What is anime? Part 2

by criticalhit009

I recommend reading my previous post on the definition of anime, as I cover a lot of ground in my first write-up. There I made my argument for an origin definition, while refuting Chris O’Brian’s argument for anime as a style. I chose to write it in this fashion because that particular piece seems to have spread further than what I would like. For example, it’s referenced in this PBS Idea Video, which also tries to define anime stylistically, even as a genre.

This video has even less argumentative footing, and I’ll deconstruct the arguments presented with my commentary. All the quotations are what I transcribed from the closed captioning on the YouTube video itself.

The video begins like all PBS Idea Channel videos do, with a click-bait question:

“Here’s an idea: Avatar; The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are anime.”

The writer and host Mike Rugnetta then gives context on the shows, collectively terming them The Avatars, explaining the fictional world, general themes and motifs of the stories. Rugnetta explains that:

“What is perhaps most striking about The Avatars, at first, is their style. Both visual and tonal. It’s “for kids” but also … not really. There are serious themes, political messages, complex relationships, including one very controversial love triangle. […] in a show rated Y7…”

He notes that the story is complex, and talks more about the mythology of the world. Then Rugnetta lists all the influences of stuff on the show, in particular, the anime that inspired the creators.

“Specifically, Cowboy Bebop, FLCL, Miyazaki — though I did recently learn that the famed director might not necessarily consider his films “anime”, strictly speaking.”

As I noted in my previous post, Miyazaki purposefully disavows the phrase “anime”, emphasizing that his works are films. This video does not follow-up on this fact. This proves frustrating, as Rugnetta brings up a wrinkle in his argument by mentioning this, only to shove it aside rather than confront it. Of course, if he did confront it, he’d be faced with the truth that the term “anime” in Japan is just as controversial as it supposedly is in the West, and that would spell doom for his entire argument. So it’s relegated like a mere footnote of interest.

The whole video itself presents its argument, but ultimately ends by posing the questions to the viewer, somewhat shaking off responsibility for the argument as a mere thought experiment for the audience. But ending with “What does the genre designation “anime” mean?” is mostly frustrating because 1. Anime is not a genre, and 2. The answer is clearly no.

Rugnetta continues, noting that many people’s first reaction to The Avatars, is “Oh, is this anime?”, noting that:

“what they usually mean is “Is this animated TV show made in Japan?” And in so asking they are also stubbing their toe on an interesting conundrum:”

Actually, this is a non-issue. The majority of the West does not consider The Avatars anime.

“When we say anime we mean Akira, Evangelion, Samurai Champloo, Naruto, Trigun, etc.”

Note that these are some of the most popular anime in the West. Note that none of the works highlighted are shōjo, or other significant, distinctive, Japanese demographics. Again we find the bias towards shōnen tropes, where, as Anime News Network elucidates, the show “largely center[s] on the resolution of conflicts through combat.”

This bias is important to note, because it implicitly supports a stylistic interpretation to the definition of anime. When you distill all anime to merely shōnen, with the majority of Western anime-influenced shows being action oriented, it’s easier to make the comparison of the two and push for the collapse of the definition by origin. Like getting rid of mathematical data that disproves your hypothesis, when people make the ‘anime as style’ definition, shōnen becomes the standard for anime, and everything else is usually cast aside.

“And sure, in a visual comparison, there IS a difference between the Avatars and these things, though… sometimes not a very significant one, a point made very handily by Chris O’Brian over at the Escapist a couple years ago.”

See my dismantling of that article here.

“But strictly speaking it’s not the subject or tone or style that makes or breaks anime-itude in the west, it’s that The Avatars aren’t made in Japan. Which is especially interesting given that in Japan the word “anime” is used to reference any animated work, regardless of nationally. So! While the Avatars are not animes here… it stands to reason that they are. In Japan.” […] “[American shows] might be “foreign anime” or “western anime” but, anime nonetheless.”

Again, the term has its own controversies in Japan, as beautiful elucidated by scholar Sheuo Hui Gan here.

