Anime, Japanese VS American Animation

Originally found here, link still works, but essay no longer there.

Anime VS American Animation

by Marker Apenname

Thesis Statement

This is my thesis statement -- while American animation and Japanese animation both have their virtues, the style of American animation, in general, has a significant amount of higher quality.

Where to Begin? Where to be Going?

To begin with, one of the major problems that has hindered American animation is budget and time constraints. On the other hand, in Japan, anime has been allowed to flourish all over. When it comes to animation, it seems that Hollywood simply does not take it seriously and would rather throw its millions into "live action" films and TV shows. There is only one company in Hollywood which devotes a significant amount of its resources to advancing our heritage in animation, and that's Disney. Comparatively, its Japanese cousin has hundreds. This is a real shame considering that animation itself was originally pioneered by us. The American form of animation has not had its techniques advanced through as many stages or been perfected as much as Japanese anime has. This would lead some to the conclusion that Japanese animation is inherently better than American animation; a false conclusion that I will dissect piece by piece as we go on. Still, there are some examples where the quality of American animation really shines through for what it was meant to be. Take another perspective, and you'll see that the cut-throat constraints which American animation producers face can actually help the quality of their animation, because they are always forced to work under the constant threat of being "canned". Any animation project cannot be a flop or else (as in showbiz terms) so-and-so "will never work in this town again!" Compare this to all that garbage floating around in Japan. However, to gain the popularity and respect that the form deserves, we need to make some big changes. Fortunately, it seems that some of the big-shots up there have finally started to take notice of what has caused the likes of Disney to become very successful and make billions of dollars for years. Of course, it will be a while before animators are given the freedom and creativity that have made the Japanese successful for the last decade. But we cannot simply play catch-up by copying their inferior anime style (even though that's what they did to us a long time ago). Then we would be giving away our pride -- selling out one of the few proud things that we can say was made in America. No, we must do things our own way!

A Little History

Few people, including those obsessed anime fans, have a clear understanding of how Japanese animation came to be or how it relates to the American form of animation. So, let's take a little look at its history. First, let's figure out what element of Japan's society has caused the proliferation of anime. Well, in Japan there is a distinctive connection between the animation industry and the comic book (called "manga") industry. In fact, many animes are based off of manga. The actual word "manga" was coined in 1814 and roughly translates into "humorous pictures", but cartoonish art had existed in Japanese culture for centuries prior to that. The crude drawings were used by the Japanese leaders and social elite, usually for political purposes. One of the earliest known collections of these drawings were drawn by a Buddhist monk named Toba in the 12th century. The need for these drawings was probably brought about by a certain trait in Japanese culture, which modern-day psychologists might call an "attention deficit disorder". The solution for this was to entice their people with certain visual stimuli. This became a useful tool for those in power, since they could use it to leverage control over the public. The effect could be described similarly to the "media saturation" which has plagued America in recent times. Flash forward to 1989 -- only 12% of published material in Japan were books, whereas the majority (38%) were manga! If this does not show anything about Japanese society and literacy, then I don't know what does.

All of this may suggest that the Japanese had a unique style of their own long before the Americans came along, but the truth is that today's anime and manga does not really bare any resemblance to the prehistoric art form of the ancient Japanese. After World War II, Japan went through an identity crisis; they began stealing stuff like mad from our Western civilization -- which still continues to this day. It seems that they have become the "United States wanna-be". This is fantasized through their animes where they often show Japan as a culturally diversified nation where everyone accepts each other. In reality however, Japan is almost entirely populated with ethnic Japanese. They seem to find fun by taking things from our culture and playing around with it -- perhaps, pretending that if they were a large country like the US, and not a small little island country, they could run things better than we are.

Dr. Osamu Tezuka is considered to be the real father of the anime-style and gave birth to the commercial industry of anime and manga as we know it today. Some people call him the Disney of Japan, which is sort of ironic because he copied many ideas from Disney and other American animators of the time. The classic "big eyes" which many people associate with anime were actually popular at one time in American animation and were used a lot by the Max Fleischer studio. Tezuka himself said:

"My career as an animator began when at the age of four. I copied a picture of Popeye. My house was full of comics when I was a schoolboy. Because we were able to obtain a projector and several films, I was able to see Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Chaplin, and Oswald Rabbit at home." As you can see, it is obvious where he got his inspiration from. Tezuka's first success was a manga called Tetsuwan Atom. Before Tezuka came along, most manga were short humorous comic strips similar to what one finds in the newspapers. However, Tezuka used techniques similar to those he had seen in foreign movies when he made his manga. He simulated the fancy camera angles seen in movies as well as giving his manga more complex storylines. The result was a comic book series with cinematic quality. It became an instant hot seller, mainly because it was a cheap way for common folks (who were struggling with a bad economy) to provide entertainment for their children. The generation of children who grew up on this would be hooked on manga and anime for life.

