by Marker ApennameThesis StatementThis is my thesis statement — while American animation and Japanese animationboth have their virtues, the style of American animation, in general, hasa significant amount of higher quality.
Where to Begin? Where to be Going?To begin with, one of the major problems that has hindered American animationis budget and time constraints. On the other hand, in Japan, anime has beenallowed to flourish all over. When it comes to animation, it seems that Hollywoodsimply does not take it seriously and would rather throw its millions into”live action” films and TV shows. There is only one company in Hollywoodwhich devotes a significant amount of its resources to advancing our heritagein animation, and that’s Disney. Comparatively, its Japanese cousin has hundreds.
This is a real shame considering that animation itself was originally pioneeredby us. The American form of animation has not had its techniques advancedthrough as many stages or been perfected as much as Japanese anime has. Thiswould lead some to the conclusion that Japanese animation is inherently betterthan American animation; a false conclusion that I will dissect piece bypiece as we go on. Still, there are some examples where the quality of Americananimation really shines through for what it was meant to be. Take anotherperspective, and you’ll see that the cut-throat constraints which Americananimation producers face can actually help the quality of their animation,because they are always forced to work under the constant threat of being”canned”. Any animation project cannot be a flop or else (as in showbiz terms)so-and-so “will never work in this town again!” Compare this to all thatgarbage floating around in Japan. However, to gain the popularity and respectthat the form deserves, we need to make some big changes. Fortunately, itseems that some of the big-shots up there have finally started to take noticeof what has caused the likes of Disney to become very successful and makebillions of dollars for years. Of course, it will be a while before animatorsare given the freedom and creativity that have made the Japanese successfulfor the last decade. But we cannot simply play catch-up by copying theirinferior anime style (even though that’s what they did to us a long timeago). Then we would be giving away our pride — selling out one of the fewproud things that we can say was made in America. No, we must do things ourown way!A Little HistoryFew people, including those obsessed anime fans, have a clear understandingof how Japanese animation came to be or how it relates to the American formof animation. So, let’s take a little look at its history. First, let’s figureout what element of Japan’s society has caused the proliferation of anime.
Well, in Japan there is a distinctive connection between the animation industryand the comic book (called “manga”) industry. In fact, many animes are basedoff of manga. The actual word “manga” was coined in 1814 and roughly translatesinto “humorous pictures”, but cartoonish art had existed in Japanese culturefor centuries prior to that. The crude drawings were used by the Japaneseleaders and social elite, usually for political purposes. One of the earliestknown collections of these drawings were drawn by a Buddhist monk named Tobain the 12th century. The need for these drawings was probably brought aboutby a certain trait in Japanese culture, which modern-day psychologists mightcall an “attention deficit disorder”. The solution for this was to enticetheir people with certain visual stimuli. This became a useful tool for thosein power, since they could use it to leverage control over the public. Theeffect could be described similarly to the “media saturation” which has plaguedAmerica in recent times. Flash forward to 1989 — only 12% of published materialin Japan were books, whereas the majority (38%) were manga! If this doesnot show anything about Japanese society and literacy, then I don’t knowwhat does.
All of this may suggest that the Japanese had a unique style of their ownlong before the Americans came along, but the truth is that today’s animeand manga does not really bare any resemblance to the prehistoric art formof the ancient Japanese. After World War II, Japan went through an identitycrisis; they began stealing stuff like mad from our Western civilization– which still continues to this day. It seems that they have become the”United States wanna-be”. This is fantasized through their animes where theyoften show Japan as a culturally diversified nation where everyone acceptseach other. In reality however, Japan is almost entirely populated with ethnicJapanese. They seem to find fun by taking things from our culture and playingaround with it — perhaps, pretending that if they were a large country likethe US, and not a small little island country, they could run things betterthan we are.
Dr. Osamu Tezuka is considered to be the real father of the anime-style andgave birth to the commercial industry of anime and manga as we know it today.
Some people call him the Disney of Japan, which is sort of ironic becausehe copied many ideas from Disney and other American animators of the time.
