Defining anime – Part 2

Is anime what’s on the screen ?

While the formulation of this question might seem strange, as it is obvious that anime, as animation, is something that we look at, quite a large part of academic studies has chosen to approach anime indirectly. To put it simply, many scholars chosen to discard an approach of anime as texts, preferring to think of their approach as a subset of media studies. The question therefore is not “what does anime tell us about X ?” or “how does anime create a specific kind of aesthetical experience ?” but “how is our relationship with anime characteristic of a general attitude towards media ?” Here, defining anime is not so much a question, as by definition it is but one element of a general “media mix” [Steinberg, 2012] whose borders are forever blurry and expanding.

However, this approach is interesting because it focuses not on what anime shows us, but on how we look at anime. It therefore establishes it, along with a net of what I would generally call “otaku-related media” (rather than “animations”, “worlds of anime”, “manga culture”, “Cool Japan”, etc.), as the result of practices of consumption, but also of creation in a movement of creativity which is both creative and circular.

The figure of the otaku is indeed capital here, as it is often the first presumed audience of Japanese animation. While this is in fact subject to discussion, “otaku studies”, whether a subset of anime studies or their mother discipline, make of anime just the epiphenomenon of a larger condition. This is especially the case in what’s probably the most well-known book about otaku outside of Japan : Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku : Japan’s database animals. While this seminal text is not directly or solely about anime, it could be argued that it is, with a particular kind of video games directly inspired by anime, the most adapted to Azuma’s points. If we follow Azuma, the material nature of anime, that is the medium of animation, is secondary : the most important element is the media through which it is conveyed, that is, the screen (even though Azuma’s paradigm is more the computer screen than the TV’s). Moreover, I would argue that the national origin of anime is not so important, and for two concurring reasons. First, because otaku culture is not a purely national phenomenon, but the symptom of a larger historical condition : that is, postmodernism. Second, there is the fact that, even though otaku culture emerged from the specific setting of postwar Japan, its general conditions of possibility, the reaction to American culture, could have been found elsewhere. Let’s quote Azuma himself :

“I absolutely do not perceive the emergence of otaku culture as a uniquely Japanese phenomenon. Rather, I think it should be grasped as one manifestation in Japan in a grand trend toward the postmodernization of culture that began in the middle of the twentieth century. […] The history of otaku culture is one of adaptation – of how to “domesticate” American culture. […] Therefore, if at this time we perceive a Japanese aesthetic in the composition of anime and special effects, it is also necessary to recall that neither anime nor special effects existed in Japan prior to a few decades ago and that their process of becoming “Japanese” is rather convoluted.” [Azuma, 2009, pp.10-11] 

What, then, should we discuss when discussing anime ? Postmodernism, precisely, which means that anime should not be considered as texts – Azuma says “narratives” – but as databases, or more precisely, as entry points into the database that is otaku culture. Indeed, Azuma sees character types (look no further than all the variations on -dere that you can think of), attributes (from cat ears to speech mannerisms) and stereotyped situations as purely conventional elements assembled together in order to trigger a very specific reaction : what we call moe. This is where both the “database” and the “animal” come into play. The “database” is the evolving collection of all these conventional elements which are passionately registered and taken account of by anime fans (Azuma gives an example of a real online database of character traits ; I haven’t checked if it still exists). However, what triggers a reaction (moe) is not just these elements floating in the void : no one cares about cat ears taken independently from the rest. However, I like my maids with cat ears, whereas others might prefer bunny girls or boys. And this reaction is purely instinctive : the otaku is the one who’s knowledgeable about the database, and reacts to the disposition of those elements he likes just like any machine or animal to stimuli.

In such a frame, anime are just one of the many spots where moe or data are joined and combined to create stimuli. In other word, each work is but a field for signs to float in : what matters most about Evangelion, for example, is not so much the psychological drama of the characters as their ability to be categorized or to create new categories – as the proliferation of kuudere spawned from Rei Ayanami illustrated.

Everybody’s best girl, Rei Ayanami

This perspective, however interesting, should not be accepted immediately : by making anime dependent on a specific kind of gaze, it immensely restricts the range of the word. First, otaku were produced (in part) by anime, and not the opposite ; and what of all the anime that coexist with “otaku media” and do not communicate with them, such as children’s TV series ? Moreover, this approach may be deemed too abstract for our purposes ; but more concrete and historical accounts have reached a similar conclusion, that is that anime does not stand by itself and should not be considered as such. This is most notably the perspective of Marc Steinberg who studied anime from the vantage point of their marketing and the practice of “media mix” or “media convergence”, that is “the ways in which particular texts are made to proliferate across media forms, from television to novel to comic to video game to toy” [Steinberg, 2012, p.viii].

