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Anime vs. Western Comics and Cartoons

Rachael started this blog as an anime review blog in 2010. It has since branched out into other topics.

These two media forms have more similarities than you may have thought.

These two media forms have more similarities than you may have thought.

Anime vs. Cartoons

Anime and manga are often compared to western comic books and cartoons. And some people wonder what the difference is. Japanese media is sometimes influenced by Western media, and the reverse is also true. This can complicate the question of whether certain specific works, reflecting cultural influence, should be labeled as Japanese or Western.

For example, there is the question of whether the Dark Souls games should count as "JRPGs," or Japanese role-playing games. Though they are Japanese, they exhibit substantial Western influence. The edges of boundaries between distinctions like "anime" and "western cartoon" can be blurry.

But, comparing Western media with Japanese media tells us a lot about cultural differences. Primarily, they show differences in artistic and aesthetic values between different cultures. But they also reflect different values. For example, when Sailor Moon originally aired, it was okay in Japan that it had a lesbian relationship. But this content was famously censored when the show was first dubbed in English for a North American audience.

Now there are even animation collaborations across the Pacific, like Batman: Gotham Knight, an animated anthology about Batman that has a Western concept, but was animated by 4 anime studios: Studio 4°C, Madhouse, Bee Train, and Production I.G. Perhaps that indicates that the distinction, moving forward, won't actually matter.

Early manga in Japan was heavily influenced by American comics and animation, especially by Disney.

Early manga in Japan was heavily influenced by American comics and animation, especially by Disney.

Western Comics and Cartoons: The Early Years

Disney got its start in the 1930s with the debut hit Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This enchanting take on a classic fairy tale skyrocketed Disney to the top of the U.S. animation industry in subsequent decades. Disney distinguishes its products as promoting family values and traditional American culture, but they have also changed their content to reflect social changes over time.

In the 1930s, printing presses evolved rapidly that could print newspapers and their associated photos faster, and in better quality. Translating a colored ink drawing into a printable format wasn't easy back then.

Traditional norms for comic books in America were developed to handle issues associated with ink and printing. Comics were first penciled by one artist, then the pencil marks were inked by another, and then when that was dry, a colorist would fill in the color. The colors available were limited, so early comics were often either black and white, or colored with mostly bold primaries. Comic books soon became a worldwide sensation. Early manga in Japan was heavily influenced by American comics and animation, especially by Disney. This is due to the post-war occupation of Japan by the United States, which caused American pop culture to disseminate among the Japanese public.

Originally, the American comic book was just simple, light-hearted entertainment for children. Fear of corrupting children meant comic books had to be mild, inoffensive, and morally clear. The Hays Code, a set of moral rules for Hollywood movies, also influenced animation, most notably, Betty Boop. It wasn't until later decades that superhero characters became more morally conflicted and psychologically complicated.

Like with Disney's animation, early superheroes promoted faith, patriotism, and family values. This was because of the desire to promote American ideals during the Cold War. So a lot of comic book villains in the 40s were Nazis, and then a lot of the villains in the 50s are Soviet-inspired.

In more recent Western games and animation, since the primary enemy of the U.S. is Middle-Eastern terrorism, the U.S. media has changed to reflect our country's new fears.


Western Comics and Cartoons: Recent Developments

Recent decades have seen a lot of changes in the way animation and comics are made in the West, and in how audiences perceive them. Now that the Hays Code is a thing of the past, we've seen daring, mature comics on the rise since the 70s. Notable is the work of comic book artists like Alan Moore, whose Watchmen graphic novel and other work criticized conventional and familiar comic book tropes. Most notably, Moore was taking aim at the clear-cut, black and white morality of comic books from the 'Golden Age.' Real law enforcement and military operations are never that black and white.

Animation has also become more technically complex since the advent of computer image technology. CG-animated movies began competing with traditional 2-D animation since the success of Toy Story. Movies like Shrek, and shows like South Park and The Simpsons, showed that animation can be used to entertain adults as well as children.

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Animation for adults was always around, but it was underground and niche, never before reaching such heights of mainstream success. Today, we have a variety of adult Western animation and comic books aimed at adults, teenagers, and children. There is a much greater range of stories being told in these media now. Animation and comic books are no longer seen as only for children. There are also nuanced movies, like certain Pixar films, that really offer something for both children and adults.

Tezuka himself was influenced most by the American Donald Duck comics, so the signature large, round eyes you see in anime and manga today are caused by Disney.

Tezuka himself was influenced most by the American Donald Duck comics, so the signature large, round eyes you see in anime and manga today are caused by Disney.

Japanese Anime and Manga

Anime was in no small way influenced by what was happening with the early development of cartoons in the West, particularly America. But, it also has some influences from deeper in Japanese history. Namely, the woodblock prints the Edo period was famous for, many of which showed similar characteristics of the manga art style.

