[Editorial Tuesday] What Is Anime?

We've all been asked, "Aren't you too old to still be watching cartoons?" The response is almost always the same: "it's not a cartoon, it's anime." That response never seems to satisfy, so we're left rattling off the many ways that anime is different from cartoons: "Anime deals with more mature topics," "it's not for kids," and "anime has a deep cultural history." Eventually, it always ends the same way, "Anime is basically Japanese cartoons... Anime is, anime!"

Sorry, but you can't use the word in its definition. Anime, due to its wide reach is very hard to define and label, but fortunately, we here at Honey's Anime have got you covered!

Anime in Japan

To understand what anime as we know it is, the most important place to look is its birthplace, Japan. In reality, the Japanese word 'anime' is really just an abbreviation of 'animeshon', the Japanese pronunciation of animation. Even in modern Japanese, that meaning still holds, as if you tell a Japanese person that you like anime, you might be met with the response "Oh, like Disney?", or after clarifying that you mean things like "Dragon Ball or Naruto," "Oh, Japanese anime?!"

Of course, the more, perhaps, Westernized definition of 'anime' is also becoming more common in Japan as well. So, while the original definition applied to animation in general, the increasingly popular definition applies to Japanese animation, or simply 'anime' as we know it. So, while for many people in Japan, anime still includes Disney, Looney Tunes and the like, the increasing change in even Japan's perception of the word helps to prove that there truly a clear distinction between the different art forms.

To understand that, it is also important to look at the history of anime in Japan.

A "Brief" History of Anime

Many people credit Osamu Tezuka and his anime "Astro Boy" as being the start of the anime craze as we know it. Despite this boom in the 1960's Japan has a long history of animation, which in fact led to Tezuka's "Astro Boy" and the age that it ushered in.
Japan, like the rest of the world, has a long history of animation, beginning perhaps with magic-lamp shows. Eventually, Japan's animation made its way to the screen in the 1910's with Oten Shimokawa producing what is recorded as the first Japanese animated cartoon. It is thought that he was inspired by french cartoons but claimed to have developed the techniques on his own.

Regardless of the source of inspiration – divine or French – Shimokawa's animation shows that Japanese animation and Western were once much more similar than we give them credit for now. Eventually, Shimokawa developed what may be a very early precursor to cellophane animation, by redrawing animated elements over copies of the same background.

In the 1910's and 1920's anime saw a rise in its public presence, even being included in consideration during the Pure Film Movement. In 1916 Seitarou Kitayama, inspired by many foreign cartoons signed a deal with the film company, Nikkatsu, which saw the release of twenty short films between 1917 and 1918. The cartoons seen at this time were mainly advertisements aimed at adults. In 1921, after the resignation from Nikkatsu of his boss, Makino Shouzo, in 1919, Kitayama formed the Kitayama Film Factory –Japan's first animation studio.

The 1920s also saw a rapid rise in animation produced. After great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the loss of a lot of work, the majority of Japan's animation was moved to its Kansai region. Lots of work during this time was also made in response to the success of American cartoons such as Mickey and Betty Boop. Although Kitayama's first film to be screened abroad was praised, I was Noburou Oufuji's work that earned international recognition, due to his works distinctly "Japanese appearance."

The advent of sound in Japanese animation came alongside that of America. Kenzou Masaoka capitalized on this new technology and used the first seiyuu in his work, Chikara to Onna no Yo no Naka. Masaoka was also the first to implement cels in his animation. Although it appeared 10 years later than in the West, color animation made an appearance during this time as well. In fact, lots of the techniques developed in the 30's would remain the industry standard for the next few decades.

During the next 15 years, the Fifteen Years War (The Manchurian Incident, The Second Sino-Japanese War, and the Pacific War), much of Japan's animation were wartime inspired propaganda films. Inspired by the stolen foreign films, Fantasia and Princess Iron Fan, Japan made its "first" feature length film, Momotarou no Umiwashi. A follow-up film, Momotaro, Sacred Sailors, would be regarded as Japan's highest quality animation up to several years after the war.

Postwar Japan saw a drop in the amount of Japanese animation, as tools were hard to come by. This time also saw an influx of foreign, mostly American films. Japanese animation paled in comparison at the time. This sense of inferiority led to an increased sense of pressure on Japanese animators to produce anime at the rate and quality of its foreign competitors.

During the 50's Japan attempted to export anime, but the quality made it hard to do so. In 60's Tadahito Mochinaga of Toei Animation was approached to animate The New Adventures of Pinocchio. Although this film was a stop motion, Toei Animation found ways to simplify the production time, by reusing recorded scenes. This discovery would help to open the gate for Tezuka's Astro Boy in years to come.

Osamu Tezuka, whom many view as the father of anime, would help to change the landscape of animation. Tezuka's drawings were simple which helped to make them easy to animate. This ease in animation allowed 25-minute episodes to be created quickly, a feat that seemed impossible when The New Adventures of Pinocchio had an airtime of about half that. Tezuka referred to his work as "limited anime" where the word 'anime' was seen as a "style, born from the cost cutting measures" (Clements). These forms of cutting measures continue to be implemented to this day.

