Apart from the dub vs sub debate, the argument about what is anime and what isn’t remains unceasing in its pointless triviality within the anime community. Relentless disputes over the same shows persisting throughout the years, and applying the same discord to newer shows becomes wearisome to listen to after years of enduring it. And you might think that simply choosing not to visit the forums and sites where these types of “conversations” are commonplace, but these sort of discussions are everywhere. Wherever anime goes, controversy follows. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s not enough to deter me away from the medium, but it does get tedious after a hearing the same empty exchanges of frivolous nonsense for years on end.
Either it’s obvious or it’s ridiculous to squabble about. Take Avatar: TLA and The Legend of Korra for instance. Two things are immediately apparent after a simple glance: 1) They’re distinct from the prevailing circle of cartoons, 2) They take inspiration from anime outside of the West. So, it’s not an anime, but not exactly a cartoon either. Rather it lies in limbo somewhere between the two. Which is good, because it gives people an idea of the differences between anime (cartoons) in the West and anime in Japan.
But while the the vast amount of anime is rooted firmly in Japanese culture, the term “anime” isn’t limited to Japan. Certain aspects or characteristics such as being set in Kyoto, Tokyo or anywhere else in Japan, or having a fantasy world with signs marked in Japanese is very visible and explicit way of indicating it is Japanese. Anime is animation in Japan, but it’s also a French word (animé) and means animation in France. So, all animation in France is considered animé. And then you have Chinese and Korean anime to contend with, such as Nuwa Chengzhang Riji, Hitori no Shita – The Outcast, and Yobi, the Five Tailed Fox – just to name a few.
So, this notion that anime is a word exclusive to Japan is flawed. However, I see why people are desperate to separate Japanese anime from animation in other countries. Language is a big part of that, as is culture, and I get it. People want to have an easy way to categorize and differentiate between animation from Japan versus animation from everywhere else and vice versa. Respecting the differences between cultures, from their styles of art to sense of humour and philosophies is something I can get behind.
And I see why it’s such a problem to establish clear-cut boundaries in animation, especially since both sides imitate one another (Panty and Stocking taking cues from Western cartoons, but remains anime, whereas RWBY tries to reflect shows like Soul Eater, Black Rock Shooter and the magical girl genre). It’s important to recognize the customary aspects of both worlds; from the process of designing the art and animation, the typical tropes used, the expectations surrounding them, to the level of continuity, etc.
Panty and Stocking looks like a Western cartoon, but plays out more like an anime (what with it being free with its sexual aspects). One thing that’s a no-go in Western style cartoons, that’s quite conventional for most anime is any sexual or erotic features or themes. Or in the case of Steven Universe (being the only exception I can think of), you need to do a good job blending it into symbolism. Violence, while a regular occurrence in more adult-targeted shows like American Dad or Archer, is also behind in its severity when compared to the likes of Ninja Scroll or Corpse Party. So, it’s fair to assess that the degree Japanese style animation takes its level of sex and gore, themes and stories (more cohesion, deeper meaning, more impactful), and exaggerated features (eyes, bodies, action, animation, etc) far further than Western style animation.
I believe anime from Japan presents their extensive multitude of ideas and themes far better than their Western contemporary. There is no equivalent of anything like Cowboy Bebop, Baccano!, Code Geass, Angel Beats!, or the Monogatari series in the West. Characters are either exaggerated or grounded in appearance (see Satoshi Kon’s designs). The sheer amount of animated shows in Japan outnumbers the West hundreds of times over (not that it’s all good, but there’s a wider selection). Writing, directing, performances, openings, sounds and music and subject matter is all handled exceptionally, and in the case of such works as Cowboy Bebop, treated in a sophisticated manner.
Nothing comes close to the scope of ideas presented or diligence and dedication to see them through. While many may see Tenga Toppen Gurren Lagann as nothing more than an over-the-top and absurd action show with mechs, its themes and characters are presented with such resolve and exaggerated motifs that you feel an immense power behind their words and actions. And beyond that the show gives you a sense of the conviction from the creators as well, to be so bold and tenacious in their endeavor to make something extraordinary and meaningful.
I don’t mean to make light of animated works from the West. Avatar: The Last Airbender, Spectacular Spider-Man, Jackie Chan Adventures, and the (2003) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are still among some of my favourite shows of all time. New shows like Rick & Morty get me buzzed for new episodes and overjoyed at the thought of a new season. I didn’t even mention movies, because while I do prefer Studio Ghibli’s works over the more beloved Disney ones, I enjoy them both immensely and think they’re closer to equal ground than the bulk of refuse spewing from the inane minds behind the likes of Teen Titans Go!, Powerpuff Girls (2016), Almost Naked Animals (2011), almost anything targeted to three-year-olds (e.g. Dora the Explorer), and the modern-day milking of shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy. These shows have lost heart and or never had heart to begin with.
What makes Japanese anime so compelling is its candor and potency; in piquing my interest into something novel or an innovative spin on something I’ve already seen, in making me connect with characters on some level, in enchanting me with its beautiful and harmonious scores, in enlightening and inspiring me with its ideas and in making me feel apart of something grander than life. Something like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, where everything is done to perfection, isn’t something I can expect from the West, and that’s fine.
Part of what attracts me to Japanese style animation is its culture. I find it fascinating and uplifting to immerse myself in something like Barakamon, which is designed to make you fall in love with the concept of having a kid. You won’t see something like this in the West, because their target demographic is predominantly children and young adolescents. A show that galvanizes its viewers with the prospect that raising a kid is a wonderful and fulfilling way of life wouldn’t come from somewhere that prioritizes those under the age of sexual consent as their primary audience. Whereas with Japan, there is added context that originates from their low and declining population. So, the idea of having and nurturing a kid being presented as an admirable and wondrous purpose in life is manipulated in that way precisely because they are encouraging it so that more people in Japan will consummate and reignite the population growth.
Whether or not you agree with the sentiment that Japanese anime is largely managed with more effort, passion and attention to detail than Western cartoons, can we concede that it’s fruitless to continue quarrelling about the semantics of the term “anime” and put the debate to rest?