In this article, I’d like to talk about anime and cartoons. My hope is to spotlight each one’s strengths and point out why you could potentially watch one over the other. That’s not to say that one is an inherently better option. We’re all intelligent and open-minded enough to know that there isn’t really a “best” option. We simply have choices depending on our mood or preferences. That’s what I want to drive home.
That being said, I won’t give recommendations of anime or cartoons to watch. For one, you’re on our anime website so there’s a plethora of links and material here to guide you to an anime that suits your needs. Second, I wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting you a cartoon to watch since I’m not up to date on the latest shows myself.
First off, I want to start with a brief history of how anime entered the U.S. because some of you may not know, and it contains an important detail that fans of either should keep in mind.
Anime is most likely derived from the French phrase dessin anime which translates to “animated design”. In Japan, this term is used to describe anything that is animated (image or text) and it places no emphasis on the country which the work originated from. Though that meaning is only relative to its usage in Japan
In other countries, people use the term anime to refer only to Japanese animation. One more detail about this word: in the English language, anime is used as both the singular and the plural form.
Cartoon also received its etymology from the French language. Carton means a drawing on strong paper”. The Italian cartone has a similar meaning: strong, heavy paper; pasteboard. In our not so distant past, cartoon was applied to refer to comical drawings on newspapers or magazines. Because of the similar characteristics between these comic drawings and the very early animated movies, the usage of cartoon was extended to cover animation as well. It is still used to refer to both media to this day.
Cartoons still carry a childish connotation because of its origin from the “funny pages”. Mentioning the word cartoon brings to mind old Disney movies or shows aimed at younger audiences such as Ren and Stimpy, Hey Arnold!, and SpongeBob (arguable). Recent shows that have been made for more mature audiences have tried to distance themselves from this term. Instead, they use vocabulary like animated film, animated feature, animated series, etc.
How Anime Entered the U.S. Market
Anime first creeped into U.S. soil, in the 1960’s, with Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and a few other shows. They caught audiences by surprise but they accepted this new form of animated television called “Japanimation”. This continued through the 1970’s as more shows were dubbed for English speaking audiences.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, there were many joint projects between American and Japanese production companies. It might surprise some to know that the list includes such popular shows as: Transformers (1984), Inspector Gadget (1983), and Tiny Toon Adventures (1990) to name a few.
I referred to these shows as “joint projects” and not “anime” because though they were largely animated by Japanese studios, their conception, direction, and designs were handled by the American companies. But besides these shows, anime such as Akira, Castle in the Sky, and many others continued to awe fans and gain a steady following.
The key component for anime reaching mainstream acceptance would be DiC and FUNimation licensing Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, respectively. In the summer of 1998, those two shows headlined Cartoon Network’s evening programming block known as Toonami. Soon three other anime were added: Ronin Warriors, Voltron, and Robotech. This block of programming has been credited with single-handedly bringing about the anime boom of the 1990’s and 2000’s. It also replaced the old term of “Japanimation” with the new standard “anime”.
That same year, Pokemon was introduced to U.S. audiences and it was extremely successfully in terms of viewership and merchandise. The video games, trading cards, clothing line, toys, and everything else opened up the doors for other anime to follow suit.
Soon after, the internet made its explosion into the world. That allowed fans to bypass the excruciating wait for proper dubs to reach American television sets. They could binge watch their favorite anime and keep up to date with the latest episodes with subtitles. Now, that both media were on equal footing, intelligent discussions could be made between the two.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s go over some general characteristics of each medium.
Limited animation and hand-drawn images are hallmarks of Japanese anime. They reuse many frames, employ silhouette animation, user fewer key frames, and generally emphasize art quality over animation fluidity. Something else that Japanese animation cuts back on is in-between animation. That means less drawings are created in-between the keyframes. The time not spent on producing more frames is instead used on creating vibrant and detailed backgrounds.
Anime characters are generally humans that tend to have exaggerated facial features. The most obvious details are the enlarged eyes and tiny mouths. Hair is also very pronounced and stylized. Other things to note are the bloody noses and stress marks that can appear on a character’s face. Bloody noses generally appear when a character is aroused. Stress marks pop up over a character’s head when they are intensely angry or aggravated. They usually take the shape of a red cross. This is also known as a cross-popping veins.
