What makes anime different than, say, Western animation? There are a number of differences–and it’s dangerous to assume that a simple list explains the differences between two artistic mediums–but here are the five major differences I’ve seen.
This is born of the first anime series, Astro Boy, which was produced on an extremely short schedule. It had to limit its animation.
To understand limited animation, imagine a movie as comprised of 30 still images every second (which, of course, is exactly what a movie is). Imagine a drawn character standing still in the first frame. In each subsequent frame, how much of the character must be re-drawn, and how much can be re-used?
In full animation, a character’s entire body is re-drawn every time the character moves. Imagine a character talking: In full animation, the character will also duck her head, make hand gestures, and otherwise move her entire body. In limited animation, only the lips need to move. Other parts of the body may move as well, but the animation is localized to the necessary movements. In fact, localized animation is a more accurate term for limited animation.
This allowed Astro Boy and the anime that followed it to be made cheaply, which led to the proliferation of anime series produced in the past few generations. The scale of anime production staggers the mind: For the past decade, over 100 new anime series were released on TV in Japan every year. Scale Japan’s population to the size of America’s, then scale the anime industry proportionally, and they’d be launching a new anime TV series every day.
The benefits of a large ecosystem are well-documented, but this approach also opens the door for experimental works, since studios can risk a little money on unusual, sophisticated concepts.
Focus on Individual Drawings
Astro Boy‘s low animation budget combined with the high standards of its director, to push the animators into making each drawing memorable. Since some shots contained only a single, immobile drawing, the artists worked hard to make individual expressions dramatic and dynamic.
It can be a subtle difference, but American cartoon faces stick to normal, tried-and-true camera angles and facial expressions. Anime tends towards a much more dynamic visual range, even in non-experimental series like Dragon Ball Z and K-ON!
Building off the previous point: according to Rintaro, at one point during the production of Astro Boy, the animation team blew off steam by going to see a kabuki play. Actors move and pose in overly-dramatic ways in kabuki, and Tezuka saw in this a set of useful physical poses for his animation work. The artists went back and incorporated those poses into Astro Boy, and many of those dramatic poses exist in anime today.
But this didn’t lead just to a use of kabuki poses; it led to the use of dramatic poses in general. It became normal for characters to strike dramatic poses, and for the camera to use exaggerated “lenses” (particularly after the success of Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s hyper-cinematic style in 1995).
Large, expressive eyes
People used to make fun of anime’s big eyes, until Pokémon took over the world.
Why are anime eyes so big? Imagine you’re a shoujo manga artist (in other words, you draw girls’ comics). You have to portray all the emotions of adolescent girls. How do you draw the expression on a girl’s face when she sees the boy for which she has a crush–but that she’s never worked up the courage to approach–speaking quietly to her best friend?
To over-simplify: shoujo manga artists discovered that large eyes portray subtle emotion better than smaller eyes.
So, yes, the eyes are big…and this is allows for a broader range of facial expression than you’ll see in a typical Western cartoon. Heck, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny have far larger eyes than any human (or mouse or rabbit), partly for that reason.
Look at these characters. I’ve seen an impressive range of expression in Warner Bros superhero cartoons, but which do you think can portray the most subtle gradations of emotion?
This is one element we can’t lay at the feet of Astro Boy. While Astro has the glimmer of a story arc in the rogue personality of Dr. Tenma, the sports and sci-fi anime of the 1970′s introduced long-form plots.
This became one of the most unusual elements of anime works. While Western TV cartoons stuck doggedly to the episodic format, anime series developed long, complicated plots that built to conclusive finales. Main characters died. I saw a sci-fi anime series aimed at preteens that involved suicide bombers and the death of nearly every human being, including several preteen main characters who deliberately sacrificed themselves so the hero could live. This was released in 1978.
Even American live-action television wouldn’t see this approach until Babylon 5 legitimized it in the mid-1990′s.
Those are the five big traits common to anime that I can think of. Do you think I’ve missed anything? Let me know in the comments.