Interesting Analogy of American vs Japanese Animation

June 20, 2009


This is an analogy Peter Chung (Aeon Flux) once used to compare American (mostly Disney/Pixar) animation to anime. It’s a relatively simple observation that most casual fans would have noticed, but not as easy to articulate into words (so all kudos to him. My effort here is to make the point more concise and illustrative).

In a way, comparing those two is a lot like comparing Classicism to Modernism in terms of painting. Classicism was about creating illusion of life so that the viewer forgets he is looking at oil on canvas, but a window to reality. In Dujardin’s painting below (left one) for example, trace of the artist’s hands effortlessly vanish, as it flawlessly paints everything as it ‘should look like’. Many of Modern Art on the other hand reject this conventional mode of representing reality by deliberately highlighting their brush strokes, in order to more effectively express certain aspects of the painting. Monet (below right) would be inventive in colourful ‘dabs of paint’ to create his impression of scenery and not representation of it. Likewise, Picasso used ‘cubes’, Klimt used ‘decorations’, Pollock used ‘splashes’, all to express a different world of non-representative reality.


American animation (or Disney) is a lot like Classicism in that it focuses entirely on characters and representative illusion of them ‘breathing life’. There is movement even in still poses, which is how their cartoony and unrealistic looking characters appear as if they’re alive when animated with such ridiculous frame-rate and detail. Watch something like Wall-E or even Snow White and see how lively they appear. In contrast, anime is more like Modernism in that it’s not interested in representative illusion of movement. I remember Ben from Anipages Daily once mentioning how Japanese animators have become so good at playing around with different frame rates and adding their touches into the drawings, effectively infusing their own unique sense of life and movement into the characters. I don’t know much about animation itself to analyse different animators (just visit Ben’s blog) but I totally agree with Peter’s analogy. Below are two of my favourite scenes in anime that serve well as an illustration, which have the kind of thrill and vitality not present in your ‘realistic’ American animation.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning that other than the illusion of character movement/life, there are also titles like Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei that creates its own maddeningly exciting sense of flow through erratic sequencing of shots (not as heavy emphasis on the animation of characters moving).

And coburn just brought up K-On!, which I thought was another excellent example.


30 Responses to “Interesting Analogy of American vs Japanese Animation”

  1. animekritik Says:

    yeah, i can totally see that. from a modernist perspective, it’s almost as if classicism was exhausted when so many people could master the skills to capture reality; and then people had to get surreal or something… In the same way, Japanese animators could do reality in their sleep, and so it’s not valued as much…

  2. ghostlightning Says:

    Oh, it’s the Father Person!

    First of all, I love it that you chose that particular scene in Cowboy Bebop, ‘Hard Luck Woman’ is my favorite episode out of the whole thing, and is the subject of my first blogpost ever on We Remember Love [->]

    You’re right about these differences with regards to frame rate. I would like to share what Soya Satoshi, the president of Toei Animation (Philippines) had to say about the matter:

    Yes. A long time ago, like in the 1960s until the late 1980s. […] The Japanese style of animation is very different from the American style. The US style is FULL animation. The Japanese style is limited […] because the number of frames per second is fewer. In film the camera shoots or plays at 24 frames per second. The Americans would draw 24 drawings. But the Japanese style is only 8. Only 8 drawings in one second.The animation result is very different. If the US style is more focused on the amount of movement, how smoothly the movement looks, but the Japanese focus is on how beautiful the drawing is, or how cool the pose or style of the character is. The action is important too, the timing of the movement.

    (The full interview is here [->]

    It would have been great too if you had also put videos in comparison. I’ll try my hand at it:

    X-Men TV (90’s)

    Then let’s see Samurai X (’90s)

    Since both are OPs, let’s speculate that the budgets are on the high side (at least for the Japanese part). The structure is set in a way that the characters are introduced, with a view to demonstrate their ‘trademark’ abilities. What can we observe?

    -The X-Men OP had a lot of movement, and fluidity given its limitations.
    -The X-Men, with characters who have names that are practically licenses on their own, made sure that the viewers can’t mistake who’s being featured in the show (lol).

