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6 Japan-International Co-Productions Revisited

by Lynzee Loveridge,

Back in early 2014, I wrote a column about international co-productions with Japanese studios. That column had a general "here's some shows you might not know were animated in Japan or financed outside of Japan" focus, but this column is more of a look at how the boundaries that dictate what anime is have begun to change. International streaming companies are now funding shows, some anime series are being produced entirely to court other countries' markets, and key staff aren't solely Japanese anymore.

This became a hot topic this week when music producer Porter Robinson worked with A-1 Pictures and Crunchyroll to create a music video, which cast a Japanese voice actress and all the prominent technical staff were Japanese as well. However, because Robinson is not Japanese, moderators of the anime subreddit declared it "not anime" and removed the post from its top spot on the page. This was later reversed after fan outcry, but the thinking behind these stringent definitions is hardly new. One only has to look back on the reception to Tokyopop's "World Manga" line and the attempts to publish manhwa in the U.S. during the manga boom. There's never been much positive reception to anything considered to be anime or manga "imitations."

I don't intend to offer any concrete answers to the "is this anime?" question. Instead, let these examples work as jumping-off points for the conversation around the ever-changing definition.

The Last Unicorn Peter S. Beagle's late '60s fantasy novel has remained on the map in no small part because of the animated film adaptation by Top Craft studios. The animation studio served as a precursor to Studio Ghibli and produced a number of animated films based on English literature, The Last Unicorn and The Hobbit being among them. Anime studios adapting non-Japanese works is hardly unusual: look at many of Ghibli's films for a quick example. The difference with The Last Unicorn, however, is that it was produced for an American theatrical release in English. If a work is animated in Japan, regardless of its target audience or original source material, is it anime?

Bloodivores, TO BE HERO, Cheating Craft The Shanghai-based Haoliners and its Japanese counterpart Emon Animation Company are churning out a high number of animation shorts and mid-length episodes this year. The adaptations have mainly pulled from popular Chinese webcomics with middling reception from anime fans. The staff on these shows are a blend of both Chinese and Japanese animation professionals, and while the voice cast and script are in Japanese, the production is targeting a lucrative Chinese audience. As long as streaming agreements outside of Japan are profitable, you can expect to see Japanese animation studios producing more works for their foreign markets.

Franco-Japanese Production Staff French animators have a growing presence in Japan's animation studios. Art designer Thomas Romain, Yann Le Gall, Cédric Hérole, Stanislas Brunet, and many other French professionals are rounding out animation staff at studios like Satelight. The studio has hired so much French talent that it's joking referred to as Satelight's "French team." The best example of this growing presence is probably Yapiko Animation, a studio founded in both countries with both French and Japanese animation staff. The company launched the successful "Urbance" Kickstarter campaign with animation director Hiroshi Shimizu in 2014 and delivered the pilot animation this year. Is Urbance anime if it's stylistically similar and includes Japanese staff? Is the Drifters OP not anime if it was created by a Frenchman?

Adventure Time There are probably very few of you unfamiliar with the American cartoon Adventure Time. The comedy-fantasy series is surprisingly steeped in lore with plenty of strange characters. For the episode entitled "Food Chain," Frederator Studios brought in director and animator Masaaki Yuasa (Ping Pong, Kick-Heart) and let him go to town. The result got an Annie nod and competed in that year's TV Films category at Annecy. Most viewers would classify Adventure Time as a cartoon, but would this single episode qualify as anime? Does the nationality of talent behind a production transform its classification?

The Big O Season 2 Sunrise's noir-mecha series premiered in Japan in 1999, followed by a successful run on Cartoon Network a few years later. Its success with Western audiences is no surprise, since much of the production's influences and story beats are immediately familiar to anyone who grew up watching Bruce Timm's Batman: The Animated Series. Western viewers found this immediately palatable, but Japanese audiences were less interested, and the show was cut back to 13 episodes from its originally-planned 26. Cartoon Network saw an opportunity and fronted the money for the second season. The result is a series that doesn't "look" like anime, but was made in Japan, aired first in Japan, and then paid for by an American company.

Supernatural: The Anime Series This 22-episode direct-to-video series is one in a long line of Madhouse's America-centric adaptations, falling in line behind its Marvel and DC property adaptations. This one in particular adapts the first two seasons of the American live-action series and casts some of the original actors in English dub roles, while their Japanese dub counterparts also signed on to voice the animated characters.

In closing, I hope these examples illustrate that what makes something "anime" isn't so clear-cut anymore. Is it reliant on the nationality of its staff (Japanese), and if so, what to make of the number of non-Japanese animators working in animation studios in Japan? Is it reliant on where it's produced (Japan) and its target audience (Japanese viewers), because even then, Japanese studios often create works targeting outside demographics, some even paid for by foreign entities. Finally, is it anime if a Japanese person helms it no matter what, like in the case of Yuasa taking over an episode of Adventure Time? Or is anime just a medium for storytelling that has certain design traits and story hooks? Is stuff like Totally Spies! anime or just an imitation? All these questions and more make up a complex network of different answers on how to define "anime."

The new poll: Let us know, what makes it anime?

The old poll: Having read Lauren Orsini's editorial on Newtypes, which Gundam Newtype is your favorite?

  1. Char Aznable (Mobile Suit Gundam)
  2. Kira Yamato (Gundam Seed)
  3. Amuro Ray (Mobile Suit Gundam)
  4. Banagher Links (Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn)
  5. Kamille Bidan (Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam)
  6. Sayla Mass (Mobile Suit Gundam)
  7. Mineva Lao Zabi (Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn)
  8. Haman Karn (Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam)
  9. The White Dolphin (After War Gundam X)
  10. Lalah sune (Mobile Suit Gundam)
  11. Tiffa Adill (After War Gundam X)
  12. Emma Sheen (Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam)
  13. Jamil Neate (After War Gundam X)
  14. Elpeo Ple (Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ)
  15. Seabook Arno (Mobile Suit Gundam F91)
  16. Judau Ashta (Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ)
  17. Haman Karn (Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ)
  18. Uso Ewin (Mobile Suit Victory Gundam)
  19. D.O.M.E. (After War Gundam X)

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