Saturday, 31 March 2012

What is Anime?

In my time as a moderator over on Anime-Planet, there's one debate that has come up countless times: what actually constitutes anime? This question normally only arises when someone requests that Avatar: The Last Airbender be added to the database, and our response of "It will not be added because it is not anime" tends to go down like a ton of bricks. So what exactly constitutes anime?

If we go back to the original source, anime is simply the Japanese word for animation. That's all. Much like the word kawa means river, and yama means mountain, it's a general word that encompasses all animation. By this definition, technically anything could be anime, even Disney, Pixar, and Aardman creations. However, that's just looking at it literally. Outside of Japan, the word anime has come to mean something else, and it's this "something else" that causes more friction or confusion. Typically, the western world has two main definitions as for what anime actually is:
  1. Animation originating from Japan.
  2. A style of animation that originally came from Japan.
I am heavily planted in the first definition's camp. If it's not from Japan, it's not anime. To me this is the same idea as if it's not from Japan it's not manga, or if it's not from the UK it can't be Britpop. It's a simple and clear cut definition that's not too difficult to figure out. That's not to say that I can't see where people are coming from. I agree, that yes, Avatar does look like anime since it was created with that design in mind, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Japan other than that. It's an American animation, not anime.

My main gripe with the definition based on style as opposed to country of origin is that the whole style thing is - in a word - bullshit.

For a start, the original "anime style" was adapted from the early American animations. All you need do is take a look at Osamu Tezuka's drawing style to see the heavy influence that pre-war black and white cartoons had on his work. This isn't to say that it's derivative by any stretch of the imagination, as it has evolved and made the big sparkly eyes its own. In fact, the so-called anime style is almost completely removed from its humble roots nowadays, which leads me to my main point. If you define anime purely on the style of animation, then what about all those beloved anime series and films that don't conform to the standard laid out by this restrictive definition? Surely Osamu Tezuka's work is anime, right? Well the Black Jack TV series look closer to westernised animation than Japanese, and in particular, many of Tezuka's shorts look more like they belong in 1960s America alongside Hanna Barbera and the Pink Panther cartoons. And while we're talking about American influence? What about Panty and Stocking? That's an anime series, right? Even though it looks like a slutty, violent, sex-crazed version of the Powerpuff Girls.

Left: Osamu Tezuka's Drop. Right: Classic US animation, The Pink Panther
They may not be identical, but the visual influences at work are fairly plain to see.

What about the Studio Ghibli films? You wouldn't call them anything other than anime, would you? Even My Neighbours the Yamadas the most visually "un-Ghibli" Ghibl film? It doesn't look like your standard anime fare, but you'd still call it anime. So don't give me all this crap about it being "all about the style", because it's not.

Nowadays more and more series try something a little different visually, which is brilliant and beautiful, because as viewers we are getting a whole range of new and exciting experences. Take the likes of House of Five Leaves, Tatami Galaxy, pretty much anything by Akiyuki Shinbo, they push the boundaries of what Japanese animation can look like and they don't just rest on that one familiar and comfortable appearance, but there's no question that they still count as anime. Animation is a constantly evolving medium, so to define anime based on a specific style is, in my mind, offensive.
Natsume Ono's distinctive pronounced noses made House of Five Leaves stand out from the crowd in Spring 2010.
With a very fluid and offbeat design, Tatami Galaxy isn't always pretty, but it's certainly interesting, and certainly ideal for the Noitamina timeslot.
The almost grotesque images of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei's background characters is far from the polished design of "standard" anime fare

I love the simple definition of anime being animation that was made in Japan, because through that definition, I have come to watch a variety of glorious Japanese animated shorts, that had I gone purely on style, I'd have never found. Had I only looked for anything that matched the visual desigm that has come to be familiar to us all - that anime archetype - then I'd never have stumbled upon The Diary of Tortov Roddle, or the gorgeous stop motion puppetry of Kihachiro Kawamoto. I'd never have given a second glance to the works of Natsume Ono, who has become one of my favourite mangaka.

In my mind there's no question that anime is animation from Japan and nowhere else. So for those of you out there who bitch about Avatar not being listed on your favourite anime site, calm down, get over it, and go and experience the sheer variety of what both the mainstream and independant Japanese animation industries have to offer.

1 comment:

  1. After reading your biased and fairly, if not significantly, childish argument, I just had to post this response.

    First of all, there's your deffinition of anime, that it is simply animation that comes from Japan. The problem with the first deffinition is that it is a very loose umbrella term for animation from Japan. It makes more sense to use the second deffinition as it is a more realistic one. Anime is accociated with certain traits and generic statements in design and appeal, such as the giant eyes, exaggerated proportions and other things. But those are traits that are associated with it as a style, so your arguements about how it isn't a stylistic thing is just as subjective as it is poorly backed up. It isn't enough to say that the connotation of style is 'bullshit', and the points you made don't really add up to why it isn't a stylistic thing.

    Even your comparison to Drop and Pink Panther is contradictive. Yes, it shows how one style is influenced by another that in turn is influencing another, but what you succeeded in doing is showing that stylistic features were derived from another culture, which you said you refused to acknowledge. It doesn't make sense. "So don't give me all this crap about it being "all about the style", because it's not." Again, you failed to explain why exactly this is apart from subjective squabilings.

    Have a look at independent animations that were produced in Japan. Not just the works of Tezuka, but what about Dojoji Temple by Kihachiro Kawamoto, a stop motion project using puppets? The work of such independent animators from Japan have often been overlooked because of the notion that Japanese animation adheres strictly to a particular style that even Japanese animators will call 'anime' themselves, because the term is abbreviated from the word animeshon, so would Dojoji Temple be considered anime? No it wouldn't. And I highly doubt that Kawamoto would either because anime is (and I do emphasis the 'is') made out to be a particular style of animation by Japanese companies themselves.

    To say that 'anime' constitutes to Japanese animetion as a whole is a gross misconception as it is pioneered as a particular style of animation by Japanese companies themselves. So saying that styles of animation from Japan that don't even resemble that style belong in that catergory only shows how much of a blanket term the word anime is, purely because it is a stylistic form pioneered by companies and artists in Japan. I also know Japanese artists who share the same view that not all animation from Japan is considered 'anime' because they know themselves that it is a stylistic form in itself, not a general definition.

    You're entitled to your opinion but your entier post is poorly argued and thought out, as much as it is overly opinionated, subjective and fundamentally flawed. Sorry, but you've only shown that the second definition is more valid and there isn't enough evidence (or rather valid facts) that backs up your claims.