“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.
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.