The value of silence in anime

A couple of weeks ago I went to the theater to see The Secret World of Arrietty, the latest Studio Ghibli film being released in the US by Disney. Unfortunately I saw the movie on President’s Day, so the theater was packed with kids and families who had the day off. But despite this, the kids weren’t as loud as they could have been throughout the movie and it was indeed a very good film. However, it also got me thinking about a very noticeable difference between an anime production like Arrietty, and most other animated films kids here are exposed to nowadays…

This difference was made obvious to me even before the movie started, when trailers for upcoming animated movies were being shown. They showed trailers for Madagascar 3, The Lorax, The Pirates Band of Misfits, and a few others…but the point I’m trying to make is that compared to Japanese animated movies, from Pokemon and Naruto to Studio Ghibli, the thing recent US animated movies are lacking is…silence.

By “silence” I don’t just mean lack of scenes where there’s no background music/noise or no talking. What I mean is that American animated films seem to think that the only thing kids can find enjoyable is characters yelling, being hit with barrages of slapsticks, and spewing pop culture or potty jokes at random. That’s pretty much all I saw in the trailers at the theater that day – a lot of yelling and a lot of cartoon violence, with maybe a hint of story and drama here and there. It’s pretty depressing because I know American kids can learn to appreciate more than just hyperbolics in their entertainment, yet our society rarely tries to challenge their attention span and intelligence with animation they’re meant to take seriously. This is why Pixar is pretty much the only American studio I still have faith in for animated movies – they actually provide films with intelligent premises and genuine drama, while keeping the hyperbolics to a minimum.

But, while American kids movies never seem to “shut up” with the slapstick violence and pop culture jokes, I see little to none of that in kids anime movies. Anyone who’s seen Studio Ghibli’s works knows that they take themselves seriously 100% of the time. When there are moments of humor, it’s not exaggeratedly so and it blends in with the serious tone of the movie. And of course, the films value silence. Long periods of time go by where there’s no background music and characters don’t speak or do anything flashy, letting kids focus on things like tone, setting, and atmosphere. Even the many Pokemon movies I’ve seen are like this. Sure, there are some kiddy scenes where a pokemon does something cutesy or cartoony, but I’d say 90% of the movies are sincerely dramatic and gag-free. Things like cartoonish slapsticks and pop culture jokes that are constantly interrupting an otherwise serious American animated movie are few and far between in anime kids movies. I can only speculate that the reason for this is because Japanese kids are encouraged to find other things like story exposition and character development worthwhile in their entertainment, while American animated movies are only meant to give kids the rawest form of entertainment without challenging them at all. And, while I’m only focusing on movies for the post, I believe that all of this can also be said about American animated kids TV shows versus kids anime TV shows.

So what accounts for this stark difference between American and Japanese animated movies? It all relates back to things I’ve discussed in previous posts. But to summarize, one reason could be that the Japanese find it acceptable to expose their kids to all kinds of disturbing themes in order to better prepare them for the real world (just look at uncut episodes of Naruto and One Piece). On the other hand, Americans believe kids should be sheltered from these things until they’re older and should just experience kid-friendly themes. Another reason could have to do with the wabi sabi ideal that permeates Japanese culture. The characteristics of wabi sabi could easily translate into the beauty of appreciating moments of “silence to contemplate atmosphere” in anime, even in anime aimed for kids. Such an idea doesn’t exist in American society; we’re all about individual gratification, so even if a movie is insulting our kids intelligence, if they like it we’ll let them watch it.

Call me biased, but I have to agree with the Japanese approach. What’s wrong with challenging kids in their animated entertainment, and in doing so, teaching them that it’s okay to be silent for a while and take your time to examine things other than action and slapsticks? We Americans complain that our kids have short attention spans and are prone to violence, but when we give them such easily gratifying entertainment that teaches them that the more yelling the better, people getting hurt is hilarious, and they only need to use their eyes when watching movies and not their brain, what should we expect? That’s why I’m glad that anime movies like Arrietty are still getting US theatrical releases from time to time. Anime movies like Ghibli and even Pokemon present kids with a refreshingly serious story, characters who could be decent role models, and moments of silence for them to appreciate and understand things in the movie that aren’t spoon-fed to them. Like I said early in the post, the 100+ kids watching Arrietty in the theater that day were not as loud as they could have been. While they did explode with pent up laughter at the, like, three funny parts in the movie, they were mostly quiet and I could sometimes hear them discussing the movie amongst themselves. So I’m sure they liked it even if they thought it was boring at times. I know that kids can find whimsical-ness just as entertaining as noise and violence. They can learn to like moments of silence for appreciating atmosphere just as they can learn that they’re supposed to laugh like mad when someone gets “humorously” hurt. Chances are a film like Arrietty will stick in their head for many more years than something like Madagascar. I hope other studios follow Ghibli and Pixar and produce intelligent animated films for kids.