For many people, the history of anime began with "Astro Boy"'s New Year 1963 airing. By this time, Japanese animation had already begun to take on its own characteristic look that would continue to be developed over the years. For many people, the premiere of Astro Boy is the advent of history, and so as they say, the rest is history.

A Look at Common Definitions of Anime

With something as widespread as anime, it's only natural that there are many attempts to assign a definition to the term. Many of these definitions, unfortunately, don't define anime well. Either because they are too limiting or too general. Let's take a look at some of these definitions and their shortcomings.

If It Looks Like a Duck...

For many people, the phrase 'I know it when I see it' serves as a good enough test to determine if something is anime or not. To them, the big eyes, spiky hair is a good enough measure in determining if it is an anime.

This "definition", however, fails because things that are not anime fit that definition, while things that are classified as anime do not. For example, recently many American cartoons which have taken to the anime aesthetic would be considered anime by this definition, while there are also anime such as Studio 4c's Tekkon Kinkreet and Mind Game and those that take advantage of modern advances in animation, such as CGI, that are not included in this definition.

Despite passing or failing the litmus test of 'I know it when I see it'

The original phrase was used in a court case about obscenity, which like anime is a bit difficult to define. Although this test was enough for labeling something as being obscene, it falls short of fully helping to define anime.

Anime Is Made in Japan by Japanese

Well, this serves as a terrible classification for many of the same reasons: it applies itself to things that aren't.

In the early days of Japanese animation, several animated films were outsourced to Japan. It also important to note that many of these films were made around the accepted advent of what we call anime.

This trend of outsourcing Western cartoons also continues to this day. Some scenes of The Boondocks' second season were produced by the anime production company Madhouse, with the majority of the show being produced by American, and Korean studios. It suddenly becomes extreme to correctly label the series, when only a handful of scenes fit the criteria to be labeled differently from its whole.

On the other hand, the Studio Ghibli co-produced anime, The Red Turtle is a French film, co-written by French and Dutch-British animators. Yet, it is still considered an anime to some, due to its strong association to Studio Ghibli, despite failing the Japan origins test.

Country of origin was never a good barometer for determining if something was an anime. Nowadays, with the advancement of technology and access, this line becomes even more blurred, as cartoons are produced in Japan, and anime is being produced by foreigners in Japan and elsewhere.

Anime Has a Deep Connection to Japanese Culture

Okay, so if we can't determine what's an anime based on its looks, where or by whom it's produced, then surely anime is determined by its obvious reflection of Japanese cultures. Yes, surely all anime has a connection to Japan myths, legends, and cultural values. Again, another net that's cast too wide yet doesn't catch everything.

Japan has a habit of borrowing from other cultures and integrating it into its own. For example, ramen is originally a Chinese dish; tempura, Portuguese; and its national sport –baseball–, American. The same way one can say that foreign influence has found its way into Japanese cuisine, and way of life, it's no stretch to then assume that anime too has many themes and motifs that are not inherently Japanese. One of the most recognized images strongly associated with anime is that of the "lolita." The term and idea of a lolita originate from Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Lolita.

Many things which we think of with strong ties to Japan are in fact ideas and themes borrowed from other cultures. Even anime, with its form and name derived from the word 'animation', cannot be said to be truly Japanese in its identity.

So... Then What DOES Make Something Anime?

If those common definitions of anime –it looks like anime, is made in Japan, and is inherently Japanese– doesn't define anime, then what does? For some, anime is a combination of all those previous definitions, for some those definitions don't even cover what anime is. In fact, the point we've been trying to make this editorial is that anime is hard to define. Impossible, even.

In his book "Anime: A History", Jonathan Clements claims that "anime is not a 'genre'. It is a medium." Even this categorization as a medium is a difficult one, as medium refers to the tools to create art. Seeing anime as a medium misses the point slightly, as, throughout history, there has been an assortment of ways to create anime. With the rise of CGI, VR, and digital advancements there continues to be new and exciting mediums in which anime can be made.

To use the word "medium" to describe how anime is made, it's probably best to describe anime as an art. Japan's history has led to animation being treated as an art, with innovation being the initial focus in its growth as opposed to media consumption.


Final Thoughts

It is very hard to define anime. Part of that stems from the fact that anime is a subordinate style in cartoons, which in itself is sub to animation. Many of the attempted definitions of anime do a good job of capturing essences of anime. Unfortunately, it's impossible to truly define anime, as it is still a developing art form. It is clear that anime is different from standard cartoons, however, because anime covers many different forms it is still very hard to pinpoint exactly how it's different, as there are as many differences as there are similarities.

Let us know how you define anime in the comments below!

Jabulani Blyden

Writer

Author: Jabulani Blyden

This feels like I'm writing a dating profile... Am I pretty enough? In addition to watching anime I like playing video games, mostly RPGs and indies. I lose a lot of Otaku street cred for the games and shows on my backlog (TTGL & FFVII for example #FeelsBadMan). I run a podcast with my friends where we talk about video games and anime. Nice to meet you... or something.

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