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.
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?
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.