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.

I watched all of them!

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.

I searched my library fr the word Japan and this image came up… so I’m posting it!

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.

I like anime too!

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…

if you get it, you get it

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.

I know part of it is that are so many anime that have been and are being made that the library is just so much bigger than British sitcoms, still…

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.

16 thoughts

  1. I am so glad you didn’t try to define “anime” (a task as pointless as trying to define “animation” itself). I am so glad you focused instead on the value of anime as a cultural product, one manifestation of which is its worthiness to attract significant investment from around the world. I couldn’t agree more. And the fact that there are so many anime streaming services (soon to be a few less now Funimation is buying both Crunchyroll and AnimeLab) as well as new players like Netflix and Amazon attests to its value as both a commercial investment and a cultural product that is meaningful to people’s lives. Thanks for this excellent piece.

    1. AnimeLab was always a Funimation subsidiary to me knowledge. Sony bought Crunchy back in August but so far it’s had fairly little impact. I’m not sure what they are planning to do with it. They might stay separate. I thought they might be diversifying streaming services to make censorship laws and regional codes easier to navigate. I’m not sure.

      1. AnimeLab started life as the anime licencing and distribution arm of Madman Entertainment; it wasn’t until 2019 that it was sold to Aniplex and Sony (who then consolidated their streaming services into Funimation, AnimeLab, and Wakanim), and not until earlier this year that it was announced that all AnimeLab accounts would be ported across to Funimation. But like yourself, I am not sure what this means in terms of overall access, variety, and availability of programs….

  2. I remember when I first got into anime about a decade ago that it was crucially important for me to know what was anime, and what wasn’t anime. Nowadays I care a lot less. If it looks interesting I’ll watch it. If it’s anime then cool, if it’s not anime, then also cool, as long as its good.

    Something I learned quite late is that a TV show I watched as a kid called Alfred J Kwak (Alfred J. Quack) is

    “a Dutch-Japanese animated comedy-drama television series based on a Dutch theatre show by Herman van Veen, produced by Telecable Benelux B.V. in co-production with VARA, ZDF, TVE, TV Tokyo and animation studio Visual ’80, and first shown in 1989.” (According to wikipedia).

    If a Dutch theatre show can be argued as anime, because it’s animated in Japan, by a Japanese person in Japan, then does it really matter anymore? I don’t think so personally, I just find this particular tidbit very funny. As a Dutch child, I watched anime before it was cool, before I even knew what anime was.

    1. I’m with you on that one, I tend to consider anything made in Japan that is in an anime like style to be anime. Everything else is “location marker” anime. Like American anime, Korean anime, Estonian anime ect. But I really don’t worry about it that much, I watch what I like, and if I like it, it’s probably anime.

  3. Listening to the Trash Taste podcast (which is a bunch of western people talking about living in Japan (among other things)), I remember one of them saying a Japanese person described the Minions movie as anime to them so… *shrugs*.

    In regards to your point about western studios getting involved for funding, I’m not sure how to feel about that one. Not because of it not being “anime” or whatever, but I feel like western money would mean western influence that could stifle creativity, either consciously or not.

    I’d also worry that content might start to become more homogenized. As much as I enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe, even I am getting a little tired of how similar it all feels at times. Then again, Star Wars Visions didn’t feel like it was a slave to the franchise that was paying for it to be made… Then again, that was more of an experiment rather than an ongoing show.

    A lot to think about. Super interesting read Irina, as always.

    1. It’s interesting that it hasn’t had that effect yet. I mean western money has been invested in anime in fairly large amounts since the 80s and there have been some great titles since then IMO. Or do you mean western studio influence which is different. I was thinking more the standard vc stuff.

      1. I guess I was thinking more specifically of Disney as per the example you made. Just because I know they have a habit of being extra precious about things they get attached to.

        1. I’m not sure how often Disney invests in other studios to be honest. I know the produce but they usually associate their names to the projects. When I was saying that an investor could chose to invest in Disney instead of and anime studio I actually meant a third party investor not that Disney would be investing in itself. Maybe that wasn’t clear. But I have no deep knowledge about how or even if American studios invest in other studios at all. I assumed that they mostly produced but I’m honestly not basing that on much.

  4. Wow……Interesting thought? I guess I never really saw it like that. I always saw “Tower Of God” and “God Of High School” as anime- but something like “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Code Lyoko” as “Anime Inspired.” “Star Wars: Visions” I considered anime, but I don’t know how I myself would define it.
    I watched a Mother’s Basement video that defined anime as a “movement-” but I don’t remember all the points. This post has given me a lot to think about………….

      1. Actually, as someone with a degree in sociology (but not too much practical experience in the field), “anime as movement” is a very, very interesting idea that never occured to me. It’s a good framework and a lot of things might be easier to explain within it. For example, the streaming business as it is today arose from the fansub communities. Crunchy and Funi get it, HiDive does pretty well, but Netflix either doesn’t get it or doesn’t care. And the thing is that not everyone who watches or likes anime is necessarily contributing to the movement. Gatekeeping makes a lot of sense under the movement interpretation, for example. Diverse social spaces, such as wordpress. It’s very interesting. I have to track down the video. (Thanks to Demon God for the pointer. Double geek points from me – sociology and anime.)

  5. To be honest, I’ve always found the “anime has to be 100% Japanese” argument to be a bit narrow-minded. Like you said, in Japan anime just means animation, whether it’s Sailor Moon or Mickey Mouse. Heck, there are some Japanese cartoons that are NOT considered anime here. Saze-san is the longest running cartoon ever made, but design-wise it’s a lot closer to Charlie Brown than say, Attack on Titan.

    I do think there are some fundamental differences though, at least stylistically. Western cartoons tend to prioritize fluid animation over all else, while anime prefers stylish or detailed still shots. Western cartoons are generally more episodic, while anime usually tells one continuing story. Western cartoons are usually made for kids or families (“adult” cartoons like Family Guy notwithstanding). Anime is usually made for teenagers but it’s enjoyed by folks of all ages around the world. And of course, there are differences in language, culture, values, etc. that shape how these mediums are made in countless ways. The average person might not know all of these differences or be able to put them into words, but they’ll at least be able to spot the differences when they see them, right?

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to write a 4000-word rant about the differences between western and Japanese RPGs, or why Xenoblade Chronicles is way better than Skyrim 😛 jk

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