Is Avatar: The Last Airbender an Anime, After All?

Is Avatar an Anime
Credit: Nickelodeon

Is Avatar an Anime
Credit: Nickelodeon

Is Avatar: The Last Airbender an anime? It is most definitely a remarkable animated series with solid world-building and deep, believable character development but its status is ambiguous.

It's hard to deny that a large part of Avatar's success is its world and style, which are inspired by Asian cultures and heavily influenced by Japanese anime.

The art, fight sequences, character tropes, and 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 calling Avatar: The Last Airbender an anime can be uncritical, though the boundaries between anime and cartoons are more and more blurred.

What Is Anime?

Zuko in hallway
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Credit: Nickelodeon

A simple definition of anime is "Japanese movie and television animation, often with a science fiction subject."

In The Anime Encyclopedia, the shortest definition of anime provided is "animation from Japan".

Meanwhile, others recognize that the case can, at times, be more complicated, due to all the conventions the word has come to be associated with.

Therefore, it should be safe to consider anime as Japanese animated works that are created in anime studios and display conventions and characteristics normally associated with anime style.

So, Is Avatar: The Last Airbender an Anime or Cartoon?

Is Avatar The Last Airbender an Anime or Cartoon
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Credit: Nickelodeon

Avatar: The Last Airbender does have the characteristic anime 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.

Still, Western and Japanese audiences alike might refer to Avatar as an anime.

Some might even argue that, since Japanese people often use the word "anime" for most cartoons regardless of origin, it shouldn't be a problem if non-Japanese fans do the same.

Anime Isn't a Genre

ATLA cartoon vs anime
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Credit: Nickelodeon

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, villains, and coming-of-age themes are elements Avatar shares with many anime series.

It can't be denied that Avatar 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.

Anime as an Industry

Zuko redeeming himself
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Western influences and methods of distribution (such as the increasing number of Netflix anime originals) mean we cannot only think of anime in Japanese terms anymore.

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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.

Avatar: The Last Airbender as an Animated Series

ATLA Anime
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Credit: Nickelodeon

So, is it 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.

While calling Avatar an anime won't feel right for everyone, it's becoming increasingly hard to draw a line between anime and non-anime.

The way we 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 American animation studio.

So, while calling Avatar an anime or cartoon isn't technically problematic, you can't go wrong by calling it an "animation" or "animated series."

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