The Complicated Answer to “What Is Anime?”

What the hell IS Anime? Maybe you think the answer is obvious but the topic of the term’s application seems to be a heavily debated one. It makes perfect sense when we are talking about shows from Japan but in the same discussions about shows like Fullmetal Alchemist or Naruto, you could easily hear someone bring up American animated shows like Avatar or Voltron. There are countless arguments online as to the valid application of the term and just as many debating if the term’s use should even matter.

To me, the term “Anime” can be misused in a way that, by no intent of the person who misuses it, can paint a false image of Anime and perpetuate certain ideas about the medium of animation or the sub medium known as Anime. So today I want to lay out exactly what I consider to be Anime, how I rationalize this, and why I even give a shit.

Straight outta Ni-hon

It is very important to remember that the word Anime is a Japanese colloquial term for the American word “animation”. It is written in Katakana, a Japanese alphabet used for titles, as well as foreign words, names and concepts. In the same way that my last name, Lundeen, is written out as ルンデ-ン (Ruh-nn-deh-nn), Animation is translated as アニメ (Ah-ni-mei).

The easiest way to classify Anime is still the most valid. Anime is an animated work from Japan or a Japanese production company utilizing Japanese animation techniques. However, some would argue that there are other factors that can qualify something as Anime as well. For now, though, let’s keep in mind the most basic definition.

When I call something an Anime rather than animated series or cartoon, I am most always referring to animation linked to Japan. I make that distinction as an English speaker because I’m consuming animation from a completely different country, with different styles and techniques compared to the west. But whenever there is an intersect between east and west on the creative end, people start arguing.

Shelter & The Markets For Anime

In October of 2016, EDM artist Porter Robinson and Madeon created a music video in conjunction with A-1 Pictures and Crunchyroll. The music video was pretty fantastic and if you haven’t seen it, I suggest you check it out below. However, the whole, what is Anime argument caused quite a bit of a stir. The r/anime page on Reddit took the video off the page for a while because of disagreement as to whether or not it was actually Anime.

I for one believe the answer to be a resounding yes. A-1 Pictures is a very well-known Japanese animation studio. It seems ridiculous to say it isn’t an Anime just because the guy who directed it was an American musician. Porter Robinson is a director who fell in love with Anime thanks to shows like Anohana. He thus created this short as a passion project.

Japanese animators have worked on American cartoons and we still call those cartoons. American directors and animators have worked on Anime and we still call them anime. What made me call Shelter an Anime was the fact that it is produced by a well-known Japanese studio.

But Shelter was marketed towards a western audience, I hear you say. Does that mean Shelter isn’t an Anime? I don’t think so. People like to put an emphasis on the market that Anime is pursuing when they define it, meaning that if the product was marketed primarily for an American audience, then it is not an Anime.

This seems like a bit of a stretch to me. Anime is a niche market in the west, but it’s still pretty big. Disney’s partnership with Studio Ghibli has graced the west with phenomenal animated films, some of which are my favorites of all time. Plus, Anime is beginning to become even more popular. Sony’s recent acquisition of Funimation is evidence of this.

Try this. Instead of putting a focus on the audience being targeted, think about how it was created and who made it. Is the studio behind the show you are watching Japanese or American. If it is American, who animated it? Where are the key animators from? Look at who produced it and then decide if it is Anime or not.

Take for instance The Big O, an Anime by Studio Sunrise which ran for 26 episodes. The second season was produced in part by Cartoon Network, given that there was a pretty big fanbase in the states. Does that mean it’s less of an Anime? It still had the same production staff and even the same writers, even if there was a bit of input from the producers at Cartoon Network.

An even better example is Space Dandy which was simultaneously released on Adult Swim as it was airing in Japan. Not only is Space Dandy one of Studio Bones’ best shows, it was a huge hit on Adult Swim. Are you really gonna tell me that a show produced by Studio Bones and directed by Cowboy Bebop’s Shinichiro Watanabe isn’t an Anime? Even recently, FLCL is getting two more seasons to be released in 2018 thanks to Adult Swim.

Anime is an inherently visual medium. The technical angle of the industry needs to be taken into account when critiquing it or defining it per say. The easiest way to determine what is Anime and what isn’t is to approach the subject as a matter of origin and technique. The easy way to do this is by researching the staff and studios, but the more advanced way is to learn more about animation techniques used by Japanese animators.