The classic “big eyes” which many people associate with anime were actuallypopular at one time in American animation and were used a lot by the MaxFleischer studio. Tezuka himself said: “My career as an animator began when at the age of four. I copied a pictureof Popeye. My house was full of comics when I was a schoolboy. Because wewere able to obtain a projector and several films, I was able to see MickeyMouse, Felix the Cat, Chaplin, and Oswald Rabbit at home.”As you can see, it is obvious where he got his inspiration from. Tezuka’sfirst success was a manga called Tetsuwan Atom. Before Tezuka came along,most manga were short humorous comic strips similar to what one finds inthe newspapers. However, Tezuka used techniques similar to those he had seenin foreign movies when he made his manga. He simulated the fancy camera anglesseen in movies as well as giving his manga more complex storylines. The resultwas a comic book series with cinematic quality. It became an instant hotseller, mainly because it was a cheap way for common folks (who were strugglingwith a bad economy) to provide entertainment for their children. The generationof children who grew up on this would be hooked on manga and anime for life.
When did animation come to Japan? Probably when Toei Production started itsanimation division in 1958. They hired Dr. Tezuka to make animated filmsfor them. Later, in 1962, Tezuka would leave Toei to start his own companycalled Mushi Production and produce one of the first animated televisionshows in Japan. Of course, both animated movies and television shows hadalready been firmly in place for quite a while in the US.
In fact, the first animated film was made by James S. Blackton in 1906, onlyfour years after Thomas Edison had invented the movie projector. That wasmany years before Tezuka was even born. But the art of animation is evenolder than that. In fact, an invention called the magic lantern, which projectedanimation by moving a strip back and forth, was invented in 1645 by AlthanasiusKircher. Around 1915, a technique of using celluloid sheets in animationwas established. By painting on these clear plastic cels, they could thentranspose more than one cel on a static background. This technique is stillused by some animators today. Walt Disney made several breakthroughs by makingthe first animation with sound (1928) and the first animation in color (1932).
It was on December 21, 1937 that Walt made history again with “Snow Whiteand the Seven Dwarves” — it was the first feature-length animation! SnowWhite was the top grossing film for its time.
Those are the important details to the history of animation, although I havenot done justice in explaining the many great works created by the many verytalented animators of the time. Japanese anime seems to be this new freshbreed of animation, even though it has its roots in American animation. Itboggles my mind how many Americans today prefer a cheap imitation over somethingthat is real and genuine. They say that Japanese anime is of better qualityand looks better than our own animation. In doing so, they have overlookeda pearl that is much closer to home. The truth is that American animationhas so much more to offer, that anime simply pales in comparison. Visual QualityThere are several elements to look at when reviewing animation. The firstI will discuss is visual quality, since this is the first which people willusually look for. We must first realize that animation is a totally differentart form than other art forms such as drawing, painting, ect. Those are allused to depict still pictures. The concept of animation is not about conveyingpictures; it is about conveying motion. When you examine a painting, theactual strokes of paint are not important; it is how those strokes combineto form their work of art. A similar concept applies to animation. Even thoughanimation is made of pictures, it is not the pictures which are importantbut how they’re used to make the animation. We must distinguish these differentart forms first and foremost and judge them separately.
This leads us to the first rule any budding animator must know. Each celof animation must be easily distinguishable at an eye’s glimpse. This isbecause the animation goes by so fast at many frames per second. You do notwant the viewer to miss an important detail because it went by too fast.
Here, I will bring up the most noticeable difference between Japanese andAmerican drawing styles. Japanese anime tends to use a style which has sharpand jagged lines, whereas Americans use a style which has smooth and curvylines. There are benefits to both of these styles. The most obvious benefitto using the Japanese method is that the sharp lines stand out very easilyand thus overcome the problem of having to be distinguishable to the viewer.
On the other hand, the smooth curves of American animation are more life-likeand natural. In fact, if you look in nature, you will see that anything organicis formed with curves. Not only that, but as I will attempt to explain later,animation itself is based on the mathematical principles of curves. The problemof course is that it is not as easy to produce something as distinguishableusing curves as it is with sharp lines. This makes Japanese animation a loteasier to produce than American animation. The Japanese are able to highlightthe details that are important by their usage of actual lines, whereas theAmerican animators must focus on the picture as a whole. To help aid themselveswith this problem, American animators often use something known as a “silhouettetest” on their drawings. The test is to see if the drawing is as easilyrecognizable as if it was to be totally shaded in (like a silhouette). Thisis because a person’s mind must be able to register the outline of the figurethey see and associate it with the action taking place as soon as it’s flashedin front of their eyes. Japanese animation works quite differently, becausethe sharp and jagged lines make it seem very unnatural. In this case, yourmind is telling you that there is something very wrong about the picture.
