Defining ‘Anime’: A Linguistic Look

Thanks to Netflix’s Castelvania and the Internet’s unrelenting desire to argue about everything, the ‘but is it anime’ controversy has been reignited in full force. A few months ago, Mother’s Basement attempted to cash in on the debate by proclaiming that “Avatar is an anime. F*** you. Fight me”. Now that one of his sponsors has begun to co-produce anime – a project for which the music video of Porter Robinson’s Shelter may have been a test-pilot – it’s important that we continue to think about how the West has defined anime, and how that definition is becoming problematic. Has it ever been productive to think of ‘anime’ as only what the Japanese make?

In all senses of form, style and subject matter, Castlevania has screamed ‘anime’ to everyone. It’s only the production credits that hold some stubborn voices back from accepting it into the ‘anime’ sphere. If this is anime, they ask, then how do we draw the line between it and cartoons?

We need to revisit ‘anime’, as a loanword, in the wider context of how definitions develop.


While ‘anime’ came over as a direct loan from Japanese, it may have found resonance in our language partly because it also connects to the French ‘animé‘, as in dessin animé (‘animated drawing/cartoon’). English is, after all, mostly a confusing mixture of Germanic etymological roots and Latinate borrowings. It’s curious that, early into the introduction of ‘anime’ into English (according to Oxford English Dictionary citations), MacUser showed a different application of the loanword we know today:

“1988  MacUser Nov. 60/1 This game is the closest thing I’ve seen on a computer to Japanese anime-style animated cartoons.”

MacUser was only happy to adopt ‘anime’ as a Japanese word if it stayed separate from the English language; we would call this a ‘xenism’, a word used in another language in order to express foreignness rather than have it come fully into another vocabulary. This is emphasized by its italicization. ‘Anime-style animated cartoons’ reads like a verbose mouthful to us today, but it demonstrates a resistance to letting ‘Japanese animated cartoons’ mean simply ‘anime’. That resistance has been eroded today by the majority of fans, who are happy to call all 2D Japanese animation ‘anime’. But the result is the popularity of a phrase similar to MacUser‘s when describing Castlevania: that it’s just a ‘Western anime-style animated cartoon’.

In discussing the definition of ‘anime’ and retracting his previous view that anime is merely ‘animation from Japan’, while writing for Mechademia’s 2014 issue, Brian Ruh observed that:

“…many fans would not consider all animation from Japan as anime. For example, when Yamamura Kōji’s Mt. Head (2002, Atamayama) was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated short film in 2003, it was relatively ignored by “anime” fans. The film’s entry in the online encyclopedia on the Anime News Network website even states “Some people would not consider this as Anime [sic], but rather ‘Alternative Japanese Animation.’” This entry goes into no further detail and does not explain how “Alternative Japanese Animation” differs from “anime,” but it seems clear that some fans have drawn a line around the concept of “anime” that does not include all animation from Japan.” (Ruh, 2014: 164)

The core issue with the idea that ‘anime is just Japanese animation’, treating the term as a marker of location, is the same as its greatest lure: it offers no discussion. If one navigates around the amount of animation that is outsourced to non-Japanese companies, emphasizing that production must be simply based in Japan, the definition continues to be a dead end for artistic analysis. It’s convenient for those who don’t like to think about media or culture in any more detail than objective observations, but it essentializes ‘Japanese animation’ under one banner that both the Japanese and anime fans don’t accept. In the end, it’s a power play: if you don’t let a word naturally develop, your knowledge never becomes irrelevant, and never has to be updated. You don’t have to appreciate how anime changes if anime never changes. How convenient!

Anime isn’t a term like ‘JRPG’, which directly signifies Japan. We have a term like that for Japanese anime too: ‘Japanimation’. The only reason it didn’t stay in wider usage was because ‘Jap-animation’ gave too much resemblance to ‘Jap’ as a slur; the OED hasn’t cited any English language usage since the turn of the millennium. But Japanese director, screenwriter and actor Ueno Toshiya continues to employ the term “to emphasize both geography and the particularity of its characteristic styles, for these are quite different from animations in the general sense” (Toshiya, 1999: 97). Anime stands apart from this definition because it lacks any territorial boundaries: it “seems to have potential to be a much more fluid marker” (Ruh, 2014: 165).


This feeds into the common comeback to this line of argument: if one doesn’t define anime by location, it must be defined by style and form. That doesn’t work, many have argued, because anime doesn’t have any one style. But the solution to this is simple, and it rests within Ueno’s professional justification of ‘Japanimation’ – anime has ‘characteristic styles’, plural, which stand out from other kinds of animation. There’s a reason we are able to make memes of something non-anime being ‘anime’ by exhibiting certain traits – Dark Souls runners at this year’s Summer Games Done Quick made this joke to draw attention to bright, over-extravagant visual effects from weapons. The joke doesn’t preclude such effects from being in media other than anime – all it emphasizes is that anime stands as the nodal point of such approaches to action. While such visual effects are a key style of anime, they’re not a style that defines all anime.

