This post is unabashedly aimed at people who are in the habit of reviewing and overanalysing their Japanese cartoons.
Reviewing is a tricky business, and coming up with something interesting and intelligent to say about an anime is just as much of an art as creating anime. That being said, I’m not interested in singling out people whom I think are poor reviewers or in commenting on the standards of reviewing practices on the Internet. That’s boring, non-specific criticism. (If you are interested in that kind of thing, though, nil has an up-to-date list of good MAL reviewers on his blog.)
I’m more interested in exploring the theoretical framework most critics use when writing about anime. What kind of anime is commonly seen as “good” and for what reasons.
The thing about anime criticism is that the divide between the “fan” and “critic” is somewhat blurrier than with other media. We tend to think of the critic as a professional who is paid for his job, but in truth anyone who thinks critically is a critic. All it takes to be a good critic is to have easily defined priorities for what makes good media and to spell out one’s logic clearly, which is pretty much what Bobduh does here.
This is all well and good, but because anime is such a relatively young medium and anime-specific criticism isn’t as established as, say, literature or film, we tend to work with gaps in our critical theory. There are two significant areas where I think a lack of knowledge really compromises our ability to compose insightful criticism. It is in these areas where we get caught up in circular discussion that doesn’t help us understand anime any better, which kind of defeats the purpose of criticism in the first place.
#1 Reading Anime As Text Rather Than Animation
It’s a common tendency among anime fans to regard the story as more important than the artwork. Unless the anime boasts an immediately unique art style, if animation is mentioned, it’s usually relegated to a mere component of the story.
There are a number of obvious problems with this. First of all, anime isn’t made on the level of the story first. The animators think in terms of animation; thus the story thinks in terms of animation.
Secondly, reducing an anime to a narrative limits analysis to focusing on elements of the plot. Reviews become plot summaries, and the basic form and essence of the anime experience is ignored.
Animation is often referred to as a “visual medium”, but for all that, the visual side of anime is only ever discussed on a superficial level. By this, I mean that the basis for critical evaluation lies in frame rates, character designs and overall art style. If CG is mentioned, it is usually not in a flattering light. Animation is thus reduced to the level of static artwork rather than as an art of conveying movement.
Yes, it’s true that anime tends not to fully animate movement, i.e. it uses limited animation rather than full animation. But this does not downplay the artistry in anime. Restricting commentary to the level of how fluid the animation looks entirely misses the point of what animation sets out to achieve.
Consider the criticism on animation by Kyoto Animation. The commentary is usually limited to “It looks good” or “KyoAni has a big budget”. But what are KyoAni animators really doing on the level of camerawork and direction? KyoAni works tend to replicate the cinematic experience by drawing out movement, emphasising the depth in the drawings, but combines this with typically “anime” designs. The iconic moe feel is drawn in equal parts from the realistic motion of the characters and their cute designs.
Notice how in the above gif, the moe aesthetic is generated through the movements of the characters.
Another example where critics often miss the point in animation is with Studio Ghibli films. The heavy-handed environmental themes in the narratives become much more interesting and nuanced when viewed through the lens of the animation. In Ghibli films, advanced technology is often the cause of conflict, but the fact remains that the films themselves could not exist without such technology, and more importantly, the animation itself is aware of this contradiction.
Unlike Kyoto Animation, Studio Ghibli avoids trying to look cinematic; instead of emphasising movement into depth, it emphasises movement across depth. In other words, the animation is gloriously 2D. Wherever possible, the animation throws back to its hand-drawn roots. Thus, the animation shows artistry maintained through the power of technology. In that sense, it’s very eco-friendly animation and deliberately drawn not to resemble Hollywood.
I could go on with this, but I think you get the picture. Anime criticism doesn’t seem to link the narrative themes and animation very well, possibly because critics don’t feel as if they have the right credentials to speak about animation on a technical level. That’s okay, neither do I. You don’t need to study animation to think about how the visual narrative informs the verbal narrative.
The tendency among viewers is to strip the animation from anime and to focus on its literary merit or on what it says about Japan, and while such criticisms are often insightful, it leads to problem #2:
#2 Misappropriating the Culture
All too often, fans tend to be blinded by the “uniqueness” of anime, a pitfall which Guy addresses on his blog. At its worst, this kind of attitude can lead to perpetuating the nihonjinron idea – that the Japanese race is somehow “special”. While I can understand that the Japanese culture and values system is complex and that this bleeds over into Japanese anime, it doesn’t necessarily excuse bad writing or problematic morals. Revelling in the uniqueness of anime is not going to give you a working understanding of what it is and how it actually works from the ground up.
This is where critics tend to be pretty good, though, and relate Japanese anime to Western media. It’s as if they’re saying “We’re not Japanese and we never will be, so we have no obligation to look at it from their point of view”.
On the other hand, this leads to (for the most part) a complete kneejerk rejection of otaku culture.
It’s difficult to write balanced commentary about such an openly misogynistic and consumerist culture. If you read my blog regularly, you might know that I identify as otaku, but that doesn’t make mean I magically “get” this kind of anime or that it instantly negates all criticism in my eyes. That would deny the critic’s right to evaluate something that is not aimed at them as the target audience.
Nevertheless, to read otaku anime as some kind of monolithic force worth analysis only on the level of what they reveal about the culture denies their existence as art. Otaku anime is art. Fanservice is art.
It is important to at least make an attempt to understand modern light novel anime adaptations on the level of their animation. By that, I’m talking about how their animated forms breathe life into the otaku cliches. Starting with the conclusion in one’s critique – that all otaku anime is bad, for instance – diverts your attention away from how the process of anime itself works or how the culture came to be so influential.
Basically, what I’m getting at here is that we should approach anime on its own terms, and even if we are not experts on animation and Japanese culture, it does not mean we should not make an effort to understand these things.
Criticism is an ongoing process and there is no correct way of doing things. I have simply proposed more angles through which you can look at anime at. I repeat: I am not telling critics to be more “objective” about anime.
Hopefully, as we engage with anime and with criticism more and more deeply, we can develop more insight on anime and we can get closer to answering some of the most fundamental questions about the medium, like: What is the appeal in anime? How is it different from film or western animation? What is anime, even?
And then maybe finally, you’ll stop having shit taste in anime.)