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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.