That causes your eyes to focus on it. It also gives this artificial-feelingto anime that some people seem to like, but in my opinion, it designatesanime as a lesser form of animation. It should also be noted that the rootdefinition of the word “animation” stems from a Celtic word which means “tobe life-like”. May I also note, that up until modern times, this conceptwas so foreign to the Japanese that they did not even have a word for itin their vocabulary. That is why they had to borrow the word “anime” fromthe French.
Sometimes in anime you will see little lines sparked across the screen whena character’s expression changes suddenly or some form of action is takingplace. These lines are called “action lines” and are strictly prohibitedin the American school of art. The idea, once again, is that the action shouldspeak for itself and not need some fancy lines to guide the way for its viewers.
It should be able to grab the attention of the viewers by itself. That isnot always as easy when you’re making an animation as it is when you’re makinga comic book, because the animation must run at a certain pace. Fortunately,the American animators have a bag of tricks to help their viewers stay oncourse.
The number one technique used in American animation to draw a viewer’s attentionto the action that’s about to take place is known as anticipation. What thisdoes in effect, is it warns the viewer’s mind before hand that a certainaction is about to take place so it can register in the viewer’s mind beforeit actually happens. If you watch American animation, you’ll notice thatoften times a character may anticipate that he’s going to be hit in the faceby reacting before he’s actually hit. Or he may anticipate that he’s goingto break into a run by stepping backwards first. If a character is aboutto become angry suddenly, his facial expression might go through stages beforeit reaches the pot-boiling point. The principle can be applied to anything,including inanimate objects. A very exaggerated case of this is when WileE. Coyote walks off a cliff but doesn’t fall down until he realizes he’sstanding on thin-air. The viewer already expects Mr. Coyote to plummet tohis doom before it happens. However, the anticipation technique is usuallyvery subtle when you’re watching it because it blends so seamlessly and naturallywith the animation. This is because this technique is just one of the manytechniques which the American artists have mastered and perfected, but theJapanese have not. It is also a lot more effective than “action lines”. Uponfurther examination of the anticipation technique, one may find that it isreally based off an exaggerated version of one of Newton’s laws that states,”Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” Who knew that animationcould be so scientific?There are a couple of other techniques used in American animation that Ishould mention because they make animation seem more life-life and pleasurableto the eyes, and also because there is a significant lack of such to be foundin Japanese anime. Some of those techniques have to do with something calledthe “path of action”. This usually has to with where a character starts out,where he should end up, and how he will get there. It’s a little bit likewhat stage crafting and camera maneuvering are to live action. I haven’treally seen this task performed as well in anime as it is in American animation.
One reason is that American animation uses a technique where the motion ofthings (especially hands and feet) moves in curves. This is often impossibleto do with Japanese animation because of its use of sharp and jagged lines;you have less freedom in movement without contorting the character’s bodyinto some unrealistic shape. On the other hand, curved motion can make theanimation seem very fluid and natural — or shall we say, “very animated”.
You’ll also notice that in American animation, the time frame of action tendsto be parabolic (curved), where the action starts out slow and gets fasteruntil it slows down again. Once again, this makes the animation seem verysmooth and appealing to the eyes, heightening your sense of realism. Anothertechnique used in American animation is called “squash and stretch”. Thisadds a rubber-effect to the animation. When a force acts upon a body of mass,it either expands it or squeezes it. This makes the object seems real, solidand three dimensional, since the physical reaction conveys weight and mass.
Unfortunately, to use this technique, one must work with a roundish bodyof mass. This means that you can’t use it with drawings based off those jaggedlines. You should now be able to see how the “anime style” can be veryrestrictive and limiting in the long run.
