Defining Anime

What is anime? Before we can define something we have to know what it is we’re defining.

The Entomology of Anime

Remember the dad from My Big Fat Greek Wedding and how he insisted that every word comes from Greek?

So no one is actually sure where the word “anime” (written in Japanese as: アニメ) actually came from, but there are two main theories.

The first, is that it’s effectively an abbreviation of the English word “animation”.

animation -> animeishiyon -> anime

This is the currently more popular theory. The second theory, which was more popular in the 80s, is that it’s derived from the French word “animé” meaning animated or lively.

animé -> anime

But it doesn’t matter which theory you like because both the English and the French are derived from the same Latin root “anima” meaning spirit. And the Latin is in turn derived from the Greek “anemos” meaning wind.

anemos -> anima -> animation -> animeishiyon -> anime

anemos -> anima -> animé -> anime

So there you go.

Defining Anime

Anime as it’s used in the Japanese language is simply the word for animation, any and all kinds.

But anime as it’s used in the English language is used to refer to animation that originates from Japan.

Look up “anime” in an English dictionary and we get this:

Dictionary definition
noun: a style of animation originating in Japan that is characterized by stark colorful graphics depicting vibrant characters in action-filled plots often with fantastic or futuristic themes.
Merriam Webster Dictionary (2017)

The dictionary definition is obviously just meant for someone who has never heard of anime and has no concept of what it could be. It gives a very generalized idea of what anime is, and isn’t useful to those who specialize in the niche interest.

As a result, English speaking anime fandom has been left to their own devices when it comes to defining the word that describes what it is they’re passionate about.

Defining by Nationality

I want to get this one out of the way. Monty Oum, the director of RWBY, puts it nicely in an interview from 2013:

Some believe just like Scotch needs to be made in Scotland, an American company can’t make anime. I think that’s a narrow way of seeing it. Anime is an art form, and to say only one country can make this art is wrong.

It’s not as if only Japanese people are allowed to write haiku or play the biwa. There’s no reason anime should be enforced as an art form that’s dependent on the artist’s citizenship status. So let’s move on to a different method.

Defining by Geography

(image by zal001)

Animation that was entirely made in Japan and then solely released in Japan may have once been a commonality but contemporary anime is a vaster art form that can’t be pinned to a single point on a map, thanks to globalization. After all as western fans, we’re proof that anime has crossed boarders and expanded beyond Japan.

Many anime are not even physically made in Japan anymore. In 2012, Jonathan Clements estimated a third of the labor for Japanese animation was outsourced outside of Japan and speculates that number has only risen since.

Hand animation for in-betweens and other parts of the animating process are outsourced primarily to South Korea, but also other places like China and India, for the sake of cutting costs. A simple solution many take is to simply insist that only the lead creatives of an animated project must reside in Japan in order for that project to be categorized as anime. Yet there are many examples where none of the projects staff reside in Japan, providing widely accepted exceptions to the idea that anime must be created in Japan.

South Korean animation is included in online anime databases such as MyAnimeList, Anime-Planet and Kitsu. Films that are entirely produced and debut in South Korea like Yobi the Five Tailed Fox, The House and Oseam are counted as anime by the aforementioned sites despite having no apparent connection to Japan.

Simply expanding Japan’s aura to neighboring countries doesn’t tidy things up as one of America’s largest anime conventions has yet to realize.

Otakon tries to take the geography route when defining anime, as in anime music video, for its annual event. Here’s an except from Otakon’s AMV Guidelines via its website in 2017:

“’Anime’ footage is loosely determined by the animation studio that produced the art for the show. If it is an Asian studio, then the footage will likely be allowed. If it is not, then your entry could be disqualified.

Sorry, but by this definition, ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ and ‘The Legend of Korra’ are not ‘anime’ and will be disqualified.

We have to draw the line somewhere.”

Otakon defines anime as animation produced by an Asian studio, ergo making Avatar footage disqualified from its AMV competitions.

But whoever came up with this policy clearly didn’t choose the best wording. The studios responsible for the art and animation of Avatar are DR Movie, JM Animation and MOI Animation which are all South Korean studios. South Korea is an Asian country, ergo Avatar actually fits Otakon’s definition of anime perfectly.

It doesn’t make sense to narrow anime down to animation that was made in Japan, debuts in Japan and intended solely for the Japanese market just so it can be tied down to one spot on the planet. This method isn’t useful when there are anime conceived to cater to overseas markets like Afro Samurai, Space Dandy, and The Big O II which were developed with the intention of airing on American TV. Nor does it provide clear guidelines for when Japanese studios collaborate with talent from around the world, like in the cases Oban Star Racers and Mysterious Cities of Gold which are both French co-productions. Is it really worth excluding such titles from the category of anime in the current global era? I think not.

