Duality of American and Japanese Animation
Animation is animation, no matter where it comes from, or how it’s made. Yet in the sprawling jungles of the North American animation fanbases, there seems to not only be a misconception that anime and cartoons are different mediums, but that one must be superior to the other. While the latter is up to subjectivity and former is objectively untrue, there are reasons for such beliefs.
When it comes to animation, the U.S and Japan are the two biggest producers within the medium. You rarely ever hear animated works discussed outside the two, even when countries such as France, Britain, Ireland, Mexico, China, etc. have a presence in it themselves. Many people like to argue whether cartoons or anime are better, which is usually one of those heated debates where nobody really changes their mind.
First things first, anime and cartoons are the exact same thing. Anime is merely the Japanese term for cartoon. One Punch Man or Kill la Kill aren’t any less a cartoon than a show such as The Simpsons or Tom & Jerry. The advent of anime-inspired western cartoons such as Totally Spies, Teen Titans, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Boondocks, etc. have also blurred the lines between how fans categorize what is and isn’t anime.
Those unfamiliar with Japanese anime, especially U.S audiences, will naturally prefer western cartoons due to environmental upbringings, cultural disconnect, anime stereotypes/tropes, the medium’s incestuous and homogenous visuals, etc. Meanwhile, anime elitists like to point at U.S animation’s saturated history of cartoons made only to sell toys, rarely appealing to demographics outside of young children, lack of risks and innovation in their storytelling, etc. Both sides have some valid criticisms for the other, but both also are often very biased and generalize the other as well.
Many non-anime fans either don’t watch any anime or only expose themselves to the more accessible, mass appealing shows such as One Punch Man, Death Note, Cowboy Bepop, Studio Ghibli films, etc, often saying how these shows or movies don’t “act like anime” (a notion I personally don’t like) or don’t adhere to the generalized conventions that many anime use.
Anime elitists, in turn, cite that all U.S cartoons are for kids, not only rarely aiming outside the realm of comedy, but resorting to the lowest facets of entertainment, i.e fart jokes, talking animal sidekicks, wacky catchphrases, shallow characters, etc.
Stereotypes exist for a reason, but they also emerge from ignorance. These generalizations stem from lack of exposure, with most people on both sides often being exposed to the most surface level of one than the other.
Just like any medium, animation encompasses a wide variety of genres and narratives, and despite perception within the geek culture shifting, is still stigmatized by the general public. Nobody goes into a bookstore and is surprised to see different books about cooking, fantasy, sci-fi, thriller, mystery, advice, education, action/adventure, etc. It’s widely accepted that novels are a medium that explores a wide range of topics and genres, but unfortunately, such isn’t the case for animation, despite it being true.
Yet even within the fanbases of the medium, there’s still division, especially when it comes to U.S and Japanese animation.
There’s a great quote from an online blogpost by an author named tamerlane: “The Americans and the Japanese are the two biggest representatives of mainstream narrative animation, yet they differ so radically in their understanding of the medium that it’s impossible for us to judge one by the standards of the other”.
People often don’t realize that while both are animation, they still come from different histories and cultures, and thus their modes of production, storytelling, and perception will be different. They assume that what they like from one must be present in the other, and thus reject it when their expectations aren’t met.
History and Techniques
Identifying the similarities and differences between the two calls for looking at the historical context in which both systems emerged: the Golden Age of U.S animation. It’s no surprise that most people are still unaware that early anime was inspired by Disney and the early Hollywood cartoons in general. Hollywood cartoons echoed the live action film emphasis on performance in the 20s to the 50s.
In American animation, the animator is the actor bringing inanimate objects to life. When Disney set out to create the first feature-length, cel-animated movie, the focus wasn’t on camerawork, the sets, or staging but how they would bring about characters like Snow White and Grumpy to be lifelike and connect with audiences as if they were real actors.
American and Japanese animation productions do not animate the same, the former using full animation and the latter limited animation. Full animation is defined as animating on the 1s or 2s, meaning that for every second of a 24ps animation, there are 1 or 2 drawings. This foundation developed into the 12 Principles of Animation, some of which include squash and stretch, secondary action, follow through, and moving holds.
These techniques cement the illusion that animated characters exist in a consistent version of reality, and that the audience don’t see the characters as animation. Disney’s standard was to create the illusion of life, hence no style changes as that would break the illusion. The standard was based on the animators being the actors. They watched and studied real-life objects, people, animals, etc. and emulated their movements on paper.
On the other hand, anime focuses more on character acting being symbolic. Rather than actors, Japanese animators act more as filmmakers using limited animation, which reduces the number of frames per second, usually about eight.
With limited animation, anime reuses common parts between frames rather than redrawing. Despite the influence Disney animators had on the anime pioneers, Japanese animation quickly diverged, with less emphasis on fluid character movement and more on composition and experimenting with camera movement to make the image appear more dynamic.
These differences in which the fundamentals were removed is a common criticism of the medium from the American perspective. Japan’s differing view involves learning how to animate by quantity, rather than mastering the fundamentals. Early Disney’s hierarchy required rigorous time and work for an inbetweener to elevate to a key animator, contrasted with the same process being more streamlined in Japan.
However, it should be noted that limited animation is not only reserved within anime productions. Outside of Japan, the technique’s use was likely most widely seen from studios such as MGM Animation, United Productions of America, and most notably, Hanna Barbera. Following WWII, they sought to contrast themselves from Disney but ultimately used it to save time and money.