If the latter interests you, you might like Sakuga, the word used to describe the process of creating Anime. In the Anime community, appreciation of Sakuga turns into a communal appreciation of artists creating incredible cuts of animation. If you want to learn the difference between Anime and non-Anime, this website is a good start. type in yutaka_nakamura (a famous key animator from Studio Bones), click on one of the videos and just enjoy (you can also search for Sakuga on YouTube and find stuff like this video below).

Now, however, I want to start talking about where people begin to disagree on the definition. We are talking about western shows that are claimed to be Anime despite meeting few to none of the classifications I have laid out above.

“American Anime”

We know that Anime can be an animated show from Japan or a Japanese production studio and that the targeted market of a show doesn’t affect whether or not something is an Anime, but I think it is time to address the elephant in the room. Shows like Legend of Korra, Voltron, Castlevania or RWBY? Are they Anime?

Korra and Voltron are both produced by Studio Mir, based out of South Korea. Castlevania was produced by Powerhouse Animation with a staff of mostly Korean animators. RWBY is the most radically different, being a CG animated show by Rooster Teeth, utilizing posing tools and motion capture as opposed to hand-drawn animation.

These shows did not originate from Japan, nor from a Japanese production studio. In regards to the first three, I feel that the animation techniques of Korea give off a very different feel to that of Anime. Fight choreography, character movement, visual direction, etc. I get the sense that Korean animators are trained very differently from those who became educated in Japan.

I’m willing to bet that most people call these shows Anime because of the style and genres of these shows. To them, these shows “look like Anime” or maybe the science fiction/ fantasy settings bring to mind an idea of Anime they are familiar with.

Sure Legend of Korra’s character kinda “look like Anime characters,” but that’s because the show’s style demands more full-figured bodies for the characters. It just so happens to be that Japan has been making shows with that type of full-figured anatomy for longer than America.

Non-anime fans in America aren’t used to those types of character designs or those types of shows. This has also led to humorous arguments I’ve had where people tell me that shows like Panty & Stocking aren’t Anime because it doesn’t look like Anime. This is for the exact same reason that people who see a show like Legend of Korra assume it to be an Anime.

If you showed this picture to a non-anime fan, they’d probably assume it’s a cartoon network show

Wherein cartoon characters in America are designed to stress the emotions and personalities of the characters, Anime more typically creates characters designed to look recognizably human. Plus, America’s animated shows are typically either meant for kids or families. The shows that are marketed to adults are typically DC animated superhero movies or comedies on Adult Swim.

Why Do I Even Care?

Why even spend this much time discussing what is and isn’t Anime? I suppose the main reason is that the term Anime isn’t used as a colloquialism, but as a term to describe a specific style or specific types of stories and I don’t think that approach to using the term is beneficial to the future of animation.

I’ll get real. If you aren’t invested in the future of an art form you might only consume casually, this probably doesn’t bug you and nor do I expect it to. But for those who do love animation, that distinction holds a bit more weight.

Like I said at the beginning, I use the word “Anime” to describe animation that is in some way connected to Japanese animation. It is purely a word that I use to describe a foreign object, which is funny considering that the Japanese created the word to describe a practice that the west popularized: animation.

Don’t feel like I’m insulting your show by saying it is not Anime. I have never disliked a show because it was NOT like Anime. In fact, I fully acknowledge the influences of Anime on American animation, especially when it feels like cartoons are doing it more and more. I call shows like Korra, Voltron, RWBY and Castlevania Anime-inspired.

I enjoy Japanese animation more than western animation. It isn’t because I don’t like it, cause hell, I grew up on Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons. No, I like Anime more because as an adult there are more types of shows in that medium that I enjoy compared to the west. So believe me, I’m overjoyed when I see American animators creating shows that draw inspiration from it.

With the growing popularity of Anime in the west, we will only see more shows follow that same path. But I’m not gonna call those shows Anime. I’m gonna call them cartoons or animations because it won’t be foreign anymore. I don’t call those shows Anime because Anime isn’t the only medium that can tell stories like this.

As more American animators begin to experiment and try new things and create new shows for new demographics that previously were catered to by Anime, we will see even more shows that look like Anime. But when that day comes, we won’t call these shows Anime anymore, we will call them what they are: Damn cool shows. And we’ll have Anime to thank for them.

What do you think? Tell me what you consider to be Anime and what you consider not to be. I’m always interested in how people determine what does and does not qualify. For more, check out this video by YouTuber Digibro. Thank you all for reading and as always, see you next time.

2 thoughts on “The Complicated Answer to “What Is Anime?”

  1. Pingback: One Punch Man, My Hero Academia & Superheroes in Anime | Sakura Sunrise

  2. Pingback: Castlevania Series Review | Sakura Sunrise

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