Sailor Moon, Pokemon, and Dragonball Z! Chances are that if you grew up in the 90s then you’ve watched at least one of these shows. Whichever one that may have been was probably your introduction to anime. However, like most kids, you likely didn’t realize this at the time. I wouldn’t realize it myself until sometime in the early 2000s, after Cartoon Network started airing Tenchi Universe on it’s Toonami block and Yu Yu Hakusho premiered on Adult Swim. Since then, I’ve recognized and viewed anime as a product of Japanese animation. That is, until Avatar: The Last Airbender began to air. Since then, and with the addition of similar shows that blur the line of what is and isn’t anime, I’ve had my doubts as to whether or not my simplistic definition was sufficient. So, I began searching for a better definition by acknowledging some of anime’s key characteristics.
Typical flatness and huge eyes aside, the techniques used in Japanese animation are just as distinctive as they are diverse! The variety of artistic elements, such as the use of color and lighting, and the character designs, like the spiked hair of a shonen protagonist and the soft fluffiness of a shojo MC, are testament to the sheer amount of distinguishing art styles that exist within the medium. It’s production tends to center itself around creating as realistic a setting as possible while utilizing camera effects to combine cinematography with hand-drawn art. Moreover, since anime focuses on realism in both movement and image, environments are produced in which audiences can become easily immersed. A great use of this technique can be found in the works of Satoshi Kon, director of Paranoia Agent and Paprika.
Furthermore, the story-telling mechanism of these shows are easily distinguishable. While most American cartoons are intended for children, the themes of anime are multifaceted and complex. In fact, there are five basic types of anime. Each one is focused on a specific target demographic, with content that ranges from imaginative children’s stories intended to teach morals and principles to tales of a violent, psychological, or even pornographic nature about revenge, addiction, and love.
While all of this is known and generally accepted as being some of anime’s identifying traits, the word itself is just the abbreviated pronunciation of “animation” in Japanese. It is a term that references all animation. In this sense, even claymation like Wallace and Gromit is considered anime. Yet, outside of Japan, it is a word used to specifically refer to the Japanese style of animation produced inside the country. Still, a cultural interpretation of the word may suggest that anime can be produced in countries other than Japan, but a critical approach known as Orientalism argues that it is specifically and quintessentially Japanese.
So, then, what is a show that is heavily influenced by anime tropes and uses a style similar to Japanese animation, but is not of Japanese origin? Should there be a third category for shows like The Legend of Korra? What about the American 3D web series RWBY, created by Rooster Teeth studios, which has become so popular that it even has a Japanese dubbed version? What about the adaptation of the Chinese manhua Rakshasa Street which was produced in Japan but originated outside of it? If these were all to be considered anime then would that beg the question of whether some anime is more “anime” than others.
Despite my own internal conflict with defining the word and quite a few arguments amongst fans over the years, there really doesn’t seem to be a correct answer. It all depends on your perspective and which interpretation you like best. Even if it’s not so easily defined, we still get to watch it and enjoy.