When did animation come to Japan? Probably when Toei Production started its animation division in 1958. They hired Dr. Tezuka to make animated films for them. Later, in 1962, Tezuka would leave Toei to start his own company called Mushi Production and produce one of the first animated television shows in Japan. Of course, both animated movies and television shows had already been firmly in place for quite a while in the US.

In fact, the first animated film was made by James S. Blackton in 1906, only four years after Thomas Edison had invented the movie projector. That was many years before Tezuka was even born. But the art of animation is even older than that. In fact, an invention called the magic lantern, which projected animation by moving a strip back and forth, was invented in 1645 by Althanasius Kircher. Around 1915, a technique of using celluloid sheets in animation was established. By painting on these clear plastic cels, they could then transpose more than one cel on a static background. This technique is still used by some animators today. Walt Disney made several breakthroughs by making the first animation with sound (1928) and the first animation in color (1932). It was on December 21, 1937 that Walt made history again with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" -- it was the first feature-length animation! Snow White was the top grossing film for its time.

Those are the important details to the history of animation, although I have not done justice in explaining the many great works created by the many very talented animators of the time. Japanese anime seems to be this new fresh breed of animation, even though it has its roots in American animation. It boggles my mind how many Americans today prefer a cheap imitation over something that is real and genuine. They say that Japanese anime is of better quality and looks better than our own animation. In doing so, they have overlooked a pearl that is much closer to home. The truth is that American animation has so much more to offer, that anime simply pales in comparison.

Visual Quality

There are several elements to look at when reviewing animation. The first I will discuss is visual quality, since this is the first which people will usually look for. We must first realize that animation is a totally different art form than other art forms such as drawing, painting, ect. Those are all used to depict still pictures. The concept of animation is not about conveying pictures; it is about conveying motion. When you examine a painting, the actual strokes of paint are not important; it is how those strokes combine to form their work of art. A similar concept applies to animation. Even though animation is made of pictures, it is not the pictures which are important but how they're used to make the animation. We must distinguish these different art forms first and foremost and judge them separately.

This leads us to the first rule any budding animator must know. Each cel of animation must be easily distinguishable at an eye's glimpse. This is because the animation goes by so fast at many frames per second. You do not want the viewer to miss an important detail because it went by too fast. Here, I will bring up the most noticeable difference between Japanese and American drawing styles. Japanese anime tends to use a style which has sharp and jagged lines, whereas Americans use a style which has smooth and curvy lines. There are benefits to both of these styles. The most obvious benefit to using the Japanese method is that the sharp lines stand out very easily and thus overcome the problem of having to be distinguishable to the viewer. On the other hand, the smooth curves of American animation are more life-like and natural. In fact, if you look in nature, you will see that anything organic is formed with curves. Not only that, but as I will attempt to explain later, animation itself is based on the mathematical principles of curves. The problem of course is that it is not as easy to produce something as distinguishable using curves as it is with sharp lines. This makes Japanese animation a lot easier to produce than American animation. The Japanese are able to highlight the details that are important by their usage of actual lines, whereas the American animators must focus on the picture as a whole. To help aid themselves with this problem, American animators often use something known as a "silhouette test" on their drawings. The test is to see if the drawing is as easily recognizable as if it was to be totally shaded in (like a silhouette). This is because a person's mind must be able to register the outline of the figure they see and associate it with the action taking place as soon as it's flashed in front of their eyes. Japanese animation works quite differently, because the sharp and jagged lines make it seem very unnatural. In this case, your mind is telling you that there is something very wrong about the picture. That causes your eyes to focus on it. It also gives this artificial-feeling to anime that some people seem to like, but in my opinion, it designates anime as a lesser form of animation. It should also be noted that the root definition of the word "animation" stems from a Celtic word which means "to be life-like". May I also note, that up until modern times, this concept was so foreign to the Japanese that they did not even have a word for it in their vocabulary. That is why they had to borrow the word "anime" from the French.

Sometimes in anime you will see little lines sparked across the screen when a character's expression changes suddenly or some form of action is taking place. These lines are called "action lines" and are strictly prohibited in the American school of art. The idea, once again, is that the action should speak for itself and not need some fancy lines to guide the way for its viewers. It should be able to grab the attention of the viewers by itself. That is not always as easy when you're making an animation as it is when you're making a comic book, because the animation must run at a certain pace. Fortunately, the American animators have a bag of tricks to help their viewers stay on course.

