When most people hear the word “animated cartoon,” images of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Wile E. Coyote come to mind. These cartoons were all created by American studios. Anime, however, is a distinctly Japanese style of cartoon that has become increasingly popular in the United States during the last decade. As a child, Disney’s Gargoyles was one of my favorite television shows. The animation is much better than most other American productions; yet it would rank only as a mid-range quality show in Japan. The first Japanese anime I ever watched was Sugar: A Little Snow Fairy, and it was quite a shock to see what the Japanese air on their regular television. In comparing televised animation series, I found that Japanese anime is superior to American cartoons due to its quality of animation, character development, and storylines.
Although American cartoons may provide entertainment, nobody watches them for visual pleasure. Quite often, the animations are flat and dull while the backgrounds are poorly drawn or completely ignored. Surrealistic, abstract, or modern graphic styles – like those seen in SpongeBob, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and Dexter’s Lab – take the place of realistic artwork. To save on time and production costs, animators have many tricks up their sleeves. For example, in the classic Yogi Bear cartoon, Yogi was drawn with a collar, which allowed the body to be kept static so that only the head moved in each frame. This reduced the number of drawings needed for a seven-minute cartoon from 14,000 to about 2,000. In addition, a low budget American cartoon is produced with no more than 3 or 4 frames per second, as compared to an anime which averages 20 frames per second. This makes anime first-rate in terms of quality, similar to feature-length Pixar movies which run 24 frames per second.
The Japanese have higher aesthetic standards for cartoon art than Americans do. Besides the unique hair styles, Japanese anime is widely acclaimed for its exquisite detail, smooth movement, and creative backgrounds. Although this style of animation is time-consuming and expensive to make, anime provides a beautiful visual quality not seen in America outside of an animated Disney classic. An anime is like a colorful painting that sets a mood on film. Anime also simulates the fancy camera angles seen in movies. Japanese animators pay great attention to every last detail, so anime tends to have more vivid colors, rich textures, accurate shadows, and changeable lighting effects. This can be seen in Haruhi Suzumiya where the buildings, trees, and clouds look ultra-realistic. In addition, scenes are complete with falling leaves and flower petals blowing in the breeze. Sometimes in anime, little dots or lines sparkle on the screen when a character’s expression changes or some form of action is taking place. In contrast, most American television cartoons do not include any special touches.
American cartoons typically have one episode at the beginning of the series wherein the characters are introduced, and then the characters remain in stasis for the remainder of the series. In The Simpsons, Bart has been 10 years old, Lisa has been 8, and baby Maggie has been sucking on her pacifier for more than three decades. Although Liberty’s Kids is a more sophisticated American cartoon in terms of animation quality, the main characters never age or even change their clothes over its sixteen-year time span tracing the story of the Revolutionary War. In anime, the characters grow and change over the course of the series. For example, Clannad begins with a group of friends starting their senior year in high school. As the story progresses, the characters have new experiences, learn life lessons, and finally graduate. But the show doesn’t end there; it goes on to chronicle their first ten years of adulthood.
Superheroes, funny animals, and oddball characters are the main attraction in American cartoons. On the other hand, Japanese anime usually focuses on realistic people in everyday cultural and societal settings. Their oversized eyes and exaggerated facial expressions work in unison to depict real human emotions, which are displayed more openly in Japanese anime. While American cartoon characters can hit each other over the head with hammers and not get hurt, anime characters are seen bandaging little cuts. As in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Japanese anime also touches on sensitive subjects like death, which most American cartoons don’t dwell on. In an anime, there can be ambiguity as to who is good and who is bad. Additionally, in American cartoons one always knows that the good guys will win, but that is not necessarily the case in anime. The bad guy may win, or the main character may die, so a happy ending isn’t guaranteed.
In general, American cartoons lack engaging storylines. Each story can be summed up in under half an hour. While attempting to entertain viewers on the spot with the stress-relieving effects of slapstick, the shows focus on juvenile humor (even when targeted to a “mature” audience), random insanity, and/or nonstop action. Furthermore, the status quo remains unchanged throughout the entire series. Episodes can be skipped without missing something vitally important, and don’t even need to be watched in any particular order. From episode to episode, the plot of Scooby Doo varies very little – with the gang finding a haunted building, searching for clues, solving the mystery, and the bad guy in a fake monster mask complaining at the end: “I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.” Just like the never-ending rivalry between a cat and mouse in the classic Tom and Jerry cartoon, American television shows go on and on ad nauseam, until they are cancelled or just plain run out of ideas.
A Japanese anime is an extended serial with a definite beginning, middle, and end. A complete anime series traditionally contains 26 episodes. While various sub-plots can come and go, each episode serves to move the overarching story forward. If an episode is missed, the viewer will be very confused when the next one airs. Complex storylines are written down before the animators even put their pen in the ink. In Death Note, a brilliant detective is attempting to catch a mass murderer. At the same time, the extremely intelligent killer is looking for the detective. Watching these two chessmasters trying to outwit one another is enthralling and the suspense is excruciating. Even serious animes can have hilarious scenes, but the stories maintain a balance between comedy and drama. More importantly, they are designed to make the viewer think, and to leave a lasting impression. Rather than instant gratification of a silly nature, anime provides a sense of closure. It’s like the feeling one gets after finishing a good book.
The crude animation, one-dimensional characters, and undeveloped stories that characterize the majority of American cartoons leave much to be desired. With a few exceptions, too much emphasis is placed on juvenile humor and cutting corners. Conversely, in Japanese anime, there are no short cuts or lack of imagination – the focus is quality and artistic realism. The aesthetic imagery, emotional sensitivity, and compelling storylines provide the viewer with a more enjoyable and memorable experience. After watching and analyzing both American and Japanese animation, I will never look at cartoons the same way again.
NOTE: This was a compare/contrast essay that I wrote for my English class.