As I strive to be an open-minded anime fan, I’m reminded time and time again that many things simply boil down to personal taste; that no matter how much I think a certain anime is great or another one is terrible, there will always be fans who feel completely different from me and have their own valid reasons for it. Inspired by posts from a couple of other bloggers, I felt like examining the concept of criticism within anime fandom specifically…
Bobduh over on his blog Wrong Every Time brought up a similar basis for judging anime that I actually talked about in a post from a year ago, which is the idea that an anime is good if it meets its own expectations, or succeeds in its goals as Bobduh describes it. Since completely unbiased criticism is impossible, he says he tries “to separate my own personal preferences in art from my evaluation of the show’s ability to succeed in what it is trying to do.” For example, rather than say an anime is somehow objectively bad because it’s a slice-of-life moe show with fan service and you find those terribly boring and uncomfortable to watch, take a step back and look at it in terms of the genre it’s in and whether it succeeded in being worthwhile for the story and target audience it has. Of course, what an anime’s goal exactly is and whether it achieves that goal in the end is still something that can be debated, but it is a good place to start in terms of making your criticism more valid to more people besides those who already share the same tastes as you.
It always fascinates me how two anime fans I may know whose tastes in anime aren’t that different and they may even share a favorite series or two, can feel completely different about one anime, with one person hating it and the other loving it. I’ve thought about why this is so and Bobduh spells it out quite well. Because many people don’t criticize anime with the “how well is it succeeding in its goal?” idea in mind, they fall back on the usual criticism of, as Bobduh put it, “how well is it articulating my media preferences?” I agree with him that these people aren’t wrong to judge anime this way, as nothing’s written in stone as far as the proper way to view an anime. I myself tend to mix the two when I review anime, looking at the show from a holistic perspective and how well it succeeded in the goals of its writing, as well as throwing in random personal preferences that heightened or hindered my enjoyment, such as nice character designs (heightened) or too much fan service (hindered). But it’s important to distinguish between the two, since there’s a difference between diligent criticism and simple opinion-stating. A lot of anime fans favor the latter view of criticizing an anime because it didn’t match their own personal preferences for stories, which again is not wrong, but it can cause problems when trying to pass it off as thought-out criticism. What happens then, as Bobduh describes, is that “things like ‘strongly developed characters,’ ‘a well-articulated thematic throughline,’ ‘a fully realized world,’ and ‘a propulsive central narrative’ are all valid goals, and most good shows devote their screen-time resources to only a few of those goals in order to maintain cohesion and tell a tight and fully-realized story, and nitpicking often comes about when a show focused on theme with a side of character runs into a critic focused on worldbuilding with a side of central narrative, or any other hypothetical mismatch.”
This goes back to what I previously brought up about how some anime fans I know love a certain show while others hate it. Sword Art Online is a favorite example for these kinds of discussions and I’m going to use it again, since I actually do know people who like it and see little wrong with it, and people who hate it and see everything wrong with it. I would explain why I understand both sides, but Bobduh says it better: “Sword Art Online was a very popular show, but critics in general panned it for being an ineptly written power fantasy. Does this mean the people who liked it were ‘wrong?’ No – many of them liked it because it was a power fantasy. This is often what is meant by ‘pandering’ or ‘fanservice’ – a show making choices that make its audience more happy at the expense of its value as a piece of artistically interesting or incisive television. Shows can entertain and fulfill the expectations of audiences for the very same reasons they’re criticized when evaluated according to classic artistic metrics of character writing, storytelling, thematic exploration, etc.” SAO was heavily promoted at this past Anime Expo, with hundreds or even thousands of attendees eagerly playing with the newly released SAO Weiss Schwarz cards and waiting in line to see the English dub premiere. Are they all morons for liking such a “bad” anime? Of course not (well, maybe some are morons, but for other reasons). The people I personally know who like SAO enjoy power fantasy adventure stories and don’t care to thoroughly examine their entertainment with a critical eye, thus they like just about every anime that fulfills that want. And the people I know who dislike SAO are indeed critical and refined with their anime tastes, most of them being bloggers, and make it a hobby to rate the anime they watch against certain standards of quality. Neither way of viewing anime is more right or wrong, but I think if one really wanted to criticize SAO, they should also look at it in terms of its own goals and the audience it’s successful with.
The general consensus on SAO could relate back to an aspect of anime criticism another blogger brought up. In a post on his blog She’s Lost Control, TimeEnforcerAnubis discusses how Western fans criticize anime, particularly the moe and fan service types, with an unhealthy dose of ethnocentrism. They often call such anime “sexist” or “pedophilic” and harshly criticize them based on those sentiments without even accounting for the Japanese culture behind them or the authors’ intentions when they created the series. Using Strike Witches as an example, TimeEnforcerAnubis states “a common criticism of Strike Witches is that it’s ‘sexist’ and ‘misogynistic.’ Is it really fair to accuse its creators of sexism and misogyny, when that was never their intention? I really doubt Humikane Shimada was anticipating having his brainchild called out by Western critics for some really serious offenses when he created the illustrations that would go on to form the basis of Strike Witches.” To use a series I’m familiar with, a lot of (Western) fans have similar feelings of aversion to OreImo, calling it pedophilic and stripping it of any worth because of its incest themes. But did creator Tsukasa Fushimi intend to make it just disgusting fluff to please creepy otaku, or did he write the narrative and characters with dignity, adding fan service perhaps to appeal to a certain audience, but still wanting to incorporate sincere themes about the human condition by telling a story about the troubles of being a closet otaku and how estranged love can exist between siblings, however off-putting it is? Even though I too don’t care for incest and fan service in my anime, and neither I nor anyone else can go inside Fushimi’s mind and know exactly what he intended, having watched all of OreImo and thinking about the culture it hails from, I can’t help but think it’s an overall worthwhile story.
But even if an anime succeeded in its goals and had things you liked about it, what if it had flaws too? How many flaws does it take to turn an otherwise good anime into a bad one? Does just one big flaw ruin it or many small ones? Famous Internet celebrity the Nostalgia Critic made a great editorial video called “Is it Right to Nitpick?,” looking at what things we tend to criticize more than others and what kinds of flaws it takes for a movie to be considered bad. This can relate back to any media work actually, including anime. The idea he brings up is that every movie (or anime) has mistakes, but it only becomes bad when it fails to distract us from those mistakes. Even some of the most praised and popular works like Harry Potter and Star Wars have some major story flaws, but the reason most people can forgive them is because they excel in enough of their other aspects to overpower the flaws. Same thing with the wildly popular My Little Pony: FiM, with dedicated fans of the series being the ones to point out the tons of mistakes in each episode. Likewise, all the most praised anime from Evangelion to Madoka Magica have their share of flaws, but the idea is that everything else about them was so good and investing enough that they distracted us from the flaws, and that’s the mark of something good. A lesser anime, say the recently ended Karneval, did not have an engaging enough story or compelling characters to distract me from its plot holes and vaguely defined setting, which was why I criticized it in my review. So it’s not so much the amount of flaws an anime has, but whether everything else about it made up for them.
To wrap things up, there’s ultimately no truly right or wrong way to criticize anime, or even any obligation to criticize it at all. For the people I know who enjoy SAO and other “flawed” anime for what they are and don’t think hard about them beyond enjoying their wish-fulfilling fare, there’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone needs to be a critic with the entertainment they watch and not everyone should. But for those like me who enjoy looking at the anime they watch on a deeper level, the ideas I talked about in this post and drew on from others are what I feel are ways to make your criticism more profound =)