Defining anime – Part 1

In the end of 2016, the publication of the music video Shelter on the online platform r/Anime provoked a controversy : should this work, directed by a an American but produced by a Japanese studio, be considered anime ? An admin of the forum famously denied Shelter the qualification of anime, defining the latter as “an animated series, produced and aired in Japan, intended for a Japanese audience.” This definition quickly received intense backlash for its imprecision and overly restrictive criteria. However, even if one agrees that this definition isn’t a good one, calling Shelter an anime is far from being obvious : on what ground should we base this attribution ? On its art style, distinctly “anime-ish” ? But then it is an easy and frequent exercise to invoke the diversity of art styles in the field of Japanese animation and their evolution. Should it, then, be because the video has been produced by a clearly Japanese studio, A-1 Pictures ? Here, the most classical argument consists in explaining that the only really Japanese feature in Japanese animation studios are where they’re based and their top staff : for the rest, it is a well-known fact that a lot of animation work (most notably in-betweening, without which there would be no movement, and therefore no animation), is outsourced to other countries, chief among which is Korea. Ian Condry [2013, p.7] even quotes the number of up to 90% of frames not having been made in Japan. The Shelter incident seems to illustrate the fact that “anime needs to be understood more broadly as a cultural phenomenon whose meanings are dependant on context” [Denison, 2015, p.2]. 

The controversy over both the specific and generic definition of anime is an old one, reignited once every few years : another recent example I can think of is the case of Netflix branding anime as a “genre”, which brought back the ancestral opposition between two theses : the first one arguing that anime is a distinct medium (but isn’t anime just a kind of animation, which would be the real medium ?), its adversary claiming that it is, instead, but a genre of animation (but what does genre mean, when one considers the diversity of genres coexisting in anime : science-fiction, fantasy, romance, drama, etc. ?). 

The aim of this essay is not to provide a definitive answer to these questions (even though I will try my hand at a definition in the third part). It is, rather, to give a recension and critical examination of the criteria used by academic studies about anime. I will show that, just like fan discourse, academic literature is far from having reached a consensus about its object. But then, one may argue, what does all that matter ? Can’t we just enjoy what we want to enjoy, without caring for its precise denomination ? While this stance is perfectly respectable, we must understand that it is not totally indifferent, no less than any tentative at definition. Because “anime” is such a vague and shape-shifting term, each attempt to pin it down is not just descriptive, but also normative : each definition is a wall built around the kind of phenomena we want to see studied and looked at. 

The first question we must ask is, isn’t the answer in the question itself ? Isn’t “anime” clear enough as it is ? The answer is a definitive “no”, for well-known reasons : “anime” is but the shortened Japanese word for “animation”, and is used to describe any kind of animated work, without regard for its national origin, art style, or intended audience. Moreover, we must highlight the fact that anime is far from being the only Japanese expression to describe animation : Tze-Yue G. Hu gives a list of alternative terms :

anime-shon [animation], manga-eiga [manga films], dôga [moving pictures], anime manga, komikku eiga [comic book films], manga furimu [manga films], bideo gemu anime , and so on.” [quoted in Denison, 2015, p.5]

In the same vein, we must interrogate not only what anime means in Japanese, but also in our own languages : is “anime” in English just a direct and transparent translation of “アニメ”, or is it an entirely different word ? A way to highlight this question is to ask whether or not “anime” is a singular or a plural. While it may not seem very visible in English, this is a real problem in French, for example, where one must always ask himself if one must say “l’anime” (singular) or “les anime” (plural). A major English-speaking academic, Thomas LaMarre, has taken the stance of using the plural : “we do better to think always in the plural, in terms of animations.” [LaMarre, 2009, p.xiv] Wherever we look, the lesson is therefore that there is no simple or automatic answer : at each turn and choice lies a new difficulty or objection. It is precisely this fascinating complexity that I would like to uncover.


However much we want to criticize it, we have to recognize that the infamous definition given for anime in the Shelter incident was, if far from perfect, at least understandable. Anime is first and foremost a Japanese word, and when one thinks “anime”, it is automatically linked to Japan. The main problem with r/Anime’s definition was it being far too restrictive, limited to TV shows aired in Japan, which entirely missed the diversity of formats and audiences which anime can use and target. Most notably in academic literature, the equation “anime = Japanese animation” has been without ambiguities endorsed by the Anime Encyclopedia, which defines anime as such : 

Anime refers to animation from Japan. […] By our definition, a work is Japanese if the majority of the main creatives (director, script writer, character designer, and key animators) are Japanese. […] We employ it specifically to distinguish Japanese animation from products of other nations. There have been attempts among unscrupulous Western distributors to call anything anime that looks remotely Japanese. We do not subscribe to this deception and file such titles as false friends. If a Japanese origin is not of fundamental importance in the definition of anime, then it is a futile pretension to use the term at all, and we might as well call everything “cartoon”.” [Clements and McCarthy, 2015, pp.37-38]

Such a definition, of which every word must have been intensely thought about, therefore defines anime as Japanimation, even though, as the authors note, the word has never quite caught up in the US (but it is interesting to note that it was first preferred in France, along with its counterpart “Japanime”, slowly giving way to “anime” in the course of the 2010’s). This is the most immediate reaction, and this definition avoids the major pitfalls that rendered the Reddit definition problematic : 