Steinberg’s approach differs from Azuma’s in two main aspects : first, he examines it from a distance, as an object, and not as something entirely born out of the consumer’s gaze (even though consumption plays a major role) ; and second, he takes a genealogical and historical perspective : not focusing on otaku as a general movement, he closely studies what he argues is the birth of anime, the 1963 TV series Tetsuwan Atomu, or Astro Boy. This genealogical approach is what is going to interest me most, because it is here that Steinberg locates the most original aspects of anime.

Choosing Astro Boy as the candidate for the title of “first anime” is already quite meaningful, and engages one’s relationship with anime as a whole : it closely associates it with the medium of television and the technique of limited animation. What interests Steinberg in the latter aspect is what he calls a “dynamic immobility” : even though there is little movement (less frames, less character animation), the images appear dynamic and are moving. But this is not an exclusively animetic trait (as it is for Thomas LaMarre, see below) : on the contrary, this dynamic immobility is shared with two other media, which is what makes anime originally and “inherently transmedial, crossing to multiple media platforms and material objects” [Steinberg, 2012, p.8]. The first of these two media is kamishibai, a kind of Japanese street theater which relied on cardboard images that were accompanied by a narrator, which reached its peak popularity between the end of the Pacific War and the introduction of television in Japanese households in the 1950’s. There is indeed a close proximity : many anime sequences are just comprised of still backgrounds and a voice-over. The other media is manga, an obvious link considering that the father of TV anime, Osamu Tezuka, was already the main figure in the creation of modern manga, and that Astro Boy was already a popular manga series. These associations mean, according to Steinberg, that even though anime can at first sight be recognized from a peculiar visual style (dynamic immobility), this style is not unique to anime and is a common genealogical thread which is at the core of the “media ecology” generated by animation.

Indeed, just like in Azuma, anime does not exist by itself : it is not, therefore, just a medium or a kind of animation, but a “system” that expands outward. Anime, thanks to what may be grossly summed up as merchandising, becomes the starting point of a “media mix” in which characters or elements of the world travel from or to other media : manga, (light) novels, toys, video games, commercials, etc. And, again comparably to Azuma, the anime text becomes secondary : even if it is the starting point of the media mix and there is a distinct “anime system”, the animation is not the core. “The anime media mix […] has no single goal or teleological end ; the general consumption of any of the media mix’s product will grow the entire enterprise.” [Steinberg, 2012, p.141] Even if animation is the most visible element of anime, the tip of the iceberg, it is in fact but a secondary element, first because the technique of limited animation is in part inherited from kamishibai and manga, and second because the medium does not stand by itself in isolation.

What the two authors studied teach us is that anime is more than the sum of its parts : the characters and conventional elements that form the database, on one hand, and the diverse media with which animation forms a complex, on the other, reveal a far more complex object than the simple “Japanimation” definition constructed. To put it simply, if we follow this point of view, anime must be defined as a distinct practice in both production and consumption.

The anime machine

The indirect approach of Japanese animation that we’ve just studied is without a doubt fascinating and must play an essential role in any historical account of anime ; but does it hold any real importance when one tries to define anime in and of itself ? Or rather, can anime be defined independently from its association to the otaku gaze or media mix ? Cannot those two perspectives be deducted from animation rather than the opposite ? This is, in a few words, the general thesis of Thomas Lamarre’s essential The Anime Machine, which claims to end a “general lack of interest in animation as such, in animation as moving images.” [Lamarre, 2009, p.1]

However, one must instantly note that Lamarre does not define anime qua anime or try to isolate it as a separate and recognizable essence : what he does is a thorough study of the technological conditions of animation production and deduce from it two distinct manners of making animation – one of which has been massively adopted by Japanese artists, giving birth to anime. What then, is this key technological component vital to understanding animation ? It’s the multiplane camera, the device which allows the creation of depth in animation. As a device, the multiplane is what makes possible the superposition of different planes of the image, and their movement relative to each other : the objects furthest from the camera will move slowly, whereas those which are closer will move faster. This process, to which one must add the addition of character cels, is known as compositing. What then distinguishes anime from other kinds of animation is its approach to compositing and depth.

To put it bluntly, according to Lamarre, anime is flat. Whereas live-action cinema tends to emphasize movement in depth, wherein the camera enters the shot as if it were a real 3 dimensional space (which it is : even though the screen is flat, the camera as an object is in a real space), anime favors a movement between layers. For example, in this cut from Laputa : the Castle in the Sky, the impression of depth is not created through camera movement, but rather stems from the sliding of layers : the clouds going from left to right, and the ground from the top to the bottom of the image. This technique is known as “pull-cells”, and can be described as moving the pictures rather than having the pictures move. This singular way of creating space entails a different manner of considering it : for example, Lamarre reads Miyazaki’s abundant use of this technique (especially when moving clouds, for example) as a manner of contemplating natural movement from afar, letting it unfold by itself, rather than entering a logic of domination which would mean entering into space and gazing into it without a care for its fragility. Anime therefore is not just a matter of what’s moving on the screen, but also of what is being thought on and behind the screen.

