The measure of a good anime

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.”

17 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. Kal says:

    This is really a touchy subject, because it is very difficult to try to define something you do not like as “good”. You can tell me how good lobster is, but I simply do not like it, so it will never be good for me. Our perception is our reality after all :P I can accept people like lobster, so it is “good” for them, but it will never be good for me, regardless of whatever they try to say.

    However, if we always take that route, we would never be able to discuss anything with anyone. So it is a good exercise. It’s very difficult though :S Take “true tears” for example. I can see the anime has really good animation and artwork, it has a pretty complex plot, it has well designed characters and situations. It has everything it needs to be a “good” anime, but I still disliked it due to personal preference. I did not like the main character, and found the other characters a bit… well, they just did not click with me.

    So in the end, my definition of good anime, or media, is if it has that special “je ne sais quoi” which is impossible to measure, or predict… Which just makes things more complicated :P

    • Yumeka says:

      Ah, what I’m trying to get at is how to measure whether an anime is good or not, not whether we personally like it. I know the two are connected, but it’s like you mentioned with True Tears – you can recognize what makes it good for its genre even though you personally don’t like it. I’m the same way about Gurren Lagann in that I can see why it’s good but I just can’t get into it. The goal isn’t to change your tastes in anime, just to propose a way of judging an anime that isn’t solely dependent on personal preferences. It is tricky indeed, but good food for thought =P

    • Cytrus says:

      For shipping reasons, I am not too happy with the ending of True Tears. However, the writer had a clear point behind his writing choices and a coherent explanation for everything that happened, so I can respect the series for what it is.

      It’s basically like arguing with someone and either ‘agreeing to disagree’ with mutual respect, or going straight to a fistfight. Those anime that don’t even make a case for themselves would fall into the ‘bad anime’ category.

      Basically, everything is all right as long as you can see the reason behind the choices. Comparing Kill Me Baby to Hyouka in terms of art should immediately result in landfilling the former, but at no point was there any doubt in my mind that Kill Me Baby’s art style was a conscious choice that does justice to the content of the show more than Hyouka’s gorgeous art could.

      • Yumeka says:

        Being able to “see a reason behind the choices” is a good way of wording it, too. This allows you to say things such as “I don’t like [name of anime] but I can see why it’s good” or “I personally like [insert name of anime] but I can understand why people think it’s bad.”

        Oh, and I was also disappointed with the ending of True Tears…but I enjoyed the ride there at least =P

  2. Frootytooty says:

    This is an interesting point you’ve brought up, and one that I’m inclined to agree with. I watch almost any anime (aside from a few genres like ecchi or ero) and when you cover such a broad spectrum, it’s impossible to judge every series with a single template. A slice-of-life series will almost never give you an adrenaline rush get from the amazing action, and more often than not a sports anime will never give you the kind of deep characterization you might see in a drama anime. Yet they’re all enjoyable in their own ways and should be judged as such.

    However, I still feel that most anime should fulfill a basic overall level of excellency before it can be considered ‘good’. For instance even a mecha anime could use some characterization, in order for the viewer to actually care about the outcome of the numerous battles. Meanwhile, a slice-of-life anime may have great characters but fugly art or awful voice acting, which may be enough to put the viewer off entirely. Maybe that’s considered what I want rather than what the anime is achieving within its limits, but seeing as I’m the one watching it I think a subjective opinion is unavoidable.

    • Yumeka says:

      Regarding what you said in your first paragraph, I think what happens is that many people deep down are true fans of just a few genres, let’s say action is one of them. But then they try to watch anime that are totally outside that genre, let’s say a slice-of-life series, either because they heard a lot of hype about it or they want to watch a better variety of anime (which is always a good thing). But because action-heavy plots are what they really like, that’s what they unconsciously seek in their entertainment, and so something completely devoid of that like a slice-of-life anime would register as “bad” in their minds…unless they’re able to take that step back and be like “Ok, I really hate this type of anime, but as long as I’m watching it, I’ll try and put my biases aside and see why it’s good for its genre”…something like that. Of course, they have no obligation to think this way. I’m only suggesting with this post that it’s a viable way of measuring an anime’s worth beyond one’s own tastes.

      You’re right that good series are ones that are able to do something “special” for their genre without doing too much that they forget their original expectations. Something like Haruhi takes the typical school comedy genre and brilliantly incorporates sci-fi into it, and Toradora! takes the school drama genre and creates memorable characters with solid relationships.

  3. Personally, I think trying to gauge an anime’s “goodness” is, itself, rather overrated. I think it’s very difficult for people to extract their own perspective from a qualitative judgement, because I honestly don’t know if it’s really meant to be separated. I know a lot of bloggers who try to review anime based on a sort of scholastic or “literary analysis” sort of approach, but I think this is misleading because even this sort of objective-sounding analysis is biased by the source; it can become a sort of game of hiding your opinion behind as many big words as possible to make it seem like your opinion is above that of others.

