Josh: Visuals are the most important part of anime. Period. This conversation really is a followup to a Twitter conversation we started having and ended up evolving into something too much for 140 characters to support.
Anime is a medium that can do anything, literally. Forced perspectives that are not possible in normal camera work, color and control that would seem tacky otherwise, not to mention animation can draw much closer to the emotional and subconscious aspect of the primal human due to a level of acceptance and suspension of disbelief not warranted in other visual medium. Why would you restrict that with story?
I agree, a good story is nice to have in any medium, but animation (and all other visual medium) can exist for their own sake. A statue does not have a story, nor do all songs, but they both share the same artistic aspect: emotion. Story is, and always will be secondary to that.
Subtle Doctor: Man, this is going to be a convo. My position on these issues has evolved the more I have talked about it. I used to draw a hard line distinction between the medium of animation and its story/narrative/lyrical/emotional content, it’s message, the expression the creator wants to convey using the vehicle of animation. However, there are many instances in which such lines begin to blur. There are plenty of anime that do not adhere to traditional narrative structures but use other mechanisms to communicate their message(s) e.g. the visuals. Visuals are an essential storytelling device in anime. To deny this would be foolhardy. For the purposes of this discussion, though, I want to focus on anime in which we are able to more easily distinguish the expression/message from the visual design and animation because it makes things easier and also because I believe we couldn’t subsist on a diet of lyrical anime alone. Stories are very important to human beings, so we need anime (and books and film and music) with stories. If anime was filled with nothing but Births, I don’t think there’d be anything like the market for it or fan base there is now.
I suppose all the arguments I bring to the table will be highly subjective in some way. Someone somewhere will find shows that serve as counter examples to my points, and I have to live with that. I think that the anime we truly remember and hold dear, we do so for reasons that ultimately don’t rely on the visuals. As I said, visuals are an important mode of message delivery in anime, but, I think we remember the Utenas and Evangelions and Monogataris of this world not for the visuals divorced from the storytelling but for the artistic expression of story and character that fueled those visual images. The latter on their own are empty. It is the non-visual elements in, around, within those visuals that give them meaning and power.
There are a couple of shows that make my point another way. Trigun is a beloved series for many reasons, but its visuals are not one of them. It was ugly and badly animated in 1998 when it came out, yet people still regard it highly today. They do so because the non-visual elements spoke to them to strongly. Violinist of Hamelin has been called “barely animated” by Mike Toole, and he’s right. Yet, that show has fans, myself included, because an anime’ goodness is not equivalent to its visuals. There are plenty of visually appealing anime that we know are bad…I don’t think any of those stick with us for long.
Jimmy Gnome: Have you seen Birth?
Subtle Doctor: Regrettably no, and I am relying on fandom and its take that it is something devoid of good storytelling etc. but is beautifully animated.
Chris Hitchcock: I’m going to be pretty straight forward on this one. I prefer for my animation to have solid context behind it. Animation for the pure sake of animation has its time and it’s place, but for me there’s only so many ways you can make fire look like fire. Sure, new tricks are being implemented all the time as the medium continues to grow and expand, but a rose is a rose, no matter how you slice it.
When you add a story behind your rose though, then it becomes something special. Is it a cursed item that keeps a master trapped in his lonesome castle on the long stormy nights? Does it represent a lost loved one? If so, who were they? A brother, a lover, a mother? Those narrative details give whole new meaning and life to those little things that appear on screen.
I feel a good narrative and strong characters will only improve upon animation. You don’t just have freedom to explore a world visually, but narratively as well. The style of animation you are using shouldn’t dictate what type of story you are trying to tell either. Not every anime has to be about teenage angst, or bad aliens vs good aliens. I’ve always felt anime is at its strongest when exploring time periods like the Victorian Era or explored the lives of everyday people. You could tell those stories in a live action setting yes, but creators chose this medium to express the most purist form of their vision of their narrative that isn’t held back by the shackles of reality. I like to see it as Animation is the tool to tell better stories.
Suribot: I have an issue with Josh’s initial statement. His point of animation for animation’s sake is not invalid. Art can (and sometimes should) be art for its own sake. We don’t look at a statue for its story, yes. But we also don’t look at a single statue for 4-5 hours or more over the course of 13+ weeks. The art in anime is as much in the moment-to-moment as it is in the big picture. A single cut is often a work of art, but the product we call anime is the some total of 3600 cuts or more across 12+ episodes. It is macro and micro. The micro is made by the animation, the verisimilitude of being brought into a world, of believing an object is moving and has weight, but the macro is the story every time. No person is ever going to remember ever single micro detail. A couple will stand out, but by and large, what stands the test of time is the macro. The story, the writing, the whole picture. They cannot be divorced and must work together in concert to create something memorable, though obviously we see productions where one side will outshine the other. Animation for animation’s sake cannot carry a product and to try and only focus on the micro reduces a collaborative work down to a series of gifs and webms. It’s like ordering a cake, only to pull off the strawberries adorning it and say that the cake must exist for the sake of the strawberries.
