The culture that made anime into what it is

In many ways, anime is fundamentally different from all western media. Not just as the result of current business models, or recent trends, but also due to some deeply rooted traits of Japanese mentality.

Japan is pretty unique that way, with it’s mass media that is comparable to ours in it’s scope, but still very foreign in it’s execution. Most other countries that are similarly foreign to us, are either too poor, or too oppressed to have large media, while the sufficiently wealthy and free countries are being assimilated into the monlithic, globalized “western culture” that makes them almost identical to us. But for various reasons that I will not discuss here, Japan managed to both reach modern lifestyle, and to maintain exceptional amounts of it’s foreignness.

Trying to understand these cultural differences between Japan and the West, can be useful not just for making detached philosophical observations about art, (like realizing that values that we considered normal are just our arbitary local customs), but also for understanding the daily events of the anime industry. Why did this show tank at the sales? Why did that show get a second season?

For example, one of the first strange attributes that anyone might notice after looking at even a single anime, is the seemingly gratuitous application of cuteness. When we are looking at the neverending series of shows that certainly wouldn’t fly in America, we might start talk about “the moe fad”, and how studios are playing “Follow The Leader” with  K-on, or about how the otaku buying power demands that kind of “pandering”. And yes, these  are certainly accountable for some of the finer details of recent trends. Maybe for some of the specific art elements, like the lack of noses, or for some of the recently common show setups. But it’s also important to look at the larger picture, of what mainstream Japanese society thinks about cuteness.  Yumeka already wroze a pretty good post about this, so I won’t repeat it, but the point is, that in Japan, cuteness is the beauty ideal. It is a fundamental element of every positive emotion, from sexual attraction, to identification with a character, for every demographic.  This means, that even if there always were a few niche anime that didn’t try to  appeal to their audience’s sensibilities of beauty at all (like american movie homages, or intentionally off-putting dark series), as long as over there, “cute” is pretty much the synonym of “appealing”,  there always will be, (just as always was)  a heavy emphasis on cuteness in anime, in one way or another.

Another example of cultural differences could be, how after watching a few series, anyone well-versed in animation technology could conclude, that Japanese animation looks very cheap, unrefined, and generally inferior to western equivalent: In western cartoons, when characters talks, their whole face (and body) is moving. In anime, you will get lips on a static face opening and closing repeatedly. And that’s the better case, when at least we get animated lips. Blinking is rare, Fighting scenes are often partially recycled, and framerates are low.

That could all be shrugged off as a consequence of Japanese publishers paying less to their studios, but it still begs the question: if those greedy bastards can get away with this, why is it that the equally greedy western publishers can’t? Of course, every publisher would love to spare some more money on animation, if they could. But for some reason, western viewers need those framerates and those delicious lip-synching jaws to consider a show acceptable,  while Japanese viewers are willing to give them up for quantity. Where do these different expectations come from?

Here, a simple answer would be that the Japanese appreciate perishability. If you look up the concept on Google, you will find many essays from scholars explaining the Japanese perishability-ideal in it’s relation to Buddhist philosophy, or to the Wabi-sabi aesthetic, but you can also just turn to examples from daily life: To the traditional Japanese architecture based around wood and bamboo, to their disposable chopstics, or even their manga magazines printed on the cheapest phonebook-paper with the cheapest black and white ink (in contrast with the glossy magazines of western comics, and their detailed photorealistic paintings). We could say that compared to us, Japanese people are more ready to accept jury-rigged temporary solutions that still do the job, than chase perfection to the point of superfluousness.

Or with a more complicated answer, we could try to connct this to the larger, and vaguer theory of verisimilitude, and how Japanese art lacks it.

Verisimilitude means “truthlikeness”, and when applied to art, it’s related to the Willing Suspension of Disbelief, and to the Watsonian commentary. It means fiction striving to be as believable as possible. Not necessarily “realistic”, but believeable in a way that the viewers can stop thinking about  how unrealistic it is, and immerse themselves in it’s make-believe world.

For western culture, this has been such a self-evident, basic paradigm for hundreds of years,  that it’s hard to imagine the thinking process of an artist that intentionally chooses to inore it. It’s not that Japanese media dislikes verisimilitude, or tries to avoid it, it just doesn’t revolve around it.  From every medium, traditional and modern, visual and literary, pop culture and high art, there are several differences between western works and their Japanese counterparts, that can be explained with “they don’t care as much about verisimilitude as we do”.

