Should Western Cartoons Be Called Anime?

As you may have noticed from the years of my life that I’ve wasted on this blog, I’m a huge fan of Anime. But what you might not know is that I’m also a huge fan of western animation, and have been ever since my parents raised me on Disney films as a child. Some of the cartoons I grew up on and remember the most fondly are Batman the Animated Series, Tiny Toon Adventures, The Looney Toons, Sonic Sat Am, and the entire Disney Afternoon line-up. Add to that assorted titles from Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, and you’ve got a long, rich history with the medium. On a more recent note, I’ve gotten into Daria, Star vs. The Forces of Evil, Gravity Falls and Roughneck: Starship Troopers, I was a Brony from 2011 to 2013, and I’m planning to watch Over the Garden Wall sometime very soon.

So yes, I’ve enjoyed healthy amounts of both western and eastern animation, but I’ve always considered my self an Anime fan first, and a cartoon fan second. I may binge watch an old cartoon if I have the time to do so, but my primary love is Anime, and cartoons will always take a back seat to it. Unfortunately, there seems to be a very vocal minority among the Anime fanbase that takes great offense to that separation. See, if you’re a fan of both Anime and western cartoons long enough, you’re bound to run into a very sensitive topic that, at the wrong move, can turn into a lengthy, heated debate. Should western animation be considered Anime, and if so, what criteria should be used in choosing? Now if you’ve spent more than five minutes in this debate, you’ll know just how intricate and complicated it can get, as there are many arguments both for and against this topic. Well, today, I’ve decided to figure out once and for all what the correct answer is, if there even is one to figure out. So sit back, prepare your angry comments, and take a journey with me through a topic that I wouldn’t even bother with if I had a girlfriend!

To start, I should probably explain how I’m going to approach this topic… On the side of calling cartoons Anime, there are two kinds of arguments; First, there are the practical arguments that one might make when defending an individual series, and to be fair, these actually do make a little bit of sense, so I’m going to be fair to these. But after that, we have the impractical arguments, which will pop up either as an ultimate last defense when all other points have been taken down, or for the more passionate debaters out there, they’re usually the first lines thrown out, and preached about as hard as Biblical canon. For this analysis, I’m going to start by going over some of the more practical arguments, and for an example of each one, I’ll be calling upon three specific cartoons that have become notorious for blurring cultural lines. We’ll get to the muckier arguments afterwards, and by that point, I’ll probably have my boxing gloves out.

I’m not sure when the debate over the definition of the word “Anime” first started, but you can make a definite case for Teen Titans being one of the earliest examples. There have been subtle Anime influences on American cartoons throughout time, but Teen Titans was the first to regularly use(and overuse) cliched Anime facial expressions, like upturned eyes, sweatdrops, headache lines, snot bubbles, etc. There was some nuance to this, as it became one of the major criticisms of the series, but it also brought up our first argument… Should a cartoon be called an Anime if it uses anime-like expressions? Anime fans are used to these expressions, and to see them used on a stateside property does give it a familiar feel for us. Well, to answer that question, let me ask another one…

If a white man were to wear a sombrero and drink Tequila, would you consider him Mexican? No, you wouldn’t. Underneath that sombrero and the litres of chalk-tasting Jose Cuervo, he’s still a white man, who’s simply chosen to adorn himself in the barest essentials that are stereotypically associated with Mexican people. The same kind of idea applies to Teen Titans, who took what can arguably be called not Anime cliches, but full on Anime stereotypes, to try and look like something that it barely tries to mimic in any other way. I don’t personally believe in the idea of misappropriation, as I believe that anything one culture creates should be attempted and possibly even improved upon by any other culture that’s willing to put in the effort, but I also believe that you can’t just throw on a few items collected haphazardly off of the tip of the iceberg and call yourself the entire iceberg. So no, this argument doesn’t really hold up. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but attempting to become someone/something you admire just based on a shallow understanding of them is pretty pathetic.

The next cartoon I’d like to bring up is Avatar: The Last Airbender. I haven’t seen very much of the sequel Korra, so we’ll be sticking to the OG Team Breezy today. Avatar was almost instantly set upon as an American made Anime for it’s eastern influences, but what people tend to point out even more is that it doesn’t stick to the common formula of western animation… That being, the episodic format. Avatar features a continuous story with overarching plot and story arcs, an admitted rarity this side of the ocean, rather than the fifteen to thirty minute mini stories that most American cartoons have used for decades. But you know what medium DOES execute their stories the way Avatar does? That’s right, Anime. Shows like Fullmetal Alchemist, Dragonball Z, Bleach, and even the goofy-as-fuck One Piece tell their stories in long chunks rather than in short segments, so is it fair to call Avatar an Anime on those grounds?