The number one technique used in American animation to draw a viewer's attention to the action that's about to take place is known as anticipation. What this does in effect, is it warns the viewer's mind before hand that a certain action is about to take place so it can register in the viewer's mind before it actually happens. If you watch American animation, you'll notice that often times a character may anticipate that he's going to be hit in the face by reacting before he's actually hit. Or he may anticipate that he's going to break into a run by stepping backwards first. If a character is about to become angry suddenly, his facial expression might go through stages before it reaches the pot-boiling point. The principle can be applied to anything, including inanimate objects. A very exaggerated case of this is when Wile E. Coyote walks off a cliff but doesn't fall down until he realizes he's standing on thin-air. The viewer already expects Mr. Coyote to plummet to his doom before it happens. However, the anticipation technique is usually very subtle when you're watching it because it blends so seamlessly and naturally with the animation. This is because this technique is just one of the many techniques which the American artists have mastered and perfected, but the Japanese have not. It is also a lot more effective than "action lines". Upon further examination of the anticipation technique, one may find that it is really based off an exaggerated version of one of Newton's laws that states, "Every action has an equal and opposite reaction." Who knew that animation could be so scientific?

There are a couple of other techniques used in American animation that I should mention because they make animation seem more life-life and pleasurable to the eyes, and also because there is a significant lack of such to be found in Japanese anime. Some of those techniques have to do with something called the "path of action". This usually has to with where a character starts out, where he should end up, and how he will get there. It's a little bit like what stage crafting and camera maneuvering are to live action. I haven't really seen this task performed as well in anime as it is in American animation. One reason is that American animation uses a technique where the motion of things (especially hands and feet) moves in curves. This is often impossible to do with Japanese animation because of its use of sharp and jagged lines; you have less freedom in movement without contorting the character's body into some unrealistic shape. On the other hand, curved motion can make the animation seem very fluid and natural -- or shall we say, "very animated". You'll also notice that in American animation, the time frame of action tends to be parabolic (curved), where the action starts out slow and gets faster until it slows down again. Once again, this makes the animation seem very smooth and appealing to the eyes, heightening your sense of realism. Another technique used in American animation is called "squash and stretch". This adds a rubber-effect to the animation. When a force acts upon a body of mass, it either expands it or squeezes it. This makes the object seems real, solid and three dimensional, since the physical reaction conveys weight and mass. Unfortunately, to use this technique, one must work with a roundish body of mass. This means that you can't use it with drawings based off those jagged lines. You should now be able to see how the "anime style" can be very restrictive and limiting in the long run.

American animation comes in different qualities. The animation we see can be divided into two different styles. Those styles are called "limited animation" and "full animation". In limited animation, only parts of a character move at any given time. For instance, only the mouth of a character will move while he or she is speaking. This form of animation is often seen in syndicated cartoons or those shown on Saturday mornings. In full animation, almost everything on the screen moves at the same time. The movement is often choreographed with movements of real actors to appear as life-like as possible. This style is used mostly in Disney movies. Still, many animated cartoons which would be classified as limited animation are blending in some full animation techniques.

Japanese anime is usually a very extreme case of limited animation. In anime, when one character is speaking, everything else on the screen will appear as if it has been frozen in time. The other characters will stand in the background like zombies. Even in the American version of this, you will often see that animators still pay attention to small details. Take a closer look and you will see characters blink their eyes and fidget in the background of a regular cartoon. Nobody really notices this when they see it, however the absence of it looks painstakingly clear in anime! Once again, animation is all about movement; even small movements add to the sense of realism. Only Americans seem to understand how important this really is. Perhaps it's because many of the old-time animators grew up in an era when all animation had to be drawn again and again by each individual frame. It was a time-consuming and endearing task, which was only made worth it from the satisfaction given by seeing the final product. It would seem that there's a self-imposed level of quality that American animators expect from themselves. American animators understand that animation is not just about telling a story -- it's about bringing it to life! The great Chuck Jones once recalled a kid telling him, "You don't draw Bugs Bunny. You draw pictures of Bugs Bunny."