For visual arts, such as paintings, drawings, photography, and animation, verisimilitude always meant that the viewers must forget that they are looking at a picture. As the animator Peter Chung once said:

A painting should make the viewer forget he is looking at oil on canvas, and reveal its subject as if through a window on reality. Brush strokes must be blended so no trace of the artist’s toil is evident. Japanese art, on the other hand, would fit the definition of “modernist” in Western culture. Asian painting is stylized, impressionistic (and expressionistic), concerned entirley with displaying the brush stroke and the flat, graphic nature of the picture plane.

…Likewise, the hand of the animator in Japanese animation is not only noticeable, it is often highlighted…

…One reason why many young artists (including myself at one time) are attracted to Japanese animation and may be inspired to emulate it is that you can see how it is done. You can easily see it is composed of individual drawings, and for that reason, it seems within one’s reach. In classical animation (I will call traditional Disney animation “classical” from here on), to allow the viewer to notice he is looking at a drawing is a cardinal sin. In classical animation, even held poses were traced over and over to make them “breathe”. These are called “moving holds”.

In classical American animation, the animator’s hand must not be noticeable. The focus is entirely on the character and in the illusion that it is a living, breathing creature. From a Western animator’s perspective, it is NOT praise to say “I noticed how well you animated that scene.” That is a statement of failure. It means that the animation drew attention to itself. That is the basic violation of classicist representation in Western art, and of “classical” American animation.

Western art history is a history of striving to be more and more verisimile. More depth, more accurate colors, lighting effects,  etc.

meanwile in Japan...

Meanwhile in Japan…

Modernist and post-modernist paintings might seem to be an exception from that rule, but only because they were never attempting to appeal to mainstream western sensibilities to begin with. That branch of art was only formed after photography was invented, and replaced paintings in all of their former roles, (e.g: portraits, still lifes), allowing painters to start drawing for a small group of connoisseurs who were, unlike the general public, interested in analyzing personal art styles.

This might also explain part of the western “animation age ghetto”, and the perception that cartoons are only for kids: After all, live action and animation appeared at the same time, and the former is obviously more verisimile. Why should we take seriously a story that’s artist intentionally chose the more abstract medium? How could we identify with it?

A Japanese viewer wouldn’t have such a problem, because being versisimile isn’t an important issue for them. Just like they didn’t ever expect their paintings to become more verisimile during their history, after the advent of photography and cinematography, they had no reason to prefer live action manga and anime. Even if for various reasons, right now anime itself is a niche, the anime art style isn’t, it is still widely accepted in manga. And they accept not just the very idea of drawn characters, but that these drawn characters don’t have to be perfectly realistic. They are just figures. Symbols. Puppets. The attention isn’t on them, but on the artist that put them together, and the styles that he used. While western animation, even inside it’s ghetto, continues it’s struggle to be as beliviable as possible, and add every possible detail, Japan just accepts animated characters for what they are.

Just like they used to accept traditional Japanese theatre: Noh, with it’s masked characters, Kabuki, with it’s stylized dancing sequences and with stagehands dressed in black (that symbolically signs that they are invisible) openly manipulating the props from the front, or Bunraku, with the puppetmasters showing on the stage.

Note, that these are not just old, primitive genres, in the same way as ancient Greek comedy that used smiling and crying masks to express emotions, or Shakespearean theatre with it’s male actors in female roles. Those were early attempts at theatre, that the western verisimilitude mentality constantly expected to evolve and become more realistic, but these still influences modern genres. Just look at any Super Sentai performance. It’s the same stylized motions, and outlandish costumes.

And in many ways, anime and manga also inherited that attitude of openly using “masks”.  Or do you think that it’s ridiculously oversimplified for actors to symbolically portray personality types with a single visual cue?

What did you say?

What did you say?

And beyond visuals, verisimilitude also applies to characterization tropes, and storytelling: The difference between western and Japanese art isn’t that Japanese art “uses more tropes” or “is more formulatic”. As any troper knows, there are lots of tropes in western works. The difference is, that in western works, they are normally hidden, while anime is openly putting them up front. For a western romantic movie, if the female lead gets identified with any label, such as “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl“, it’s a failure for the movie. Reviewers will use the word “trope” interchargibly with” cliché”, and gleefully insult the movie, not for using tropes, but for getting caught red-handed at using tropes. It’s just like if a theatre’s stagehand would be stumbling on the stage. It would break the illusion. Meanwhile, in Japan, just as stagehands are walking in front of the audience, a romcom’s female lead might be openly advertised as an archetype.

After all, she is just a puppet. The point of the show is not verisimilitude, it’s not to make us belive that she is a living, breathing 3D person, so she doesn’t need to breathe (or blink, or lip-sync, for that matter). And since she is already a 2D character, her personality doesn’t need to be any more complex than that either. The point of the show is that the puppetmaster can show off his skill at arranging a few tropes in an interesting, and aesthetically pleasing way.