Animation should never be tossed aside in favor of story and story should not fall flat so that animation can sprint forward. At the end of the day, both need to work together to create something great, but the average person is going to remember the story. It provides context, it makes a cut more than just a series of images. And it’s fine to be just a series of images. But anime is both.
Subtle Doctor: Suri, would you endorse Josh’s position more if he qualified it as an ideal for anime as art and not product, like if he is only talking about what anime “should be” apart from the yucky but necessary business side?
Suribot: I mean, even then, no. The young animator specials are the antithesis of a product and they still tie together. There is story, even if it’s not apparent.
Like he posted on twitter that Anno animation of the car dropping and said “where’s the story” and like, there isn’t one because it’s 4 seconds long, man.
Jimmy Gnome: Pat brings up an excellent point. Anime as an industry is still primarily purposed for telling stories as opposed to being a venue for individual expression through animation, but what makes it largely different from televised western animation is how much freedom animators are given in their respective cuts and the variety of different styles that are acceptable for the final product. The fact that animators like Masaaki Yuasa and Shinya Ohira have gone on to have successful careers despite the distinct nature of their drawings is one of the primary reasons I follow anime instead of commercial animation produced in other countries. That said, I don’t believe there necessarily must be good visuals in an anime for it to be interesting or meaningful, nor do I think there must be a convincing plot to support animation. There are examples of both of these approaches in anime and they both have their own merits and gather their own audiences, and while it’s often useful to marry the techniques to achieve something capable only in this medium it’s not something entirely necessary to make meaningful art. Animation can be pure expression, a visceral experience that relies on an individual’s craft and nothing else, and of course a good story can be enjoyable to any person. In the end both are simply tools for a creator to use when expressing his or her ideas and feelings, nothing more.
Josh: While I agree much with what Jimmy is saying, I still have to assert the visual aspect over narrative. If I was to go off of purely personal, empirical fact, I would say the only season I watched shows like Kiznaiver and Phantom World was because they offerend something visually, so I understand where you’re coming from, Subs, when you mention Birth looking good but ultimately being lackluster because of a narrative failing – but these are all bad examples.
But I also want to address Pat’s comment at the same time. The length of the animation has nothing to do with story complicity. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
We got a lot of feedback on twitter, and some of it I want to share, especially @_ibcf_’s post: “Would Evangelion or Cowboy Bebop been as popular if they were books?” and the short answer is no, it was the visuals (and audio to be fair) that made these shows what they were. Evangelion episodes 25&26 are a great example of the fact the visuals matter most. In fact, that story only exists because of the visuals. Most of Anno’s works are this way.
Stories are told, and because they are told, they are more reportive, factual retelling of events (fictitious or not) that must be accepted for progression. Visuals can draw conclusions, and create emotions. For example, when I see the face of someone I hold dear I don’t need to be told, I feel. That may be an unfair argument and a bad comparison, but what I’m trying to get at is feeling is more important than being told. Not that a story can;t make you feel, but there are rules in a story, there are none with visual (or at least, there are fewer). I can always see something and ask “What did I feel?” but if I do the same after a story, I have to first ask “What was I told?”
Style is the most basic, fundamental building block of any art. If there’s no style to the story, why tell it?
Subtle Doctor: Why are my example(s) bad? Can you clarify this point? It seems kinda of hand-wavy.
Josh: Well, each of them purposefully left room for story, and the stories where just bad. The only reason any one goes back for them are the visuals. Even if the story was good, Birth would still be mostly regarded for visuals, I feel.
Chris Hitchcock: Not to interrupt, Sub, but even though I don’t like Trigun, I find most people go back to that series because of its characters and they like the story.
Subtle Doctor: I think your own example of Kiznaiver is illustrative, Josh. We regard it as a failure DESPITE the fact that the design and animation are top notch. It is a failure because its narrative and expressive purposes failed, but you couldn’t have asked for much better in the visual department for television. You are on record as stating that the show failed. I think this means that even you don’t truly believe good visuals trump bad everything else.
There is a related idea out there that “anime should always be striving to create things only possible in anime, else why even make it?” This is, to be blunt, hogwash. I mean, we would have to erase 90% of anime history to meet such standards. There are amazing and memorable anime such as Maison Ikkoku and Touch that could easily be done in a live action setting (and have done so poorly in the case of Touch). Yet, these anime deeply resonate with audiences both in America and Japan. Touch was an absolute phenomenon when it came out because of everything that the visuals expressed, not the visuals themselves.
I LOVE it when the Satoshi Kons of the world try to experiment and so bold things, things only possible in animation. It’s wonderful and beautiful, but not every creator can do that or wants to do that. I also LOVE non-narrative stuff and art cinema and shorts, but even these have an intention behind them. They exist to convey an expression, a message (which can be as simple as expressing a feeling), and this is what resonates with people deepest and, again, gives the visuals–however impressive–meaning.
