Some Misconceptions About The Anime Demarcation Problem

Anime has a demarcation problem.  The release of Shelter and the subsequent controversy have made this abundantly clear.  By “demarcation problem,” I simply mean a definitional problem, but I find the word demarcation to be a more precise way of describing the issue.  Think of a nation whose government is trying to carefully define its borders.  In the act of demarcation, the nation wants neither to include land that does not belong to it, nor to exclude land that is rightfully its own.  This is the challenge of demarcating the anime/non-anime border (1); we don’t want to include things that we feel aren’t anime, and we want to avoid excluding things we feel definitely are.  Yet, it seems almost any reasonable definition we formulate trips up on one of the two.

Let me be clear up front: this piece is not about resolving this issue.  I leave that arduous task in the hands of fans with sharper, more analytical minds than my own.  What I want to do here is clear up a few misconceptions, some presuppositions about the problem.  I think some fans will observe others debating the question, “What is anime?” and attribute one or more beliefs or ideas to the interlocutors that actually have no necessary connection to the demarcation problem itself.  Now, invariably, anyone reading this can hop onto Twitter and round up a bunch of examples of anime fans discussing the demarcation problem who adhere to one or more of the ideas I claim aren’t necessarily tied to it.  I am not arguing here that this never occurs.  I am claiming that there is no logical necessity tying the demarcation discussion to these other beliefs I discuss below.  These incidental ideas may happen to be held be some demarcationists, but they aren’t essential features of the argument.  Furthermore, that there are concrete, real life examples of people who want to figure this stuff out who also don’t subscribe to the ideas below.

So, here are some common misconceptions regarding the anime demarcation problem:


This Problem Is Unique To Anime

Many who don’t see any practical utility in discussing anime’s demarcation problem will throw their hands up in exasperation while thinking to themselves, “Only anime fans could get wrapped up in a debate so utterly pedantic.”  Without disputing the otaku penchant for pedantry, I will note that arguing about definitions has a long and important history, particularly in some fields that might surprise you.  According to the distinguished philosopher of science Larry Laudan (from whom I borrow the phrase “demarcation problem”), we’ve been trying to demarcate science from pseudoscience for over 400 years (!), since the scientists of the seventeenth-century first began to reject Aristotle’s criteria for scientific inquiry.  That discussion has carried on in science and philosophy up to this very day.

Now, most practicing scientists probably couldn’t care less whether or not the work they’re doing falls under a rigorous theoretical definition of science, and the same likely holds true for animators working on Japanese TV productions (2).  I’m not trying to lend unearned gravitas to the anime demarcation discussion; rather, I simply want to point out that semantic (somehow this has become a bad word) disputes are not trivial by nature and have been engaged in by intelligent people of all types for a long, long time.  The fact that the solution to a theoretical problem doesn’t hold practical utility for most people should not be grounds for its immediate dismissal as unimportant.


“What Is Anime?” Is A Normative Question

Attempting to demarcate anime from non-anime is categorically not an attempt at sorting the good cartoons from the bad.  Anyone who would disguise the latter as the former can be safely ignored.  I’ve observed the curious phenomenon of fans becoming angry that some proposed demarcation criterion would classify a show they like as non-anime.  It seems as if some fans believe that saying an animation is not anime is to insult that animation somehow.  Why?

At some point, the term “anime” became infused with value.  Perhaps this can be partially attributed to how it was marketed to foreign audiences.  When anime was first making inroads as a viable consumer product in America, distributors like Manga Entertainment sought to draw a hard line between anime and traditional Western animation by marketing anime as graphically violent and explicitly sexual material (link NSFW).  Anime was superior because of blood ‘n boobs.  The proceeding decade saw anime marketing target a younger demographic (3), so it didn’t identify the product as closely with the R Rated.  Yet, it was still sold as cool because of its otherness.  Maybe somewhere along the way, the message about anime as unique entertainment product was subconsciously heard/interpreted as a normative statement.

The above is only a theory, and, at best, explains only part of the reason for the misconception of the demarcation problem as a normative one.  In reality, the demarcation problem is merely a question of fact and definition, not which animations get to be considered cool.  Any additional claims about the inherent superiority of one kind of animation over another are stowaways aboard the good ship Demarcation and, thus, should not be considered part of the ship itself.


It’s  Actually Just A Purity Test

A slightly different, more specific version of the above misconception is that the demarcation problem is nothing more than a purity test (around 35:00).  Some fans believe that the question, “What is anime?” is actually code for, “How Japanese is your animation?”  Unless you have either the correct number of Japanese people working on an animation, or Japanese people comprise the appropriate creative positions on the animation staff, your production is not anime…or so the characterization goes.  Fans adhering to the purity test objection, and thus rejecting the demarcation problem, may be motivated by the inclusive notion that everybody should have the opportunity to make an anime if they want to (4) or they may just be looking for a reason to dismiss the discussion.

