In My View: Where fewer distributors, marketing and anime definitions meet

“It makes sense to basically everybody to imagine ‘non-Japanese anime’: this doesn’t provide any of the difficulties presented by imagining, for instance, a ‘square circle’; similarly, we can also imagine ‘live-action anime.’ In fact, we do not merely need to imagine these things: there is media that gets classified this way (Stet), and whether or not we agree with those classifications, we have an intuitive understanding of why someone might classify them in this way. “

What is Anime: Art vs. Nationalism, John Ohno

A couple of weeks ago, I tried to tackle the growing idea that anime can be applied as a descriptor for a story. Basically, it was in reaction to me hearing several people say, “Well, it’s very anime,” when they were talking about the tone of a story. I tried to argue that the correct word was melodramatic.

So the post may have succeeded, it may not have, but I mentioned that there is a second definition of anime in the West that secured a foothold over the past 20 or so years.

If I were to write it out, it would be “a piece of animation which bears some sort of stylistic similarity to animation produced in Japan.”

I would say that is either the most common or the second most common way people use the word. It’s basically how John Ohno used it. But there is a fundamental problem with this definition that I think the quote above demonstrates. 

Ohno tells me (and the rest of the audience) that I shouldn’t have any problem imagining “non-Japanese anime.” In fact, he tells us this so confidently that he doesn’t seem concerned that I don’t know what he’s talking about. What does he mean by non-Japanese anime? What is live-action anime, for that matter?

Ohno doesn’t seem inclined to share this wisdom with us, at least as far as I can see.

I’m overstating this a little bit. His basic argument is that Japan borrowed many cues from the West and reprocessed them through their own cultural lens. He argues that this is a reason not to tie anime to a country of origin. Personally, I don’t find it a compelling case for how you define a word.

But I didn’t come here to state my arguments about this post in particular, but to use it as a springboard to talk about that second definition of anime. That anime is a style or a genre.

But let’s do some table-setting first.

Anime and talking about semantics

Where I think Ohno (and others) make their first mistake is they assume that because one group of people uses a word in a specific way, then that should be considered with how other people use the word. In particular, he points out that anime just means animation in Japan. 

But the people who use “anime” to refer to “animation from Japan” are not in Japan. It was a loan word imported explicitly in the U.S. to refer to animation made in Japan. It replaced Japanimation as the favored word for just that purpose. 

So when I talk about anime in these arguments, I’m talking about it from a Western point of view. 

(Though I think it’s funny that Ohno brings up Astro Boy, which was created decades before “anime” was used in Japan.) 

It’s also important to note that this is an argument about semantics. While I like to think the definitions of words matter, they really don’t. The only people definitions matter to are stick in the muds like me who want everything to conform to how they think. 

But I have to admit, language is arbitrary and fluid. If enough people use a particular word a certain way, then that is the definition of that word, or at the very least, it is a definition for that word. Trying to change that is like standing in front of a speeding locomotive and trying to stop by screaming loud enough. You will end up on the losing end of that fight. 

So while I may not like defining anime as a “style,” there are at least some people on the planet who do. While I disagree, and I think there are problems with it, I’m not saying that they’re wrong. As long as people understand what they are each saying, then it doesn’t matter what words they use.

I mean, that is how communication works, right? 

I want to trace the path of the forces behind the rise of the “anime-style” definition and what I see as the possible problems with it in the long term.

One final caveat: I’m just a guy sitting behind a computer, using my limited Google-fu and my faulty memory to create an argument. I could be entirely off base. I don’t think I am, but I’ll let other people be the judge of that. 

Anime is special

The idea that anime is a style or a genre is something that is founded in marketing. 

As someone who grew up during the dark ages, when anime fandom only existed on newsletters and Usenet groups, at least part of that makes sense. Animation in America, in particular, was largely confined to Disney, Hanna Barbera, Saturday morning cartoons and the Simpsons. Basically, it told one of two types of stories. They were children’s adventure tales like the family films from Disney or some of the Hanna Barbera shows, or they are broad comedies like Looney Tunes or the Simpsons. 

All of this led to the idea that animation was for children. Even after years of watching anime, a part of me looks down on adults who still watch Spongebob. I don’t think my attitude is good. I only bring this up because that is how pervasive this idea was at the time. 