    That said, it’s a particularly effective OP — many of the people who followed the show in the ’90s ‘remember love’ for it the same way I do for something like Cowboy Bebop, the music alone brings them back to their idylls of Saturday mornings.

    The Samurai X opening, while observably higher in animation quality (relative to the episode content proper), still involves a whole lot of still images.
    -Sometimes these images are moving (horizontally), in contrasting directions. This gives the illusion of ‘animation.’
    -Some parts though, have high frame rates which make for rather awesome, if very short, moments (what a tease this was for me, especially Batoussai vs. the guy with the chain)

    However, I do think that the composition of each ‘scene’ in the OP is rather well done. They stand on their own, even as stills; I can look at a paused moment and enjoy what I see. This reflects very much what Soya said in the interview IMO.

    Disclaimer, I’m not a fan of either show. Both disappointed me in many ways when I watched them back in the day. (This is my clumsy attempt in being the least subjective as possible, given this is a contrasting kind of analysis — not something I’m used to doing)

    Maybe other commenters can share different video examples that make for good (and fair) contrasts. This post and its subject interests me a great deal.

  3. coburn Says:

    I think this is a definite factor in anime, although within certain bounds. It’s a bit like fiction which drags a passage close to stream-of-consciousness, but keeps itself accessible.

    Cowboy Bebop is a good example because it’s so accessible and uses solid base models. It’s notable that when anime pulls itself up to unregulated expressiveness (Kaiba) lots of people flat out drop it.

    Needless to say K-On = high modernism

  4. gaguri Says:


    Haha yea…it’s like, “hey I’m tired of drawing real life, what if I draw a melting clock?”. I don’t find American’s ever-exhausting pursuit of trying to perfect representative animation very appealing, with higher and higher budget and all. Japanese have found ways to animate kind of reality and that is I guess a part of why I love anime.


    I think your example of Cowboy Bebop and Kaiba is good one. With Cowboy Bebop the artwork itself is quite natural, i.e. similar to how typical anime looks, if a bit stylised, but Kaiba is just extremely…you get my point 😀

    Thanks for mentioning K-on, I think that would serve as an excellent example to demonstrate my point above…I’ll find a suitable youtube clip and add soon.

  5. ghostlightning Says:

    Hi gaguri, I tried posting earlier but I think my comment got moderated. I don’t think I can put back together what I said then, but if it turns out the comment’s gone, I’ll try my best.

  6. gaguri Says:

    ghostlightning…I er…ok I’ll just be honest and tell you what happened…

    After reading your above comment, I went to check my spam filter box and saw your very, very passionate reply. And well, I ‘approved’ your comment…which for some reason is not showing up x_X (and also not in pending section…). There was only ‘approve’ and ‘delete’ command, so I naturally assumed ‘approving’ it would have the reply up…did I do something wrong -.-

    …anyway, I did read your reply, but it’s a real shame it’s not here for other people to see, as it was very infomrative. If you are not up to writing all that again (which is perfectly understandable), I can at least link to that wonderful interview article you wrote. I do remember that article, but for some reason didn’t recall the president comparing american/japanese animation, but I do remember him hating his work though (lol).

    Again…I don’t know if it’s wordpress or me but I apologise -.-. If you have an idea what went wrong, please feel free to tell me so this does not happen again in the future.

  7. gaguri Says:

    Never mind, your wonderful response is alive just under animekritik’s!


    this damned wordpress doesn’t know who is spamming and who is remembering love

  8. ghostlightning Says:

    Whew thanks!

    Within anime there would be similar distinctions to a degree. Take 2 space operas:

    1. Legend of the Galactic Heroes
    2. Crest/Banner of the Stars

    The former is your classical, and the latter is your modernist, primarily due to the character designs, but not necessarily the animation. That said, I think LotGH did what it could to portray a representative/realistic depiction of movement and action given its budget limitations and other conventions and contingencies.