23 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. BeldenOtaku says:

    There is ABSOLUTELY nothing wrong with presenting children with deep stories that require thoughtful consideration and don’t rely on constant visual or auditory stimulus to keep their attention.
    It’s why I don’t want to work in American animation, the quality is almost unimportant and merely just an add-on to be listed with some mish-mash of A to B-list stars voicing characters no one really cares about.
    There’s a time and place for slapstick comedy, classics like “The Three Stoodges” have perfected it, but what makes them work is the fact that they purposefully don’t try for a deep plot and openly admit to just being slapstick.
    Meanwhile, Disney takes well written literary classics and makes them “kid-friendly” and watered down with truly unfitting animation styles and littered with unnecessary comedy.
    I agree with you, Japanese studios like Ghibli have mastered the craft of thoughtful animation movies. All comedy is exactly toned to compliment the plot and not distract the viewer from the themes and emotions that are the true point of the film and story.

    • Yumeka says:

      Very well said. While I love Disney, especially the old 2-D animated classics, they could have a lot more potential if they didn’t have to keep up their tradition of being kid-friendly. At least Pixar has done wonders with producing kid-friendly films that also have plenty of solid entertainment for adults as well. I don’t mind some slapstick comedy, like Pixar movies do have, as long as they’re not so terribly far removed from the tone of the film and are least, well, universally funny and not just fodder for kids to laugh at.

  2. Mushyrulez says:

    There is ABSOLUTELY nothing wrong with presenting children with shallow stories that rely on constant visual or auditory stimulus and don’t require thoughtful consideration to keep their attention.
    It’s why I don’t want to work in Japanese animation, the entertainment is almost unimportant and merely just an add-on to be listed with some mish-mash of reflective moments everyone actually cares about.
    There’s a time and place for contemplative reflections, classics like “Tokyo Story” have perfected it, but what makes them work is the fact that they purposefully don’t try for slapastick and openly admit to having a deep plot.
    Meanwhile, Ghibli takes well written literary classics and makes them “Japanimation” and introspective with truly fitting animation styles and littered with necessary philosophy.
    I agree with you, American studios like Pixar have mastered the craft of thoughtful slapstick movies. All plot is exactly toned to compliment the comedy and not distract the viewer from the laughs and jokes that are the true point of the film and story.

    (Post-note: some anime can truly use silence well, such as many Ghibli movies; yet, others use silence as a space without music or words, not as silence. Japanese directors are as independent as American directors are; there are good ones, and there are bad ones. I’d even suggest that we only see much American productions as ‘bad’, because we’re fully exposed to all their productions; whereas (at least before Internet) we saw Japanese productions as ‘better’, because only the truly good films could be exported overseas. Nowadays (see: Scamp and his terribad), that’s not the case, but still…)

    • Yumeka says:

      I’m not sure if your parody of BeldenOtaku’s comment means you’re being sarcastic and you agree with what I said in the post, or you don’t…

      I’m not making any claims that all Japanese animation is better than American animation. I know for sure there’s plenty of crap anime even though I avoid watching them. All I’m saying is that Japanese animated kids movies tend to challenge the intelligence and emotions of their audience while American kids movies tend to emphasis comedy and slapsticks even when trying to present an otherwise serious story.

  3. Kal says:

    I definitely agree that we need better movies/shows for kids now a days. Modern western cartoons do not seem to impart anything at all, or try to teach anything. As other posters stated, not all anime tries to teach something, or present good role models, but it does in general. It is common to see anime that portrays the importance of family, or friends, loyalty etc.

    I would not necessarily attribute those good characteristics to the “silence” in the movies, I’m sure a faster paced movie can send a good message as well (if directed properly). But we definitely need more quality over quantity in western movies/series.

    • Yumeka says:

      While I do feel American animated films try to teach lessons to kids, the lessons are usually glossed over in favor of the much more emphasized slapstick comedy. So the comedy is really all the kids remember from the movie and the vague lessons go over their head. It should be the other way around, where the lessons are what’s emphasized and the comedy is in the background. Pixar tends to do this and that’s what I like about them. But yes, while anime kids movies do have comedy, the themes of friendship, self-sacrifice, loyalty, etc., are way more prominent.

      Yeah, you don’t necessarily need scenes of silence to produce a thoughtful movie. I’m just using it as a comparison since American animated films are so “loud” all the time compared to Japanese ones.

