western cartoons were still permeating and influencing Japanese culture, the anime and manga which became influential to generations of Japanese artists mostly remained influential just within that country. Only in recent years, with anime and manga slowly permeating into world culture from the late nineties until now, has Japanese art started to have a big cultural influence throughout the world, to the point that shows like Avatar, Teen Titans, and The Boondocks all have a distinctive anime influence.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One of the biggest things that a lot of people don’t appreciate about anime and manga is that it covers an incredibly broad range of styles. A lot of people don’t really understand this because they’re mostly familiar with shows that have become popular in the West, through channels like Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, and Kid’s WB. Pulling from this pool of samples, it might seem like all anime kind of have the same aesthetic, but it’s really more that these channels are always going to pick the same kinds of shows to broadcast. Most of what gets brought to Western TV is shows aimed at young boys or young men, almost always with an action-centric storyline. Very rarely do we get shows aimed at women or young girls, or out-there arthouse shows, or shows aimed towards a more general adult audience.

I’ve seen it argued a few times that certain Japanese shows should be considered cartoons instead of anime because they showcase a lot of cartoon influence and don’t look as “anime” as other shows, with Panty and Stocking being the most frequently mentioned thing of this nature. These kind of statements come from a small frame of reference that ignores just how many different ways anime can look, and how many different influences anime can have. Panty and Stocking may be a lot more obvious since it makes blatant references to Western cartoons, but it’s far from the only show to have a strong Western influence.

If the word “anime” is only really helpful to those trying to signify their fandom of Japanese cartoons specifically, then there’s no sense in limiting which Japanese cartoons can be considered anime, as most anime fans appreciate shows from a variety of styles. This then leaves us with the question of whether or not Western cartoons like Legend of Korra should be considered anime.

From a stylistic perspective, I would certainly say that shows like Korra have a clear anime influence, though I’d also say that there are some obvious concerns of Western influences. While the character designs look pretty anime, the style of fight direction and animation looks much more Western, creating more of a cultural blend than an outright adherence to anime style. However, to say that Korra looks different from what is typical of anime is no different than pointing out how it’s similar to anime–both cases ignore the fact that some anime shows DO have more Western facets of animation, often intentionally. Shows like Big O Season 2 and Afro Samurai were intentionally made to look Western in their animation style, so this kind of cultural cross-promotion goes both ways.

My real issue with considering Legend of Korra to be anime isn’t the things that make it different from anime, so much as the idea that anime is defined by looking a certain way. If a Japanese cartoon has Western influence, we still call it anime, so if a Western cartoon has anime influence, I see no reason to consider it anything other than a Western cartoon.

A lot of people cite the fact that shows like Legend of Korra and the Boondocks are largely animated in Korea, which is also true of a lot of anime. But it’s also just true of like, a lot of cartoons in general. Studios in Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and probably other places I’m not aware of do a lot of in-between work on animations from around the world. Where it really gets confusing to me, though, is when you start trying to figure out intended audiences.

Legend of Korra, Teen Titans, and the Boondocks were clearly created to be played on TV in English-speaking countries first and foremost, and may have been adapted into other languages later. Likewise, most anime is made for Japan and then is later brought elsewhere. However, shows like the aforementioned Big O 2 and Afro Samurai, and even Space Dandy are sometimes made with both a Japanese and English audience in mind at once. Then you’ve got stuff like The Animatrix and Halo Legends, which are made entirely by Japanese creators and studios, but for a Western audience first. What about Trigger’s upcoming series Ninja Slayer, which is an adaptation of an American webcomic being made for a Japanese audience? Or the original Transformers, which was written and broadcast in the US, but had a lot of influential animators from Japan work on it. Once you start looking into the backgrounds and intentions of different anime productions, it gets harder and harder to determine what goes where.

