Understanding the Medium: RWBY and Avatar

So not too long ago I did a post about the anime medium and common conceptions of source adaptations versus original works, linked here  for your convenience.  And so I figured it was time to talk about some of the shows that are at more of the fringes of the medium.  RWBY and Avatar are two very contentious shows for the anime community.  On the one hand many “purists” (which I mean to describe both good, sincere people and narrow-minded assholes who share a similar opinion) believe anime can only come from Japan, and that no matter the similarities these shows share with anime as opposed to western cartoons they aren’t anime.  The other side (sadly I lack a single umbrella term with which to name them) argues that the shows are distinctly anime-influenced and separate from western cartoons, and as such should be considered anime.  So who’s right?  Nobody is right.  I know I bet some of you are disappointed with that answer, some of you want me to grant you and your side of the argument validity, or you don’t care and just want to see my answer.  The answer is that it is up to each person to decide for themselves whether they count these shows as anime or not, there is no great anime authority which dictates what shows count as anime and which don’t.  There is community consensus, which can set guidelines on the topic, but as you can see the community is split on the issue.  Now that we’ve settled that, let me explain why I think RWBY and Avatar should be considered anime, even if my opinion is no more valid than anyone else’s.

Let’s start with Avatar as it’s the less messy of the two.  Avatar was made by Americans, in America, for Americans and hosted on an American TV channel.  So it can be easy to see why people are quick to claim it’s not anime, which comes almost entirely from Japan (or entirely from Japan if you’re a purist).  But there are marked differences between Avatar and more typical western cartoons.  The art style is distinctly more detailed when compared to many of the classic cartoons of the west, and in turn the animation is more complicated than is usual for western cartoons.  In fact most western cartoons most closely resemble original anime shows, since both feature character designs that are easier to animate when showing motion.  Avatar looks more like a manga or light novel adaptation by comparison, with loads of detail in everything from settings, to clothing, to character design.  The episode set-up is also very different.  It may have changed now, I’m not sure I haven’t watched cartoons in years, but typically cartoon episodes were split into 2 half-episode stories, much like SpongeBob still is today, and these episodes and half-episodes generally had no continuity.  They were episodic, with no over-arching story and no definite chronological progression most of the time. With Avatar we see a different approach, Avatar follows a strict chronological progression from episode to episode and a massive, singularly focused narrative that spanned four seasons, which is full of story episodes and more slow paced episodic adventures which pad out the series.  That is much more typical of anime though very few anime get four seasons to work with.  The comparisons don’t stop there either, much of the lore and details of the setting, like city names and styles of dress and so on, are more Oriental in nature, not western.  But most importantly, the culmination of all of these aspects of Avatar lead to a story, setting and characters which are far more compelling in everything they do than any other cartoon.  You see most cartoon characters are based around simple concepts and punchlines, Patrick Star for example is an idiot who makes us laugh by giving stupid solutions to simple problems.  This simplicity is not a bad thing, it just illustrates the difference between western approaches to cartoons as mostly simple entertainment as opposed to the Japanese approach to anime, which it treats more as an artform.  Are there anime that is simple and/or made solely to sell merchandise or dvds?  Sure.  But is anime as a medium treated the same way culturally that cartoons are treated here in America?  No.  And Avatar looks to me like it follows in more anime’s footsteps of being an artform than cartoons’ footsteps of being more focused on entertainment alone.   It has as much craft and soul as many of the great anime classics, and given that and all of the above reasons, I think it’s fair to consider Avatar an anime, you don’t have to see it as an anime but I think it is fair for anyone to see it as an anime, as I do.

Which brings us to RWBY, the messier of the two series.  On the one hand RWBY had more validity as an anime from the outset because it was directed by Mounty Oum, a Japanese man may he rest in peace, who characterized it as anime project.  The bit that sort of threw a wrench in the scheme was that RWBY was being made by Rooster Teeth, whose members are decidedly not Japanese.  To make things even worse Monty Oum died after the second season ended and now the third season is being handled entirely by Rooster Teeth, presumably with whatever storyline Monty was working on before he passed away.  With all this mess and RWBY’s original starting point in a sort of gray area, as it was a collaboration of east and west, I can see why some people consider it easier, and maybe more correct, to deny RWBY as an anime.  I of course beg to differ.  The reasons I think RWBY is an anime stems mostly from how experimental it is.  Even in Japan full on CG animation is rare and while it often doesn’t produce great results, it is still cutting edge as far animation techniques go.  RWBY takes that formula even further, by making the project one without a single country of origin but a group project between individuals of differing nationalities.  RWBY is more of an art project relative to most cartoons not because it has all the polish and nuance that Avatar did, because it definitely doesn’t although it has generally improved as time goes on.  It’s more of an artform because it is trying to push the medium and even the very conception of how anime can be made in a whole new direction.  That’s something rare, so rare in fact, some people consider it foreign to anime entirely.  And even if you don’t what to call RWBY an anime, can you really call it a cartoon?  It’s characters are more cartoonish and simplistic but the narrative structure is more like Avatar’s and by extension more reflective of an anime.  And the visual style is anything but cartoon, that may change someday but until Cartoon network starts making CG cartoons I’d say RWBY is definitely closer to anime in the visual department.  Now with all that said I have no more validity than anyone else who wants to argue if RWBY is an anime or not, but I think for the reasons laid out above that it is an anime and that it should not be a sin in the community to think of it as such.  In closing all I can say is that I’m glad to see RWBY continue, Monty’s death is major blow to the series in many ways but I’m glad it was not RWBY’s deathblow, and if he were able to communicate from beyond the grave I think he would say the same thing.  You don’t try to make a crazy experimental show without a real passion for the art and trying to expand it, and for that as much as anything else I think plants RWBY firmly in the anime camp.

Thank you for reading.  I hope you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s