Thoughts on the Art of Reviewing: 7 Mistakes

This will certainly be a subjective take on what constitutes an “mistake”, and it certainly is difficult to claim one review is objectively superior to another, but just as a review of an anime is subjective yet still useful and valid, I hope this will turn out likewise. I’m adding this disclaimer at the beginning because I don’t want to pull punches later. If my tone is hostile, it’s not because I’m an arrogant son of a bitch, but just because I want to make my point as clear and forceful as possible. Without further ado, let’s deconstruct some bullshit!

Mistake #1: Wrong Standards to the Style

Some reviewers don’t have an understanding that what an anime is supposed to be can vary depending on the audience and genre. These are the buffoons who criticize High School of the Dead for fanservice, who criticize Mushishi for its slow pace, who mock magical girl shows for being too idealistic, who admonish Elfen Lied for excessive gore. If I’m a guy who’s eyeing Strike Witches, I don’t think I’m a guy who is interested in hearing complaints that they have no pants. Your scathing review bemoaning the sexualization of todays anime and pushing your personal ideal of chaste “deep” anime doesn’t help anyone, unless they somehow couldn’t tell what type of show it was just by looking at the pictures or synopsis.

Warning: there might be fanservice in this show

However, the real problem with elevating a standard without consideration of genre or audience is not just that your reviews are worth less from a pragmatic standpoint of choosing which anime to watch. Rather, the very act of imposing standards is an inherent contradiction to creativity. There should be no anime that is better for following the formula for a good show, the very act of following such a formula makes it tired and generic. The same principle applies to any standards you wish to apply. A truly great show is one that violates your idea of what a great show is supposed to be, yet persuades you anyways.

Mistake #2: Misdirecting Responsibility to Auteurs

This might come as a surprise to you if you’ve seen me raving about my favorite directors. Yes, I love a good director, but I don’t attribute super-powers to him, and I especially never make the mistake of attributing something very specific to him without confirming beforehand that he was responsible for it. One very common one is to talk about the writing as if the director were responsible for it. While certainly an involved director can make many demands on those who are doing the writing, especially for original anime, it’s hard to know when that’s the case. Realistically, most anime give lots of autonomy to prominent artists in their specialty. So, for example, a director who brings in some ace animator is not going to tell this ace animator how to do his job. Even the most controlling of directors, such as Miyazaki, don’t take on the entire creative duties themselves.

Miyazaki was the director, but the man responsible for this particular scene was none other than a young Hideaki Anno

In the end, it takes a consideration of an artist’s entire body of work to identify their contributions. We can identify something like the missile circus as belonging to famous animator Ichirô Itano rather than, let’s say, Ideon director Yohsiyuki Tomino mainly because we see the missile circus in the other works of Itano but not the other works of Tomino. If you’re not ready to do that sort of analysis, then don’t get into details of who did what, because you’ll probably be wrong.

Mistake #3: Misconceptions of Originality

I hate to say it, but this is a very common one among fans of shows like Evangelion. Evangelion is my favorite TV series, but hearing fans talk about it sometimes makes me weary. They will talk about another series and mention techniques from Evangelion as if Evangelion invented them. This was especially obnoxious during Bakemonogatari’s airing, where fans accused Shinbo of ripping off Anno (notice error #2 sneaking in here?) for including text flashes. Umm, sorry guys, but Anno didn’t invent those.

Now, to be fair to dedicated Evangelion fans, many of the more research-inclined ones will agree with this and point to a famous quote where Anno claims that it is impossible to make anything truly original unless you’re some kind of wizard. It just makes the irony of those complaints even greater when you realize that Evangelion was intended to be a collage of pre-existing memes. Now, personally, I don’t want to go as far as Anno, because I believe you can be original without being “truly” original if you combine used elements in a new way, and this “non-true” sort of originality is just as valid/valuable.

So, originality is still a valid metric in my book, and I’m not going all blase like some people who quote Anno to justify anything. If you are a lazy ripoff, then you are a lazy ripoff. What I’m saying is that if you want to make claims about the originality of a piece, you need to be well-versed in the history of the medium. You can never make a claim with 100% certainty, of course, unless you’ve seen every anime ever made. So, I guess this point is getting a bit muddled, and I don’t have a prescription for reviewers to improve on this front, except to be aware of all the difficulties in talking about originality and to avoid either of the two extremes I mentioned.

Mistake #4: Getting Sucked in to Your Pet Narrative

Let me give one example of a narrative: “the rise of moe coincides with a decline of depth and originality in anime; we are truly entering the era of moe decadence.” What’s the problem with believing this? Nothing. Everyone’s entitled to their own little pet theories until they get proven wrong. However, it happens that you will be tempted to apply your theory everywhere. Soon, every moe show will be another example of the decline of anime, you will judge them before you even see them.

