Anime Vs Cartoons: Is There Really A Clear Distiction?

Rozen Maiden Suigintou by Riichu Source:

Rozen Maiden fanart Suigintou by Riichu

For most fans and followers in the “Anime” Community, anime is anime and cartoons are cartoons. In other-words, if is not conceptualized, produced, and bred in Japan – it is not anime and rather anything foreign that borrows that moniker is simply anime-themed or confusing called (by the annals of the all-mighty Wikipedia) “Anime-influenced animation“. However, after looking at the two as separate entities and as one and the same, honestly, there is not that much of a clear distinction to me; whether it be on a surface level or deeper contextual one expect for a few nuances and ideologies. I am sure many have pressed this claimed before and many ostracized for it by the either side of the communal fence, but I think those that bring it up may have a point. After all, what is so special about “anime”

At any rate, people have different ways of viewing and comprehending things. “No sh**t , Sherlock” I am sure most of the chorus are going to squeal, but when it comes to things like definitions and meanings, over time they tend to change by whoever uses it or better yet, changes meaning in the context it is used. So, if I where to pose the statement: “Define what Anime is” I have a general idea of what some of the common and agreed upon notions would be among: newbies, enthusiast, and the “your taste is sh**t”, elitist. “Japanese, animation, vivid designs, traditional, and hand-drawn” among other choices would be predominant broad buzzwords. However, by another omission – anime has generally been accepted as nothing more than the “catch-all” term for animation itself. Over time, I am sure it has developed into the narrow-lined definition it is today, but unfortunately, being purely what is today, it seems to only refer to “animation only from Japan” to make it something more digestible and understandable. After all, as humans, we like things that we can easily categorize and anything we can not becomes a frightening deviance we can not possibly come to reconcile with. It has to be one or the other, not both and no room for discussion. Hopefully, as time progress, people will be more open to discussion of this medium and not purely limited to being something purely unique to Japan. By various accounts of fans, it is, but by other scholarly research, it seems to be something developed and applied in other areas before then.

Next question and the main point of this shoddy conceived editorial (I am sure most of you will tell me): What is the difference between “Anime” and “Non-anime”? You know, besides the point about it being produced and born in Japan. As aforementioned, I will admit that there are certain details such as: ideologies, cultural ideas, established norms and mores (aka, the things society will allow and find acceptable to an extent),  recommended demographics, etc. Then again, when you really press a lens to some of the more surface born elements something like Tom And Jerry is not that much different from something like DBZ or Baka Test. They are hugely different in their concepts, genres, and what they aim to do and speak to, but I think it is also fair to say that the three are similar as works of animation and maybe, no matter how old you get, you can still enjoy it as it is. This can be disagreeable point for many hardcore and hard-boiled fans that think “anime” has no equal when it comes to “non-Japanese” produce animation, but the simple of the matter is: it is not as unique and great as you may believe. Stylization and means of production are one thing, but sometimes the lines of what “animation and art” is has a very rich and robust history that blurs lines.

The Boondocks

The Boondocks original work
Source: unknown

One example of this is the conversational “anime-styled” series The Boondocks, by Aaron McGruder. Most you know that show (adapted from a comic strip) as it aired on Adult Swim with two African-American boys, their grandfather, and the usage of the word Ni***r more times than you can possibly hope to see on an internet troll-infested forum. McGruder himself actually touts the fact that he was inspired by series like Samurai Champloo, and Cowboy Bebop for most of the action-sequences that was fueled by his love of “anime” and manga. However, the animation studio, Madhouse (you all know it) was also instrumental for most of the minor production contained in the 1st season (support by another Korean Studio) and largely 2nd season. What that is that considered? Still could be American by way of its creator, but also equally Japanese anime by the studio. While this is just one rare exception, if you take a distinctive walk back in time to studios like: Toei, Tatsunoko, Pierrot, and others – their animation techniques are wholly different from they are today and look akin to most foreign productions of the 1940’s to early 1970’s. Why is that? Because most western animation was the standard to Japanese studios and became instrumental for the design of most theatrical productions of the earlier years. Of course, Japan has been in this arena long before any foreign countries since the 1930’s. I am sure the rabbit hole of animation goes back further than that (more than I have researched and know), but is quite interesting how the past does put things into perspective. Regardless, produced in Japan or not, most the many studios, producers, etc still refer to their creations as “animation” and some similar process to bring them to life. So the lines of what we know and generally call “anime” is something that again – time and fans have changed. If you ever get a chance to hit up your library, check out “60 Years Of Japanese comics” by Paul Gravett, “Ani-May? “Animation and Japanmation” by Garret Narware, and a few of the extensive ones on Osamu Tezuka. They are up there in age and hard to find, but really feel like they nail what anime, manga, and the wider spectrum of animation is about.

