The point where Anime and North American Animation Diverged

Earlier this week, I was having an email exchange with my DNA co-host Don and our frequent esteemed guest Jack Ward about anime and American animation. As part of that conversation, Don took it upon himself to write up a long blog post explaining to Jack how the two animation industries diverged from each other during the 1960’s with lots of examples thrown in. Since I thought that such effort was worth sharing, Don graciously edited it and sent it to me to share.



So, we were having a discussion the other day and this came up:
>Aha! So Anime is akin to sixties animation in North America!
   And the truth is, sort of. N. American and Japanese animation parallel each other for a while, but split a few times along the path. The Japanese were always enamoured of Hollywood animation, notably Disney. Here we had Hanna Barbera develop the “limited animation” style, which made animation inexpensive enough for television. That style set the standard, and tv and for a long time was the ONLY way to do a show.  So…. back in the early days you get:

Stirring. And across the sea:

   You probably notice a lot of similarity in technique. TV animation was pretty new and there weren’t a lot of shortcuts and techniques available yet, so it tends to look cheap. Our stuff was all “staged;” that is, filmed like you’d film a stage play…. everything moving along a single plane. The Japanese used a lot more wide shots than us, as well as making attempts to induce depth to their tv animation. (That’s one of the reasons you see so many shots of things moving diagonally in Japanese shows, whereas ours usually have stuff move left to right, in profile.)
   I think this is in no small part due to the popularity of early theatrical animation in Japan; they were a lot less willing to sacrifice visuals than us. Even in the earliest shows the Japanese still use a lot of establishing shots and panoramic views. There’s also a tendency to write more detailed stories than us. We did a lot of one-off gags, whereas the Japanese were creating continuing stories right from the get go. Another holdover from the theatrical features maybe?
   These differences in conceptualization create one of the first big forks in the road between N. America and Japan.
Jump ahead a decade or so and you get:

  Drugs. You get drugs. Anyhoo, in Japan:

   I think more things should be called “Gowapper.” Anyhoo; you can already see a separation of sensibilities, although them AND us were still experimenting. The Japanese were WAY more willing to do straight up drama, whereas we ran screaming in terror from any serious story. Even our action stuff was really…. sterile. This gets to be important in a few years. The Japanese made a jump from “cartoons is just fer kids” to “animation is just another way of doing tv” that we never quite make. We come close, but there’s a lot of inertia to oppose. During the 70’s the Japanese were starting to do animated dramas, soap operas, comedies, SO MANY giant robots….
   By the 80’s in America you had a weird peak:
[Rob Note- while the designs and origins are American, the first four shows listed here were mostly Animated in Japan, and these are Japanese-made intros.]

   Mmmmm…. violence…. Fuck the Smurfs. Anyways; there’s a lot of high quality stuff there, mostly ‘cos the Japanese companies worked cheap, and where in the midst of a big animation boom. Even so, we were starting to sink some cash into the product. There’s a lot of technical quality. It didn’t last ‘cos animation is REAL expensive, and our studios turned to marketing tie-ins to cover the cost. So cartoons became half hour toy ads for the most part.
   Across the sea:

   Looks the same, doubtless ‘cos a lot of it was done by the same studios. The biggest difference was that the shows were leading the merch in japan; the cartoons would be made AS CARTOONS, and any tie-ins would come later.
   By the end of the 80’s; going into the 90’s animation was taking a dip, and moved towards the cheap. Especially here:

   Japan did something weird; since they had a more demanding audience they couldn’t lower quality too much (although they tried) so they just kept doing whatever worked, over and over and over…. So you get a lot of shows that LOOK nice, but are WAY boring:

Okay…. that’s a cheat….

   More recently you’ve been getting a mix of decent stuff and crap; although Japan is way more willing to sink a few bucks into their animation. Part of the solution/problem was South Park, which showed that you COULD do animation for an older audience, but set the standard that said animation must be as cheap and vulgar as possible.
   Still; in the years since we’ve done some good stuff:

   We tend to make up for funds with style…. a-la Batman:TAS. When it works, it works. When it doesn’t…. well….
   Japan still goes the technical route:

Holee Smokes, why can’t we have nice things like that? Japan isn’t afraid to get weird though:

   So to answer the question that started this; 60’s Japanese animation is akin to 60’s N. American animation, but thereafter things take some odd turns. As a result, animation in Japan gains general acceptance WAY earlier than it did here, and that allowed Japan to produce a greater variety of material and to achieve a level of technical skill we haven’t quite hit yet.
Don C.

