A few weeks ago, Bradley from Those Damn Cartoons! wrote a post of the same name as this one in which he discussed what he feels constitutes a “good” anime (using The Idolmaster anime as an example). I agree that his measurement is a viable one that many of us don’t think about, and I felt like expanding on it in a post of my own…
To sum up Bradley’s measure of a good anime, he believes that “a good story meets its own expectations.” Basically an anime is good if it accomplishes what it was trying to accomplish. If it’s a drama anime, it is indeed dramatic and gripping. If it’s an action anime, it’s action-packed and exciting. If it’s a comedy anime, it gives us more laughs than not…something like that. Of course, even these are all subjective, as what constitutes a well made comedy or a well made romance to one person may be totally different for someone else. But the idea with this way of measuring a good anime, as Bradley also pointed out, is that it moves us away from the more narrow-minded measure of “a good anime is one that panders to what I want.” Instead of measuring an anime by whether it fits into our own personal tastes, this way of judging allows us to be slightly more objective (though being fully objective is impossible in reviewing) and tries to prevent our preconceptions about specific anime genres and tropes from interfering with our judgement (i.e., if the characters are moe, it couldn’t possibly be good).
Continuing with that idea, Bradley quoted a post by Ghostlightning which provided another example. Being a fan of robot anime, Ghostlightning stated that he “would rather see novelty and innovation in robot and battle dynamics than inventiveness and variety in story and plot.” This is a good point that being as genre-centered as the anime medium is, it’s appropriate to judge an anime based on what it accomplishes within the limits of its genre and not everything outside of the genre it could have had. With this idea, it wouldn’t do to say that a robot anime is bad because it didn’t have dramatic and romantic character interactions, or that a slice-of-life anime is bad because it didn’t have a plot and dynamic characters (unless these series were trying to have these elements to begin with and failed, in which case it would go back to not meeting its own expectations). It’s a way of judging an anime for what it’s trying to be and not everything it could have been to match as many tastes as possible. Again, it’s still very subjective since people can argue whether an anime met, or even exceeded, its expectations. But the idea is how to measure an anime, regardless of whether everyone comes to the same conclusion about it.
While I agree that it’s good to rate an anime by whether it meet its own expectations for the genre that it’s in, I believe that a supplementary measure is whether it does something memorable with the genre. Not necessarily going beyond the genre, but like Ghostlightning suggested, doing something innovative within its limits. Like I discussed in an old post of mine, there’s no getting away from cliches and tropes – every work of fiction in every media form has them. Anime is actually very heavy on them since its mostly a niche medium made to appeal to a niche audience who enjoys seeing slight differences with familiar tropes rather than anything completely new and universal. So, keeping in mind the fact that anime thrives on tropes and character archetypes, and the majority of series have no desire to be a Ghibli film, a Cowboy Bebop, or a Sakamichi no Apollon, what matters to me is whether they do something interesting with the genre and tropes they have. Even if it’s just carrying out a familiar formula brilliantly, spicing up an old cliche, or adding a great twist to an over-used trope, something about the anime must stand out to me in order to consider it good (while accepting the fact that it has limits). To explain further with an example, I would call K-ON a good anime going by this measure; it stands out in its genre of moe/slice-of-life comedy by having great character-driven humor, very detailed animation, and characters with quirks and personalities rather memorable for the genre. If you don’t like this type of anime, then yes, K-ON would automatically be bad. But if you measure it by whether it meets its own expectations and carries out its genre tropes well, it’s quite a good one.
It’s easy to fall back on our usual measures of a good anime, which is whether we like the story, characters, pacing, and/or visual style. It’s perfectly reasonable to measure anime this way too, since anime is made to foster our own personal tastes in these things. But I think the terms of measuring anime mentioned in my post here should also be considered, especially if someone wants to explain why they consider an anime good or not beyond just their own taste. I feel the statement Bradley ended his post with would be fitting here: “It’s easy to explain why you love the exceptional; explaining what makes something more conventional good is the true challenge.”