Another reason why people argue that cartoons are different from anime is because cartoons are usually perceived as children material where as anime, can extend their demographic reach to other age groups and areas. Mostly, you see this idea perpetuated by the fact that anime usually contains deeper themes and subject matter. While I do agree with half of this statement, most of it is utter BS. For the greater part starting with their visual illustrated companions, most cartoons contained: political, religious, and often times, undeniable racism. Of course, most these messages are hidden and carefully cloistered and unrecognizable to children (something for the adults to enjoy while they watch it with their children), and today, a far-cry of differences from when I was growing up. However, there are also productions that will and do offer themselves to an older crowd.

The Simpsons is a social satire of American society, Family Guy is another satire based one with more emphasis on popular references and family dysfunction, and Futurama plays to a more cultural and visionary role of that “imaginative” future that is just as common with some nerd humor mixed in. The list continues of things that quite trendy and novel in a sense. The only difference between adult-centric material of Japanese animation and mostly by American production, the field for Japanese animation has become more mindful of its audience as it includes a swath of demographic groups while most western productions reach out toward a younger audience by default or at least, a family friendly quality. In other words, Japanese “anime” has become somewhat more distinctive than western or foreign “cartoons”. Although, this does not make one better than the other.  So trying to use the whole “edgy”  or “cutting-edge” distinction is not at all valid, since something like a film  Pixar is prone to the same amount of discernment in production as a Studio Ghilbi or vice versa. In any case, differentiation such as these are nothing more than personal biases.

RWBY - The Malachite Sisters Fan Art by Eveshut Source:

RWBY – The Malachite Sisters Fan Art by Eveshut

In the end, I truly feel like there is nothing special about what we call “anime” other than the meaning we give it. After all, both “cartoons” and “anime” are basically the same medium; allowing children, adults – people a means to enjoy themselves and relax. As someone who has taken a large interest in art and animation as an enthusiast, I don’t think people should limit themselves to personal preferences, selective genres, and labels alone. Even though, I am more into “anime”, I really would have been missing out on some wonderful experiences both in terms of storytelling as well what animation is capable of, if I was strictly all about “anime”. Series like RWBY in particular have really been a source of interest in the past few weeks, not for the “anime style”, but for what they bring to the table. With web content become a brand new frontier of getting media noticed and a lot of creative minds waiting to be seen, I think that it would be fun to see what “anime” lends to it for any creators that exemplify it in their work. Besides, what’s so special about anime, anyway?

16 thoughts on “Anime Vs Cartoons: Is There Really A Clear Distiction?

  1. I have to say that when I read the title I couldn’t help but think “of course there is!”. After reading the article in full I realize that it’s not as clear as I thought, though I still feel like there’s a difference. It’s not that anime is from Japan and cartoons are from everywhere else – there can certainly be non-Japanese anime – but more in the though behind the production and, to a certain extent, the art style.

    The art isn’t a defining characteristic by any means, but I think it’s worth mentioning that cartoons tend to have a more simplistic design. There isn’t as much detail in the faces or the hair, or even the background. Anime, in contrast, is generally sharper and more well-defined. Again, though, these aren’t rules, merely trends that come to mind when I think about the differences between the two mediums.

    Cartoons are predominantly aimed at children, as you have mentioned, and while I do think that’s a relevant point it’s not the whole story. I also can’t argue that it’s because anime have a story because there are a number of cartoons that progress beyond extended skits. I may be completely wrong here but I feel that anime has more thought behind it in general; the characters are more developed and the stories and themes are deeper overall. Cartoons, regardless of whether they are telling a story or only aim for comedy, tend to have more shallow characters and themes.

