Earlier this month, an animation called Castlevania debuted on Netflix. While based on a Japanese video game, the animation is produced in the West. Yet it has been referred to by the producers and some commentators as an ‘anime’. It thus joins RWBY, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and The King’s Avatar in testing the margins of the word ‘anime’. Adding fuel to the fire, shortly after Castlevania aired, its producer, Adi Shankar, announced that his next project would be an ‘anime’ based on the (Western) Assassin’s Creed video games. The issue is, what is anime?
Castlevania is an American animation. That is all well and good. There are many good American animations. I have yet to find a Japanese animation as good as The Simpsons. The trouble arises when people start calling Castlevania an ‘anime’. One’s first reaction might be simply to dismiss this as parochialism on the part of weebs who cannot stand the thought that there might be a cartoon which is a) good but b) not an anime. This would threaten their identity as a person who watches a superior class of television show. However, might there be more to it than that?
The animation, it may interest you to know, can be found not just legitimately on Netflix but also on KissAnime, the most popular illegitimate anime streaming site. Of course, this fact is in no way conclusive of the question. Also inconclusive is the fact that Anime News Network has written a review on it. Rather, the review explicitly states that, “it isn’t really anime at all, having virtually no Japanese creative staff to speak of. While it draws from a very distinctive legacy of horror anime design [including Berserk and (not a horror, but still) Cowboy Bebop], pulls a lot from Ayami Kojima’s paintings and obviously has designs on being considered “the Castlevania anime”, it has a lot more in common with Warner Bros.’ often-clunky attempts at straight-to-video animation for adults, like Justice League Dark or The Killing Joke.” (No, I have never heard of them either.)
Indeed, ANN maintains officially that, “On Anime News Network, we define anime based on the origin of the animation. If it is primarily produced in Japan, it is anime. It should be clear, that by adhering to a definition that defines non-Japanese animation that mimic common anime styles as ‘not anime,’ Anime News Network does not endorse the notion that these ‘anime-style’ works are in any way inferior to animation produced in Japan.”
Therefore, the fact that the producers have been calling this animation an ‘anime’ is also inconclusive. They cannot turn it into an anime just by calling it one. Rather, whether it is an anime depends on whether it objectively falls within the definition of ‘anime’. An apple does not become an orange just because the person who grew the apple calls it an orange. The question then, is whether Castlevania does objectively fall within the definition of ‘anime’.
Let us now look at an intuitive argument against Castlevania being an anime:
1. All anime are Japanese animations.
2. Castlevania is not a Japanese animation.
3. Therefore, Castlevania is not an anime.
This argument is deductively valid and the minor premise is unchallengeable, but it is not clear that the first premise is necessarily true. The word ‘anime’ has an irreducible core: whatever else might qualify, any and all Japanese cartoons count as anime. No one could sensibly deny that Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z are anime.
Equally, it has an outer boundary beyond which it is not legitimate to venture: whatever the true definition, it mustin some sense be delimited by reference to Japan. No one could sensibly claim that The Simpsons, The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, James Cameron’s Avatar, and Frozen are anime (within the English meaning of that word). ‘Anime’ does not simply mean animation in English, because English already has the word animation. ‘Anime’ was adopted into English precisely to refer to Japanese animation, a subset of animation generally. More recently, people have started to refer to non-Japanese animations made in the style of anime as anime also. Where the precise boundary lines are to be drawn can be argued and will determine whether Castlevania is properly called an anime.
Now, when one turns to the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (behind a paywall), one finds that that ‘anime’ is defined as “[a] genre of Japanese or Japanese-style animated film or television entertainment, …; a film or television programme of this genre” (emphasis added). Under this definition, an animation may be an ‘anime’ if it is in the style of ‘anime’. A Japanese origin is thus a sufficient, but not necessary, condition for an animation being an anime.
Assuming we accept this definition (and not the more limited definition under which anime must be Japanese), the question becomes twofold. Firstly, what is needed to qualify an animation as ‘Japanese-style’? Secondly, does Castlevania so qualify?
The answer to the first question is, according to the OED (excepted from the definition above), that anime is “characterized by a distinctive visual style involving stylized action sequences and usually featuring characters with distinctive large, staring eyes, and typically having a science-fiction or fantasy theme, sometimes including violent or sexually explicit material”. The trouble with this definition, and perhaps any attempt to essentialise the style of anime, is that there are many exceptions. A slice of life anime might meet none of those criteria, yet still be an anime.
One response is to say that the SoL anime meets the other sufficient condition for anime (being a Japanese animation) and that it need not meet the other (adhering to a distinctive anime ‘style’). The anime style is the synthesis of traits which anime have in general (but not necessarily). To be an anime, an animation must and need only either be Japanese or comply with the style.
Another response is simply to challenge the OED definition as outdated or misconceived. The OED’s editors are experts in determining how words are used, but they doubtless have little if any experience actually watching anime. Once again, then, we are left with the question “what is needed to qualify an animation as ‘Japanese-style’?” I do not presume to venture an answer. I leave that to the reader.
Of course, one other response might be to do as United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart did (in attempting to work out whether hard core porn counted as free speech) and say that, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it” (emphasis added). This might enable us to answer both questions I posed.
For example, I recall once watching Avatar: The Last Airbender at high school (perhaps I should have been studying, but maybe it was lunchtime). A fellow student asked me, “is that an anime?” “No”, I responded, because I had recently learned that many of the cartoons I watched as a kid were indeed anime and I knew that they were Japanese. “It looks like one”, came the reply. Perhaps that is all that is required. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck ….
We are left, then, with these questions.
1. Must an anime necessarily be Japanese, or is it sufficient that it conforms to the ‘anime style’?
2. Is there an ‘anime style’ (and, if so, what is it)?
3. Does Castlevania count as an anime (and, if so, why)?