What is Anime? Why Does It Matter?

A friend of mine recently directed me to a Youtube video about the use of the term “anime.” Something I’ve seen a lot is confusion over what “anime” is, and that’s somewhat perplexing to me, because, for a long time, I didn’t quite understand what the point of contention was.

I define “anime” as a sub-medium of animation made up of works produced by Japanese studios that are either released first in Japan or simultaneously in Japan and elsewhere, and are often aimed at Japanese audiences.

We group things together based on common traits. Often, the common traits that comprise a group might only be as few as one or two commonalities, such as the set of all men (Common traits: Being male) or the set of all redheads (Common trait: Having red hair). This can result in elements of a group having wildly different characteristics individually, but still being part of that group. If I look down at my anime shelf, I can tell you that between Divergence Eve, Martian Successor Nadesico, Patlabor, Sakura Wars, Record of Lodoss War, Upotte, and Girls und Panzer have nothing in common with each other as a group but the characteristics of being Japanese productions for Japanese audiences, originally released in Japan.

To me, the distinction is very cut-and-dried, but that’s not so for many people, so the debate continues on, and I believe one of the primary reasons for this is because there are many people who, to a certain extent, see the term “anime” as a value judgment. For these people, anime is what they like, so what they like must be anime. The issue with that mindset, however, is that these terms only have use and meaning if we look at things pragmatically and objectively.

RWBY, the Avatar franchise, the Boondocks, and Teen Titans all borrow heavily from art styles, character design conventions, etc. commonly associated with anime and are quite obviously heavily inspired by Japanese animation. Inspiration, however, is impossible to quantify. In addition, if inspiration were the criterion by which we sorted “anime” and “cartoons,” early works of anime would not count, as many of those were inspired by Disney’s work around the same time.

The relationship between anime and cartoons (And to an extent, Japanese media and Western media, in general) is one of constant back-and-forth borrowing of one another’s culture, style, and other elements. Between anime and cartoons, the back-and-forth inspiration would muddy the waters so much that the distinction between the two would become useless.

Imitating, on the surface level, the art style and tropes of shounen fighting anime (No coincidence that many of the cartoons considered “anime” by some tend to borrow from the genre of anime with the most penetration into the West) does not make a show anime, especially when there are many works of anime with wildly varying art styles and sets of tropes that are unquestioningly considered anime. How am I supposed to be convinced that Avatar: The Last Airbender is an anime because it “looks like an anime” when MS IGLOO, Cat Shit One, Bakemonogatari and Tekkonkinkreet are all accepted as anime without question, but look nothing like Avatar: The Last Airbender?

While it’s okay to value one type of animation over another (Modern cartoons don’t do much for me anymore compared to anime, for example), the distinction between the two must be objective if it’s to mean anything.

One might question, however, why the distinction needs to mean anything in the first place. The fact is, to many of us anime fans, there’s something special about the media we enjoy being created by Japanese directors, artists, studios, etc., for Japanese audiences. We enjoy the cultural influences that bleed into the media they create. It’s not just a style or a set of tropes that can be copied and pasted. It’s an entire culture that’s built upon itself for decades. You can’t just replicate that.

Look at it this way: Are you, realistically-speaking, going to tell me that an American studio not just could have but would have created Upotte!, Hidamari Sketch, or Kodomo no Jikan?

That’s why the distinction is important. Not because anime is better than “cartoons” or vice-versa, but because it’s different, and that difference matters to a lot of us.

4 Replies to “What is Anime? Why Does It Matter?”

  1. Despite how in reality, the answer to the question of “what is Anime” is pretty strait forward, this is a question that in the past (and to a certain extent now) that I have had some trouble with. Specifically I had trouble admitting to myself that this is a fairly cut and dry issue.

    Some explaining is in order. When I was in my later days of High School and going into early college, a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) came to me with a proposition. We had already known each other for a while, and she knew that I liked Anime. My interests in Anime had diverged from her’s over time (this was around the time I discovered SanCom) but she came to me and asked if I wanted to be her partner in creating our own original Manga. One of her hobbies was drawing, and she had some promise as an illustrator. Despite her fairly major creative streak however, writing was not her forte, and some of her worst grades were in English. On the other hand some of my best grades were in English at the time, and I had already shown her “proof” of my creative streak in writing prior to her proposal (that being some odd 18 chapters of a very Animesque story I wrote in pen and loose leaf during late Middle-early High school called “The 4 Bases” which I still keep to this day. I am still sentimental towards it, even if it is superfluously chuunibyou). With our shared expertise we would create a Manga, with her handling the art and myself handling the story. We did a lot of world-building and character designing, but ultimately the first chapter (or even the first scanned page) never happened. There were many reasons, on her side she took a very heavy college load and had little time to give in the first place. For myself, the honest answer is that I just didn’t have enough of a work ethic to take it seriously at the time. We also created a concept that was far too grand for people of our experience level. The idea just kind of fizzled out after a while.

