What's the Difference Between Japanese and American Animation?

The two styles use different techniques to tell stories in the same basic way

Anime Fighter with Gun

Harry Briggs / Getty Images

Ever since Japanese animation—also known as anime—crossed continents and became popular with generations of American viewers, hotly contested debates have persisted as to which is superior: Japanese or American animation. Some American animators and animation enthusiasts criticize the Japanese style and methods as lazy, while some Japanese animation enthusiasts view the American style as clunky or too comical.

Differences in Animation Styles

The look and feel of Japanese animations differ from American animations most clearly in the design of human characters. Hallmarks of Japanese animation are the distinctively large eyes with numerous reflective highlights and detailed color, as well as small noses and mouths drawn with minimal lines; even certain styles that favor unrealistically broad, generous mouths depict them using few lines. The style itself uses many angles and flowing, attenuated lines. Other features such as eyelashes, hair, and clothing are depicted in greater detail. Color often appears with more variants and shading, with greater attention paid to non-outlined highlights and shadows that add more depth.

In contrast, American animation either falls into attempts at comic-book-style realism or grossly exaggerated, comically cartoonish characters with rounded, highly exaggerated features. There are usually fewer details, with more focus on using tricks of style to imply the detail in a subtler, more understated fashion. Less attention is paid to shading than to solid block colors, except in dramatic scenes that require it.

While American animation may seem to lack in the color detail, it includes a great deal of original animated motion—some of it used cyclically but still animated painstakingly frame by frame. In contrast, anime employs shortcuts, such as long scenes in which only the mouth of a character and maybe a few strands of hair move during delivery of key information or when depicting rapid motion with a character frozen in an action pose against a swift-moving, stylized background that does not require extensive animation. They often use dramatic still shots against patterned backgrounds, with a few moving emotive symbols accompanying a monologue. This is why American animators sometimes label Japanese anime as "lazy." Both styles reuse shots and sequences, but this practice is a stylistic element indicative of Japanese animation.

Camera Shots and Viewpoints

American animation tends to use straight-on camera shots, less concerned with cinematic angles and dramatics than with clearly depicting the events, though there are exceptions to that rule. Japanese animation often makes use of exaggerated angles, perspectives, and zooms to intensify the mood of a scene and show actions to extreme effect.

Content Differences

The largest difference, though, is in content and audience. In America, animated cartoons and films have long been considered more of a medium for children, and most animation produced in America is targeted for that audience.

In Japan, anime can be for children or adults, and some Japanese imports have surprised some parents who discover Japanese animation's more mature nature. What is appropriate for children and adults can differ between the two cultures; appropriate for a 10-year-old in Japan may not be considered appropriate for an American 10-year-old.

A Matter of Taste and Preference

Beyond that, though, the differences aren't really so great. Both seek to tell a story in an animated medium, using digital as well as traditional methods. Both use exaggeration to emphasize the emotion in character actions, as well as other techniques like anticipation, well-timed music, and squash and stretch to accentuate drama or humor. Both follow the basic principles of animation and require a dedication to the craft.

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