I have a confession to make, and it’s one that might not be very popular among readers and writers of movie blogs. But I’ve never shied away from making unpopular statements, and this is something I feel I should get off my chest, if for no other reason than intellectual honesty, and the integrity of the blog. You see, I hate anime. I’ve tried to be open-minded about it, tried to be tolerant. But I hate it. It’s like fingernails on a blackboard. It makes my skin crawl. I suppose it could partly be an age thing — I’m old enough to remember when anime was so uncommon in the United States that any instance of it stood out like a sore thumb. Now it’s everywhere, and still seems to be growing every day. And I, for one, can’t stand it. Try as I might to see things other peoples’ way, I just plain hate anime.
I don’t have anything against Japanese animation, mind you.
You can put down the weapons; I’ll explain.
No, I don’t hate Japanese cartoon series, or Japanese animated features. I’m not a big aficionado, admittedly; my viewing has been fairly limited. But I’ve seen a few things here and there, and most of it has been all right. Like most children of the 80s, I grew up with the cartoons re-dubbed into English that were Robotech, Voltron, and Battle of the Planets. We never thought of them as being Japanese cartoons at the time, of course; they were just cartoons. As an adult I encountered Dragon Ball Z, and that was just plain stupid, but I’ve also caught a few episodes of Lupin the Third and they were fairly entertaining. A friend showed me Akira one day when I was visiting at his house; it was all right, if a little incoherent in places. I do think most of its vaunted reputation simply comes from being one of the first Japanese animated features to draw notice in the U.S. — I remember ads for it in the late 80s and early 90s, back when the term “Japanimation” was still in vogue — but I’ve sometimes had a dissonant reaction to films from other genres and media as well; nothing to do with it being Japanese animation. I watched Princess Mononoke in the theatre, and it was pretty good, and I’ve seen Cowboy Bebop: The Movie on television and if a few things were excised (such as the weird kid character) it would be an all right film. I may not seek out Japanese animation, but I don’t avoid it either. I treat it like anything else; if the premise sounds interesting, I watch it. Otherwise, I don’t. No, I don’t hate Japanese animation.
Am I backpedaling? No, actually.
What I hate is “anime”. The word; or more precisely, the attitude that so often accompanies it. Now, I know that loan words are nothing new in English; probably 90% of the language or greater is borrowed from some other language if you trace the etymology back far enough. But in the case of “anime” there is something more than a little peculiar going on, and more than a trifle repugnant to me, and it comes into play with the insistence on not just using the term, but on trying to “correct” people who don’t. If you’re not sure what I mean, just stop using the term for a while. Call them cartoons. Sooner or later — and it’ll probably be sooner, at least if you go anywhere there are fans — you’ll be “corrected”. There are people who will tell you, very seriously and often very loudly, that Akira is “not a cartoon”. It’s drawn and animated, but it’s “not a cartoon, it’s an anime”. The very use of the word cartoon for Akira or any other work of Japanese animation is reacted to as if it were an offensive statement.
Chernabog objects to the word “cartoon” being treated as a pejorative.
It’s the old tired saw about cartoons being for kids. Except they never have been. The creators of Looney Tunes openly stated that the audience they were most seeking to entertain wasn’t kids or adults, but themselves. Walt Disney didn’t insist on an age limit on people watching Mickey Mouse, and people of all ages went to watch. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first feature-length animated film, was meant for all ages, and appreciated by all ages. But I suppose some could say it’s not particularly intellectual. That argument doesn’t hold up for long, though. Fantasia, Disney’s third animated film (and as far as I can tell, the fourth animated film from any studio) was as high-brow as any live-action film has ever been. If there was ever a time in which cartoon movies were just for kids, that time officially ended in 1940. It’s been more than 70 years, I think we can admit cartoons can be serious and thought-provoking. But one of the arguments I keep hearing from people who praise anime over western animation is that western animation is always strictly for kids, or at least is family-oriented, and never just for adults. To which I can only say, these people have clearly never heard of Ralph Bakshi.
American Pop is about sex, drugs, and rock and roll… and is tame compared to Heavy Metal.
Of course, the question of what age group a film is appropriate for is separate from the question of quality. But the most hardcore fans of anime seem to have a problem acknowledging quality from non-Japanese animation as well. Western animation is often judged by its lowest denominators, such as the many cheaply-produced Hanna-Barbera series (as though limited animation and stock footage were never used by any Japanese series; come on, I already said I grew up with Voltron….) But even if we put aside border-blenders such as Transformers (animated in the U.S., inspired by Japanese toys) and ThunderCats (animated in Japan based on U.S. designs), there are still quality works in both television and film. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini had multiple years of success adapting DC Comics properties to television, and it’s not just because people like Batman; the series were genuinely that good. And Disney and Don Bluth both have had several major films that were high quality; Dreamworks had a few as well before their turn to 3D animation. (For some reason even those who have the strongest bias against western animation seem to limit it to traditional animation… though even then I’ve noticed a tendency to just call Pixar films “Pixar films” instead of using the “c word”.)
