What is anime?

by criticalhit009

It seems we need to have this discussion. What is anime? Anime is animation produced in Japan. Seems simple enough, however, there are two arguments that have been floating around for a while that argue for a broader stylistic definitions. The first is an article written by Chris O’Brian over at The Escapist, while the other is another PBS Idea Channel video, which I’ll get to next time. To further argue for a definition by origin, I’ll dissect the first argument while offering my commentary.

The article starts with by describing a vaguely shōnen-sounding premise:

“Find the biggest bowl you own and inside of it, place one protagonist with powerful and unique abilities. Next, pour in an exceptionally talented team of supportive friends. Then, add a seemingly impervious villain who aims to remake the world according to his own warped ideals. Throw in a few dashes of strong themes like family, friendship, fear, and death, blend it all together with plenty of beautiful visuals and flawless voice acting.

While this collection of qualities could easily describe any number of anime, including popular and acclaimed series such as Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Bleach, or Trigun, it just as accurately describes Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra.”

This description is vague enough to include both popular anime and Korra. Of course, this description also fits many American superheroes. It is also a plot-based summation, when the argument he makes is primarily about visual style. It also illustrates how arguments for anime usually use shōnen copycats as examples of anime for an international “style” definition, such as Avatar, Korra, Ben 10, and Teen Titans. Some shows use more than just Japanese-influenced character designs of course; for instance, Teen Titans boasts super deformed chibi for humor AND speed lines for action scenes. On the whole, however, the majority of Western animated children’s television influenced by anime (a niche if there ever was one) takes its cues primarily from shōnen. While it’s certainly the most popular demographic (both here and in Japan), it’s only part of the picture of Japanese animated production. If anime is a style proliferating across borders, why don’t we have more animated shōjo-type fair in the West, for instance? Of course the answer that no one is influenced (or much interested) by shōjo, mostly shōnen, hence O’Brian and others’ emphasis on shōnen tropes and styles.  After all, it’s easier to build an “anime as style” argument when you only limit yourself to shōnen and shōnen imitators, rather than the full breadth of what anime offers.

The next few paragraphs questions how if Korra looks like an anime, sounds like an anime, and feels like an anime, then why isn’t it anime? O’Brian brings up the anime as origin definition, and tries to push past it.

‘Yet, anime has been around and popular for so long, its influence now stretches far outside the confines of the tiny island country in the Pacific from which it originates. Korra and its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender are only two of many examples of American cartoons that may reasonably be considered anime, along with Teen Titans, The Power Puff Girls, Ben 10, The Boondocks, Samurai Jack, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars (the 2003 animated series)”

Japan is roughly the size of California, with one hundred and twenty-six million people living there. I understand how the contrasting statement of “tiny country: huge influence” makes for a dynamic sentence, but it’s misrepresentative. Again, most of O’Brian’s examples are shows that take the primary premise of shōnen as defined by Anime News Network: the “resolution of conflicts through combat”.

O’Brian then brings up the comparison of defining bourbon as an analogy, and a major part of his argument. Unlike bourbon, anime and other cultural products are full of historical context that shape the text, making it a remarkably more difficult to remove said contexts from the product itself. The fact that Japan makes anime does matter, in terms of production, distribution, and consumption. Removing such contextual information through a definition of style results in poor cultural criticism.

O’Brian continues, asking

“When was the last time you saw an interesting anime DVD on a store shelf, went to buy it, and just before paying, hesitated for a moment to check the box that it was actually produced in Japan?”

This hypothetical situation is relatively impossible. There are very few anime imitators out on shelves, and those that are clearly western properties (Powerpuff Girls, Teen Titans, etc.) Any worries about being deceived are relatively moot. Anime fans are also generally knowledgeable about what they buy, especially in a digital age.

To further push past the origin definition for anime, O’Brian brings up its etymological roots. I recommend reading Anime News Network’s definition here.

“The term “anime” itself isn’t even meant to indicate a place of origin; it’s an abbreviation of the Japanese word for “animation.” This word origin is according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Some claim the word comes from French, but the point remains the same; “anime” means “animation.”

Yes, “anime” means “animation” … in Japan. In the U.S. and abroad, it means distinctly “animation from Japan.” Words mean different things in different places, but that doesn’t mean Westerners need to drop their usage because another definition exists. But if Westerners do use ‘anime’ to mean ‘animation’, what would be the point?

“In Japan, little, if any, distinction is made between Japanese animation and animation from abroad. “Anime” is used as a blanket term, the way Americans use “cartoon.” The Japanese do not use the term in reference only to work from Japan and nor should Westerners.”