Well, first of all, cartoons that are executed this way are rare, but they’re not as hard to pick out as you might think. Old cartoons like Pirates of Dark Water and Conan the Adventurer used this kind of format, as did the CG animated Starship Troopers cartoon, Titan Maximum, Bojack Horseman… Daria, if you want to go by Slice of Life standards… So yes, they’re rare, but there are examples. What you’ll find even more examples of, and where this argument really breaks down, is episodic Anime. There are tons of Japanese animations that have just as much progression between episodes as The Rugrats. This includes several of the longest running children’s shows, like Doraemon, and Detective Conan, a show about a man trapped in a child’s body who should have grown to the age of thirty anyway by now. Sound familiar? Like, say, The Simpsons? There are also several adult Anime like this, like Panty and Stocking, and even some heavily respected Anime, like Cowboy Bebop, so no, having a series be of a non-episodic nature is NOT enough to qualify something as an Anime.

For our final practical argument, let’s jump forward to only three years in the past, with the Rooster Teeth web-series RWBY. Fans of this show will defend it’s Anime status tooth and nail, and hell, even I relented enough to offer it honorary status(albeit for different reasons). In particular, they use the argument that it’s made in an Anime style. Considering the fact that it’s very American creators were explicitly intending to make an Anime with this series, and they poured a lot of effort into making it look as much like an Anime as possible, should we grant them their wish? Well, that depends on what you consider an ‘Anime style.’ If you’re referring to the characters having huge expressive eyes that take up half the space on their face, with noses reduced to near non-existence to accommodate them, then I hate to inform you that Disney did it first. In fact, Disney was the main inspiration for that style. But that’s not the REASON this argument fails.

Anime is not an individual style. There are numerous different styles attached to numerous different Anime, from those very big-eyed characters to much more realistic characters with believable proportions in more adult-oriented shows. Clannad does not look like Lupin. Pokemon does not look like Cowboy Bebop. Gankutsuou does not look like Shin-chan. I would actually go out on a limb and say that there are more styles in Anime than there are in western animation, so to look at a few certain facial features and say “This looks like Anime” is an insult to the medium. Besides, RWBY is CG. While 3D animation is a style in Japan, it’s also an incredibly rare one, and I can count the ones that I’ve actually seen on one hand… Examples include Oblivion Island and Knights of Sidonia, both of which were fairly cringe worthy, and neither of which looked like RWBY.

The practical arguments don’t really hold up, so what about the impractical arguments? Fair warning, these can be kind of infuriating, especially the one I’m going to throw out first… A cartoon becomes an Anime when it’s good enough. Let that sink in a little bit. I can recall a specific instance where I was asking Gaia’s AMC forum for some insight into why people wanted to call cartoons Anime, and one of the ballsiest responses I got was “It’s not about calling cartoons Anime, it’s about not calling Anime cartoons.” The direct implication, of course, being that to call a show a cartoon was an insult, and in some cases a grave social injustice. As if Anime, in general, is just so much better than cartoons. If a show reaches a certain level of quality, “That’s an Anime, don’t you DARE call it a cartoon!”

I mean, look, I’ve been around the block with this shit, and I’ve seen Anime so bad that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. I’m currently hesitating to review an Anime that is, without competition, the worst thing I’ve ever seen while awake and conscious. Anime follows the same spectrum of quality that American animation does, for better and worse alike. Avatar the Last Airbender, for example, is better than eighty percent of the Anime I’ve ever seen, and do I call it an Anime? No. Avatar is a cartoon. It’s a cartoon that craps all over a sizeable portion of the ‘superior’ medium, and that’s something we, as a culture, can be proud of. It’s not an Anime, it’s an American cartoon, and it’s proof of just how good our side of the pond is able to get when we take our shit seriously. You wouldn’t tell a woman that she’s accomplished too much to be considered female, would you? You wouldn’t tell a black guy that he’s done so well for himself that he’s officially white. So why would you say a cartoon is good enough to be considered an Anime? Boku no Pico is an Anime, people!

And besides, if you’re going to say that the word Anime is a measure of quality, then you have to deal with the unfortunate issue of personal taste. Who’s to say Spongebob isn’t good enough to be an Anime? Or Teen Titans Go? It’s all a matter of perspective. Some people hate RWBY, Avatar and Steven Universe, but love Da Boom Crew, so in their eyes, wouldn’t Da Boom Crew be an Anime? If you’re to follow this line of logic, you’d have to go straight to the next argument, which… Well, it’s a doozy. To be fair, most people throwing out the quality argument haven’t thought it through, and only say “My favorite show is good enough to be an Anime,” without paying much thought to the implications they’re making. Most people. But this final argument is the fail-safe, it’s what they always fall back on when they’ve been pushed against the wall, it kills me a little inside every time I hear it…  It’s the definition argument.