  • it does not take notice of format, audiences or technique, leaving room for the immense diversity that Japanese animation works exhibit
  • it specifies in detail who, precisely, in the staff, is needed to give anime its Japanese quality

However, it is not without problems ; the national criterion is, still, the main hurdle it faces. In the recent years, more and more foreign staff have started to work in Japanese animations, from the American director of the movie Tekkonkinreet to Austrian animator Bahi JD. At what point should we say that most of the staff is Japanese ? And what about specific works by Japanese artists on Western series, such as Masaaki Yuasa’s famous Adventure Time episode ? Obviously, no definition will be able to sustain such detailed criticism and account for each and every case. But especially today, we should recognize two key elements :

  1. even though it is still far from being the norm, foreign staff is more and more common and increasingly coming from Europe and America, whereas China and Korea are starting to develop their own animation industry
  2. anime is increasingly becoming a visual style, however vague that may be, imitated overseas, whether it is in Chinese Makoto Shinkai-inspired movies or American TV series such as The Legend of Korra

This contemporary centrifugal movement, by which anime is an active influence on foreign media and animations, must be distinguished from two other, older ones. There is, first, the centripetal force of Western influence on anime : the most notable one being Walt Disney’s influence on anime’s founding fathers, whether it is Osamu Tezuka, or Toei studio, which claimed the title of “Disney of the East” [Clements, 2013]. Second, there is an ancient and well-documented movement of anime exportations : the first TV anime, Tezuka’s Astro Boy, was largely supported by American distributors who brought it back to their own country [Clements, 2013]. However, there is a clear difference between then and now : the American producers of Astro Boy did all they could to erase any distinct Japanese aspect of the show (for example, signs written in Japanese), and many kids from countries all over the world, such as France, which entirely co-produced and aired the show Ulysses 31, never knew that the cartoons they watched came from Japan. In other words, anime was not recognized as such – that is, as something specifically Japanese. But let us remember that, if we define anime as Japanese first, such questions are far from problematic : the misreading of anime as cartoons was understandable, but affects in nothing the essence of anime.

Apart from these purely semantical problems, Japanimation poses a more methodological question : if we define anime as purely Japanese, we quickly encounter the risk of creating some sort of essence of Japaneseness which would irradiate media. And that it problematic in many ways. Fist, it erects anime as this foreign object which we, as baka gaijin that we are, cannot fully understand. We are then led to restrict anime to its most violent and strange aspects, and only have reactions such as “wow, these Japanese sure are weird !” when confronted to fanservice, magical girls, or the most different aspects of otaku culture. But there is an opposite reaction which is as damaging : it is the snobber one, consisting in rejecting this decadent part of animation to only appreciate what’s only really artistic and speaks to our own refined and universal tastes – that is, studio Ghibli and some more auteur production such as Mamoru Oshii’s. In either case, we reify anime and only approach it from our own Western lens. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t approach anime as a Japanese object ; but that that which is Japanese in animation is not an essence, nor something that we, as foreigners, should have to reject, assimilate, or deify.

This approach is even more insidious because of the fact that it has first and foremost been adopted by Japanese critics. First, there is a famous attempt by director Isao Takahata to root the success of manga and anime in Japan in an ancestral affinity of the Japanese people to visual narratives. While it is certainly interesting, this point of view fails to provide an account of the specificities of both ancient Japanese art and modern production ; and it risks creating an opening to those less politically charitable than Takahata, which would aim to make anime and the whole “Cool Japan” complex a tool of international policy and recognition. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those, like mangaka and critic Eiji Otsuka, who see in anime a kind of “statelessness”, that is, a remarkable absence of any Japanese traits, as we can see in the large eyes, often exotic hair colours and setting choices. But the problem here is that what makes anime Japanese now becomes something to be exorcised. Indeed, Rayna Denison, quoting Otsuka, speaks of a “sanitized form of Japanese culture” [Denison, 2015, p.10] ; and while insisting on the otherness of anime for Japanese audiences, it fails to account for the more familiars aspects of it, and the exoticism it nevertheless manifests for the non-Japanese public.

This first attempt to find a definition that would be rooted in the national origins and cultural characteristics of anime leaves us with the following conclusion : even though it is true that, as Clements and McCarthy argue, “If a Japanese origin is not of fundamental importance in the definition of anime, then it is a futile pretension to use the term at all” [2015, p.38], national origin can not, in concrete terms, be the sole criterion considered. The idea that anime could be a distinct style is an alluring one ; but then we should explain what precisely we mean by the word, considering the diversity of looks and genres present in anime. 

This essay is continued in a second part, available here !


  • Clements, J. (2013) Anime, A History. Palgrave Mac Millan.
  • Clements, J. and Mc Carthy, H. (2015) The Anime Encyclopedia, 3rd Revised Edition. Stone Bridge Press.
  • Condry, I. (2013) The Soul of Anime : Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story. Duke University Press, coll. “Experimental Futures”.
  • Denison, R. (2015) Anime, a Critical Introduction. Bloomsbury, coll. “Bloomsbury Film Genres Series”.
  • Lamarre, T. (2009) The Anime Machine : A Media Theory of Animation. University of Minnesota Press.

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