Another anime trope is the “face fault”. What is an anime “face fault”? Well, that’s when someone is given information that literally “floors” them. They smash into the ground, face-first, with their legs splayed up in the air.
Animation is more fluid in cartoons. As opposed to anime, cartoons place more value on animations appearing more natural and pleasing to the eye. This plays a large role in why characters use many more gestures and subtle movements over their anime counterparts.
Western cartoons don’t usually add as much detail on the face. But, they like to exaggerate body types. For example, they’ll elongate a person’s hairstyle, a character’s torso may be extremely short, or a head may be shaped like a football. Basically, they want to separate the cartoon from any semblance of reality. A character should look odd or comical from the start.
In line with straying for reality, cartoons have a much greater variety in character designs. It can range from simple lines and dots on a blob to a multi-headed monster and anything in-between. That’s not to say that anime doesn’t use these kind of characters as well. But, traditionally anime characters are humans with varying degrees of skin color and physical features. Cartoons don’t really have “traditional” design to stray away from. Try typing in “anime” in Google and see how many humanoid images pop up. Then, do the same for “cartoon”. Pretty drastic differences right?
Anime are usually adaptations from a manga (Japanese comic). So, that is a huge difference from American cartoons. If an anime runs through all of the source material it usually doesn’t continue onto a second season, especially if the manga is on-going. It has happened in the past, and it usually leads to long fillers or new material that is subpar to the original. Original anime productions are a different story. Even if it completes a story arc in one season, it can be renewed for a second if it becomes popular and receives high enough ratings.
A season of episodes is, itself, a heavily structured aspect of anime. A show starts in one of the four seasons and usually has about 12 or 24 episodes (give or take). It’s very similar to how American live-action television shows are run. For example, American sitcoms usually have a 24 episode run. If they receive good ratings, they are picked up for a second season.
In terms of subject matter, anime tend to delve more into human relationships and contain more grounded storylines. Grounded in the sense that there is at least a framework for a story. Typically there is a beginning, middle, and end. Anime is made for people with longer attention spans and a willingness to follow a season of episodes.
Because of this difference in fan-base, anime can be largely more complicated in story structure, character relationships, and dialogue. Also, they have no problem tackling themes of violence, sexuality, and gore. Again, we’re talking in generalities here.
Since most anime have a plot over the duration of the series, the core theme or “life lesson” has a very strong impact. Time is spent on fleshing out characters, interactions, consequences, and any other aspect coinciding with the subject matter.
Cartoons, too, can teach life lessons and be morally grounded. The major difference is that a cartoon usually pulls this off within the 23 (or so) minutes allotted per episode. This means that shorter stories unfold for the audience and they are done at a quicker pace. One could say that cartoons are better at providing nuggets of knowledge while anime explores a topic in-depth.
There are of course famous examples of certain Disney movies having subversive messages of sexuality or racism. (But that’s a topic for a completely different article). Also, arguments have been made for long running shows having underlying themes. For example: Scooby-Doo teaches children to never trust strangers and (to an extreme extent) Smurfs was an example of communist propaganda.
Coinciding with episodic stories is the theme of humor. Since story arcs are short and topics are less complicated (and thus the target audience is younger) more time can be spent on comedy. This is perfect since cartoons already have freedom in character design. They can expand on that quirkiness and create scenarios that are over the top and absurd. Satires are so common in cartoons because their inherent distance from reality lend themselves to poking fun at real life people or events.
So, there’s a (very) quick breakdown of anime and cartoons. It’s plain to see that these two are different from each other in a multitude of ways. Not better or worse. Just different. If anything, the two have become more similar over the years. The reach of each medium has crossed the globe to influence creators and studios on the opposite side of the world. That’s great news for fans of either or both.
As I stated at the top of the article, let’s stop arguing about the two. If a new argument ever pops up, remember that in the 80’s and 90’s American and Japanese production companies were working together to create some of the most fondly remembered American television shows. So, if they can work together to create something, then fans can definitely enjoy both types without bickering or raging over which is better.
Thanks for reading and have a great day!