8 responses to “The culture that made anime into what it is

  1. Interesting post, I enjoyed thinking about the issues you raised. But I have some issues/concerns, I guess:

    1. I don’t really think Yumeka’s treatment of cute is one that is beyond mentioning in the sense that it is really the broad-strokes, western look at something Japanese. Hopefully we are beyond this. In reality cuteness is more about cultural consciousness rather than an ideal, and it speaks as much about “western culture” as it does Japanese in terms of how each culture accept or reject certain ideas. More relevantly, Japanese men and women clearly appreciate other virtues in the same vein (sexiness, attractiveness, etc), if their pop media says anything; in other words I can’t take anyone who makes claims Yumeka makes seriously for “Japanese” if all they are seeing is through the looking glass of otaku media.

    2. I enjoy the point about “perishability” but where’s “mono no aware”? :) You seem unafraid of word dropping so it seemed a little odd to not drop that one.

    3. Your point about “cheap” animation and later on in the verisimilitude part wholly missed the 800lb animal in the room: manga. Anime culture is deeply rooted in that and is historically tied at the waist (YHELOTHAR Tezuka).

    4. Things like Noh and the like..I’m not sure how good of a point it makes at supporting your argument, similarly like post-modern or modern art, or stuff that is historic. I think you are probably on the right track, but maybe you should also consider this issue from the perspective of narratives and stories. I think looking from the artwork, you are going to have to deal with a lot of the historic and technical aspects of making an anime in order to get to why things look the way they look. At least to me.

    5. And this is not exactly something unique to Japan, to poke another hole. A lot of the stuff you raised toward the end can be found in other cultures too, perhaps not “wester” or whatever, but definitely elsewhere (Africa, other parts Asia, etc).

    • 1. I didn’t intend to put words into Yumeka’s mouth. It’s true that many parts of that paragraph where I quoted her are my own interpretations of her (rather noncontroversial) descriptions of how Japan is cute. Sorry if the distinction between these, and my own (admittedly more vague and generalized) theories wasn’t always clear.

      3. Manga’s existance and popularity is important in making it clear which elements of anime are part of pop-culture, and which are oddities of the otaku anime niche.

      5. There are examples of stylized, non-verisimile art everywhere, but for the reasons described in the second paragraph, and that most cultures’ organic development got interrupted by colonization, it’s often not clear if they would have developed into an equally stylized pop-culture, or if they were the first and last steps of a culture that was striving for more complex and immersive art.

      • 3. I think the analysis is more fruitful if you looked at manga instead of anime, just to do exactly what you mentioned there.

        5. I’m not too sure what you said in the 2nd paragraph matters. I think if anything the way Japan has developed its pop entertainment closely mirrors western styles compared to, say, China, which even today does things just somewhat differently. Arguably Chinese entertainment is probably even more of an outlier if we can consider it modern (for the most part, it is).

  2. This was an excellent post, very thought-provoking. I’d enjoy reading it more if it didn’t link to TV Tropes, but what are you gonna do?
    I don’t watch much modern Western animation, but when I watch Legend of Korra I can’t help comparing it to anime, and (although this is something of a selling point) I think it’s much more similar to anime than CLASSIC Western animation such as Disney stuff. (I also can’t help but noticing it looks lower-quality, which is weird because it’s made on a far higher budget. The background art is frankly appalling.)

    I think highly-realistic animation has sort of evolved into CG nowadays, like with Pixar’s films, while traditional 2D has become more specialised. Sure, Westerners care more about lip movements and little details, and this shows your point, but I think they’ve relaxed more about animation as long as it’s ‘a cartoon’. The Simpsons don’t look even slightly realistic (compared to, say, Sleeping Beauty) but there’s a lot of expression in the voice acting, focus on facial expressions and stuff anyway.

    I think this idea might be why other-language anime dubs are typically viewed as inferior to Japanese ones. When I look at the voice acting in Korra (or the Family Guy, or even MPL (not a fan, seen three episodes to look behind the hype, left an impression nonetheless) I see the voice acting really SUITING the characters, but when I hear Americans voicing anime characters it often just sounds weird and false. I don’t watch other-language dubs of English shows (although one of my Friends DVDs has the French dub for some reason, and it sounds quite natural. I much prefer Ross screaming « Attention ! » than “Danger!”) but I think it’s more than “it sounds weird in another language”, and more to do with what you said.

