Anime VS Cartoon: Facial Expressions

Japanese anime and American cartoons are two very distinct illustrative outlets. They are nothing alike stylistically. One anime show, My Hero Academia, and two cartoon shows, Avatar: The Last Airbender and South Park, will be analyzed to determine if they portray emotions similarly or differently. They might depict the emotion the same way, or they may not. They are both underneath the genre of animation, but because their styles are so different, artists choose how to portray an emotion.

There are so many different emotions that we have. Looking at Plutchik’s wheel of emotions, you can see several other emotions and the different intensities of those emotions. It’s important to note that there are more than just those emotions that are on the wheel, but the ones that are on the wheel are most common and easily recognizable. It’s interesting to think that there are different intensities of emotions instead of thinking of these emotions as their entity. Research shows that the top eight basic categories of emotions are anger, disgust, fear, sadness, anticipation, joy, surprise, and trust. The reason for these eight categories is because our cognitive and social system differentially represent these emotions.

Later in this paper, four emotions will be discussed: anger, joy, sadness, and embarrassment. There will be a comparison between the stylistic choices about how those emotions are portrayed in My Hero Academia, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and South Park.  

Visual storytelling can be achieved in many ways, and one of those ways is through illustrations. Diving deeper into visual storytelling through illustrations, animation will be discussed. The most significant difference between anime and cartoons is that anime has visually distinct features for characters and a more limited animation style for depicting movement.

Anime is hand-drawn and then computer-animated. The term “anime” refers to the genre of Japanese or Japanese-style animated film or television entertainment. A professor of the Japanese Program at Tufts University, Susan Napier, was able to “trace anime’s influences to art forms ranging from Kabuki and the woodblock print to film and photography.” She also identified anime as “a medium in which distinctive visual elements combine with an array of generic, thematic, and philosophical structures to produce a unique aesthetic world.” (Ue, Tom). There is a lot of debate about what can be labeled as anime, Alison Alexy describes anime as “filmed cartoons produced in any country that mirror styles typically labeled Japanese, including narrative structure, character design, and aesthetics.” anime has extensive ties to comic books, called manga in Japanese. Unlike cartoons anime is not exclusively for children, anima has many adult themes. Alexy also noted that “anime is a topic of particular interest in analyses of popular culture, gender, media studies, transnationalism, and Japanese studies.” Some of the most popular anime movies include Spirited Away (2001), Akira (1988), The Ghost in the Shell (1995), Loveless (2005).

Cartoons are illustrations and are often drawn in a non-realistic or semi-realistic style. They were initially created to be satires, caricatures, or humorous. They can also be from any country; they don’t necessarily need to be from America. There are different types of cartoons; there are animated cartoons, comic strip cartoons, political cartoons, and gag cartoons. Comic strip cartoons usually have more than one panel. They are a series of humorous drawings put together to make a funny plot. Political cartoons are a visual commentary on current events. In contrast, gag cartoons are just one panel and make fun of a specific group of people. The type of cartoon that will be focused on today is an animated cartoon. Some of the most iconic animated cartoon shows include The Simpsons, South Park, Rugrats, and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!

Understanding facial expressions are an essential part of nonverbal communication. A person’s facial expressions betray what they are saying if it’s not the same thing. Certain features of your face indicate how you feel. For example, eyebrows tell a lot about how a person is feeling. If they are raised and arched, it shows surprise, lowered, and knit together shows anger, and when the inner corners are drawn up, they show sadness. These are little nuances to show small signs of how the person is feeling. The eyes are even more telling than eyebrows. If the eyes are wide open, they show surprise; if they are intensely staring, they are happy, and when they have crow’s feet, crinkles show that the person is happy. The mouth is the final piece of the facial expression puzzle. A dropped jaw shows surprise; an open mouth shows fear; one side of the mouth raised shows hate, corners raised shows happiness, corners are drawn down indicates sadness. The features mentioned above are three of the most significant pieces in figuring out how a person is feeling. Facial expressions are believed to be a universal language because it doesn’t need to be translated.

The anime show being discussed is My Hero Academia. It was originally a manga that was adapted into an anime show. It is written and illustrated by Kōhei Horikoshi and follows the story of a young boy Izuku Midoriya who lives in a world where superpowers are ordinary. He was born without any, but that never deterred him from his dreams of becoming a hero. My Hero Academia is set in Japan but is based on western society.

The cartoon show Avatar: The Last Airbender was created by Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, and Aaron Ehasz. It follows a young boy, Aang, who is the avatar and the last survivor of the Air nation. Along with his friends, he travels the world and has to fight the Fire Lord to end the 100-year war. Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in an Asiatic world that uses a form of Chinese martial arts called “bending” while controlling the four elements; Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. Avatar was influenced by Asian society, which is why it will look similar to My Hero Academia in the images below. 

The second cartoon show is South Park. Tyler Parker, Matt Stone, and Brian Graden created South Park, and the show revolves around four boys and their exploits around their Colorado town. South Park is known for its profanity and dark, surreal humor that satirizes a wide range of topics. This show is based entirely on the United States and the current issues it faces. The creators use humor and satire, and of course, animation to bring light to serious topics.  

The first emotion being discussed is anger. The My Hero Academia character can be seen angry due to his furrowed brows. His mouth is a tight line, his eyes are slits, and his head is tilted down. Using the information from before the eyebrows indicate how this character is feeling the most.

The image next to that is from Avatar; this individual’s features are similar. His eyebrow is furrowed, his head tilted down. The difference, however, is that his mouth is open, and you can see his teeth grinding against one another, and instead of just his eyebrows furrowed, his whole face is scrunched up, which is known as a more western feature for being angry.

