How to Define Anime? Japonisme Lights the Way

by tigermanifesto


Esteemed comrade in blogging Critical Hit!!! has had an excellent two-part polemic on the definition of anime up for a couple of months, and I was not planning on contributing to this discussion until today. I hope that this short exposition will help clarify my position on the matter, which I share with her. Simply put, anime’s most useful definition in an English-speaking context is: animation from Japan (broadly) and animated products of the Japanese television industry (narrowly). Attaching stylistic connotations to that definition inevitably narrows audience expectations of what anime can entail, which in practice means that the “stylistic” definition of anime will inevitably be overdetermined by trends in popular shonen, meaning that it lacks any kind of analytical coherence.

Calling Avatar: The Last Airbender anime is, for supporters of such notions, meant to be a compliment, despite the fact that much anime is irredeemable excrement produced on a shoestring budget for a fairly disreputable and easily titillated consumer base. It’s an industry that produces pulp, and that means that creators with dedication and iron resolve can produce masterpieces like Revolutionary Girl Utena, The Tatami Galaxy, Trigun, and the like. It also means that there is far less quality oversight in anime than there is in, say, the Hollywood machine, which means that overall quality levels of production are going to be lower. Avatar is actually much, much better than most anime, guaranteed. What’s really going on is the result of a couple of factors I want to outline quickly before we get to the discussion of japonisme and its relationship to Japanese art proper.

Animation in the United States is immediately associated with the Walt Disney Company and its output, which means that there are a few traits all animation is expected to have by nature:

  1. “Family Friendliness:” animation is expected to be relatively inoffensive. Not lacking in drama or suspense necessarily, but definitely devoid of content that would offend the elusive “middle American family.” Essentially, the white, middle class Christian family is the expected default audience for animation: designed for the kids and a pleasant diversion for adults.
    1. This needs to be qualified by the fact that The Simpsons has single-handedly spawned a set of works that are in active dialogue with, and are thus also partially determined by, Disney’s influence. Offensive and “transgressive” shows like South Park are animated because of two aspects of animation’s cultural place in the US. First, animation gives you more freedom to show offensive content without causing legal sanction, as Ralph Bakshi (a director definitely working in direct antagonism to Disney) realized back in the early 1970s. Sex and violence are felt to be super-transgressive if shown in an animated format because of assumption 1 above. So on televion, animation is expected to be either for children or exaggerated comedy for adults.
  2. It’s expected to be comedic at least in part. Pixar gets acclaim for working in some proper drama once in awhile, for instance the opening scene of Up, but every Pixar film is also heavily comedic. Disney’s own canon is fairly heavy on romances with big swathes of time handed over to comic relief characters, to a more extreme extent in Aladdin and to a lesser extent in a film like Pinocchio. An animated film without laughs is an anomaly, indeed almost anathema, to the culture industry in America.
  3. Animation is expected to be fantastical. Television comedies, because of the vast influence of The Simpsons, can adhere to this rule to varying degrees––witness King of the Hill––but it’s more or less unchallenged in the cinemas. Superheroes, dragons, talking animals, princesses, magic, and science fiction are all “appropriate” subject matter for animation, while realistic films like Whisper of the Heart or a television show like The Flowers of Evil would be met with questions like “why is this animated?” Live action is taken to be the default for portraying reality, and animation is expected to be far more dreamlike. Japanese animation has plenty of fantasy too, but it isn’t entirely fantasy like in the United States.

There are others, but they tend to fit well within those three categories. Now, Korra adheres to all of these rules extremely well. It’s a textbook instance of American animation in the Disney style: a lushly drawn fantasy adventure that cedes considerable screen time to romance and comic relief that is palatable for middle America and avoids showing death or real suffering (or sexuality) whenever possible. Of course, plenty of anime fit that as well, though with certain specific content markers like blood and titillation (never actual sex except in porn, for the most part) being more acceptable to the consumers anime production teams are targeting.

Given all of that, most animation is structurally incapable of attaining the dubious honors of institutions like the Academy Awards even if some cartoons have been interred in the Library of Congress or given sundry honors. Animated films do not fit the Oscar model: they are fantastical, comedic, and for children in this ideology, all three of which disqualify them, with certain exceptions, from serious consideration. Few animated films get canonized in American cinema, in sharp contrast to Japanese or mid-century Soviet cinema.