Ibcf asks if Bebop or Eva would be popular as books. Well, Eva already made the transition to another medium (manga) and is wildly popular still. Bebop would make an excellent series of pulp sci-fi novels, in my opinion. It truly just depends on if the creators use the tools at their disposal well enough, the same as when making an anime.
Suribot: As a note, there is in fact a live action Maison Ikkoku.
Chris Hitchcock: I also agree about the novel comment. Actually, I think Eva would highly benefit from removing all of the whining and bitching Shinji does throughout the series. Not change what he’s saying, just tape his mouth shut for awhile.
Anyhow, I’m curious to know if anybody here has ever tried getting one of their non-otaku friends into watching an anime series. I’m betting each and every time you do, you always pitch them a plot synopsis, as opposed to going into a long winded rant about how the main character’s bandana flows in the wind. The reason why most of us do this is because the animation for the most part is superficial. Saying you’re only watching a show because of the animation is kinda like saying you’re only dating a woman because you find them attractive. Those types of relationships all ways end in heartbreak and that’s very much how I view the medium. There needs to be more on the surface than just a pretty face. There needs to be something underneath worth dissecting.
Also let’s face it, those superficial qualities are what turn a lot of normal folks off from the medium in the first place. The animation is either seen as too juvenile or pretentious for most people to give it the time of day. Series like Monogatari and even Eva deal with this criticism from every person who isn’t a fan or willing to give it a chance. We know these series are far more than that, but those qualities that Josh praises so highly are what turn most people off from it in the first place. Its the context and the story that fight against the negative stereotypes the animation bestows upon it.
Suribot: I won’t argue that visuals are THE thing when it comes to anime. It is animation. That is what defines it. But something incredibly short doesn’t need backing or support to keep it standing. A single block stands on its own, but when you start stacking them, you need to build outward, establish a base. A single unit stands alone, but 300 or 3000 units require connective tissue of some kind. A bridge doesn’t get built without supporting struts. I also might have a looser definition of “story” than you guys are operating on. I don’t need someone to have learned a lesson or a moral to be conveyed, but there should be some kind of links between the individual bits. A flow of logic from one beat to the next. No one is going to watch 20 straight minutes of fire and nothing else, even if it’s immaculately rendered. Poulette’s Chair (Noitamina’s short from 2014) is a thing that exists entirely for the sake of its animation, but it conveys story through those visuals. The animation is doing the storytelling legwork, which is more than a lot of things can say.
But I do need to add in: Preconceived notions about animation do not justify the argument of story being more important than animation. Being unwilling to give it a chance speaks nothing of its quality and is a totally separate beast than the animation itself, any of the craft, or how any of it blends together.
Eva and Cowboy Bebop as they were would not immediately work as novels, not because of the stories they tell themselves, but because the stories are structured in such a way that they benefit from being animation. It’s a blending of creating an emotion from visuals while using that emotion to further the development of the story within and reinforce it. Eva‘s entire psychoanalytical components rely heavily on this. Feelings of isolation in the story, emotions characters are feeling, are reinforced visually while being conveyed through the writing as well.
Jimmy Gnome: And here’s where I get to my disagreements with your points, especially CJ’s: while interesting animation isn’t absolutely necessary for anime to be worthwhile, most of the best works the industry has produced are indeed heavily reliant on their visuals. Often enough this is through visual direction rather than animation, a remnant of Tezuka-school concepts of doing the best with as little as possible. However, expressive animation is of huge importance in the appeal of watching these shows as the one thing that is only achievable in the medium of moving pictures. More often than not the artistry of anime stems not from its story or even the resonance of animation and theme, but rather from the individual drawings that were combined to produce motion. While I still don’t believe it’s inherently wrong to exclude this quality when considering artistic works, there is immediately value when they are present that needs to context to be justified.
That said, I have personal qualms with series that are engaging on a visual level yet fail to support on the narrative front. In my eyes a traditional narrative often interferes with the impact of animation, which is why I usually prefer my sakuga series to have basic plots that allow animation to speak for itself. And that is a capability of animation, by the way; there is plenty of pure expression available from independent Japanese animators like Mirai Mizue and Yutaro Kubo that are completely devoid of context. I would love to see more of that kind of work find itself in commercial anime.
Josh: Kiznaiver failed because the visuals were subservient to the story, and quite honestly they didn’t do anything interesting outside of the first episode. Compare it to Space Dandy. What is the story of Space Dandy? There really isn’t one, you don’t watch it for story. And returning this to the Trigun conversation, a memorable character is not the same as a narrative. Golgo 13, Lupin III, Conan Edogawa, and the K-On girls never had what would be considered a cohesive narrative – the exist only within the moment they inhabit.
I agree that that “anime should always be striving to create things only possible in anime” but it’s not ‘why even make it’ – no one is calling to unmake, or not make things. We all realize that bills must be paid, and a lot of my favorite shows fall into that 90%. But at the same time, the range of expression is being broadened by shows in that 10%. Those shows are the ‘peak’ of what anime is. They broaden potential for other shows, and that’s progression.
