American vs. Japanese Animation: What’s Different and Why
I originally embarked on this journey because of the (unintentionally comedic) way that anime characters explicitly state everything that they’re doing. Then, I found out there’s a reason for it. Then, I found an 88-page Bachelor’s Thesis on it.
First, What’s the Same?
This article will focus only on traditional animation and does not include 3D or stop-motion animation. Traditional animation is done by ink or paint, in which the illustrator draws every frame on tracing paper, called cel paper. Each frame is then captured by a special camera. Animation is an optical illusion — a series of pictures in quick succession that give the guise of real movement.
(The Little Mermaid, 1989)
When Westerners use the term “anime” we’re referring to Japanese animation. When Japanese people use the term “anime”, they are using it as an abbreviation for all animation. For example, a Japanese person might refer to The Little Mermaid as “Disney anime” In this article, I’m using the term “anime” in reference to Japanese animation.
This is where I first noticed the cultural difference in storytelling. In many anime movies, the characters will explicitly state what they are doing and thinking, even though we could infer it by just watching them. Some sources say they did this narration because anime episodes wouldn’t be able to stand on their own, without context. But it seems this is just a convenient cover-up for the real answer — they didn’t have money. In the old days of anime, when TV series had a tight budget, it was cheaper to voice over dialogue than it was to have the character physically act it out. This was done so frequently that it was adapted into the general style of anime. Anime films today will sometimes overly narrate while the character is also acting out the scene.
One of the major, noticeable differences with American animation and anime is the way in which the characters move their mouths with the dialogue. In the work process for anime, the Japanese animators do all the animating before the voice acting is done. The characters in anime do a sort of goldfish-lip movement to fit most any dialogue. American studios work the exact opposite, in which the animation is matched so closely to the dialogue that you can almost read the character’s lips.
Frames per Second and Repetition
The number of frames per second directly relates to how much money will have to be spent on the production. The more frames per second — the more fluent the animation — the more it will cost. Early anime productions, like Astro Boy (which is arguably the earliest anime production), managed to cut it down to eight images per second. For comparison, most Disney films shoot at 24 images per second. This choppy way of shooting was then adopted into the style.
Repetition was another way to save time and cut costs. For example, when a character is running, it’s usually just the same sequence over and over. Animators came up with other instances of repetition that weren’t so obvious, and the patterned images were also eventually adopted into the style of anime.
Features of Characters
The way that humans faces are drawn in American animation are more realistic than in anime. Anime exaggerates features, especially the eyes. This idea of exaggerating features was actually taken from the early, early Disney days — Mickey Mouse (some sources credited Betty Boop for this inspiration, which came out only two years after Mickey.) But, Disney used these anthropomorphic characters to cater to children. Japanese animators found another, more important use, for drawing characters this way: They’re more expressive.
(Spirited Away, 2001)
One major difference between American and Japanese stories is the polarity of their characters. Americans tend to attribute characters as either good or evil, and while the characters may pretend to be one or the other, deep down they are truly only good or bad. This black-and-white characterization comes from Disney’s roots in folklore — tales of heroes and villains. Japanese stories do not usually define their characters as good or bad, but embrace the grayness of reality, which stems from Studio Ghibli’s roots in the Shinto religion.
When Ariel loses her voice in The Little Mermaid, her voice loss equates a loss of freedom, rights, and expression. In the way that Americans draw parallels between our literal voice and our right to expression, the Japanese draw parallels between birth-given name and identity. In Spirited Away, the protagonist can’t remember her name, and until she does, she’s trapped in the spirit world forever.
Another thing you will see in anime more often than American animation is the death of the protagonist. Death is honorable in the Shinto religion, which is why it is a legitimate way of ending a story in anime. In America, resolving a storyline with death is seen as taboo, and rarely done.
Anime to Watch if You Don’t Normally Watch Anime
TV Series Cowboy Bebop (Hulu)
Death Note (Netflix)
One Punch Man (Netflix)
Movies Spirited Away (2001)
Princess Mononoke (1997)
Your Name (2016)
Anime was essentially highly-stylized cheap production. This isn’t an insult though, the animation studio’s ability to show the beauty in simplicity has now given them a style that they can build upon. Studio Ghibli now has a highly defined style and money, which means they’re creating beautiful, elaborate, recognizable films.
Anime's Great Deception - The Difference Between Anime and Cartoons