Have you ever heard the expression “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”? It’s the same principle here; you get stuck in one way of looking at things while you could see things differently and gain insight. Sure, maybe it makes sense to look at a generic character from the perspective of anime’s great decline in storytelling, or perhaps you could view it as an application of Scott McCloud’s everyman principle, an attempt to enhance the universal appeal by making a character more similar to everyone. Heck, you could view the rise of moe as a refinement of the ability to produce certain emotions, and make it out as some great rise of anime. There’s a bunch of narratives you can apply, and each will give you a different perspective.

Unfortunately, most grand narratives suffer the minor problem of being untrue. For example, the “decline of anime” one is usually caused by a familiarity with everything recent but only the greatest hits past. If I showed you the first episodes of every anime that came out in 1995, you’d probably find it on the same level or worse than 2011. So, even applying a bunch of different narratives to view an anime from different angles isn’t what I recommend. I prefer to take each anime on its own merits and limit my narrative to immediate context.

Mistake #5: Falling for a Veneer of Depth

There is a clear bias in ratings, where the more serious tone an anime takes, the more it will be praised for depth. The presumption is that art takes itself seriously, so if you are watching something serious, you might want to treat it as art and not entertainment. In looking for a less-controversial example of this tendency (I feel this way about some shows that enjoy near-universal acclaim such as Monster), I settled down on Elfen Lied. Many of the more excitable fans if the show will talk about how deep it is, when for most seasoned anime fans the message and plot is ho-hum.

I bring up Elfen Lied because a while ago I read an amusing review of the show. The reviewer picked up on the serious tone and thought that it might be approached as a work of art. So, he went and reviewed it as art, and tore it to shreds. As art, it’s terrible! The symbolism is blunt, the message is rehashed, and it offers very little to the world of art. However, he then went and reviewed it as entertainment like he reviewed other anime, and gave it high praise.

I also feel like the perspective that something serious is deep can also be reversed, so that something that isn’t serious isn’t treated as if it has any depth. The best example I can think of right now is Black Lagoon. Since it presents itself as a hyper-violent shoot-em-up action show, many viewers didn’t notice the incredibly blatant existentialist philosophy underpinning the show. Even at the end, when characters were literally quoting philosophers, nobody commented “oh wow, it’s interesting how the character following philosopher X was the one who died, are the creators implicitly attacking his philosophy?” Maybe I was checking out the wrong forums, but at these and other philosophically intriguing moments in the series, nobody was talking about them.

It’s easy to do the opposite, to write off an anime as pretentious bullshit only to find you were interpreting it wrong. I originally felt Pale Cocoon was just another manifestation of that arrogant enviro-fatalism that is so common among college-bred liberals, but a fan of the OVA pointed out to me that it was more about a man’s passion for getting to know a world that isn’t his own. Maybe I’m so constantly surrounded by these attitudes that when I sensed it in the OVA, my defensive walls shot up without me giving it a chance. So, now I know that if I rewatch it, I’ll have to avoid fixating on the enviro-fatalist tone and focus on the other aspects of the work. It may turn out I was completely wrong about it.

Mistake #6: Not Looking Hard Enough for the Merits

Considering the amount of work that goes into an anime, it’s surprising how easily it can be written off in the face of one flaw. The most intriguing example of this is not actually an anime, but a movie that came out recently: Avatar. Isn’t it interesting that a film which revolutionized 3D in Hollywood got negative reviews because the plot was similar to Pocahontas? I mean, really, that movie had so much to offer. If you have a plate of delicious food that is lacking in protein, you don’t write off the meal, do you? There will always be something you don’t like; the creators can’t please everybody, and that’s a well-established fact.

Besides that, the merits can sometimes be hard to find. Sometimes, there will be a scene that was perfectly directed, and you don’t even notice how well-directed it was because you were too caught up in the plot or the background music or whatnot. It’s impossible to notice all the good things in a show, there’s so much!

Okay, try drawing something this pretty. Then repeat. 5000 times. Don’t worry, you can recycle a few backgrounds…

One fun thing I do from time to time is pause on a specific frame and just imagine what went into creating that frame. I look at the layout, I try to imagine drawing parts of it, I try to imagine what all the decisions were behind all the elements, or what the decision was to include the scene in the first place. Just looking at one split second of an anime reveals hours of work. I feel like it’s important to remain humble to all that labor when forming criticism.

Mistake #7: Buying into the very concept of “Good” or “Bad”

Surprise, surprise, after looking at all of these problems that crop up when trying to evaluate the overall quality of a piece, I concluded that the very evaluation of an entire anime as good or bad is at best a vast over-generalization of all the elements composing the anime. I do rate all my anime, and find it worthwhile to do so, but at the same time, I don’t feel like a number or word can possibly do it justice.

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2 Responses to Thoughts on the Art of Reviewing: 7 Mistakes

  1. Pingback: Art, Entertainment, and Postmodernism | The Dragorol

  2. Pingback: Lemme See Your Narrative: Imagery, Aesthetic, Beliefs | Things in the Fridge

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