    The latter, however has a lot more fun with its style even though it remains pretty sober and basic. Most of the distinction is in the character design and character animation (even without the cross-hatched veins, chibi/superdeformity, or giant sweat drops).

    High modernity would probably be (to follow coburn’s example) Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu’s space opera episode. That was mad fun.

  9. gaguri Says:

    I agree with your comparison. Animation-wise they are not too different (although CoTS is undeniably more ‘Japanese’ than LoGH), designs of CoTS is lot more stylised. I think LoGH did well by not going too wild with its animation, although I definitely think it could’ve benefited more from higher budget (but it did brilliantly with the little it had).

  10. Shadowmage Says:

    The primary difference I see between the visual styles of American and Japanese animation is that certain types of visual creativity found in a market in Japan but not in America.

    It’s interesting you mention Cowboy Bebop since the show definitely aims to portray real life but certain moments drastically emphasize a few badass, key animation sequences above the others. It seems that years of training of making a few shots look incredible has paid off now that anime actually have decent sized budgets to show off both classicism and modernism.

  11. gaguri Says:

    Certainly Japanese are much more creative with their form and fantastic kind of realities they depic than their American counter-part.

    And the quality of animation in Cowboy Bebop was really something. I wonder why we can’t get more like that today, technically they should be better by now right?…

  12. Kiri Says:

    Great analogy — it’s definitely something that’s really obvious once it’s pointed out, but I don’t think a lot of people really take the time to stand back and consider it. I think it’s a fairly subtle observation given that most people also consider American animation “cartoony” to some extent, even if the Japanese are more willing to take it to an extreme.

  13. gaguri Says:

    Yea the comparison isn’t very complex one, but very subtle (and very interesting!).

  14. Martin Says:

    TBH I used find the slower framerate in anime really irritating, even though I knew why it was made that way. On the plus side it’s pushed the animators into the aesthetic I’ve come to love so much but sometimes I think “This would look so much better if the animation were smoother too…” Cowboy Bebop is one example of that, as is FLCL. I don’t think a TV budget would be able to do its frenetic pace justice at all. Damn, I love that series to bits, honestly. It’s so fiendishly clever and profound…

    I’m not well up on art-related stuff at all but anime has always seemed more stylised than Western animation…both have their distinctive styles but I don’t see such a range in Western animation either. The early Disney stuff is fantastic artistically, as offputting as I find the marketing machine surrounding it to be.

  15. gaguri Says:

    Really? Mmm I personally don’t think series like Cowboy Bebop or FLCL really needed a higher budget. I guess it could have been more fluid, but not sure if that would have been for better necessarily.

    You’re right about limited range in Western Animation (although Europeans are pretty avant-garde in this field…). Once you’ve seen one Disney or Pixar, you’ve seen them all, they’re more or less copies of each other (just different in premise/execution).

    And Cowboy Bebop+FLCL are my all time favourites too : D

  16. Martin Says:

    Ah, sorry, I phrased it a bit wrong there! I meant they’re two shows that DIDN’T need a higher budget…oddly the other example of an anime with a ridiculously high frame rate is Akira. That suggests to me that it’s a financial constraint and not an artistic one, because it’s an old movie but artistically it was way ahead of its time.

  17. gaguri Says:

    Delighted to have our perspectives matched again 😀

  18. kadian1364 Says:

    In terms of art style, I’d agree that with mainstream American studios, Disney, Pixar, Warner Brothers, their films aren’t visually very experimental. However, I’d argue that Pixar has really been upping their game lately in regards to scope of storylines and thematic ambitions. Ratatouille and Wall-e in particular appealed to more mature sensibilities and ideas. I’m also positively struck by how effectively Pixar’s storytellers can create narratives with scenes containing little to no dialogue for great stretches of time. I think all of their animated shorts are like that (those skits that precede their feature films in theaters).

    Putting aside differences in creative expression and art styles, I agree that there’s a clear divide regarding animation philosophies. When I look at something like Avatar, even if I had no knowledge of storyline or dialogue, I can tell that it’s an American production because of the constant movement on screen and consistent quality throughout an episode, regardless if characters are in life-threatening fights or just walking along some path. They’re never reduced to talking heads.

