Perhaps the best place to start finding the differences between anime and cartoon is to look at the types of story generally told in the two formats. At their basest points, the story lines explored in a typical anime series and a typical cartoon are, admittedly, quite similar. Like any story, they both have protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters, a world in which the story must take place in... These are the common, basic pieces that make up any tale, be it animated, filmed, or even written. However, using these to compare the two is much the same as saying that a common house cat and a lion have similar characteristics; both have fur, tails, can purr, and so on. Yet you most certainly would not keep a lion as a house pet! Let us consider then, for the next few paragraphs, that the typical cartoon is the common house cat, and anime is our lion.
American cartoons, which are with few exceptions aimed toward children, tend to follow a fairly generic superstructure. Using this external framework, internal details are altered to allow for individuality between different series. Characters play different roles, though often using archetype formats - any good series has 'The Hero', 'The Girl', 'The Wise One', 'The Rookie', and so on. For the most part, each individual episode tells a full story using established characters; the next episode rarely shows the effects of the previous, beyond any change in location. Character progress is very minimal - the rookie on the team might learn a valuable lesson one episode, and then in the next episode go right back to what they were doing before.
Consider the classic G.I. Joe in this context. Stop me if you've seen this story before. C.O.B.R.A. has come up with a new dastardly plan to take over the world. G.I. Joe finds out about it, and sends in a team to stop them. Shooting ensues. B.A.T. units get blown up by the dozen, a few jets get shot down, but not before their pilots eject, and there's a few explosions... but no humans die, or even really get hurt. A few members of the Joe team get a little token character development as they save the day... Shipwreck cracks a few one-liner jokes, and everybody laughs... The end. Until next week. How many of you recognize this episode? If you followed the series, then you know that I just described the basic plot line of effectively every single episode of the series, to say nothing of the majority all cartoons. Small details may change, some of the generic events... but that is a fair assessment of most American animation.
Anime, on the other hand, is far more often aimed toward adults and young adults, and their subject matter shows this. Rather than being episodic in nature with an over-arcing framework to follow, anime works with extended plots and character development over time. In this alone we have one of the greatest contrasts with cartoons - characters in an anime series generally do not forget their lessons between episodes. Not only don't they forget their lessons, anime characters are allowed to grow and mature with experience. This expands the horizons of what can be done in an anime series to anything you might see or read. Anime series explore any, and all genres, without any self-imposed limitations beyond that of the context of the story itself. At this point, I'm sure there are a few readers pointing out that there are cartoons that do the same thing - I will be coming to that later in this article.
I could give you any of a dozen examples to just begin to explore this effectively boundless world, could, indeed, write a whole paper on just that. That I have so many options to use, however, should illustrate my point well enough, though. There is no single superstructure used in anime, though certainly some series do have similarities - the commonality of being a science fiction story, or fantasy, or romance, and so forth. For example, Ah! My Goddess!, and Onegai Teacher share a similar premise, but are able to tell their stories quite differently. Ah! My Goddess! tells the story not just of Keichi, but of Belldandy, and the rest of the characters that begin to arrive over time throughout the series. Turn the coin, and Onegai Teacher focuses primarily on the deepening relationship between Kei and Mizuho, viewing the other characters more as they reflect upon the main characters than directly.
The difference of story scope is a piece of the puzzle that separates anime from cartoon, and it leads to the next one - violence, and its place in anime. As I've already stated, much of anime is aimed toward adults and young adults, rather than children. A natural consequence of this, as well as the greater flexibility in story telling granted by the expansive nature of anime storylines, is that the animation itself is attuned to more adult tastes. That means more action, more drama.. and more violence. American cartoons shy away from showing 'vulnerable' young viewers the effects of being beaten up, shot at, cut up, blown up... I'm sure you get the idea. Anime, on the other hand, can be every last bit as gruesome and stark as life itself.