    I find it hard to put this all into words because in general i’m not someone to dwell on this sort of thing, but it’s the only way I see to describe the gut feeling that allows me to tell the difference between anime and cartoons.

    I haven’t put this much though into a comment for a while: Good Job!

    • Art and style is a major misnomer people lend to anime, but at the same time; compared to cartoons at least it holds some truth. However, looking back to cartoons I watched to the ones today, some of them are not half-bad in the animation and art department.

      No, you actually have a point about the “developed” part right. Western cartoons are not exactly what I would call inventive, so in terms of creativity, I think that anime wins in that area hands down. Narrative is also definitely something anime has going for with regards to storytelling and themes – but I have seen a few foreign productions that almost just as skilled in that respect. Some of the ones that you maybe accustomed to might be a bit on the shallow side, yet shallow just depends on your perspective. Even while I lack access to most of the offerings that cable TV has (expect for whatever I stream off of Netflix), I would like to think that the quality of whatever is airing today for kids has not gone too far off the field of what I would consider reasonable entertainment.

      Definitely was not easy for me putting this together, but I think it is nice to challenge some of the assumptions we hold that are not necessarily truth or representative of what we believe.

      Thanks for the comment :3

  2. It’s sad how posters like us throw in all sorts of points making meaningful long blog posts, but in the end get the least amount of response.

    But I do have to agree, and I just think, why even bother anyway? People just want to draw the line between the two, because they know everyone else just have a perception on ‘cartoons’ which are just different then what they do watch.

    I would also talk more about cartoons and anime being perceived as children material. But you should already know half the stuff I would say, and even if I do start to talk about it, I might end up persuading people to change their whole perspective on a lot of other things as well.


    • For me, not necessarily. I write these type of post because I want to and not just to have them read. Besides, if I didn’t, I be lamenting over a wasted good topic, lol.

      Well, it is not easy to change perceptions once made, but the two would seem to bear some surface differences, which leads to them being differentiated altogether. I do not think that is why people believe cartoons and anime are fundamentally different, just something simple to consider. Sorry if it sounds confusing.

      Well, I am not a mind-reader, but think I have a general idea…maybe. In any case, trying to persuade others and sharing your thoughts on a subject like this is not a bad thing, since it leads to a interesting and robust discussion. That is one of the things I inspire to do with topics like this, even if only a few are interested – so no need to censor ideas.

      Thanks for reading and responding ^^

  3. Seems as if the distinction between “anime” and “cartoon” is getting more and more blurred these days due to American cartoon being influenced by Japanese anime and Japanese anime being influenced by American cartoons. While I can still tell what the predominant influence is for the most part, it’s really interesting to see how animation has evolved over the years. You’re right – there’s really not that much of a difference between them when you really think about it.

    • Yeah, the lines between two could not be any more muddled, but I think that is a good thing for the most part. Looking back to either side of the spectrum and how they changed over the years is quite interesting and still think that there is much room for improvement, especially with regards to American productions. I know it would never happen, but I would really like to see a collaboration with Toei or Studio Ghibli with someone like Pixar. Highly doubtfully it would happen, but I can dream.

      Thanks for reading and responding.

  4. Obviously Anime and Cartoons are basically animation. But generally, cartoons have a bad reputation of being a child’s medium because of educational shows and such with a shallow story. But the thing that used to set them apart is that Western focuses more on comedy and satire American culture while Anime focuses on stories on a wide spectrum while having a strong influence from Japanese culture and traditions. But at the end of the day, anyone can create anime style artwork in the animation, but I think the thing the only thing that will set western animation off from Japanese is the cultural differences.

  5. Pingback: Life Lessons: Difference Between Anime and Cartoons in 5 Seconds | The G-Empire

  6. There are quite a number of differences if I were to list it down: production, themes, storytelling, concept, aesthetics, culture and so on – but that’s only a comparison on a really fundamental levels. Now that when I think about it, it’s hard to make a distinction. Avatar: The Last Airbender, has an intricate settings reminiscent of most anime, in fact, I think discussions on whether or not it’s anime had been carried out countless times. Then there’s RWBY, ignoring any background information of the productions and whatnot, RWBY literally looks like a friggin anime, lol.

  7. For me anime is simply a cartoon made in Japan. It’s rather funny when I sometimes see people online go mental if you say anime is a cartoon.

