Defining anime – Part 3

Anime as relations of production

What have we learned from our general overview ? That anime is difficult to define, obviously ; more precisely, that it is a shape-shifting phenomenon that changes depending on where you look at it from. This means that a definitive and all-inclusive definition is probably impossible. However, one can always try to cast a net that would be as wide as possible, while setting a rigorous set of requisites for definition. The first, and most important of those, would be that any attempt to define anime is more or less historical and/or genealogical. Indeed, when we look at the different theories I’ve overviewed, we can distinguish them by the historical starting point they give to anime and what this historical first means. For the tenants of Japanimation, it would either be the first animated work produced in Japan (somewhere around 1912), or the first Japanese full-color animated feature film, Toei Animation’s The White Serpent (1958). On the other hand, for Steinberg, it is without a doubt Japan’s first major animated TV series, which most notably implemented limited animation : Mushi Pro’s Astro Boy (1963). Lamarre stands between the two, considering that for him, what’s most important is the introduction and generalization of the multiplane camera. Most notably, Japanese historian Nobuyuki Tsugata places The White Serpent and Astro Boy at the core of modern Japanese animation, as the initiators of two “streams” of animation [quoted in Steinberg, 2012, pp.7-8]. There is, on one hand, the Toei-style manga eiga, aimed at cinema production, inspired by Disney and mostly relying on full animation, a legacy carried on by studio Ghibli ; on the other hand, we find Mushi’s terebi anime, whose medium of choice is television (1) and dominating technique limited animation. Obviously, the distinction is not as monolithic : there has been and still is a lot of interplay between these two branches. However, this points out that any definition of anime is faced with an alternative : find a way to integrate both legacies, or exclude one (most often Toei), and succeeding to justify that choice.

Two of the theories I’ve presented here succeed in the path of integration : these are Clements’ and Lamarre’s. Both Toei and Mushi are undoubtedly Japanese, and Lamarre skillfully shows that the power of the moving image is the same in both manga eiga and terebi anime, even if the direction where this power is directed is different. In these two perspectives, what links together both lineages is a pre-existing element : Japanese nationality, or animetism. But considering the complexity of anime, I would like to suggest a more retrospective and historically self-conscious method : the thing we call anime wasn’t already possible in the social and technical structures that preceded it, but built itself progressively and unpredictably. It is only because there is, now, a phenomenon that can recognizably enough be called “anime”, even though we don’t know its clear limits, that we can discern its forerunners in the past.

My attempt at definition will therefore rest on visible, persisting contemporary elements and try to exemplify them in ancient works, to see them in the making or in their first appearance. But in order to avoid a definition that would just be a list of characteristics, I would like to offer a generic definition of what anime is : it is a specific manner of producing animation, or, in Marxist terms, a set of relations of production. The Marxist perspective here invoked does not immediately entail a political agenda (2) : it merely points out the fact that what makes anime is not first a set of technological or stylistic traits (even though it integrates them), but the social dynamics that make them possible. Indeed, what “relations of production” entail are all the hierarchical and dynamic relationships established between workers on the line of production, and the unequal access to the means of production.  However, here, a purely economical focus on means of production seems inappropriate. I would rather argue that what is at play here is access to the means of creativity, that is, a greater influence on the shape of the final product. In other words, that would be the relative access of each worker to individual and free artistic expression. This entails that the aesthetical, the economical and the technological aspects of animation are inextricably linked together (3). The approach closest to my own is without a doubt Ian Condry’s, whose ethnographic fieldwork has led to focus on the social element of anime : “By “anime creativity” I mean that, compared with viewing anime as a collection of texts, the form can be interpreted somewhat differently if we conceive of anime as an approach to creative production – that is, a way to define and put into practice particular processes of world making.” [Condry, 2013, p.56]

I believe that such an approach has two major advantages :

  1. It is historical and dynamic : while I will try to list general aspects of anime production, these are open to modifications and evolutions according to specific economical, social, or individual conditions, and are far from being set in stone
  2. It is positive : my main point of concern with an overly technological approach like Lamarre’s is that it is overly negative : the technological apparatus is but a constraint, a frame that limits expression ; on the contrary, my reading centers its focus on moments of freedom, which exercises itself with technological tools, and not because of them

Let us, then, proceed to listing the principal characteristics of the anime mode of production, along with their economical, social, and historical origins, and their stylistic and formal consequences on what’s on the screen – that is, the animation itself.

Putting the director aside. This first aspect is probably the most counter-intuitive, considering that we tend to focus on auteurs or specific creative personalities : Hayao Miyazaki is the most obvious, but also Osamu Tezuka as the “father” of anime, Osamu Dezaki and his experimental way of harnessing limited animation, Hideaki Anno and his complex relationship with otaku culture, etc. While I believe such a focus is needed, we must remember that auteurs are the exception, and not the norm. The role of the director is at the best one of stylistic influence (see Akiyuki Shinbo on Shaft shows : his work as “series director” was mostly one of checking that all shows follow the same general style, but he did not properly speaking direct anything), and sometimes just a necessary procedure to go through (see for example the 1984 OVA Birth : directed by Shinya Sadamitsu, it was in fact a passion project of animator Yoshinori Kanada which handled most of the work by himself). 

