Francis M. Agnoli & Rayna Denison – Introducing Transnational Animation: A Special Issue of Animation Studies

Animation’s relationship to the transnational is a varied as animation itself. Though the scales of interaction may differ, an individual student animator or avant-garde animation artist can be just as implicated in the global systems underpinning animation production, distribution and reception as the biggest of Hollywood conglomerates. At the individualized end of the scale, each student and artist seeks audiences for their works, and these often range across national borders thanks to alternative and new distributive circuits like galleries, film festivals, and online streaming. At the other end of this sliding scale, companies like Disney are now so embedded in cultures all over the world as to have become much bigger institutions than the national can contain. As a response to the increasing transnationalization of industry and distribution, animated texts are now frequently constructed with the world (or at least much more than the nation) in mind, and translation and re-dubbing can see animation become transnational even when originally aimed at a specific national audience. As Andrew Higson said over ten years ago, “the contingent communities that cinema imagines are much more likely to be either local or transnational than national” (Higson 2000, p.73). As this suggests, animation has no single or straightforward way of relating to notions of hybridity, border-crossing, regionality, or globalism. Instead, by studying instances of the varied relationships between animation and the transnational, we can see how forces of industry, culture and audiences work to shape animation as its travels the world. Therefore, in this special issue of the Animation Studies Online Journal, we bring together a wide range of practitioners, commentators and scholars to assess the multiplicity of connections between animation and the transnational. Our contributors demonstrate that such interactions are changing the way animation is made, how animation flows, as well as how, when, and why we consume animated texts.

For this reason, we follow Will Higbee and Song Hwee-Lim’s (2010) assessment that a definition of transnational cinema is less useful than a critical approach to investigating how animation becomes transnational. They argue for a

critical, discursive stance towards the question of the transnational in film studies so that we are alert to the challenges and potentialities that greet each transnational trajectory: whether it takes place within a film’s narrative and production process, across film industries, or indeed in academia. (2020, p.18)

These trajectories are mapped into our accounts of animation in this special issue: from the transnationalization of animation texts, to the industrial production of transnational in animation, through to the transnational of audiences that greet animation over time. At its heart, therefore, we echo Arjun Appadurai’s contention that, “Crucial to an understanding of these [distributive] flows is the relationship between forms of circulation and the circulation of forms” (2010, p.9, emphasis in original). We argue that the idea of animation as a particular form of textuality is vital to considering how the fact of animating images differs from the uses of the transnational in debates about live action media. Moreover, by thinking about animation as a specific form of textuality with its own specialized circuits of distribution, our contributors are able to demonstrate how animation has led the way in (or, read less optimistically, been most impacted by) globalization.

We are, of course, not the first to note animation’s connection to the transnational. Animation has been implicated in debates about globalization and the transnational since their inception, thanks in no small part to the (sometimes strident) debates about Disney. As a corporation, Disney’s global ambitions have been heavily critiqued by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, who read Disney’s distribution of comics and animation in Latin America as a sign of the company’s “imperialist ideologies” (1984). This work has been taken up by a wide range of scholars over the intervening decades, some arguing that Disney’s representations of the world are still culturally homogenizing and redolent of Orientalist fantasies of the transnational (Addison 2000, Budd and Kirsch 2005, Kutsuzawa 2000), while other voices have emerged arguing for a more nuanced understanding of Disney’s sometimes progressive ideological stance (Brode 2006).

From there, cultural studies and political economics-inflected readings of Disney have tended to focus on their “glocalization” (Robertson 1994, p.33); their globalizing corporate structures and their need to make those structures palatable through localization. Most notable in this area is Janet Wasko’s work, which critically evaluates the tendency of Disney to act synergistically, but sometimes with a deaf ear towards local issues and concerns (2002 and 2003). She has expanded this work subsequently, moving beyond the Walt Disney Company itself to consider Disney’s global impact on audiences with Eileen Meehan and Mark Phillips in the Global Disney Audiences Project (2006). The longevity of these debates, and the sheer variety of approaches taken in the study of Disney’s transnationalism suggests how rich animation is as a potential subject. In this collection, we have therefore sought to allow a similarly varied set of approaches to be taken and have been rewarded by a set of contributions that ranges from the textual to the historical and from the academic to practitioner accounts.

