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A Workable Definition of Anime

Porter Robinson and Madeon - “Shelter”
Porter Robinson and Madeon - “Shelter”

As early as Nickelodeon’s seminal Avatar: The Last Airbender, and as recently as the dustup over the music video for Porter Robinson’s and Madeon’s “Shelter,” anime has constantly contended with the age-old question: Just what is anime, really? Well, we might finally have a satisfactory answer to point towards.


This comes courtesy of YouTube-based anime and video game critic Geoff of Mother’s Basement, perhaps best known for his “What’s in an OP/ED?” series of exhaustive opening and ending sequence breakdowns. Yesterday, he put out a video whose title provocatively declares, “Avatar is an Anime. F*** You. Fight Me.”

However, after co-opting some of PBS Idea Channel’s shine, it turns out to actually be a video essay which addresses the whole struggle to define anime, encompassing not just Avatar, but also “Shelter”—the Reddit drama around it is the first event the video brings up, in fact—and the numerous other Western works like RWBY and Wakfu that bear a heavy resemblance to quote-unquote “traditional” anime. It is worth a watch.

Now, this may not be the first time that such an argument has been made about how anime ought to be defined—far from it, most likely—but I do think it distills and codifies, under a singular piece of work, this line of thinking the best. So, *spoiler alert*, according to Mother’s Basement: What is anime?


His answer: An art movement. Anime relates to animation in a way similar to how dadaism was to literature and art, the French New Wave was to cinema, or minimalism was to music.

After seeing his argument...yeah, this might be the first time that I have ever felt completely satisfied with an answer to the age-old question. This makes total sense of everything, including all of the murkiness and ambiguity inherent in what gets considered under the umbrella of anime. Up to now, the best that I could come up with for “what is anime” was something similar to the infamous “that which gives me wood” “I know it when I see it” standard for pornography. It’s just this—this style, man!!! It’s a treat for the eyes and has these things and those tropes and, uh...I dunno. That always felt like a cop-out, never good enough as a real definition.


But maybe it is enough after all? The idea of anime-as-art-movement is, in one sense, a formalization of that sentiment, and dare I say it fits like a glove. It even covers the fact that our view of what we consider to be anime is often murky; as Geoff himself points out, “all [art] movements have murky definitions!”

I especially love that he basically torches the entire idea that there will ever be a concrete, technical definition of anime. He first illustrates how the definition put forth as justification for cutting “Shelter” from the r/anime Reddit board is far too narrow. He next shows how the “anime is a Japanese term borrowed from the American word animation!” argument is, on the other hand, far too broad. Finally, the nail in the coffin as far as I’m concerned, he brings up examples of Japanese cartoons that would most assuredly not be considered anime by the community at large. Update 2/27/2017 11:40 am: Then again, also be wary—VERY wary—about such judgment calls coming from white men. Including me. Apologies, Yotsuba&Tochan.


In comparison, anime-as-art-movement—as essentially “Astro Boy and everything that he hath wrought in the decades since”—seems far more appropriate. It would encompass everything that we universally accept as traditionally being “anime,” but it also allows space for works that are very clearly influenced by such anime, i.e. the Avatar: The Last Airbenders, Wakfus, and RWBYs of the world, and absolutely deserve their place in the conversation, despite not falling under the “classical” or “traditional” definition, on account of their influences. Hell, anime even spawned an art movement, Superflat, that sprung up specifically in response to its existence! Given these various offshoots, it clearly has an artistic legacy; why would it not in turn be an art movement?

Going beyond the scope of the Mother’s Basement video, this is also a solid frame of reference that could account for how anime has influenced media far beyond just animation, and how being an “anime fan” in turn often affects our preferences in ways that go beyond animated movies and series. The closest connection, by far, is video games. Not only do a significant number of anime fans also happen to be game fans, but one also need not go much farther than the JRPG genre, with the likes of Final Fantasy VII and beyond, Persona, and the Tales of... series, for anime’s influence to be heavily apparent. It’s even the main influence behind an entire genre of games, the visual novel, which has not coincidentally been the source of notable anime series like Fate/stay night, When They Cry (a.k.a. Higurashi), Steins;gate, and Clannad.


In live-action cinema, the likes of Ghost in the Shell, Paprika, and mecha anime were major influences on The Matrix, Inception, and Pacific Rim respectively, and it’s all just about to come full circle with the upcoming American cinematic take on Ghost in the Shell.

Anime also intersects with comics and literature in ways that make their connection inseparable, through manga and light novels respectively, especially with the latter two often being sources of adaptation for the former.


Weirdly, it has been especially influential in music as well. Pardon the disproportionate amount of focus I’m about to give this, but hopefully that can be forgiven; I am a massive music fan, and thus I find the relationship between it and anime is especially interesting.

Starting with the obvious, there is a similar inseparability between the two, with an entire cottage industry built around opening and ending songs that even extends to the phenomenon of image songs. Actually, scratch that, it’s the basis for a second cottage industry, too; the entire pantheon of Vocaloid music would have never taken off had Crypton Future Media never attached an anime avatar called Hatsune Miku to one of their synthetic singer voice banks. Its own reach has even looped back into anime (courtesy of Kagerou Project in this case) on occasion.


Outside of that, anime’s most recent touchstone in the music world is obviously the“Shelter” music video, itself preceded in the anime community’s consciousness by (warning: NSFW) the Teddyloid-soundtracked “ME!ME!ME!”, but that was not even Porter Robinson’s first go-around with anime music videos! Before “Shelter” was “Easy,” his collaboration with fellow producer Mat Zo.

All of which follows a tradition that includes the music video for Linkin Park’s “Breaking The Habit” from twelve years ago, plus an entire goddamn anime film from THIRTEEN years ago based on Daft Punk’s Discovery album; it’s particularly notable, by the way, that the Venn diagram of Daft Punk fans and anime fans has major overlap. I’d be remiss to not also mention the motherlode of this trend: “Stronger” by Kanye West, whose music prominently samples “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” from Discovery, and whose video is a clear rip of Akira.

(apologies to anyone with objections to making Kanye of all people the ending note of this piece; I understand, but ya know, if the shoe fits...)


What could be such an influence if not an art movement?

Yeah, I think I like this definition of anime. How about you?

Edited 2/26/2017 3:06 pm because I completely forgot to mention video games under the scope of anime’s influence, thanks to my capacity to drop the ball when it counts

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