What is moving and being thought is not a pre-defined set : individual styles and differences exist, as Lamarre puts to the fore by studying what he calls three “divergent series”, that is artists like Hayao Miyazaki, Hideaki Anno, and CLAMP. However, what is common to all of these approaches is that they tap  on a common force contained in moving images : that is what Lamarre calls animetism, in opposition with cinematism. Both are consequences of the technical apparatus that renders them possible : cinematism’s emphasis on movement in depth comes from the camera’s mobility, as well as its predominant use of linear perspective. On the other hand, animetism follows from the multiplane camera and the parallel movement between surfaces that it induces. There are two main effects of animetism :

  1. Diehierarchization. As I explained, the animetic image is flat, which means that depth, or depth of field, can no more be used as effects to attract the attention of the viewer on specific elements of the image. This is especially visible in Dirty Pair : Project Eden’s famous opening or Yoshinori Kanada’s fire effects, in which depth is created only using colors and lines, and no camera movement, for example.
  2. Potential movement. A consequence of the pull-cell technique is that any immobile drawing (a character, a background element, etc.) can be made to move not through direct animation (having the picture move), but simply by sliding it within a given shot. This means that any image can be potentially inserted into an animated shot and given movement ; in other words, any image contains a potential amount of movement.

The most interesting example of this potential movement that is the core of the force of moving images, is in Lamarre’s analysis of anime characters and their place in otaku consumption : in opposition to both Azuma’s database and Steinberg’s trans-media objects, Lamarre argues that it is the potential movement in character designs that explains their success in so many audiences and media. The more attractive and expressive a character is, the more potential movement it contains, because the character does not have to move to express itself : its movement is purely internalized and potential ; therefore, it will have that much more ability to move across media that exert different conditions of movement.

Anime is therefore not just a kind of animation or media. It is what Lamarre calls a “machine”, that is a set of technologies and practices which puts focus on “what animation is, how it works, how it thinks – how it brings value into the world” [Lamarre, 2009, p.xxviii]. In anime, there meet different techniques and artists which represent as much “divergent series” which all approach movement in a different way : either through animetism and the emphasis on the flatness of the image, or through the importation of cinematism and ways of implementing depth and perspective into an apparatus which renders it difficult to maintain.

Lamarre’s synthesis is seductive and powerful. However, despite all the essential elements it puts to the fore, I feel that it fails to produce a sufficient account of what anime is. One might answer that this is not Lamarre’s goal : rather than identifying an essence, he insists on the technological and philosophical dynamics at play in animation in general. But this generality is precisely the problem, because whereas Lamarre’s detailed analyses and applications of his concepts are generally quite convincing, his theoretical moments are surprisingly vague. Most notably, animetism, his core concept, risks being either too little, or too much, to be actually working. Too little, if we reduce it to the technological apparatus of multiplane camera and compositing : that’s far from enough to define animation, let alone a specific kind of animation. But then it becomes too much, that is too abstract, if we only speak in terms of force, movement and potentialities. And the problem is that Lamarre gives no clear account of what animetism is, which would opt for either option, or reach a third position between the two.  It becomes even more problematic when one considers the relations established between animetism and cinematism in what are without a doubt animated works : vague accounts risk in an essentialization of both tendencies, something that Lamarre seeks to avoid. And this essentialization is what impedes him from really addressing cinematism in animation in any other way than an hypothetical “critical optimization” [p.138] which pushes “the dynamics of animetism to the limit” [p.133] but quickly resorts to analyzing information technologies and otaku rather than the animation itself.

Despite his aim to focus on animation qua animation, I believe that Lamarre’s view on anime production is far too restrictive : focusing on the technological object known as the multiplane camera, he falls prey to the technology-centric apparatus theory that he so strongly critics.  However, most of his analyses and accounts are quite convincing ; to complete Lamarre’s perspective, I feel that what’s necessary is a renewed look at anime’s production process.

The third and last part of this essay, in which I will offer my own definition of anime, will be available in a week !


Azuma, H. (translation by Jonathan Abel and Shion Kono, 2009) Otaku : Japan’s Database Animals. University of Minnesota Press.

Lamarre, T. (2009) The Anime Machine : A Media Theory of Animation. University of Minnesota Press, Media/Asian Studies/Theory.

Steinberg, M. (2012) Anime’s Media Mix : Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan. University of Minnesota Press, Media/Asian Studies.

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