This whole ‘tell them the story’ that you propose, CJ, is horribly biased. Who carries the anime in their pocket to show? Counter to that argument is what we all do on Twitter: screencap culture. Show them, then they can watch; we do that same thing at conventions and I do it for non-anime friends all the time. I like our friend Joey’s response, and would kinda like to adapt it myself, he says: “Cinema is a visual medium and has no obligation to narrative as a concept nor to any commercial trends.” I think I agree with him fullheartedly.
But a lot of the people in this conversation feel differently. Out of all the comments we received, most where along the lines of “why not both?” Obviously we all disagree on what the right balance is. But I really want to see the discussion that will come out of this. And despite the fact I may present my opinion in factual stone, I accept that it is not. So where do you, Dear Reader, fall on the scale? Let us know in the comments!
One of the strongest points came up at the tail end of the discussion. Anime has a lot of shows that are very narrative-light by design and run more off of premise and character interaction more than an overarching plot. I used to see a lot of criticisms thrown at shows like K-ON! and Lucky Star for being narratively weak when, in reality, they were never supposed to be narratively strong. It’s a very traditionalist critical perspective, with its roots still firmly planted in literature, that values the story something tells over all else and judges all other elements by how well they serve the story.
Drawing everything back to how well it serves the narrative doesn’t do the medium justice. The artstyle, character designs, setting designs, effects, movement, colors, etc. all influence the mood and tone of a series, and that influence is reflected in how fans interact with the medium. We -see- emotion in characters’ eyes and facial expressions. We share screenshots. People get excited when the light novels they read become anime, because then they get to see their favorite story animated.
True that some of the best works in this medium are remembered for their stories, but equally true is that the medium itself is identified by its visuals. Apart from a relative few outliers, most anime share very subtle design similarities that we’ve all gotten used to, to the point where, outside of those outliers, it’s easy for not only seasoned anime vets, but laypeople as well, to identify anime.
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This is a false dichotomy if ever I’ve seen one. I need to go positively Biblical for the best allegory:
If animation is the face, narrative is the brains, production design the heart, marketing the feet, sound design the liver, voice acting the ossicles, and so on and so forth. (Feel free to rearrange the metaphorical meat-bits as you see fit). The anime is only a living organism with a soul, capable of being viewed as a subject and making an emotional or logical argument to others, when all the parts are present and working in harmony. I may feel more intimately attached to my brain than I do to my liver or feet, but I wouldn’t want to lose any of those parts, nor (as Paul points out) would I expect any of my constituent organs to be able to survive without me. Arguing that my spleen “trumps” my hyoid bone is just straight nonsense.
Anime lives holistically, reveals wonderful secrets when a skilled surgeon questions it part-by-part, and dies when dissected or dismembered. Conversations such as the one above are like an autoimmune sickness that destroy the body by making it fight itself.
So… uh, yeah, I don’t think this is a very productive dialogue. You can have a favorite element of anime the same way you can have a favorite body part, but to disparage other elements in its favor is pure confusing-preference-for-reality madness.
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I wholeheartedly agree with your points on the holistic nature of anime but conversations like these are ultimately necessary within the anime community. For many fans it’s either one way or the other, and more often than not the skillfulness of animators goes unnoticed outside of extravagant fight scenes in popular shounen because the trend is to judge series for their stories. While the recent advancement of popular sakuga criticism has done a lot to change that perception and identify the artistry unique to animation, its following is still a niche within a niche. Dialogue like this can, at the very least, increase the amount of discussion being had about the nature and value of animation within the community and help coax anime fans into thinking more deeply about what goes into their entertainment.
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Bollocks. This reply got too long to expect anyone to read. Sorry.
You’re absolutely right about the necessity of dialogue in general, and that the art of animation itself is deplorably underappreciated by the vast majority of anime fans, but I simply can’t agree with the modifier, “like this.” Framing a conversation antagonistically facilitates not discovery, but the backfire effect. We need to understand how to help fans add better tools to their critical viewing abilities.
Imagine you meet an “average” fan at a convention, who tells you that Fullmetal Alchemist is their favorite anime because “it really made me understand that to gain something, you’ve got to give something else up, man. Changed my life.” (It would be understandable to be rolling your eyes a little at this point; I would be, too.) If you reply to that fan with, “Yeah, it’s a great show, and it has so much going on thematically… but did you notice how interestingly it used its animation to advance that theme? Think of any hard-hitting emotional moment in the series…” and follow up with a few examples of the manner in which the series’ animation enhanced that fan’s enjoyment without their knowledge, you may have a sakuga convert on your hands—or at any rate someone likely to rewatch their most treasured sequences with an new eye to artistry. If, however, you reply to that fan with, “No, look, you’re not watching it right! ‘Everything has its price’ is a shallow truism. You should be paying attention to the sakuga, which is the only really anime thing about anime anyway…” the reaction is likely to be antagonistic at the least, and to require convention security at the worst. Discounting other fans’ experiences of an object you both love, no matter how shallow you believe those experiences to be, will always come off as a personal attack, triggering a defensive response and firmly establishing your angle on the fandom as “hostile.” Pedagogy and psychology both demand that you frame a conversion attempt as “adding value” to the fan’s ability to appreciate the medium, not as “trumping” the fan’s previous understanding of what made the medium worthwhile.