To me it makes the most sense to look at the creative staff behind the show and figure out what background they come from, and to simply look at where the show was first released. If it’s a show made by an anime studio and was released in Japan either before or at the same time as it was released elsewhere, then it’s probably anime. If it was made by Americans for American television, then it’s probably not anime. American directors have worked on shows like Tekkonkinkreet, and Japanese directors have worked on shows like Adventure Time, but I think as long as the staff is mostly from the same country that the show is being made for, it’s probably that country’s show. I still don’t know what to do about Transformers though.

Of course, all of this is totally pedantic and pointless to really debate. The only reason any of it means anything is that some people want to be able to clearly define their hobby, and I don’t think it’s really worth splitting hairs over. It’s not like being able to call Legend of Korra anime changes anything about the show whatsoever, so there’s no point in arguing. I just wanted to thought-dump my perspective on the whole conversation here and maybe get you thinking about it in a different way. And in case you’re wondering, yes, there are hardcore cartoon fans in Japan who debate over the exact same shit.

17 thoughts on “What Is Anime? (And What Isn’t?)

  1. > The only reason any of it means anything is that some people want to be able to clearly define their hobby, and I don’t think it’s really worth splitting hairs over.

    Isn’t this what we do all the time as fans? Of course it’s worth the time and effort.

    The narrow perspective thing is true though, at least from my anecdotal experience. I think people who watch a lot of animation in general don’t get hung up on the definitions.

    • I guess we try and clearly define our taste, but I don’t feel there’s merit in the “is this anime?” argument the way there might be in say, the “what elements that this shares with anime cause me to like it in ways similar to anime?” conversations.

      • You must believe there is some merit in the argument or you would have never made the video.
        T-o unless your just poking the bull for views (you do see to just point out obverse a lot in your anime thesis videos).

        • My ultimate point was to try and lay everything out on the table, and then ultimately conclude that it doesn’t really matter. I provided every part of the argument so there’d be nothing left to say about it.

          • I will not argue that you place all the information on the table however, I don’t agree that it doesn’t really matter.

            Let’s take a look at manga and manhwa.
            I was once part of a manga club and an online manga community.
            I soon discovered that there was a deep split between people who believed manhwa should be accepted as manga and fan who believed you were not a real fan if you read manhwa.
            Is either side right? There is no right or wrong answer.

            I’m not going to demean then and say “it doesn’t matter” because it matters a lot to them.

            what doesn’t really matter to you matters to another person.

  2. Yeah, production locations mean so little to release location. Parts of season 2 of Korra were done by Studio Pierrot, and I’m sure we can find a lot of instances in the past where anime studios worked on western cartoons. Plus, no one is saying that the Marvel anime shouldn’t be considered anime.

    Isn’t the Transformers cartoon American? The toys were original Japanese, but I think the cartoon was US-targetted.

    (Tangent: the directors of ATLA actually had their animators watch Cowboy Bebop as a reference for fight animation)

  3. 5:55 – “I still don’t know what to do about Transformers.” Ahahahaha ummm how about “some research”? If you do, you’ll find that arbitrary_greay was far closer to hitting the nail on the head than they may ave realized. Much like the Transformers toyline, the Transformers cartoon itself was also an import. The same was Hasbro imported a Japanese toyline, then redesigned it and marketed it to American children and called it Transformers, they also imported the anime based on that selfsame toyline, cleaned it up, edited it and turned it into a 30 minute toy commercial. Oh, and also named ir Transformers. Much the same as all the Transformers toylines were imported from previously existing Japanese toylines, nearly all the Transformers cartoon series were heavily edited redubs of existing Japanese anime based on the selfsame imported toyline. Speaking of which, interestingly enough, while in Japan Energon actually WAS a continuation of Armada, Cybertron actually was a separate series completely unrelated to either Armada or Energon, but for the sake of American marketing, Hasbro decreed that Cybertron beredubbed as a continuation of Energon in order to tie Cybertron’s toyline into that of Armada’s and Energon’s, with the hopes of boosting the Cybertron tonline’s sales amongst the preexisting Armade and Energon series/toyline fanbase in the process.
    The more you know, huh?
    It’s all there in the manual, most just don’t read it.