It is worth noting, however, that some elements of the transnational become invisible in the existing debates. Indeed, Ian Murphy and Saint John Walker’s contribution to this special issue highlights the active way that Hollywood seeks to hide the joints in its transnational production strategies, requiring ancillary industries to work within strict parameters. Their study focuses on India, but India is just one of the nations that has seen a rapid development of its animation industry in recent years. Others, like the industry in South Korea, are struggling to make the leap to becoming a sustainable transnational industry (Martin 2011), attempting to move beyond working as an outsourcing hub for Hollywood productions. By contrast, other nations, particularly those with smaller industries like Thailand’s CG animation industry, are importing transnationalized technologies and animation techniques in order to tell local stories. These stories have a sometimes invisible after-life in the global distribution markets for animation, dubbed into English and quietly released within the North American market, retaining few signs of their national origins in Thailand (Denison 2018). When considered in relation to the global notoriety and success of something like Japan’s anime industry, then, the picture of animation’s transnationalization is full of inequalities, gaps and creative work that is rendered “invisible.”

Transnational and transcultural animated texts

It also contains success stories. Indigenous animation in places like Australia, Latin America, and North America is being connected to high profile platforms online that give a voice to otherwise marginalized peoples, whose homes straddle across and beyond contemporary national boundaries. The National Film Board of Canada, in particular, is offering a platform for indigenous animation along with teaching materials relating to the cultures represented in their films and is thereby opening up new avenues for debate.

There are two sides to the coin in relation to transnationalizing texts. As Julia Havas and Anna Martonfi argue in their analysis of The Flintstones in Hungary, popular animation texts can be radically altered as they travel the world. In their analysis, local translators literally become the stars of the show, and local voice actors take the place of characters in marketing The Flintstones to Hungary. Havas and Martonfi’s contribution to this special issue is a challenge to the monodirectional cultural imperialism debates of old, offering a high profile example of how the Americanness of animated texts can be over-written by localization practices, generating new transcultural texts in the process. The reverse is also true, of course. Such has long been noted by fans of anime, who, for generations now, have seen Japanese onigiri rice-balls become pizza slices as well as characters and relationships changed to suit local market tastes (Katsuno and Maret 2004). Again, reaching back in time to before Dorfman and Mattelart’s attack on Disney, James Mclean offers a counter-example to that of The Flintstones by investigating the reciprocal transnationality of anime text Gatchaman (better known in English as Battle of the Planets). He deftly acknowledges the always already-transnationalized nature of such science fiction genre texts, before examining how the Sandy Frank company undertook the license and localize Gatchaman not because of its connections to children’s animation but because of its resemblance to George Lucas’s Star Wars: A New Hope (1977). Taken together, the findings of these articles suggest that the local drives the transnational and that, far from being an easy product to move across national and linguistic borders, animation has long required careful and complex translation.

As well as being translated and adapted – or to borrow Mclean’s phrase “transmutated” – for new markets, animation can have its transnationalism built into its very fabric. Francis M. Agnoli discusses the commingling of Asian motifs in the Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-08) and The Legend of Korra (2012-14) franchise on Nickelodeon as a way of producing fantasy, but it is worth noting, too, that this cultural hybridization and mixing are a familiar product of wider textual globalization. Within US animation, representations of Asian American characters vie for our attention alongside shows and films with transnational locations, and with media that purport to educate us about world cultures. Netflix’s recent adaptation of 1980s “edutainment” videogame series, Carmen Sandiego (2019-), makes a point of recounting the national characteristics of the global locations that its titular master thief visits, and does so while passing comedic comment on American understandings of those places. Other shows, like the Dora the Explorer (Nickelodeon 2000-2014) and We Bare Bears (Cartoon Network 2015-present) also make a point of including non-English language vocal performances, in the latter case leaving these untranslated as a sign of the show’s attention to the internal transnationality of America. As these examples indicate, the transnational is becoming an ever-more normal part of animation culture. In television, especially, longer series allow producers to play with notions of the transnational, and it appears everywhere from the backgrounds to the soundtracks to the central characters of shows.

Never was this truer than in anime. Japanese animation, from stop motion to anime to video games, runs the gamut from from the national to transnational. As Mclean and Dean Bowman show in this special issue, the transnational in Japanese animation can account for everything from character names and designs to settings, music, and source texts, leading to debates about anime’s potentially transcultural nature. Originating with Fernando Ortiz (1940), Daniel G. König and Katja Rakow argue that we can understand the transcultural as a way of describing new cultures developed out of hybridization (2016). For anime, this has been presented through the lens of the mukokuseki (statelessness) of texts, which Susan J. Napier takes these ideas a step further, arguing that:

Anime is indeed “exotic” to the West in that it is made in Japan, but the world of anime itself occupies its own space that is not necessarily coincident with that of Japan. Unlike the inherently representation space of conventional live-action film … animated space has the potential to be context-free, drawn wholly out the animator’s or artist’s mind. It is thus a particularly apt candidate for participation in a transnational, stateless culture. (2001, p.24)

Mclean and Bowman’s articles develop this idea of a stateless transnationalism, exploring new hybridizations of anime and videogames that result in mukokuseki transculturalism. This new transcultural facet of anime and videogames (and, along with it other kinds of animation) is configured as incredibly open, porous and full of potential for even more hybridization in future, reaching beyond even the transnational to form new cultures of the imagination.