The technique can be targeted as being lazy, but contrarily, a strength is that it emphasizes voice acting and writing to accommodate for minimal visuals. Another difference between these cartoons and Japanese ones is the use of cel layers, whereas Japanese animation simply reuses the cels altogether. Lower quality isn’t automatically an indicator of limited animation, as its timesaving techniques can allow for a higher flow of keyframes and overall presentation.
The most significant example of this can be seen from Japanese “sakuga”. The term itself is Japanese for “drawing pictures” and refers to animation itself. However, in an anime context it describes moments in an anime when the animation goes from standard to being exceptionally fluid and expressive.
This technique is the very foundation for the sharpest visual contrasts between Japanese and American animation, one that goes back to the earliest days of anime. An example is a 1929 animated adaption of the Japanese folktale Kobu-tori, which is focused on a woodsman with a large growth on his jaw who finds himself surrounded by magical creatures. Notice how detailed the characters are.
Using limited animation grants animators to emphasize detail in character designs, while full animation focuses more on character expression and movement. This is why anime often features characters with more detailed designs while American animated characters often look more cartoony and drawn from basic shapes.
Unfortunately, like any technique, it can be used for animated productions overseen more from corporate perspectives, in which output is generated at the expense of quality and in favor of advertising.
This is exemplified by what became known as Saturday morning cartoons, which were defined by their limited animation and a result of children shows being restricted by parents and networks alike in their content (with some exceptions).
All in all, it’s merely a technique in which its effects are seen by the user and their intentions, Some of Chuck Jones’ cartoons in the 50s had their artistic look facilitated by limited animation than the traditional kind. Even Disney isn’t exempt from this. The movement in the 5 minute sequence “Ave Maria” of Fantasia is done by camera.
Anime’s American Influenced Origins
Many critics of anime often cite the medium’s differences from American animation as being more of a “slideshow” than actual movement, and more mainstream audiences believing it has no relation to the American animation industry. This dismisses the fact that Japanese animation found its roots in American animation, as the anime pioneers sought out the American animation techniques. Such examples include Yasuo Ōtsuka, who worked in Toei Animation and Studio Ghibli, studied the US animation textbook by Preston Blair and Yaiji Yabushita went overseas as a research trip before Toei was set up.
Divergence from Disney still didn’t equate to divergence from western influence, as Warner and UPA were inspirations for Makoto Nagasawa. A 1931 anime short called “Ugokie Kori no Tatehiki” is styled to the resemblance of Max Fleischer and Otto Messmer. Even Miyazaki himself, the harshest Disney critic at Toei, enjoyed the Fleischers.
The Japanese animation industry’s divergence from its primary western influences paved a path for its own way of doing things, but that divergence doesn’t mean it’s inferior on a technical level. Japanese animators serve more as cinematographers than actors, addressing how a scene is shot, choreographed, and how subjects move in-frame.
If a Japanese animator is assigned a scene of a character tapping their fingers on a desk, rather than asking how they use the action to reveal the character’s personality or thoughts, they ask “How should the fingers look or move while tapping the desk?”
The decentralization of Japan’s animation industry provides animators more creative freedom to experiment and be distinctive, whereas in most US animation pipelines, the animation is more standardized and compact. Key animators being required to design their own layouts effects how they conceptualize their work.
From Yoh Yoshinari handling the digital post-production of his cuts to animators like Yutaka Nakamura choreographing their own fights in place of the director, Japanese animation’s reliance on small studios, subcontractors, and freelancers that outnumber large corporations incentivizes artists to think of their own scene or episode than the show as a whole.
This is why in Japanese animation and US animation fan circles, individual animators are generally more acknowledged in the former whereas it seems animators must be Disney/Pixar directors or TV animation creators to be mentioned in the latter.
Consistency is still present under deadlines rather than monetary constraints, which is counter measured by the “sakkan” or animation director, who oversees a project’s key frames. But the most significant development in anime was removing the distinction between character, background, and effects. With Japanese animators being cinematographers, everything that can be filmed must be their subject.
This can create flashy action scenes, but just as the best of US animation, the best of sakuga can depict the detail of what a character feels, not how they act.
Both US and Japanese animation have their own distinct beauties and, depending on who’s asked, drawbacks. With anime being deliberate and demanding a visceral reaction, whereas U.S animation seeks to be appear effortless and graceful, it’s no wonder the reception between the two differs so much. However, the distinction seems to run up to corporate management as well.
Both are obviously managed by studios striving for profitable products (anime also relies on pre-existing IPs in the form of manga and the cooperation of various production committees, but that’s a different topic), but the anime industry’s storytelling feats is primarily driven by its makers.
In contrast, most of U.S animation has been produced by studios who see the medium as a means of selling toys, often seeking projects aimed at younger demographics, and thus perpetuating the stigma that animation is plagued with today. In other words, because many execs in American studios don’t seem respect the medium, their products cause audiences to not to as well.
The medium’s perception has shifted significantly among niche, geek fanbases, and though there have been breakthroughs in animated film and TV, general audiences still refuse to take it seriously as any other medium.
Fortunately, the rise of digital media and globalization has allowed more innovation. Netflix has been investing heavily into animated content, especially with anime, while anime productions have recently invested in foreign, non-Japanese animators and creators.
There’s nothing wrong with preferences, but I urge anyone with prejudices towards either Japanese, U.S, or any animation to look beyond their generalizations and try to see what animation can and has offered. Subjectivity is intrinsic to interpreting art, but I believe it disingenuous to say that animation, American, Japanese, or any other, hasn’t impacted pop culture to the way we see it today.
Disclaimer: I refer to “U.S animation” rather than the umbrella term “western animation”, as I don’t have enough extensive knowledge of animation’s history in western countries outside the United States.
What do you think? Leave a comment.