What is Anime: Art vs Nationalism

John Ohno
15 min readAug 2, 2021

One conventional definition of anime reads something like “animation created in Japan for a domestic Japanese audience”. This definition offers a false sense of clarity: it does not cleanly map onto what most people think of when they hear the term — neither in Japan, where it simply means ‘animation’, nor elsewhere, where it’s shorthand for not merely a large partially-overlapping set of stylistic and narrative conventions but also a difficult to define ‘vibe’.

It makes sense to basically everybody to imagine ‘non-Japanese anime’: this doesn’t provide any of the difficulties presented by imagining, for instance, a ‘square circle’; similarly, we can also imagine ‘live action anime’. In fact, we do not merely need to imagine these things: there is media that gets classified this way, and whether or not we agree with those classifications, we have an intuitive understanding of why someone might classify them in this way.

On top of this, the Japanese-ness of even unambiguously Japanese anime is a complicated matter. Emphasizing the Japanese origin of anime is problematic in that it sets inaccurate expectations for the content of anime and primes us for an inaccurate understanding of its history, but it’s also problematic because it feeds into a particular set of narratives that have been slowly weaponized by Japan’s slowly-recovering far-right nationalist movements.

Anime’s Cosmopolitan Genesis

While animation in Japan goes back almost as far as animation in general, the origin of something we can recognize as ‘anime’ is much more recent: Tetsuwan Atom (AKA Astroboy), in 1963.

While Astroboy was already a popular manga, its TV animation incarnation was something new and important. After the second world war, Japan’s animation industry was systematically disassembled by the american occupying forces on the grounds that it was a propaganda organ; Tezuka’s Mushi Productions became a central node in a new network of TV animation studios, densely interconnected by shared staff and subcontracting relationships, wherein most new studios are the product of older studios splitting. To this day, most Japanese TV animation studios can be traced to the Astroboy production through these connections — even Gainax, which was not founded by professional animators, did an enormous amount of subcontracting (including for Miyazaki). In other words: the new Japanese TV animation industry was a big, incestuous family, and new ideas (no…

John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net