Enter The Anime, or How To: Orientalism 101

What is anime? Alex Burunova’s hour long Netflix documentary sells itself as an answer to this question, promising an extensive exploration of the medium. Targeted towards the uninitiated viewer, the central voice belongs to Burunova and her co-creators––all presented as strangers to anime. This premise works in theory: the audience journeys along with them to gain, at the very least, a surface level understanding of anime. Yet Burunova’s documentary––or perhaps more accurately, Netflix’s documentary––doesn’t just fail at answering its own central question. With a singular attention to marketing the streaming service’s animation features, the film manages to both fundamentally misunderstand anime and paint Japan––and all its cultural products––in poorly veiled orientalism. What is anime? Enter The Anime doesn’t know, and you won’t either.

Enter The Anime begins, as it must, in a Japanese train. Burunova narrates: “Perhaps the best way to understand the stoic surface of Japanese culture is by riding the subway. It’s quiet. Polite. Restrained. There’s a system. An order. So how does a culture like this… create this?” Cue the montage of Japanese oddities: Kabukichō robot restaurants, Harajuku-style fashion, and of course, American-produced Netflix animation shows. The spastic edits and electric music dissipates, giving way again to Burunova’s voice: “Earlier this year, I became immersed in something I knew nothing about. The dark, twisted, crazy world of anime…manga…and Japanese counterculture.” She continues, explaining that her pre-conception of anime largely revolved around imports of cute culture––Hello Kitty and the like. But Burunova discovers that anime is actually “dark, and outright fucked up.”

Burunova, almost impressively, articulates an entirely Orientalist gaze towards anime. From the outset, the documentary–– a Netflix ad really––coughs up an image of Japan already implanted in the Western imagination. This fantasy Japan, though in part produced by Japan itself, is entirely essentialized, trimmed down to several adjectives connoting a docile, passive self: quiet, polite, restrained. Furthermore, this docile self of Burunova’s imagining exists in contrast to the apparently crazy, “dark, and outright fucked up” core of anime. Underlying the film’s suggestion that culture can be fundamentally understood is an implicit suggestion that culture is a commodity. According to this logic, you can eat Japan, digest it, and assume some sort of ownership over the culture’s soul. Here, Japan is twice essentialized, framed by an insistence that it can be both “quiet” and “crazy”.

Enter the Anime literally articulates its strategic essentialism, with cringe-inducing lines: “I had to find anime’s soul,” “To know anime, we have to know its birthplace,” and “I had to squeeze out anime’s essence, or be left behind forever.” So entranced by a fantasy Japan that is indeed not quiet, but very, very loud, even the editing takes essentialism as a blueprint. Filled to brim with split screens, neon graphics, color grading, and more, there seems to be no image left long enough for the viewer to digest. There is nothing characteristically anime-like about the editing: it is utterly thoughtless, resulting only in an affirmation that anime––and by extension Japan, is crazy. But ‘crazy’ is just code for ‘unknowable’ and forever Other. In other words, through this lens, anime will never be knowable to the Western eye.

Enter the Anime begins with interviews of the creators for Netflix’s Castlevania and Cannon Busters. The film insists that to understand anime is to understand Japan, but it somehow doesn’t realize that in a Western context, ‘anime’ means animation produced in Japan. Both aforementioned series are anime-influenced but they cannot be categorized as anime by virtue of being produced in and by Americans. What this error reveals––asides from the fact that Enter the Anime is an hour-long infomercial for Netflix––is another chasm of otherness. Castlevania and Cannon Busters are categorized as anime because they borrow from the Japanese anime style. Enter the Anime could have recognized the Western influence on anime, and vice-versa. Yet the documentary fails to explore its intricacies, cementing a definition of anime as a style––adoptable by any––centered on its essential Japaneseness.

While the film does include portions dedicated to actual anime, the selected series are hardly representative of the industry. Enter the Anime highlights hypermasculine fighting animes like Baki and Kengan Ashura or entirely CG animes like Levius, choices produced out of the documentary’s need to display Japan’s weirdness.  Burunova’s docuemntary touches on Neon Genesis Evangelion––an anime with immeasurable influence on the industry––but the segment is boiled down to trivialities: an interview with Yoko Takahashi, who sang the series’ opening theme song, followed by a regurgitated ten-second montage of animated clips.

Burunova narrates: “The contradictions of Japan aren’t confusing. They’re vital. Relax in the chaos and the great ideas just flow.” After dipping her toes in Japan’s cultural commodities, Burunova decides that Japan can be both quiet and crazy, clean and fucked up, restrained and deranged. The documentary ends with affirmation that Burunova’s journey is over: you (like Burunova) now understand anime––or rather Japan, as these two are conflated. Enter the film if you’d like, but be prepared for a crash course in orientalism.