In My View: When anime isn’t the right word

I remember pretty clearly when I first encountered the word “anime.”

I was in a college dorm room in 1996, and I was talking with a couple of people I was in a Rifts game with. I don’t remember how it came up, but I mentioned “Japanimation.” It was a word that I had come across in a Robotech art book sometime during my high school career.

They laughed and said that it was called anime, and they knew what it was.

I don’t know how much they knew about anime, but they were the same friends I sat down with and watched “Oh My Goddess!” a few weeks later.

It wasn’t until years later that I would hear a good definition for anime — animation where some part of the production took part in Japan.

For years I spent more time trying to tell people what anime was. People had this picture of anime that was either tentacle porn, surreal imagery or Kamehameha waves. I wanted people to understand that anime was more than Cowboy Beebop or … well… Cowboy Beebop.

I never thought I would be trying to argue what anime isn’t.

See, in the 20-something years that I’ve been an anime fan, the word “anime” has become an amorphous gelatinous mass that still means animation produced in Japan. But in some circles has come to refer to an aesthetic and refers to a tone in other circles.

Just to give credit where it’s due. I’ve had the idea for this post for a while, but the opening sentence of a review over at Jonah’s Daily Rants helped crystalize it. He said that anime is one of the most over-the-top mediums out there.

I do want to point out that I’m taking this sentence completely out of context, because he immediately follows this up by saying that Horimiya was one of the most grounded romcoms that he has seen.

But I’ve seen these types of sentiments used before, and it highlights an important shift.

Anime has become the cool way to talk about melodrama.

I’m not sure if it’s a problem I can address entirely in one post, but I’m going to try to start at least.

Language is fluid

As much as I would like to come out and claim that anime has one definition and it’s the only definition that matters, I really can’t.

Because I lack the background to research this myself, I asked some people who know more than I do about how anime even came to be the word we use to refer to animation from Japan. Namely Daryl Surat, Mike Toole and Helen McCarthy. Surprisingly, they all responded to me, which was pretty awesome.

So even in Japan, anime was not initially called anime. Until the 1980s, it was referred to as doga. A combination of “do” and “ga” meaning moving pictures. As Daryl told me, you could tell that Toei was formed before the 1970s because it was called Toei Doga rather than Toei Animation.

And in the U.S., according to historian Fred Patten, the fandom adopted the term in the 90s, after calling it Japanimation.

(So I have to admit, there is a part of me that likes the word Japanimation. It is a clever word, but it’s also a little too easy to turn into a racial slur and “animation.”)

It’s really not a surprise that anime has added definitions over time. It’s happened with other words. No one 20 years ago would have applied the world “slaps” when they talked about music. I can’t remember when “banger” crept into the common vocabulary, but it also is relatively recent.

Language is fluid, and it’s arbitrary. A majority of people agree on the definition of a word, which becomes a definition of a word.

And as much as it grinds my gears, I understand what people mean when they say, “It’s kind of anime.” I even have a good idea what I’m getting when a Netflix ad says, “original anime.”

Here is the crux of the issue. We have two new definitions of anime that have crept into common usage alongside the original use of anime.

The original definition is, of course, “Animation where some part of the production is made in Japan.”

The second definition has its roots in the 2000s when shows like Avatar and Code Lyoko sprang up. For the sake of putting words to it, it is “A style of artwork that is evocative of shows produced in Japan.” This is generally expressed by using thinner linework and larger eyes.

I think we can argue about how we should refer to this. Should it be anime-style or anime-influenced or “original English anime”? I don’t know. What I do know is that some people and a lot of companies are pushing this definition. That will take an entire post to break down.

So the third definition that has crept up mainly with the explosion of popularity of Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia could be written as “a sensational dramatic piece of fiction with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions.”

This is the definition that is probably the most pernicious because it dismisses all of the thoughtful character dramas with nuanced thematic elements that aren’t just about making the audience sit on the edge of their seat.

It’s also the definition of another word, a more appropriate word, and one that I think we need to take out of the closet, dust off and accept — melodrama.

Melodrama is everywhere

The word melodrama evokes images of damsels tied to railroad trestles while square-jawed heroes battle with mustache-twirling villains. And, sure, that is likely an accurate idea of what a melodrama is.

But I think melodrama is more extensive than just Penelope in Peril. I see it as part of any story that is larger than life, and focuses on action and is mainly interested in eliciting an emotional reaction. These stories are not trying to recreate the modern world but present a greatly heightened world. 

I may be going out on a limb here, but I think it’s safe to say melodrama is a large part of popular storytelling. For instance, what is Terminator, but a sensational dramatic piece of fiction with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions?

How about most of the Marvel movies? Or Star Wars? Or Pulp Fiction? Or many modern slasher movies? 

Yes. The characters may be more than just walking stereotypes, but that doesn’t make the situations less melodramatic. 

This becomes more common the younger the target audience is. What is X-Men except for a melodrama? I don’t know what else you would call a story that involves a clone of one of the main character’s girlfriends leading a demonic invasion of New York City, except for melodramatic. 

The problem I kept coming back to when I was thinking about that third definition of anime is that Jonah is right. A lot of anime is over the top. At one point, I noted that people’s enjoyment of Back Arrow is contingent on how well they can handle characters yelling dialogue across the battlefield.

Even a calm work like Honey and Clover is wrought with emotions as the five main characters stumble their way through love. 

But these are not features that are singular to anime, though. Imagine a Hallmark movie without a tragic backstory and a tearjerker of an ending. What about the Christmas films stuffed with broad comedy like National Lampoons Christmas Vacation. 

Much of the popular entertainment we consume exists on this heightened level with broad characters and generally little in the way of nuance. 

