American cartoons versus Japanese anime

I don't think we're in Japan anymore.

I don't think we're in Japan anymore.

When I was in my sophomore year of college,  my friend and I used to hang out with the foreign exchange students—the Japanese students in particular. My Japanese was not up to par at the time, but thankfully, all the Japanese students I spoke to were relatively fluent in English. In one of our discussions, we were chatting about recent anime shows. Interestingly, The Boondocks was released in Japan. The interesting part was not that an American animated series was released in Japan, but rather the expression of my friend who was flabbergasted that our Japanese counterparts consider it to be anime.

My friend is a devout American otaku, and he stridently believes that any animated series not produce in Japan is not anime. So, he took great lengths to explain to our Japanese friends that The Boondocks is an American cartoon and not Japanese anime. Their frown as well as their confused expression encouraged me to change the topic as quickly as possible.

I never really tackled the debate on American cartoons versus Japanese anime since it is practically a minefield—full of technicalities and extreme levels of ignorance and bias. Nevertheless, it is always good to ask and answer questions—at least to the best of one’s abilities.

And the question we begin is “What is anime?” and “Is there a difference between anime and cartoons?” It varies depending on which group you ask. For Japanese people, anime is an abbreviation for animation in its broadest context. Cartoons or anything to do with animation is anime. However, in the West, otaku view cartoons as a Western creation.  And anime is much more specific—animation made by the Japanese.

The definition of cartoons also varies. Formerly, cartoons were defined as comic strips. Modern day usage has included cartoon to be the same as animation thanks to the advent of the television.

Essentially, the reason why my Japanese friends were so perplexed was the fact that anime to them was anything animated—with no national boundaries attached. And my fellow American otaku saw anime as solely Japanese. In addition, the word cartoon does not exist in Japan, so he only made their confusion worse.

There is clearly a cultural diverge in the meaning of cartoon and anime between the West and Japan. So we know anything animated is anime to the Japanese whether it is The Simpsons or Nichijou. The question now, is whether or not it is proper to distinguish anime as strictly Japanese animation.

So what makes anime only a Japanese product to the Western eyes? Is it the ridiculously huge and brightly colored eyes that are common in all Japanese anime? Is it because it was made by a Japanese company? Does it absolutely have to be broadcasted in Japan first? Must it be spoken in the mother-tongue? Is it the complex stories, the beautiful animation, or the adult-themed content? There are probably more reasons why Westerners view anime as explicitly Japanese, but the series of questions above are reoccurring arguments.

Nowadays, it is common to see the large eyes that have become a trademark of Japanese anime. However, the Japanese are not the first to use it. Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astroboy, Black Jack, and Kimba the White Lion, and popularly known as the “Godfather of Anime” and “Father of Manga,” admitted that he was heavily influenced by Western animation, specifically American cartoons. The distinctive large eyes common in Japanese anime and what many otaku view as quintessentially Japanese was invented by Mr. Osamu. However, his creations drew inspiration from Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop and Walt Disney’s Bambi and Mickey Mouse.1  Arguably, Japanese anime can trace its origins not from Mr. Osamu, but from well-known American animators.

A frequent argument for many Western otaku is an anime must be made by a Japanese company or artist. However, for the past ten years, majority of Japanese anime have been animated by South Korean studios, and of course, drawn by Korean artists. Many Japanese studios rely on Korean subdivisions that support their animation production. For instance, MADHOUSE Studio, a well-known Japanese animation company, contracts MOI Animation to do some of their work. Funny thing is the animation for the second season of The Boondocks was contracted to MADHOUSE Studio, who then subcontracted it to MOI Animation — I bet you a hundred dollars my otaku friend would wet his pants if he heard that.2

For years, South Korea has been the source for Japanese and American animation production. As a result, Korean artists with years of drawing so-called Japanese-style artwork have adapted it to their animated shows. Even though Korea does not currently have a large selection of animated series, it does have a variety of movies under its belt, such as Oseam, Leafie: A Hen in the Wild, and Yobi: the Five Tailed Fox.

We will draw all the lolis for our glorious leader!

We will draw all the lolis for our glorious leader!

In some cases, the very same South Korean companies, who were subcontracted to do the animation by their Japanese and American counterparts, subcontracted the work to their arch-nemesis, the North Koreans.3 And if you remember the political situation in that particular part of the world, you will undoubtedly find it quite ironic.

Although South Korea is very capable of handling the animation production for the Japanese, recent trends show that Japanese animation studios are looking to find cheaper alternatives. If you happen to watch Working!!, I dare you to read the names in the closing credits. You may be surprised to come across a couple of artists with Vietnamese names—yes, you will inevitably find the ubiquitous Nguyen in there.4 In any case, it has become more frequent for Japanese studios to outsource their work to foreign animation studios in developing countries, in particular, Southeast Asian nations.

For the most part, the scripts are Japanese, but in terms of animation, you will be hard-pressed finding a 100% “Made in Japan” nowadays.

It is very rare for an anime produced in Japan to be broadcasted outside of the country. There are some exceptions, such as any of the Studio Ghibli movies since they cater to a broad audience. Big O also falls under this particular category because the reception was poor domestically; nonetheless, it proved to be a big hit internationally. As a result, Cartoon Network along with Sunrise and Bandai Visual signed on for a second season. The creators made sure to include input from the American producers.5 Evidently, the sequel of Big O was mostly catered to the American audience rather than the Japanese; even though it was released in Japan before it hit the States.