5 thoughts on “The point where Anime and North American Animation Diverged

  1. Not to mention widespread acceptance of comic book reading in Japan which isn’t still here today in North America!
    So, here’s a question. Where was China in all of this? Did Japan carry the water for all of Asia like the US carried the water for most of Western culture?
    And why?

    • You’re on the right track, Jack.

      Even before WWII, Japan was Asia’s dominant superpower. You’d think it was China, but China’s greatest enemy has always been its own size, and China was at the end of a long decline for the first decades of the 20th century. (See the movie The Last Emperor to get a picture of this period.) Then it fell into a period of civil war which lasted about 20 years, including WWII in the middle of it, and after Mao won it went into a period of “reformation” which lasted another couple decades. So basically China was out of the picture creatively until pretty much the start of the 21st century.

      Anyways, after WWII, there were really only two creative centers in Asia, media-wise- Japan and Hong Kong. Japan recovered first among the Asian powers because they were already pretty powerful to begin with, and had a shorter trip back to the top (especially with American backing and rebuilding them) and Hong Kong wasn’t damaged that badly by the Japanese, and with the UK’s help quickly became a center of prosperity and trade. (It helped that it was also the only gateway to a shut-off China for a long time too.) Korea had their own civil war thing, and Taiwan also went through a rough period until the mid 1980’s, and both their economic booms came later as well. So, as you would expect Japan and Hong Kong were the two places comic books flourished in Asia during the second half of the 20th century.

      Japan, of course, is a country of 125 million people, and Hong Kong was only like a million, so there wasn’t really much of a competition there, either. Hong Kong could produce novels, comics, and movies, but they didn’t have the ability to produce animated TV series or films because of their smaller market. Japan, on the other hand, could produce anything it wanted, especially during their Boom period of the 70’s and 80’s, and so they produced huge amounts of material. (It’s easy to forget that Japan is the 10th largest country in the world by population because of their small land size, but they are, so you can guess how much media they make.)

      So yeah, now China is back in the game, and Korea is a player as well, but Japan had a huge head start in the comics/animation field, and accordingly they’re still way ahead of their competitors. Even in China, Taiwan, and Korea, the influence from Japan’s anime/manga is huge because it’s cheaper to import proven material than make your own, so Anime/Manga tends to still dominate. (Although thanks to their massive webcomic sites Korea does have a growing comic culture that’s distinct from Japan’s.) Japan’s impact on global comic culture can’t be understated either, and if you take comic-related films off the table, then Japan likely makes more money from comic books and merchandise than anyone else on the planet.

      So there’s your answer!

      I should probably just do a blog post on this at some point, or we could do a DNA episode about it. 🙂 (Another one for our always-growing list!)


  2. >Not to mention widespread acceptance of comic book reading in Japan which isn’t still here today in North America!

    That’s very true, and it’s another one of them points of contention that drives me nuts ‘cos we’ve come SO CLOSE to that sort of thing a few times. Thanks again Doc Wertham!

    What you need is for a diverse swath of material to become accepted by a large audience…. otherwise you get what we had here in the late 80’s: comic came to equal superheroes, and a specific TYPE of superhero. (Namely the “Grimdark DarkGrim hero.) And while this was a boon for a bit, it choked out material that might have caught on with a wider audience, which in turn led to a narrowing of the fan base. In Japan, comics were just another medium, and used to tell all sorts of stories. Sorta like newspaper strips used to do here.

    The irony is that comics have gained a lot of general acceptance in the last decade, notably among kids and teenagers. ‘Course those comics are almost all Japanese imports….

    >Even in China, Taiwan, and Korea, the influence from Japan’s anime/manga is huge because it’s cheaper to import proven material than make your own

    Back in the day China DID have it’s own comic industry, but the bits I’ve seen and heard of were closer to the old “Rupert” style “illustrated story” sort of thing, and were WAY heavy on propaganda.

    Hong Kong…. and Taiwan…. have their own styles, and have for a long time. I believe it’s inspired by later style Chinese stuff…. or vice versa. It looks like a weird mix of 50’s Disney comic, and fine art watercolour. Me an’ Rob had a mutual friend back at the U who was from Hong Kong and talked about the craziness that is their comic industry. Insane competition, mob ties, kidnappings…. crazy stuff.

    Lately there’s been more stuff coming out of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan…. a smattering of stuff from China…. It’s very similar to the Japanese stuff, although it seems to borrow from older works; late 70’s, early 80’s…. and it has a lot of that Hong Kong style in it still.

    Don C.

  3. Y’know…. every time I see the opening to “Giant Gorg” I always think: “Run kids! It’s Woody Allen!!!!”

    Don C.

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