This is why I also object to the phrasing, “for many fans it’s either one way or the other,” because there’s absolutely no reason this should be true. It’s true that every fan is going to have some aspect of the anime experience they find more compelling than others because every fan is coming from a different place. It’s further true that many, many fans are completely ignorant of the artistic processes that have created their favorite shows. But every fan can also learn to appreciate the aspects of production they don’t understand—why on Earth would they want to deprecate an integral part of something they love?
I’ll use myself as an example. My training’s in English lit, so instinctively I tend to look for the “thematic concerns” an anime’s pushing. I also minored in film studies, so it’s natural for me to appreciate the ways in which anime plays with visual grammar and (especially) montage. I’m definitely not a graphically-oriented sort of person, however; I often use to have to explain to people that I couldn’t “see” fonts. My sakuga “conversion” moment was Ryo-Timo’s epochal Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo cut (man, I hope html is enabled in these comments…), the genius of which I at first in my nescience attributed to Mamoru Hosoda: “What splendid direction! The way Makoto’s racing to keep up with the unfeeling camera, moving at a constant rate like Time itself, so perfectly articulates the tension of the scene and the theme of the film!” Some time later, I learned that Ryo-Timo was responsible for the cut, and came across the anecdote concerning his reference material: he filmed himself sprinting desperately down the street, trying to keep up with the car carrying the camera. That personal connection was the epiphany. Suddenly I was able to appreciate the animation itself as a personal expression; I rediscovered the frantic emotion I had attributed merely to “good direction” in the panicked swing of Makoto’s arms, her charging-bull lowered head, the sweat flecking off her face—or was it tears?—and when Ryo-Timo’s Yozakura Quartet adaptations came along shortly thereafter, I discovered a whole world of animators of which I had previously been only peripherally aware.
This “conversion” might never have happened had I been told I was watching the movie “wrong,” or that my intellectual approach to anime viewing was misguided. No one wants to “change,” but everyone wants to gain understanding. I’m not special. Anyone can be induced to broaden their horizons if that process is connected to something they enjoy, and if they see the increased appreciation that accompanies it.
Finally, and crucially, my discovery of sakuga did not, in the slightest, suggest to me that I should stop examining anime in the ways I had before. Instead it formed another major component of my critical toolkit—as if previously I’d been building birdhouses with wood glue and staples alone, but now I had an electric drill, screws, and a better understanding of how to fit the wood together. We should never, ever dismiss any of these tools as “inferior” to another. Some may be more fundamental than others, but all contribute. I recently finished reading Clements’ Anime: A History, which eschews aesthetic analysis altogether to examine anime along an “ownership–access chain” covering production, distribution, and so forth: the very “commercial” elements of animation we artsy types love to condemn. But the perspective is not only eye-opening, it’s truly useful. Looking at animation as a business helps the critic understand how certain series become “seminal” quite apart from their artistic worth, why some properties last forever while others fade away, and even how fandoms form around seemingly arbitrary objects. I won’t be laying down my Frye or Barthes (or closing my ever-open Sakugabooru tab) anytime soon, but I will have a more critical and informed perspective on the economic realities informing my favorite art objects. I’ve acquired yet another wonderful tool!
Anime as a holistic medium is best appreciated holistically, but also by making use of the strengths each viewer possesses. I thoroughly encourage the Nick Creamers of the world to continue their careful close readings, the Frog-kuns to persist in examining questions of translation and culture, the Kevin Cirugedas and Ben Ettingers (where are you, Ben?!) ceaselessly to sow the seeds of their love for animation throughout the fandom. Each of them furthers the conversation in his own way. No one should ever be told that they must “choose” between “inferior” and “superior” modes of engaging with the medium, and the dialogues that help fans discover all the things they didn’t know should be cumulative, not exclusionary. it’s never, never “one way or the other.”
And that, I suppose, is my anime manifesto. I’ll shut up now.
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Enamelthyst – I hope you don’t shut up, your replies are articulate and on point. Btw do you have a blog or a twitter account?
Sakuga is indeed a niche within a niche. That’s why it makes more sense to appeal to fans rather than alienate them. I admit I haven’t always been a saint in that regard. Animation is so often marginalized or misinterpreted that it’s tempting to lash back out. No one likes their tastes to be disparaged though…anime fans already get enough of that. It’s okay to specialize in one aspect, but it’s silly to argue that other specialties are invalid.