  4. Cirris says:

    YES! kids should be seen; but not heard!

    Oh wait, you meant silence as in dialogue to develop a story.

    I just think it goes to the simple fact that kids/adults today feel like they need sensory overload to be entertained. They don’t feel that the quiet moments in a story can be just as powerful and meaningful as any action sequence.

    I’d discuss it more. But I feel I’d end up ranting into a more social and political topic which I rather not do.

    • Yumeka says:

      LOL, I think that kids should be seen but not hear too…I’m not a fan of loud kids XD

      Yes, sensory overload is a good term. I think too much of watching characters yelling, jumping around, and comically abusing each other can only serve to make kids hyper and easily distracted. Not learning to appreciate quietness nor learning that using one’s mind can also be entertaining, just can’t be good for them. I can’t make any claims on this, but I can’t help but feel that the “maturity” of Ghibli and other Japanese kids movies compared to their American counterparts, has something to do with why Japanese kids in general are more well behaved and responsible than American kids of the same age.

  5. Savo says:

    You make some very good points. I largely avoid the CGI blockbusters that come out every so often nowadays because the majority are well-made from a film-making perspective but are ultimately unambitious and unappealing to a mature person.

    I agree that American children could use more intelligent entertainment, but my experiences with the young age group these movies are aimed at leads me to believe they would probably reject anything that makes them have to think any deeper. As you said, its a difference of cultures; it works in Japanese culture, but at this point I can’t honestly imagine it working in America.

    Additionally, I am in total agreement with you about Pixar films. I dismiss most of the other CGI movie fare by other studios such as Dreamworks, but I adore Pixar’s work. They have somehow managed to consistently thread the line between a film that appeals to children but can still hold meaning for teenagers and adults. My favorite Pixar film is Wall-E, a film that ranks as one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had with a movie in years.

    • Yumeka says:

      You’re right that even if American kids were given more intelligent animated movies to watch, they’d probably think it’s boring. For some, that cultural difference of what’s entertaining and what isn’t, is too much to overcome. But I feel that the more they’re exposed to Ghibli-type entertainment, the more they can learn to like it. The reason they’d think it’s boring at first is because it’s so different than the loud, comical, fast-paced movies they’re used to. But with encouragement and time, I think a lot of American kids would go for that type of entertainment as well.

      Dreamworks has produced some good animated movies, but Pixar produces the most consistently good ones. I agree, Wall-E is a wonderful movie. My favorite Pixar film is a tie between The Incredibles and Toy Story 3.

  6. KRILL says:

    I know what you mean. I saw the movie opening day with some buds( xD it must have looked hilarious seeing a bunch of young men going to see a children with parent geared demographic movie and here I am a young 6 foot male asking the ticket lady for this movie, I was actually a tad embarrassed) being the shameful Ghibli fan we are, and I loved how the ambient sound of nature reflected the characters and premise. I see art that really any age can appreciate unlike those Madagascar movies n’ such that I really can’t bother with, even being a kid at heart.

    It was a well done movie with a “realistic” ending that was bitter sweet at best, and rather melancholic. Instead of the usual happy happy happy happy sappy ending kids usually get crammed down their throats. Most of Ghibli’s films have endings, and really even themes, that are somber. The resolution always comes with sacrifice whether it be Mononoke with resolution coming at the cost of blood shed or Grave of Fire flies and Arriety with the separation of dear friendship. Alot can be taken from the movies. While slap stick is nice, these thought provoking titles do alot more than average children geared movies and cartoons do for children, in terms of an elaborate plot and a fleshed out story with passionate real life based theme that anyone can get something from. Life isn’t always happy and I think that is one of the most important lessons you can teach a child or anyone, that ya have to keep going through hardship, and I think all Ghibli movies represent this ideology magnificently. That the turn out won’t always be a perfect and happy one.

    That all sounds deeper than it really is I’m sure, lol, but I definitely agree with the quality of Ghibli like movies over other children geared counterparts. Arriety is just plain good cinema for anybody.

    • Yumeka says:

      There were mostly kids in the theater when I went, but I did see older people here and there, from teenagers to elderly people. I’m always going to see family/kids movies in the theater so I don’t get embarrassed =P

      That’s a great point that it’s important to teach kids that life isn’t always fun and games despite some drama here and there. And endings aren’t always ideal and happy. It’s fine to have some movies favor comedy over drama, but when they all do that, I can’t help but feel that kids are that less ready to take real-life hardship and violence seriously.

