In addition to watching niche anime marketed towards fans, I also enjoy a number of children/family series that are marketed for the general Japanese public, from the massive, long-running hits like One Piece, Pokemon, and Naruto, to shorter and newer shows like Tegami Bachi and Kobato. Since I started watching kids anime over a decade ago, it never ceases to amaze me how vastly different the characters are compared to American cartoons…
I’ll start off with a general look at the protagonists and antagonists of each (I say “general” because there are exceptions on both sides):
Protagonists in kids anime like Naruto and Luffy are fun-loving, but also self-sacrificing, honorable, courageous, and have a strong sense of justice. Protagonists in shojo series like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura could be naive and air-headed, but they too have a wide range of feelings and are also courageous, selfless, and loving. I can’t think of a single American cartoon series protagonist with as many positive traits as most of the ones in kids anime. American cartoon protagonists are usually static characters and their development, if any, is inconsistent and not made to be significant to the story. All I can conclude is that American cartoon protagonists may teach some things about friendship and responsibility, but with so much potty humor, slapstick gags, and fast-paced antics, I can’t help but think that it doesn’t amount to much. Japanese kids anime may not be free of silly comedy, but it’s secondary in favor of conveying protagonists who sacrifice themselves in the face of extreme danger, stand up and fight against insurmountable odds, and demonstrate genuine emotions of sadness, love, and empathy.
So what do kids learn from their respective protagonists? American kids learn that, while you have to be good and take responsibility sometimes, crude and violent humor is fun, as is acting as silly as the stereotypical cartoon characters they see. Emotions like sadness, pain, regret, and anger are rarely conveyed to them seriously. Japanese kids however learn that the world is not always a fun place and, like their protagonists, they’ll face many hardships where they may decide to self-sacrifice, and it’s okay for emotions to come out in certain situations. American kids are exposed to protagonist who are either silly, static, and slapstick (comedies) or flawless wish-fulfillment (superheros) while Japanese kids’ protagonists display a range of more positive emotions including selflessness and bravery (shonen) or empathy and love (shojo).
Antagonists in American kids cartoons are typically portrayed as evil, power-hungry villains who want to rule something (the world perhaps?) for obscure reasons, or for simpler scenarios, just plain bullies or jerks. In kids anime, the antagonists are either seriously bad dudes or misguided, emotionally-unstable individuals who may eventually become protagonists. We rarely see the evil villains in American kids shows engage in extremely bad things like murder, torture, or enslavement, while in anime we do, often quite explicitly. There are few cases in American cartoons where a villain eventually becomes a long-lasting protagonist, nor do we usually find out exactly why the villain become the way they did. In kids anime however, both are quite common.
All I can conclude is that American kids are taught the “black and white” idea about heroes and villains – you’re either a good guy or a bad guy and finding out exactly why you’re a villain isn’t a big deal. Japanese kids however learn that it is a big deal to find out what drives people to become bad because they may be able to be redeemed.
So what can we conclude about how different the cartoon characters are in American and Japanese kid shows? It seems plain to me that American cartoons present a simple, sugar-coated world to their children in which everyone is either good or bad, characters have one niche to fulfill, and nothing serious needs to be dealt with. The protagonists are either static superheroes or cartoonish pranksters whose only purpose is to make humor. Japanese kids on the other hand are presented with a “mature” world in which complex characters are struggling against immense emotional or physical pain amidst a continuing, detailed setting. The protagonists face failures and hardships and must develop and learn throughout their respective series. I don’t want to seem too biased, but the kinds of role models that Japanese children’s anime portrays when compared to American kids cartoons is arguably better.
John stated the difference well when he said…
“The difference…is cultural. Japanese society simply believes in exposing their children to all of the varying eventualities of reality, while American culture tries to hide or protect its children from some of the more difficult events in life.”
American culture believes children are not mature enough to handle seriously upsetting or emotional situations, therefore their cartoons are fraught with only funny, simple antics or idealized superhero adventures to daydream about. Japanese culture however stresses that its children become mature at an early age, therefore cartoons are presented more seriously and confront children with numerous disturbing, sad, and complex issues.
Which way is better? Personally I think children should watch cartoons that challenge their intelligence and better prepare them for the upcoming disturbing facts of life. Japanese kids seem to mature faster and are more responsible than American kids, i.e., even elementary kids often go to school by themselves and clean their classrooms. But then again, maybe childhood should be free from upsetting things and should just be fun and fictionally blissful like in American cartoons. Like many things in life, this is another debatable topic.
(If she was a cartoon character in an American show, Nami couldn’t get away with being as sexy as she is.)