This includes exaggerated facial expressions, the use of bright primary colors, and flatness. That means lacking shading and not attempting to show three dimensions in the two-dimensional picture plane. Japanese artists put less value on photo-realism than Western ones. This art style of ukiyo-e, or 'floating pictures', was influential on European art during the post-Impressionist period (Van Gogh, Cezanne, etc.). Japanese block prints were easier than the more cumbersome brush paintings to take back to Europe, so the style had a large impact outside of Japan. It's certainly possible that Japanese art influenced the cartoonists and comic book artists in the West who ended up, in turn, influencing early manga's development in the 50s-70s.

The founding father of manga is Osamu Tezuka, best known for Astro Boy, Cyborg 009, Black Jack, Kimba the White Lion, and an animated version of the German expressionist film Metropolis. His work has a distinct style that influenced the work of other creators. Most manga and anime artists after him took at least some inspiration from Tezuka. It's like how Tolkien created the fantasy novel.

Tezuka himself was influenced most by the American Donald Duck comics, so the signature large, round eyes you see in anime and manga today are caused by Disney.

Those anime characters with their big eyes... oh... wait...

Those anime characters with their big eyes... oh... wait...

Differences and Similarities

Anime's differences with Western comics and cartoons are often caused by cultural differences between Japan and the West.

On both sides, you have the mainstream vs. the underground. Mainstream comics and cartoons are about making money. So they're safe, coloring within society's lines, never challenging the status quo. Underground comics, with edginess and moral complexity, seemed to come later in the history of comics than did edgy, subversive, underground manga. Perhaps this difference is due to the fact that losing the war lost the Japanese people confidence as a nation and trust in their government. But winning it for America did the opposite, it made more people believe in American exceptionalism. So it took really until we lost our own war in Vietnam, which was also a terribly unpopular war, for our confidence in the American status quo to begin to crack.

Early manga is infused with a melancholy feeling. This melancholy is the direct result of the despair felt by the entire country following the war. However, in showing child-like innocence, such as that of Astro Boy, Japan also kept alive the idea of some small hope for the future. Hope to recover from the devastation of the loss of the war and the nuclear bombings. Obviously, as conditions improved in the country, the tone and feel of anime and manga also became more optimistic in general.

Anime is synonymous with a distinct art style. This makes it famous as a medium. But, more serious shows subvert the usual paradigm of goofy hair, big eyes, and bright colors.

One panelist that I saw at a Chicago anime convention spoke about how, if you ask a Japanese child to draw a comic book, they'll usually draw a giant robot. If you ask an American child to draw a comic book, they'll probably draw a superhero. This could reflect different cultural attitudes. The Japanese child is placing their trust in science and technology, while an American places their hope in some kind of outstanding individual with raw talent. It also shows the Japanese focus on groups over individuals—the pilot in giant mech shows is important, but it requires a whole team to build, test, and maintain the robots. In contrast, superheroes usually work independently, clash when forced to work on a team, and have unique powers and abilities no one else has. Sidekicks went out the window by the 70s and 80s.

Anime, especially if aimed at teenagers, emphasizes the importance of studying, hard work, and grades. Anime also emphasizes relationships, social status, and rank within a group. For example, in Evangelion, it's Nerv as an organization that does the fighting, as a group effort.

In a superhero comic book, the heroes usually work alone. There are teams of superheroes, such as The Avengers, the X-Men, or The Justice League, but it's often more focused on the individual personalities and problems of the characters, with fewer instances of the team acting as one unit. Many Western comic book heroes have an attitude of skepticism, disdain, and/or disinterest when begrudgingly forced to join a group, such as Deadpool, Wolverine, Iron Man, and many more.

Evangelion similarly shows main characters who do not want to be part of Nerv. But in Evangelion, it is seen as more of an individual failing to not fit in with the group. This is shown by how the show presents Rei Ayanami, a girl who goes along with orders blindly, without question, and synchronizes with her Eva Unit without a hitch, as the ideal pilot. Rei is criticized, but not being like her, in that Asuka is too prideful, and Shinji is too cowardly, are seen as personal defects. Meaning even in a very cynical show, there is still a cultural expectation that individuals put the needs of others first. Evangelion is a bleak, avant-garde outlier, and yet, it promotes the idea that people should at least strive for group cohesion.

Anime promotes group loyalty, and loyalty by students to teachers and mentors. Examples of this include My Hero Academia, Sailor Moon, Naruto, Rurouni Kenshin, Ghost in the Shell, and so on.

Anime that are more individualistic include Trigun and Fullmetal Alchemist. Trigun, influenced by American Western films, focuses on Vash the Stampede as an individual. The theme of humanity's spirit surviving in a harsh desert environment is seen throughout the whole story, though, so it's not entirely individualistic. Vash also has to often face the consequences his fights have on civilian bystanders, which is a recurring problem he faces. And he's motivated by pure compassion, almost like a Bodhisattva. Needless to say, a Western writer would have executed a similar base concept very differently.

In Fullmetal Alchemist, the focus is mostly on the two main characters and whether they will achieve their goal. But, the main characters are part of the government. Corruption in that government, and war crimes committed by it in the past, are major factors in the plot. So it takes a large group effort to fix everything.

These differences should be taken with a grain of salt. They are not absolute laws, but rather, general tendencies, with many exceptions to every rule.