Along with the director in creative influence are many possible persons (the producer(s), the writer), but I would like to emphasize that of only one, which is specific to anime : the animation director. The role of the animation director is central, because he is the only person in the production process that reviews all of the cuts and has direct influence over them : he is the person in charge of checking that all the drawings follow the same style and do not go off-model. Moreover, the animation director is often at the same time the character designer ; considering the central role of characters in anime creation [Condry, 2013] and consumption [Azuma, 2009 ; Steinberg, 2012], such a position is key not only for the animation, but also for the media mix at large.

Moreover, the animation director does not only have a role of supervision that competes with the director’s ; it is also a position of control from which they can decide the look and feel of certain scenes. This is most apparent when the animation director takes a step back and lets the animation go off-model : such moments and their corrections have given us some of the most (in)famous cuts in anime history.

What’s interesting is that this key role of the animation director does not come from Mushi Production, often credited for most of anime production specificities, but from its rival, Toei Animation. However, the post was not introduced right at the start of the history of the studio, in 1956 : at the time, it followed a system copied from Disney, where animators worked in pairs  composed of a more experienced and a less experienced one. It was implemented in 1963 by director Hiroshi Ikeda and animator Yasuji Mori on the former’s movie, The Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon. The coincidence is purely fortuitous, but it’s interesting to note that this novelty appeared in 1963, the year of the birth of TV anime. 1963 might then very well be the year of the birth of anime, even if one looks at Toei.

The sakuga system. By “sakuga”, I do not mean animation in general (which is the meaning it has in Japanese), but the technical meaning of “good animation” ; but this system could also be named with the 80’s Japanese expression : charisma animator system (karisuma animeta). Each would however point to linked, but different phenomena : “sakuga” would insist on the occasional bursts of exceptional animation in otherwise not that well animated works, whereas “charisma animators” would indicate the emergence of individual animators’ style that is allowed by anime. Whichever one we choose, both are possible thanks to a certain number of production processes and technical specificities :

  • the cel bank : back when anime was still made on celluloids, used cels were not thrown away but kept for potential reuse : this is the case of walking or running cycles or any other repeated gesture ; but on a larger scope, this also concerns entire sequences : most notably magical girls’ transformation sequences, which have to be played out each once episode, thus saving from 15 seconds to a full minute of animation. Considering their importance, these sequences are most often flashy or particularly well-animated : this is both because they have to stand out, and are among the first animated, meaning that the animators have the time to polish them. It is Mushi Production which introduced the innovation in anime.
  • sequence animation : whereas in Western classical animation, animators each work on a specific character (therefore the association of animator to actor), Japanese animators entirely work on sequences – and in exceptional cases on entire episodes – by themselves. Their work is therefore as close to the actor’s as to the director’s : the level of the individual animator can vary, but they are sometimes very free. This is what allows Japanese animators to develop individual styles and to specialize into certain kinds of scenes and animation : effects, characters, etc. This key aspect of anime can be seen as having been born both in Mushi and Toei : even though Toei originally followed the Disney model, already in their first movie, The White Serpent, animation tasks were split between the two key animators according to their own individual styles and sensibilities : Yasuji Mori for feminine and spirit characters, and Akira Daikubara for masculine characters and action scenes. Moreover, already at the time, animators had relative independence over their storyboards and could add little gags or effects. This tendency would only develop, allowing the emergence of key figures like Yasuo Otsuka and Hayao Miyazaki.
  • post-animation recording : the other difference between American and Japanese workflows is that, in classical Western animation, the voice recording is done before the animation ; in Japan, it is done after. As animator and director Peter Chung remarks, this means that “the animator’s role is to make a drawing, not to perform” [quoted in Condry, 2013, p.98] ; moreover, the material the animator will use as reference are the storyboards and layouts, and not the acting : this, in turn, relates him to the director and layout artist, and helps him develop his own acting style. This, as well, was developed first in Toei studios.

Limited animation techniques. As I’ve just shown, the sakuga system is not that dependent on the choice of limited animation, considering many of its aspects emerged at Toei ; however, its continued existence, mostly thanks to the “charisma animators” movement of the 80’s spearheaded by Yoshinori Kanada, was probably partly due to limited animation. In the Japanese context, “limited animation” does not only mean animating at less than 12 frames per second ; it refers to a series of techniques inaugurated in 1963 by Mushi Production to meet the ridiculously low costs and harsh timing that was required to produce TV animation. A list of these techniques has been given by ex-Mushi animator Eiichi Yamamoto [quoted in Steinberg, 2012, pp.15-16] :

  • Animating on threes (8 frames per second) or less (6 to 4 frames per second)
  • Stop-images : still shots, most often of a character’s face, when no movement is required
  • Pull-cells
  • Repetition and cel-bank
  • Sectioning : “Normally, in cases where a character would swing its arm, the whole body would move. However we would use stop-images for the face and body and only move the arm in a sectional manner.”
  • Lip-synching : only using three mouth movements (open, half-open, and close), instead of fully animating it

All these are apparently purely stylistic elements ; however, they are the result of economical and technical decisions. They are therefore not only a part of what’s on the screen, of anime as a visual style, but also of the way that production is ordered.

