Simple question, and recently I’ve heard all sorts of thoughtful (and not so thoughtful) ideas about what it is. With its meteoric rise of popularity in the early 2000’s thanks to Toonami and the growing user base of the internet, ‘anime’ was once known as animation from Japan. It was a simple answer that was good for then, but as time when on, some people thought it was a style of art, and others thought it to be a cultural point of view, while others (as heard in in this podcast from ANN) feel its animation from a geographic location specifically the land of Japan. I’ve heard it all in the decades that I’ve been serving the anime fan base at my various stores, conventions, trade shows, and professional encounters, and here’s what I’ve uncovered.
Early on, some features had very anime-esque animation that could have been confused with anime like Avatar the Last Airbender, or the Boondocks. Though these look to be inspired by some anime, they are not anime.
Some major companies like Netflix are challenging the traditional term by calling anything with a semi-glossed animation style resembling some sort of older anime as anime. A good example of this would be the series’ Castlevania or Seis Manos. These are not anime.
I have found these perspectives to lack in at least one way when looking at the totality of anime coming from Japan. Therefore, I find all of these to be incorrect. One side is saying it’s essentially stylized adult animation, another is saying its got to have stylized overtly stereotypical characteristics, and another is saying its got to be from a special island in the Pacific. There is one more stance that is wrong, and that’s that the creators need to be of Japanese blood heritage.
Here’s an analogy to better illustrate that incorrectness of all of these aspects in a way that even my co-workers had to consider: Is Taco Bell Mexican food? For anyone who’s had authentic Mexican food, you’ll undoubtedly know that it is not. You will more than likely be laughed out of the cantina for even suggesting such blasphemy. Even if they serve a soft taco shell, its imitation Mexican food at best. If the Taco Bell hired a Mexican worker, is it Mexican food then? Its food made by a Mexican, but not Mexican food. It would have been the same as if the Mexican didn’t work for them at all. If the Taco Bell was located in Mexico, is it Mexican food? Again, the essence of the Taco Bell did not change no matter who works there and where its located as it’d be the same food as if it were in Los Angeles.
Taco Bell is a commercial company made by an American that serves, as the Britannica website describes it, ‘Mexican-inspired food.’ So it does not serve Mexican food. Its a marketing move. This is in the same fashion as Netflix is doing by bastardizing the word ‘anime’ to appeal to the demographic of anime fans by trying to convince them what they got is what they’re looking for. In their eyes, anime is ‘adult, mature’ animation. If that’s the case, then what’s Doraemon, or One Piece, or PreCure?
So what is anime? Its not a style as styles can vary by wide margins with absolutely No resemblance (Akira vs Pop Team Epic. Try…). Its not a word used to identify an audience as anime spans age ranges and maturities from Anpanman to Inter-species Reviewers. Its not a location or race based identifier, but doing it this way will get you closer than the other two widely held beliefs.
Why? Because anime is the initial term used to distinguish the excellence in animation, not story, as a result of the ingenuity, passion and work ethic from the artistic direction of devolopment that embody the philosophy of accomplishment most notably found in Japanese culture. It just so happens the majority of this culture immersion comes from one place and one race, and this lends tremendous cultural weight to the word Anime. Not all animation studios around the world are the same, and skill level with limited resources that come out of this country is good proof to this.
In the podcast I mentioned earlier, there was an interesting excerpt where they refer to Steve Bennett (founder of Ironcat Studios) as having spent a little time as an animator in Japan. Needless to say, it ended badly to the point where he simply couldn’t hack the workload and hours. For those artists who can hack it, and innovate on top of that, THAT’S ANIME. The interesting thing about the Japanese animators is that it’s nothing special to them as that’s just the way they are. This is why ‘anime’ in Japan is simply just general animation, but means something far beyond cartoons anywhere else in the world.
Its no secret that Japanese animators for decades have been paid poorly, yet dealt with it to create amazing works of cinema. Its this drive that’s so ingrained in the culture that not only results in amazing animation, but its the reason why Japanese companies make some of the finest electronics, automobiles, art, and cuisine in the world. In my own personal experience, the precision, dedication and focus that I’ve encountered with professional Japanese has yet to be matched. Its this cultural mentality above all else that best truly defines anime. Of course with every great stride comes significant consequence. Depression and exhaustion to the point of hospitalization are more commonplace in this environment. These are the risks that the Japanese work philosophy carries in order to achieve the greatness they are so known for.
That being said, if an American is raised in Japan, and is completely immersed in the culture, becomes a professional animator and independently artistically directs a title after moving to Peru, so long as that cultural spirit was at the essence of the production, I’d still consider it at the same level as anime. More than likely, it’ll have much better quality than other international counterparts. Now if he joined an animation group As an animator and the direction driven by the intense philosophies outlined earlier, i couldn’t consider it anime.
Many have tried to be anime, but have at best mildly succeeded with animation quality that never rivals the top tier Japanese produced features. Should an animation show true stripes as being worthy of anime, like the Disney animated feature Beauty & The Beast, then it would be a disservice to call it anime as the word is so culturally referential, and should be known as its own thing. In this case, it’d simply be ‘Disney Animation.’
Anime should continue to be recognized for its Japanese cultural essence as an example to others to make great work. I’m sure there will be a renascence somewhere where animation will be taken to the next level. When it comes, let it be know as something equally as influential. Elevated animation, animation cinema, or simply ‘<studio name here>’ animation.
I’d like to end on an exception as there’s always one to illustrate that the perseverance and intense work ethic are not limited to just the Japanese culture: D’Art Shtajio. The owner was such a fan of anime that he trained in Japan as an artist at a college level, worked for Production IG, one of the quintessential anime studios in the industry, and then went on to open his own animation studio in Japan. I would consider his output as anime, and low and behold, he’s got a feature on Netflix worth checking out: the anime visual album, Sound & Fury. You’ve got my respect, sir.
UPDATE 2/27/2020: I give some grief to what Netflix was doing, but they just broke the budget with making real anime. You had me at CLAMP. Bravo, Netflix.