What Exactly is Anime?


It seems like a pretty basic question doesn’t it? However, the exact definition of what qualifies as an anime is actually rather murky. The word “anime” is really just shorthand for “animation”, but both inside and outside of Japan, its actual definition is a bit more complicated than that. The most common definition used in the west is as follows: “an animated series produced and aired in Japan and intended for a Japanese audience.”

There’s just one problem. Nothing about that definition works!

First of all, that automatically means that feature-length films, even those done in Anime style, and even those that are connected to series that are undisputedly anime, are not anime. Yet, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone familiar at all with Anime, who will be willing to claim that the works of anime legend Hayo Miyazaki, works such as (but certainly not limited to) Castle in the Sky, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Spirited Away, are not anime. Nor are you likely to find anyone who will say that Inuyasha, a historical/fantasy series from the early 2000s, is an anime, but the four movies connected to it are not.

Let’s look at the second point of the definition now, “produced and aired in Japan for a Japanese audience”. This one isn’t workable, primarily as a result of globalization. In the 21st century, especially with the advent of the internet and with it, any number of ways to connect and work with people, and even release completed material remotely; it’s not uncommon for anime to be outsourced at some point in its production.

While I wasn’t able to find the most recent statistics, a survey of anime studios carried out in 2006 revealed that 36% of respondents admitted to outsourcing as a strategy to avoid missing deadlines. Those numbers are likely to be much higher now, 15 years later, with the ever-tightening production schedules, and the improvements in technology making such outsourcing easier and easier to do. This means that most anime produced today isn’t “produced in Japan”, at least not solely in Japan.

Similarly, to say “aired” cuts out theatrical and internet releases, so that part of the “definition” clearly doesn’t work either. As more and more anime get simulcast releases, with new episodes releasing on streaming sites like Funimation, Crunchyroll, and Hulu at the same time they air on regular TV in Japan; and some anime even being produced specifically for release on platforms like Netflix, their intended audience has become increasingly global as well.

Let’s play the devil’s advocate for a minute and move the goal post just a bit. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that we can draw the line, if not at the nation of production or release, then at least at the language of the original release… except… we face the same issue there too. In recent years, not only is it common for anime to get a globalized release, but it’s also common (though slightly less so) for the international dubs of these works to also be released at the same time, or perhaps only a few weeks behind the release of the original Japanese dub. This means that language also fails to be a workable place to draw that line.

The only part of the hard definition used by most western Anime fans that holds up is “animated”. This, as previously said, is what Anime actually means in the etymological sense. The problem is that not all Japanese animation is anime.

For example, there was a 13 episode children’s series produced by anime studio Toei Animation in the early 1990s called “リトルツインズ” or, The Little Twins in English, and later released in the US on Nick Jr, Nickelodeon’s preschool programming block at the time, in the late ’90s. I personally adored it when I was a little girl, around the time of its American release. However, despite the fact that it was 1 Produced in Japan, 2 originally released in Japan to a Japanese audience, and 3 was indeed a series despite its short run, it is not, and never has been, an anime. It’s a children’s cartoon that happened to be produced in Japan by a studio that also produces anime.

Similarly, there are western animated series that are meaningfully distinct from the likes of SpongeBob; Gravity Falls, and Rick and Morty, and far closer in art style and storytelling conventions to anime such as One Piece, Full Metal Alchemist, and Inuyasha, than they are to other western programming. These are series such as Avatar the Last Airbender, Boondocks, and Code Lyoko, among others.

So, if Japan can produce animation that’s not anime, and the west can produce animation that anyone who didn’t know the hard and fast rules set by the demonstrably useless definition we’ve spent much of this post dismantling, would deem “Anime” then where does that leave us in trying to figure out what anime is?

Anime isn’t a medium, genre, art style, or a word that refers to all animation from a certain culture and only that culture, it isn’t any of those things. It is a series of connected artistic movements that span decades and more recently, span the world. There is no hard and fast definition, at least not a workable one, because such movements are almost impossible to define in such a limited way. They’re defined in hindsight; by what the community of creators, fans, and critics who create and watch anime deem worthy of discussion in our own communities.

Just like Impressionism in art or French New Wave in film are defined by the artists and viewers who create and appreciate that content. Even they probably can’t articulate a hard definition of what makes a given painting or film part of those movements, but they can certainly point out which works are or are not part of them. It’s the same with anime, especially in our increasingly connected and globalized world.

The age-old constraints of culture, language, and nation of origin, just don’t work anymore. While the definition we’ve been examining may have been useful and somewhat accurate in the 1960s-1990s; that was before most anime, save a few exceptions that were often aimed at younger audiences and usually pretty commercialized, caught on outside of Japan. In 2021, it has become hopelessly broken and outdated. We need to realize and accept that to accommodate the changing landscape.

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Categories: About Animation, The Animated Tea Room, UncategorizedTags: ,

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