Character Animation: East vs. West

Believable characters are the end goal in traditional western animation. Accordingly, most American animators highly value great character animation.



Bill Tytla (Dumbo) and Rod Scribner (Bugs Bunny): two oft cited examples of great character animators.

However, not everyone agrees on what great character animation is. Some think it can be achieved by following the Disney principles described in “The Illusion of Life” book. Others think Disney animation is generic and formulaic, and instead prefer the specific acting of Bob Clampett’s films. And others think great character animation can be found in many forms and places…as long as it is from American animation’s “Golden Age.”

And then there is anime. Anime does not seem to share the western preoccupation with character animation. There was a fascinating discussion about Hayao Miyazaki’s films on Michael Barrier’s website a while ago. In this paragraph, Barrier pretty much sums up anime from the western perspective:

The downside of a preoccupation with effects is that everything in between turns into a sort of stuffing, the character animation in particular. In Miyazaki’s films it suffers from Japanese animation’s endemic reticence where the illumination of personality is concerned. This or that character may express extreme emotion, but always with the stylized extravagance of kabuki. Too many of Miyazaki’s characters—the doll-like heroes and heroines, the raw-boned comic-relief pirates and laborers—look and behave too much alike. I felt often in watching these films that Miyazaki was struggling dutifully to fill up the time until he could get back to what really interested him.

This may sound ignorant or patronizing to anime fans. But is he really wrong? I’ve seen a fair amount of anime. The stories, ideas, and technical animation are often far more sophisticated than those of the Golden Age (let alone modern cartoons). I can see there is a wide variety of art styles, and I can even pick out some scenes done by certain unique and talented Japanese animators. However, I have not seen a lot of great Japanese character animation.


The stylized extravagance of kabuki.

At the Disney studio, action animators were considered to be a tier below the character animators. It appears to be the opposite in Japan: the best animators are given scenes with lots of action and/or technical animation. The “Sakuga” videos that showcase well-animated scenes in anime are almost always non-stop action.

Some scenes in anime do have moments of great character animation, but they tend to be overshadowed by other elements (the direction, music, staging, atmosphere, etc). It isn’t often that the character’s feelings are primarily conveyed by the animation itself. The only regular exceptions are comedy characters in old (60’s-70’s) anime and Lupin III.


Lupin III

I’ve actually seen similar criticism leveled against Disney animation itself, especially the studio’s post-Golden Age features. Some people believe the character animation in these films is cold, formulaic, and overly technical, and that they are only carried by the music and atmosphere. It seems that even American animation has a difficult time living up to its own standards.


Robin Hood (1973) is often criticized for having formulaic character animation (among other problems).

Would anime benefit from stronger attention to character animation? The answer isn’t so simple. Westerners can’t seem to agree on what constitutes great character animation. Perhaps anime’s other merits make character animation beside the point. And it’s entirely possible there already is great Japanese character animation, and I haven’t seen or recognized it.

Even so, I’d argue “yes.” I think there’s lots of untapped potential for character animation in anime. I’d be excited to see their unique take on it. Furthermore, I think the opportunities for character animation are much greater in Japan than they ever were during the Golden Age. As great as Bill Tytla’s and Rod Scribner’s animation was, they were limited to the formats they were working in (Disney’s strict sensibilities or WB’s comedy shorts). What if we could see the same sort of vivid characterization in other types of animated films? The closest we ever got was in Ralph Bakshi’s early movies, but the Golden Age veteran animators were long past their prime at that point.

Here’s some interesting thoughts from commenter Kevin Hogan on Michael Barrier’s post:

“The mother of the small boy in Ponyo is a great example. We find her to be a loving mother due to her close proximity to her son. We find her to be stressed and stretched due to the physical business she is doing with her hands and from the strong English vocal dub. However, her face and body language do not tell us any more about her convictions. Without her voice and the “business” of story, the audience would not be able to see with clarity how she feels about her husband being away at sea, the stress of being a working single mother, etc.”

“Often times classic Hollywood animation had severe deficits in story and structure. But the best Hollywood animation (Snow White’s Dwarfs, Dumbo, etc) had strong character animation to put across emotional reality within a film. Miyazaki (and anime in a stereotypical and general sense) has strong story and weak characterization. If only we could find a happy middle ground…”


4 thoughts on “Character Animation: East vs. West

  1. camonte

    This is an interesting subject. Miyazaki might not be the best example of anime’s potential in character acting, since the animation in his films largely exists to actualize his layouts and the biggest advances in sakuga technique throughout the industry’s history usually occurred outside of Ghibli. When I think of examples of the best character acting in Japan, it’s usually scattered in the lower budget stuff, OVAs, TV shows, and non-Ghibli movies. Some random examples:

    The motion is definitely limited, and there’s still a bit of that “stylized extravagance of kabuki” that Barrier mentions, but it’d but unfair to say that all Japanese animators don’t care about getting inside their characters’ heads.