Character designs before character animation. To the previous list of purely animated effects, it is necessary to add, along with most scholars (Azuma, Condry, Steinberg and LaMarre), the focus on characters. Indeed, a consequence of limited animation is that characters are seldom given nuanced and detailed animation that would fully express their emotional traits. Expression is then reported to exaggerated acting, or to particularly expressive character designs : LaMarre gives the very clear example of Evangelion character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. His goal in designing characters was to have them express emotion, even when not moving : this is visible in any of Sadamoto’s own images of Rei, where her dreamy expression is enough to speak volumes about her character and personality. However, the primacy of character designs is not just an expressive, artistic adaptation : it is also a core element, and maybe a necessary one, in anime’s media mix, because what is the most ubiquitous is always the character figure. Finally, to come back to the human and social elements of creation, Ian Condry has focused on the central role of characters in anime production : it is the basis for his definition of anime creativity as the “combination of characters (kyarakutaa), premises (settei), and worlds (sekaikan) [which come] before the writing of the story per se” [Condry, 2013, p.56]. Again, the role of each individual creator is diminished, in favor of a “collaborative creativity” [Condry, 2013], which lies in the social interplay between workers.

Stretching out time. While rarely put forward, this element of narrative writing and pacing is key to anime’s style, and has even been considered by some as its essential trait – that is, its lack of care for realism, both in animation and writing [Miyazaki, 2014, p.78]. Indeed, it is closely associated with the way anime is produced, especially in regards to adaptation. The most prominent example, repeatedly quoted (and not for positive reasons) by Hayao Miyazaki is the first filler of anime history : a whole episode of the 1968 sports anime Star of the Giants that stretched the passage of a single ball in a baseball field in the entirety of its 25-minutes runtime thanks to a stream-of-consciousness style of direction which switched from participant to participant. Such experimental techniques are now seldom used, but the overabundance of flashbacks or dramatic monologues are a part of this writing style. Therefore, along with this dilation of time, there is somewhat of an implicit rule, which I would express as “tell, don’t show” : this is as well rarely said, but anime is very verbose. We only notice the trend when it’s played with, for example in Monogatari’s invasive interior monologue ; but the tendency of characters to dramatically explain themselves and their stories in long soliloquies is omnipresent. Just like director auteurs, silent scenes like Liz and the Blue Bird’s opening or Evangelion’s “shower scene” are only so striking because they are exceptional.

The list presented here is probably far from exhaustive ; it does not claim to be definitive either. However, I believe that its core element, that of a set of shifting relations of production, must not be cast aside. This is also why I tried not to include pure business practices, such as the production committee (which was introduced rather late, in the course of the 1990’s) or the fact that most animators work freelance : my goal would be to have a definition that would still work without anime’s dreary economical state, in places like Kyoto Animation or Ghibli.

My attempt at definition does not include the entirety of Japanese animation, but I believe it can integrate a diversity of techniques, even some 3D works. But even then, I doubt that particularly unique shows, like Pop Team Epic, could be included. However, this is, in my eyes, the most suitable element to give an account of anime’s past evolutions and its contemporary dynamics : if we can indeed trace the roots of the anime production process in Japanese production practices, the possibility of non-Japanese anime is not in any way an impossibility or a taboo ; on the contrary, the non-Japanese elements that foreign actors can bring to a mostly Japanese production process can only be a new ground for collaborative creativity and the shaping of new forms of production – for better or worse.


(1) I find it necessary to note, because some do not, that the OVA format is not antithetical to television : VHS and DVD’s are, after all, made to be played on television

(2) Even though, considering the dire working conditions in Japan’s animation business, and the fact that anime is an industry, and therefore subject to the rules of capitalism, such a political reading could be necessary ; it is just not my priority here

(3) I admit that the shortcoming of this thesis is its lack of focus on non-creative production staff, such as producers, production assistants, companies, etc. Such a general stance still remains to be theorized, but I believe that a close attention to creative staff is a good starting point


Clements, J. (2013) Anime, a History. Palgrave Macmillan.

Chung, P. (2007) “Japanese Animation Theory”. Retrieved from

Condry, I. (2013) The Soul of Anime. Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story. Duke University Press.

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

Miyazaki, H. (translation B. Carry and F. Schodt, 2009) Starting Point, 1976-1996. Viz Media.

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

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