What is anime in America? Does American anime exist? Should it? What exactly is anime, anyway?
Ask those questions and you’ll get thousands of answers, not to mention a variety of opinions. Most people would say anime is a style of animation developed in Japan. However, that is an American definition. In Japan, the same question might more commonly be answered by saying anime is animated media. As the world globalizes, the definitions get more and more blurred even as people want to categorize things more and more.
The influence of anime in America increases year by year. Japanese mangas and anime like Fullmetal Alchemist, Attack on Titan, and My Hero Academia are wildly popular in the United States. Not only that, but American-based storytelling is increasingly looking to animated mediums as a valid way to convey their characters and stories.
If you take the idea that any animation is anime and further breakdowns are pointless, then, sure, there is American anime. But to be fair, this does ignore the common expectations and assumptions of what anime looks like and what kind of story an anime would be, in America, at least.
If you believe anime is Japanese-style animation, whether or not there is American anime becomes a discussion… even if it’s one without a straight-up yes or no answer.
Target Audience and Genre
In America, animated stories are traditionally for children. In addition to Disney movies, almost every kid grows up watching to Saturday morning cartoons. Something about drawn characters implies for kids in our cultural context.
Yet in Japan, anime is just another medium of storytelling. Sure, there is plenty of anime that appeals to kids, but there’s also plenty of hugely successful anime marketed to adults.
Japan classifies anime by target audience. However, the line between a genre and a target audience is blurred at best. Think American “young adult” novels. While technically a target audience, the term’s become synonymous with enough tropes that it’s basically a genre itself.
Some major Japanese anime-manga audiences/genres include:
- Shonen (aimed at young boys)
- Seinen (aimed at adult men)
- Shoujo (aimed at young women)
- Josei (aimed at adult women)
Shonen, such as Naruto or Hunter x Hunter, often includes training arcs, tournaments and adventures. Do you want to save the world and your friends along the way? Shonen’s for you. Want to escape the misery of your school life and see all your friends end up in happy relationships? Try shoujo, like Fruits Basket or Ouran High School Host Club.
If you’re an adult, Seinen explores the psychological and can often be gory. Anime such as Berserk or Tokyo Ghoul is just as likely to disturb your appetite as they are to unsettle your conscience. Meanwhile, josei focuses on romance, slice-of-life, or drama. Josei anime includes the classic Chihayafuru and the 2016 hit Yuri!!! on Ice.
Of course, many anime overlap genres and target audiences. The point is, animation is seen as a valid medium for mature stories. It is not considered inherently childish, unlike animation in America.
Japanese Vs American Animation: Style & DesignJapanese animation differs from American animation in ways beyond just storytelling. Anime tends to have more realistic sets and character designs, while American animation tends to have bland backgrounds at best. Japanese anime also exaggerates expressions and movements.
However, American animation is more likely to exaggerate body proportions. Japanese anime also focuses on longer shots rather than the American style of frame-by-frame.
For example, think of the most well-known American animated series aimed at adults: The Simpsons. Most people would not consider The Simpsons an American anime show. Although, considering the Japanese definition of just being any animated story, it could technically count!
Why not? Well, The Simpsons are far from anything like the Japanese style of animation. The episode plots are much more akin to American sitcoms than to the enhanced features mixed with realism that mark anime as, well, anime. The artwork uses only a few bold colors and the designs exaggerate the character’s hair, clothes and height.
With that in mind, let’s look at some distinctly anime-influenced American animations.
Early Anime Influence on American Animation
The influence of anime in America really started to take off in the 1980s. Voltron aired from 1984 to 1985. In the story of a group of people exploring space through a robot, Voltron actually adapted two separate Japanese anime: Beast King GoLion (1981-1982) and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV (1983-1984).
Not only was it adapting the two series, but Voltron even used footage from these anime in several pivotal episodes.
However, Voltron made several key changes, most of which aimed to make the series more kid-friendly. They removed scenes of graphic violence. They cut character deaths and altered several of the darker plot lines. Voltron also mashed the two series together, while the original anime had nothing to do with each other.
Well, besides both being about robots.
Voltron also had one thing many animated cartoons didn’t at the time: appeal beyond its target child audience. It wasn’t the only animated show of the 1980s to transcend the animation is for kids barrier, either. Filmation debuted She-Ra in 1985. They marketed the series to kids but soon succeeded with adults as well.
She-Ra entered fandom consciousness and stayed there until its remake.
Batman: The Animated Series then debuted in 1992. One of the first animated shows directly targeting both kids and adults, the animated series covered the psychological tolls taken on both their superheroes and their villains. Rather than aiming for a colorful wonderland, Gotham maintained its dark, grim atmosphere from the comics.
Batman won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program in 1993 and was nominated for a further four Daytime Emmy Awards. That same year it won the sole Primetime Emmy it was nominated for, the Outstanding Animated Program. It continued to receive nominations and several more wins over its tenure.