American animation comes in different qualities. The animation we see canbe divided into two different styles. Those styles are called “limited animation”and “full animation”. In limited animation, only parts of a character moveat any given time. For instance, only the mouth of a character will movewhile he or she is speaking. This form of animation is often seen in syndicatedcartoons or those shown on Saturday mornings. In full animation, almosteverything on the screen moves at the same time. The movement is oftenchoreographed with movements of real actors to appear as life-like as possible.
This style is used mostly in Disney movies. Still, many animated cartoonswhich would be classified as limited animation are blending in some fullanimation techniques.
Japanese anime is usually a very extreme case of limited animation. In anime,when one character is speaking, everything else on the screen will appearas if it has been frozen in time. The other characters will stand in thebackground like zombies. Even in the American version of this, you will oftensee that animators still pay attention to small details. Take a closer lookand you will see characters blink their eyes and fidget in the backgroundof a regular cartoon. Nobody really notices this when they see it, howeverthe absence of it looks painstakingly clear in anime! Once again, animationis all about movement; even small movements add to the sense of realism.
Only Americans seem to understand how important this really is. Perhaps it’sbecause many of the old-time animators grew up in an era when all animationhad to be drawn again and again by each individual frame. It was a time-consumingand endearing task, which was only made worth it from the satisfaction givenby seeing the final product. It would seem that there’s a self-imposed levelof quality that American animators expect from themselves. American animatorsunderstand that animation is not just about telling a story — it’s aboutbringing it to life! The great Chuck Jones once recalled a kid telling him,”You don’t draw Bugs Bunny. You draw pictures of Bugs Bunny.”There is one more issue to discuss when comparing the visual quality of Japaneseanime to American animation, and that is of facial expressions. Cartooncharacters are usually based off of exaggerated caricatures of real life,and so they often use very exaggerated facial expressions. Of course, thetype of expressions used varies greatly from Japanese and American animation.
These expressions are very important because they add emotions to the characters,which makes the animation seem even more life-like. Some anime fans willcontend that anime has more facial expressions than American animation. Ido not see any weight to this theory. There are American cartoons where hundredsof expressions are used. In fact, there are almost an infinite variationof expressions that can be used to give slightly different effects in Americancartoons. This is because of the curve-based drawing method used in Americananimation. On the other hand, most Japanese animes only contain a small setof facial expressions. These may include a single expression for the emotionsof happiness, shock, anger, and sadness. Other times, anime characters willnot display any emotion at all. However, the anime expressions do have atendency to stand out and can sometimes leave lasting impressions on theviewer. It’s also true that some of them are very extreme and exaggerated.
I suppose in some ways this is a benefit to the emotional element of Japaneseanimation, but in no way is Japanese animation capable of having more facialexpressions than American animation. Another problem with Japanese animationis that changes of facial expressions tend to look a lot more choppy thanthey do in American animation.
Besides facial expressions, body postures can also be important clues usedto show emotions. The subtle body posture of a character can show whetherhe is relaxed, stressed, impatient, shy, brave, cowardly, aggressive, andso much more. Psychologists have known this for a long time, and the Americananimators usually do a pretty good job of incorporating this idea in theiranimations. Too bad the Japanese are still pretty much clueless on this one.
Go ahead and try to prove otherwise, but as far as I know, the only way youcan tell the emotion of an anime character is by reading his face.
After reading all of this, it may seem that I have left out one key advantagethat Japanese animation has. To be fair, I will mention it. The use of colorsand shading is often quite more advanced in Japanese anime than it is inAmerican animation. In this area, it might seem that American animation hasn’treally advanced much beyond the Technicolor days. It’s not because Americansdon’t have the skills or knowledge of how to make good shading. In otherart forms, like comic book art, Americans make very good use of shading whichfar exceeds the anime-style. The anime-style of shading is actually a verysimplified version of shading that usually only uses one color for highlightsand one for shadows, rather than the more advanced forms of shading whichuse graduated amounts of blended colors. Still, it’s a nice visual touchwhich can give atmospheric effects similar to those found in theatrical lighting.
