Hybridization: Japan’s Presence in American Cartoons

Japanese Anime’s presence in western cartoons has been prevalent for years, exemplified in the drawing and animation style in shows such as Teen Titans and Avatar: The Last Airbender. But in recent years, a number of American-looking cartoons utilizing anime-like elements have come into the foreground of popularity. Rather than discussing anime’s influence on Western media through the anime-looking western cartoons of the early 2000’s, I will be discussing these recent “hybridized” cartoons to exhibit Japan’s influence on America.

Japanese Cartoons versus American Cartoons

Before introducing the anime influenced American cartoons, it is important to establish definitions for anime and American cartoons.

Anime, from a western perspective, is linked to aesthetically pleasing details that are not present in American cartoons, be it in music, art style, or animation. As one interviewer notes on perceived anime style, “Anime focuses a lot on the eyes,” which is seen as unique to American audiences. [1] But this attention to detail expands beyond the eyes in anime. Take the transformation sequence from Sailor Moon: The character is designed as an attractive young woman with detailed, “shiny” eyes; the animation pans over the girl’s body from various angles, with flowing animation from the hair and skirt; the cooing background music accentuates the excitement and beauty of the transformation, but does not interact with the cartoon beyond adding mood. All of these elements in music and animation are not typically present in American cartoons—possibly because the features, while attractive, do not provide any real content to the episode.

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On the other hand, American cartoons focus on simple function in exchange for detail. The function-based nature of American cartoons can be seen in The Fairly OddParents: the characters are designed in a simple—yet functional—cartoon style rather than modeled after more realistic human anatomy; animations consist of the necessities including speaking animations and animations when picking up/using objects; and the music occurs only when something relevant in the scene occurs (for instance, a flourish when a scene begins, or brief celebratory music for positive occurrences). Thus, each element has its purpose in moving the episode’s plot along.

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Put simply, anime tends to focus on aesthetically attractive details regardless of purpose, while American cartoons favor functional simplicity in exchange for detail.

The Japanese-American Hybrid Cartoon

Hybridization occurs when a cartoon—in this case, an American cartoon—is able to execute both American cartoon features (simplicity and functionality) and anime features (aesthetic detail) simultaneously. While there are a number of recent hybrid cartoons, I will use Steven Universe to exemplify hybridization.

Steven Universe, created by Rebecca Sugar, is a sci-fi mixed with slice of life cartoon starring Steve, a half-magical half-human boy, and his female alien companions Pearl, Amethyst, and Garnet. Together, these characters are known as “The Crystal Gems.” The influence in the show taken from anime is evident: the creator claims that she is a fan of many anime series and often makes references to outside anime and cartoons, but aims to use these elements to “make something really new.” [2] Sugar’s account of anime influence differs from how older creators account for the anime influence in their cartoons. For instance, the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender explicitly reference Japan inspiration, stating that their “love for Japanese Anime… [and] Eastern philosophies led to the initial inspiration for Avatar.” [3] In this way, Steven Universe can be set apart from explicitly anime-like western creations. While Steven Universe uses anime elements, is not meant to make explicit its anime elements—rather, it is indeed a true hybrid, leaning closer toward neither anime nor American cartoon.

(left to right) Cast of Steven Universe, cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Sailor Moon

(left to right) Cast of Steven Universe, cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Sailor Moon

One of the major ways in which Steven Universe exhibits its hybrid identity is through the detail in character design. Characters are fairly diverse in general shape; character outfits each have their own individual style (delicate for Pearl, rebellious for Amethyst, etc.); and the designs incorporate certain “moe elements” usually associated with anime, such as purple or spiked hair. But despite this detail, the designs still retain a certain simplicity to them reminiscent of American-style cartoons—namely in the simplicity of the character eyes, and utilization of simple shapes to create the characters rather than modeling directly off of human anatomy.

Using these hybrid characters, Steven Universe is able to execute aesthetic-driven scenes without awkwardness, while also smoothly presenting more American style narratives. This utilization of both spheres is exemplified in the episode “Steven the Sword Fighter.” The episode’s beginning contains comedic American-style banter between Steven and the Crystal Gems, lacking background music and serving the purpose of introducing the topic of the episode. Subsequently, the episode features a swordfight between Pearl and “Holo-Pearl” (a clone hologram of Pearl). The battle exhibits various camera angles and complex fighting animations, backed by delicate piano and synth music to frame the mood. The battle scene would be difficult to picture with more traditional American characters such as Timmy Turner, while the comedic banter earlier in the episode would be equally peculiar with anime-style characters. But through the hybridization of the series characters, Steven Universe is able to perform both anime-style and American cartoon-style scenes and features.
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Implications of Hybrid Cartoons

Hybridizations illustrates the way an essence of J-cool has penetrated American popular culture: individuals can consume J-cool features even without direct exposure to Japanese material. An American cartoon fan cannot consume anime features watching, say, The Fairly OddParents; further, such a fan cannot consume anime features directly from watching anime, as anime would be outside of their scope of consumable material. Yet if the American cartoon fan watches a hybrid cartoon such as Steven Universe, he can indirectly consume anime features present in the show. Furthermore, the detailed anime elements such as camera angles and background music can be consumed by the fan, and subsequently perceived as regular for American cartoons.

hybrid diagram

Cartoon fans consuming anime features without watching anime, and vise versa

The normalization of J-cool aspects in American media through hybrid cartoons suggests that J-cool elements have potential to become integral aspects of American pop culture. Thus, these new cartoons provide evidence of the increasing pop culture power Japan harbors over the west.