In Japan, the word Anime is the word they use for everything that’s animated. That’s the trump card they use, and really, what can you say to that? Well, for one, you can tell them what Zac Bertschy told me when I posed these questions to a Anime News Network podcast last year; In summary, he said that ‘Anime’ was a borrowed word, like ‘a la mode,’ and that it meant something different in English than it does in Japanese. It’s even listed in our dictionaries as “Animation from Japan.” Of course, if you use this argument, you’ll probably get fired back at with “That’s just because Americans have some ignorant need to categorize and segregate everything. Japan is more enlightened.” I’m not even joking about that. But okay, let’s follow that line of logic… Are the Japanese really more enlightened when it comes to this subject?

I recently watched a video of a Japanese woman watching the first RWBY trailer, the one for the semi-titular character Ruby. You can find the link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrYQYqO37Ts. At the end of the video, Fujikko expressed confusion over what to call what she’d just seen. She guessed she was supposed to call it ‘animation,’ because it was 3D and made in America, but even more striking is the fact that she used the English word Animation, instead of her own language’s word Anime, which implies that no matter what the definition of the word may be, the Japanese are at least aware that there’s a distinct difference between western and eastern animation, and they know something isn’t Anime when they see it. Admittedly, this is just one person’s reaction that I’ve seen, but it’s still really ironic that they’ve borrowed our word “Animation” to refer to western animation, just like we’ve borrowed their word “Anime” to describe Japanese offerings.

Of course, there is ANOTHER way to counter the definition argument. Agree with it. Say that we’ve been committing a grave injustice by not calling every animated entity ‘Anime.’ I can’t believe how far you can stretch this. Spongebob? Anime. Gollum from Lord of the Rings? Anime. The T Rex in Jurassic Park? Anime. The spinning beach ball that makes me want to break my computer over my knee? Anime. This can get a little out of control, especially for people who only really want to watch animation from Japan, but now that the word ‘Anime’ has been redefined, there’s no shorthand term that’s easy to say and catchy to boot. So come up with this compromise; We’ll call general animation ‘Anime,’ and we’ll call anything from Japan ‘Japanime.’ There, that solves the definition problem while still leaving enough distinction for specific fans.

But even if you bring these issues up, you’ll still have people saying that there’s no point in segregating the two animated mediums, but guess what? You can troll this argument just as hard. Because yes, you can consider all animation to fall under the same unifying word. It’s not impossible. But here’s the catch… If you’re going to use a single word for unification’s sake, why would you use another language’s word? I mean, if Anime is a Japanese word, and you don’t speak Japanese, wouldn’t it make more sense to call all animation ‘cartoons?’ Cowboy Bebop would be a cartoon. Trigun would be a cartoon. Attack on Titan would be a cartoon. Regardless of where they take the conversation from here, this is where it ends, because they’ll just go full circle to the first impractical argument… That Anime is intrinsically better than cartoons, and the label of Anime is a prestigious one, despite all evidence to the contrary. They don’t care about the true definition, that’s just semantic bullshit meant to defend the insecurity of believing that your favorite cartoon is too good to be called a cartoon.

So in conclusion, should western animation be considered Anime? No, it shouldn’t. That’s not to say one is any better or worse than the other, but it’s the only solution that makes sense. Anime is Anime. It’s from Japan, although I guess you could make an argument for certain other countries… Other Asian countries, whose works also appear as listed on Myanimelist.com, and France, who, believe it or not, also use the word ‘Anime’ as their language’s word for animation. Go figure. Aside from these few exceptions, the only real argument for calling cartoons Anime that I can’t find any reason to dispute is the argument of “live and let live.” If other people want to call cartoons Anime, just mind your own business and leave them alone… At least, as much as you can help it.

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8 comments
    • Thanks for the recommendation, although I feel I may still piss off people on the pro-side of the debate.

  1. I agree it’s a tough call, but for the sake of clarity, I think it’s better than stuff like Avatar is considered anime-inspired instead of anime.

  2. DC live action movies don’t tend to be very good, but back in the day their animated shows were miles ahead of Marvel.

    For me anime is just the Japanese term for cartoon so I don’t get why some people are sensitive about this subject. Some anime fans feel that the stuff they watch is more mature than western cartoons so they don’t want to be tarred with the same brush. Thing is there are plenty of western cartoons with adult humor and tons of anime geared for kids.

  3. Have you seen the new Teen Titans movie? DC animated movies are still pretty awesome. I’d even go as far as to say that the animated Suicide Squad movie was better than the live action one they just released.

    Not that I don’t love both.

    • I stopped watching the DC animated films because the quality seemed to dip after Bruce Timm departed. I guess I will check out Teen Titans, as I enjoyed Young Justice (sucks that it got cancelled.) I can believe the Suicide Squad cartoon is better than the live action flick cos the reviews I have read have been pretty mixed.

      • Yeah, I’ll be honest, I personally loved the movie… Saw it in 3D, ate up all the New 52 fanservice, got my free keychain for attending an early showing, probably going to see it again after I get my next paycheck…

        And yet I don’t really disagree with any of the critics’ complaints. The rally to take down Rottentomatoes is just ridiculous.

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