Transnational animation production cultures

 Within these transnational and transcultural landscapes of animation, productions, and personnel routinely cross borders. Because of the often large-scale industrial requirements of the medium, there is a demand for cheap and skilled labor, resulting in outsourcing. Similarly, animators migrate to production centers in search of a job. Francis M. Agnoli, Ian Friend, as well as Ian Murphy and Saint John Walker address these tendencies in their respective articles in this special issue.

Within the current context of globalization and deterritorialization, the transnational spread of productions and personnel only increases. Appadurai has identified five dimensions or “scapes” of cultural flow, each of which differently effects the production of animation.  First, the “Ethnoscape” refers to the migration of people around the globe. In animation, this flow of people is often combined with the second of Appadurai’s categories, the “Technoscape,” which is defined by to the spread of technology. Technologies, and the people able to use them, are part of the transnational flows of animation, as discussed by Agnoli, Friend, and Murphy and Walker in their articles in this issue. As each demonstrates, these flows can be about static people and mobile technologies or about transnational technologies and industrially and geographically static personnel. In different ways, each of these articles charts how cultural expectations from centers of production impact the deployment of technologies and staff. As animation becomes more transnational, therefore, these articles show how the human elements of production can still struggle against communicative and cultural blockages and barriers (Appadurai 2010).

At another level, it is Appadurai’s “Finanscape” that controls to the flow of capital and personnel in the production of animation. In Murphy and Walker’s and in Friend’s accounts of transnationalism in the animation industry, we can see how flows of capital restrict and control the production of animation’s varied worlds. These articles also demonstrate how the geography of animation is changing in response to the globalization of capital; how the centers of production no longer straightforwardly map onto national geographies. Instead, Friend explains how television animation for China is being designed in the UK and Agnoli examines how the fantastical worlds of some US animation are constructed out of building blocks from across Asian culture. This suggests that Appadurai’s “Mediascape,” which encapsulates the spread of images and information, might be especially relevant in the context of the globalization of the animation industry. Thanks to new streaming technologies in particular, our sense of where animation comes from, who it is intended for, and where it is being produced, are being thoroughly challenged. As the production of animation further transnationalizes, then, the notion of a mediascape may need revising to allow for a blending of the Technoscape and Mediascape’s previously discrete boundaries. The articles in this collection suggest how this might be done by reconsidering and recontextualizing the relationships between technology, animators, and their industrial milieu.

Finally, Appadurai’s “Ideoscape” refers to the flow of ideas or ideologies across borders and boundaries. The topic of transnational and transcultural inspirations forms the crux of Agnoli’s article. Murphy and Walker also explore how rigid corporate structures can hamper this type of “scape,” while Friend’s article demonstrates how important interpersonal communication remains within these production worlds. Within the contexts of these “scapes,” then, large-scale animation production is an increasingly transnational filmmaking practice.

Agnoli positions modern television animation studios like Nickelodeon as transnational and transcultural “contact zones” (Pratt 1992, p.6). Ideas and people cross national and cultural borders and gather within this geographic space in order to create something new. According to his analysis, the fantasy world of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-08) and The Legend of Korra (2012-14) was built through the hybridization of real-world referents. An international crew collaborated in the construction of various cultural signifiers of Asian-ness and other desired identities. While this article focuses on background design and painting, the approach is applicable to the other animation production processes.

In contrast, Murphy and Walker’s and Friend’s articles look at transnationalizing production spaces and techniques. Murphy and Walker analyze an emergent model of Hollywood-centered production where work needs to be done twenty-four hours a day, with digital files and images therefore trafficked between Hollywood, Montreal, London, and Bangalore in a chain of continuous production. Thus, places like Bangalore’s International Tech Park become contact zones, ones where the cultural flow of technology is carefully controlled and regulated by corporations. They discover a dissonance that often exists between Western demands and local sensibilities at Bangalore Visual Effects (VFX) companies, born out of an assumption of shared cultural referents and predilections. In these examples, corporations like Technicolor fight against the transculturation of the animation; it must still appear purely Western, or at least not Indian.

Friend’s findings are similar. In discussing experiences of character designers working on productions whose target audiences fall outside of their native cultural contexts, Friend uncovers the transcultural landscapes of animation production. In his examples, new hybridizations and generic universals come to the fore, all the while character designers attempt to guess the desires and needs of the production companies in other countries to whom they are pitching ideas. Therefore, the articles in our special issue demonstrate how the transnational can be used to by multinational companies and conglomerates to stifle local cultures, while at other times commodifying representation of those same cultures; and at still others, industries in those cultures turn the tables, requiring independent animation professionals to pitch ideas to them for production. Of course, transnational and transcultural border crossing does not stop once the production ends.

