Is Humor The Only Legitimate Storytelling Method Western Cartoons Can Pull Off?

Not denying that Tom playing the piano pretty accurately isn’t cool, but you don’t go to Tom and Jerry for high drama.

As I’ve stated in the past, while it’s true that I don’t like anime comedies because I find their attempts to be funny as foreign as when Japan is introduced to what we in the West consider funny, this is somewhat counterbalanced by the fact that all of my favorite western cartoons are nothing but comedies. I enjoy several western animated movies of course, but series-wise, the medium doesn’t exactly embrace Pixar’s or Disney’s methods when it comes to its output (and even then, one of the big reasons Pixar is so well-respected is for their “fun for all the family” humor). While some of them utilize dramatic storytelling moreso than others, there’s no denying that stuff like Bojack Horseman and Steven Universe use humor as a vital crutch in order to convey their major themes and whatnot. Ignoring the superhero shows with awkward humor crowbarred in that we still can’t get enough of for some reason, the only western cartoons that come to mind that don’t use comedy as a crutch for genuine storytelling are Avatar: The Last Airbender (which still has a lot of comedy mind you, but it’s mostly divorced from the story) and Over the Garden Wall. Oh, and I guess that new Voltron does as well, although it’s arguable whether it’s trying to tell a deep story or if it’s just content with being a Saturday morning cartoon.

That was the main thought that crossed my mind when I finished Mob Psycho 100 (well, that and the fact that it was my 1200th completed anime). I said before that the show reminded me a lot of the lesser Cartoon Network series that dominate the block as of now, and when I realized that, it occurred to me that ONE’s stuff are one of the very few anime I’ve seen that really utilize humor as a storytelling method. Only other examples that come to mind at the moment are Watamote, some of the skits in Osomatsu-san, and the occasional Gainax/Trigger anime with FLCL being the clear stand-out. Most anime just have it in order to make their shows more inviting or are pure plotless comedies that exist mainly to make you laugh. Sure you get that a lot of that in the West as well, but these days, the Western cartoons that people remember are the ones that transcend those methods. There’s a reason that Steven Universe and Bob’s Burgers are the most popular currently airing western cartoons amongst most of the circles I hang out with, and whilst you can argue anime-isms for the former, I didn’t catch a hint of otaku-ness in the more than hundred episodes I watched of the latter.

I can just see the tears when this episode airs.

And whilst I genuinely like these shows, the realization that there isn’t a western cartoon out there that can impress me without going big on laughs puts into perspective why I continue to champion anime as a medium. I love animation and I love to laugh, but I don’t want the two to be inseparable from each other. Unfortunately, whilst it’s not as bad as a few years ago, most people around here still seem to think of animation as kids’ stuff, and what do you think kids want to do when they watch cartoons between thinking and laughing? And while I’m not the biggest expert in the field, any adult animation that isn’t on Adult Swim are usually Batman films that don’t exactly follow the example set by Don Bluth back in his prime. I don’t exactly expect to see an American cartoon that impresses me through its visual metaphors rather than with an anvil dropped on someone’s head anytime soon. Well, besides the Disney/Pixar shorts of course, but those aren’t even as long as Cat Soup.

Yeah it’s getting increasingly less common these days, but the reason I got into anime as a whole and why I continue to stick with it is because it’s where animation can actually be used as a means for serious mature storytelling rather than the episodic laughs seen in Disney stuff like Pepper Ann and old-school cartoons like The Flintstones. And even now, there’s still way more “serious” eastern animation than there is western animation. What attracted me to Detective Conan when I first saw it on Cartoon Network was how it depicted people actually getting murdered and a little kid having to solve said murders with his own ingenuity. Fullmetal Alchemist was my brother’s and I’s favorite animated thing ever growing up (still my brother’s I think) because of its deep philosophical approach to action storytelling, although my brother was the only one who liked the humor. Then of course, there were the Studio Ghibli films, which I don’t think I need to get into detail about. Unless it was something Shonen Jump, I didn’t care about any of the unique cultural differences in these products that could only have come from Japan. If anything, they turned me off from checking out Eureka Seven and Burst Angel when I first heard about them (don’t worry though, as I watched them later…although I only lasted like seven episodes in Burst Angel’s case).

Someone want to explain to me what the fuck Ed’s face is supposed to be in this shot?

All the serious stuff around here seems to go into the live-action scene. And yeah, I’ve become increasingly fond of live-action shows over the years, but…y’know…I still prefer animation. Particularly the 2-D kind, since 3-D just doesn’t have same expressiveness to it and can go very uncanny valley very easily as most of Japan’s 3-D outings have shown. The complex emotions represented in Kaiba when Warp is inhabiting the body of a stuffed doll that can’t speak and only has one face, yet we can clearly see what he’s feeling. The mad expression as the forest bandit finally has enough of his poisonous wife and tries strangling her to death in the Sakura no Mori portion of Aoi Bungaku. The giant gathering of released naked NEETs in Eden of the East that I’m not going to explain because anyone who’s watched that show would know what I’m talking about. Really, the closest thing I can think of when it comes to this sort of expressiveness is in the Disney Animated Canon, and whilst Scar’s facial expressions in The Lion King are well-executed, he’s not a very complex character and thus the emotions expressed through his animations don’t really satisfy on much other than a “big” level.