Is Avatar: The Last Airbender Anime? What Is and Is Not Anime?

This was a big nerd controversy when the show first came out. There are many artistic similarities between Avatar, Korra, and anime. But I'm going to have to answer "no" to this question. Anime is a product defined by the creators as being Japanese or living in Japan. If it lacks that Japanese cultural experience, and doesn't come directly from the Japanese tradition, it doesn't make sense to describe it as "anime."

Now, this gets hairy when you note that in Japan, the word "anime" is used for anything animated. The word is just a shorthand for "animated" or "animation." So the word in Japan refers to all cartoons, even non-Japanese ones. However, in the English-speaking world, the word "anime" is exclusively applied to "cartoons from Japan." So if Avatar or another show is not from Japan, it should not be considered anime.

When talking about serious, adult-oriented shows in the medium of western animation, I prefer to use terms like "animated series/film" to "cartoon." The word "cartoon" has a negative connotation in America of being a dumb, shallow, 20-minute toy commercial for kids. I still enjoy some shows that are cartoons, and you never really grow out of enjoying the truly special ones. But when talking about something like Rick and Morty, it makes more sense to call it an animated series than a cartoon. So I would also not put Avatar: The Last Airbender in the category of 'cartoon', but would prefer to call it an animated TV series/show.

Those anime girls with unrealistically big boobs... oh wait...

Those anime girls with unrealistically big boobs... oh wait...

They're Not As Different As You Think

Japanese and Western versions of comic books and cartoons/animation share a lot in terms of history and mutual influence. However, they are also products unique to the cultures that produced them. Their similarities and differences can be analyzed to gain insight into the major cultural differences between Japanese and American/Western cultures. Mainly, Japanese society places great influence on groups, such as the Sailor Scouts in Sailor Moon, while American comics have always focused more on the workings of individual heroes and "lone wolf" villains. A lot of times in Western storytelling, defeating an individual bad guy/gal is a stand-in for defeating issues that are actually societal or systematic in nature in the real world. For example, Fern Gully's take on environmentalism is that you have to get the fairies together to stop a tree-eating demon. Compare that to the anime movie, Princess Mononoke, where it's clear that environmental problems are caused by the competing material needs of humans, trees, and animals.

What do you think about the differences between Japanese anime and manga vs. American/Western comics and cartoons?

Let me know in the comments!

© 2015 Naomi Starlight


Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on September 12, 2019:

Your comment drew attention to the article not being up to my standards, and I made improvements, especially in elaborating on the more recent developments in Western animation and comics. I guess you could say my writing has improved a lot in 4 years since this was written. I am always looking to improve so I appreciate feedback!

Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on June 14, 2017:

While that is true in most western media, in anime there are some genres that have more clear division between good and evil. If a movie is for little kids, generally it won't have as much moral complexity. The main target demographic for anime is teenagers, so they can do more of that.

A lot of times a difference is, villains in a lot of anime don't want to be evil, they are forced into it by higher-level villains (like Team Rocket) or they're being controlled by a supernatural evil force (like the possessed boar in Princess Mononoke, or the Digimon controlled by black gears). Evil people in western cartoons are usually driven on a personal level by something they want, like Jafar wanting power, the evil step-mother in Cinderella wanting her daughters to be queen instead of Cinderella, etc.

nipster on June 14, 2017:

Another important difference to note is that in american cartoons there is a greater tendency to have a stark contrast between good and evil. You know the main character is good and the enemy is bad.

In anime on the other hand, there isn't necessarily a "Good" and "Evil" side. There are simply opposing forces both of which have good and evil sprinkled throughout like peanuts on an ice cream cone.

David Trujillo Uribe from Medellin, Colombia on September 15, 2015:

Howls Moving Castle.

But I was asking if there are any new ones?

Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on September 15, 2015:

I was only going to do Spirited Away this month, which is my favorite one. But I can add some to the schedules of future months. What are some of your favorites?

David Trujillo Uribe from Medellin, Colombia on September 15, 2015:

Yeah, I hate silly cartoons from whever they are.

In terms of anime my respects go to Gihbli. Got any reviews on those type of films?

Naomi Starlight (author) from Illinois on September 15, 2015:

I was talking about the history of the medium so I was looking at "first", but not necessarily "best".

I agree, I like 'Heavy Metal'. I think I'll have to review it soon.

Haven't seen much of 'Afro Samurai'. It just looked like a goofy blaxploitation-style show given a Japanese feel, which is ok, but I was just like "meh".

It depends on the genre, show, and characters' personalities, but I generally prefer over-the-top acting to wooden acting, like you see in a lot of Hollywood movies. The same "silly reactions" are found in western cartoons as well, that's probably where they get them too, just look at like, "Ren and Stimpy".

David Trujillo Uribe from Medellin, Colombia on September 15, 2015:

Hmm I think you are missing western best, in the form of the animated DC Comic Films which are top of the line. Watch the latest Batman film.

An honorable mention to Heavy Metal. That cartoon film was amazing!

And Afro Samurai

What I do not like about anime is how silly the characters react most of the time.

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