    I think the approach advocated here has some logic to it: every project has a scope, and that scope can be defined in terms of “goals” and “non-goals”. I am quite sure that no anime project in existence has, as a goal, “relentlessflame’s personal enjoyment”; even though that’s *my* goal, the production committee has no control over my feelings. So instead, it does make sense to consider the expectations of the genre as a sort of benchmark. You can say “This is a show that is similar to X. What do people who like X generally like about it? Is this, therefore, a show that is likely to appeal to them?” But I think in there lies a lot of opportunity for misunderstanding too, because you have to not only be able to identify the genre, but you have to be able to identify what people do and don’t like within the genre. Sometimes, for genres you aren’t familiar with or a fan of, it’s easy to over-simplify what you *think* other people consider the appeal of the genre, and so arrive at misinformed conclusions. So all that to say, it seems like a reasonable approach for analysis, but it’s very hard for a lot of people to do unless they spend a lot of time listening and trying to understand other fans with different opinions from their own.

    As a sort of compromise, I think what I would hope for is that people at least try to explain their expectations before passing judgement. And by expectations, I don’t just mean “I expected this to be a good show”, but to define specifically why they chose the show, what they were hoping to see, what other benchmarks they were using as a comparison, and so on. That establishes the perspective of the writer. And then, with that established, to convey whether the thing they’re discussing lived up to those expectations, and why. When reading the opinion, you then have two things to judge: can you relate to the perspective of the writer, and does their judgement follow logically based on their expectations. Then there’s a hope, however small, of “oh, I see why you saw it that way” (cause and effect) rather than the defensiveness and argumentation that we typically see now.

    Of course, an alternative is to be a prolific writer. If you simply write enough opinions, people will start to identify your perspective through everything you write, and people will start to see “oh, relentlessflame is looking for this when he watches that sort of show” and “oh, Yumeka is looking for that”. This is no different from movie critics in the newspaper; the point isn’t so much that their reviews are objective or factual, but that they review movies all the time so you’ll get to know their perspective, and you can judge based on that whether you think a movie will be right for you. (Some people literally have an attitude that “if this movie critic hates this kind of movie, I’ll probably like it!” and that’s no less valuable than finding an opinion that agrees with your own!) Given that not all of us can be so prolific (pointing particularly to myself here ^^; ), I think it helps to re-establish that perspective on expectation as much as we can so people can get to know us more easily, and then identify more easily with the logic of our opinions, whether they agree with them or not.

    As always, good topic. :)

    • Yumeka says:

      And as always, great comment =D

      I agree that it’s impossible to have a totally objective opinion, no matter how many fancy words you use or how scholarly-sounding you try to be. And the flaw you pointed out in the measure I discussed in the post is a good one. For example, someone who hates slice-of-life/moe anime and tries to watch one, might have the expectation that the “goal” of the series is to have a lot of cuteness and fan service, and as long as it has these, it’s a “good” show for the genre…when in reality, that’s not necessarily what I’m looking for in these types of anime.

      So what you suggested about any reviewer first explaining what their expectations were and what benchmarks they’re comparing it too, would help with this flaw. Being a prolific writer helps too, but assuming we get new readers all the time, writing in such a way that you assume people already know you would be kind of alienating (unless you’re that famous, LOL).

      Anyway, thanks again for your great input~

  4. Bryce says:

    I kind of agree with this post in terms of how good an anime is is how well it is done for the genre it was categorized in. For example, I started following Detective Conan (Case Closed), both anime and manga, again, after having read Sherlock, and Agatha Christie books. When I revisited the series, I was not that impressed with all of the cases, either because cases were too obvious, even right down to the method employed to commit the crime. This has put some dent in the series, but considering how long it is right now, I cannot judge the series as a whole yet. All I can say is that if something is detective fiction or mystery, things cannot be too obvious, which some cases did get right.

    FMA, FMAB, and Death Note, I would say are unique, since unlike the big three, they each have a story. While FMA and FMAB follow the shounen formula, they at least have unique ideas of alchemy and the humor is quite memorable. Death Note, on the other, was quite unique because much of the conflict was psychological, whereas most shounen is an outright battle, much like most of FMAB and all of the big three. In that way, I would say they are good anime.

    • Yumeka says:

      I think Death Note definitely makes itself memorable for the genre by having a rather distasteful protagonist, a consistently serious tone, and, like you said, emphasis on psychological battles rather than physical ones. I think FMA is more similar to the average shonen story, but what makes it stand out is a more focused, tightly-woven plot (could also be because it’s not nearly as long as the big shonen trio). But yeah, the idea is that a good series shouldn’t just stay true to a genre, but also “spice” it up a bit with something fans will fondly remember.

  5. CoolCARTGuy says:

    The way of reviewing anime described in this post is how I approach most of my own critiques of shows I look at; if I kept hoping for something that merely satisfied my tastes or was outstanding, most of the anime I like I never would’ve considered.

    Using a recent example, I love the Idolm@ster anime that aired last year and consider it good since it met the expectations it set up for itself; while the characters are quite archetypical, they succeed at filling their niche and the characters are well-played by their seiyuu. Since The Idolm@ster fits roughly into the slice-of-life genre and that genre relies heavily on character interaction and drama, it succeeds at providing decent and entertaining character interaction and made me feel for the characters that had particularly noteworthy challenges to overcome such as *SPOILER* Chihaya coping with the loss of her older brother.