2D or 3D, it’s still a cartoon, and no less beautiful for it.
Mind you, mentioning Disney can be hazardous in this company as well. Sooner or later someone will bring up The Lion King, and act outraged that there’s a resemblance to Kimba the White Lion. It still winds up feeling like there’s a refusal to acknowledge quality in a western work — or at least, if acknowledged, it’s attributed to stealing from a Japanese work. But Osamu Tezuka, creator of Kimba, credited as his inspiration works of western animation, including Betty Boop cartoons, Mickey Mouse, and Bambi. So those who deride The Lion King for being unoriginal are essentially complaining that Simba, a lion drawn in the traditional Disney style, looks like Kimba, a lion drawn in a style directly inspired by the traditional Disney style. Shocking. Other similarities in aesthetics can usually be attributed to the same, or to the limitations of keeping to (mostly) appropriate wildlife for Africa, and standard animation and storytelling tropes. Are there similarities? Yes. But nothing that warrants denying that The Lion King is a great film.
And story-wise, it’s essentially Hamlet with a happy ending. Yes, really.
But perhaps the most pernicious thing about the people who insist on “anime” over “cartoon” is how singular the focus is. It’s always the works of Japan, and never any other culture. (Though when it comes to comic books, the use of “manga” for Japanese comics is mirrored with “manwha” for Korean ones. But even then they don’t do the same for other cultures; Asterix is never called a “livre comique”, for example.) If this were being done by the Japanese themselves, it would smell of racism, but every indication I have is that in Japan the term anime is simply used as the literal term it is, and is applied to works from all nations — and western animation has a non-trivial following over there. But for all their insistence that anime must be separated from “cartoons”, westerners who have fallen in love with the medium seem curiously reluctant to do the same with animation from other cultures. Why is it that when discussing an animated feature from Japan, we’re supposed to use the Japanese word for animation, but when discussing one from France, we don’t use the French word? That word, incidentally, is animé, which just goes to show how quickly the situation would become silly. But when I’ve brought this up in the past, I’ve been told, in all apparent seriousness, that the French haven’t contributed anything significant to animation. Sylvain Chomet has released two feature films since the Academy Awards have had a Best Animated Feature category — 2003’s The Triplets of Belleville and 2010’s The Illusionist — and both were nominated for the award (and even after seeing Finding Nemo, I’m still half-inclined to think Belleville should have won.) Both are great films, and I find it difficult to believe that they represent the sole examples of quality French animation — and I find it more difficult to believe that someone can dismiss the entire culture’s work out of hand despite prominent examples.
Fittingly, The Illuionist is largely about overlooked artistry.
Two other animé, if you’ll pardon my French, have also been Best Animated Feature nominees: Persepolis (2007), and A Cat in Paris (2010). At the moment, animé outnumbers anime in the category 4 to 2 (though Spirited Away, unlike the various French nominees, actually won.) Last year, a Spanish animated feature, Chico & Rita was among the nominees. I don’t recall anybody trying to separate it from cartoons by giving it a different terminology. For the 2009 Academy Awards, one of the nominees was the Irish film The Secret of Kells, and its creators certainly have no qualms about it being called a cartoon — their film studio is named Cartoon Saloon.
I don’t have to call this a beochan to appreciate its beauty.
That’s what I really don’t get about those who insist on the term “anime” for Japanese animation. It’s not applied anywhere else, and I can’t see any reason for this most artificial of separations. It’s not a division of audience; some works on each side are meant for children and some for adults. It’s not a division of quality; there’s good and bad in everything. It can’t even be said to be a division based on style, since there are multiple styles of animation in any country’s works, including Japan. It’s just a division for the sake of having a division, a way to say Japanese animation is somehow more special than the rest. But it isn’t. It is special, yes, but only to the same extent as works from France, or Spain, or, yes, the United States. I don’t see any reason to elevate or lower a work based on what country it’s from, and so I’m not going to. I won’t avoid Japanese animation should I see one with an intriguing premise, and I’m not going to watch an animated film just because it’s Japanese. And when I do watch one, I’m not going to refrain from calling it a cartoon, either. Because that’s what it all is; there is nothing pejorative about cartoon, it’s just an English-language synonym for animation (or for comics, but I digress.) It’s all worthy or unworthy of praise based on its own merits, and not what it’s called.
And Akira is still a somewhat overrated cartoon.