Last night I watched a video by the PBS Idea Channel on YouTube asking if Avatar the Last Airbender should be considered “anime”. (I recommend seeing the first 4 minutes of the video before reading this). Though I consider myself to be a fan of animation in general, my first thought was a simple “no”, and that’s the answer you would expect from most fans based on what we consider to be anime. However, the video then went on to question how exactly we define what anime is and it got me thinking about exactly how animation culture as it were, has kind of neatly categorized animation into certain labels that we’ve all generally come to accept as fact. I think it’s important however that we do occasionally step back and look at these labels and whether or not they hold up to be as absolute as we’ve come to terms with and to do so I think it’s best that we look at each of them individually starting with the biggest elephant in the room:
What is “anime”?
If we were to look at just the technical definition of anime as defined by Japan itself, anime is simply a term used to describe animation in general and not just animation made in Japan. As far as the japanese are concerned whether it’s The Simpsons, Disney films or Evangellion it’s all one in the same as far as the medium goes. Of course to fans across the rest of the world, anime has a different meaning and how exactly one would define it tends to vary from person to person. For some anime is defined soley by whether or not an animated show was “made” in Japan. This is the definition I personally use as well but as time has passed it’s become difficult to define anime as being by that alone. Several “western” animated shows, even dating back to the 90’s have had the bulk of the show animated by Japanese studios. The Thundercats reboot in 2011 was done by Studio 4C in Japan (the same studio behind the Berserk trilogy films) and the most recent season of The Legend of Korra was primarily done by Studio Pierrot of Naruto and Bleach fame (or infamy depending on who you ask). Similarly while many have come to define anime as stuff animated in Japan the reality is most of it is in fact done by lesser known Korean studios (as is the case with western animation today as well) so it is questionable if that definition alone is really enough.
Some who understand some of the grey areas above have come define anime by the fact that the targeted audience is Japan, stating that if the show wasn’t intended to air in Japan then it shouldn’t be considered anime. This definition has generally held up the most over the years though that too is a bit questionable. While not every show is made with an international audience in mind some do stretch out far enough to eventually be targeted towards Japan. My Little Pony (which I’d rather not bring up but it’s hard not to) has a japanese dub that started airing a few months ago and it’s the same deal for several other western animated shows including The Simpsons, The Boondocks, and Adventure Time (interestingly enough Avatar was supposed to get a Japanese dub as well but talks on that apparently fell through). The argument can of course be made that Japan has to be the audience targeted first for the show but even that occasionally can occasionally be questioned. Space Dandy for instance which is currently airing on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block is unequivocally defined as anime and yet new episodes air in the states before they do in Japan. Not to mention the fact that the show was quite clearly made with a western audience in mind and the producers seem to be banking on the western audience providing a large chunk of support for the show (especially since director Shinichiro Watanabe isn’t quite as popular in Japan as he is here in the states).
Lastly there are those who define anime by style alone, where if it has an ongoing storyline, handles itself seriously enough and has good art it qualifies as anime. As thus shows like Avatar are included into the mix and are considered to be “above” other western animated works (I’ll go into this a bit more later on). Of course this defintion is often the most frequently challenged as it goes against the “purity” of anime as it were(I’m covering that next) but even putting that aside, such a definition can leave certain japanese animated works out of the mix such as Panty and Stocking which borrows heavily on the style of western animated works and doesn’t really seem to have a definitive plot until the last couple of episodes of the series. Such could also be said for Space Dandy, but it’s a bit too early in the run of the series to make that kind of call.
Now it’s not really my intent to get anyone to change their definition of “anime” as what it means to us individually does differ greatly as we can see above, but the definitions we’ve come to accept for them do all have their holes, and there really is no absolute definition of it other than the one Japan had made for it to begin with.
The “Purity” of Animation
As addressed above, anime fans (though typically the most extreme ones) tend to often view anime with a sense of purity in terms of how it’s defined. If one so much as utters Avatar and the like in the midst of an anime discussion there will almost always be at least one person trying to dismiss those shows as “childish” or saying that they shouldn’t ever be compared with the likes of anime. While not everyone thinks as such, it generally seems to stem from a belief that associating those shows with anime will to some effect, lessen the value of anime as a whole and thus it becomes a defense mechanism of sorts where anime has to be put on a pedestal in order to maintain the perception that it’s art.
