As an avid movie-nerd and animation-geek, here’s my take on why “till this day, my mom calls me a child when I watch animated films”. (With that, I think she’ll most likely change her mind if I show her Ghost in the Shell, Akira and Paprika)
Animation movies in the U.S have always existed as children’s entertainment, closely associated with comics and cartoon. Although there are recent advocates for graphic novels to be recognized as an official form of literature, the pool of material still presents a lack of character or storyline development. On the other hand, although European animation movies does not adapt to comical norms and cliche storylines of the U.S., and approach animation more stylistically as an art form, European animation still fails to become a prominent medium of cultural influence.
A common theme within western animation is that animation create a fantasy world which did not exist in reality. Animation in the west have always been expected to reflect reality in metephors, but never to mirror it. And this is even evident in the best works within the genre, for example Art Spiegelman’s Maus, (in a way very similar to Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which disguises a cruel fact of reality in a light hearted fantasy and only reveals its satire to the viewers in a subtle manner).
One may argue that this phenomenon of censoring and sugar-coating reality in western animation contributed to the general association between animation and children’s entertainment. Even in the bigger productions from studios such as Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks, it is still very apparent that the only type of storylines presented are the “feel-good”/”underdog prevails”/”good vs. evil” type of thrillers. Although these are movies (such as Up, Toy Story) that would also be enjoyed by adults, the storyline is still child-like as they present a black-and-white, good vs. evil world with little complexity or ambiguity. Without these subtle “in-betweens”, they take away all those different shades which make life interesting. In turn, these movies promote the concept where animation movies exist as an oasis for adults to think like a child.
While there’s nothing wrong with providing an escape from gruelling everyday life, (after all that’s what most movies are meant to do) I see animation as a valuable vessel wasted and dismissed when it could’ve achieved so much more. Similar to what plays were like before Shakespeare came along, animation is an art form capable of bringing out worthwhile messages, allowing us to take a look at our world and life through a poetic lens.
Japanese animation on the other hand, and in my opinion, uses animation to its full potential and had become a huge player dominating the global animation scene. With internationally renowned figures such as Hayao Miyazaki and Satoshi Kon, a matured animation industry with numerous animation companies, constant supply of storylines through comics(manga) and a world wide fan base, throughout the years it had created almost all of the benchmarks within the genre.
Now what is so different within the Japanese approach that separates it from its contemporaries in the west?
In terms the technical level of art and animation, there’s no doubt that both the Japanese and the West are on par with one another. In fact quite a few western animation movies have beautifully drawn realistic background arts with great attention to detail. 101 Dalmatians, Prince of Egypt, An American Tail are all examples of background artwork giving the movies their context and grounding. On the other hand, in Japan there are numerous films which also accomplishes this (see Ghibli’s films, Cowboy Bebop, 5 millimeters per second and etc.)
While Japanese animation does not differentiate itself only by art, I believe that the key to the Japanese success is “how” and “where” to depart from reality in animation. Simply put, as human beings we cannot depart from our built-in set of aesthetics. That’s why even E.T. needs a symmetrical face with 2 eyes and a mouth in order for us to “like” him. Try digging out burgess shales’ fossil animals and make a movie out of them, chances are, people would hate it. Thus departing from our known reality entirely is not a good tactic for creating an animation film which everyone should resonate to. The paradox is that: as human beings, as much as we hate reality and dull everyday life, we are prone to feel detached and afraid, if we depart from it too much. Thus, the key is, “balance”.
Take Miyazaki’s films as examples, even though they might be suitable for children as well, his fantasy worlds and characters are never a reduced and censored version of our world. He usually starts the story from the details taken and mirrored from reality and as the story progresses he subtly shifts the viewer into fantasy. A brilliant example would be “Spirited Away”; you can never quite tell the precise moment when Chihiro entered the fantasy world of Gods. Was it the tunnel? Or was it when her parents started eating food meant for the gods?
Miyazaki never makes his characters explain themselves. Never explain what you don’t know. Rather than attempting to making sense of everything or reducing reality to manageable size, there’s much more beauty in recognizing the ambiguity that surrounds us.
Oversimplification of our world means death to animation; that is where you loose all subtlety, and the beauty that lies within.