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Japanese vs. American Animation

by Jeff Gillespie,
Memories of television programming from my youth consists mostly of great educational shows like Sesame Street and The Friendly Giant, but also consists of classic 1980s cartoons like Transformers and G.I. Joe. Mention these two cartoons to any other guy in their late teens or early twenties and their face will light up, reminiscing on the great fun they had growing up with these action/adventure shows. However, ask any adult in their forties or fifties about these shows and they'll answer with "All that violence on TV... what a shame." or "Sorry, I didn't watch any of those kiddie shows." These are typical responses in America, where animation has evolved into an industry aimed, more or less, at children. In Japan, an entirely different result has occurred in the evolution of the Japanese animation industry, where the main audience consists of anyone aged from one to one hundred. My purpose in this paper will be to compare the two and attempt to reason why they have evolved they way they did.

Most of us will remember the Disney era beginning with Steamboat Willie short, introducing the character of Mickey Mouse. Animation developed throughout the early part of the century purely in the form of short 6-8 minute clips, from both Warner Brothers and Disney studios, with the odd full-length feature like Snow White. Most of these shorts were designed to be comic, to entertain the audience through comedy and slapstick antics where characters could be severed in half and then literally pull themselves together and be perfectly fine for the next animated short. These cartoons developed into short escapes for the audience from the harsh world of the depression, and then from World War II. However, censorship was strong in these periods, and many films had scenes cut, even going so far as to cut a kiss between Porky and Petunia Pig in a 1939 short (where kissing between live actors was acceptable in that era). Critics even went so far as to criticize the excessive humanism depicted in the 1950 movie Cinderella. Reviewers from Time and The Saturday Review magazines were disappointed with the film as it "represented an unusually large number of human characters", feeling that "it provided a kind of realism that should be foreign to animation".

From here on, American animation, or more commonly referred to as "cartoons", became an escape from realism. Being a conservative "civilized" American society, the cartoons main audience became children, as it would be considered "childish" for an adult to watch animated features & shorts. The main goal of the industry became not only to sell theatre seats and commercial spots, but sell merchandise as well. While this may seem as a relatively new concept in the economic boom of the 1990s, the 5,000,000th Mickey Mouse watch was manufactured 50 years ago, in 1948. In that year alone, it was expected that "goods bearing the faces of Disney characters will bring in a retail gross of $100 million".... in 1948. Nowadays, it is quite rare to be able to watch an entire episode of X-Men or Spiderman without seeing an advertisement for an action figure of some sort. This has become the main goal of cartoons in America, and I admit to giving in. I personally had almost 30 Transformers by the age of 12, being a victim of the immense commercial enterprise that is the cartoon industry. In fact, it is almost impossible to sell action figures these days without having an animated television show, or feature, to help sell it. In effect, cartoons have become 23 minute-long commercials for their action figures. Airtime is also important, as, with the exception of the children's and cartoon networks, most cartoons can be found either on Saturday mornings, or in the after-school time-slots, where children are most likely to be watching television.

Also prevalent in animation is the influence of religion, as Western civilization is primarily a Judeo-Christian culture, where we are mostly monotheistic, and find comfort in establishing a "good" and a "bad". This theme is present in almost all American animation series, where there is a "good" hero/team, and there is an "evil" villain/criminal. The line dividing the two is strong and never fades. The monotheistic theme is present in that there is one "right" answer to a problem, one Truth.

Lately, however, some American studios have been producing adult-themed cartoons, with the best example of these being The Simpsons. While seemingly starting out as a formula family sitcom that is animated, The Simpsons retains its popularity in being as unpredictable as animation is, such as using a large parasol to block out the sun, or having idols appear on a clown's comeback special. And there is always one thing we can take comfort in, and that's the consistent age of the characters. Bart has been 10 years old, LiSA has been 8, and little Maggie has been sucking on her pacifier for almost a decade. More adult-themed cartoons are emerging in the American media industry, notably King of the Hill, Duckman, and South Park (which, technically isn't animation, but is still created using computer-simulated cardboard cut-outs). All of these series poke fun at American life either as a kid in a small town, or as a family of ducks, in an attempt to entertain the audience to sell commercial space.

