In my region, people don't know the difference between anime and regular cartoons. When they see me watching anime, or they hear about it somehow, they say that I'm watching a regular cartoon and hence I'm being childish. Sometimes, they even display sarcastic attitudes, so that giving a serious long explanation wouldn't be possible.

What effectively explains how an anime is different from a regular cartoon?


9 Answers 9


No matter how you look at it, an anime is a cartoon. The main difference is that an anime is considered a Japanese style of cartoons in the West.

Many English-language dictionaries define anime as "a Japanese style of motion-picture animation" or as "a style of animation developed in Japan."

However, in Japan, the term "anime" does not specify an animation's nation of origin or style. Instead, it serves as a blanket term to refer to all forms of animation from around the world (both foreign and domestic). The word "anime" is loan word referring to "animation" or "cartoons," adapted from the English word "animation."

Taking this from another perspective, in Japan, Disney movies are referred to as "Disney Anime", This refers to a certain style, not the genre as a whole.

The Japanese Wikipedia on "anime" specifically notes that:


While in Japanese, "animation" was abbreviated to "anime," Outside of Japan, the word has been used only to refer to media considered "Japanese animation." However in Japan, the country of origin and literary style (of the media) are not taken into account when applying "anime" to it.

Western cartoons and anime can both vary in drawing styles, based on the staff, budget, and character/set designs. Anime series are typically more detailed than your average western show as there is more of an abundance of technically skilled artists overseas than there are available in the West.

Both can reach different age regardless of their initial target audience (Avatar: The Last Airbender, My Little Pony, and Adventure Time are notable examples).

Typically western cartoons are more lighthearted when compared to Japanese anime. However, both can deal with more mature themes, in both a serious (like Cyber 6, Mighty Max, and Dungeons and Dragons) and humorous light (like Futurama, South Park, The Simpsons, and Family Guy). There are western cartoons for mature adults just like there are 18+ anime in Japan.

If you ask the average person in your country and one in Japan, both will consider them to be childish. The difference between anime and cartoons is very subjective. It typically comes down to what you like and how you like it.

  • 2
    And that's it. The differences are only there when we look at some kind of averages. Specific cartoons or anime can and often do easily fall outside of the typical. It's easy to find examples of both for almost any theme, genre or target audience you'd care for. Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 9:03
  • 10
    I think you've missed a vital difference: continuity. It's true that some anime is repetitive and non-continuous, but the greatest difference I've found is that most western-made cartoons have no continuous plot, making them better-suited for children. (This also leads into the idea that western cartoons often incorporate some moral or lesson into each episode, but this is less apparent.)
    – Dani
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 17:40
  • 4
    @Dani I think continuity is related to the differences shows are broadcast and renewed. In Japan the success of a series is typically gauged on it's profitability, usually by it's disc sales, in the US, it's by viewership. In Western countries, they want a series to last as long as possible so they can build and sell stuff off the brand they built. Most animes, don't have a regularly allotted broadcast schedule that gets renewed every season (shows in the West get renewed if their ratings do well), so it would make sense to have a contiguous plot that (usually) wraps things ups.
    – кяαzєя
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 18:11
  • @Dani you see a break in continuity with long-running series like Bleach and Naruto, with their filler episodes.
    – кяαzєя
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 18:12
  • 1
    well this is factually incorrect; there are ways of looking at the two as distinct rather than a generalization and a subset. cartoons have entirely different etymology, history and social artifacts compared with anime or donghua Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 14:55

My personal argument:

Cartoons are mainly produced for kids, with topics about friendship, fun, exploration and similar things.

Anime / manga and related media mainly are produced for targets of all ages (except for Hentai and Ecchi series, of course). They can of course contain the "kids content", but there are much more serious ones out there, e.g. ones about love, death, conflicts, and wars. They're simply much deeper. The drawing and character art of cartoons is often vastly deformed / otherworldly to emphasize the disconnect from reality and the fun part of it.

Another difference is the way characters evolve. In most comics I've read, you have episodic experiences which are, at most, loosely connected, and so characters don't really evolve / grow up. I'm sure there are counter-examples out there, but I think we can agree that the characters are not the focus.

For most anime and related media, the characters are much deeper. Of course you also have the occasional counter-example here, but the characters get a much bigger focus.

You can think of anime / manga / visual novels / light novels as (Western) books / series / movies with regards to the content, except they're drawn (or have illustrative content) instead of being filmed / purely in written form.

Note that there are examples of anime that look and feel just like Western cartoons (Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, for the "look" aspect, at least) and the other way around (Avatar - The Last Airbender, Korra).

