Anime vs. Western Comics and Cartoons
Anime and manga are often compared to western comic books and cartoons. And some people wonder what the difference is. Japanese media are 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. Though the edges of boundaries between distinctions like "anime" and "western cartoon" can be blurry, comparison of Western media with Japanese media can tell us a lot about important cultural differences. Primarily, they show differences of artistic and aesthetic values between different cultures.
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 culturally 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 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. Comic books soon became a worldwide sensation. Early manga in Japan were heavily influenced by American comics and animation, especially by Disney.
Originally, the American comic book was just simple, light-hearted entertainment for children. Fear of corrupting children morally meant comic books had to be mild, inoffensive, and morally clear. The Hays Code 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, the early superheroes promoted faith, patriotism, and family values. This was because of the desire to promote American ideals during the cold war. So you see a lot of comic book villains in the 40s who are nazis, and then a lot of the villains in the 50s are Soviet inspired.
Western Comics and Cartoons: Recent Developments
Recent decades have seen a lot of changes in not only the way animation and comics are made in the West, but 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.
Animation has 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. 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.
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. Both tend to put less value on photo-realism than Western art. 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 Metropolis. His work has a distinct style that influenced the work of other creators. 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 influenced by that.
Differences and Similarities
Anime's differences with Western comics and cartoons have a lot to do with cultural differences between Japan and the West.
Although there are exceptions on both sides, generally, works in America were about making money. Meaning they tended towards the safe, mainstream, and traditional. But manga, especially in the early days, was used for the artists and writers to express their personal views. Perhaps this is because Japanese culture discourages openly criticizing things, making art a "safe" way to challenge or criticize their society. Early manga is infused with a melancholy feeling. This melancholy is the direct result of the overall 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, a 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 feeling 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; a 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.
Anime, especially if aimed at teenagers, emphasizes the importance of studying and grades. Anime also emphasizes relationships, social status, and rank within a group more than other types of shows. 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, because the show idolizes Rei Ayanami, a girl who goes along with orders blindly, without question, and synchronizes with her Eva Unit without a hitch. 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. But Evangelion is a bleak, avant garde outlier. Anime in general 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. Even though in the latter, 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.
In short, 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 uniquely dependent on the creators being Japanese or living in Japan. If it lacks that cultural experience, it doesn't make sense to describe it as "anime".
Now, this gets hairy, because in Japan, the word "anime" is used for to anything animated, because the word is just a shorthand for "animated". So the word in Japan refers to all cartoons, even non-Japanese ones. However, in the English-speaking world, the word "anime" is used exclusively to be applied to "cartoons from Japan". So if Avatar or another show in question 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.
Anime, manga, and western comics and cartoons share a lot in terms of history and mutual influence. However, they are also products unique to the cultures that produced them, and 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.
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 Rachael Lefler