    I think there are things that can be learned going both ways across the Pacific.

  19. gaguri Says:

    As much as I love Wall-E, I view its story-telling as pretty much same as just like every other pixar films I’ve watched. It’s probably something I need to write a whole post to make my point, so I’ll just leave it at that…

    But I do agree with you on the brilliant usage of silence and its ability to convey emotions and tell stories in Wall-E.

    As for Avatar, I think it’s a little mix of both American and Japanese sensibilities. American part you’ve beautifully summarised, but also the creator was heavily influenced by the way Japanese animate their drawings, he made it mandatory for his animation staffs to watch FLCL (and I think Samurai Champloo too). Throughout the series it is possible to spot traces of ‘Japanese’ movement of characters, more erratic, but often with more vitality.

  20. GW Says:

    I’m a bit late to this discussion, nearly a year too late, but I think your comparison falls very short. First, it ignores UPA and flatter styles from around that time period. The U.S. animation industry’s modernism largely set the tone for modernism elsewhere, even though there wasn’t much done with it there. The U.S. has had and still has plenty of more modern styled animators, but they’re given very little respect and recognition.

    John Hubley directed two of the best animated features in the U.S., Of Stars and Men, and Everybody Rides the Carousel. Faith Hubley, his wife and fellow artist, made many personal films of her own after his death. She directed the oddest animation compilation film I’ve ever seen, The Cosmic Eye.

    The 50’s were mostly about going further and further towards abstraction and limited animation, outside of the Disney company which had competing trends of realism and abstraction. The only good, more abstract film in the US market, 101 Dalmatians, didn’t show up until the early 60’s. With the rise of television in the 50’s, you could see television animation slowly getting worse and worse while taking over the market that kept theatrical shorts afloat. Limited animation’s popularity was heavily abused by television and that, combined with the growing corporatism and the popularity of realism in a market that didn’t care very much about quality, helped blow all the talent out of self expression in the mainstream of the industry.

    Back to the other, less known side though, once abstraction hit a wall, there was the animators who kept the abstraction but toned down the crisp artiness to let in more expressive movement. That was largely the tone of the more talented animators of the 60’s and 70’s in the U.S.: Keep being simple but with looser draftsmanship and more expressive animation. Younger talent provided the enthusiasm and older talent helped keep things stable and disciplined. The better animations of the era weren’t often ideal, but there was a lot of creativity and diversity of expression that simply wasn’t around in the golden age.

    Here’s a post about an educational film which John Hubley worked on, which shows the general trend towards less sharp design.

    Some people like Ralph Bakshi blew off much of the remaining abstract remnants. His films are generally cartoonish and low budget, taking their style from his use of tricks and shortcuts like rotoscoping and photograph tracing. The most lasting impact of this era of American animation history has been on advertising. Just look at all the cartoon mascots that are holdovers from the 50’s to the 70’s. The 60’s and 70’s are where children’s animation really started developing, and it seems that the political attitudes of the time combined with the rise of children’s animation are what brought the ‘every color of the rainbow’ color style.

    Other techniques were gaining ground at the time, claymation particularly. Computer animation was beginning in the 70’s, largely in schools, and switched largely to special effects houses in the 80’s. Primitive photo cutout styles, which seemed to start getting popular some time in the 50’s in the U.S., were used effectively by Harry Smith and Larry Jordan in the years of the declared ‘dark ages’. Look up clips for Heaven and Earth Magic and Sophie’s Place on YouTube.

    The independent/commercial animation scene seemed to be largely inspired by CalArts and people from CalArts seemed to have a huge influence on Nickelodeon and so on. You may have heard about The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse and how it helped to bring back U.S. television animation.

    3D computer animation is largely rooted in things like technical simulations, commercials, and live action special effects. Look back at some pioneering 3D computer animated shorts in the 80’s and you’ll see that they’re largely like modernism, cubism, and pop art.