  4. I take some issue with what you have termed to be “Western” animation. Most (if not all) of the examples are North American/English. Continental European (Franco-Belgian) comics like Tintin, Asterix, Suske en Wuske etc have developed under similarly insular conditions as Japanese anime did (The Smurfs or ‘Les Schromps’ being a rare exception).

  5. The thing is. Transformers goes back and forth between being made for Western or Japanese audiences. But a majority of cases it’s actually made for both because the two companies that sponsor the show and toy franchise want it for their retrospective regions. So… yeah Transformers is more of a middle ground when it comes to being defined as cartoon or anime.

      • Hello Digibro! First off: I’ve turned a page and am now finding myself enjoying your videos. I caught a few of your earlier works and at the time your opinions didn’t quite mesh well with mine. I then saw your Hunter X Hunter video linked on a forum recently and was surprised by how similar our thoughts on the show was. I have now watched a few more of your videos and am enjoying hearing the thoughts of a well-versed fan as yourself.

        Now, I’m eager to ask a similar question to Rex above: In the top-right corner at the same time is an image from an old animated version of The Little Matchstick Girl. When I was young I watched this specific version which had two additional short stories on the same VHS tape; A version of Treasure Island as well as a story about a young boy visiting a sick man in a hospital.

        Do you have any information regarding the picture? I’ve been looking for this release for years. A Youtube-user uploaded The Little Matchstick Girl short a few years back (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Um5__vZliSY), although she had put an Enya song over it and didn’t have any information regarding it.

        I hope you read this and have the chance to reply. Thank you for your time.

  6. I think the distinction between Japanese animation and Western animation is only useful because of the intrinsic, very distinct style between both types of work. The feel, the details, the ambiance, the method of storytelling, the visual techniques, all contribute to the style. Clearly, Japanese style is so different from western style that some people are hardcore fans of anime but NOT cartoons. Therefore, I conclude that shows like The Legend of Korra are anime, because they are so unlike western-style cartoons and so alike Japanese-style cartoons, that an anime fan might like these shows for the same reasons that they like anime. I believe that calling them not anime is miscategorizing them. Again, why is it USEFUL to differentiate both types of work if NOT for their style?

  7. I’ve just watched this video and I wanted to comment, this debate always makes me think of where we places animation that isn’t from Japan or America. For example; is it fair for french animation to be grouped in with western animation? Certainly France is considered a western country, but ‘western animation’ is also associated heavily with American animation.
    I’d argue that France has been as influenced by Japanese animation as it has american animation, as it’s been importing and collaborating on works from both countries for a long time. This is especially obvious in the designs of many modern French cartoons such as Wakfu, Miraculous Ladybug, Totally Spies, and Lolirock, which can be said to use what many would consider the ‘aesthetics’ of the anime market. That being said, while I’m seeing more tropes used in french animated television that are heavily associated with Anime, culturally the countries are still very different. This I think is significant enough for their works to a significantly different “feel”, so I personally wouldn’t call french animation Anime. (And then there’s the debate about anime being a french word but that’s something else I’m not getting into.)
    That being said, while France may be more culturally more similar to America due to geography and cultural exchange, I think I’d probably be banned from the country if I tried to claim they were the same. Indeed while french animated television might look “Anime”, their films are often reflective of France’s own identity as a powerhouse of comics and illustration. Not to mention their own history of animation goes as far as the beginnings of the medium itself, and they could arguably claim to have fathered it.
    So with that in mind, should we refer to French animation by it’s own name?

  8. We don’t really need a definition, we often identify things just for resemblance of similar other things instead of creating rigorous definitions.
    Things like “what’s an RPG?”, or “what’s a super hero?” fall in this category.
    About the “anime” thing, maybe with that diversity in animation styles we shouldn’t split the animation in western cartoons and anime and use the genres instead.
    For example, I think it’s more reasonable to call Korra a shonen even if it’s not anime.

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