And there is one thing prevalent in almost all American animation Ò it is episodic. Episode after episode, the main characters return unchanged and unaffected by the previous episode's events. It is always possible to miss an episode here and there, or watch the episodes out of order, and never be lost.

In short, American animation is mainly aimed at children, promoting Judeo-Christian views that there is a "good" side and a "bad" side, with one "right" answer in the end. It is episodic so that children will never have to worry about missing the odd episode, and won't have to follow a complex storyline or character development usually present in series'. It is designed to be an escape from the harsh world of reality, from which we all want to protect our children.

On the other hand, Japanese animation is somewhat different. Often referred to as anime (pronounced ah-knee-may), it is a form of mass media that has an audience of all ages. I look at it as being simply another vehicle to send the same messages and provide the same entertainment that live-action movies do, other than considering it one genre of the industry.

Most anime is based on manga, the Japanese version of comics. Authors create their stories in a set of still pictures that, if the strip is popular enough, are then brought to life. Comic strips in Japan, however, originate from the post-WWII era when American strips were imported to Japan. The format was widely popular, and soon Japanese authors began to create their own strips. While there were the weekly strips poking fun at typical family life, other strips also became popular that followed people on journeys. Such stories, however, were mostly serial, where the reader had to read every strip in order to keep track of the goings-on in the story. This format became successful in a commercial sense, as people had to keep buying the next newspaper or magazine to keep up with the stories.

While there is always much imagination involved in creating such stories, many anime storylines find their roots in the common Japanese religion of Shinto. Shinto can best be described as a disorganized religion, where there is no single God, but many stories of extraordinary people and things that are worshipped as deities. Where Judeo-Christian values strongly discourage (putting it lightly) homosexual relations and out-of-wedlock pregnancies, the only common moral code in Shinto is cleanliness. Japanese society is far more liberal in terms of censorship and social attitudes than American society. From this, not only are there many stories animated that have to do with Shinto legends, but many stories that explore "taboo" (well, they would be taboo in American terms) social relations between people as a result of the society being rooted in Shinto.

Another theme coming from this religious difference is that death itself is often shown in anime. Not just in odd characters added for the effect, like Star Trek and their "phaser bait", but the Japanese audience is never shocked to find their favorite main character killed off. This is because death is honorable in Shinto, especially if there is a noble cause in one's death. An example of this would be the kamikaze pilots of World War II, whose sacrifice was deemed honorable in that they were attempting to take out more of the enemy in such a maneuver. The Western feeling in society, however, was that death was to be avoided at all costs, and has therefore become a "taboo" subject in our media.

One main driving force behind the popularity of Japanese animation is how widespread the material is. There are series based on wandering samurai, space adventures, slapstick comedy, and even soap operas. Although not entirely realistic in depicting life in Japan, many series do portray human characters and their lives, but more as a fantasy outlet for the audience. Another thing that I find interesting is that the series premise is never plain, and will almost always have some sort of odd detail to go along with a seemingly normal story. One such example, a comedy-romance series called Kimagure Orange Road focuses on a love triangle that develops between a teenage boy and his two female friends. The odd thing about this story is that the teenage boy and his family have the power of ESP. This story element, however, is not the main focus of the story, but used as a vehicle to fill stories, provide some material for character development, and even give some comic relief in times of tension. Another odd plot twist is present in the martial-arts adventure series Ranma á where the main character becomes cursed in the first episode as he becomes a she when doused in cold water.

As mentioned above, many anime series are just that, series. The storyline is continuous, with plot twists and character development, and in my opinion, makes them more interesting to watch. The viewer cannot simply sit back and expect the characters to all be the same as the previous episode, and may miss something if they failed to catch an episode or two. There are select few series that are episodic, and are quite entertaining, but the more popular shows are those that grip the audience from beginning to end.

Also rooted in Shinto, many series never clearly draw the line between "good" and "evil". Characters often switch from one side to the other, some characters can be both, and some characters can be neither. A character's motives may be "good", but their methods are "evil", and vice versa. It is also possible to have two sides present in a battle, with neither being "good" or "bad". This guessing is another point of interest in Japanese animation.