    I would say that anime has more mature shows than your average western cartoon, but that is slowly changing over time. A lot of popular cartoons are made with older viewers in mind, although they tend to be comedic ones.

  8. I personally feel that anime and cartoons are different but I don’t think the difference has to do with where the material is produced. Yes anime started in Japan and cartoons started in the US but that doesn’t mean that they can only be produced in those countries. One of the minor defining factors does boil down to differences in stylization. Anime uses much more detail in it’s drawing and uses exaggerated facial expressions and movement . Anime Characters are normally designed to look more like actual human beings(albeit with larger breasts and eyes than is humanly possible)than their cartoon counterparts. In cartoons the main character doesn’t even need to be human. Think Looney Toons and Simpsons Vs Full Metal Alchemist and Trigun.

    However the difference in animation technique I feel pales in comparison to the biggest difference between anime and cartoons and that is storyline and character depth. Cartoons are generally focused on children or on giving humor for adults. Children lack the attention spans for a deep plot and adult cartoons focus on comedic relief and don’t really bother with long deep storylines so what you have in cartoons are set characters with very defined personalities who go through a whole plot line in one episode. Each episode is distinct and doesn’t have much of an impact on the other episodes. Characters don’t progress because if they did you would actually need to watch them in a specific order. You can watch an episode from season 1 and then an episode from season 4 and you wont miss anything because the characters just transfer over. Anime on the other hand has storylines that progress from episode to episode. A good comparison would be cartoons are short stories or maybe even full novels whereas animes are entire book series. Just try watching episodes 1-3 of Death Note or even DBZ and then watching the last 3. You would be confused and not have a clue how the characters got to where they were at the end. In anime the order of the episodes is important. In cartoons not so much. Animes have defined episodes but because the story progresses they can develop the plot and the characters. You can have major plot twists like the death of a main character(South Park doesn’t count) that you couldn’t have if each episode contained it’s own plot.

    If you think I am wrong just look at the anime that has caused problems with most peoples views of anime and cartoons. Avatar, Boondocks, RWBY, and I think Samurai Jack may also fit. They all have different themes, target audiences, and animation styles but they do have storyline progression and character development. The only reason why people don’t recognize them as anime or struggle defining them is the belief that the genres are bound by their geographic origins.

  9. For me, they really don’t have that much difference if you compare some cartoons and some animes equally ranked. though it’s just that there are more animes than cartoons, and more anime series has the sort of thing called “plot.” a lot if cartoons are just some random whatever they want to do. The culture is also different. Obviously in anime, most give emphasis to their culture and daily lives, as well as cartoons. The culture is what’s dividing this two. Art gives little points to both sides. They’re unique in their own way. So we say, Garlic Bread is not Cheese Bread. They’re both bread, but they differ in taste. One likes the garlic bread, the other likes cheese bread.

  10. Ok my 2 cents i understand where your coming from but there are differences between cartoons and anime. i agree that they are both under the context of shows and both being animated for whatever intended audience (anime has some extremely childish shows and vice versa). i have seen episodic amine and cartoons that do not make sense randomly watched also.
    I believe that anime is defined with its art style in a way that cicadas almost always make an appearance, sweat beads and throbbing veins on characters (or objects if the anime is so inclined) foreheads, characters literally falling over in shock, the appearance of fangs/ jagged teeth or canine pronunciation in anger, blush marks, eyes throbbing in awe, the seriously over detailing of food, horrendous intro and outro songs (for the most part) blah blah blah.
    Cartoons have their own defining features like 3 fingers and a thumb, racial diversity or species diversity (whatever) cartoons are also extremely politically correct not counting their underling “hidden” themes (nods towards disney). its hard to critically analyze cartoons having grown up in the west.
    You wont see pedophiles in cartoons not even in shows like archer or dethklok which are seen as predominately adult cartoons but in anime there is no boundaries they will graphically show child decapitation not flick away or just imply that it happened (although that may be cultural anime seems more niche and “uncensored” where cartoons seem more driven towards the masses). excel saga (comedy anime) from memory had someone who worked for the government that had business meetings in childrens playgrounds and interrupted colleges to watch kids go down slides… i mean what the hell right anyway my point is that anime can turn something like that into a joke (or be straight up serious about it) where cartoons would find it hard to touch the subject with a ten foot pole adult cartoon or not because of their need to be pc or fit into “western ideology”.
    Characters for cartoons vs anime are different also. cartoons characters dont change dynamically for instance in the simpsons bart is the class clown for the entire show. In anime characters can start out shy or weak and develop into the bad guy or tough guy like goku in dragon ball.
    Cartoons and anime are both terms to categorize (like you say humans do this. Its in our nature to want to understand things and categorization is a part of that) in this instance to categorize animation into 2 branches cartoons and anime and then for both they get split up again into comedy, children, adult, psychological, war, history, fantasy whatever. Although theres always going to be an exception to the rule on both sides there are distinctions for both that separate them apart from each other.