First, this depiction of the problem presupposes its answer.  Certainly, geography and the culture in which the creatives spent their formative years are possible criteria for demarcation; however, these are not the only possible criteria.  Many people would define anime according to its narrative, stylistic or filmic elements.  Others would look at the financial side of things e.g. who is funding the production or who is an animation’s intended audience.  Assuming that demarcation is a purity test dismisses these hypotheses out of hand.  Rather than excluding their viability through the very framing of the problem, one should consider these and other possible demarcation criteria and evaluate them on their merits.

I said earlier that the purity test assumption is a more specific version of the assumption of normativity.  Even calling the demarcation problem a “purity test” gives away the fact that these objectors see demarcation as a normative enterprise.  There’s nothing built into the demarcation problem to adjudicate the purity of an animation.  Logically speaking, demarcation is an exercise in classification only; it is a discussion seeking to develop more precise categories and more accurate language.  Even if one’s demarcation criteria involve geography and culture, this does not imply that they are saying anime is pure or that because one animation features more Japanese talent it is purer than those that feature less.  The term purity connotes superior value, and, again, these sorts of considerations are external to the demarcation problem itself. (5)


It Has Been Sufficiently Solved

Some fans don’t engage with the demarcation problem because they just don’t think it’s a problem.  For these folks, the question, “What is anime?” has been answered sufficiently.  Yet, I believe that the Shelter controversy illustrates that (a) there is no consensus in the anime community regarding demarcation and (b) demarcation criteria that may have previously held up under scrutiny will become less and less useful as time goes on.  Consider the geographic criteria, which draw the borders of anime around “animations made chiefly by Japanese creators for Japanese audiences.” I have espoused this as an adequate definition for anime, but the more I talk to people and the more I look into the way anime production is going, the more I believe that the globalization of the industry is going to make this definition obsolete.  

To Be Hero serves as a fine example here.  This offbeat comedy is produced by Haoliners Animation League in Shanghai, created and animated by Chinese people, supervised by Shinichi Watanabe of Excel Saga fame, and advertized and aired on both Japanese and Chinese television.  Good luck untangling this enough to determine if it meets the geographic criteria.  To Be Hero may seem like an edge case, but this won’t be true forever.  Productions like this are, in all likelihood, only going to increase in number.  As the development of technology marches forward, the diversity among and space between the collaborators only promises to get larger, and the idea of a home base of production might start to become anachronistic.


As I stated at the beginning of this piece, I’m not here to solve the demarcation problem.  But, neither am I here to declare it insoluble.  The question, “What is anime?” is a question worthy of much thought and exploration.  I want people thinking about possible solutions to this problem, not so I can ruminate in pedantry, or so that I smugly know which animations are cooler, purer or better.  Talking about anime’s demarcation problem will benefit the community by helping us zero in on what it is we are such big fans of.

End Notes

(1) Some might balk at seeing this anime/non-anime binary.  This article is not concerned with defending the concept of binaries of even bivalent logic in general.  However, when we classify items, we put them in a group because they meet a list of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions.  We call this animal a goose and not a duck because it meets the criteria for gooseness rather than duckhood.  This seems to be how we get by with language and correct each other’s’ word use.

(2) The analogy breaks down when one introduces the further complication that the word “anime” holds different meanings in different cultures.  Where a scientist might be angry that some proposed definition of science makes room for horoscopes, a Japanese animator would likely shrug if you told them that your definition of anime includes The World of David the Gnome.

(3) Due in no small part to the diversification of the kinds of anime being  licensed and distributed in America.

(4) This motivation, while coming from a good place, seems problematic to me because it is assuming the definition of anime in its objection to the pursuit of a definition of anime.  If everyone should be able to make an anime, then what exactly is it that they should be able to make?

(5) Many advocates of geographic and cultural demarcation still consider co-productions to be anime, but, if they were concerned with purity, surely co-productions would be deemed less pure than animations created by only Japanese people.  The argument of the objector isn’t that demarcation is about seeking some magic number of Japanese people that need to be involved with an animation a la the Sorties Paradox…is it?  Because, I see very little evidence of this practice.


Add yours →

  1. A lot of us are just happy to watch and let the definitions take care of themselves. You’ve raised some interesting points about why the discussion tends to go nowhere when people do discuss the definition though.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your position! Not every fan of something has to engage with it at the same level. I think consumption is a perfectly healthy stance for the individual and the fan community to which they belong, so long as the consumer isn’t disparaging those who engage at other level just for that engagement.

      It’s unfortunate that the discussion goes nowhere if people are assuming that these “stowaway” positions/ideas are essential features of the discussion (i.e. if you are a discusser of x, you believe list Y). Hopefully recognizing these misconceptions for what they are, things that have no necessary connection to the discussion, others can be encouraged to participate. Because arguing about demarcation doesn’t entail that you believe in the purity test, etc.!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Was there actually a real controversy about Shelter being anime or not, or was it just a bunch of Reddit moderators being clueless, followed by the usual dumster fire of overreaction and death threats from Reddit users? Because from all I’ve seen, nobody else had a problem with it. Looking at it from the perspective of Damon Knight’s old definition of science fiction — “what we point to when we say it” — Shelter was clearly anime.