    Regarding “And since she is already a 2D character, her personality doesn’t need to be any more complex than that either”, I both agree with and despise that sentiment. The latter is fairly obvious; more complex, realistic characters are never a bad thing (keeping in mind that a level of character development and distinctiveness should be proportional to their level of importance to the work). With the former, I can appreciate how well-drawn and convincing characters are despite not being too complex, like the similar-but-still-individual young girl Ghibli protagonists, who all come from the same archetype (and character design) and yet are each distinctive and endearing.

    The eponymous Princess Mononoke may not be any more complex than the bland Tsundere of this season’s crappy harem show, but the difference is in the skill of the construction (plus the fact that in the latter case we’ve seen in a million times before). That said, I really, really appreciate characters that go the extra mile. One of my favourite things about Neon Genesis Evangelion is the development and believability of the characters. You follow them through every aspect of their lives and gain true understanding of them. I think drama always benefits from more realistic characters, while in comedy, fantasy, action, horror, etc. it’s more of a bonus, as much an enticing element as great music or character design.

    When you stop worrying about it looking real, you can appreciate how it’s constructed.

    • Thank you. You make some very good observations.

      It’s true that in the past 1-2 decades, CGI seems to take the helm from old Disney, at western animation’s struggle for verisimilitude, while 2D went quite abstract, both in themes (comedy only), and in visuals. Especially with the usage of Flash, and these semi-humanoid characters with thick outlines.

      That situation might be somehow similar to the situation of painters a century ago, when photography took the helm from them, so they were allowed to just flip the table on the mainstream expectations of realism, and have some abstract fun with their medium.

      Also good point about the dubs. Even though I’m used to watching movies and cartoons with hungarian dubs, and english dubs as well, I also always felt that non-Japanese dubs that miss the high-pitched non-realistic voices of anime are always a bit too… live action-like. Like, if I close my eyes,I can see 3D americans reading the lines in a recording studio.

  3. Thanks for the mention and excellent post here! Quite a lot of good information =) You made a lot of significant points about the differences in cultural ideals behind Western and Japanese animation. I think I’ve mentioned something along those lines in other posts I’ve written; that anime sacrifices things like perfect lip-syncing and better frames per second in order to make each frame more detailed, i.e., more lighting and shading techniques on the characters as well as more details in terms of their eyes, hair, clothing, etc,. But it’s not so in all respects. I’ve noticed that 90% of anime characters have very realistic human anatomy while Western cartoon characters tend to have exaggerated or cartoony features, like a head too big for their body or only four fingers. So while Western animation is more realistic in the sense of mouth movements and frame rates, I’d have to say that actual designs of the characters are more realistic in anime. Also in terms of the background of characters (development, writing, personality, etc.,) I feel there are many instances where anime makes its characters more realistic in this sense than Western animation. I hardly think that the creators of Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, and numerous other anime didn’t want us to see the characters in these shows as anything BUT living, breathing people. But yes, anime creators aren’t afraid to market some characters in particular otaku-aimed shows as fitting within defined tropes, but I think they still want us to see the characters as real in some sense – perhaps as “fictional people” rather than “fictional characters.”

    The whole perishiability versus verisimilitude thing might also be one reason 2D animation is still so beloved in Japan while 3D is all the rage in America….even regular cartoon shows on TV here in America are using CG animation.

  4. Verisimilitude, eh…

    You know, how truthful, or how real the characters are does NOT depend on drawing style or CG or quality of the ink and paper…

    The realism of the characters depends on how viewers see them. To me (and to countless other “western” viewers) Akemi Homura and Okazaki Tomoya are just as versi… er, versmi…. er, are just as real as any character played by Norma Jean Baker or Alfredo Pacino.

    You want contra-(western)-example? The Simpsons. The whole western audience has no problems accepting viri… mmm, accepting realism of those badly drawn characters. Shall I mention South Park?

    So… you can use whatever difficult words you learned, Alterego9, but… you fail!

    • There’s such thing as using long words to sound smart, and there’s using the right words because you happen to know them, even if others will accuse you of the former. (I will admit a synonym or two wouldn’t have gone astray, though.)

      The Simpsons may look weird, but they still get realistic (if sometimes exaggerated) animation, with blinking, jaw movement, lips expressing sounds, etc. That’s the Western approach, with details like that, and that’s the point of the piece.

      South Park is a terrible example; it’s not supposed to be realistic or taken seriously.

      If a Western producer were making an animation that was a serious drama, they’d probably have more realistic character designs than the Simpsons. The SImpsons is a satire in the first place. You don’t start with caring deeply about the Simpsons as characters, you get there once you’re used to how weird they look.

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