    Here’s one film that nobody ever seems to mention: The Soldier’s Tale. It was a film directed by Robert Blechmann for PBS and it’s heavily modernistic.

    To sump it up as best I can, there are plenty of aspects in US animation which are more modernistic than classical, but you’ll never see much modernism in the theater. I’m more than a little bit late, but hopefully you’ll forgive this belated reply.

  21. gaguri Says:

    wow thanks for that hugely informative post. don’t worry about coming in late, better than early *wink wink

    I think your point is that there are American animations out there who actually founded modernistic animation aesthetics for others to follow. While that may be true (I have no idea), like you said, they receive very little recognition, and as fans of anime we have little exposure to American animation other than 2D Disney and 3D Pixars.

  22. GW Says:

    You’ve got the general idea. American animation helped bring about modernistic animation, and the modernist styles have evolved and changed since then, both inside and out of America, even if they’re not the primary aesthetic for which American animation is known. The styles not only existed, but their influence has spread further, both positively and negatively and extends to the present date. In some ways, it really just encouraged breaking from the norm by providing comparison.

    If you want proof of the influence of UPA on Japanese animation, just look back at Toei animation’s films from the 60’s. Two in particular being Little Prince and the Eight Headed dragon along with Gulliver’s Space Travels.

    Here’s a clip from an early UPA short film, Rooty Toot Toot.

    Here’s one from Gulliver’s Space Travels

    This is the beginning of Little Prince and the Eight Headed Dragon:

    It seems particularly similar to UPA’s short Peter Cottontail, which is just as likely coincidence as not:

    It seems that some of the more abstract sequences in both the UPA films are particularly similar. I suspect that some of the UPA influence isn’t direct, but filtered through Disney. I need to look further into this and some other international inter-influences which I’ve come to suspect while looking for some clips.

    The colors are surely significantly off on that last clip and I’m sure that the credits are worthless.

    And sometimes the least popular mediums are where the actual progress is being made. It’s always necessary to have new mediums being experimented with, because they slowly develop over time and one medium can’t evolve forever.

    And on a different note, I’d just read on Cartoon Brew that Carl Macek has died. I hadn’t realized that he’d helped found Spumco as well as kick off the American anime community.

  23. gaguri Says:

    Wow…thanks agian for those infos! I didn’t need any proofs of your argument, since you obviously know a lot more about american animation (probably animation in general), but thanks anyway for that substantial post. I especially enjoyed your third clip.

    Not sure if you’re into anime, but if you are not and want to try a few, I think I have an archive at top right corner (movies) that might suit your taste, feel free to browse it!

    *p.s. try to leave out ‘http’ in front of links in future when commenting on blog, it eats posts as spam 😉

  24. GW Says:

    I’ll keep that in mind. I’m interested in anime to some extent, but in a completely unusual manner. As far as movies, I enjoy anime to a wide extent, but I really loathe anime television. The themes just get too generic and widespread, and the creativity gets stretched too thin. I’d watched the Galaxy Express 999 movie one time, which basically cuts the shows events short into a movie. I enjoyed it despite the fact that the plot was incredibly rushed, but I tried watching the show later and couldn’t make it past the first episode because it was loaded with filler.

    I’ve come to realize after watching series after series, old and new, that anime television just isn’t for me. The only two shows that I really like are Kaiba and Mononoke. Tatami Galaxy just started though, with the first episode put officially on YouTube and it showed some promise.

    I’m most interested in the Japanese animation outside of the general anime aesthetic. In most anime, the characters feel to me like they’re showing off, performing, rather than emoting. They’re onscreen but not there, with a lot of attitude but not very much emotion. Sometimes the art’s nice but the character designs are formulaic, sometimes the characters and their expressions are formulaic but the art’s nice, and I’ve read through stories that sound great on paper and walked out on first episodes. My lack of regard for so much of anime keeps me quiet around most of the web community.

    I’d actually browsed those parts of your blog a while back. I still need to see The Secret of Kells.