There are still pieces of it that cling to this day. The image of the man-child, who spends his life locked in his parent’s basement playing video games, watching cartoons and reading comic books, is persistent. Women get it just as bad, but the man-child image just popped into my head first. 

So, where does anime fit into this mix? Serialized science fiction cartoons were an easy sell to some science-fiction and fantasy fans. (Though notably, not all of them.) But how do you convince everyone else that anime is worth watching, and probably more importantly, that it’s “not kid’s stuff.” 

Well, you tell them that anime is special. It’s more mature. It has better story-telling. Maybe there is a touch of exoticism in there, but I’ll let someone smarter than me open that Pandora’s Box. 

So marketers are always willing to take a good idea and find a way to make a buck on it. So they propagated this idea that anime is unique. This is the point where I think anime moved from the pages of Usenet and rooms in science-fiction conventions and into the common parlance of U.S. nerd fandom. We can see this with Toonami and Adult Swim. They introduced thousands to the idea of anime.

And it’s hard to understate the importance of shows like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, or Gundam Wing. Some people have never considered themselves anime fans and have watched and loved those shows. Even though “anime is special” might have turned into a marketing tool, it was backed up by shows that really were special. 

For many people, these shows defined anime, and personally, I think, became the genesis of what people consider the “anime style.”

(So I’m glossing over Overfiend, Ninja Scroll, Akira and Ghost in the Shell. Those were also important in creating the idea of what “anime” is in the West.) 

But even with those successes, people were sold on this idea that anime needs to be something special. From a business marketing side, probably the most famous of these examples is the ad that came at the beginning of ADV DVDs that told people that anime was “straight from Japan” and “not kids stuff.” 

On the other hand, a whole new generation of teens had discovered anime and was convinced they were the first ones to find it, and it was really special. 

Maetel is very sad.

So here is where we can combine these elements and start to see why there is a need for anime to be a style rather than just animation from Japan. First, marketers tried really hard to make it seem special, so when the audience saw good anime shows, they convinced themselves that “This was anime.” Basically, all anime became DBZ, Akira or Sailor Moon, and many never watched any other shows. Or, if they did, they were shows that were similar to what they had already seen. 

On top of this, you have marketers looking for a way to sell anime to an uneducated audience that is predisposed to be critical of “serious” cartoons. So they have to say that anime is “not kids stuff.” This then becomes a mantra for later generations. Anime is unique because it’s mature. So if a cartoon is mature, it must be anime.

None of this really affected the average anime fan of the time. See, they all knew that anime is animation from Japan. They had a sense of the history of it. For the most part, the people who thought anime was a style existed on the fringes of fandom. They popped in and left. 

I mean, it has shown up in places like Avatar, where the animators said they were influenced by Hayao Miyazaki. Or with Teen Titans or Code Lyoko, or other animation projects from the mid- to late-2000s. But those creators pointed to specific references. 

But lately, it’s started to take a sinister turn. 

The problem with anime-style and the Netflix dilemma

The heart of my problem with referring to anime as a style is that it assumes that anime is homogeneous. Even in Ohno’s conclusion, I don’t see him mention any tropes from shoujo anime. I don’t see a mention of josei titles. I don’t even see a slice of life show. 

The problem with referring to anime as a style or a genre is that it generally limits anime to a particular lane. It’s a lane that I couldn’t imagine talking about The Great Passage, Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu or, even, After the Rain. It ignores broad swaths of the medium for the sake of simplicity. 

Ironically, it turns anime into what American animation has always been — children’s adventure shows and broad comedies with the new addition of adult adventure shows. 

Nowhere is this more clear than Netflix’s Enter the Anime “documentary.” Really, it was more of an advertisement than a documentary, but who’s counting? 

It felt like a more glossy version of that original ADV ad, complete with demonstrations about how this isn’t “kids” stuff and how it’s special. Now Netflix certainly backed this up by backing up a truckload of cash to Japanese studios and saying, “Make us anime.” 

There are two issues I can see arising from this. The first is that Netflix has a financial incentive to sell the idea that anime is special, but it’s also precisely what you think it is. None of the shows I’ve seen from them have really been breaking away from this idea that anime is either children or adult adventure shows or broad comedies. 

They will play it safe and present to people the types of shows they think are anime.

In addition, they have a financial incentive to move production away from Japan. The fewer cooks in the kitchen, the less money they will need to pay. 

