I recently put up Project Otaku’s first impressions on The Legend of Korra, Book 2: Spirits on Animeshinbun.com, hoping to generate some good discussion with fans the world over. When I logged onto Shinbun a few hours later, I see a message informing me that my article has been removed from the queue because “Avatar may be inspired by anime, but it’s not anime, it’s an American cartoon.” To say I was butt hurt – that I’m still butt hurt – is an understatement: I just got screwed up the ass so fast and hard that I’ve got friction burn. So let’s put all our cards on the table and have grown-up talk, real talk: what are we calling anime nowadays? And can it come from sources other than Japan?
The same Animeshinbun.com that rubbed my little Korra article raw approved a news story on Adult Swim’s The Boondocks, season 4 announcement (http://animeshinbun.com/news/1341066/the-boondocks-season-4-arrives-january-2014) several weeks ago. Did that somehow slip through the cracks of Shinbun’s all-seeing moderating eyes? Or is The Boondocks an anime? Anyone who really cares about the series can tell you that MOI Animation, an independent Korean branch of Japanese studio MADHOUSE, worked on it. What part of The Boondocks is Japanese again? Last I checked Aaron McGruder, creator of the original comic strip, was an African-American. Last I checked, most of the voice actors were also African-American. Last I checked, Korea wasn’t part of Japan. Get the picture? The Boondocks has almost zero ties to Japan save for the fact that MOI is owned by MADHOUSE. Does this mean they’re still anime producers? That’s debatable; The Boondocks doesn’t “look” like any anime I’ve seen. In fact, the style looks “derivative” of anime. Very interesting, how matters aren’t so black and white. I wonder if those Korean animators would call their work anime. Does being owned by a Japanese studio make MOI an anime producer? Does a pizza store in New York, owned by Italian-Americans who employ Mexican immigrants, serve Italian food? You tell me.
Let’s look now at the animation this article focuses on, The Legend of Korra, because here we’ll find some interesting overlaps between The Boondocks. Everyone knows that the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise was created by Brian Konietzko and Michael Dante Dimartino, two American animation directors. The franchise has more than its share of East-Asian and Inuit influences, from the various cultures in the show to the very art of bending itself. What I’m certain almost no one knows is that Studio MIR, who animates The Legend of Korra, is also animating season 4 of The Boondocks, the same season 4 that got approved on Anime Shinbun as a news article. Studio MIR, for those who aren’t aware, is a Korean studio, and has no connections to MADHOUSE that I know of. You know who else works on Korra? Studio Pierrot, responsible for works like Yu-Yu Hakusho and Polar Bear Cafe. Is The Boondocks an anime only for certain seasons and not an anime during other seasons, just because Studio MOI stops being associated with the series? Is Korra closer to being an “anime” because Pierrot works on it? Where do these lines for what constitutes as “anime” lie?
There’s always the obvious route: “Anime is from Japan, funded by a Japanese studio, drawn by Japanese animators who live in Japanese culture.” Alright, that makes sense. Can’t go wrong with that safe answer. How about, “Anime is from Japan, funded by a Japanese studio, drawn by anyone (Japanese natives or otherwise) who live in Japanese culture.” This leaves some wiggle room for non-Japanese to enter the fray, such as the occasional Korean native who can squeeze his way through on a work visa. Maybe we can try, “Anime is from anywhere, funded by a Japanese studio, drawn by anyone (Japanese natives or otherwise).” We’re getting global now, so does the entire system collapse? It might if we go ahead and eliminate the Japanese element entirely: “Anime is produced anywhere, funded by anyone, and is drawn by anyone regardless of where they were raised.”
Here’s the thing: anime is obviously a visual style of animation that has thematic motifs that are unique to Japanese culture; you’d be hard pressed to find any other place on the planet that comes up with the shit Japan does. But these cultural ideas can be transplanted, and these art styles can be copied. Some of the earliest examples of “anime” were inspired by Walt Disney animations, for those who either conveniently forget or genuinely don’t know the history of anime.
If anyone has noticed my avoiding the word “cartoon” throughout this article, I did it on purpose. Animation is the act of making drawings come to “life” through sequential illustrations that create the illusion of motion, regardless of whether you call any particular “kind” of animation cartoons or anime. Animē, if taken directly from its Japanese, is just the abbreviation of animēshon, itself an import word derived from English, or possibly even French; the term “anime” as we know it is a recent development, one that demarcates Japanese animation from other styles of animation. Unless there’s some mystical “essence” that the Japanese imbue into their animation, there’s nothing stopping others from making anime as well. The Boondocks, created by an American, directed by and animated by Koreans employed under a Japanese company, is… what, exactly? An American cartoon? Korean Han-guk Manhwa Aenimeisyeon? Japanese anime? All three? The matter quickly dissolves into endless discussion of what it means to be “authentically” anything. The same goes for Korra. The creators were inspired by FLCL, of all shows! Do their efforts at going for an anime vibe while employing Korean and Japanese animators count for nothing? I don’t think so; perhaps this separation between “anime” and “cartoons” isn’t even an adequate system in an increasingly networked, globalized animation industry. Alas, all this crying won’t get that article posted on Shinbun; I’m still rubbing Neosporin on my anus.