Rugnetta then notes that he finds The Avatars more fascinating because there art and character design are specifically influenced by anime:

“Meaning: if The Avatars were exactly the same but made in Japan–would they unequivocally be called “anime” in the West? It’s that thin line accounting for genre solidity that’s really interesting:”

Just like in O’Brian’s article, the host adopts an incorrect, readymade definition of “genre” that makes his argument misguided from inception.

Anime is not a genre.

Animation is not a genre.

Animation is an artform.

“[there’s a thin line of genre solidity] between champagne and sparkling wine, Tennessee whiskey vs bourbon, pizza vs. Papa John’s[…]”

I didn’t realize pizza was a genre.

The influence of O’Brian’s article is quite evident here, as Rugnetta too falls prey to the trap of comparing food products to cultural works full of historical complexities.

Technically speaking, the word genre in its most general sense is that of a category. Anime, however, is a cultural term. Therefore, the technically appropriate use of the term “genre” should be used, which specifically encompasses narrative conventions and tropes.

“[there’s a thin line of genre solidity between] anime vs cartoon vs. animated TV show. For all intents and purposes these things are the things that they, technically, are … not.”

That last sentence is a confounding mess, but he’s basically saying “these things are this because they are this.” The crux of his entire argument then is “this looks and feels like anime, therefore it’s anime.” It’s complete tautological nonsense, avoiding the burden of proof through an Ouroboros claim.

Ouroboros from Full Metal Alchemist

“And it is that “technically” that’s really neat– like, by the anime standards we were just discussing, Torkaizer is not an anime because it was made in the Middle East. But look at it. It’s an anime!”

Frances Ha looks and feels like a French New Wave film, therefore it is! Again, the film works as a good comparison, as it is very similar to films of the French New Wave, and is directly inspired by them. Of course, is not one of them, but rather a contemporary American indie film.

Any film critic or scholar worth their salt would shake their head at the ridiculous notion of calling Frances Ha a French New Wave film. Or course, this is a complete non issue. No one in the film world would make that kind of categorical mistake. 

So why do people make this mistake for anime-influenced works? Why do they try to force non-anime into a category where it doesn’t belong?

Perhaps it’s because these works don’t really belong anywhere else.  Nickelodeon right now has no other show like Korra, isolating it and likely making programming difficult. (Before pulling it from broadcasting due to low ratings, the network condemned it to the Friday night death slot.) Teen Titans has always been a curious mix of tonal shifts between well executed drama and off the wall super deformed/chibi humor. By calling these works anime, it gives these outlier shows a home.

This problem in turn stems from the stunted roots of discussion around animation in the West. Most people lack any category for animation like Korra because it is neither The Simpsons nor Johnny Bravo. That is, it does not fit into the conceptual space carved out for animation in the West, which typically relegates animation for children’s programming (or more recently, adult, sophomoric, or raunchy humor). For enthusiasts and pop critics without strong background in more experimental Western animation, therefore, “anime” provides the only touchstone to define a complex, demographically broad work like Korra. People just don’t know how to talk about these shows without changing up their terminology altogether.

People want to call these shows anime for a form of cultural clout. To proclaim it anime functions as another way to boost the reputation of the show. O’Brian states this outright. Perhaps naiveté factors in as well.

But by removing the definition of origin, you remove the historicity of the work. Calling The Avatars ‘anime’ totally ignores historical and cultural implications about various production styles, backgrounds, and other important essentials. Arguments for the stylistic definition of anime collapses all sense of time and space, creating a kind of historical erasure, where any kind of cultural product can join the vague pantheon that is “anime.”

Back to Rugnetta’s argument at hand:

“The question, I think, is then what is gained by excluding work that meet major stylistic criteria from a genre.”

Anime is not a genre. Your argument has no footing because you start on the wrong foot. From step one the entire argument is invalid. Foot metaphors!

“Are we maintaining the usefulness of the word “anime”, having it mean a very specific thing?”

Yes. That’s how definitions work.