The Impact of Avatar: The Last AirbenderMention American anime and one title sure to come up is Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon’s hit series set in a world where “benders” can fight with the classical elements of fire, earth, water, and air ran for three seasons between 2005 and 2008. Nowadays, people consider Avatar a classic of American television. Some even consider it the first American anime show.
Nickelodeon is famous for its children’s programming. However, Avatar‘s cultural resonance comes from its broader appeal. The complex character arcs, interesting magic system and exciting climaxes of each season drew viewers from a wide range of demographics. Adults tuned in and enjoyed the story just as much as kids.
The timeless themes of hope, duty and friendship keep the story relevant decades after it aired, too. The main plot about a group of friends on an adventure to save their world clearly mimics a lot of shonen anime. There are even training and tournament-style plot lines.
Anime’s Influence On The Last AirbenderFrom the start, reviewers, fans, the cast and the producers noted anime’s influence on Avatar‘s style, plot and character designs. Plus, the cultures depicted in the story are distinctly Asian. The music employs traditional Asian instruments.
Backgrounds and characters reflect Chinese, Japanese and Indian architecture, clothing and geography. Even Avatar‘s mythology draws from various Eastern philosophies and religions. The reincarnating avatars draw from Hinduism, meanwhile, the concepts of quality, balance and chi draw from Taoism.
Plus, Aang’s strict nonviolence seems both Buddhist and Jain.
Avatar‘s producers and writers worked with several consultants to ensure its various cultural influences were portrayed respectfully. They also hired Oh Seung-Hyun, an experienced Korean aine (anime) expert to work on the final season.
The animation style is no different. The animators modeled Avatar‘s fighting styles after traditional martial arts. They even specialized in the martial arts, associating one particular school of arts with one element. Waterbenders used tai chi, earthbenders Hung Gar, airbenders Ba Gua and firebenders the Northern Shaolin arts.
One character, Ty Lee, even blocks qi or life energy.
Avatar: The Last Airbender also spawned a sequel, Legend of Korra, which ran for four seasons from 2012 to 2014. Unlike Avatar, which had an overarching plot that stretched out for its three seasons, Korra had a different plot for each season. Like Avatar, Korra reflects the influence of anime.
The director, Joaquim dos Santos, commented on the growing acceptance of anime influences in American shows:
Artists are constantly bringing these influences to their work… There is a little bit of hesitation at first, whether that’s with the anime aesthetic or the serialization, but then the next generation of artists are inspired by those earlier shows and it becomes more accepted.”
Is Avatar: The Last Airbender Anime?
Is Avatar: The Last Airbender anime? Over seventeen years since the show first aired, fans still debate this question. A quick Google search pulls up dozens of articles and YouTube videos from fans declaring that it is indeed an American anime. You’ll also find dozens arguing that it isn’t.
Even the cast and crew differ in their opinions. Dante Busco, who voiced fan-favorite Zuko, calls it anime. On the other hand, the creators, Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko don’t use the label. However, DiMartino and Konietzko still acknowledge the influence:
We wanted to do a love letter to anime… It came out of a love and appreciation of [anime]. So it was just natural to try to honor it as best we could.”
Both series received a number of awards and fandom legacy that long outlast their air dates. Whether or not either Avatar: The Last Airbender or Legend of Korra can be called American anime doesn’t ultimately change the fact that both series showed a strong appetite for complex animated series among the American public.
The First American Anime: RWBYIs there any American animated show explicitly marketed as an American anime? As of 2012, yes.
RWBY released its first trailer, “Red,” on YouTube in later 2012. It followed this up with three more trailers: “White,” “Black,” and “Yellow,” each based on the main character symbolized by a particular color.
The first volume then premiered with episodes ranging in length from 6 to 11 minutes. Recent volumes regularly reach the typical anime length of just over 20 minutes.
After its fifth volume, the series moved to Rooster Teeth’s website, although the trailers remain available on YouTube. With eight volumes completed, and a ninth set to air later in 2022, official crossovers with DC Comics and existing and forthcoming spin-off series, RWBY is a massive success.
However, RWBY’s intended medium is less debatable than Avatar‘s. The creator, Monty Oum, directly stated that RWBY was being told as an anime:
Some believe just like Scotch needs to be made in Scotland, an American company can’t make anime. I think that’s a narrow way of seeing it. Anime is an art form, and to say only one country can make this art is wrong.”
Of course, fans debate Oum’s comments. Much like Avatar’s creators’ view of their own show, some agree RWBY is anime-inspired in style, but not actually anime because it is American. The label anime should be reserved only for stories from one particular culture.
However, diasporas challenge this idea. Oum was, himself, of Asian (including Japanese) descent.
Tragically, Oum passed away suddenly in 2015. Since then, Rooster Teeth’s creative team, many of whom were friends of Oum, continues to work to tell a story largely planned from the beginning.