‘Characteristic styles’ of anime are the substance that ignited this debate to begin with; they’re the signifiers of creators taking historically Japanese creative expressions as references for their work. Fans calling Castlevania ‘anime’ because of these styles aren’t excluding shows without those styles from the world of ‘anime’ wholesale. Anime is a network of many styles of expression, and some stand out as more ‘belonging’ to an ‘anime-ness’ than others.

If you don’t believe that Western creators can make ‘anime’ by employing these ‘characteristic styles’, you end up ignoring how the same development of a word, from cultural specificity to a matter of styles, occurred for ‘saga’. Once a term that could only describe actual Old Norse and Icelandic epics – originating as a term from Old Norse and Icelandic – ‘saga’, in English, now signifies things that borrow from and refer to the characteristics of such tales. You can even book a Saga holiday, marketed with the same mindset, or play Candy Crush Saga, built on the same principle of constant episodic adventures (as long as matching coloured sweets excites you that much). ‘Anime’ is no different; as with Norse sagas, the characteristics of anime can also be found in other kinds of cultural expression. But ‘anime’ is the form within which they resonate the strongest.

Words change, and the wider their cross-cultural usage becomes, the more their cultural exclusivity is eroded away. ‘Romance’ used to mean ‘written in a Romance language’. Then the English wanted to write Romances too, but in English. They called them Romances too, probably to annoy the French. Centuries later and our modern definition, which immediately makes you think of love and other gross stuff, is far from Romance’s point of origin. And why shouldn’t it be? Even if ‘misuse’ of the word occurred along the way, language is defined not by what an elite group prescribe, but by what the masses find is best for communication. If we can’t call Castlevania an anime, why should we call Your Lie in April a romance?

We can’t continue to pretend that reducing ‘anime’ to Japanese animation is useful for communicating in our fandom. If a company tries to sell something made in the West as ‘anime’ without the ‘characteristic styles’ fans have buried into their subconscious from years of experience, then we should complain. But otherwise, Castlevania is anime, no matter who made it. If Metroid is adapted by the same company, it’ll also be an anime. Whatever Crunchyroll help make, if it works from any principle styles of anime, will be anime too. Again, while certain ‘characteristic styles’ can define some Western media as anime, they don’t stop you from identifying less conventional Japanese shows as anime too. Words can have many meanings, and ‘anime’ should serve both the breadth of the Japanese database and the media’s widening influence worldwide.

For once, the OED has been ahead of its time when it comes to defining loanwords. They already accept anime as ‘Japanese or Japanese-style’. Expanding ‘anime’ to include non-Japanese productions still protects the Japan-ness of anime overall; creators must still show that they are building on Japanese ideas, structures and expressions. All we need are for the stubborn voices to pack it in and learn a bit about linguistics: you can never take a snapshot of a language one year and say things are the same the next. Language can only be defined by how it moves, and ‘anime’ is only becoming more and more international. Japan’s still calling the shots, but ‘Western anime’ is on the rise, and it’s something to get excited about.

So please, stop saying the US can’t make anime. They’ve been making romances for centuries.


  • “anime, n.3.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017
  • Ruh, Brian, “Conceptualizing Anime and the Database Fantasyscape” Mechademia, Volume 9, 2014
  • Ueno, Toshiya, “Techno-Orientalism and Media-Tribalism: On Japanese Animation and Rave Culture,” Third Text 47 (1999)

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2 thoughts on “Defining ‘Anime’: A Linguistic Look”

  1. I despise the fact that we have to define this in the first place. To the Japanese, all animation is “anime,” regardless of origin or style.

    But then the West found a stylized aesthetic different from what they were used to and had to assign a nationality to it to make it seem less foreign. It’s too late to renege the word’s existence at this point, so I guess there’s little choice but to attempt to make sense of the definition.

    But if we go from a stylistic angle, is there a set of criteria nuanced enough to include, say, Doraemon or Kaiba in the definition? They’ve been historically identified as such due to their country of origin but they certainly do not fit the most common aesthetic. Because frankly, I’m not certain if it will possible to get the majority of people to abandon their perception of works such as this as “anime,” so they would have to fit a stylistic definition some how.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Update because I’m a moron and I remembered I made this comment and it is suddenly bugging me: animation production technique and resulting appearance in terms of frames/motion could provide the proper standards for a workable style-based definition.

      But I don’t know much about that stuff, though I think anime has some unique properties to it. Someone ping Canipa this I need his authentic expertise.

      Liked by 1 person

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