The problem is that we don’t define those types of stories as melodramas. We call them superhero films or slasher flicks. We might call them dystopias or science fiction. We may even say they’re Christmas movies or romantic comedies. 

We don’t give anime the same privileged of breaking it into genres. Sure, a lot of it has the touch of melodrama, but a lot of it doesn’t. A story like Berserk or Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu has far less melodrama than Hunger Games or Nightmare on Elm Street. 

Replacing the word melodrama with anime is simply a way of making melodrama sound cool, and it’s dismissive of the loads of anime that doesn’t dip into melodrama. 

Uphill in the Snow

So I raised the issue, what is the solution? 

Well, the truth is that I don’t know. I’m pretty convinced that it’s impossible to rewind that clock. We now live in a world where anime has three definitions. That is not likely to change any time soon. No matter how much I want to go back to a world where anime just meant animation from Japan. 

On top of that, I certainly don’t have the reach or power to change things. I’m just one voice shouting in the darkness. So many anime fans are fans of something else first and anime second, so the chance of changing the use of the world is relatively small. 

But I would like people to start seeing the commonalities in storytelling. If we looked at what makes the stories the same rather than what makes them different, perhaps we wouldn’t be dealing with this problem.

Maybe if we looked at how we’re more similar than different, then we would stop trying to gussy up the word melodrama. 

As always, thanks for reading.

14 thoughts on “In My View: When anime isn’t the right word

  1. In the 90s in the UK we had the added confusion where the main company that distributed anime was called “Manga”. So, for a while everyone referred to the anime as manga…

    I used to get a magazine called Manga Mania which would publish chapters from manga and do reviews and articles on anime. It was a confusing time.

    Now, I consider anime to be animation produced in part in Japan, but I also tend to not get that worried if someone thinks Avatar is anime. I’m glad we didn’t stick with Doga!

    1. Man, I didn’t even really think about Manga Entertainment. That must have been super confusing for everyone involved.

  2. Considering “anime” is a Japanese word to my knowledge (like many other English inspired words, such as “conbini”, “sumaho”, “salaryman”, and so on), I think the traditional definition works well enough, but it does feel like the meaning is expanding to mean something more like “Japanese inspired animation” as it increases in popularity.

    I don’t really follow when you mention melodrama. I feel like for every dramatic / over the top anime, there is one about cute girls doing cute things, or an everyday life type anime. Unless you’re arguing that within anime there aren’t enough genres to properly classify an anime, which I would agree with, because things like the above mentioned CGDCT, or isekai, could definitely be deserving of their own genres at this point.

    1. Sorry. What I’m trying to argue is that I’ve heard people use anime as a synonym for melodrama. For instance, they’ll say something like, “That is really anime.”

      So what I’m arguing is there are a lot of over the top shows, but that doesn’t mean every show is over the top.

      And that melodramatic is a better choice of a word to describe that.

      That is all I’m trying to say. Sorry if I was being confusing. It all made sense in my head.

      1. Oh I understand. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of that haha. It sounds strange to me, I wouldn’t have even guessed the meaning properly if someone said it to me.

  3. I read that ‘anime’ is the Japanese shortened version for animation that they observed outside of Japan. But all critics agree that the term is so huge and still continues to grow that it’s better off not defining it at all. It’s certainly a combination of many things: cartoon, film, animation. We don’t really regard Miyazaki movies as ‘anime’ but rather ‘animation’ or ‘animated movies.’ Yet they’re all in the same breadth.

    Great post!

    1. I don’t know. I consider Miyazaki movies anime, but personally, I’m in that camp that believes that anime means Japanese animation.

      I think it’s useful to look at usage and see how people are defining words. But I have to accept that language is fluid and no matter what I think, what really matters is how people use the words.

  4. Now we are seeing animation from China and Korea enter into the fold, there are some in the mainstream who distinguish between these territories, with the prefix of “Japanese anime” for clarity. This then proposes a whole new discussion on whether anime is distinctly Asian or exclusively Japanese.

    Given Japan’s prominence and synonymous association with “anime” I fear this was cause arguments aplenty as purists clash with the progressive, or against those who need to simplify everything with a label regardless of accuracy.

    1. Yeah. I think it’s made tougher by the fact that Chinese animation is called donghua, which is not a name I see taking off in western circles.

      The general Western mindset is likely to put all Asian animation into the same category, and say it’s all anime.

      I think none of this confusion is helped by the fact that Netflix is pushing the narrative that anime is a style, and not a medium.

      1. To be fair, Anime has a unique art style, character designs and animation that differs from western and European animation so aesthetically there is cause to say “Anime style” to define something that follows or emulates this. However, I do agree that this is not a justification for lazily dismissing it as a genre or medium as you so rightly define it but the ignorant or those who should know better.

  5. I always thought of anime as in some part from Japan, and if anime is made elsewhere, the location is placed before “anime” as an adjective. Like, Dragon Ball Z is anime and Avatar the last air bender is American anime and Tower of God is Korean anime. The location marker is just a modifier for the noun “anime”, like romcom anime or shojo anime. As for using anime as a verb, it’s usually by someone that doesn’t watch anime.

    1. So what makes something anime then? What is the difference say between Avatar and a show like Transformers or Justice League.

  6. Honestly people are complicating things anime has always been associated with animation products from japan for as long as i can remember no body ever thought of avatar or teen titans etc when you mentioned anime. So just keep it simple animation from japan anime, animation from america cartoon even if its anime inspired animation produced in america its still just cartoon no matter how much it plays or looks like anime. No matter how much a kids movies looks and plays like a disney movie if its not from america and out of disney it can’t be classified as a disney movie. Even if the original purpose for tye word anime was to just refer to animation by the japanese it has evolved passed that to mean animation from japan. Theres no need to complicate things.

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