    If you notice, I specifically use the word “Manga” when talking about this failed project of ours. This is because that is how we referred to it back then when the dream was still alive, it was “our Manga.” Her opinion on this matter was also fairly cut and dry, that Manga (as well as Anime) was purely an art style/visual aesthetic that was originally created in Japan. Since she was the visual artist in the equation, I accepted that as truth as I felt like I had less ground to stand on. It also helped that Avatar was (and still is) my absolute favorite Western cartoon and one of my favorite shows in general (and the fact that the Cartoon Network Teen Titans was one of my favorites when I was in Middle School). With Anime just being art style and nothing more, my favorite Western and Japanese shows all fit into one category. It also helps that these “Animesque” shows were to certain extents different than your average American/Canadian cartoon (the Avatar series especially so). However, just because these shows are “Animesque” and are different to varying extents from things like Animaniacs, Ed Edd n’ Eddy, and The Regular Show does not mean they are actually Anime.

    When I started following Anime as it came out, thinking more deeply about the concept of Moe and how it connects to me as a viewer and started really paying attention to the cultural nuances in the shows I consume, the idea of Anime/Manga being purely an art style began to sound increasingly far fetched. Particularly when watching Slice of Life shows or anything that is very romance focused (or just the Monogatari series and Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei in general) it became increasingly obvious that shows like these would NEVER be made here. Besides an art style, the cultural nuances are just too intrinsic to what they are and to their identity as “Anime.” More than that however, it was those cultural differences that made me enjoy the shows all the more. The way inter-personal relationships are depicted in Anime is something informed by the daily reality of it’s creators, and you’ll find that even in sci-fi/fantasy settings where there is no such thing as Japan, the characters still act Japanese. The fact that the Slice of Life genre even exists and they don’t have to be comedy focused like the American SitCom shows a sizable difference in cultural values (shown by the general “love it or hate it” attitude to SoL that the Western fanbase has). For the nation that created Anime and Manga, it was obvious that the media they made could have never been made anywhere else because of all it’s constituent parts. It was, and still is, more than an art style.

    So why my reluctance? Well that would be because of her and my failed “Manga.” It is something I still have fond memories towards and because we were being actively influenced by Anime/Manga (using aesthetics and some of it’s tropes, etc…) that is what I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be called “Manga,” not “Mangaesque” or Tokyopop’s term “Amerimanga.” Those sounded like value judgements at the time, and therefore suggested our work was “lesser.” Now I accept those terms more as what they are, not as value judgements but purely neutral descriptive statements (except “Amerimanga,” that term is just so cheesy to the point of being cringe inducing). These “Animesque” shows are in some ways, not just like the “normal” Western cartoon as they do borrow to varying extents more than just visual tropes (once again, some more than others as things like Teen Titans and The Boondocks purely borrowed on the visual side while the Avatar series brought in some Eastern philosophy and belief structures). At the same time, they are still not Anime. No matter if Avatar has countless references to Buddhism and the fact that the show’s idea of spirits is similar to the concept of Youkai or nature deities like Kami, the characters still act within a Western mindset on a very fundamental level. These shows occupy a grey area of sorts, but are still very much the children of the West (similar to the “Animesque” cartoons yet being the total opposite is Panty and Stocking, a Japanese show heavily influenced by Western cartoons and Cartoon Network specifically: a show that feels Western but is ultimately the daughter of Japan). These shows are not Anime, they are Animesque.

    And you know what? There is nothing wrong with that.

  2. What are you kidding me? That picture pretty much answers your question.

    BTW, Girls und Panzer is fucking awesome and you are all afraid of yourselves!

  3. And that distinction is fine for today.

    But I think in the future, cultures and the arts are going to blend together much more than they already do. Anime’s influence is spreading, you can see it especially in recent French animated series and Korean works, in addition to increasingly anime-esque cartoons. Even a lot of indie games have startlingly anime-esque designs and stories.

    Obviously in this long process there will be a lot of give and take. I’ve often heard more and more youth in Japan are taking bigger interests in Western media and that has to eventually influence Japan’s future creative content as well. The homogenization can’t last forever, eventually the culture walls will break apart.

    It might not even happen in our lifetimes, but I think that eventually everything is going to blend and evolve in ways we can’t even anticipate, and when that happens I don’t think something as mundane as “country of origin” is going to be a relevant factor in categorizing media.

    So yeah, that’s going to be a beautiful utopian mixing pot of cultures and artistic expression.

    Or… we could just stay the course and wipe ourselves off the face of the planet by the end of the century… *sigh*

  4. Anime is Jap-animation
    Anime is gay
    All otaku are faggots
    GaykakuFag got AIDS from KyuuGAYtheTurd
    The Nanjing Massacre and the Holocaust inspired Girls Und Panzer, Strike Witches and Kantai Collection.

    That is all.

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