An Animated Discussion

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If you have been around the fandom long enough it will come as no surprise to hear that there was a recent piece published by the New York Times which did not exactly paint anime in the most positive light. From time to time these sorts of pieces appear and generally they do not look favorably on the medium. While we could argue the inherent value of these pieces until we are blue in the face, I think there is a more productive way to handle this particular situation. This article provides us with an excellent opening to have a frank discussion as a community. Perhaps we can turn this into a learning opportunity for ourselves so that the impact of articles like this is minimized going forward.

But first, a few ground rules before we get started.

No personal attacks
In no way, shape, or form is this article meant to attack or undermine the author of the original piece, nor encourage anything of the kind. That sort of toxicity in an online setting is often futile and can quickly turn into harassment or worse. Fundamentally, the author watched some animation and had an opinion on it, which is completely within the rights and bounds of media discourse. The hope here is that this article will serve as a fandom-facing starting point for discussion, as opposed to an author-facing rebuttal to the original piece.

No speculation of intent
This article will not attempt to assume the author’s intent in writing the original piece. While this may seem like a naïve viewpoint given the timing and some of the specific details mentioned, speculation can quickly turn into straw-man arguments and baseless assumptions.

No one-upmanship

This article will not attempt to provide counter-examples either of anime or western animation in attempts to ‘refute’ the original piece’s claims. Any approach along those lines will result in a Wiki-assisted schoolyard argument of tireless back-and-forth. This is sort of snarky flame warring benefits no one.

Now, with those criteria established I think there are two vital takeaways from the New York Times piece that the community could bear to reflect on. The first is in how we approach new mediums and/or works, and the second is in how we guide new-comers through the world of anime.

Expectations

Expectation affects experience. The criteria, biases, and frameworks that we bring to a work of media color how we interact with it. In fact, the last article I wrote on this site covered this very issue and how it affected my initial views on Attack on Titan. This situation is similar, but its particular differences are important. Whereas my previous discussion focused on misunderstanding of genre, this is an issue of comparison with other mediums. In the New York Times article, the primary argument is that the show Akashic Records of Bastard Magical Instructor does not stack up against the classics of the United States’ golden age of animation in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. To this assertion I feel there is only one real response:

I agree.

In fact, if I am being honest I think the author and I have very similar tastes. If we were both to make a list of works I think have value then I would hazard a guess that we would hit a lot of the same boxes. An appreciation for classic cartoons and love of cinema? Check. Recognition for Akira and Ghost In the Shell? Check. A positive review of the Fist of the North Star movie? Double-check. It sure seems like we are on the same wavelength when it comes to our assessments of quality media.

So then, why all the fuss?

The fundamental issue here is not the author’s opinion per se, but rather the way it is framed as a comparative exercise. I had not seen any of Akashic before this entire situation unfolded, and after watching only a few minutes I can safely agree that it does not measure up when compared to classic western cartoons from the halcyon days of yore. But regardless of Akashic’s quality as a show, the deck was stacked against it from the get-go. If you grab a well-curated selection of animation classics that broke ground in their medium and set them against a randomly selected modern offering – what other outcome could you expect? The classics will win ninety-nine times out of a hundred; as well they should, they are classics for a reason. Comparing exemplary works of bygone eras against a seasonal sample from an enormous online database will result in similar outcomes. This kind of comparative exploration will seldom (if ever) have positive results for the new work under the microscope. Consider the following:

If you were to review Netflix’s film offerings by selecting a random movie from their catalogue and comparing it to Coppola’s The Godfather, what do you think the result would be?

If you were to judge Hulu’s services by comparing one of its films to Lang’s Metropolis¸ how well do you think it would fare?

If you were to measure the quality of Cartoon Network’s modern online streaming videos by setting them against Otomo’s Akira, how many would measure up?

Comparisons like these might be useful if we are trying to determine if a work is a certifiable classic or not – does it push the medium forward, does it challenge our understanding, does it visually delight in unique ways, does it stand the test of time, etc. – but offers little value otherwise. If you seek out new media by setting it beneath the soles of giants, do not be shocked when it all seems a little flat.

It is crucial that we engage new media with an open mind and reasonable standards of measurement. While it may be impossible to completely remove one’s biases, to enter in naïve and fresh-faced and avoid any contrast with prior works, it can certainly be somewhat mitigated with some earnest reflection One of the most basic ways we can do this is to avoid comparing new experiences with the existing titans of medium; new entries are generally going to come up short compared to the greats. Engaging with a novel contemporary work while comparing it with a venerated classic is simply not a fair way to assess media.