Now this leads us to the question of why we feel the need to do this. Though some will give different reason it mostly comes down to the perception caused by the Animation Age Ghetto (I recommend reading up on that if you find the time) where animation is considered to be “for kids” and got more and more targeted towards them over time. Since anime does often have material aimed at older viewers, we’ve created a barrier of sorts where we have completely seperated and categorized western and japanese animation into two main viewpoints: anime= “mature and thought provoking” while western animation= “childish and stupid”. These viewpoints have been the driving point of discussion for many a “east vs west” debate but both have their set of problems as we’ll examine next.
“Silly Rabbit, Cartoons are for Kids!”
Ah, cartoons. Things have gotten to the point where the word itself has become a slur and is pretty much only ever used to immediately dismiss a western animated show as being only for little kids and nothing else. Even those who do consider themselves fans of western animation are quick to categorize shows such as Avatar, Young Justice or Sym Bionic Titan as being something completely different from the so-called childish cartoons such as Spongebob, My Little Pony or Adventure Time. This again comes from the mentality brought about by the Animation Age Ghetto where shows with such a look are almost immediately cast into a little dark corner of animation culture to be mocked and dismissed as not being worthwhile in terms of mature themes
The reality of it is of course a bit different. Personally while I do admittedly sometimes watch such shows as a reminder not to take myself that seriously, these kinds of shows can occasionally tackle some interesting subject matter. My favorite animated show of all time is Ed, Edd n Eddy and while it’s a fairly goofy show, it’s also the only animated show that I’ve felt accurately portrays pre- adolescent childhood for what it really is. Of course, Adventure Time is probably the most notable example at this stage as show has a fairly tight continuity and frequently addresses serious themes. One of the more notable examples in the show is the episode “Princess Cookie” which (to my surprise) is a subtle yet fairly obvious story about a character dealing with gender identity issues and there’s also the entire saga of Ice King and Marceline episodes which are a pretty depressing and fairly realistic depiction of what it’s like to have a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (and that’s not even getting started on what the backstory of the show really is).
These kinds of shows are capable of addressing deeper themes and should be acknowledged as such, yet we’re quick to dismiss them as having nothing to offer. These kinds of shows can be a slow burn (Adventure Time in particular is a show I’ve found that has to be marathoned in order to be properly understood and doesn’t fully come into it’s own until the third season) but there is some gold to be found somewhere.
Anime is all “art”
On the other side of the looking glass we have the view that all anime is mature and deep. Or more accurately the idea that all anime is mature and deep when compared to western animated works. Now if you were to ask me which I prefer between anime and western animation I would undoubtedly say anime, and though I’m frequently a defender of western stuff I’ve always maintained that standpoint. This is mainly due to the fact that as mentioned earlier, anime is capable of tackling certain themes in a way western animation currently can’t and is occasionally capable of producing masterpieces that can be considered high art such as Evangellion, Penguindrum, Revolutionary Girl Utena or Fullmetal Alchemist.
However while anime is capable of reaching these kinds of heights, it has also been known to go to extreme lows that can make some of the dumbest stuff out there look like gold in comparison. OniAi which has been recently released by Funimation is one such low. While I generally don’t mind watching the occasional goofy harem show the show makes little sense, goes absolutely nowhere, and has just about every joke being about the girls trying to get in the male lead’s pants. It’s a pretty silly show, and many would acknowledge it as such and yet when compared to some of the higher quality western shows it’s still considered to be superior by some and often for reasons not pertaining to the quality of the story itself.
Similarly while some of the more serious western animated shows are occasionally categorized alongside the “childish cartoons”. Anime that is targeted at a younger audience, and clearly accepts that it is such as Pokemon or Beyblade are occasionally given the label of being “mature” works in some fashion compared to Avatar and the like, in order to maintain the idea that anime is completely unaffected by the Animation Age Ghetto and that viewers of these shows aren’t labeled as “immature” for watching them.
As a medium anime has a lot of diversity, but it’s because of that diversity that it can also display some serious flaws and thus the illusion made by animation culture, of anime being a perfect medium of artistic talent is one that is worth calling into to question
Changing the culture
The culture we’ve established as fans of animation is one that has it’s share of problems but those problems are capable of being changed. While I’m not seriously expecting anyone to suddenly change their stance on things it’s definitely time that we come to terms with how our need to perpetuate the culture has lead to viewpoints that are either outdated or were never really the case to begin with. I’m hoping there will come a day where the shadow of the Animation Age Ghetto is completely gone from and all animation can be viewed as just animation, but until then it’s at least good to recognize that the some labels we’ve created for ourselves are only hindering and not helping how the world views what we love.