“There is a usefulness in having “anime” communicate a quality or set of qualities — but is a disservice done when it starts excluding things that admirers of the form might otherwise appreciate regardless of its ‘authenticity?’”

This isn’t a matter of authenticity. The issue isn’t that anime fans (and others) see shows like Korra as “inauthentic”, like it’s a scourge, an ugly copycat. People who don’t watch these shows don’t refrain because it’s not an “authentic” anime; there are a multitude of reasons why one might not watch a particular show! This entire debate comes from the central core of fan entitlement. They’re about getting people to like , and increasing its prestige. Otherwise, why have the argument? PBS Idea Channel tackled fandoms before, and seems to relish them to an uncomfortable degree, when they are ultimately an unhealthy facet of capitalism. (The fan mentality of “I am what my favorite show is, I am what I own, and any contrary options to this work are therefore hostile to my wellbeing.”)

To the argument at hand, why does this argument now pivot specifically to anime fans? Both O’Brian’s article and the video subtly change their arguments near the end, focusing on the narrow-mindedness of anime fans to help support their point. They use the words “narrow” or “excluding” because they implicitly hold negative connotations, therefore eliciting a narrow-minded viewpoint. Whereas Rugnetta is less forceful here, O’Brian is more venomous. However, both are careful to not directly point fingers, but merely shift the blame towards an unidentified other, a clear stand in for otaku. By shifting focus away from the counter arguments for the origin definition towards focusing on the “snobbery” and “narrow-mindedness” of anime fans, the authors try to prove their argument through sheer force of rhetoric. It’s coded language to make up for faulty reasoning and poor grasp of media theories (I.e. what is a genre?)

“Or, speaking of which… maybe it’s about protecting the sanctity or quality of the genre itself.” In classic “that’s not punk rock!” fashion, does saying The Avatar’s are not anime somehow maintain an artistic integrity within the genre?”

Derp anime gif

Pictured: “Artistic Integrity”

This is not an issue of artistic integrity. This is not an issue of how good it is as a work of popular culture. Again, this section also begins with the categorical mistake as well, believing anime is a genre, when animation is an artform.

I know how he is going to complete his argument, saying that “well, if this value is what’s needed, clearly The Legend of Korra passes this test, as it is a great show,” when that’s not the debate. This isn’t about being ‘good enough’ to be anime, it’s about historical specificity.

“Are avatar-deniers protecting their own cultural turf from n00bs?”

Ah, scapegoating the otaku again, eh?

Again, we see the shift, much like in O’Brian’s article, putting attention on the otaku who keep the standard definition of anime, when in reality it’s not just otaku who use this definition, but form a convenient scapegoat.)

Fans do not have executive power over the media they consume. Japan owns their own turf, as it were. Gah! Again with the “neocolonialism”! Just like in O’Brian’s article.

“Or maybe, as animated works continue their path to legitimacy in the west this’ll become a non-question…”

Eureka! You’ve struck gold, man!

Again, though, quality is not the issue. The term ‘anime’ is not some magnificent title bequeathed only to the precious few. It is not a mark of quality.

Derp anime gif

Pictured: The Epitome of Animation

And why would taking the “Japanese usage” (which is a myth) be a good thing? The impetus is to remove the barriers between anime and Western, anime-inspired, animated shows. But why is that important? Because fans fear others see the latter as inferior. Again, cultural clout, but not just for its own sake, but for others to recognize as well. It’s ultimately a personal plea by certain fans to externally validate their own preferences. For you construct you identity around a cultural artifact, you protect it from criticism as much as possible.

“What does the genre designation “anime” mean? And is it changing? Does Avatar have to do anything with it?”

The term “anime” refers to animation that’s made in Japan. It may more specifically represent the works made by the television anime industry, as certain japanese animators prefer to denote it. People keep making an argument for a definition of style or genre, and Avatar is a major reason. But conflated within these arguments is making the term ‘anime’ a value judgement, a strange notion that ‘anime’ is nobler stuff.

Derp anime gif

Pictured: Anime