Western animation vs. Japanese animation
One thing to get out of the way first
Let me start of with that by "Western" animation, I'll mainly focus on American ones and for various reasons. The first one is because, even though there's animation in Europe, let's face it, animation made in USA is world famous, just like with Anime. The second reason is because, just like with Japanimation, a lot of people grew up watching American cartoons, sure not everyone, but a majority have. The third reason is because those two are the most common and well-known kinds of animation, they are giants, and thus a comparison between these two titans is absolutely inevitable.
And the final reason is because I grew up watching these two kinds of animation. With that said, let's begin.
Let's start with American animation. Anyone reading this that's an 80's or 90's baby will without a doubt reminisce fond memories of certain cartoons. Who could forget watching such classics like Transformers, Thundercats, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, He-Man, Batman, Superman, G.I. Joe, Ghostbusters, Nickelodeon shows such as Rugrats, Hey Arnold, Rocko's Modern Life, etc.?
All of those shows were aimed at kids. Yeah, these are a lot of shows that I mentioned, but these are ones that a lot of people, including myself grew up with. Watching them now, some of them still hold up pretty well despite that they're mainly aimed at kids. Some of them though, can seem a bit outdated and even incredibly cheesy, but still enjoyable nonetheless. For a long time now, cartoons from the US have always been aimed at children. But then, the 90's came and shows aimed at an older audience began to exist.
I'm talking about shows such as the Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill to name a few. These shows are of comedic nature and are aimed mainly at an older audience and are actually inappropriate for children due to bad language, some sexuality, violence, sometimes a little strong (but still played for laughs) and because they normally address some adult issues or recent world events. That's one of the main things that, at least what I think, sets American animation apart from Anime.
For American, most shows are aimed at children and the ones aimed for a mature audience are normally comedies and aren't as abundant as the ones for kids. Thus, there isn't a lot of variety in American cartoons than there is with anime.
Anime offers a lot more variety mainly because the Japanese are more liberal and open with certain kinds of topics that can be considered "taboo" in the United States, things such as death and sexuality are the first ones to come to mind. In Japanimation, the age demographic isn't limited, there can be anime appropriate for almost any person of any age to enjoy. There are shows with many genres, they can be serious, comedic, about detectives, romance, sex (or "hentai" as it is called over there), psychological and even horror. Because of this, there are anime that can be aimed at adults and appeal to them, after all, there are many of them that deal with very mature, thought-provoking and even psychological issues. Things that can even shock an adult person, especially if they have the "animation is just for children" way of thinking. They can have complex character development as well, making the characters very human and "complete".
However, I'm not saying that American animation is "stupid" or completely "inferior" because of this, they too have their own great shows that also have pretty good stories and character development.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Now, let's take another look at Western animation. As previously mentioned, most of them are aimed at children, but just because they're mainly for kids doesn't automatically make them bad, they can still deal with surprisingly mature issues and have great character development.
One of these examples is also one of my favorite American cartoons, Batman the animated series, or Batman: TAS for short. Despite its main demographic being children, it's surprisingly dark, featuring the psychological drama that Batman is known for. It had thematic complexity, the episodes didn't always have happy endings and not all of the bad guys were completely "evil" like most American animation would portray them. Sometimes they used to be normal people with normal lives which then got destroyed by tragic events. It didn't light up the tone or dumb it down just because the demographic was for children. It took its audience seriously. This is why Batman: TAS is considered one of the greatest animated series ever and why it still holds up well today, even among older audiences.
Another example is Avatar: the Last Airbender, a less older show, but still a great one nonetheless. Just like with Batman, it didn't always have happy endings with its episodes and they were dark and serious at times. What's funny though is that, even if Avatar isn't anime, it was certainly influenced by it, not just with its animation style, but also with references to them. In fact, even the creators said that legendary animes such as Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo and FLCL were one of the main influences on Avatar. Not to mention that the show mainly borrows from Chinese, Indian and Eastern Asian culture as well, which is pretty unusual for American animation.