But let us not be too hasty to judge the author. As a wise sage once said, “Let he who has not sinned pen the first hot take.”

We all do this from time to time. We might be stressed, exhausted, or disinterested, and fall back on easy excuses like, “Well, it’s not as good as [landmark work], so whatever.” I know in my own life as an anime fan I spent nearly a decade away because I refused to stop comparing new shows with the favorites of my youth. Thankfully, my distance was eventually a hiatus rather than an exit, but it was difficult to admit to myself that I had been unfairly criticizing new works – even bad ones – by setting them against prior works that I knew they could not hold a candle to. When we internalize these sorts of faulty metrics we risk becoming closed off, elitist, or bitterly nostalgic; I should know because for many years I was all three. This is not to say we should give works a free pass and ignore actual flaws in the name of ‘fairness,’ but there is something to be said for judging a work on its own merits, and that starts by not setting the expected performance on par with pinnacles of the medium.

Guidance

The second takeaway here is the lack of guidance in navigating anime at large. The sheer volume of content on Crunchyroll alone is mind-boggling, and once you factor in other streaming options the amount of animation that can be accessed is more than any person can consume in a lifetime. With this kind of back catalog there will be works that end up all over the quality spectrum. Is it any wonder then that if someone were to try and explore these sites that their first experience might be middling? Or even outright bad?

Let’s be honest with ourselves – Akashic Records of Bastard Magical Instructor is not the worst thing the author could have chosen. How much harsher would the piece have been if the author had really dug deep into the catalogue and found something terrible? What if this article had been written a scant few weeks ago and Hand Shakers had been on the chopping block? What if the author had found something truly wretched or vile in terms of its content, something that most people would consider unnerving and off-putting to even speak about? Imagine if the author had put a show in the limelight that most people (including anime fans) find repulsive. We could bring up the expected age of the intended audience, cultural norms regarding animation, and broadcast times versus the universal availability of streaming, and those would all be important points to consider; that does not change the fact that the damage could have been much, much worse.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves a hard question – just how easy is it to find the quality work in anime? While many of us have developed a pretty acute sense for sifting through the mounds of content released every few months, is it any wonder that a relative newcomer might take a wrong turn along the way? Without a guide or sense of direction, how can we expect anyone to reach the peak when the climb is so treacherous?

As a community, I think there could be some productive discussion on how to help people navigate the anime landscape. A bit of infrastructure to get people to the content they will resonate with can be helpful as a way of providing guidance to newcomers and as a healthy exercise for existing fans. How often do we take inventory of what we like and why we appreciate it? Do we have good litmus tests for helping people determine what they might like to see? Do we even have something as simple as some short guides or surveys that might help them get started? Perhaps we would not be so shocked that people are unable to find the obvious greatness that we see if we put in a bit of work in helping them actually see it.

The difficulties in creating these kinds of tools are numerous. There is the needed clarification of terms, organization of shows by tags or categories, and at least some semblance of consensus, all multiplied by the volume and variety of the anime experience. Couple those challenges with the issue of making sure these tools are visible and accessible and it is no wonder that no such grand infrastructure seems to exist.

But perhaps it is precisely this challenge which makes the effort worthwhile.
Even if we know anime contains some truly incredible and ground-breaking fiction – the kind of work that is so evocative we gladly dedicate hours upon hours of our free time to it – it does not matter if people cannot locate it. Rather than expecting people to find the Ark of the Covenant hidden amongst the plain boxes in the warehouse, maybe we could do a bit of the legwork and lay guideposts for their journey; with how much anime that exists, even getting them to the right genre is something of a triumph, never-mind connecting them with specific creative teams, studios, or artistic styles.

In the end, I think we can make this entire situation into positive outcomes if we are willing to talk about it. All of this might not be enough to guarantee that people take anime seriously, but it might be enough to make a few new fans to watch shows with.


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12 Comments

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  1. Is it just me, or does Crunchyroll indiscriminately licence every anime they can get their hands on?
    Is there any sort of vetting process?