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While I acquiesce a dichotomy was not the best way to handle such a lofty conversation, it has forced the perspective to at least have the discussion. What I failed to do (being too committed to the dichotomy) is explain that both sides of the coin are welcome – But I still assert that the side of the coin that drives the medium forward is not the story. I do not claim that story never drives visuals or an aesthetic, but I
Your analogy of the body is a flawed one, since art in general generally and very casually exists without even an attempt at being holistic. Yes, a human body has many “meat bits” (as you put it lol) to work together, and that is wonderful. But not entirely true. Some of the best art is lacking in this way.
Specifically speaking of anime, I feel Sex and Violence at Mach Speed and Angel’s Egg are great examples of.
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I’d actually assert that portraying the discussion as a dichotomy is the only way to get a valuable discussion about this subject. It’s very easy and very tempting to say “both visuals and narrative are important,” because all of us, at a basic level, understand that they both are. Portraying the discussion as a dichotomy forces people to pick sides and reinforce their points, and it’s the only way to get certain points across in an effective manner, because it’s really easy to just say that they’re both important and dust one’s hands of the argument.
The reluctance to debate the varying ways in which we interact with the medium is what perpetuates the paradigm in which entire genres of anime are written off because they don’t focus on narrative as much as others or because they’re narrative-light by design. Presenting the debate as an “and” question rather than an “or” question would only serve to create an environment that encourages the participants to talk past one another without making any strong assertions one way or the other.
Only when we’re willing to engage in heated, but civil, debate do we stand a chance at broadening our own perspectives and each other’s.
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I think the parameters of this discussion needed to be more fully defined. What exactly falls under “visuals?” Is it animation? Shot composition? Art style and character design? All of that combined? And are we talking about narrative (which can be defined as broadly as delivering an intended message), writing (which includes characters, pacing theme, etc.), or just the plot, which is simply the events that happen within the story? If the parameters aren’t clearly defined, the definitions can be unfairly stretched to as broad or as narrow as they need to be for an argument. An anime’s plotline as important as all the visual elements combined, and animation alone isn’t responsible for delivering a message.
I’m of the opinion that visuals on their own need a story behind them to be compelling, but a story told through anime cannot truly be elevated to the level of greatness if the visuals are lacking. Good visuals are necessary for an anime to be elevated to greatness, but in order for it to reach that level, it needs a good story to be built upon. Meanwhile, a good story with subpar visuals is still enjoyable, even if it can never reach the level of greatness. It’s weighing an element needed to *make* an anime against an element that, which neglected, will *break* an anime.
And of course this entire argument discounts sound, which, since anime is an audio-visual medium, is just as vital. Evangelion has good visuals. Evangelion has good writing. But watch it muted, and it lacks the same impact. You need to be able to hear the silence and the noises that fill it. You need to hear the nuance in the voices or the emotion in the soundtrack. Long shots are vital in Eva, but sound, or lack thereof, is what gives these still frames motion through time and keeps them from being simply still shots–if I worded that in a way that makes any sense whatsoever.
Basically, the “why not both” argument is really the only correct answer. All the elements of anime have to be working together in order for it to truly succeed. But if I had to choose the most important element, I’d say it’d be the one that’s universal and consequently doesn’t have to rely on all the other elements: the narrative. Maybe an anime with just a good narrative won’t be great. But I’d still get something of substance out of it rather than something that looks pretty but is ultimately hollow and meaningless.
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True, this convo would have been better guided if time was spent at the beginning to clearly define the terms as they were meant to be used, but Josh was already heated so we ended up hopping right in without a clear grounding. I believe the original intention was narration as the story or plot of a series versus the animation and visual direction.
And you’re absolutely right, audio is probably the most undervalued part of production by most fans despite it contributing so much to the mood of a piece. It’s especially important to the genres like slice of life that rely heavily on atmosphere and delivery to be effective.
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Animated films can combine many different mediums to achieve art of greater complexity and substance. I think Enamelthyst is right: anime has to be viewed as a whole “organism.” That’s not to say we can’t focus on a specific part, or that one part can’t be more important than another. But if the parts are placed together in the same film, they will affect each other and the result be judged accordingly.
Regarding Bebop and Eva, my point was that they’re not just popular because of the writing—they’re popular because they’re animated shows. If they were books of equivalent artistic merit, they might have found some success but they probably wouldn’t have had the same impact. It was the writing coupled with the visuals (and audio) that made Bebop and Eva what they were.
As DaLadybugMan pointed out, “visuals” and “narrative” are vague terms. If “narrative” means the same thing as “artistic statement” or “purpose,” I agree that it trumps everything else. On the other hand, “writing” and “plot” are optional ingredients in an animated film (or any work of art, actually. How about poetry?)
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The quickest of asides ibcf: copious amounts of poetry have “writing” and “plot.” From Homer’s epics to Poe’s Raven, poems have been much more than gushing expressions of feelings (not to denigrate such poetry) in terms of expressing a progressing narrative with a clear setting, story and characters that develop..
I am very much on the “both and” team in general, just wanted to make that point of clarification! 🙂
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That’s true, thanks for the clarification. I meant that those elements are optional–“writing” and “plot” can be used in poetry, but they don’t necessarily have to be!