I could mention other examples, but I think I've said enough. The point with this is that older audiences can enjoy American cartoons just like children can, as long as, of course, it's done well.
Let's also talk about animated movies from the US. When it comes to that, most of us used to watch Disney movies, and how could we not? It's one of the most famous kind of movies of all time! The same rule with TV shows also mostly applies with American animated movies, most of them are aimed at children (probably the 10th time I've said this), but those that are done well can also capture and engage an older audience. What's interesting is that older Disney movies have dealt with death. When certain characters die, they don't come back just so kids stop feeling sad, they stay dead, which is actually a good lesson to teach to kids, if they don't go too far either. These kind of scenes can teach to kids that death may be very sad, but it's unfortunately a normal part of life and everyone has to deal with it, it'll happen to everyone eventually and you can't come back from it. With that said, I'm pretty sure the majority of people reading this that has seen Disney movies probably remembers Mufasa's death from Lion King, or the death of Bambi's mom, Tarzan's "father's" death and even Snow White's death, along with the Queen's demise.
I know that I'm mentioning death a lot, but the reason of why I'm emphasizing it is because said topic is now rarely found in today's American cartoons. It is no longer acceptable to show any character dying, or at least for the most part because the people behind these cartoons fear that it might be too strong for children and that parents may complain about this, which is quite unfortunate because kids need to learn little by little that the world ain't such a cheerful place. At times, it can be quite, well, very dark and cruel.
If today's cartoons can deal with death, kids may get thrown off, even sad depending on the character, but it would at least teach the fact that it will eventually happen to anyone and that we have to deal with it.
Batman the animated series (1992-1999)
Another common element that, at least, I've seen with American cartoons is that a lot of them have an episodic nature. Events that happened in past episodes are barely mentioned at all and the characters don't seem to always have a continuing storyline or objective. Sometimes, an entire show revolves around characters striving to reach or accomplish a certain objective, examples could be defeating an evil, finding someone, getting to a certain place, etc. But in shows like Spongebob Squarepants, the Simpsons, Family Guy, Dexter's Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Beavis and Butt-Head, etc., you can pretty much watch any episode and you won't be lost on the plot at all, in every episode the characters just do some random thing that wasn't present in the last episode, thus it doesn't establish some kind of story arc, and it doesn't have to either. Those shows work perfectly like that. But like everything else, there's always an exception, like the DC Animated Universe, made up of Batman TAS, Superman TAS, Justice League, Static Shock, Batman Beyond and Justice League Unlimited. All of those previously mentioned shows have an established continuity in which some of the events that happened among any of those cartoons get mentioned in some episodes.
Justice League Unlimited (2004-2006)
Teen Titans (2003-2006)
Now let's take another look at anime.
Cowboy Bebop (1998-1999)
As already mentioned in this hub, anime has a lot of variety in its shows.
They can be about so many things and can be aimed towards a lot of age demographics, children, teenagers, young adults and even adults. Because of this, anime is less limited about their genres and subject matter than most American cartoons.
Personally, I love anime more because of this. The shows and movies it offers are not afraid to handle topics that would be considered taboo in Western society. As a result, we get very thought-provoking shows and movies.
To further show how varied they can be, let's take a brief look at some anime shows and movies and what topics they have.
First the movie "Perfect Blue". A very confusing and thought-provoking one. Pretty much a psychological horror, but also a critique of celebrity-obsessed culture. It's about a young woman called Mima that was a J-pop star and then decides to leave that behind and become an actress. These news really upsets her fans (most of them being men) which includes an obsessed, mentally disturbed stalker. But the stalker is not the only problem for Mima here, it's also the hard work, pressure from the crew of the TV serial that they're making, stress and the huge changes that she has to face of being an actress. She begins doubting herself if she made the right choice of leaving her J-pop career, something which I think that we can all relate. I mean, I'm pretty sure that at least once in our lives, we have doubted ourselves for any kind of decision that we have made, normally when it brings big changes in our lives. Due to this, Mima's J-pop past begins to haunt her and doesn't leave her alone.
