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Enter The Anime: Netflix and The Changing Definitions Of Anime

What is anime? All anime is animation, but not all animation is anime. Is anime just a subsection of animation, a medium of its own, or an art style or movement? There's a lot of differing opinions on this.

Here on AFA, when we use the label 'anime', we're referring specifically to animation produced (or co-produced) in Japan, or where a significant amount of the creative staff are Japanese. Similarly, 'manga' is Japanese comics. No matter how closely a non-Japanese produced series like Avatar The Last Airbender or Voltron: Legendary Defender may resemble it, it can never be anime- it can never be Japanese animation. Likewise, a western manga-style comic can't be truly called manga, and a western comic artist is not a mangaka.

In Japan, the word 'anime' (a loan-word from English or French depending on who you ask) is used for all animation. To a Japanese person The Simpsons, Sailor Moon, South Park and Frozen are all anime. But we have then borrowed the word back, to use it to distinguish Japanese animation from animation produced anywhere else.

As long as manga and anime have made their way westward, they have been inspiring gaijin creators to produce their own. Today's generation of creatives, raised on imported anime and manga of the 90's and 2000's are often heavily influenced by them. Despite the ongoing protestations of stuffy art tutors everywhere, drawing anime style isn't going to hurt your job prospects one bit.

Although anime's popularity has fluctuated in the west, it is arguably at an all-time high, with a level of mainstream visibility it's never had before. The label 'anime' has a sense of coolness that 'cartoon' or even 'animation'  lack, and this probably explains why increasing numbers of western companies are getting on the bandwagon.

Netflix have clearly discovered than anime performs well for them. So as well as buying in and funding Japanese productions they've also funded western animation they insist on calling anime. Castlevania, Seis Manos and Magic The Gathering are entirely western productions. They may be produced by Netflix's anime division, but that doesn't make it anime, any more than Disney's live-action arm producing The Lion King means its made with real animals.

Seis Manos

Netflix is releasing a documentary called Enter The Anime on August 5, which based on the trailer seems to be featuring western creators like Adi Shankar (Castlevania producer) and LeSean Thomas as prominently as Japanese creators, animator and actors.

So what's the issue? In my case, it's not out of some sense of gatekeeping, or a misplaced sense of elitism. It's no slight on their ability- it's not that western creators aren't "good enough" to create anime. Some of the best 'anime-style' art I have ever seen has been produced by non-Japanese artists. It's just not anime.

Anime is not a style. There may be a lot of it that looks alike, but that's true of western cartoons too. Akira looks nothing like Ponyo, which looks nothing like Shin Chan which looks nothing like Akkgretsuko... there's almost as many anime styles as there are series and films. It's so much more than big eyes and small noses- much anime doesn't look anything like that. There's 2D anime, stop-motion anime and CG anime. It's also feeding into one of our biggest bugbears. Animation is not a genre, it's a medium. Anime is not a genre either. But it's not really a medium of its own, either.

The word cartoon is loaded too- it comes with association of kid's stuff or at least comedy. And a lot of what is being sold as western-made anime doesn't even look particular anime-like either. So I guess for Netflix, 'anime' is essentially becoming their label for adult or teen-focused animation that isn't comedy?

Feel free to disagree- I make no claim for authority here. As animation becomes more globalised, labels become less important. And with big names like Netflix and Disney (Star Wars Resistance is 'anime', apparently) trying to change the definition, it's likely we're fighting a losing battle. It's a pretty small hill to die on, I'll grant you- but we're going to stick with the original definition if it's all the same to you.