What Japanese Animation Gets so Right

I've gone through a lot of really great, high-quality shows in the past few weeks (via my anime review marathon) that has made me seriously question why I ever stopped watching anime. So, I'd like to get something off my chest about the state of animation in Japan and here in America.

Now, before we start, I realize that the differences in culture between Japan and the United States of America are quite substantial. I won't make the claim that either animation culture is strictly superior here, but I will be pointing out that Japan has qualities that beat American animators to a pulp in the right conditions.

Japanese Animation is just wildly imaginative

What Japanese Animation Gets so Right

Japanese animation unabashedly defines the colloquialism "thinking outside the box". This isn't because they show physics-breaking giant mecha on screen, that's just shallow. What I'm talking about is high-concept shows that dance on the edge of reality and push us to view the world in new imaginative ways. The Japanese took animation and started using it as a window into worlds that we'd normally never explore here in the United States. In that way, Japan beat us to the punch.

Want to watch a series about teenagers getting trapped in a video game? They've got that. Want to see a series about how the hero won't always make the best choices? They've got plenty of those. Want to see a series where robots beat each other up? Definitely got that one covered.

They are able to do this because the Japanese have set themselves up an industry where animation is cheap and widely accepted as a valid storytelling medium. By having such a cheap (relatively anyway) medium to tell from, the storytellers in Japan are able to tell a wide range of fantastical stories, set in a variety of strange worlds that make us re-examine the one we live in.

A recent series in my Marathon was Guilty Crown, which tells the story of a teenager who takes a coming-of-age journey. Unlike American television, this series asked a lot of hard questions, gives a lot of hard answers, and then shamelessly beats you over the head with themes and emotions that make you even more conflicted than you already are.

To sum up, Guilty Crown is a series that is completely fantasy, is completely absurd at points, would never get green-lit in any medium here in America... and is so completely poignant and thought-provoking that it makes American television in general look completely shallow by comparison.

What Japanese Animation Gets so Right

It seems like an exaggeration, but after having grown up in a television industry inhabited by the likes of Lost, it doesn't seem like there is much competition for deeply thought-provoking fantasy or sci-fi series in animation (or live-action now that I think about it). The closest we seem to get most of the time are ascended children's shows like Batman: Beyond and Avatar: The Last Airbender. Even though I love both of the aforementioned series, they don't quite have the wide-ranging imagination that their counterparts across the ocean do. They don't try to ask too many difficult questions because they're kid's shows at their core.

The Japanese aren't in it for 12 seasons

If you have any experience in watching American television, you'll notice that our content creators have an unhealthy fascination with long-running television series, usually at the expense of the plot. So many times I've seen shows start, expecting to go on for more than one season, only to get cut off and end before their time.

I've lost count of how many times I've started watching an American television show that has an interesting premise, mystery, and a bit of fantasy or sci-fi on the side and then, when I reach the end of season one (likely canceled before season two no less), I realize that the entire plot of the season was one gigantic, massive tease with nearly no plot resolution in sight.

It's like the entire premise of the show was built on getting a second season, not telling me a story. You had 20 episodes of ~40 minutes running time to resolve at least something... and this was the best you had?

On the other hand, some of the best shows out of Japan are a single season consisting of half-hour episodes. What gives?

What Japanese Animation Gets so Right

Somewhere along the line, Japan decided that powerful, theme-drenched stories that had a preset number of seasons (usually one or two) suited them better. How exactly they came to this conclusion, I don't know, but the result is clear: the best Japanese anime just wraps things up faster. They don't hold the mystery of their series hostage to keep you watching, they don't need to do that. They just opt to tell me a story.

The flip side to this is that Japanese shows feel rushed, confused sometimes, and may miss out on juicy storytelling. I ask you this though, would you prefer a well-realized story that is planned out intricately before time, or would you prefer the American policy of kicking-the-can-down-the-road in television?

When I say that, I make reference to the tendency of American content creators to repeatedly string along viewers, usually by dangling the mystery of the series in front of the viewer only to yank it away, promising a conclusion next season. To be frank, I hate American television because of this. It got old when I was a teenager. I'd forgotten how guilty of our TV shows were of this until two weeks ago.