  25. gaguri Says:

    I know EXACTLY what you mean, and although I personally like some of those conventional aesthetics as long as the stories/characters deliver, I agree that the anime TV is not the place to find the kind of animation you are looking for.

    I can recommend these TV shows to you though, if my recommendation is worth anything:

    Paranoia Agent
    Serial Experiments: Lain
    Casshern Sins
    Kino’s Journey

    Perhaps you can google these titles and check out the general look of the characters/setting (if you haven’t watched them), they are the kind of titles that I think deviate from conventional anime aesthetics, and come with great content to boot!

  26. GW Says:

    I’ve been off the internet for quite a while, but I’ll tell you my thoughts on those shows now.

    I tried Gankustuo, and I admired some of the art style, but the characters are a bit too cliched for me and the plot started winding down a corny road.

    Mushishi seemed a bit too corny for me, a bit too usual visually, and the explanations for the spiritualism started coming off as contrived.

    Kemonozume is a show that I’d thought I would like beforehand, but I didn’t make it past the first episode. It was somber, the plot was obscure, and it felt cliched underneath.

    Paranoia Agent is a show that I’d liked at first, but I lost interest after the slugger got caught by the police and the RPG aspect just turned boring.

    I’d tried out Lain, but the look was so cliched that I didn’t get into the theme.

    Casshern Sins seems like it would be good in art and the futuristic storyline is somewhat interesting, but the characters just look too cliched to me. The haircuts are typical anime, and while the characters seem more expressive than usual, they don’t seem to deviate from typical anime much. Some seem like they’re taken from Cyborg 009 and glossed over with a new visual aesthetic, and others seem like they’re trying to look rugged but can’t because the visual style doesn’t flow with it. There’s some nice use of shadow, but the character’s highlights are pretty typical and there’s some very bland skin tone colors. I’m basing this on the small screens I’m seeing on YouTube.

    I tried out FLCL, and I thought it was pretty typical anime antics but with more expressive animation than normal. I think its influenced rubbed off better onto Dead Leaves.

    Kino’s Journey I tried watching the first episode of, a while back, and the main character Kino just didn’t seem to have much personality from my perspective and the show gives me a vibe that says that the show is trying to be ponderous but is a few creative decisions short of an original vision.

    You’ve given well aimed recommendations, but I just don’t care for most of the anime stock expressions and characteristics. Even what are considered the most unusual anime I’d consider to be mostly moderate variants on formulas. There’s just not enough creative vision that manages to come into its own in animated television anywhere, from what I’ve seen, anime or otherwise. I used to spend long periods of time trying to pick out the occasional good animation from video sites and such, and still do from time to time.

    I’ve watched a few episodes of Tatami Galaxy, and I have to say that it’s not Yuasa’s best material. There’s some beautiful character design but the repetitive plotline has brought it down and the show descends into a few too many graphic stereotypes for me. It’s gone down a pretty predictable randomized plotline that uses some pretty boring non sequiturs with high paced dialogue. It’s the best I’ve seen for a while though, and is a short seasons, so I’ll most likely stick with it.

    Thanks for the suggestions regardless.

  27. gaguri Says:

    No problem. Although I would personally give more credit to the above mentioned series, evidently we have way too different standards and values, so I’ll just agree with you that animation in TV is not the medium for you.

  28. kitsune Says:

    Wow gaguri-san, even though the post was made back in May, man I admire how nice and accepting you are of the above poster because my response was “Ugh, so narrow minded”.

    Anyway I just wanted to say I really enjoy your readings and your screenshots and hopefully I can participate in future discussions (not sure if I am well versed enough though).

  29. gaguri Says:

    We all have different sensibilities, at least the person was open minded enough to give them a go. Thanks for reading and you are welcome to partake in any discussions, any time. Insightful comments aren’t the only ones I like, often it’s the ones that voice love for particular anime (or my post!) that fancies me more 😀

  30. Hey I know this is off topic but I was wokndering if yyou knew oof any widgets I could add to my blog that automatically tweet my newest twitter updates.
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