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Ask John: How Should the Word Anime Be Defined?

As we keep seeing the lines blurred as to what “anime” is, do you feel that it is important to establish that there is not one universal, but two definitions of what anime (and manga) is? The first definition is used in its native, exclusively Japanese sense (anime referring to all forms of animation/cartoons, regardless of origin), and the second sense, used outside of Japan to refer to Japanese animation. What’s happening is that the two are being forcibly merged and used interchangeably, leading to the muddled mess we have today. What do you think?

I’ve answered this question before, but since the question remains relevant I don’t mind discussing it again since it’s been asked. Contrary to the opinion of many critics who seem to wish to de-emphasize the unique characteristics and nature of Japanese animation, and in opposition to the desires of foreign artists that dream of creating Japanese animation, I believe that the precise definition of the word “anime” is “Japanese animation.” A clear and precise definition assists analytical examination and critique, and allows for enlightening discourse. However, as Japan’s anime industry evolves, the clear definition of the word “anime” is becoming more unstable.

Within Japan, mainstream, average Japanese speakers seem to use the word “anime” as an abbreviation for “animation.” Such a broad definition may be adequate for casual use, but it’s not practical for analytical discourse. In fact, I’ve personally heard the Yoyogi Animation School founder Takuya Wada define a difference between “American anime” and “Japanese anime.” Likewise, in a September 2005 interview for the Tokyo Foundation director Satoshi Kon explains his belief that Japanese animation is Japanese and that, by definition and effect, animation made elsewhere is not Japanese. When a critic wishes to analyze cinematic techniques used in anime, the critic doesn’t examine Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny. Likewise, American animators don’t create “anime.” American animators create American animation. Precise terms with precise definitions exist for a reason. Misusing them or ignoring them is not open-minded or intellectual. On the contrary, inaccurately using precise terms is ignorant or intentionally misleading.

The fact that mainstream Japanese speakers use the word “anime” loosely should not be taken as direction for native English speakers to also use the term loosely. Critics, scholars, and professionals that comprehend the proper usage of the word “anime” do not use it as a catch-all term for any illustration that resembles contemporary Japanese pop art. Marketers who wish to promote everything from Paris Hilton to hair styling gel affiliate their products with the trendy words “anime” and “manga” to attract attention. Non-Japanese artists who seemingly can’t be satisfied that their work is unique and original longingly describe it as “manga” or “anime.” I don’t understand the aversion to literally calling something what it is: anime inspired or manga influenced. I believe that artists should take pride in what their art is instead of advertising it as what it isn’t. The insistence on referring to original American art as Japanese “anime” or “manga” robs the work of its cultural identity.

The term “anime,” when used in English language, does and should refer to Japanese animation – specifically animation that originates in Japan which is characterized by the creative influences and artistic choices of Japanese artists. The attempt to define anime as a visual style renders the term useless because such a broad definition is incapable of clearly distinguishing what is and isn’t “anime.” The word “anime” is not a qualitative adjective; it doesn’t mean that a type of art is good, better, or worse than something else, nor that a type of art has a distinguishing appearance. People who respect linguistics and who understand the proper use of terminology should agree that the word “anime” has a clear and useful definition, and attempts to weaken, broaden or corrupt that definition are counterproductive and thoughtless.


2 Responses to “Ask John: How Should the Word Anime Be Defined?”

  1. blackbison01 Says:

    So basically, me an anime and manga enthusiast from the United States, a Mexican-american. who has enough affinity for the art to want to make my own anime or manga, cannot classify it as an anime/manga because of me not being Japanese myself, even if I can mange to learn to speak Japanese, study and learn Japanese culture and so on and so fourth, me being of a different ethnic background, means that any anime/manga I want to create cannot be classified as such due to my ethnicity, even though I can spend years studying and living in japan if that’s what it takes to do what I want to do, any work that I make will still not get any recognition as anime/manga due to me being Mexican american?

  2. Anime! « Journal of Retro Culture Says:

    […] “How should the word Anime be defined?”. AnimeNation. 2006-05-15. Retrieved 2008-09-26. […]

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