What makes Japanese cartoons “anime”?

What is anime? All animation from Japan? All animation of a certain style? Then what about Japanese animation outside of that style? What about the international productions?  An old debate, that is surprisingly common in more ad-hoc anime viewer groups; youtube comments, gamer forum threads, and personal discussions,  and rarer in the blogosphare, on anime-themed sites, and in other groups self-identifying as the “academic” opinion leaders of otaku culture.

Maybe it’s because the latter doesn’t want to deal with something that is seen as the petty whining of obsessive-compulsive categorizers. Or maybe because after a certain amount of anime watched, the borderline cases will start to appear more and more clearly fitting into one group anyways.

It’s easy to believe that Avatar or Teen Titans are exactly like anime, when all the “other anime” that you have watched, is limited to Death Note, Naruto, and Elfen Lied. Then as your MAL is growing several hundred titles long, you will start to detect hundreds of little differences between them that you might not even consciously notice or at least you couldn’t describe, like the different emphasis on lip-synching, the details of background scenery or in shadow effects, and the exact way faces are drawn. (beyond just “small noses and big eyes” (Because seriously,that’s about the most generic description you could give for pretty much every cartoon ever)).

And then the plot starts, and it’s even more obvious that there are plenty of fundamental differences between how a western and a Japanese writer would think about storytelling. Even when they are actively trying to imitate each other.

So simply making shows “in the style of” foreign ones, never seemed to be that much of a problem to me in terms of categorization. People first look at a shallow similarity and say that they figured out what defines anime. Well-intentioned meddlers, describing generic shonen fighter tropes, and calling them universal descriptions of all anime. Then some of them spend more time with the medium, and stop doing that.

Except when they don’t. When the same well-intentioned meddler decide that they are the  majority, that their opinion represents what most people consider anime, therefore according to descriptive  linguistics, their definition is right and the anime fandom’s is wrong.

Which is an obvious misuse of descriptive linguistics. Even if most people would say that a whale is a type of fish, that wouldn’t make it so. Even though taxonomy is just a human construct, something that we made up for the sake of categorizing concepts, it’s still possible for the absolute majority of people to use a wrong definition, if disagreeing minority happens to contain the people with the authority to provide a right definition. The ones who know more about why the old definition was supposed to be practical, and those who need to use it every day. If everyone else but taxonomists would believe that whales are fishes, whales still wouldn’t be fishes. And if everyone else outside the anime fandom would think that anime is “that kind of cartoon with the big eyes and the dueling and the flashy background effects”, they would be wrong and the anime fandom would be right.

Another misuse of grammar, is to claim that since “anime” originally just means “animation” in Japanese, we shouldn’t add any extra meaning to it either. Then again, “sombrero” just means “hat” in spanish and “that spanish type of hat” everywhere else, “Shogun” means “war leader” in japanese and “historical Japanese war leader” everywhere else, and “Allah” just means “God” in arabic and “that arabic interpretation of God” everywhere else. It’s not uncommon that some loanwords, change their meaning in the receptive language, to the culturally specific version of their original meaning. In other words, “anime” as an english word can have the added meaning of “animation from Japan”.

What I find baffling, is the common belief that if you are disapproving of an extended definition, you are “prejudiced” and you are unfair with the shows that are falling outside of your definition. Which seems to me like a very miguided extension of the principles of equality and tolerance, to cartoons instead of people.  As if I would be some sort of bigot, for treating a certain group of shows favorably over others, while I’m supposed to give them equal opportunity. Like I’m a food-racist if I prefer chinese food over indian food, or I’m a vehicle-racist if I prefer bycicles over cars. Or I’m some sort of platform-racist if I prefer PC games over console ones….

…All right, it’s not just anime viewers who have that silly attitude.

Inanimate objects don’t need my approval, or my respect. And neither do animated shows, for that matter. They are just things! It’s perfectly normal to like some of them more than others, and categorize them accordingly.


One response to “What makes Japanese cartoons “anime”?

  1. Very interesting post. If you’ve ever read John’s articles on AnimeNation, I tend to go along with how he defines anime vs other cartoons that try to mimic anime: that what separates them is the fact that “real” anime is made first and foremost for a Japanese audience. That doesn’t put down the other shows or anything, they’re just not made by Japanese creators in Japan for Japanese viewers, and thus not imbued with Japanese culture and ideals even if the stories themselves happen to be universal or even very Western in nature, like Cowboy Bebop. There are of course other differences you can point out too, like how sarcasm is rarely used as a comedic tool in anime while it’s used a lot in Western cartoons, or how even anime for little kids deal with what the West considers adult themes like death, blood, alcohol, etc., while you could never get away with that for Western kids TV cartoons nowadays…but again, this goes back to the fact that anime is made for a Japanese audience.

    Also a good point about the word “anime” and other examples like “sombrero.” When I was in Japan, or anytime I talk to a Japanese person, I always specify that I like “nihon no anime” rather than just “anime” since they think that “anime” is just animation in general, everything from Tom and Jerry to Disney to Naruto.

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