Avatar: The Last Airbender is a remarkable animated series with solid world-building and deep, believable character development. Compared to other works of Western animation that tended to focus on fun, humorous narratives and be sustained by an episodic nature, Avatar took its time to develop its plot.
It created a memorable magical system and well-loved characters as well as nuanced villains. The series, which spans from 2005 to 2008 is considered by many one of the greatest cartoons of all time... but some don't call Avatar a "cartoon," or even an "animation."
It's hard to deny that a large part of Avatar's success is its world – inspired by Asian cultures – and its style – heavily influenced by Japanese anime. The art, fight sequences, character tropes, and the overall culture of Avatar: The Last Airbender means that a lot of people consider the series an anime. But is looking like an anime the same as being one?
Here is a breakdown of the reasons why calling Avatar: The Last Airbender an anime can be uncritical, depending on the context.
Is Avatar: The Last Airbender An Anime or Cartoon? What Is Anime?
A simple Wikipedia definition of anime is "hand-drawn and computer animation originating from Japan." In The Anime Encyclopedia by Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy, the shortest definition of anime provided is "Anime refers to animation from Japan" (2006 edition, page 30).
In Anime; A History, anime scholar Jonathan Clements recognizes that the case can, at times, be more complicated, due to all the conventions the world has come to be associated with.
But to keep this discussion accessible and not too academically loaded, for the purposes of this discussion it should be safe to consider anime as Japanese animated works, created in anime studios and displaying a series of conventions and characteristics normally associated with anime style.
Avatar: The Last Airbender does have this characteristic style to a larger extent than most Western animated works. However, being an American, rather than a Japanese show, means that it can't comfortably fit into the simplest possible anime definition.
Yet, Western audiences still refer to Avatar as an anime. Some might even argue that, since Japanese people often use to word "anime" for most cartoons regardless of origin, it shouldn't be a problem if non-Japanese fans do the same.
But should Western audiences do something just because non-Western people do it too? Since general, non-geographically loaded terms such as "animation" and "cartoon" do exist, why not use them for Western works instead? While calling Avatar an anime might not be the worst possible form of cultural appropriation, the case is still quite complicated.
Is Avatar: The Last Airbender An Anime or Cartoon? Anime Isn't a Genre
It's true that Avatar: The Last Airbender consciously and openly borrows a lot of elements we associate with anime... but not with all anime. The magic system, battle sequences that are choreographed in an anime-like style, the odd villains, and the coming-of-age themes, with characters keen on becoming stronger and improving their world and themselves, are elements Avatar shares with many anime series.
But there are just as many anime works that have no such elements. These tropes are associated primarily with fantasy anime, particularly those marketed as shōnen. A shōnen is targeted towards a young male audience though not necessarily watched exclusively by this demographic.
For some, of course, this is the default anime aesthetic due to the popularity of series such as Fullmetal Alchemist, One Piece, and Naruto. However, fantasy shōnen coming-of-age narratives are far from the only stories anime tell. There are works with a slice of life-type telling simple stories that might have easily been told in another medium.
Horror works such as Another tell contemporary takes of small communities in darker, more subdued tones. Realistic adult works with a darker, more grounded animation style like Death Note with no whimsical magic or choreographed fights are still called "anime" because they fit the definition discussed above: works animated in Japan.
This complicates the question of whether Avatar is an anime even further. It can't be denied that the series intentionally uses elements most often found in Japanese anime. But rather than simply saying that Avatar is an anime because it has been influenced by them, it might also be useful to consider: which anime? It's hard to claim that any work has been influenced by anime as a whole because there is no such thing as a list of characteristics that encompass all anime. The industry is more diverse than that.
Is Avatar: The Last Airbender An Anime or Cartoon? Anime as an Industry
Fantasy anime films like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke can provide insights about Japanese culture at a specific point in history, or as it's moving forward. But this is far from their only subject matter. Kuroshitsuji (also known as BlackButler), for instance, might feature certain tropes we associate with anime, especially in its complex villains, but the anime is set in Victorian England and borrows from gothic traditions.
This doesn't make them it of an anime. Western influences and methods of distribution (such as the increasing number of anime Netflix originals) mean that we cannot only think of anime in Japanese terms anymore. But they are still created in Japanese anime studios, mostly by Japanese artists, and originally voiced in Japanese, so we don't need to question whether they are anime.
While Avatar is indeed influenced by anime tropes, being influenced by something is not the same as being something. The art might be very much like anime, with the Nations echoing South and East Asian cultures.
But as anime are influenced by non-Japanese cultures, so Western animation can occasionally be influenced by Asian cultures. This is not necessarily a problem as long as it's done respectfully and with the necessary research.
But to automatically consider a Western, primarily Anglophone work as an anime because it looks like one without at least considering all these points is to ignore the nuances and complex history of Japanese anime.
So, is it always wrong to call Avatar: The Last Airbender an anime? Those who work in the Japanese anime industry might be better qualified to explain whether doing so is disrespectful to Japanese culture.
But what of those who aren't content with the word "cartoon?" There's nothing strictly wrong with the word, but it has been used in the past for works besides what we currently consider as animated films and series, such as comics in newspapers. There's the idea of "cartoon" being misused as a derogatory term to refer to less mature works. This shouldn't be the case of course, but some people still think of complex, sophisticated animated works as "anime" because many of these sophisticated works do come from Japan.
The way I see it, Avatar is a great series, that borrows from anime works – many of which are also great. But it is still a Nickelodeon work, and Nickelodeon is an Animation Studio. So, while I understand where those who call Avatar an anime come from, you can't go wrong by calling it an "animation."