What Makes RWBY American Anime?
Whether or not people use the “anime” label, RWBY aims for a different audience than Avatar‘s; RWBY distinctly markets itself to young adults. RWBY bases many of its main characters on fairy tale characters, with some myths, legends and the occasional historical figure.
However, RWBY’s fairy tales feel more along the lines of the ones originally told by the Brothers Grimm than those portrayed in Disney films with singing animals and true love always saving the day.
Yeah, Team RWBY fights to save the world from a wicked witch who wants to destroy their steampunk world, but along the way? They’ve gotta battle raw grief, societal inequality, abusive parental and romantic relationships and post-traumatic stress disorder.
RWBY also travels an unusual route for an American anime. This show was licensed for promotion in Japan in 2014. Instead of an American company dubbing Japanese anime, the Japanese voice actors dub RWBY for the Japanese release. Unlike Avatar or Korra, RWBY is explicitly marked as anime in Japan.
Thus, it is officially the first American anime show bearing the label “American anime” in Japan.
Now eight years since its initial licensing, the show still enjoys a significant following in Japan. In 2022, Rooster Teeth announced that they were collaborating with Tokyo’s Studio Shaft. Of course, Studio Shaft cemented its renown in the anime industry with classics like Monogatari and the magical girl series Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
Now, Studio Shaft will create and produce a side anime to the main American anime. It will be called RWBY: Ice Queendom.
Modern Animation: Netflix and Beyond
Around the time RWBY emerged and Legend of Korra wrapped up, other American studios began to explore creating original animated content of their own. Netflix is among those who wanted to really tap into the anime market and they’ve created a wide variety of original animated programming since.
Also, Netflix’s animated shows frequently draw inspiration from anime.
Netflix partnered with well-known movie director Guillermo del Toro to create Trollhunters. An established writer in both horror and fantasy, del Toro enjoys Japanese anime and manga. Prior to working on Trollhunters, del Toro’s efforts to direct a live-action adaptation of Naoki Urasawa’s Monster, which is a successful manga and anime praised by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Juno Diaz, ran into numerous obstacles.
Trollhunters first aired in 2016 as part one in a three-part fictional universe called Tales of Arcadia, which brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe to mind as much as it does anime. Characters popped in and out of its three series, which technically told their own stories while weaving an overarching story.
Trollhunters ran for three seasons, 3below for two and Wizards for one. Finally, Tales of Arcadia wrapped up in 2021 with the crossover movie Rise of the Titans.
When Trollhunters premiered, reviewers immediately compared it to Avatar. They noted a similar target audience; children, but with enough complex themes to appeal to adults, too. Netflix continued down this path by greenlighting seven seasons of The Dragon Prince, an original animated series co-created by Aaron Ehasz.
Ehasz, the head writer and co-producer of Avatar, clearly aims for a similar storytelling approach. In Avatar, characters travel across different realms to learn different types of magic to ultimately save their world.
Netflix & Adult Animation
Netflix also dug into the past to reinvent series from the 1980s. The previously mentioned Voltron and She-Ra both received updates. Voltron: Legendary Defender streamed from 2016 to 2018, while She-Ra: Princesses of Power ran from 2018 to 2020. Both received massive fandom interest and the latter received critical acclaim throughout its five seasons.
Netflix continued to expand its palate for anime-inspired shows. In their reinvention of 1980s anime-influenced classics, they found Castlevania. Originally a video game created in Japan in 1989, Netflix developed a series based on several major storylines from the games. The Netflix series also based its art on Ayami Kojima’s original game style.
The target audience was very much adult-centered. As characters swear, violence abounds, and the themes border on grimdark. Castlevania ended up running for four seasons from 2017 to 2021.
Netflix continues to explore an adult target audience for its original animated shows.
Loosely based on the League of Legends video game series, Arcane takes various game settings and characters and tells a story that is more tragic than anything else. Viewers don’t need to have played League of Legends to follow the story of two sisters in a grim steampunk world.
From the start, Arcane aimed for an adult audience. The creative director at Riot, the company that created League of Legends, noted:
It’s not a light-hearted show. There are some serious themes that we explore there, so we wouldn’t want kids tuning in and expecting something that it’s not.”
Arcane premiered in 2021 to critical and commercial success. In fact, it became the highest-rated Netflix show in history at the time. The show will return for a second season sometime in 2023.
What Does All Of This Mean?Does American anime truly exist? This is the question many might be asking, considering anime has been at the heart of Japanese culture for so long.
We believe that this ultimately depends on your definition of the term. That’s the thing about art and stories; they don’t neatly fit into definitions. We tell stories and make art to convey the things we don’t have simple explanations for. Anime is one of the best combinations of art we have. Things like drawings, stories, music and film can all combine here.
As older assumptions like “animation is for kids” break down, anime and other anime-influenced animations will receive the appreciation they deserve.