Character design is very different in anime is very different from American cartoons. Many characters are human in form, as opposed to animals or robots often present in cartoons. Japanese animation, however, commonly employs simplistic facial design to distinguish characters immediately. More emotional characters tend to have larger eyes, small noses, and small mouths. The "bad guy" of the story is often drawn with smaller eyes, and a larger mouth (often used for maniacal laughter, in which case a bigger mouth has greater effect). Hair color is often wild in anime as well. Colors range from black to pink to blond to blue. This technique is used more to distinguish between characters than for personality traits, although very often characters with blonde hair are more "evil" in motives than the rest of the characters.

"But I thought it was all sex and violence?" This is the opinion shared by most Americans on the subject of Japanese animation. But it's the same as saying that American television consists only of soap operas and trashy talk shows if you limit your viewing to daytime television. This opinion results from the fact that most of the companies who translate and distribute anime to Americans initially only imported series they thought would sell with the adult crowd, series that involved sex and/or violence. I must admit, I used to have this opinion as well. At least, until I became exposed to an enormous "underground" community known as Fansubbing. Over the last few years, a small number of incredibly generous Americans have imported video tapes and laser discs of anime series not (yet) licensed for distribution in America. They mainly import series that appeal to a general audience with a flowing storyline and character development. The main reason why these titles are not (yet) licensed for distribution in America is that some of these series run over fifty episodes in length, and American distributors fear losing money on long series feeling that fan support will eventually fade. The fansubber's generosity comes from spending hours, days, sometimes weeks translating and subtitling the material and providing it to fans at the cost of the tape plus shipping. Yes, this is technically illegal, but a strong ethical code is present where no one will associate himself or herself with a series that has been acquired by an American company for distribution. In fact, many Japanese producers see this underground community not as a bunch of bootleggers, but more as a bunch of new and unexpected consumers for related merchandise such as toys, stationary, and music CDs (Selling the show is more important that merchandise as every series is later released on laser disc and video cassette). The Japanese community also sees it as a way of promoting cultural exchange in the Western world, hoping they can remain in contact with Americans of Japanese heritage as well as reach out to the rest of us. Interestingly enough, the latest company to jump onto the anime distribution bandwagon is Disney itself. They recently acquired the license to distribute all feature-length titles produced by the legendary (in Japan) Studio Ghibli, all directed by the legendary (in Japan) Hayao Miyazaki. The first title to be released, through Buena Vista Home Video early September, is Kiki's Delivery Service, a coming-of-age story about a witch who travels to a large city to discover her purpose in life. It is a light-hearted story, fitting in with Disney's ideology well. However, their second release, scheduled for early 1999, is Princess Mononoke. Although I have not seen this title, I have heard much about it. It is, as I'm told, a tale centered around the environment involving some violence, much action, and carries a strong message. As this movie would not fit well with the "Disney" name, it will be released through Miramax Films, a Disney subsidiary. But the fact remains, the large American corporation known as Disney is buying in to Japanese culture.

As are many other Americans, as seen in the exponential growth of the anime distribution industry in the last few years. Companies are gaining faith in longer series, producing more than one series at a time, and importing more recent titles. There is still one major obstacle left, however, and that is TV penetration. At present, only Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball are pretty much the only Japanese series on American television. This is most probably due to the fact that their targeted audience is the same as the rest of the Saturday morning cartoons, and Tokyo could simply be the name of a fantasy land for children. However, racier American cartoons like The Simpsons have opened up American minds to the imaginative power and potential of animation. Perhaps one day anime will be generally accepted as a form of entertainment in America, and will no longer be limited to college students and comic conventions.


  • Lorimer, Rowland and McNulty, Jean. Mass Communication In Canada. Oxford University Press, Toronto CANADA, 1996.
  • Smoodin, Eric. Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons from the Sound Era. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey USA, 1993.
  • Levi, Antonia. Samurai from Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation. Open Court Publishing, Chicago USA, 1996.

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