IT’S JAPANESE ANIMATION……BUT IS IT ANIME?

If you grew up like me in the 80’s then at some point you may have watched some Japanese animation without being aware of what you were watching. When you’re a kid that sort of thing doesn’t really matter, if it’s cool it’s cool regardless of its origin. In another article published last year, I touched on the topic of “westernisation”; the process of editing and changing important elements of an anime TV show or movie to supposedly appeal to a non-Japanese audience. However what I want to talk about in this article is something quite different.

While there’s a chance you sampled some anime growing up in decades gone by, albeit in a censored or otherwise altered form, you almost DEFINITELY watched some animation produced in Japan but intended for other territories and that’s what I want to talk about here.

Most of the iconic cartoons of our youth that many people who aren’t into anime think of as “American” (or in some cases European) had episodes produced in Japan due to “outsourcing” of labour. For some of those shows it was an odd episode, yet for others it was pretty much the entire show. The Transformers, Thundercats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Real Ghostbusters, Dungeons and Dragons and countless others all had episodes that were animated in Japan. While artists and animators were given reference sheets and character design documents to work from so they could match their drawings with the “master” design, often a bit of the artists individual styles filtered through resulting in quite different versions of the same characters. In several of the series mentioned above you can see examples of characters undergoing a radical transformation between episodes. It’s the sort of thing you probably wouldn’t notice as a child but definitely would as an adult.

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Chip Chase from The Transformers looking decidely anime-like in this frame of animation from an early episode animated by anime studio Toei.

I’ve rewatched a lot of the shows I loved as a kid and some of them still hold up pretty well. However it is quite jarring to see a character’s design morph from something very clearly aimed at a western audience to something that looks like it was lifted from an 80’s anime in the space of one episode.
Then there’s the case of Japanese/French co-productions between Jean Chalopin and various anime studios that gave birth to genre classics such as The Mysterious Cities of Gold, Ulysses 31 and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors.

You could argue that the shows that only had a certain number of Japanese produced episodes aren’t anime because they weren’t solely produced in Japan for a Japanese audience, however the distinction becomes a lot more murky when faced with the shows mentioned in the paragraph above. These are animated shows that were intended for both Japanese and French audiences simultaneously whose animation was produced solely in Japan. So where do you draw the line?
I think of them as “co-productions” between different countries because that’s exactly what they were, however it’s hard not to think of them as anime at times in the face of their visual styles.

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Presto from Dungeons and Dragons losing his cool  with a very anime-esque expression. Pretty sure Toei did this one too.

People get too hung up on labelling things this and that these days. I sometimes see disagreements between Transformers fans as to whether the original 1984 series is anime or not. When you consider a lot of the character designs, concepts and art design in general were Japanese in origin and the entire concept was based on the Japanese  Diaclone and Microman toylines ( Likely influenced by the mecha anime boom of the 70s and 80s) there’s a huge anime influence there. Many of the robot designs seem to have been influenced by the super robot genre and there are lots of moments where it feels more like anime than a western cartoon.

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Sideswipe and most of the original Transformers Cast with humanoid faces closely resemble designs found in the “Super robot” genre of anime.

These shows are all a part of anime’s hugely interesting and long-winded journey west. Though anime had been “westernised” and dubbed since the 60’s with shows like Mach Go Go Go and Tetsuwan Atom (Speed Racer and Astro Boy), I feel because there were so many shows airing simultaneously with aspects of anime culture in them during the 80’s, that probably contributed to my love for anime in later life. As an adult I have since learned which of the shows airing during that time were Japanese imports and which ones merely had an anime influence.

It’s an almost eerie bit of foreshadowing to think that one of the things that wowed me the most in my childhood cartoons was the Odyssey in Ulysses 31. A gigantic, exquisitely detailed spaceship with a huge eye on the front that was the home of the titular hero Ulysses and his companions. It turns out that the ship was designed by none other than Shoji Kawamori, a legendary mechanical designer in anime. He worked on a huge number of my favourite anime shows that I’ve since discovered as an adult and I still love that Odyssey design to this day.

I think some of the internet sticklers, elitists and general trolls consider certain mediums to be less “worthy” than others. Likely if someone’s refusing to accept a certain show is classed as anime then they probably have a problem with the medium and can’t accept that their oh so wonderful chosen fandom could be lumped in with it. My bottom line: you can make arguments for and against on the shows with some episodes produced in Japan and not others but really they’re all just part of the legacy of Japanese animation. The ones written and envisaged in countries like France but designed/animated in Japan for both a French and a Japanese market that later got exported with a dub to different territories definitely are anime to me: just anime that wasn’t solely made by the Japanese.
Whether you agree on what stuff is or isn’t classified as anime I think we can all agree we got to watch some pretty memorable and iconic shows growing up in that era.

Craig’s Note: Apologies about some of the image quality in this article. I usually screencap from DVDs and Blu Rays however some of my images were taken using my phone’s camera from a magazine on 80’s cartoons that illustrated some of the points I was trying to make. This was a lot quicker than having to spend ages hunting through individual episodes of shows and taking screencaps.

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Panthro during the opening sequence of Thundercats about to unleash a dynamic flying kick perfectly timed with the music. This amazingly fluid and detailed opening sequence (arguably the most impressive of all 80’s cartoons) was animated by a little known studio called Topcraft who folded but went on to absorb a lot of their animators into Studio Ghibli.  The show itself was handled by another very skilled Japanese studio called Pacific Animation. This gave Thundercats 131 episodes a remarkably consistent level of quality compared to most 80’s shows however the opening sequence remains one of the best examples of what an anime studio is capable of when not battling time restrictions and budget.

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