This is not true, as there is plenty of controversy over the term in Japan as well. Sheuo Hui Gan’s academic essay “To Be or Not to Be – Anime: The Controversy in Japan over the “Anime” Label” is a wonderful piece on this, and I highly recommend it. In it Gan notes that many animation auteurs in Japan distinguish their work as animation, separate from “anime.” Miyazaki, for instance, dislikes the term anime, emphasizing his various productions as films. Other animators Gen notes, such as Yuasa Masaaki, Kuri Yoji, Furukawa Taku and Aihara Nobuhiro, call their work animation.  As the term anime largely connotes the Japanese animated television industry specifically, they prefer to avoid the term.

Gan surmises that

“Some parts of the meaning of this international meaning of anime refers to Japanese culture in specific forms, such as kimono, samurai, geisha, sword play, archaic style armor, Japanese gothic-Lolita style, fashion, cosplay etc. Even the perception of Miyazaki’s work as Japanese, especially Mononoke hime (1997) and Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (2001), fit this image of anime as being culturally Japanese. Using a Japanese abbreviation like anime represents this cultural difference outside of the country. Inside the country, the Japanese cultural context is a given- the distinction that some want to achieve between animation and anime as applied to works produced in Japan is more technical and stylistic than cultural. It also involves issues of production, audience, distribution (TV and theatre versus festival); in addition, some creators’ desire to be known foremost as quality animators rather than quality Japanese animators.”

Gan illustrates that the term anime is controversial even in Japan, but more importantly, Gan notes the importance of the cultural difference attached to the term anime in the West. As I described before, the cultural context is very important to a textual work, and the origin definition for anime highlights this notion, making it useful and accurate, or at least more so than the stylistic definition.

O’Brian continues, saying that people ignore how the Japanese use the term ‘anime’ and begins to talk about anime as a “genre.”

“Okay, maybe – just maybe – anime does qualify as a genre in its own right, but as the term is currently used, meaning “from Japan,” it’s a genre the way “French film” is a genre.” (Emphasis original)

These are not genres. Genres are constructions of narrative tropes. The phrase “french film” denotes film(s) from the region of France. It is not a genre. Anime is not a genre either, but an elucidating historically and culturally specific term. O’Brian continues:

It’s a genre the way “American TV” is a genre. It’s a genre the way “PC games” or “internet videos” are genres. They’re useful for describing “where,” but not “what” and like each listed, anime needs qualifiers like “comedy” and “action” to clarify the label.”

The quoted phrases are descriptions or categories, but not genres. Again, genres are specific narrative construction of tropes. I agree that qualifiers are necessary to specifically describe the kind of anime you’re watching, and the qualifiers he uses are genres!

“Yet Westerners rarely speak in such specific terms when referring to anime.”

Depending on how knowledgable you are on anime, it’s not rare to see anime fans use terms such as shōnen, shōjo, mecha, yaoi, ecchi, hentai, etc. in conversation.

“In North America, anime as a form is so flattened by its own label, so homogenized by the nomenclature used in reference to it, that for most, it seems to be “all the same,” and thus, far too easy for some to write off all at once. Our commonly understood definition of anime stifles the art.”

Nonsense! It would be the same as saying a group of films are film noir, or biopics, or Italian neorealism. All these terms give specific knowledge when used, whereas the style definition removes such specificity. Using appropriate nomenclature illuminates discourse, whereas a stylistic definition removes cultural specificity, which if anything flattens the artform. How is the term helpful without that cultural specificity. What is truly gained by using a stylistic definition, aside from bestowing Western cultural products with an air of exoticism?

O’Brian continues

“It wouldn’t seem correct to treat the entirety of any medium from any other culture with similar prejudice. We don’t generalize all of British TV or Canadian webcomics. We don’t lump together all of French music or Latin American food.”

Anime is a very specific product though. O’Brian brings up national products, but anime is a specific subsection of a specific medium in Japan, hence the term anime narrows it down to distinguish it from other programming, such as J-dramas. Anime is a useful term, and trying to equate it to these generalities does a disservice to its utility.

“Yet many within the fandom insist on maintaining the very strict idea that anime is Japanese cartoons. Perhaps this zealot-like defense of anime’s status quo grows out of a fear of change, or maybe it’s born out of an intense infatuation with Japanese culture and the misguided belief that no other group could ever produce anime as well.

Ah! So it’s the otaku’s fault is it?

In all seriousness, this paragraph implies that “perhaps” it’s all these otaku who get all uppity with their anime and need to take it down a notch. Blaming otaku seems a trite obvious, don’t you think?

“Either way, holding to a definition of anime based on where it is created is harmful to the form because it is narrow and exclusionary.”


“Then again, perhaps anime fans deserve a bit more credit.”

Aww, pulling your punches now, are we?

“It’s possible the common definition of anime comes from a desire to avoid appropriating another culture’s forms. Just as Americans have become sensitive to using imagery stolen from pre-colonial tribal nations as professional sports teams’ logos, perhaps anime purists seek to preserve Japanese culture. The difference, of course, is that the ousting and exploitation of the many nations that existed in North America prior to European colonization is still a largely unresolved or ignored topic, whereas Japan has freely offered anime to the world.”

