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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.
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.
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:
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.
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.