Japanese Animation is used to explore many themes, even adult ones

In the United States, you'll notice that our animation is geared towards two groups. The first group is children; our animation industry for children in this country is massive (although it has suspiciously been declining recently, one only needs to flip to Cartoon Network to see how the mighty have fallen). The second group is adults... but not in the way Japanese do it. Our adult animation is based solely on comedy for some perplexing, hair-wrenching reason.

I'll be upfront about something, I think that Family Guy and American Dad! symbolize everything that is wrong with American animation. I'm not saying that they are bad (okay, maybe I am a little), but they are certainly a result of this weird "animation is for comedy" outlook the American public has. Family Guy and American Dad! employ the medium for laughs and vulgar humor, sometimes using, at most, satire to convey adult themes to the audience. I can't actually even name the last time I saw an American animated show that wasn't a kid's show or a comedy. I can't, it is absolutely infuriating.

What Japanese Animation Gets so Right

In Japan though, they embraced their animation culture as a medium for tackling a wide variety of themes. They range from the most innocent to the most adult themes you can think of, and they don't even have to resort to comedy to get it through. One needs only to look at my recent review marathon to see that many of these shows take themselves, their plots, and their themes seriously.

Where an American animation would likely have inserted horrifying hi-jinks and comedy into the series (or at the very least, really painfully bad drama), shows like Sword Art Online are serious as a heart attack about their situations (although they rightfully throw humor in as necessary). They are so absolutely ready to be exploited for comedy and drama (in all the wrong ways) I can practically feel it.

But they don't exploit it. They play their themes straight and don't compromise themselves. It is a beautiful sight really.

Compare this to American animation, where the writers are only able to discuss these themes and adult material if they manage to slip it past the radar. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why exactly can't our animation take itself seriously?

Japan consistently puts out shows that, even within the context of Japanese culture, aren't exactly the norm

Keeping with their tendency to explore adult themes, at least a few of their shows will do things that cause a bit of friction within even their own country. When they get ported into American markets, this gets even more prevalent as a great many Japanese challenge accepted social and cultural norms within the United States.

This is definitely not a bad thing in my opinion. This entire article so far has been a criticism of accepted norms within American animation circles, so it would seem painfully ironic to not nail American animation for not challenging the norms. I won't pretend to understand exactly why American culture became so ingrained against exploring adult themes in its shows (animation or not) on television. I can say with some certainty that the parental organizations here in America probably had a lot to do with it.

Why does any of this matter?

As I wrote this article, I had a moment where I had to pause and ask myself why I'm writing any of this, it's not like I'm going to single-handedly turn around an entire industry... nay, an entire culture by just writing a blog post with the vague hope that ~300 people to see it.

Eventually I came to a conclusion: it doesn't matter who wants it, what matters is that it's out there. Simply by writing this, maybe I'll inspire some lowly animation student in some low-end job to take a chance and make the best damn American animation ever.

What Japanese Animation Gets so Right

When it comes down to it, that's what writing and creativity should be about, be it script writing, animating, or me sitting in this chair writing an article. It should be built to inspire, to grow and evolve, and to deliver a point that may be sorely needed in the world. I think that's where American animation has been failing recently. Even some of the better animation shows, like Legend of Korra, are suffering from a lack of... well, to be honest, compelling themes and growth. We've become so afraid of the world we're in that we've made TV escapism instead of storytelling.

Across the ocean though, anime has shown that it is willing to build worlds that might make viewers uncomfortable, willing to take on complex themes, willing to deconstruct even the most basic tropes on television, and, most importantly, willing to cater to the adult audience with more than just humor. They'll show us a journey that everyone's already seen and use it as a window into the complex nature of humans, our society, and our failings. They'll try to break down our preconceived notions of right and wrong, reality and fiction and will make people re-examine why they think the way they do.

I suppose that not all anime is like this, but the shows I watch seem to. I certainly haven't seen American television (animation or not) that does it.

We should be bolder with our animation. We should be able to tell complex stories that teach people an important lesson about life without needing to use comedy. We should have a higher standard for the drivel that we put out on the airwaves.

We should take animation more seriously as a medium, such that we'll have another popular medium to use to inspire a new generation.

And with that, I'll end.

I, as usual, claim no rights to any images used in this post.

You can see all my articles on Dex's Corner by using the "Dex's Corner" tag.