Ask John: Why Does Anime Feel Different Than American Cartoons?

Anime is so addictive. Been watching anime since I was 17 in Australia here, first being Tetsuwan Atom, then Sailor Moon in 95, then Hokuto no Ken, which I wished never ended. Loved watching Kenshiro’s wandering, his battles & all the characters, as with Dragon Ball had the same feeling with me too. Western cartoons have nothing of the feeling that anime delivers. Would this be one the reasons why anime is so loved in the West?

Anime is frequently most immediately identifiable by its distinctive visual design. But visual design alone doesn’t explain why anime is so engaging, fascinating, and compelling. Countless anime utilize an endless variety of visual design styles, and anime such as Crayon Shin-chan or Fuujin Monogatari are still highly engrossing despite not being immediately identifiable as “anime” by visual design. Furthermore, anime has been consistently engrossing from its earliest iterations in the 1950s, despite its visual design changing appreciably. So there must be something else beside visual design that makes anime more interesting than American cartoons. The subtle difference lies in the philosophy behind the construction of anime and American cartoons. I’ve said before that American animation creates worlds to satisfy viewers while anime creates worlds for viewers to immerse themselves into. Another way to perceive this difference is the idea that American animation consists of stories for viewers while anime exists as stories about viewers.

American cartoons, from The Flintstones and The Jetsons to Scooby Doo to Powerpuff Girls to The Simpsons to Adventure Time, are obligated to be familiar enough that viewers can understand what’s going on and empathize with the characters, otherwise no one would watch the programs. But the purpose of these programs is strictly to depict other people’s lives, other situations. The satire of The Flintstones, Jetsons, Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, and King of the Hill is intended to target criticism on our society, our neighbors, but not necessarily ourselves. Cartoons are designed to entertain us, to exist as a static medium apart from ourselves that we watch and consume. Anime, on the other hand, consists of narratives that viewers are intended to invest themselves in. Instead of laughing at Fred Flintstone repeatedly angering his wife, or the kids of South Park discovering each new way the world is broken, we wander the wasteland along with Kenshiro and struggle to better ourselves and form relationships with the same characters that Son Goku does. The currently airing Aku no Hana television series doesn’t look anything like conventional anime, but it’s still painfully affecting because it’s not a story that viewers just objectively watch from a remove distance on the opposite side of a glass screen; it’s a story that forces viewers to recollect their own individual adolescence.

If a narrative doesn’t relate to viewers, then viewers don’t become interested and quickly stop watching. So all animation must create some degree of connection between itself and viewers. The creative goal of American television animation is to create just enough connection to keep viewers watching, then captivate viewers by providing sensational entertainment. American cartoons use witticism, humor, action, suspense, bright colors and motion to captivate the audience’s attention. Anime, on the other hand, tries to create a deeper and stronger emotional relationship with its audience. Viewers can see parts of themselves and their emotions, motivations, anxieties, experiences, and interpersonal relationships in the scenes and characters depicted in anime. As a result of anime creating deeper and more intimate meaningful empathy with viewers, anime doesn’t have to rely on superficial colors, dazzling movements, and chortling humor to engross viewers; thus anime like Aku no Hana, Whisper of the Heart, Clannad, and Crayon Shin-chan can become more emotionally resonant, more familiar, more intimate to viewers than programs like Adventure Time, South Park, or Regular Show. All animation is an artistic product. But mainstream American cartoons are specifically created with the intention of being entertainment products to be consumed by viewers. Anime, on the other hand, is created with a philosophy of being narrative literature that engages rather than just statically entertains viewers. If the fundamental difference between American mainstream commercial cartoons and Japanese commercial anime is, in fact, a difference in composition philosophy, there’s little reason why American cartoons can’t be just as involving and affecting as anime. Arguably American cartoons including Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra have begun to emulate anime by developing with the same goals that inspire anime. But Japan has sixty years of experience creating empathetic, engrossing animation while the vast majority of American cartoons are still produced by corporations that desire cartoons that a easy and breezy to watch and sell, not cartoons that create a deep, complex, and co-mingled relationship with viewers.


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