Let me take you back to part of my G.I. Joe summary above. Remember when I said that the pilots always managed to eject from their exploding jets, and no humans ever seem to get dead, or even just hurt? Unfortunately, this is a status quo for American animation. The heavier the fire fight, the more likely it is nothing mortal will be hit. Even if a character actually manages to get themselves wounded, it's almost always off screen, and never more than a flesh wound. It's the kind of self-censoring entertainment that makes for good, childish adventure and excitement without running the risk of turning little Johnny into Jack the Ripper Jr.
Now, let me take you on a brief tour of perhaps the single most violent anime I've ever had the displeasure of watching. M.D. Geist was part of the early anime invasion, a two part OVA first released in 1986. It chronicled the events following the awakening of a genetically engineered super-soldier. Among other particularly brutal scenes, it contained a knife being driven into somebody's ear, a human - complete with viscera - being torn apart by a machine, soldiers being blown apart, and a child being impaled on a pipe for no more reason than that he happened to get in the way. This was a series that was violent for the sake of being violent, and did so with considerable zeal... Jack would have been proud.
In truth, the violence seen in the average anime is no worse than anything we'd see Indiana Jones shooting and whipping his way out of. The problem for the American viewer is that of context, and this brings us back to that mindset of 'cartoons are for kids.' Ms. Soccer Mom goes to the video store, picks up the first animated thing that she sees for little Johnny to watch. She doesn't bother looking at the rating, and she doesn't bother reading the back - and why would she? Animation is for children, of course it's going to be safe; no parenting involved, or needed. It isn't, indeed, until the DVD is spinning away in the player and little Johnny comes screaming into the room about monsters that she discovers that Urotsukidoji is about demons that rape and butcher people - in quite meticulous detail. This is, of course, an extreme example... I wish, though, that I could say it was an uncommon one.
Now that we've covered story scope and violence, allow me, for a moment, to take a side venture in this article, in order to give you a brief primer of anime on American TV, in order to prepare you for my last talking point. When an American television company purchases the right to redub and release an anime in the United States, it must first do a certain amount of sanitation in order to follow FCC rules and regulations. Anime series get edited and censored in such a way that it can be shown to young children. Character comments are adjusted. Violence is cut. Nudity is digitally painted over. More often than not, this results in a 'dubbed' version - meaning that the voices have been dubbed over by American voice actors - that is quite different from the original. In the worst case, entire episodes are completely dropped from the series, and the show is played in a different order than it was originally made in. More often, things are digitally added or removed from the animation in order to make it 'child-friendly.'
In 2001, a new series was added to the KidsWB lineup called 'CardCaptors.' It told the story of a girl who found a book with a deck of cards in it. She subsequently released the 'Clow Cards,' magical beasts and tools that had been sealed in the cards by legendary magician Clow Reed, by accident. The girl, named Sakura, had to go and help another character, named Li, to recapture them. Simple enough storyline, isn't it? The only trouble is that the series name in Japan was Card Captor Sakura, and it was about Sakura's quest, not Li's. The series was so heavily edited in the KidsWB version that it became an entirely different story. How different, you might ask? Sakura had a very close, female friend in the series named Tomoyo. In the original version, though, 'friend' wouldn't have been the proper term - actively vying for romantic relations would be much better. Keep in mind as well, both of these girls were a tender fourteen years old at the beginning of the series.
Now that we have an example of an extreme hack job, I'll take a look at the more commonly seen form of editing and censorship. Also in 2001, on the Cartoon Network, a vastly popular - at the time - series named Tenchi Muyo began airing. Long time fans of the series, such as myself, picked up many little differences immediately. References to the characters drinking 'sake' - Japanese rice wine, an alcoholic beverage - were replaced by 'hot tea.' Characters were suddenly wearing bathing suits - in some cases under towels - to the onsen - a Japanese public bath. Yes, they were taking baths... in bathing suits. They were little edits, ones that didn't change the story so much as they kept everything politically correct, and child-friendly. Yet it was still censorship, and long time fans, such as myself, never could accept the adjusted form.