This means that there’s a cache attached to the term anime that is utterly unwarranted. Since most people don’t know anything about Soviet animation, “anime” is the only word most Americans have for animation that in any way finds itself outside of the fantastical, comedic, for children triangle. Even if Korra or Avatar actually fit those categories very well, they feel like they don’t because of their vast scale and tightly integrated and serialized storytelling, both borrowed from shonen conventions that fans recognize as “anime.” This is how the stylistic definition gets its political weight. Animation in the United States has a dearth of critical recognition. The only community that actively cares about and consumes animation intentionally and defines themselves by that consumption is the anime community. Being excluded from that community’s discussion means exclusion from the only modicum of respect that animated works get in the United States besides a few prestige films.

That means there are real stakes to this definition problem. Unfortunately, the stylistic definition has no weight to it. In any case, I would recommend that fans of shows like Ben 10, Samurai Jack, Korra, et al, start to build up and advocate for American animation on its own terms, rather than using the term “anime” as a crutch. It can be useful, of course, to compare Korra to anime because that’s part of its taxonomy. Refusing to consider the comparison would be like refusing to compare birds to reptiles out of an obsessive need to idealize and seal off categories you happen to like despite the evidence. On the other hand, no one calls birds “reptiles” just because they think reptiles are cool and birds don’t get much respect (hypothetically); the categories are scientific rather than founded on the caprices of prestige and cultural “capital” each term might carry.

After that long and winding road, we’re finally up to japonismewhich bears some direct resemblances to the current American fetish for anime stylings. Japonisme was an artistic mini-movement in France in the later nineteenth century. It resulted from French artists’ exposure to ukiyo-e (floating world) woodblock prints, which made them want to experiment and incorporate that specific style into their artwork. A Japanese original might look like this piece from Utagawa Toyokuni :


While Post-Impressionist painter Van Gogh produced the following image, entitled Le Courtesan:


The image is instructive because it’s such a clear melding of different aesthetic heritages. It’s flat figuration and cultural marks are unmistakably Japanese, but no one would be surprised that Vincent Van Gogh produced it. It has an entirely different cultural meaning than the first image because it is produced in conscious imitation rather than organically according to traditional standards. Van Gogh is being transgressive, using a foreign style in order to disrupt the status quo in his own field––not to mention being extremely orientalist, but that’s mostly beside the point.

Likewise, compare this character set from Bleach…


To one from Korra:


There are individual idiosyncrasies in things like the angularity of lines, density of the characters, etc. At the same time, these differences are enveloped within a broad derivation that Korra makes from shows like Bleach. Korra’s Asian-inspired fantasy setting also contributes to this sense of closeness to the anime “look.” At the same time, just like Van Gogh was not making ukiyo-e, since his art served a completely different cultural purpose and in a separate context. It’s produced for American eyes by Americans (with Korean wage slave labor) in the context of the Disneyfied American animation industry.* None of the key creative decisions were shaped by the Japanese industry and despite the off-and-on participation of a Japanese animation studio, that studio had no control over the content of the show per se. It is, fundamentally, not Japanese and therefore cannot be considered anime. It’s not even a compelling edge case like Masaaki Yuasa’s episode of Adventure TimeAnd attempting to call it anime is doing it a disservice, cheapening the admittedly extraordinary achievement of producing a relatively dramatic serialized animation for Nickelodeon, of all channels. Avatar and Korra are breakthroughs and they used a language borrowed from anime to bridge the gap. For what it’s worth, the more profound achievement will come when such a show can exist on American television free from restrictions and in a unique style that does not rely on these kinds of associations to connect to a particular audience. Because the Avatar story, as all capitalist stories go, is just as much about realizing investment capital as it is creating an artistic work. Anime fans were a viable market in the mid-2000s, and therefore Nickelodeon attempted to get them to watch their channel with something more like anime.

If animation is going to flourish here, the capitalist censors and the profit motive have to go. For now, we need to celebrate something like Korra, and criticize it, according to categories that make sense instead of attaching an irrational value judgment to a word it does not belong to. By Van Gogh’s missing ear, that’s the last I have to say on this matter.

*Japanese animation is also Disneyfied, but in a much more elliptical way since Disney’s influence is very much secondhand, absorbed through Osamu Tezuka’s idiosyncratic adaptation of the Disney style.