I think the “both and” argument is valid from a certain perspective. If you’re looking at a whole work of art, every element certainly needs to be accounted for to determine its overall merit. However…let’s say there’s one really great, self-contained episode in an otherwise terrible anime series. Can it be judged in isolation, or does it have to be judged as part of the whole show? How about one great scene in an otherwise terrible movie? Or one great piece of animation in an otherwise terrible scene? Should these be discounted because of their association with poor work, or because they don’t contribute to the whole?
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@ibcf Yeah, I absolutely think you can judge pieces of sequential art in isolation. One expertly animated scene, one well done character arc, we can absolutely talk about their merits. I think the work itself should be judged wholistically, though.
I realize I likely haven’t stated my position outright: when I say both, I don’t mean goodness requires both great animation and storytelling from beginning to end. I just mean that both elements are important in terms of evaluating a work. Neither is more important, as they work in concert at a very deep level to convey artistic expression.
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I am going to probably come across as a “one or the other” in this comment even though I’m a “both and” sort of guy on this. I just have some points that need definition and clarification.
Questions for @Josh
(1) “Kiznaiver failed because the visuals were subservient to the story.” Could you please clarify what you mean fully here, specifically with the word subservient? The only way I can interpret this at the moment is that you mean Kiznaiver’s visuals communicated the story…but this is what visuals do when stories are present in visual media. The visuals are the mode of expressing the story, of getting across what is going on (again, in media in which a story is present). What anime with a story has visuals that aren’t subservient to it? If you want to contend that Space Dandy has no story, I will grant that for the purposes of this discussion, but that also means it is off the table as an example of an anime with visuals not subservient to the story (since, as we granted, it has none). Please define subservience.
(2) I am still completely in the dark as to how you believe my examples were “bad.” You say “Well, each of them purposefully left room for story, and the stories where just bad.” First of all, I do not know what “purposefully left room for a story” means. Second, because you believe the stories are bad…I just don’t see how that is (a) relevant or (b) substantiates your own argument. Please clarify.
(3) You also make the claim about Trigun and Violinist of Hamelin that “The only reason any one goes back for them are the visuals.” Well, the point I was making about these anime is that the VISUALS ARE REALLY BAD. Trigun has good character/costume design, but the coloring and animation itself are rough, and Violinist of Hamelin is poor from a visual perspective by any criteria you want to use. So, I mean…it just seems patently unreasonable that someone would revisit shows renowned for bad visuals but good stories FOR the bad visuals alone.
(4) On a related note, I think presuming to speak for what “everyone” does just automatically makes your argument weak. You are universalizing your own experiences in a way that I think you should recognize. Not everyone thinks the way you do and piling on the bullish “certainty” doesn’t make your argument logically better. Do you have evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that “everyone” goes back to Trigun and Hamelin for their visuals alone, rather than their stories/characters delivered via those visuals?
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Oh man, Kiznaiver is back to haunt us… I’ll number them back so I can contain the thoughts.
1) I think when I say ‘subservient’ I meant to imply ‘plot/story valued more than visuals’. The visuals for the show are rather uninteresting, finer polished, but still uninteresting. And the moment that they started to lose interest is when the story took the wheel in driving the show. The best I can describe is is that the show feels written, not shown. There are few moments where anything can be felt by the viewer because so much of the show is told to them – we don’t the those moments to just realize. And because we are being told, the visuals follow instead of lead. A counter example where visuals lead over plot would be 2001 Space Odyssey. They just do things (and it makes sense as a narrative, don’t get me wrong); it’s more about being in that moment.
2) ‘Bad’ is a lazy shorthand for ‘flawed’ and and a complete “handwave” attempt now that I look at it. I think most of my feelings are summed up in 1 above; I feel anime should show, not tell. Let us feel the moment like most other visual art does. (and I fully except this will need further explanation, but I want to keep it brief)
3) It’s be stupid of me to say no one goes back to an anime for story, as many people clearly do. But is that what makes anime anime? To me, it isn’t. Satoshi Kon made things that can only exist in anime – in many ways, he is the pinnacle of anime AND HE HAD GREAT STORIES! But what about all the other great stories? Are they remembered as stories or as stories that happened to be anime? Kon’s greatest achievement was contribution to anime first and foremost, his wonderful stories: second. But both existed in the same space, not in odds to each other, but one more firmly seated than the other.
4) You’re right, I have no proof that everyone goes back for anything, and really either side of that argument is uncertain and personally based, so it’s really bad argument all together (my bad :P). My problem is assertive tone and the use of absolutes which has painted myself into a corner of being against rather than strongly leaning. I feel very close ties to some of the stories in anime, but what made it magical was the anime, not the story. People often times (a rather weak qualifier) go back for characters, and we know those characters from what we see of them. They exist visually more than they do written down. They breathe because we see them breathe, not because we go through plot to make them believable. Lupin, Golgo, and K-On substantiate themselves through their visual existence alone.