 

Discussion Questions
1. What is the relationship between early 2000’s anime-like American cartoons and J-cool’s presence in America? Do they differ significantly from hybrid cartoons?

2. The existence of anime-looking American cartoons such as Avatar: The Last Airbender illustrate that Anime has had a presence in American animation more than decade a go. Why is the hybridization of Anime and American cartoons occurring now, rather than earlier?

3. Steven Universe is a hybrid cartoon created in America. Can hybrid cartoons be created in Japan? If so, how? In what ways would Japanese hybrid cartoons differ from American hybrid cartoons?

Sources
[1] “Bee and PuppyCat Creator Natasha Allegri Is Very…” Interview by Frederator Times. Frederator Times. N.p., 14 Nov. 2014. Web. <http://times.frederator.com/post/101804267445/bee-and-puppycat-creator-natasha-allegri-is-very>.

[2] “Our Interview With the Cast and Creator of Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe!” Interview by Susana Polo. The Mary Sue. Dan Abrams, 15 Oct. 2014. Web. <http://www.themarysue.com/steven-universe-interview/>.

[3] “AVATAR’S BRYAN KONIETZKO AND MICHAEL DANTE DIMARTINO.” Interview by EDUARDO VASCONCELLOS. ING. Ziff Davis, 6 Sept. 2007. Web. <http://www.ign.com/articles/2007/09/06/interview-avatars-bryan-konietzko-and-michael-dante-dimartino>.

4. Sugar, Rebecca. “Steven the Sword Fighter.” Steven Universe. Cartoon Network. 19 Apr. 2014. Television.

5. Hartman, Butch. “Hail to the Chief.” The Fairly OddParents. Nickelodeon. 27 Sept. 2002. Television.

6. Satou, Junichi, Kunihiko Ikuhara, and Takuya Igarashi, dirs. Sailor Moon. TV Asahi. 1992. Television.

7. DiMartino, Michael D., and Bryan Konietzko. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon. 2005. Television.

Comments

  1. I found your post on hybridization of Japanese and American cartoons very interesting. I have not watched many Japanese cartoons, but have watched a good amount of American cartoons. I’m curious about what other examples you’ve found outside of Steve Universe. Your focus on the aesthetic importance of anime as one of the defining characteristic of anime versus the simplistic nature of American cartoons made me think of Spongebob, which at times switches between simple animation and extremely detailed images. As well, the general animation of the characters in Spongebob have slowly evolved to be a bit more detailed. Do you think this could have any Japanese influence? Do you think perhaps the popularity of anime in the United States has encouraged American cartoons (even those that may seem far from anime influence) to become more aesthetic/detail oriented?

  2. jlcolbert says:

    I think my favorite part of this post is that you chose not to focus on the really obvious example of “Western anime” shows like Avatar, but instead focused on shows that are inspired by anime and incorporate only some of the elements. I haven’t seen enough anime or modern Western animation from the last 5+ years or so to comment on how you define the genres, but I am perhaps cautious of you potentially generalizing (not saying that you are, though).
    I wonder if this influx of Western anime and anime-inspired animation comes from the fact that the generation who grew up watching dubbed episodes of Sailor Moon and Dragonball is now creating the media we consume.

  3. bctrainor says:

    First off, I love that you focus on Steven Universe, which in my opinion is the best and most unique show on television at the moment. I feel as if a lot of this does stem from its hybrid characteristics. There are a lot of direct anime references, but they are mostly inconsequential easter egg type things. It really comes through most in the atmosphere of the show, which at times borders on a Miyazaki-esque elegance and whimsy.

    While I fully agree with you that this show is an example of a hybrid of Western animation and anime elements, I feel like you need a better foundation of what you describe as Western animation. The Fairly Oddparents is a pretty good example of the atypical Western cartoon, yet I think many of the characteristics you pull from it are entirely too broad to provide a stable foundation for your argument. Maybe try to find some articles on stereotypes of Western animation instead of just inferring them from an example.

    Also, it might be helpfully to look at the relationship between anime and Western animation as a two-way street, such as how early anime was heavily influenced by Disney cartoons. This would lead to a more interesting place with your hybrid cartoon theory. Instead of just looking for Western cartoons that display anime characteristics you could also look at anime that are more reflective of the Western animation you exemplify with Fairly OddParents, such as Gainax’s show Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (heavily influenced by late-90’s and early-00’s American cartoons in both visuals and content).