Have you guys ever come across a “that’s not anime” rant? I think the last time I saw one was maybe for Netflix’ Dragon’s Dogma. I’m not sure if there was a consensus on that one. I have thought about the question on a practical basis. A while ago, Crunchyroll partnered with Webtoons to produce a series of shows, namely Tower of God, God of Highschool and Nobless. At the time, I remember trying to puzzle out whether these were animes or not.
You see, when these shows were made, Crunchyroll had not yet been acquired by Sony so it was still an AT&T company with its head office in California. Texas owned, and Cali located if you will. Or to put it more simply, a fully US company. While webtoons is a Korean-owned and based company. So all the money for these series was coming mostly from the States with some Korean contribution. On a narrative level, all three webtoons which were adapted were also Korean, created by Korean authors.
However, all three shows were adapted by well-known Japanese anime studios, which subtracted the animation to Korea as often happens. So is it anime?
Oddly enough, I never really saw any Twitter feuds contesting the anime status of these shows, even though there really are a lot of arguments to be made. I think part of the issue, is that we don’t necessarily have a clear definition that we all agree on, of what anime is. For a lot of people, it comes down to how a show looks and maybe which tropes it uses.
Ok, so after a minimum of research, I think the Wikipedia definition seems to be the most widely accepted. In short, in Japan, anime is a term simply used to mean animated works regardless of anything else, but outside of Japan, especially in Western countries, it means animated works produced in Japan.
Ok, good, but what does produced mean? If the producers, i.e. the money that’s backing the project, is what produced means, then none of the three shows I mentioned are anime. And we could argue about Netflix originals as well although for all I know there could be a Japanese branch that serves as the producing entity. Still, the company is not Japanese. There have been long-standing international investors in anime, like Sentai for example, that have had a part in a lot of beloved classic animes. Does that bring their status into question?
If we mean produced as in created in Japan, again there are some grey zones. Is a Japanese studio enough to make it anime? Does the source material have to be Japanese? Can the source material be anything as long as the adaptation is made by a Japanese team? When you get right down to it, it’s pretty murky. Going by it looks and what feels like anime, may not be unreasonable criteria.
But does it matter? At all? This is the more important question in my opinion. And you might be surprised to hear that I think it does. But maybe not for the reasons other people do. Then again, maybe also.
I don’t think there’s any merit in defining what is and isn’t anime to determine who are and are not fans. It’s a pointless exercise in my view and even if someone figures out how to do it, the results are trivial at best. If you say you like anime, that’s good enough for me.
My issue is more on a business semantic side. Anime as an industry in Japan is depressingly underfunded. Personally, I don’t think that’s a good thing and I would love for the industry to get some more resources. And although I do see the pitfalls, I still think injecting foreign funding is probably one of the easiest ways to do so. Especially when you consider that the industry has taken advantage of foreign funding for decades now and a lot of our favourite titles have benefitted from it. There’s just a right and a wrong way to go about it.
This post is not going to go into details about how foreign funding would mean foreign influence and all the ups and downs that implies. Or how to go about improving the state of the industry without risking the aspects that make it special. There’s a lot to unpack there but it’s just not what this post is about.
Before any of that even becomes an issue, the investments have to be available. And I think that part of creating that availability lies in better defining anime.
Investments aren’t magic or a mystery. Entities want to put money into ventures that are most likely to give them money back. I mean, we’re not likely to be selling anime as something you should invest in for altruistic purposes, although it does make my world better…
So basically, people and companies with a lot of money should be convinced that there is a way to make money through anime in order for them to want to invest. So far, that’s pretty basic. But it gets murkier if no one really knows what anime is. It might be easier to just convince Disney to hire a bunch of Japanese animators and call it a day. After all, Disney makes good money, that’s already established so that would be a safer investment. And if all it takes is someone with a Japanese birth certificate to draw the pictures, then problem solved. Right?
If it stops being anime as soon as non-Japanese money is involved, then there’s no point in even considering investing in anime is there. It’s a catch-22. Foreigners want to give resources for anime but as soon as they do it’s no longer anime. oops.
I’m trying to exaggerate to prove a point here. I’m not sure I’m succeeding. What I’m saying is that it can get difficult to measure the success, popularity and profitability of anime, when everyone keeps moving the goalposts on what even is anime in the first place. That’s too bad. Because I know anime is a booming industry. In about a decade and a half or so, half a dozen streaming services entirely dedicated to that single media have appeared in my part of the world alone and they are profiting. What other specific form of media could do that?
Can you imagine having 6 different streaming services that exclusively distribute live-action British sitcoms and nothing else? I mean, I would probably pay for a couple of those. Ok, that might not have been the best example as it sounds pretty awesome. Still, that doesn’t exist. And there’s probably a reason it doesn’t, while we have HiDive and Crunchy and Funi and Anilab all expanding their libraries all the while Netflix, Amazon and Hulu also make efforts to bring in more anime. There is obviously a market for it.
So how does that translate into more profit and more resources for the industry? Why hasn’t it organically happened yet? That was a rhetorical question. There are dozens of rather complicated reasons why the market is reacting as it is. In my humble opinion, a small but nevertheless existing issue is the confusion over the nature of anime. Especially among people who don’t watch it.
So what is anime? I’m not entirely sure but I do think it matters. Now if I could only figure it out.