    Like

    • As I understand it, they try to get everything. And I’m not sure they can be blamed for that: their mission is to make money by giving people what they want, not to make aesthetes by giving people what they need. Maybe in an ideal world that wouldn’t be their mission, but in this one I can’t be too annoyed with someone for doing the job they’re paid to do. And there are titles which are never going to be canonical but which benefit from their approach: Braiger won’t ever be remembered as a classic, but I have a soft spot for it and I’d be delighted if it was on Crunchyroll so I could point friends who might also enjoy it in its direction.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. On tools. In my experience most substantial anime communities rapidly develop quick-start lists and crude finding-aids for newcomers. But those lists tend to be both under-informed and poorly archived because of the incredibly high churn rate of anime fans, and the unusually strong focus on the present among anime fans. Most fan/connoisseur communities have those features to some extent, of course, but they’re remarkably strong for anime.

    Large groups of people are unlikely to produce useful tools because democracy is inherently bad for aesthetics, and companies are never going to produce useful tools because they’re here to make money. (And no, I don’t think having better entry-level tools would make anime companies more money. To a certain extent the qualities which make the kind of person who writes for the NY recoil from that material are the qualities which draw lots of anime fans to anime.)

    I don’t really see a solution to these problems, except that you can sidestep them on a person-by-person basis by putting in time-consuming face-to-face effort showing specific friends specific things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t disagree with any of your points, you have hit the nail on the head. Still, I think some sort of simple guide to get people started is a worthwhile consideration – an anime starter pack or tutorial if you will. Even incredibly deep media experiences have some sort of primer to give direction.

      Even something simple, say three recommendations for a genre with a short paragraph descriptor and a few followup titles that branch for each. Do that for 5-10 genres, add a quick glossary of useful terms, and you would have a pretty good start for most newcomers that would require minimal updating long-term. A comprehensive guide would be impossible, but a starting point seems feasible (to me at least).

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      • Talking of recommendations, when I was visiting File 770 at one stage the topic got around to anime. I gathered the recommendations from the conversation, and added some quick and dirty descriptions to some of them.

        http://brendanpodger.livejournal.com/39455.html

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      • It’s easy to build such a thing, but how to get it in front of any significant number of eyes? The only places that can do that are big communities with profoundly unreliable tastes (Reddit, MAL &c) or websites of record like ANN, which tend to do a bad job on these things.

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  3. Perhaps we could more properly guage anime if we placed shows to be critiqued up against the “classic cartoons” known as the Censored Eleven.

    How does it stack available the low Barbados opposed to the high.

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  4. One issue with regards to this specific situation: The author is not a relative newcomer to anime, but a long-time fan with experience with certain classics of the medium. You can, of course, guess what sorts of classics those might be. So in this situation I don’t think that the newcomer tools rightly identify as lacking are the issue.

    To the wider discussion, Thali above references places like Reddit and MAL as big communities where such entry level guidance might make an impact, but if you spend much time around those communities (particularly Reddit) you’ll see quickly that such things are constantly being churned out, upvoted, and discussed. And it is always the same things, which reinforce the existing tastes of those communities rather than expand them. So do they make an impact? Perhaps on a few number of individuals who happen to see them at just the right time, but largely they only maintain the status quo. And, beyond that, I remain suspicious of such things in general way simply because I, well, I have my own opinions about the sorts of shows that will inevitably crop up on such a list.

    As far as I can see, the next time three paragraphs take a swipe at anime appear in the NYT or some other comparable publication, the best thing to do is simply to ignore it. The article is certainly not worth the amount of digital outrage that has been spilled on it, and I rather think even my time spent pondering over it here in writing this comment could have been much better used elsewhere. But as it is, I have written it, so I might as well hit post comment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Regarding those communal lists – I concur, they quickly fall off the “front page” so to speak, making their use limited. Visibility is the greatest challenge to this sort of project. And there is no way it could be all-encompassing or even necessarily an indicator of quality, but it could be a good “starter pack” to the basics of anime.

      I agree that a lot of the outrgae and drama has been excessive, which is part of my hope with this piece. I did not originally intend to say anything about it, but given how much ink had already been spilled I had hoped to salvage the time spent (in some small way) by finding what might help the community grow and learn from the experience.

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  5. It seems like the difference is between tropes in Japanese and American cartoon slapstick. I mean, imagine if a character in anime became temporarily dismembered because they were so surprised, as was a common trope in vintage American cartoons; without framing to know what was happening, wouldn’t that seem just as weird as a character being shoved back by the force of blood escaping from their body in an anime?

    Liked by 1 person

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