  • 11
    Would that make "Family Guy" or "King of the Hill" anime? Or can there be no anime that is targeted specifically at children? I'm no anime expert, but I found it curious that your differentiating point is the target audience rather than stylistic considerations. I'm not looking for the exception that disproves the rule, but I never thought of anime in the manner you suggest. Interesting. Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 16:38
  • 2
    "The drawing and character art of cartoons is often vastly deformed" This definitely applies to anime as well. You wouldn't say the huge eyes that are characteristic of anime characters deformed? Commented May 17, 2014 at 15:21
  • 9
    "Cartoons are mainly produced for kids" this is an old stereotype and is no longer true. Even Disney cartoons are now more family oriented. With all the episodes of Family Guy, Simpsons, Futurama and South Park, it's obvious that cartoon is a media for everyone. Also there's ton of "Anime" that is just for little kids. But of course they don't get famous abroad because you won't watch them in your teenage years when you start getting interested in Anime abroad :) Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 2:59
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    This answer is heavily biased towards the notion that anime is somehow superior and more complex than western animated shows. Assertions like "much deeper" "characters get a bigger focus" need much, much more support than they are given here.
    – anonymous
    Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 17:46
  • @RobertCartaino probably the update should be western cartoons are 99% comedy and mostly children. mean while anime is either comedy or drama and either children or adults. Right?
    – BCLC
    Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 13:32

The difference is only subjective, depending on yours and your peers' perceptions. Keep in mind that MOST of the anime that is exported from Japan is actually aimed at children. (defining 'children' as extending through the teenage years)

When they see me watching anime, or they hear about it somehow, they say that I'm watching a cartoon and hence I'm being childish.

Walt Disney didn't think Fantasia was for children either. Having watched the film several times, I'm inclined to agree. The point is that although they have tended in that direction (with a few notable exceptions) in the western world, there is no particular reason to limit cartoon themes to kids.

Sometimes, they even display sarcastic attitudes, so that giving a serious long explanation wouldn't be possible. What are the effective ways to explain that anime is different from cartoons in these kind of situations? Are there any clever sentences that will make an impact on people who don't know about anime?

I realize you only included this for context... but if someone is being sarcastic, it's not as if any real answer is applicable. This section of the question is also probably offtopic.

The easiest method of convincing someone would probably be making them sit through a showing of Grave of the Fireflies... although that's not particularly quick or clever.

  • "You don't... because they aren't. " not true. The term anime was coined in the west as a term for Japanese or Asian cartoons. And "anime" in Japanese is a term derived from english "Animation" with first Disney cartoons in mind. That's the beauty of language and this question is more or less just about language and the perception of two words that technically mean very similar thing, but in fact mean two different things. Commented Jun 3, 2014 at 3:03
  • @sm4: Most of your historical statements here are wrong. Please review the Japanese wikipedia article on アニメ, particularly the historical terms section.
    – Kiruwa
    Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 6:25
  • I see the quoted line dissapeared from the answer, so I suppose my comment is no longer relevant. Commented Jun 4, 2014 at 8:50
  • @sm4: That line no longer matched the form of the top post. In the original, the final question was along the lines of "How do I explain that anime and cartoons are different?" I didn't notice the change in the top post prior to your comment notification.
    – Kiruwa
    Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 12:50

This question is really usual, especially when you are an anime fan. In my situation, I don't want 'anime' to be called 'cartoons' because they are so different for me. The following are the differences I think they have:

  • Anime targets a vast audience, from kids to adults, while cartoons
    mainly targets kids, with the exception of course of adults who likes to watch cartoons.

  • Anime tackles themes for kids, teens and adults and have stories that have depth, while cartoons tackles more themes that are for kids.

  • Anime came from Japanese productions, and cartoons came from US productions (or anywhere except Japan).

  • You can really tell if what you are watching is an anime or a cartoons by it's visual graphics (if you're an anime fan then, you'll know what I mean). You can notice that the characters from one cartoon show is very different from how cartoon characters in another cartoon show looks like. However in anime, you can notice some similarities on how they look like.

I think the best way for you to explain is to let them watch a very good anime and have them watch some cartoons, then tell them, "Saw the difference?". Or just let them think what they want. I experienced what you experience a lot from my parents but I just let them say what they want or think what they think. Respectfully ignore them. Just make sure that you don't disrespect them as you try to defend anime and that watching anime doesn't affect your attitude negatively.

  • I agree, "from Japanese productions" is a key part. While some cartoons have tried similar styles, it often does not seems to be considered "anime".
    – Fewfre
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 3:48
  • Avatar the Last Air Bender is an example of cartoons which tried an anime-like style, from it's story and a little on the graphics area, but it still can't be considered as an anime since it didn't come from Japanese productions.
    – xjshiya
    Commented Dec 19, 2012 at 5:11

Anime and cartoon are both used to identified an animated production, the first made in Japan, the other ones in the rest of the world...

If we have to show more detailed difference I'd say:

Visual characteristics
Anime: Distinct facial expressions. Wide variation in physical characteristics. Physical features of characters are, on the whole, closer to reality than cartoons.
Cartoon: Characters usually have features that are not relative to the rest of the body and therefore further from reality than anime.

Anime: concentrates mostly on life issues or things tied closer to human emotion.
Cartoons: are generally made to make people laugh and so is more comical.

Definition and Term:
Anime: English dictionaries define the word as ‘Japanese style of motion picture animation’.
Cartoon: was used as a model or study for a painting but is now associated with caricatures for humor and satire.



