Comparing Eastern and Western Animation: Cost Versus Variety

When it comes to producing animation for television, there are two differing approaches that are used. Go really cheap and make a lot of shows, or make one really good show with lots of actual animation. Neither approach is better than the other in the grand scheme of things. However, it’s hard not to notice that Japan produces a far greater variety of animation than the US, despite being a far smaller market.

Initial D animation

Are you into the Japanese sport of drifting? Specifically with a 1980s Toyota Trueno E86? Well then, there’s an anime for that.

The Western Approach

Of course, it is fair to say that animation does not enjoy near the obsessive following in the US that it does in Japan, but it is popular worldwide, and especially in the English-speaking world where a lot of common cultural values and traditions are shared.

The Western approach is to basically make a few, relatively expensive, but high quality shows. US production is dominated by the four main kids networks. International markets are slightly different. The BBC has a hand, but a myriad of independent producers also vie for airtime with their properties.

Such an approach is fine in most respects, but it does mean that the shows generally have to attract large audiences in order to be successful. In other words, they’re two expensive to serve niche audiences.

What that means in reality, is that a lot of western animated TV shows tend to be very similar, or are of a certain genre; namely comedy or pre-school.

The end result is that we get a lot of one or two genres, but not many more. There’s also a lack of depth to each genre. For example, the buddy comedy (SpongeBob, Billy and Mandy, etc.), or the superhero action show (currently dominated by comic book characters.)

The Eastern Approach

Compare that to the eastern approach. In Japan, cost plays a much bigger role, and the cheaper a show can be, the better. Besides being able to get them produced quicker (and hence, produce more of them), there’s also the ability to make a greater variety of shows.

The reason is simple, a cheaper show does not need to attract as large an audience as a more expensive one. With a lower demand for audience numbers, there’s a greater ability to create shows that only require an audience of a certain size. In other words, shows that appeal to niche audiences only need niche-sized audiences to be successful.

Ergo, in Japan, we have comedies, but we also have romantic comedies, buddy comedies, sporting comedies and so on. The same goes for action shows, horror shows, the list goes on.

The bottom line is that the animation output from Japan is far more varied than from the US and Europe. All displaying the unique traits of its country of origin.

There Is No ‘Right’ Approach to Animation

At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong approach when it comes to producing animated TV shows; there are positive and negative benefits to both. That said, it would be nice to see even just a little bit more variety in US and European shows, and there would be no need to drastically lower budgets to accommodate it.

Should the US and Europe be creating more varied animated shows? How do network decisions play into this? Leave a comment with your thoughts!

9 Comments on “Comparing Eastern and Western Animation: Cost Versus Variety

  1. I wish this article was longer with examples. Everything is kind of stated matter of factly (and I don’t doubt them) but with no presented research.

    • Yes, sorry Ant G. It was written right before class last night and finished during lunchtime at work today so is a bit more off the cuff than I would like.

      It’s a topic I’d love to explore further though and will return to it at some point with actual references.

      In the meantime though, here’s a few rough per episode estimates:

      – Anime: ~$145,000

      – The Simpsons: ~$1 million

  2. They really should make more varied animated shows. Movies too. I wish I knew why networks or Hollywood won’t take the Eastern business model to produce cheaper content to make it happen.
    Maybe we can expect to see more variety in animation via internet channels. But since Hollywood’s seeping into that, that’s starting to become less likely. I guess, regardless of business models, animation is too expensive and risky to pull it off, and people are too scared to even try.

    • If anything, the internet should create a more level playing field where the success or failure of shows is judged by its content (story, plot, animation, etc.) rather than how much money was put into it.

  3. Interesting article. I’ve been quite surprised by the Japanese attitude as well. I used to think it was the other way around, the US stuff was cheap and plentiful and the Japanese put a few selected special efforts into a few masterpieces. But then I went to Japan a couple years ago and found they actually had relatively low budgets compared to typical US fair and far more shows than I thought. Plus people in general over there (and quite a few over here in regards to anime as well) see it as an art form and come across quite knowledgeable of how animation is done and the people behind the works. Thus a culture that makes sense for their production models. As for US/western animated cartoons, they’re there, have their broad appeal, but frankly they lack a definition. No one I see (outside Cartoon Brew and a few other various other sites) seems to give much a toss. Except superheros, but that’s not so much about cartoons and animation as it is the super heroes themselves. I don’t know anyone who’s into western animated cartoons specifically, again, except a few various people I see online. Alex Dudley being one of them actually. There’s anime clubs, animator clubs (exclusively 3D animator clubs, they’ll talk your ears off about programming and design, but trying to get anything else out of them is like trying to get blood out of a stone), and super hero fan clubs. But not much for western animated cartoons in general.

  4. Another factor here is the people drawing it….they work piece rate….not hourly or set monthly salaries….hence why anime tv series are usually still in production up until 2 days before they get shown on air. I know this becuz i work for one of the companies here. Only studio ghibli have a time frame similar to that of american companies. They rest of us dont have a choice.

    Interesting article tho. Keep up the good work!

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