It's a great movie, one of my favorites actually.
Perfect Blue (1997)
Second, let's take a look at "Neon Genesis Evangelion", one of the most complex and confusing animes out there.
What's it about? On the surface, it looks like another typical mecha anime, but when you really dive into it, you'll see that it's not. It has a lot of psychological analysis on the main characters, what issues they have, why they have it and how that made them into who they are and, thus why does that make them pilot the "robots" to fight against giant monsters in the show. It's almost like a character study, but instead of just one, it's on all of the main ones.
The further the show analyzes the characters, the more you see the horrible issues that they suffer and how they deal with it, or sometimes not at all. That's all I'll say about this one.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)
Third, the anime "Death Note". An interesting anime right here because, at least when it comes these shows on TV, it's not too common to find one like that.
It's an anime that doesn't have much action, it relies instead on suspense, it's not horror, but it can keep you on the edge of your seat once it grabs your attention. It's has a mix of detective fiction and supernatural elements.
It's about a high school kid, a very smart one too, called Light Yagami that finds one day a notebook called the "Death Note". If you write any name onto it, said person dies after 40 seconds and you can even choose how you want that person to die. Light starts using it against criminals and then becomes hell-bent on "cleansing the world" from bad people. Because of this, the Interpol wants to capture him and for this, they ask for a famous detective, known as "L", for his help. So, a game of cat and mouse ensues between Light and L and, I've got to say, it's one of the best intellectual battles I've ever seen. Not having much physical action might put some people off, but it definitely makes up for it with the battle of wits between Light and L.
Death Note (2006-2007)
Fourth, "Princess Mononoke", one of my absolute favorite animated movies ever and one done by the master himself, Hayao Miyazaki.
An epic tale with an environmentalist message. Nowadays, movies with those kind of messages are those that have been done so many times now, thus, they can get, or maybe even have become, pretty tiring.
This one's different however. It's not just about saving or taking care of the environment, it's also about saving and caring for your fellow human beings. In the movie, there's a war between humans and animals, however, it's not just about the "big bad corporation or humans" polluting and destroying forests. The humans actually have a good reason for doing it, they're not really the antagonists, just like how the animals have a good reason to fight against them. Instead of being black and white (think James Cameron's "Avatar") it's actually a very gray area.
And for that reason and other things as well, it's one of the best anime movies ever. I won't say more because it's one that must be seen.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
And finally, because if I keep going at this rate, it'll drag on, let's an even more brief look at three other animes, Cowboy Bebop, Hellsing Ultimate and Samuari Champloo.
These three, man, they are so badass. In fact, you know what?
Instead of both showing and telling, why don't I just show the openings of these three? Because I cannot do them justice.
Samurai Champloo (2004-2005)
Hellsing Ultimate OVA
Which one do you like better?
So, which one is better?
Anime. Some will say.
American animation. Others will say that.
None is really better than the other, both have offered some truly great masterpieces of animation, just like both have some pretty awful examples of them.
Like with many things, it depends on you as to which one is better. Whether you grew up watching them or because you think one of the two offer better stories than than the other, it's all up to you. Opinions will always vary and with a topic like this one, it is guaranteed that that's what will happen if people debate over it.
Personally, I like anime better, but I also can't deny the fact that I love some American cartoons, like the DC Animated Universe, Pixar movies, The Simpsons, etc.
Some might even say that you have to pick one and that you can't like both. Why not? Why can't one enjoy both? Because they're really different between each other?
I love Cowboy Bebop, but I also love Batman: The Animated Series and Toy Story.
As long as both have well-made and well-written shows, even if some of them are for kids, I don't see how one can't enjoy both of them.