Basically, make anime not Japanese, and you won’t need to deal with Japanese companies or artists. You won’t need to pay for licensing deals. You won’t need to worry about what else they are working on. You can completely cut Japan out of anime. 

Granted, this is conspiracy theory levels of supposition. I don’t imagine it will go that far. 

So what, though? We’re talking about one distribution company that may or may not be a major player in the industry long term. But here’s where we get to the crux of my issue with this. 

The Shrinking Anime Distribution Industry

When Sony bought out Crunchyroll, I had a bit of concern. To have two of the largest streaming distribution platforms for anime under one roof gave me pause. But I couldn’t really put my finger on why. 

I think it has to do with marketing. 

There is a particular feedback loop when we talk about marketing. It basically works like this. Marketers sell people on an idea like say, “Blue is the fall color.” The companies wanting to capitalize on that marketing make sure they have plenty of blue clothing ready for fall.

Let’s say that the marketing works. Everyone goes out and buys blue clothing, and the companies make out like bank. The thing is that they’ve created an expectation that next fall blue is the color. 

We can see this all around us. Why does Santa Clause look the way he does? Because Coca-Cola sold that to us. Why do we buy Valentine’s Day chocolates? Well, that one is a little more complicated, but it has a lot to do with the belief that chocolate was aphrodisiac and a blossoming of celebrating Valentine’s Day. Richard Cadbury took advantage of combining these two, and, voila! We get a tradition that has lasted more than 100 years. 

These traditions lead companies to then start selling us Santa based on the Coca-Cola idea. Now that isn’t just one brand’s version of Santa. That is what Santa is for all intents and purposes. Marketing created a new reality. 

In the Valentine’s Day case, you can see all of the other chocolatiers hopping on board to follow suit, creating a tradition where one didn’t exist before. 

So what happens when marketers start selling the general U.S. populace on this idea of what anime is? Will it really affect the Japanese market? No. Of course, it won’t. I recently read an interview that pointed out that the western audience didn’t have much impact on the development of new shows. While I don’t think that is always the case, I think it is often the case. Even with the massive influx of cash from Netflix, I don’t believe Japanese companies will care what the Western audience thinks. 

That said, it does matter to the Western distributors. As the amount of competition shrinks, the more prominent distributors will lean into finding shows that fit the image of what anime is. 

There simply isn’t any incentive for companies to take a risk on a show that doesn’t check those boxes. 

Now, we certainly aren’t in this position yet, and I’m not ringing any alarm bells, But we very well could see Western marketers lean into the idea of what “anime” is so they can sell it to a larger market. Anime is now special, but it’s not too special to be scary. 

For now, we still have independents like Discotek and Sentai out there. Maybe that will be the future. The giants will sell the “anime” everyone wants, while the rest of us get the Japanese animation we want. 

Anyway, what do you think? Am I being too alarmist? Do you think anime should be used in a more broad sense? 

As always, thanks for reading. 

6 thoughts on “In My View: Where fewer distributors, marketing and anime definitions meet

  1. I hope you’re being too alarmist — I can get that way as well. But then I also think your fears are justified. I don’t look forward to the possibility that anime might get overly adapted to western markets. The fact that a lot of anime series are only available as a practical matter on the big streaming sites like Crunchyroll, Funimation, or Netflix is also a problem, since a lot of series are still prohibitively expensive to buy on Blu-ray or even on DVD. If I wanted to own the complete Monogatari in physical form, for example, I’d have to spend at least several hundred dollars and possibly over a thousand. Sentai and a few other distributors thankfully don’t gouge us the way Aniplex does, but it still puts us at the mercy of the streaming sites assuming we don’t want to turn pirate.

    That use of “anime” as describing a style or genre instead of the medium as a whole also kind of bothers me. Especially when it’s coming out the mouth of a guy holding himself out as a sort of expert on the subject like John Ohno does in his Medium article. If he’d wanted to say something like “certain anime series have elements in common with Venture Bros. or Archer” then sure, I’d agree with him. But after reading through his mess of an article (which might be a mean way to put it, but an honest one as far as I’m concerned) I don’t understand what he’s getting at either.

