Cyborg Dreams

An Intersection of Media, Japan, and Fandom

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Is Avatar the Last Airbender anime?

Or perhaps a better question, what counts as anime?

Bias alert: I love Avatar and Korra, I think it’s one of the best series to hit American television in a long time. So this article comes with some bias, but I have done my best to be as objective as possible.

I first phrased this question in my head as – Why do anime fans hate avatar? – but I realized that maybe it wasn’t that they hated the show, but just hated that it was considered anime by so many people. As such, I revised the question especially as I dove further into researching the topic but I believe I will be tackling both to an extent. If it sounds like this question has been asked before, it is because it has. I recommend watching PBS’ Idea Channel video on the subject (LINK IN THE DOOBLY DOO). While I think this video is great at introducing the topic (as well as Chris O’Brien’s article for The Escapist) there are a some ideas I think deserve some deeper exploration; namely that of South Korea’s involvement in both the Japanese and American animation industries as well as the cross-pollination of ideas by animation producers from these countries.

The main argument that is made against Avatar is that it was not made in Japan, it is not Japanese so therefore cannot be anime. But this becomes a flimsy argument when South Korea is taken into consideration. Korea’s involvement as a subcontractor for Japanese animation dates back to the late 1960’s when Japanese company Daiichi Douga hired South Korean TV station Tongyang Bangsong to work on Ougon Batto and Youkai Ningen Bemu (Kim, Joon Yang. “South Korea and the Sub-Empire of Anime: Kinesthetics of Subcontracted Animation Production.” Mechademia 9 (2014): 90-103).

DR Movie is a name I imagine most people are not familiar with but came up often in my research. This is a South Korea based animation studio that has animated more “anime” than can be listed here, but I can list a few; Bleach, Claymore, Code Geas, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell, Macross, Nana, Naruto Shippuuden, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, and the list goes on. They worked on key frames as well as mattes and in-between cels. Another show they worked on: Avatar the Last Airbender. Having the same studio work on both an American production and a Japanese production does not necessarily mean everything they produce is anime, but it does throw into question this idea that anime is purely Japanese.

What about productions that are animated in Japan? I think most people that were asked this question might say “Well yes, if Japan animated it, then the show must be anime. Does that mean The Legend of Korra is anime? Because parts of it were animated by Studio Pierrot, the same company that’s been animating the Naruto movies since 2004 (The show was also jointly animated by Studio Mir of South Korea and Nickelodeon’s own animation studio Ginormous Madman). Are only those episodes anime (Episodes 13-18, and 21 for the curious), but not the rest? That does seem like an odd proposition to make, but maybe there is something to support that claim?

Macross, as Robotech, is considered one of the most influential anime for Americans growing up in the 80’s. Like Star Blazers before it, Robotech was constructed from three different Japanese shows. I do not think many people would argue whether Macross/Robotech were anime but what about the 2006 production Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles? This was a joint venture between three production companies from the United States, South Korea, and Japan (Harmony Gold USA, DR Movie, and Tatsunoko respectively) and released by Funimation. There were Japanese and American and Korean producers as well. So does this mean that Macross/Robotech is anime, but the movie made as a sequel to these shows is not, just like the episodes from Korra?

For the sake of argument, let’s use a fallacy and move the goalposts here. Anime doesn’t have to be animated in Japan, or produced in Japan, but it definitely needs to be developed or thought up by Japan, right? I have not met a single fan who claims The Transformers is an anime, but it was developed by Toei Animation and based on Japanese toy lines Diaclone and Microman. The toy lines were eventually sold to Hasbro, who combined the two to make the Transformers toys. When The Transformers eventually stopped airing in the United States, Toei continued to make a sequel series as well as a manga adaptation (Once again leaving us with the odd question of whether a show can be a part-time anime).

We could keep jumping around, finding ways in which a show is not Japanese. Maybe it has to be written by Japanese people, or directed, or any number of things. But what is there to gain from this kind of exclusion? Why would fans want to exclude people who might be interested in their hobbies just because they call Avatar, or Korra, or Transformers anime? Perhaps it has to do with social capital amongst peers (Which I wrote about here), but it seems like a self defeating way to approach the thing you love. My answer is this:

Anime is a sort of metaphysical term, a social construct that we use to categorize a set of aesthetic, stylistic, and trope choices used in animation. It has nothing to do with the country of origin.


Torkaizer is an anime from the Middle East, compare it  to Gurren Lagann

Torkaizer is an anime from the Middle East, compare it to Gurren Lagann



Look at all this anime

Look at all this anime


Japan has intentionally promoted anime as something to be exported and shared with the world, so much so that the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry established a Creative Industries Promotion Office in 2010 just for the purpose of exporting “Cool Japan,” which includes; anime, pop culture, idols, and gourmet. Because of this there has been a cross-pollination of ideas from all over the world that have come together to make this “genre” a more rich and rewarding hobby for people from many countries. I propose we stop arguing and start watching, because if someone is excluding an amazing show because it is not “Japanese” then they are missing out.

If you are not convinced though I will leave you with this; If I buy beef raised in the United States and cut it thin, and buy rice grown in California, and Dashi powder imported from Japan, with onions grown in Mexico and cook that up into Gyūdon, are you going to tell me I’m not eating Japanese food?