  11. The way I see it, this debate only is found in the west. I got Japanese friends who view any and every thing that is animated as anime, From south park and its construction paper stop motion animation, to the Simpsons, right down to modern CGI animation and even gaming animation as found in Skyrim. There is no true difference between the two, and from what I have heard on the Japanese side, they use the term Anime for any thing that is animated the same way the west uses the term Cartoon.

    This “There’s a difference between the two” argument comes from the Western Otaku who have concocted such an argument as a defense mechanism when trying to explain to there parents why they watch “cartoons” as adults, I’m referring to the majority of people out there who watch shows such as Pokémon.

    There really is no difference between the two. The only true difference is a cultural one, as I said, in Japan you will find the Simpsons classified as anime while in America you will find Naruto classified as a cartoon. The only differences between the two are a difference in art stile. That is, the 4 fingers and a thumb vs. 3 fingers and a thumb, both have unrealistic features. Lets face it, the eyes in anime are way over exaggerated. You will find Japanese animation just as poorly made as the American “Cartoons”. Crayon Shin-chan for example where they have no fingers what so ever.

    As for the “They don’t show pedophiles in Western cartoons” claim (South park had an episode where the scout master was molesting the scouts, and Seth MacFarlane has used rape, molestation, pedophilia in his more vulgar cartoon. It’s not that its not there, its just that its rare.) Well that’s down to a cultural difference. Much like how you rarely see anime characters easting with forks and spoons as most “anime” is set in Japan. That and pedophilia, be it in American cartoons or Japanese “anime”, will get you arrested in the States, as it is classified as victimless crime and cares the same charge as owning child pornography. (there have been arrests made on people in America for owning anime depicting child molestation so you wont see that on American TV. There are exemptions to this, Jiraiya from Naruto, but to be honest he is no deferent and to an extent, more tame thin Family guy’s Quagmire. That being said, you will find American Counter parts to any animation from Japan.)

    There is no difference but the difference you choose to see. It’s like taking Skyrim for the PC, Xbox and PlayStation and saying it’s not the same thing just because one disk is for PC, another for Xbox, and the third is for PlayStation and wont work unless there in there respective console/device. All 3 disks have the same game on them, they have there deference’s, the PC version has its own controls as well as the controls for the Xbox version, and its access to the Console interface and the ability for players to create there own mods, the Xbox has its own controls and gets DLC before the others, and the PlayStation version has its own controls, but in the end all the versions are the same game and Anime/ Cartoons are no exception to this.

    That’s my view on the subject.

  12. Wow. I’m commenting on a 2 year old post. lol
    My 2 cents worth….. I was in elementary when I first watched an ” anime”. I didn’t know Sailor Moon was an anime… I thought it was merely a poorly made cartoon. It didn’t have the ” smooth” realistic movement of a Disney biggie.

    There are 3 main differences between a Disney cartoon and an anime .1. It’s cultural 2. The music of western cartoons, especially Disney, cannot be compared with animes’. Hello ? 3. No blood and gore, pedophilia, and incest in US made cartoons .

    I know my thoughts are shallow, because I don’t think the differences are an issue to me. On second thought, the one true main difference is actually cultural. That said, Americans can create cartoons that are as epic as , say, Full Metal Alchemist, but I guess they choose not to. They’d rather make 1 1/2 hour films like Beauty and the Beast, Toy Story, Shrek, Aladdin, etc. all classics, with music so beautiful they will be listened to till the end of time.

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