Is ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ an anime?

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Is Avatar an anime? If ever there were a hill to die on, this age-old debate would be anyone’s final stand. Seemingly since Avatar: The Last Airbender premiered on Nickelodeon in 2005, the question has haunted web forums and con halls alike, and for good reason.

Avatar introduced many to animation and for some even legitimized its place on our screens. While anime has influenced Western animation for years, Avatar felt like it had something more in it.  Conventions of anime are apparent in Avatar. Beach episodes and tournament arcs, character archetypes, teenagers toppling empires, and the Avatar state is really just a super saiyan-esque transformation sequence when you think about it. But influence and homage do not an anime make.

Really, this question isn’t about Avatar. It’s about anime, and you know what that means ⏤ we have to define what an anime is.

Merriam-Webster defines anime as “a style of animation originating in Japan that is characterized by stark colorful graphics depicting vibrant characters in action-filled plots often with fantastic or futuristic themes.” The Wikipedia page for anime says that it “is hand-drawn and computer-generated animation originating from Japan.” Both emphasize that anime originates in Japan, though the word itself is actually just a shortened form of the English ”animation” used to describe all animation in Japan. 

More importantly, though, it’s important to understand that anime is a medium ⏤ not a genre, and not some singular art style. That’s why arguments that Avatar is like an anime don’t cut it. A live-action movie could have a tsundere with some cool power-ups that fights in a tournament arc and stops a global war, but we wouldn’t ask if it’s literally anime.

But anime is animation, right? Well, are “cartoon” and “anime” so easily interchangeable?

The two have separate cons and streaming platforms for a reason, even if it’s more of a cultural one than a technical one. And whether they technically are hardly matters when Crunchyroll and Nickelodeon are serving two altogether separate purposes to audiences and animators alike. More importantly, though, when we talk about animation or anime, we know we’re talking about different things. 

Avatar is the center of this debate because it straddles that line. But while it may blend in among the crowds of Anime Expo and would be right at home on Crunchyroll, Avatar would still be a cartoon, and it wouldn’t be any lesser for it.