…Wait, what? Did you just bring neocolonialism into this? Again with the slipshod metaphors! There is a world of difference between colonial exploitation and the japanese anime industry. (Well, perhaps not that much…). Anime is a cultural force made for profit, so Japanese producers BENEFIT from foreign interest in their properties, thus widening their market. Western fans are not trying to preserve Japanese culture (which is to some extent Westernized), they consume it. There is nothing Western fans can do to “preserve Japanese culture,” and it’s a ridiculous notion to boot.

 “Maintaining the dated and minimally useful definition of anime”

You have done nothing to disprove its uselessness.

“as “cartoons from Japan” seems suspiciously like snobbery and it’s what keeps anime from achieving the mainstream credibility it deserves outside of legendary creators like Hayao Miazaki.”

More derisive mentions of snobbery leads me to suspect snobbery of otaku, myself.

Moving on, why does anime need mainstream credibility? The argument appeared in another article by The Atlantic that I wrote on here, also illustrating the hope that anime can become more mainstream. Great work deserves to be noticed, but erasing the origin of the work for more popular appeal is tampering with the very identity of the work as a means of making it more palatable for viewers. What would be more effective would be to educate audiences to appreciate more various cultural works rather than homogenize them to cow tow to popularity.

“It’s what stops new creators from bringing new ideas to the community”

How does it do this? We already see cross-pollination between American and Japan in terms of animation. Anime influences have steadily crept over into Western animated children’s television. Even Masaaki Yuasa wrote, storyboarded, and directed a recent episode of Adventure Time. Osamu Tezuka, the “God of manga” and a founding father of sorts for anime, was deeply influenced by Disney!

“and most of all, it’s what keeps anime purists from giving series produced in America a fair chance and beautiful cartoons like The Legend of Korra from reaching the widest possible audience.”

I doubt anime fans dislike Legend of Korra because it isn’t from Japan. That’s a non issue. There are numerous reasons why anime fans might not have given it a look. Again we see the desire for a fan favorite to get mainstream credibility. Why?

“Using the term “genre” when talking about anime could be acceptable,”


“but only if it is established that anime is not necessarily content that comes only from Japan.”


O’Brain begins his stylistic definition of anime. As I hope I’ve elucidated, such a definition flattens the very discourse a stylistic definition claims to enlighten, removing cultural specificity from the works in question.

“Anime is a form defined by a common artistic style and visual language (just as one example, the use of chibi, which is Japanese slang that roughly translates to “cute” and within anime is a non-realistic style of animating characters used to emphasize moments of childlike behavior), a shared collection of tropes and themes, and perhaps most importantly, a similar canon of influences. And if this definition is accepted, then certainly anyone can make something in that style and The Legend of Korra is definitely anime.

What is this common visual style? What are the shared tropes and themes? What is the canon? This is a very vague definition, which, likes the opening description, casts its net widely and ensnares much more than just anime and anime-influenced works.

“Anime is more of a style than a genre.”


“Within anime there are series and films for young and old, conservative and liberal, males, females, and anything in-between or outside. Anime includes comedy, action, horror, drama, and every other commonly referred-to genre in entertainment media. Why can’t it also include “American” or “Western” as labels?”

Because that’s not very useful, and only muddles things more rather than illuminating. How do you define anime based by style, when anime can look like this:

Ouran High School Host Club

Or this:

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure PosterOr even this:

Crayon Shinchan

The answer of course already lies before us: you cannot, at least not very accurately.

O’Brian forces a lot of points into his write up to try and support his argument. In sum he asserts that:

1. Anime as a term is arbitrary, comparing it to the bizarre nomenclature of Bourbon. (Cultural products, however, are texts, with contextual specificity that inform their creation and consumption.)

2. The Japanese don’t even use the term that way, and we shouldn’t either. (In reality, the term is disputed there as it is here.)

3. Westerners aren’t good in talking about anime anyway, the term as it is now flattens the art. (When really a definition by origin is more helpful than one by style.)

4. We must broaden the term to represent a style to include anime-influenced works. (So, what, that way people will finally watch The Legend of Korra?)

The compulsion towards a definition by style is understandable, but ultimately erroneous. A similar example would be to compare the film Frances Ha (2012) to films of the French New Wave. Frances Ha is in black and white, about young 20 somethings finding themselves, with energetic scenes in the streets, and even has scenes in Paris. Is it French New Wave? No, it’s an American independent film that takes great inspiration from the French New Wave. So why make the distinction?

Because one would not exist with out the other. They may feel similar, they are not the same.

This can also be said of the anime/anime-influenced debate. A number of Western animated children’s television shows would not be as they are without a separate influential source. The Legend of Korra’s problem of classification has a simple answer: it is influenced by anime in significant way but it transplants the style of anime onto a different cultural base––that of the United States. To be Derridean, it’s this distinction that gives us meaning.

See part 2 for a critique of the PBS Idea Channel video.