There is one more issue to discuss when comparing the visual quality of Japanese anime to American animation, and that is of facial expressions. Cartoon characters are usually based off of exaggerated caricatures of real life, and so they often use very exaggerated facial expressions. Of course, the type of expressions used varies greatly from Japanese and American animation. These expressions are very important because they add emotions to the characters, which makes the animation seem even more life-like. Some anime fans will contend that anime has more facial expressions than American animation. I do not see any weight to this theory. There are American cartoons where hundreds of expressions are used. In fact, there are almost an infinite variation of expressions that can be used to give slightly different effects in American cartoons. This is because of the curve-based drawing method used in American animation. On the other hand, most Japanese animes only contain a small set of facial expressions. These may include a single expression for the emotions of happiness, shock, anger, and sadness. Other times, anime characters will not display any emotion at all. However, the anime expressions do have a tendency to stand out and can sometimes leave lasting impressions on the viewer. It's also true that some of them are very extreme and exaggerated. I suppose in some ways this is a benefit to the emotional element of Japanese animation, but in no way is Japanese animation capable of having more facial expressions than American animation. Another problem with Japanese animation is that changes of facial expressions tend to look a lot more choppy than they do in American animation.

Besides facial expressions, body postures can also be important clues used to show emotions. The subtle body posture of a character can show whether he is relaxed, stressed, impatient, shy, brave, cowardly, aggressive, and so much more. Psychologists have known this for a long time, and the American animators usually do a pretty good job of incorporating this idea in their animations. Too bad the Japanese are still pretty much clueless on this one. Go ahead and try to prove otherwise, but as far as I know, the only way you can tell the emotion of an anime character is by reading his face.

After reading all of this, it may seem that I have left out one key advantage that Japanese animation has. To be fair, I will mention it. The use of colors and shading is often quite more advanced in Japanese anime than it is in American animation. In this area, it might seem that American animation hasn't really advanced much beyond the Technicolor days. It's not because Americans don't have the skills or knowledge of how to make good shading. In other art forms, like comic book art, Americans make very good use of shading which far exceeds the anime-style. The anime-style of shading is actually a very simplified version of shading that usually only uses one color for highlights and one for shadows, rather than the more advanced forms of shading which use graduated amounts of blended colors. Still, it's a nice visual touch which can give atmospheric effects similar to those found in theatrical lighting. Yes, it's overuse in anime can be annoying, but there are certain areas where I think something similar could be effective in American animation. One reason Americans don't use it is because of the added production time and costs it would require. There is also the fact that Americans learned along time ago that the whole "persistence of vision" trick, which is the basis for all animation, works best with flat colors. You see, if you use a lot of shading effects, then the animation seems less smooth and requires higher frame rates to obtain the same quality level. Over all, I think that American animation nurtures what is most important to its art form, the animation itself!

Quality of Plot

Of course animation is not all about whether it looks good or not. In the final analysis, it must hold value as a quality piece of entertainment. Notice that I said "quality". Just because someone finds something entertaining does not mean that it has quality. There are other factors that influence people such as personal tastes, experience, maturity, background and mental state of being. However, if you can break down "quality" into specific commonly accepted standards and point out the details concerning them, you can make a legitimate comparison. The other areas, besides the visual quality of animation, which need to be discussed are the quality of the voice acting, plot, storyline, and scripting. These of course are going to be a lot more subjective, but my goal here is to cover popular beliefs on the subject and also raise certain provoking questions which may challenge a reader to come to his own conclusion.

Why is it that people can watch as little as five minutes of American animation and still find it entertaining, but it is not so for Japanese anime? Now there is a question of simple logic for all those obsessed anime fans to try to answer. Whenever someone says that they saw some anime but didn't like it because they couldn't understand what was going on, an anime fan will answer by explaining that the person must watch more of it in order to begin to like it. The more time you spend watching it, the more you'll like it. Of course, this is true of almost anything! You can learn to like anything, if you expose yourself to it for a long period of time. Many anime fans have watched hundreds of hours of animes. However, the question still remains. Why is it that I can watch a five minute Looney Tunes short and still see as much action in it as there is to see in an entire episode of an anime series, and yet still perfectly understand what's going on? I mean, that's what I call time well spent! Just take a look at some of the works of Tex Avery, and you'll see what I mean. But if you were to randomly watch five minutes of any anime, you'd have a 95% chance of seeing a bunch of nothing.

Maybe that example is a little extreme, considering that most animes run as continuing series. Still, we cannot ignore the run-of-the-mill plots found in most individual anime episodes. Most anime series contain a pattern format that is used to construct the plot for each episode. In America, formats are used to some extent also (mostly in old sitcoms) but nowhere to the same level of restriction as in anime. It seems to me, that most animes are missing the plot twists, variety, and suspense that make American series fun to watch. It's all too linear and predictable. After you've seen several episodes, you can already guess the layout for the next episode. How many plot ideas have you seen used over and over again in the same anime series? A typical plot might follow like this: good guys learn some bad news, good guys find bad guys, good guys talk with bad guys, good guys go fight bad guys, something bad happens to good guys, good guys fight harder, good guys win, but bad guys get last laugh. Boy, that sounds boring, doesn't it? While you may be thinking that you've seen this sort of stuff in American animation as well, the difference is that American storywriters usually add more to spice it up. For instance, there might be a few scenes of comic relief mixed in here and there. Also, an American cartoon might be bound to a simple rule that the good guys must always win in the end, but how they win is a different story. In different episodes, the good guys will win through different means, not just fighting. That's called ingenuity!

