Another blogger, iniksbane, has responded to my piece ‘What is Anime’. Their response is worth reading in full, and I think we are more closely in agreement than that essay makes out. Where I disagree is the characterization that the vibe of anime is merely melodrama. I think that, in trying to trace the mechanisms by which the vibe of anime were created & identify where similar media appear, I have neglected to clearly lay out what I think is shared among most anime, overestimating the degree to which readers have a shared understanding of what is meant by ‘anime’ outside of the context of actual animated material made in Japan for a Japanese audience.
For one thing, although much anime is melodramatic, I think what we are looking at is closer to ‘camp’. Shows like Serial Experiments Lain, Boogiepop Phantom, and Texhnolyze are not melodramatic: they do not emphasize the emotional states of characters. They do, however, make the invisible visible through semi-diagetic stylistic decisions. This is what I meant when I said “What defines anime is that it favors semiotic bandwidth over realism: the world of anime is constructed so as to be absolutely saturated with subtextual meaning.” When this subtext is emotional, you get melodrama.
That said, semiotic saturation is common in pulp media of all stripes. Whenever you have a lot to say and limited resources to say it with, you will necessarily lean on stand-ins. Pulp media is, typically, genre media because genre provides both a guaranteed audience and a code with its own history. Anime is eclectic, and an anime from one genre will often borrow conventions from non-anime from completely different genres, but the logic remains.
Every pulp tradition has its own history, wherein tropes get established and explored in an environment of happy creative plaigarism. Every genre in anime has its own set of tropes, but just as anime borrows outside of its own medium, genre anime borrows outside of its own genre.
That said, anime (especially recently) is mostly in dialogue with the anime media mix. This is in part a side effect of the incestuous anime industry, and in part a side effect of ever-expanding media mix strategies: if a mobile game gets turned into an anime, it will get a manga and a light novel too! The light novel space is at least in part an ascended-fandom space these days, so today’s anime adaptations of 5 year old light novels are reflections of 10 year old trends in anime. Being in dialogue with anime is a big part of what makes things recognizably anime.
Here’s my provisional definition of what makes something anime:
in situations where realism conflicts with efficient communication, anime will choose efficient communication
in situations where it is more efficient to invoke a trope than to reinvent it, anime will invoke that trope, unless reinventing the trope is necessary for the subversion it intends to produce
anime is in conversation with other anime, in terms of multiple lineages of tropes
anime is in conversation with non-anime media
In other words:
Anime is a form of animation created by anime fans for an audience of anime fans.