    I especially don’t understand why he brings up Japanese nationalism, because he doesn’t seem to connect it to his main subject, except with a very thin thread about how emphasizing the “Japanese-ness” of anime plays into far-right Japanese myths. Which I also don’t get. I don’t think all anime is absolutely “Japanese” in the sense that it’s connected to the country and its culture — just look at a lot of sci-fi or other works that take place in other countries or fantasy worlds — but there are absolutely series that are culturally Japanese, but that don’t play into any sort of political message. If you watch one of the many shows set in a Japanese high school, it’s pretty damn obvious that there are some aspects of the experience that are particular to Japan, just like how a show set in an American high school would have aspects particular to the US. There’s nothing political about recognizing that. Anyway, I haven’t heard of any of these uyoku black van idiots over in Japan touting anime or manga as some amazing thing. Those guys seem to want to go back to the days before Japan’s main export was cute anime girls, when it was a militaristic state. What the hell does that have to do with anime?

    Sorry for going on so long, but reading that article and your response got me thinking. Maybe I’m not smart enough to pick up on Ohno’s point here, but I’m more inclined to think he’s blowing a lot of hot air. I agree with him that anime has a ton of foreign influences in it, but so what? I don’t think anyone was disputing that. I think the point is just as you put it — we don’t want anime watered down to suit western tastes, at least as streaming service executives see them. I have no problem with cross-cultural sorts of projects as long as they’re done well, but these cost-cutting measures are a different matter altogether.

    1. I don’t mind the long comment. I’m glad that you had a lot to say.

      So I interpreted his point as basically: “We shouldn’t just think of anime as a cultural product solely linked to Japan.” Now I don’t know what that has to do with defining anime as animation produced in Japan. Certainly we can look at the influences of a piece and see how it draws from other sources. Galaxy Express 999 offers a couple points where you can see where Matsumoto drew from American Westerns. But I’m not sure how you get from point A to point B.

      I think you bring up a good point. Personally, what I see as more likely that the fringe shows will end up stuck on streaming until they disappear. If they make it to disc, we’re likely looking at relatively high price points.

      I mean the MSRP for the RahXephon Blu-Rays is $129 (although no one has sold them at that price.) That show is nearly 20 years old, and when I bought it on DVD it would have only cost me about $140, or at MSRP $210.

  2. I definitely agree with you on the part that the ‘problem’ lies with the licensing rather than the works being created in Japan. Unless one knows the language or does the digging, our knowledge of content and trends will naturally be limited to what gets picked up by publishers/distributors. I personally see the gatekeeping’s effect on more niche genres like boys/girls love. And as AK said above, for the people who don’t want to pirate, it’s a problem.

    This is of course a very personal take, but what makes anime ‘anime’ to me is the cultural lens that you mentioned right at the beginning. It hit me when localization discussions stemmed from Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid dub took over Twitter. While I understand the reasons behind localization, with just a couple of lines (and even the way voice actors voice the characters), the very same show suddenly becomes ‘too American’ for me. And if I wanted that kind of content, I’d continue watching American animated series but there’s a reason why I don’t anymore.

    In short; because the end product has that cultural essence, elements and sensibilities coupled with different understanding of characterization and storytelling that anime and manga stuck with me for years. Thought-provoking post as always, thank you!

    1. Man, I win today. I got two very thoughtful responses.

      I think the most likely thing that will happen is what AK alluded to when he talked about the Aniplex releases. I think we’re likely to see the more “fringe” shows either be streaming only or be released at a ridiculous cost.

      Granted, on some level, that has already happened. There are at least four or five shows that I can name from the mid-2000s that are largely forgotten because they never got onto streaming and weren’t popular in the DVD market.

      Personally, I wouldn’t say it’s the cultural aspect of anime that draws me to anime, though there are some very Japanese shows that I love (see Rakugo.) What I really like is the diversity of choices. I can’t imagine that a show like After the Rain would ever come from American animators. I mean there isn’t much in the show that would prevent that, but it’s not the type of material U.S. animators are interested in.

      The Dragon Maid dub issue could be an entire post all on its own. 🙂 But I do think both sides have some valid points, and I can understand getting turned off by something like that.

      1. Mhm, I didn’t mean it in a ‘I need to see kimonos’ way when I said I liked when they include their culture, but more as in their take on whatever the topic is at hand, whether be it romance, or action etc. coming from their own lens so we’re kind of on the same page there as well ^^

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