    • CoolCARTGuy says:

      Also, I didn’t realize the Those Damn Cartoons! article cited also brings up The Idolm@ster as an example until after I posted. LOL

    • Yumeka says:

      Yeah, we want every anime we see to match our tastes and be outstanding – but realistically speaking, that’s not what every anime is trying to do (and if every anime did, how would we be able to know what’s good if we didn’t have the bad to compare it to?) It’s also impossible to cast aside our own personal tastes and expectations when we review something, so, as relentlessflame above suggested, the best we can do is at least logically explain what our expectations for that anime were, why we think it didn’t live up to them, and what we can compare it to.

  6. While what you wrote is interesting, I think a totally subjective approach is still a better way to review anime and manga (in my opinion). I say this because anime and manga is there to entertain us first and foremost and thus success, in my eyes, is gauged on how much it entertained me. Total failure is basically me dropping an anime. Obviously, I don’t intentionally go after genres I don’t like and I believe people don’t usually go watch genres/shows they know they won’t like, so the majority of negative or mixed reviews isn’t about someone not liking the genre, but actually the anime/manga just being perceived as no good for whatever reason; be it characters, story (plot holes or lack of story), animation, etc. I’ll try something new from time to time, to be sure, but if I write anything negative about it, I make sure to mention I don’t like that particular genre/sub-genre or that I’m new to it. In general though, I tend to like most genres, so to me it’s rarely a problem of “I hate this anime because it’s action and I rather watch a story-intensive show” and more a problem of “I hate these characters, they are ruining what could have been a good action show.” I know I’m pretty particular about characters. To me it doesn’t matter if the whole genre of action anime and manga is filled with damsels in distress. I’m not going to let that slip past just because everyone else is doing it. I will deduct points based on stuff that bothers me, even if it’s a genre wide problem. In my opinion, it is not my responsibility to defend the anime’s lack of good characterization by pointing out that every other action anime has the same sort of characters. Nor is it my responsibility to pretend silly tropes are A-OK just because every other anime is doing it. I’d rather sound like a broken record than just pretend it’s ok for every single action show to have no competent female characters or that it’s ok to give us lots of fan service shots of female characters but not for the dudes. That said, you can be sure that if I reduce points for it in one series, I’ll do it in another. So yeah, it’s an interesting approach but I think there are major problems to such an approach and that’s mainly that it would ignore characterization and narrative flaws just because it’s a genre wide problem and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

    • Yumeka says:

      I get what you’re saying and I probably should have explained better that I’m not suggesting everything bad about a genre should be left in because it’s become a staple in the genre. For example, I also don’t like seeing bad characters in any genre, even if the focus of that genre is on something else, like robot battles or fan service. What I’m suggesting for this approach is that a series follows its genre well, meaning, it does things that are good within the scope of its narrative, following good tropes and casting aside bad ones. Of course, what is and isn’t a good trope is subjective. So I’m not proposing that there’s some perfect, concrete method that we can use to find all the good anime and all the bad ones. People can be as subjective as they want or as scholarly-minded as they want. This measure is simply geared towards the latter. Like relentlessflame several comments up suggested, as long as the reviewer is able to logically explain their expectations, why they propose a trope is bad, why an anime is good because it did away with that trope while still maintaining all the good things about the genre, etc., then that’s often the best we can do if we want to try to be at least a little objective.

  7. Mikoto says:

    I do agree with Bradley’s statement that at a minimum, an anime has to be reviewed with the standards it gives itself by being in a specific genre. However, if we judge anime with that method alone, the highest possible impression we can get from an anime is usually just a decent show, in my opinion. I also believe that unique parts of the series and mold breakers that don’t conform to the genre should also be taken into consideration when judging an anime (Did they do it the right way? Was it executed properly?). Signs of innovation is always something to look out for, as if every series accomplish what their genre expects from them, the genres falling into that show slowly gets stale for the viewer. While a series may have done everything it needed to do in a great way, was it anything different than what we saw before? Would it only be recommended to those who immensely enjoy the genre? There are also series that advertise themselves as melds of multiple genres, so how does one go about using that measure of judgment for a series like Haruhi?

    Personal enjoyment may be subjective, but I think it’s crucial in gorging out the really great series out of a sea of clones. Perhaps there’s a reason why “I personally loved [x], but I wouldn’t recommend it to fans of [x]” or “I thought [x], but I would only recommend it to [x] fans” are common statements found peppered at the end of reviews.

    • Yumeka says:

      You’re right that just portraying a genre well isn’t as good as doing something that truly stands out. Which is way the main question is simply “did it meet its own expectations?” That would be the question to go by with a series that has no solid genre, like Haruhi – if its goal was to be unique in blending many different genres, did it succeed? Whether it did or not is of course subject to personal opinion, but it works if you can explain why you felt that way =)

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