Defining by Art Style

This is a fun one. Anime is anime because it looks like anime, right?

But what does anime look like?

When most people hear the word anime, certain visual qualities spring to mind. Big shiny eyes, crazy colored hair that stands on end, long bodies in elaborate costumes. Shows like Yu-Gi-Oh!, Sailor Moon, Code GeassTenchi Muyo!, and Lucky Star flash in our heads when we think about the art style associated with anime.

But if that’s what anime really looks like, then why would there be an discontent over shows like Avatar or RWBY being called anime?

We’ve already gone over why the country of origin of these shows isn’t the best measure, so what’s wrong with just judging an anime by its looks?

The issue with this approach is that it’s incredibly subjective. There’s no list a visual traits shared among all anime. Anime like Tekkonkinkreet and the Tatami Galaxy hardly resemble the same art style of shows like Sailor Moon.

They might not immediately come to mind when the medium of anime is mentioned but that doesn’t mean they don’t still exist within that medium.

And then there’s anime that imitate western animation and actively defy typical Japanese aesthetics, like FLCL or Panty and Stocking.

In the case of Panty and Stocking, not only is the whole show modeled after a western art style (as opposed to only a few seconds), but the content of the series is effectively a love letter to western media. Under the assumption that anime must have a certain look to it, a show like Panty and Stocking would have it’s anime status revoked.

So even if there is a supposive art style only anime can have, when did that art style come into being?

Classics that originate from the 1960s like Kimba the White Lion and Sazae-san pull heavy inspiration from western animation.

Astro Boy fits in much better with characters like Steamboat Willie and Betty Boop than he does with any of the characters from say, Akira or One Piece. So is it really okay to exclude works as important and influential as Astro Boy from anime because the art style is dated?

Personally, I’m glad not everything in anime shares the same art style. I’m not sure the medium would have the same appeal if every thing looked like this.

(This is from Kamichama Karin by the way.)

The medium of anime clearly encompasses infinite art styles that don’t necessarily share key qualities with each other, rendering art style a useless means of defining anime as a whole.

So what methods of defining anime are even left at this point?

Defining by Intended Audience

This is my personal method of defining anime and it’s the most practical method I’ve encountered, and that is  to define anime by intended audience. If an animated work is intended for a Japanese audience OR an audience of anime fans, then it’s anime.

Here’s a flowchart to help explain it:

Let’s run through some examples with this method:

Sailor Moon

Is it an animated work? Yes -> Was it originally made for a Japanese audience? Yes -> It’s an Anime


Is it an animated work? Yes -> Was it originally made for a Japanese audience? No -> Does it resemble Japanese animation? Yes -> Was it made for fans of Japanese animation?

The creators of RWBY have been explicit about how they set out to create something that anime fans would enjoy, so the answer is Yes -> It’s an anime

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Is it an animated work? Yes -> Was it originally made for a Japanese audience? No -> Does it resemble Japanese animation? Yes -> Was it made for fans of Japanese animation?

Well, Avatar aired on Nickelodeon and was geared toward children who watch Nickelodeon, whether those kids knew about or liked anime wasn’t relevant. No -> It’s not an anime

But the creators of Avatar have talked about how they took inspiration from Japanese animation and Asian media and knew that what they made could appeal to anime fans and wanted those fans to be able to enjoy the show as well. Yes -> It’s an anime

So something like Avatar could be argued either way BUT AT LEAST YOU CAN ARGUE IT!

You can back up which ever conclusion you reach with this method using context that surrounds any title. No more debates that are baseless like:

“But Avatar looks like anime!”
What does anime really look like? Style is subjective. There are plenty of anime Avatar doesn’t resemble at all.

“But Avatar isn’t from Japan!”
Neither is a lot of anime. Anime is medium of art, one that can, has and will continue to expand beyond Japan’s borders.

This method gives one the ability to construct a logical argument on why something should or shouldn’t be considered anime.

That said, there is a hole in my method. That hole is a universal audience. What if an animated work is aimed at everybody?

There’s a few examples that I think fit this case.

Ghibli movies, specifically the more recent ones, are made while the staff is well aware that their work is going to be seen overseas and that their audience is not just confined to Japan. Ghibli films are popular all over the world, and not just with anime fans.

Pokemon is another example of an anime becoming a international phenomenon. It has effectively grown out of the label of anime and is something much bigger that’s meant for global audiences to consume.

So is it possible for something to expand beyond the label of anime and become something more universal? I consider the examples above to still be anime. I don’t think it matters, at least for now, but it is worth thinking about as our world and the media with it becomes more and more global.

So next time you’re debating what is and isn’t anime, try considering who was intended to consume the work. It could make navigating those grey areas of anime a little easier.

[This post was adapted from my panel “But That’s NOT Anime!”. The information in this post was last updated Aug. 2017]

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