Yes, it’s overuse in anime can be annoying, but there are certain areas whereI think something similar could be effective in American animation. One reasonAmericans don’t use it is because of the added production time and costsit would require. There is also the fact that Americans learned along timeago that the whole “persistence of vision” trick, which is the basis forall animation, works best with flat colors. You see, if you use a lot ofshading effects, then the animation seems less smooth and requires higherframe rates to obtain the same quality level. Over all, I think that Americananimation nurtures what is most important to its art form, the animationitself!Quality of PlotOf course animation is not all about whether it looks good or not. In thefinal analysis, it must hold value as a quality piece of entertainment. Noticethat I said “quality”. Just because someone finds something entertainingdoes not mean that it has quality. There are other factors that influencepeople such as personal tastes, experience, maturity, background and mentalstate of being. However, if you can break down “quality” into specific commonlyaccepted standards and point out the details concerning them, you can makea legitimate comparison. The other areas, besides the visual quality ofanimation, which need to be discussed are the quality of the voice acting,plot, storyline, and scripting. These of course are going to be a lot moresubjective, but my goal here is to cover popular beliefs on the subject andalso raise certain provoking questions which may challenge a reader to cometo his own conclusion.
Why is it that people can watch as little as five minutes of American animationand still find it entertaining, but it is not so for Japanese anime? Nowthere is a question of simple logic for all those obsessed anime fans totry to answer. Whenever someone says that they saw some anime but didn’tlike it because they couldn’t understand what was going on, an anime fanwill answer by explaining that the person must watch more of it in orderto begin to like it. The more time you spend watching it, the more you’lllike it. Of course, this is true of almost anything! You can learn to likeanything, if you expose yourself to it for a long period of time. Many animefans have watched hundreds of hours of animes. However, the question stillremains. Why is it that I can watch a five minute Looney Tunes short andstill see as much action in it as there is to see in an entire episode ofan anime series, and yet still perfectly understand what’s going on? I mean,that’s what I call time well spent! Just take a look at some of the worksof Tex Avery, and you’ll see what I mean. But if you were to randomly watchfive minutes of any anime, you’d have a 95% chance of seeing a bunch of nothing.
Maybe that example is a little extreme, considering that most animes runas continuing series. Still, we cannot ignore the run-of-the-mill plots foundin most individual anime episodes. Most anime series contain a pattern formatthat is used to construct the plot for each episode. In America, formatsare used to some extent also (mostly in old sitcoms) but nowhere to the samelevel of restriction as in anime. It seems to me, that most animes are missingthe plot twists, variety, and suspense that make American series fun to watch.
It’s all too linear and predictable. After you’ve seen several episodes,you can already guess the layout for the next episode. How many plot ideashave you seen used over and over again in the same anime series? A typicalplot might follow like this: good guys learn some bad news, good guys findbad guys, good guys talk with bad guys, good guys go fight bad guys, somethingbad happens to good guys, good guys fight harder, good guys win, but badguys get last laugh. Boy, that sounds boring, doesn’t it? While you may bethinking that you’ve seen this sort of stuff in American animation as well,the difference is that American storywriters usually add more to spice itup. For instance, there might be a few scenes of comic relief mixed in hereand there. Also, an American cartoon might be bound to a simple rule thatthe good guys must always win in the end, but how they win is a differentstory. In different episodes, the good guys will win through different means,not just fighting. That’s called ingenuity!So what accounts for these slow-moving empty plots found in Japanese animeepisodes? Well, compare it to American animation. In an American productionyou have many happy-go-lucky writers who work on different individual episodesand are constantly developing fresh and new ideas on a regular basis. TheAmerican writers are given the freedom to experiment and try new things.
Some episodes will turn out rotten, but others will be really good. The plotof the series evolves dynamically as new ideas are thought up. In Japan,the concepts of most animes are developed by one person. Often times, theplot is sketched out long before the anime even exist. Often times, the plotis based entirely off a manga. Anime fans will argue that this gives Japaneseseries stronger continuity than American series, but I partially disagree.
Anime series often leave a lot of plot holes in individual episodes. Thesegaps exist because the plot is forced to move in a certain direction, butthere aren’t any plausible explanations for why it does. The director knowshe must get from point “A” to “C”, but there is no “B” connecting them. Evenworse, a lot of the time new characters are brought in for the sole purposeof being a “plot device” and then disappear, never to be seen again. Sometimes,regular characters in anime series will act totally out-of-character. Someanime fans will try to get you to believe that this is because the charactersare dynamic. The truth is that these regular characters act out-of-character,just because they’re needed for a specific purpose to move the plot along.