Now that I've finished with the censorship primer, let me bring this article back on course and explain not only why it's important, but what all this means to you as a new viewer. By now, one reason should be obvious to you - most anime on television, even today, is censored in one form or another. This means that if you've never bought DVD's of a series and watched it in Japanese with subtitles, you likely haven't seen the real series, or at the least, the full intent of the series. Secondly, it means that you might have an opinion of anime in general that it doesn't truly deserve. Think, after all, on how badly Card Captor Sakura was changed - to the detriment of the series... Somebody might watch that and come away thinking that all anime is like that, and hence their opinion would grow from a biased showing. However, attitudes are starting to change. I mentioned earlier in the article that these days, there are American cartoons that are starting, slowly, to not follow the 'framework' mindset, that are starting to use expansive and long-term storylines. This is, quite simply, the effect that anime is starting to have on American animation, as it becomes more mainstream.
In early 1992, DC Comics, in cooperation with Warner Brothers, began airing Batman: The Animated Series. Most unusual for its time, it featured a storyline that, while somewhat episodic in nature, featured a long-range plot line that remained consistent. Beyond that, it did something that cartoons hadn't done in years - guns were fired, and Batman himself was actually shown fighting enemies directly. The entire series, in fact, was a much starker and dark world than other cartoons of the time, inspired partially by the Tim Burton Batman movie. Over the years Batman TAS continued to evolve, and then something else happened - Superman came to town. DC and Warner Brothers began producing the Superman Adventures, and they placed the setting in the same world as Batman TAS, thus creating what has come to be known as the DC Animated Universe. Other series followed - Static Shock, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, Batman Beyond, and the Zeta Project.
The reason I take the time to mention the DC AU is because it represents the start of a small trend toward American animation marketed to older audiences. More recent examples include series like W.I.T.C.H., Megas XLR, Teen Titans, and Nickelodeon's wildly popular Avatar: The Last Airbender. In addition to American cartoons that are starting to reflect and even use the stylings of anime, several cable and satellite based networks have helped to bring lightly edited anime to the airwaves. Cartoon Network's [Adult Swim] segment has been one of the strongest runners, showing series like Ghost in the Shell, Inu Yasha, and Trinity Blood with very little editing. The Sci Fi channel, which had a yearly week of anime event in the late 80's, and showed a movie every Saturday morning when it first began broadcasting, has recently brought anime back to its late night lineup.
The differences are still out there, though. With recent moves to limit the violence shown to children in broadcast television, there has been a regression to more mindless, benign cartoon entertainment. Series such as Cartoon Network's Ed, Edd, and Eddy are designed to make children laugh at the main characters' imbecility and ineptitude. Cartoons such as this haven't just slipped back to the G. I. Joe. style of kid-friendly entertainment, their entire entertainment value is found in laughing at somebody, and toilet level humor. There's just nothing there for older watchers to enjoy; at this point, we've even lost the good slapstick humor of the Loony Toons or Disney shorts. Even the better series, such as the latest incarnation of the Batman storyline, The Batman, fall more to episodic frame worked stories than long-range storytelling. Unfortunately, this is also a result of the anime wave - there has been a backlash against the harsher, starker storylines that filled the Saturday morning airwaves of Fox and the WB.
None the less, now is a good time to be an anime viewer. The market is experiencing a constant influx of new and well-done material. Production companies have started to realize that there's a gold mine to be found in bringing over anime, uncut, and with a little money spent of voice acting talent. Some new American cartoons are starting to have more anime stylings as well, and as importantly, the production quality is going up. Anime is out there, and available - all one has to do to find it is visit their local Best Buy or search for it at Amazon.com. You can even find it, with a little censoring, on broadcast television. Maybe you're looking for something with good action and some real fight scenes. Perhaps you're ready to curl up on the couch with your significant other to watch a romance. Or could it be that you're just ready to watch something fresh, instead of another cop drama on television... This is the single, most defining difference between anime and cartoons, after all. Anime allows you to decide what you want to watch, rather than having childish cartoons forced on you by somebody else.