Avatar: The Last Airbender, for those of you who know little to nothing about it, is one of the best cartoons I’ve ever seen. It appeals to its intended audience of children through its aesthetics and zany humor (neither of which you need to be a kid to appreciate), but it’s also got a well-developed cast of characters and a three-season story line in which the consequences of the characters’ choices matter. It’s the first kids’ show I’ve seen in a long time that is more than just a show for kids. Avatar is truly for all ages, like Sesame Street was back in the days before Jim Henson died and the people who are now in charge of its production took a wrecking ball to it.
With many influences on the show’s development and production having come from Japanese cartoons and Asian cultures in general, the overall style of the show is very reminiscent of anime. Since Avatar‘s all-ages appeal has combined with its high quality to attract a large fan base among those old enough to wield words on the Internet, numerous debates have sprung up here and there over one question: “Is Avatar: The Last Airbender an anime?” In one sense, yes it is. But for practical purposes in English-speaking cultures, it is not, and it should therefore be in the family section at Blockbuster, instead of the anime section.
Let’s start by looking at how it is an anime. The Japanese word アニメ, transliterated into roman characters as “anime”, is their word for “cartoon.” It was shamelessly stolen from our own English word “animation” and shortened to make it easier and faster for the Japanese to say. By that definition, the word “anime” is a label not just for Japanese cartoons, but for animated films of any kind and length from any country. Three-dimensional animations and stop-motion animations, for instance, as well as every Disney movie with animation in it count, along with cartoons from China, France, Australia, and anywhere else you can think of.
English-speaking cultures, on the other hand, apply the anime label specifically to cartoons coming out of Japan.
There’s an amazing variety of cartoons produced in Japan. Unlike the United States, where cartoons are generally aimed at children, they have cartoons aimed at all demographics — children, teenage boys, teenage girls, housewives, 40 year-old businessmen, etc. Only a small fraction of these, however, are translated into English for sale and purchase in the western world. The ones that make it overseas have many things in common, in terms of aesthetics, animation style, and storytelling techniques.
It is those stylistic elements that most people in English-speaking cultures use to identify a cartoon’s point of origin. However, many of today’s animators in the west have been heavily influenced by the styling of Japanese cartoons. As a result, cartoons produced in the west grow to look more and more like the cartoons that come out of Japan. The aesthetic line is blurring, which means we must turn to other factors to determine whether or not a cartoon should be classified as anime.
The first thing to look at is where the cartoon was originally produced. There are some clear-cut examples we can make here: any Disney film will have been produced in the United States, and is therefore not an anime; any cartoon to come out of Studio Ghibli was produced in Japan, and is therefore an anime by western definition. Films produced by Studio Ghibli and then translated and dubbed by Disney for release in the U.S.A. (like Princess Mononoke) were still created by Studio Ghibli, and are therefore still anime. In fact, whether or not a cartoon had to be translated into English is perhaps even more telling. If it was originally in Japanese, it’s probably anime. If it was originally in English, it’s probably not. Both of these factors could be confounded, though, if for instance a cartoon envisioned by British folk were produced by Japanese folk in Japan.
The most important factor to consider is the culture of the creator(s). Culture is a huge influence on a person and is bound to come out in anything artistic they create, regardless of medium (and in spite of any other cultural influences on the final product). In a cartoon it will display most in how the characters speak and interact with each other and the forms that jokes take. These things can be hard to find in a translated cartoon if the translation is good, though.
So, back to Avatar in particular. It was created by two Americans and produced by Nickelodeon Studios, which is an American company. The cartoon’s original language is English. And if you ever watch the show, it’s got American humor coming out its wazoo, including puns. (Puns are almost impossible to keep funny in translation, which would hint at English as the original language even if it weren’t produced by a most decidedly American production studio.) As such, we cannot label Avatar: The Last Airbender as an anime by the standards of English-speaking cultures. This may need to be modified for other cultures Blockbuster services according to their own genre definitions, but in English-speaking countries Blockbuster Video should be putting it in the Family section of their rental racks with the rest of Nickelodeon’s productions instead of the Anime section.