animefringe july 2003 / editorial
American Anime - Is it Possible?

In the last several months there has been plenty of buzz over "American Anime." Whether it be rumors that one of the cartoon channels is throwing money at the creation of an American cartoon in the Japanese style, TOKYOPOP's Rising Stars of Manga (a book of American-drawn manga), or other fan-created works, the idea of anime produced in America has galvanized fans on both sides of the issue.

Before tackling the question of whether it is possible to create anime in America, it would be a good idea to define our terms. Unfortunately, anime is an extremely hard word to define (and I'm including "manga" interchangeably with anime). In the same way "cartoon" can refer to Hello Kitty, Clone High, or Pokemon in the U.S., for most Japanese "anime" can be anything from Cowboy Bebop to Tom and Jerry (in fact, Tom and Jerry ranked on a recent "Anime Best 100" television program on Japanese TV).

On this side of the Pacific, anime tends to refer to any animation from Japan. Japanese animators tend to use this definition of anime, as well. On a recent Ask John column at AnimeNation, John further elaborated that definition by saying anime is "2D style animation made primarily in Japan and intended primarily for Japanese viewers." On closer examination, though, John's definition falls apart. There are several titles considered anime that are not necessarily two-dimensional; series like Blue Sub No. 6 and Candidate for Goddess are certainly anime. Even further out, titles like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within tend to blur the lines between what is CG and what is anime. Even Studio Ghibli's most recent films, Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime) and Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) incorporate CG.

Increasingly, anime is not intended solely for a Japanese audience. Throughout the 1970s and 80s and into the 90s, Japanese animation has always had a large audience in East Asia, especially in Korea. Indeed, there is a generation of young Koreans today that was raised on Slam Dunk and other Japanese titles. It is hard to imagine that at least some Japanese anime and manga creators do not have Asian sales in mind when creating titles. The U.S. is increasingly important to anime production. Disney funded ten percent of the production costs of Spirited Away in order to secure worldwide distribution rights. Additionally, the fact that the Cartoon Network cajoled Sunrise into creating a second season of Big O for American distribution speaks to the fact that anime is becoming more important worldwide. Finally, this view makes it hard to define series like Alexander Senki (which is not in the anime style, but made for Japan) or Batman: Beyond, which is of course American, but highly influenced by anime and animated by Studio Sunrise (the studio of Gundam and Cowboy Bebop).

Still, many American anime fans argue that anime is not simply animation from Japan, but a style of animation. Many of the proponents of this view are artists, hoping to create anime of their own. Sadly, this view, too, is problematic. "Anime style" is a nebulous term. Akira Toriyama's character design differs greatly from what is normally considered "anime." Ditto CLAMP. Studio Ghibli's, Miyazaki's work especially, sport their own distinctive style (in fact, many film purists, and to a degree Miyazaki himself, disassociate Ghibli's work from normal anime, and they are often referred to as animated films instead). While a lot of garbage anime, which will never see the light of day here in the States, tends to look similar, "anime style" is something of a misnomer, as it tries to encompass titles as diverse as Oh Milk-chan!, Ping Pong Club, and Kiki's Delivery Service.

So what is anime? Of the above definitions, I agree most with the idea that anime is animation from Japan for Japanese audiences. However, there is a definite sense that it should come with the modifier that what is anime is, is often based on community consensus. The Korean-created Magna Carta is almost always grouped with Japanese anime because fans have put it there.

So often, what anime depends on is a community consensus (I say often, because in many instances, there doesn't have to be a consensus: no one is arguing on whether Gundam is or is not anime). Thus, for American-created work emulating the Japanese style, the obstacle is having the community consider American work "anime." Despite the fact that artists in the U.S. (and even TOKYOPOP) are throwing around the words manga and anime (have you seen the number of "artists" on Deviant Art purporting to be working on manga?) the mainstream community will not accept American-created work as anime. This goes doubly so for the Japanese fans (the more otaku-like), which generally don't like American imitations of Japanese works (XBOX, anyone?). Based on Japanese views on video games, the Japanese fans will simply dislike American style anime, while those producing anime in Japan have a vested interest in keeping "anime" in the country.

American animation has taken elements from Japanese animation, especially in cartoons like the Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack and continued to remain American. If there is ever an American "anime," it will be like those shows: combining some elements of Japanese anime with American styles. While American artists may enjoy drawing in a Japanese style, their very acts of production will make works that are of an entirely different genre.