So what accounts for these slow-moving empty plots found in Japanese anime episodes? Well, compare it to American animation. In an American production you have many happy-go-lucky writers who work on different individual episodes and are constantly developing fresh and new ideas on a regular basis. The American writers are given the freedom to experiment and try new things. Some episodes will turn out rotten, but others will be really good. The plot of the series evolves dynamically as new ideas are thought up. In Japan, the concepts of most animes are developed by one person. Often times, the plot is sketched out long before the anime even exist. Often times, the plot is based entirely off a manga. Anime fans will argue that this gives Japanese series stronger continuity than American series, but I partially disagree. Anime series often leave a lot of plot holes in individual episodes. These gaps exist because the plot is forced to move in a certain direction, but there aren't any plausible explanations for why it does. The director knows he must get from point "A" to "C", but there is no "B" connecting them. Even worse, a lot of the time new characters are brought in for the sole purpose of being a "plot device" and then disappear, never to be seen again. Sometimes, regular characters in anime series will act totally out-of-character. Some anime fans will try to get you to believe that this is because the characters are dynamic. The truth is that these regular characters act out-of-character, just because they're needed for a specific purpose to move the plot along. The difference between this and being dynamic is that realistic characters change over a period of time. Not all of a sudden for no applicable reason. That's human nature!

What about the continuity of American-based plots? Well, it actually works out pretty well a lot of the time. Even though different writers write different episodes, there is still is a whole hierarchy of "checks and balances" in the production of each episode. Overall, I'd have to say that the quality of individual episodes of American series is much better than it is in the Japanese series. Also, most American series don't live to grow as old as the anime series do. When the flow of creativity is over, it marks the end of an American series. On the other hand, a lot of anime series will carry on for many seasons after they've grown old and weary, simply because the producers are still making money off all its fans who will flock like geese to anything that carries its name.

Another question I have to ask, is why are characters' emotions displayed so blatantly in Japanese anime? Does everything have to be spelled out to the viewers, as if they are little kids? If the script is any good, you should be able to feel the emotion for yourself, without help from the character. Does a character always have to breakdown and cry just because it's a sad moment? What about when a character has to clue you in by telling you how he feels? For example, a character who's anxious might say something like, "Gee, I hope everything's going to be alright." Now, I'm thinking that some of you might think this contradicts what I said earlier -- yes, animated characters are supposed to be emotional by nature. However, it is not enough to just show a character giving off emotions like a bunch of Hallmark clichés with some J-pop in the background. Have you ever heard of dramatic irony?

Anything Else?

There are certain factors which cannot fairly be judged as having to do with quality, but make American animation more enjoyable for Americans to watch. How about all the pop-culture references made in American cartoons, but left out of Japanese animes? In my opinion, Japanese idiosyncrasies and folklore are no substitutions for this. And what about the voice acting? Most people agree that English dubs of animes are simply horrible, but what other choice is there? The non-Japanese-speaking anime fans will tell you that the voice acting is better in the originals. If they cannot understand it, how do they know? Listening to a bunch of gibberish you can't understand with words flashing on the screen? You might as well be deaf!

Some people like anime because it has more violence and sex than American animation. It touches subjects like death which a lot of American cartoons don't. This does not make it better in any logical sense. This should not even be an issue. What really matters is plot and character development. I don't think having people drop like flies makes it any more realistic either. When it comes to character development, some Japanese animes have a lot of "flat characters". Well, I do realize that most characters from American cartoons are also flat. Even so, the character should have a strong and unique image with easily associable character traits. Instead, in Japanese anime, a lot of the characters are instead based off of exaggerated Japanese stereotypes, some of which make little sense and can even become irritating.


There you have it. I have shown you the strengths of American animation, and I've pointed out many flaws with the anime style used in Japanese animation. For some it may be easy to tolerate these flaws, but it's important to know that you do not have to! Not if you want to find quality animation -- you do not have to import videos from across the Pacific Ocean. It's closer than you think. It's right here in America, and the funny things is, you've probably overlooked it. But it's still there! Yes, you might find more selection in Japan, but that can change. All you have to do is show your support for the many great animators we have here and keep their dreams alive. Animation is the only great art-form that was born in America! It is worthy of respect. Why not show your true pride for the red-white-and-blue?


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