    However you’re right that it isn’t as big a priority in Japan as it is in the West. Part of it is systematic (all anime is cast by scene rather than by character, making it harder to fixate on a single personality), but part of it is tradition. Anime animators tend to conceive of their animation as an integrated whole, where there’s no difference between character, effects, and background animation. The result is that the Japanese animator can create their own miniature universes with their own laws of physics, color, lighting, and so on, requiring more “well-rounded” drawing skills at the expense of specific proficiency. I think Peter Chung was right in comparing the Japanese system to traditional Japanese art, where the entire frame is the fundamental basis of composition, whereas American animation reflects classical Western art, where linear perspective and figure drawing is more essential. I’d also compare it to the different filmmaking cultures that both systems emerged in: Disney et al developed against the backdrop of classical Hollywood, where personable acting was more important than ostentatious cinematography. By contrast, anime is very much a child of the sixties and the New Wave, where the director is god, and the use of film form (cinematography, lighting, staging etc) supersedes standout performances.

    There’s also an element in Japan’s limited that full simply can’t mimic: framerate modulation. As you noted, anime does action really well, and the main reason for that is the syncopated, jazzy modulation of framerate during action scenes between 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s, the extremes of which have no precedent in world animation. Framerate modulation is, in my opinion, the most unique quality of Japanese animation and in some ways can be just as complex as traditional animation when in the hands of a skilled animator.

    It’s a tricky issue and it kind of depends on what type of film you’re trying to make. I think Miyazaki’s could use a little more liveliness in the character animation but it isn’t really a huge priority. In any case, the best animators in Japan tend to be the ones which learn lessons from the West (overlapping action, squash and stretch, personality acting and so on) while still keeping true to their own tradition.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. ibcf Post author

      Thanks for the clips! The Tokyo Godfathers scenes are especially great.

      Character animation is a relatively unexplored area. Even during the Golden Age, there were only a handful of animators who took it beyond the basic Disney principles. Again, I think anime has lots of potential for it–those character animation clips are amazing, but I wish there were more like them! All that creativity seems to go into action animation. Action is awesome, but it would be nice to see a bit more variety.

      I don’t think casting by sequence or limited movement are huge obstacles to good character animation. Most of the Golden Age cartoons were usually cast by sequence (even at Disney), and Chuck Jones was able to get squeeze tons of personality out of a few drawings. I could see anime finding other creative solutions (like framerate modulation, as you mentioned).

      It’s true that anime has a fundamentally different aesthetic. I just re-watched Night on the Galactic Railroad, and I was amazed at how well the main character’s feelings came across through the cinematography. The character animation itself was pretty minimal. Would it have improved the film if they kept the great direction and atmosphere, but also put more attention into the character drawings? Maybe it wouldn’t be compatible with Japanese artistic tradition. It’s hard to say; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that successfully balanced both.

      It sure is a tricky issue. I grew up with western cartoons, so my perspective might be skewed towards character animation. But I still feel like anime could be trying many new things.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. camonte

        I agree that too often the mental image for “good animation” in anime is just a cool action scene. The oversaturation of Kanada-style action scenes is probably why there was such a concerted effort for a return to realism in 80s sakuga and though some from that generation definitely fall into the trap of cold, mechanical Disney imitation you describe above (Hiroyuki Okiura is a big offender here), there are animators like Satoru Utsunomiya and Mitsuo Iso who have successfully reconciled naturalistic acting and a limited drawing count.

        For shits and giggles, I tried to come up with a list of anime where character animation is a prominent concern:

        Jin Roh
        Kaguya-hime (and newer Ghibli films in general)
        Gosenzosama Banbanzai
        Dennou Coil
        Wanwa the Doggy
        Satoshi Kon’s movies but particularly Tokyo Godfathers
        Hashire Melos
        Little Witch Academia
        The Magnetic Rose segment from Memories
        Kyoto Animation’s TV shows Hyouka, Nichijou, and the 2nd season of K-On!!
        Mamoru Hosoda’s films The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars & Wolf Children

        I’m sure I’m missing quite a few, but even then compared to the size of the anime industry this list seems rather small. Most would reasonably assume that character animation must barely exist in Japan but I think it’s more often the case that character animation is rarely the foundation for a work like it is in the West. When I think of what are generally considered the most “well-animated” anime, I think of shows and movies with extreme variety, stuff like Redline, FLCL, Yuasa’s projects, and so on. That kind of anime tends to throw out as many radically different styles and types of animation as possible and don’t rely exclusively on character acting OR action.

        For example, last year’s Space Dandy had quite a few small moments of lively, expressive character animation

        but they were sandwiched between cuts of all different types. Experimental FX, conventional action, dance choreography, background animation, you name it:

        One of the biggest interpretive differences between anime and western cartoons is that the animation in anime is more self-aware. Western animators inhabit their characters so fully that there’s this illusion that the characters aren’t made from drawings but are living, breathing actors. In anime, even the best scenes of character animation rarely achieve this. When a Japanese animator does good work on a scene, they want you to know it. “This cut of Asuka animated by MITSUO ISO”. It reflects the director-driven mindset of the industry (Yoshinori Kanada, one of the first limited animators in Japan to seriously consider the role of motion, was in a sense reclaiming the animation from the directors). The Americans don’t want you to see the puppet strings but the Japanese do.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. ibcf Post author

      Those are good points. Even when there is great character animation in anime, American critics overlook it because it isn’t front and center. And they often complain about animation that feels too “self-conscious.” So it must come down to cultural differences.

      I hope we’ll eventually see an animated film that successfully combines the best aspects of east and west. With all the American-Japanese cultural intermingling, it could happen very soon.

      Liked by 2 people


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