    • jimmy says:

      Maybe it’s because I saw Arietty in a more ‘alternative’ cinema, but I found mostly the demographics you’d find across anime fans on average. As a – what do you know? – six foot young male, I found totally normal buying a ticket, though I was there with two friends the same age. I don’t feel strange buying tickets to childrens films in general – though they are generally ones that appeal to adults, such as Ghibli and Pixar – maybe it’s a cultural thing?
      Or maybe it’s just because I saw it in Japanese. Though there were quite a few kids there too. I was impressed. Unless their parents wouldn’t let them see it in English…

  7. Jeremia says:

    This is one of the things that made me quit my university, where I was studying pedagogy. The so-called “science” teaches that kids need to be bombed with noises and visual experiances, or else they’ll have problems adapting to the modern society; probably because they might start thinking about stuff other than personal material gain, and, as we all “know” personal material gain is the point of existing (this IS the actual European Union stance!).

    • Yumeka says:

      Interesting point but I believe it. These movies encourage kids to value visual distraction and spoon-fed entertainment over any serious thought and finding beauty in simple things (Ghibli films are all about those latter two things). And Americans wonder why their kids are so hyper and easily distracted.

  8. Adziu says:

    Yet the French seem to understand this well, too. Lots of wonderful animation coming from France, or partly financed by the French.

    • Yumeka says:

      I know you’re familiar with animation from many different countries so I was hoping you’d mention one who’s animation has similar aesthetics as anime movies =) Maybe I’ll check out a French animated movie someday if I can find one dubbed/subbed in English.

  9. Kumoshi says:

    I hadn’t noticed it while I was watching them, but I see what you mean about the other animated movies; the ads for them were certainly rather…busy and rambunctious, compared to experience of watching Arrietty.

    I definitely agree that kids can appreciate more thoughtful animated films. The kids in the movie theater when I went to see Arrietty certainly seemed to be enjoying it. And Howl’s Moving Castle and Finding Nemo were my two favorite animated films when I was growing up, whereas I can hardly remember the multitude of typical American animated films that I’d seen.

    By the way, I heard a rumor that at some point Studio Ghibli was considering no longer making movies…Is it true? D:

    • Yumeka says:

      Even though typical American kids might tend to fidget and get antsy during some of Arrietty’s slower parts, I definitely think they’d enjoy it overall and remember it longer down the line.

      I haven’t heard anything about Studio Ghibli no longer making movies. Nothing about it from official sources so it’s probably just a rumor.

  10. Nopy says:

    Last month I read an article describing the results of a study into the effects that different types of cartoons have on childrens’ behaviour.

    In the study, children were shown scenes from Caillou (a Canadian cartoon about realistic life situations and problems facing children and families), and Spongebob Squarepants (an American cartoon about a spongey character that lives in a pineapple under the sea). Caillou is rather “silent” as you put it and does not jump all over the place while Spongebob Squarepants changes scenes and situations in rapid succession. When the children were asked to perform different tasks afterwards, the groups that watched Caillou performed better and had a greater attention span than the groups that watched Spongebob Squarepants.

    While the super-hyper cartoons like Spongebob Squarepants may be entertaining, I also think that having more intelligent ones like Arrietty would benefit children more and promote critical thinking.

    • Yumeka says:

      That’s an interesting study and I’m not surprised by the outcome. I’m not saying that kids should never watch shows like Spongebob…I just feel that they should be exposed to a better variety of shows, including ones like this Caillou that let them think and appreciate “silent” moments.

  11. graruru says:

    This article is kind of disappointing. Admittedly, I came in thinking that there would be a discussion of how silence is used in cinema to emphasize the visual aspect of what is being seen.

    Instead all I read was a complaint that American animation was too centered on making disposable slapstick comedies for kids. I am not saying you’re wrong, but I feel betrayed. A discussion on the use of silence in cinema and emphasizing visuals to move stories would have been so much better because it addresses a specific aspect of style, and normally style does not get analyzed in any sort of meaningful manner that may explain why it is conducive to a more meaningful or enjoyable cinematic experience.

    As for the argument that not enough movies are being made that can be considered interesting or a product of higher culture, I feel the analysis is lacking. The simple argument that nobody is making interesting children’s films in America, lacks causal reasoning.

    This tendency towards appealing to the very base desires of stimulation is a process of animalization that is symptomatic of modern capitalism. Remember our movie industry is not in the business of making art, but is rather in the industry of making money. They don’t care about the implications of only adding to America’s Attention Deficit. All they see is profits. This deficit of attention is how they keep us consuming and consuming.

    These appeals to high culture and cinema as a means of finding meaning or contemplation falls on deaf ears when it comes to the machine behind America’s animalization.

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