Motherfu--er! I dare you to dub over my voice!

Motherfu--er! I dare you to dub over my voice!

By far, Afro Samurai is the most unique case in which an anime was produced by Japanese studio GONZO, but broadcasted in the United States first. Four months later, it was finally released in Japan; however, it was never dubbed—wise decision considering the voice actor for the main protagonist is none other than Samuel L. Jackson.6 In other words, the Japanese watched an anime in English with Japanese subtitles.

Some otaku may view the plot line and art style of American cartoons as straightforward and simple. Surely, the slapstick stories of the Looney Tunes and the cultural and political humor of The Simpsons and Family Guy are common attributes of American storytelling. And, the plain character designs are rather childish compared to their Japanese counterparts. But the very same people seem to forget the large collection of beautifully scripted and crafted 2D animation from Walt Disney Animation Studios: Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, and more recently the Princess and the Frog. And when it comes to Disney projects that are completely 3D animated, they take the cake.

Of course, Walt Disney does not have a monopoly on creative and memorable animated films and television series.  Some of Warner Brothers Animation’s animated shorts of the Looney Tunes were true masterpieces, such as "Duck Amuck," "One Froggy Evening," and "What’s Opera, Doc?" Another classic example is the 1978 animated film of The Lord of the Rings by Saul Zaentz, which proved to be a fruitful children’s adaptation to a popular franchise. More recently, Nickelodeon Animation Studio’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, and its sequel The Legend of Korra made waves across the United States. Its memorable characters, stylish artwork and a well-balanced story full of humor, seriousness and meaningful content can compete and even outperform some of animated series in Japan.

In terms of adult content, Japanese anime are very distinct compared to its foreign counterparts. Needless to say, cultural differences play a significant role in the divergence of Japanese anime and Western cartoons.

In Japan, this is kid friendly. Seems legit.

In Japan, this is kid friendly. Seems legit.

In Japan, all animated projects undergo the Eirin rating system. Interestingly, their rating system is quite liberal compared to the American TV Parental Guidelines. For example, their PG-12, which is supposed to be equivalent to our PG, includes most anime publicly broadcasted in Japan, such as Fate/stay night, Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni, and Gantz, which of course, you will never find in the U.S. under PG—more like 14 or MA.7 And in many cases, Japanese studios try to push the boundaries. For instance, Kissxsis is essentially borderline porn, but due to the censorship of certain sexual content within the series, it is allowed to be publicly broadcasted under PG-12.

Apparently, the liberal views of the Japanese in the media industry allow Japanese teenagers to watch anime full of mature content—whether it consists of borderline porn censored by "inconvenient" steam, or kids going stir-crazy and butchering each other in every conceivable manner. Unlike the Japanese, the Americans have a more conservative opinion.

Most, if not all PG-rated shows in the U.S. continue to display a limited degree of sexual content—anything but a smooch will bump it from PG to 14. Doug, SpongeBob SquarePants, and more recently, Avatar: The Last Airbender has at least one or more romantic kisses or a peck on the cheek in a manly sort of way. But they will certainly not broadcast anything with panty shots, private parts censored by steam or a random character with a sign, or intercourse. Due to the cultural differences, the general American audience within that age group has very little interest for fan service.8

Children are encourage to use explosives to solve all of their problems.

Looney Tunes encourages all children to use explosives to solve life's problems.

Violence, on the other hand, is a tradition in American cartoons. For instance, the Looney Tunes was mildly violent, and at times, excessive. Of course, there was no blood or gore, but many viewers got the message when Elmer Fudd yelled “Kill the Wabbit!” or when Wile E. Coyote accidentally and repeatedly blew himself to smithereens in attempt to catch the Roadrunner. And even when an episode of The Simpsons is rated PG, it will certainly have Homer beating the crap out of someone.

However, once you jump on board the 14 and MA rated American animated shows, you will certainly find blood and gore, sex and drugs, and everything in-between. Archer, Black Dynamite, The Boondocks, and The Venture Bros. have plenty of the mature content. Even older American animated films, such as Wizards and Gandahar, proves Western interest for adult-rated material. Nevertheless, excessive mature content is infrequent in American cartoons, which is probably why many older Americans view anime as something that is only meant for kids. Of course that is not true; however, it is not entirely surprisingly since I can easily list a few hundred rated PG cartoons produced in the past thirty years compared to the handful of rated 14 and MA in the same amount of time.

Japan’s liberal interpretation of their television rating system is a stark contrast to the American system as well as the cultural norm in the States. Although there may be few mature rated cartoons in the U.S., they still do exist.

In end, it is unnecessary to distinguish anime as strictly Japanese animation. Some Western otaku can be apprehensive by the notion that anime and cartoons are one and the same. And often, otaku create a whole list of reasons to emphasize the differences. Their efforts may ultimately prove fruitless, since the disparities are not explicit enough to warrant a clean borderline between Japanese anime and Western cartoons. The evidences may be viewed as exceptions, since they do not represent the majority. Nevertheless, these contradictions strike several cracks to the foundation as to what is perceived as Japanese anime—whether it be the country of origin, the style, the audience, the content, or the language. Thus, it is not hard to see cartoons as another word for anime. And if the Japanese view any form of animation as anime, why can we not do the same?