Obviously, I’m not saying that western animation should take a cue from stuff like True Detective or Breaking Bad. One practice that I’ve been seeing in Japanese animation as of late with stuff like Winter 2016’s highlights is the medium’s adoption of live-action techniques, and whilst I like my impressive cinematography just fine, if you rely on that sort of stuff, you might as well have just made the product live-action since it’d be easier and cheaper. And I don’t need my stuff all dirty and depressive like the majority of today’s AAA video game industry. Hell, I’m fine with this status quo in regards to animation from different countries that I seem to have with it. The West can make me chuckle and the East can make me use my brain. And on a good day, either country can produce animation that does both (with the West having a higher success ratio on that front). It’s not a problem that needs solving or anything unless you want me to stop being an anime fan altogether. It’s just something that came to my mind after finishing Summer 2016’s “best” anime and I wrote about it because I need something to fill in the time in-between reviews. Plus it seemed like a conversation starter.

Nevertheless, I do hope that I find a western cartoon someday that impresses through high-drama that doesn’t use humor as any more than an occasional thing in a way that Secret of Nimh almost, but doesn’t quite achieve for me (although maybe it does it for you). Also, I hope that when Mob Psycho 100 inevitably gets a second season, it can deliver on the “humor as storytelling” the way the elite of its western brethren does. Maybe the more elitist of my readers consider that to be too high a bar, but after Noragami Aragoto and what I hope will happen for Euphonium 2, I want to believe in the future potential of promising shows more. Certainly can’t get any worse, right? I mean it’s possible, but the setup is done and Mob Psycho 100 doesn’t have as much room to fall as most critically acclaimed manga since its overarching plot is pretty vaguely defined right now, so if a second season does come, I will be a little excited for it.

The sad part is that this is nowhere near as bad as Orange’s faces could get.

Not hugely excited of course. The pain of Orange is still too near, guys.

Minor Quips

  • Feel free to list some western cartoon series that don’t use comedy as a crutch in the comments below, 2-D or 3-D.
  • It’s arguable whether Laika’s stuff counts as an exception to the rule, but I’ve only watched Coraline and Paranorman – which didn’t impress me the way it seemed to with most people. Heard their new movie was good though.
  • Some of the anime shows I like for their campiness (Danganronpa, some of Tetsuro Araki’s stuff) and Yuasa’s weirder anime can be considered to be serious anime that use the comedy as a vital crutch, but let’s not overcomplicate this post anymore than it already is.

8 responses to “Is Humor The Only Legitimate Storytelling Method Western Cartoons Can Pull Off?

  1. Have you seen any noteworthy Eastern (Asia) live-action shows? If so, how do they compare in serious storytelling compared to the West?

  2. If you apply it to the series it’s 100% true. But there are plenty of animated movies that manage to tell great story without relying on humor too much . From what I watched last month it was: the illusionist, arrugas, alois nebel, the prophet. They are kind of hard to find, because their user ratings are often below 78% and they not very (not at all) popular.

  3. As far as Western animated films go, I’d highly recommend Ireland’s The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. I’m sure you’d have complains for both of them, but they’re both fundamentally good (imo great) movies and two of my personal favorites. And yes, Kubo and the Two Strings was a really strong film. It had its flaws, but the parts that worked were excellent. As far as Eastern animation that balances humor with drama, I do think that Yuasa’s work is a pretty good example, though his humor is a bit of an acquired taste. (I also feel similarly about the Eccentric Family, even if we don’t really see eye to eye on that show.)

    • When I say Western cartoons, I mean stuff in the Western Hemisphere. Not non-American stuff like Secret of Kells or Watership Down (and I’ve already seen Song of the Sea).

      Also, Eccentric Family is not what I consider a comedy anime. If that counts, then so does Ikuhara stuff, and fuck me if I’m calling Utena a comedy show, even with the cows.

      • Fair point. I was thinking more to the effect of Western civilization than in terms of hemisphere. Europe in generally tends to be pretty good in terms of animated storytelling, but if you’re talking in terms of America specifically, then it gets a bit harder. Here are a few that come to mind (only one of which I’ve actually seen.) Took me a while to come up with these, so I guess that proves your point:

        -Anomalisa

        -It’s Such a Beautiful Day

        -9 (Not sure if the storytelling has any depth, but it doesn’t appear to be humor-driven.)

        -Ralph Bakshi’s work- Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Last Days of Coney Island, American Pop, Fire & Ice, etc. (Haven’t actually seen any of them. Dunno how well Bakshi’s social commentary has aged over the years. Hit or miss, mostly likely.)

        -Bill Plympon’s work- Truthfully, Bill’s style has never been my cup of tea. (Which is weird, considering he’s likely the closest thing America’s got to another Yuasa.) His new film, Cheatin’, seems like it might meet those requirements, but I’ve never bothered to check.

        -The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Actually seen this one. It’s got the usual mix of comedy and drama, but I found they exist and interact on their own terms instead of using each other as a crutch. How much you’ll like it depends on your opinion of Anderson himself, but that’s true of everything he touches.)

        Also, I’d say the Eccentric Family also occupies that sorta Wes Anderson-y comedy-drama territory. With Ikuhara, the comedy serves more as a surface layer that holds together the metaphorical and experimental elements rather than directly interacting with the drama.

      • Bakshi’s stuff has not aged well at all. I’ve seen Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Coonskin, and American Pop (and LOTR for that matter). They never really astound me the way they same to astound other cult animation geeks.

        As for 9, I haven’t seen it, but I doubt it’s on the same level as something like Coraline or Nightmare Before Christmas.

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