I don't want to get too subjective here, but there are some key aspects that I discuss with others:

  • Art style; there is a distinct difference in how characters in an Anime series are drawn as opposed to Western style series. (Occasionally, you'll get a shout-out to the Anime style, too.)

  • Target audience; there are a wide variety of audiences and an even more diverse demographic of consumers of anime than there are of traditional Western cartoons.

  • Theming; as much of a culture shock as it may be (which I'll get to in a moment), many Anime have themes that wouldn't make much sense in the Western world, such as 108 for the Buddist number of temptations man will case, 4 for death, white for death, etc.

  • Culture differences; there are quite a few series that are tolerated, if not acceptable, in Japan, whereas in the Western world, they'd be censored in some way or not permitted at all, or merit whomever is a fan of it some very dirty looks.

    Some of the things that would cause controversy or be seen as "unacceptable" in Western animation would be homosexual relationships (yaoi/yuri), large age gap relationships, lolicon/shotacon (which is strangely legal but heavily frowned upon), and incest.

    Western animation wouldn't touch that with a one-hundred foot pole.

  • 3
    ... and then we have animations like "Drawn Together", "Rick & Steve", "South Park" and "The Three Friends And Jerry", which are happily throwing those themes in your face. Commented Dec 14, 2012 at 13:31

This is a pretty difficult question, but I may have some tips.

While cartoons are meant to be watched by kids, anime is meant to be watched by all ages: there is a series for everyone, for every theme, for every age. From little kids, like Doraemon, for young kids like Pokemon, to teenagers like shonen series or teen-shojos, to more adult like seinens or even hentai. Everyone can enjoy something.

  • kids? ugh...family guy? the simpsons?
    – BCLC
    Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 13:45

We all know Anime is "Japanese-style cartoons", and this often makes people say they are both cartoons. Yes they are, but this doesn't mean there aren't differences. Substantial differences.

First of all, the audience. The main objective difference is that Anime are not cartoons for kids, usually.

Some Anime get censored when dubbed in foreign countries and they are rendered as quite childish (and this is sometimes really annoying), while the original holds some adult references, scenes containing violence and so on. While this is not true for all Anime, as some are really aimed to children, some of them need a mature audience.

Also, the characters are treated quite differently. There is more growth in Anime characters as it develops for a whole series. For example, Zabuza in Naruto ends up being quite a likeable character because you go beyond him simply being an antagonist.

Both Anime and cartoons treat themes like life, death, religion, love, betrayal, ethics, etc. But cartoons really treat such matters quite differently. Just think about Disney-style cartoons: do they share anything with Anime in terms of how they treat these topics?

  • kids? ugh...family guy? the simpsons?
    – BCLC
    Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 13:45

Firstly, anime in English tends to refer to Japanese content. However, as noted in this answer, "anime" in Japanese just refers to any animated content. That said, it's fine to have this discrepancy — similar things have cropped up in other English loanwords. (For instance "Lied" or its plural "Lieder" refer to 19th to 20th century styled German language art songs when the words are used in English, but in German, "Lieder" seems to sometimes take on a more general sense.) So in this sense, at the very least, in English, not all cartoons are anime, because not all cartoons are Japanese. (Certainly it would be ridiculous for me to go around claiming that Spongebob Squarepants is anime to an English speaker.)

It is still unclear whether "anime" is simply a subset of "cartoons". The main problem, which other answers have touched on, appears to be that in English, "cartoon" often suggests something intended for young children, which does not cover the content of a lot of anime. Certainly things like Serial Experiments Lain or the Fate series are, by this connotation, not really "cartoons".

However, even shows animated outside of Japan are sometimes denoted as "cartoons", even when their content or art style doesn't really fall into the areas of the average person's idea of a "cartoon". For instance, a search for waltz with bashir "cartoon" suggests that at least a few writers in large newspapers (1, 2) described the animated film Waltz with Bashir as a cartoon, and both its subject matter (the 1982 Lebanon War) and its style hardly resemble the likes of the average cartoon, both in content and style. (Compare to Arthur or South Park.)

The same goes for Archer, which is, at least in the English-speaking world, markedly more famous than Waltz with Bashir. I have not seen Archer, but Wikipedia suggests that it is hardly more appropriate for children than Waltz with Bashir.

So insofar as usage in English goes, either:

  • Anime is different from "regular cartoons", but only insofar as "regular cartoons" consists of children's shows and also fail to cover other animated content like Waltz with Bashir. Anything outside of regular cartoon-appropriate content is best either described with a different classification if this gives more information about the content (e.g. "anime") or a broader one (e.g. "animated content").

  • Anime is not different from "regular cartoons", because "cartoon" covers anything at all animated.

In either sense, "anime" is really only about the fact that something was animated (and marketed towards the Japanese).

I am inclined to prefer the first view in terms of how I personally use the word "cartoon" (so describe Doraemon and Chibi Maruko-chan but not Fate/zero as "cartoons") because of the connotations of "cartoon". However, I would consider the second to still be acceptable (in the sense that I won't get upset about that view being taken) because it's obvious that people also use "cartoon" similarly "inappropriately" on other more adult-oriented shows that are not from Japan.

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