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If you spend time on creative writing message boards, you’ll start to notice the same type of argument. Is it primarily about the artful things you can do with words, or is it primarily about the story. What supports what? Some people try to distinguish between commercial and literary fiction on those grounds.
In the anime community (I’m at best a marginal figure, so take this with a grain of salt), people often talk about “the writing” in terms of story, and that makes sense, since, apart from dialogue, voice-over, and visually presented materials (like letters, signs…), none of the writing shows up directly. An anime is something we look at and listen to; it’s not something we read.
The point here: “Story” has no medium to itself. Words can relay story, but they can relay other things, too. “Writing” is tied no closer to story than “animation”. A story, however people define it, is something that inhabits a work of art, and that work of art has its own way of being perceived. Events in real life turn into a story if you perceive them as one (and then you might orally pass them on that way).
Now, here’s something interesting about reading. I only learned a few years ago that I have aphantasia. I have no “inner eye”. When I read a piece of fiction, I do not automatically create inner visuals. If I try hard to imagine something, I can manage a microflash – that’s a very brief image that you almost immediately forget, a bit like a tip-of-the-tongue experience; you know you’ve just visually imagined something but can’t really tell what it looked like. Before I learned that I have “aphantasia”, I thought the “inner eye” was simply a metaphor. But there’s apparantly a range of visualisation capacity; some people can train themselves to get better, and some simply don’t have that capacity at all. The point?
Apparently, for me watching an anime and reading a book is a *very* different experience; but for other people that difference might be smaller. Since experience is subjective, this is hard to test. Still, the same story can exist in both media, in the sense that the same set of (fictional) events is referenced. So you can read the novel Shin Sekai Yori, or you can watch the anime based on it, or you can do both, in any order. And here we have a branching point:
Comparing both experiences, is story more prominent when reading than when watching anime? If you’re already familiar with the story from one medium, does that de-emphasise story or are you likely to pick out deviations? (They didn’t animate my favourite scene! Boo!)
Now, neither books nor anime need express “story” at all. For example, slice-of-life, regardless of medium, is more about exemplifying setting/character than about weaving a story. Or let’s get specific: This season’s Classicaloid has a shoebill with a scarf. Will it ever be story relevant? Who knows? Do we care? I do think non-story-relevant elements are easier to include in animation than in written text, because it’s easier to de-emphasise the element in question. “Shoebill with a scarf” takes time to read, and while you’re reading that you’re reading nothing else. You can put the critter into frames without disturbing the scene’s focus too much, though. But then again, maybe I only think so because I have aphantasia.
Thanks for that interesting discussion. 🙂
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I’ve been meaning to say this for a while, but keep re-writing and deleting. I’ll just bite the bullet and post it now. I split it into sections for ease of digestion.
It’s tempting to think that because animation is the sole defining characteristic of an animated work, the animation’s quality deserves special consideration in a review. I suspect that’s what Josh means by “visuals are the most important part of anime,” and Tamerlane makes a similar point in his second bullet point in “At Least it’s an Ethos.” I don’t agree. It’s like saying a body of water is made of water, therefore the purity of the water deserves special consideration. But there are many uses for any body of water that don’t depend on the purity of its substance. I won’t belabor this point.
Pros and Cons of Component-Wise Review
This tweet reminded me to make this comment. I first began considering this topic because of AniDB’s review system, which is very similar to the image in that tweet. In what I call component-wise review, many aspects of an animated work are evaluated in isolation, and from those aspects the overall value of the work is concluded. The tweet facetiously calls it objective review, but of course it is not objective. It’s systematic and numerical, but no more objective than merely saying whether you liked it. Maybe a brain scientist could measure how many moles of happy juice the brain squirts out during an average viewing, but until that happens there will be no objective review.
Others have already mentioned that anime fandom is heterogeneous. One possible advantage of component-wise review is that it may act as a kind of grapeshot, addressing many diverse interests in a single review.
Call It Fair
When people say objective, I think what they really mean is fair. Component-wise review is a misguided attempt at fair evaluation. I personally believe that to review fairly, you need only to consider the work’s purpose, and how well it achieves it. For commercial anime, the purpose is often to tell a story. Other times the purpose is to be funny, or to make you fall for the characters. Animation for animation’s sake does exist; Josh is correct in that. I’m thinking of things like Masanobu Hiraoka’s clip, and Yutaro Kubo’s 00:08. For these works it would be unfair to introduce components like characterization and story to your evaluation, because they’re purely visual spectacles. By the same token, it’s unfair to give excessive consideration to the animation in the majority of commercial anime.
Life Isn’t Fair
You have no obligation to attempt to make fair reviews on your own blog. After all, what’s fair to one person is often unfair to another. You’re entirely within your rights to focus on visual execution if that’s what interests you most. Even if a work accomplishes its purpose well, you can say that its purpose is something you don’t care for. Just don’t try to foist your values onto others.
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