The difference between this and being dynamic is that realistic characterschange over a period of time. Not all of a sudden for no applicable reason.
That’s human nature!What about the continuity of American-based plots? Well, it actually worksout pretty well a lot of the time. Even though different writers write differentepisodes, there is still is a whole hierarchy of “checks and balances” inthe production of each episode. Overall, I’d have to say that the qualityof individual episodes of American series is much better than it is in theJapanese series. Also, most American series don’t live to grow as old asthe anime series do. When the flow of creativity is over, it marks the endof an American series. On the other hand, a lot of anime series will carryon for many seasons after they’ve grown old and weary, simply because theproducers are still making money off all its fans who will flock like geeseto anything that carries its name. Another question I have to ask, is why are characters’ emotions displayedso blatantly in Japanese anime? Does everything have to be spelled out tothe viewers, as if they are little kids? If the script is any good, you shouldbe able to feel the emotion for yourself, without help from the character.
Does a character always have to breakdown and cry just because it’s a sadmoment? What about when a character has to clue you in by telling you howhe feels? For example, a character who’s anxious might say something like,”Gee, I hope everything’s going to be alright.” Now, I’m thinking that someof you might think this contradicts what I said earlier — yes, animatedcharacters are supposed to be emotional by nature. However, it is not enoughto just show a character giving off emotions like a bunch of Hallmarkcliches with some J-pop in the background. Have you ever heard ofdramatic irony?Anything Else?There are certain factors which cannot fairly be judged as having to do withquality, but make American animation more enjoyable for Americans to watch.
How about all the pop-culture references made in American cartoons, but leftout of Japanese animes? In my opinion, Japanese idiosyncrasies and folkloreare no substitutions for this. And what about the voice acting? Most peopleagree that English dubs of animes are simply horrible, but what other choiceis there? The non-Japanese-speaking anime fans will tell you that the voiceacting is better in the originals. If they cannot understand it, how do theyknow? Listening to a bunch of gibberish you can’t understand with words flashingon the screen? You might as well be deaf!Some people like anime because it has more violence and sex than Americananimation. It touches subjects like death which a lot of American cartoonsdon’t. This does not make it better in any logical sense. This should noteven be an issue. What really matters is plot and character development.
I don’t think having people drop like flies makes it any more realistic either.
When it comes to character development, some Japanese animes have a lot of”flat characters”. Well, I do realize that most characters from Americancartoons are also flat. Even so, the character should have a strong and uniqueimage with easily associable character traits. Instead, in Japanese anime,a lot of the characters are instead based off of exaggerated Japanesestereotypes, some of which make little sense and can even become irritating.
ConclusionThere you have it. I have shown you the strengths of American animation,and I’ve pointed out many flaws with the anime style used in Japanese animation.
For some it may be easy to tolerate these flaws, but it’s important to knowthat you do not have to! Not if you want to find quality animation — youdo not have to import videos from across the Pacific Ocean. It’s closer thanyou think. It’s right here in America, and the funny things is, you’ve probablyoverlooked it. But it’s still there! Yes, you might find more selection inJapan, but that can change. All you have to do is show your support for themany great animators we have here and keep their dreams alive. Animationis the only great art-form that was born in America! It is worthy of respect.
Why not show your true pride for the red-white-and-blue?Recommended ReadingTelevision: Critical Methods and Applications by Jeremy Butler, Ph.D. –Become a smart viewer! (they will give you a free copy to review if you cansay you’re affiliated with an educational institution) –http://www.tcf.ua.edu/screensite/res/pub/tvcma/Anime Otaku: Japanese Animation Fans Outside Japan by Annalee Newitz, Ph.D.
(from Bad Subjects, Issue #13) — An in-depth analysis of the mind of ananime fan and what makes it tick. Scary stuff indeed! –http://english-www.hss.cmu.edu/bs/13/Newitz.htmlBeyond TV Safety: Serious Stuff by Scott Frazier — A Japanese anime-otakuinsider who worked for ten years as a producer, animator, consultant, ect.
gets a change of heart and spills dope on the evils of the industry. –http://www.ex.org/2.8/12-bts1.html