    Knight’s definition is an acknowledgement that it is impossible to define any medium, genre or artform 100% correctly, that this is largely a futile exercise and it’s more fruitful to look at what the community as a whole thinks it is about. It helps explain why people can get angry about definitions that exclude their particular edge case, as it would exclude it and them from the broader anime community.

    it “solves” the demarcation problem by shifting the focus from the individual work under discussion to how the community receives it: is it produced by an anime studio, does it involve well known anime creators, is it streamed by an anime streaming services, do the usual suspects tweet about it, blog about it, pirate it, undsoweiter. it’s a dynamic, evolving process which I personally find more fruitful and interesting than having a definition argument.

    (Which of course means that there is a case to be made that Thunderbolt Fantasy is also anime)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love this comment. There’s a lot to respond to here, but I will start with this: why define artistic mediums and not other things (like ducks) by ostension? We decided to call ducks “ducks” because of ostention, but our classification of them, our definition of them, is an intensional definition (list of individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions). We have a definition for the artistic medium of animation already; I don’t think there is argument about that. The argument is about this subsection of it that isn’t a genre or a new medium…it’s just this other thing (to us anyway). When do communities get to do the defining and why? Is it just for practical reasons because creating intensional definitions that don’t fall into the traps of the demarcation problem proves to be to difficult? And, what if communities disagree on definition and usage? Does then the community split and each has its own “private” language?


  3. I’m glad you followed up the discussion from WaruiDeshou with a written piece. Messy problems oftenly make for interesting disussions.

    I think you are pretty spot on with the conflation of demarcation and normativity. A reason for that might be that “Anime” has become the foundation of fanhood’s identity. People run Anime-websites, Anime-blogs, Anime-youtube-channels and consider themselfes Anime-fans.

    As a result of that, the idea that a certain cartoon might not be anime can become a problem for the people that like it and wish to discuss and celebrate it. Because then, this cartoon might stand outside of the confines of the fandom and it’s institutions. Anime-fans can only concern themselfes with a cartoon if it is “Anime”. This means, that a problem of demarcation can quickly become a normative problem, if not beeing Anime means to be excluded from the discourse.


  4. So we’re trying to define an English loanword of a Japanese loanword of an English word, huh?

    The demarcation dispute gets even trickier when you include a lot of things that have a strong relationship to anime but are clearly not anime, because the phrase “anime fandom” is not used to refer specifically to anime. Visual novels, light novels, and manga are clearly not anime, but as many anime are based off them, discussion of “anime fandom” implicitly includes them for simplicity’s sake. Then you have things like Thunderbolt Fantasy, which is clearly not anime, but since it’s written by Gen Urobuchi and a few Japanese companies were involved, it still gets seen as being within the anime sphere of discussion. So if we’re talking about what sort of discussion should be allowed in a community, as is the case with the Reddit Shelter debate, I think definition needs to be a bit looser and more flexible, since drawing distinctions like “you can talk about Azumanga Daioh but not Yotsuba& since only the former has an anime adaptation” or “you can talk about Berserk, but only the arcs that have been adapted” get to be ridiculous.

    I think that, in the future, the line between what is and isn’t anime is going to get hugely blurred. Eastern and western media are already symbiotically influencing each other. But for now, I think there’s a clear distinction: if a piece of animated media is produced by a staff with a predominantly Japanese cultural background, that’s anime. “Japanese cultural background” meaning “having lived a large portion of life in Japan.” “Predominantly” meaning “enough to have notable influence.” Coproduction would be influence shared in roughly equal measures–an “anime but also not anime” zone where drawing distinctions becomes largely pedantic.

    For example, back in 2012, there was a PV for something called “Ladybug” that was a coproduction between Zagtoon, Method, and Toei Animation that was clearly using a Japanese animation style and used many tropes from the magical girl genre. Definitely notable anime influence. Somewhere in production, there was a major shift, and it became a CG cartoon, with Toei’s involvement fading out. We saw character designs shifting to reflect the change more, the magical girl elements shifting to something more like superheroes, and a story structure more commonly seen in western television. A bit of Toei’s influence remained, but the series was no longer “anime” or even “an anime coproduction” as much as it was “French animation.” French writers and directors, French animation companies, a French setting…that’s undeniably the predominant cultural background the show was born from, so it’s undeniably a French cartoon.

    And there’s obviously nothing wrong with drawing distinctions like that. Despite artistic similarities, manga is not manhua is not manhwa is not western comics. Manhua and manhwa are more likely to show up in discussion of anime spheres just because China, Taiwan, and Korea are closer to Japan geographically, linguistically, and culturally. But then again, clearly western media with some form of Japanese influence like Stephen Universe, Scott Pilgrim, RWBY, or Pacific Rim are likely to pop up in those conversations as well. And maybe someday, coproduction will become the norm and we’ll have to abandon or repurpose the term “anime” in favor of something more broad. I just don’t think that day has come yet.

    Liked by 1 person

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