Anime vs. Western Comics and Cartoons
Many people, when discussing manga and anime, like to compare them to western comic books and cartoons. This comparison can sometimes yield an interesting discussion about how Japanese culture is different from, and the same as, American culture. It can also show American influences on Japanese animation as well as vice versa.
Western Comics and Cartoons
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 are changing to reflect social changes.
Going back to the 1930s, during that time printing presses were evolving 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. Many conventions of the comic book medium in America started being done that way to mitigate 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, having a noticeable effect on the rise of manga (Japanese comics). Originally, the American comic book was just simple, light-hearted entertainment for children. Fear of corrupting children morally meant that in the U.S. at least, comic books had to be mild, inoffensive, and morally clear. It wasn't until later decades that superhero characters became more morally conflicted and psychologically complicated. Like with Disney, the early superheroes promoted faith, patriotism, and family values.
Over time, however, this cultural attitude shifted and American comic books and cartoons have grown more sophisticated, politically complex, and psychologically engaging.
Japanese Anime and Manga
Although anime was in no small way influenced by what was happening with the early development of cartoons in the West, particularly America, it also has some cultural origin that goes deeper into Japanese history. Namely, the woodblock prints the Edo period was quite famous for, many of which showed similar characteristics of the manga art style, such as exaggerated facial expressions, the use of bright primary colors, and more flatness, with less of an influence on photorealism 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 ended up having a larger impact outside of Japan. Meaning that it's certainly possible that Japanese art influenced the cartoonists and comic book artists in the West who ended up influencing early manga's development in the 50s-70s.
The founding father of manga is Osamu Tezuka, best known for creating Astroboy, Cyborg 009, Kimba the White Lion, and Metropolis. His work has this distinct style that influenced the work of many other creators. Tezuka himself was influenced most by the American 'Donald Duck' comics, so the signature round eyes you see in anime are influenced by that.
Main Differences and Similarities
While American comic books have always been about entertainment, manga have usually focused more on the author using the medium as their personal voice. 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 feel, at least until prosperity improved in Japan in the 70s. This melancholy is the direct result of the overall postwar despair felt by the entire country. However, in showing child-like innocence such as that of Astroboy, Japan was also keeping alive an attitude that there was some small hope for the future, a hope to recover from the devastation of the loss of the war and the nuclear bombings.
The main differences are that anime is synonymous with a distinct art style, which makes it famous as a medium, although more serious shows subvert the usual paradigm of goofy hair, big eyes, and bright colors. Bit anime's differences with Western comics and cartoons also have a lot to do with cultural differences between Japan and the West.
One panelist that I saw at Acen (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, but if you ask an American child to, they'll probably draw a superhero. This probably reflects 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.
For teenagers, many anime shows emphasize the importance of studying and grades as well as saving the world. 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 opposed to a superhero comic book, where the hero in question usually works alone. Even with a team of superheroes, such as The Avengers, the X-Men, or The Justice League, it's often more focused on the individual personalities and problems of the characters, with fewer instances of the team acting as one unit. This probably says a lot about differing cultural attitudes.
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. I feel that anime is a product uniquely dependent on the creators being Japanese or living in Japan, because 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" can refer 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, that's why I prefer to use terms like "animated series/film" to "cartoon". This is because "cartoon" has this negative connotation in America of being a dumb, shallow, 20-minute toy commercial for kids. But I still enjoy some shows that are cartoons, and you never really grow out of enjoying the truly special ones.
Anime and 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 as such to gain insight into the major cultural differences between Japanese and American cultures. Mainly, that 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!