South Park is very different stylistically from the other two shows. In this case, you can see that these characters in the image look angry because of their eyebrows. It’s the biggest giveaway for anger. Their eyebrows in straight lines are going downwards and meeting almost in the middle. Their mouths are open, which is another indication that they might start to yell afterward or are in a state of anger and shock. 

The second emotion is joy. The My Hero Academia character can be seen as happy through his wide eyes, and he has the typical anime style of red lines for blushing. His mouth is open, and his eyebrows are raised. This was another feature mentioned above, where eyebrows represent how a person is feeling. 

Again, the similarities between the Avatar character and the My Hero Academia character both had their eyes wide, and his eyebrows were raised. There are barely any differences if any.

This character for South Park has his mouth open and is a very 2D character. You have to figure out what his emotion is through facial expression alone. We can see that his mouth is open, and we can see his teeth, which is an indicator of smiling. We can also see that his eyes are “softer,” which means there aren’t any indicators that his eyes feel a certain way. His head is tilted to the right, which portrays kindness.

The third emotion is sadness. Sadness is one of the most straightforward emotions to recognize. Tears are the biggest giveaway for which emotion is being portrayed. The My Hero Academia character is crying, his eyebrows are furrowed, his eyes are sad, and his mouth is open, creating the story of him being hysterical. 

This image for Avatar shows this female character in tears. They aren’t simple tears; they are pouring out of her eyes. Similar to the character from My Hero Academia. Her eyes are open, her eyebrows are following the lines of her eyes, her mouth is wide open in hysteria, and the tears falling off of her face are very impactful.

The South Park image looks different from the other two because crying in hysteria in 2D cartoons is very rare. It’s hard to show that kind of emotion in 2D animations, which is why this character only has two streaming tears coming from his eyes. The eyebrows in this image are similar to Avatar‘s eyebrows because they both follow the eyes. In the South Park image, it’s a little hard to see that the eyebrows are following the eyes. Still, because the eyebrows are the opposite of when they are angry, that’s another indication that the emotion is sadness. 

The fourth and final emotion is an embarrassment. The My Hero Academia is bright red. He has an awkward lip; he is leaning backward, his shoulders are tense, and he is visibly sweating. The only feature we would need to understand that he is embarrassed is his red face. 

The red face is not conveyed in the Avatar image. That character is only blushing, but his body language gives us more information about what he feels. The hand behind his head shows us the awkwardness of the situation, and his mouth is awkwardly open as well. 

Embarrassment can be shown in a multitude of ways, and this is another way to show it. In the South Park image, this character is slapping himself with his hand. His eyes are closed, and his palm is in the middle of his face.

Looking at all of the images representing the four emotions of anger, happiness, sadness, and embarrassment, you distinguished specific characteristics that belong to each emotion. There were often similarities, but there were also some differences. The same emotion was recognizable in every image.

There are also colors that correspond to an emotion clear in Plutchik’s wheel of emotion. Red is for annoyance, anger, and rage. Orange is for interest, anticipation, and vigilance. Yellow is for serenity, joy, and ecstasy. Light green is acceptance, trust, and admiration. Dark green is for apprehension, fear, and terror. Blue is for distraction, surprise, and amazement. Purple is for pensiveness, sadness, and grief. Finally, pink is for boredom, disgust, and loathing. Even though these colors represent certain emotions, those colors need to be used while they are being expressed. The colors are usually used in other visual storytelling besides animation.

Animation is a visual storytelling tool. We all watch animation growing up, whether cartoons or anime or any other type of animation. It’s important to note that because we start watching animation as children, these creators help teach children the signs of each facial expression and what they mean. Animators “are able to create characters who not only entertain their audience but through which the audience understands the world better.” (Elezaj, Rilind) This is a powerful quote because it shows the impact that animation has on its audience. Animation is one of the best teaching tools. It is engaging, educative, and entertaining. Only four emotions were used above, but countless others could have been used.

Using one anime show and two cartoon shows we analyzed the different way emotions can be expressed. There were many similarities, because there are certain features that we recognize with specific facial expressions. The way we see emotions aren’t always how they are perceived. In the images used above we were able to perceive the emotion because it was given to us easily, and in a fashion that is easy to interpret. Perception can occur various ways, through all of your five senses; visual (sight), auditory (sound), olfaction (smell), taste, and touch. We discussed visual perception, because that is the sense you use when looking at images. It is important to note that according to psychologist Richard Gregory only about 90% of the information that reached the eye is lost by the time it makes it to your brain. “Our perceptions of the world are hypotheses based on past experiences and stored information.” This is an important quote because if we didn’t experience or have information about each emotion, we wouldn’t be able to determine which emotion is being portrayed. Perception plays a large role in what we think about a certain topic or theme. (Mcleod, Saul)

The choice of shows was simple. My Hero Academia, is a well-known Japanese anime show that encompassed every emotion in detail, while the two cartoons Avatar: The Last Airbender and South Park are two very different cartoons. They do not complement one another at all, which was perfect for this project. It’s easy to find similarities between two shows that are similar, but it’s more difficult to find similarities between two shows that are different.

Through this project and research anime is able to show more emotions more vibrantly and, in more detail, because it has a more realistic style. Anime’s style is influenced by real world people, while cartoons are humorous illustrations, they are not meant to look realistic. Which is why we have an easier time to distinguish emotions in anime than in cartoons. Overall, the take away is that no matter what the visual is or how it’s drawn we are able to pick up on emotions through specific features.


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