 The transnational and transcultural reception of animation

If local markets for animation necessitate the kinds of reproduction and transmutation of texts seen in Havas and Martonfi’s as well as Mclean’s articles, then we need to consider how audiences are impacted by and influence animation production in their turn. There are currently two main ways of analysing these relationships. The first and older of the two belongs to the “circuit of culture” developed in Paul DuGay et al.’s book on the Sony Walkman, in which they argue that products are tested in markets and consumer responses dictate the next stages in production evolution (1997). While this works to explain specific instances of transnational textual flows and their reception by audiences, it offers little in the way of the complexity needed to explain variations in animation’s reception between nations or over time. Another metaphor is that of the cultural meme, introduced as a thought experiment by Richard Dawkins (1976) but then expanded upon by Iain Robert Smith in his book The Hollywood Meme (2017). In this version of the story, texts or parts of texts can be taken up by international audiences, filtering through into new local variations on a theme or motif over time. Some of these are fan-produced, others industrially-produced. This work is allied to that of convergence culture more generally and specifically to Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green’s spreadable media project (2013) that looks at how digital technologies are being used by media fans and corporations alike to push content into ever-broadening (and niche-ing) media markets.

Neither of these really gets to the heart of animation’s complex global reception. The history of these flows of texts are themselves wildly complex, and when associated with audiences, all the more so. Our contributors find a variety of answers to these complexities. Dean Bowman, in a studying of the Anglophone reception of Ni no Kuni, looks to the specific spaces of videogame reception online and in print in order to map the context for the translated game’s European and US releases. Helen McCarthy’s approach is far more personalized, reflecting back over her career in anime and considering her roles within the foundation of anime fandom in the UK and Anglophone world. For these two scholars, then, it is language rather than nation, that provides the primary context. Both seek to rethink historical audiences too, albeit recently and synchronically in the former case and diachronically in the second.

Bowman’s account of Ni no Kuni discusses how the Japanese taste cultures were rewritten for transnational audiences revealing the inter-brand competition at the heart of this coproduction between Studio Ghibli and games production house Level 5. He uses the Anglophone reception to analyse how and why this game was anticipated, finding that Studio Ghibli became increasingly important the further from Japan the game traveled. This chimes with McCarthy’s account of her history, which saw her become the first Anglophone author of a book on Hayao Miyazaki in 1999. She had already at that point laid the foundations for UK anime fandom, doing everything from convention organization through to fanzine production and anime journalism. As this suggests, fans themselves have complex histories and gatekeeper fan-scholars like McCarthy have much to tell us about the transnational history of animation before the digital era. McCarthy’s article here is all the more significant in the way it reconsiders our relationships to these transnational histories, focusing on how archival, digital and fan-memory resources can work to either compound or challenge our conceptions.

Synchronically, therefore, Bowman pushes us to think beyond national borders and to consider the way a text’s reception and meanings can change as its travels geographically, textually and temporally further and further away from its origin points. McCarthy, similarly, challenges us to consider fans as resources, and to see value in even marginalized academic scholarship about animation. In these ways, our contributors extend their accounts beyond national borders, taking in the nuances and complexities of the transnational and its potential for forming new transcultural landscapes of animation. As a consequence, this special issue on transnational animation calls upon us to take a wider view of animation texts; to see animation in all of its border-crossing, hybridized, transmedia and transnational guises.


Rayna Denison is a Senior Lecturer in Film, Television and Media Studies at the University of East Anglia. She is the author of Anime: A Critical Introduction and the editor of the book collection Princess Mononoke: Understanding Studio Ghibli’s Monster Princess. She is the co-editor of the Eisner Award-nominated Superheroes on World Screens, with Rachel Mizsei Ward. Rayna’s articles can be found in a wide range of publications from Cinema Journal and Velvet Light Trap, to Japan Forum and the International Journal of Cultural Studies. She was the co-organiser of the Media Journeys Symposium 2018, held at UEA, which was the starting point for this special issue.

Francis M. Agnoli is a doctoral candidate at the University of East Anglia, where his research focuses on the ascription of race to animated bodies in contemporary U.S. television animation. He has previously earned his MA at the University of Iowa and his BA at Loyola University Chicago. His work has been published in the edited collection Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018).



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© Francis M. Agnoli and Rayna Denison

Edited by Francis M. Agnoli and Rayna Denison, University of East Anglia