Anime Critics Need to Improve
Western anime critics—particularly those featured on Crunchyroll and YouTuube—are now in a position of unchecked power over public opinion. While this is beneficial to the community at large by allowing a rapid dispersion of important or interesting info or criticisms, it is also a weapon prone to misfiring. This misfiring is the result of poor communication, faulty argument, and a general lack of standards. Before I go any further, I want to reiterate that, as with all of these posts, individual creators will be referenced to exemplify my points, but my intention is not to attack or praise them as individuals. I have great respect for anyone who spends time talking about the anime they love/hate. I write this because I respect you all so much. That being said, we have a problem.
To understand the spread and influence of critical opinion and the misfires of the machine that produces these opinions, we can simply look at the r/anime subreddit. Most obviously, comments in reply to any critical content invariably contain instances of users praising said content as truth, as perception-defining, and as final rule. This isn’t anything new. Critics have been influencing public opinion on books, music, politics, etc. for centuries. A basic knowledge of communications or media history could have told you that. I am just arguing that, with so few platforms for visibility, so little history, and such a niched fanbase, this issue is amplified in the anime community. You can read any thread about Erased and see an anonymous Digibro hydra repeat his arguments, oftentimes word-for-word. Cue hegemony, spiral of silence, so on.
But there’s no practical solution to that problem. There doesn’t need to be. If the content that the mass audience supports so strongly is well-researched and well-crafted with counter-opinions to consider, then I take no issue. What I do take issue with is misstructured, misinformed, miscommunicated content—the metaphorical misfires. This is content that, in other critical spheres, would not stand the rigor of review and would not reach the platforms associated with qualified criticism. I don’t want to be pretentious in making my point, but: you won’t find Dr. Oz cited in a medical journal.
As it stands, certain channels on YouTube are associated with qualified criticism within our community, and these creators exist more or less in individual bubbles. The same can be said of any written essay that reaches the front page of the anime subreddit—assumed qualification. Again, I don’t find this system an issue itself—I greatly prefer it to academic limbo. But content creators must demand more of themselves and those around them, for the growth of the critical sphere and for the benefit of everyone they write for. But what, specifically, are my complaints? A lack of context and research and a broken chain of communication.
- Context and Research
This is the most glaring fault of the critical community at the moment, and the problem consumers of critical content are most likely to have noticed by now. If you’re going to write critically about an anime, you should be reading/watching as much other content about that show as possible. If you’re going to bring in outside theory/criticism, you need to understand that criticism and the context in which it exists. I mean episode discussion threads, episode reviews, other essays, other critical videos, academic discussions—consume all of it and bring that context to your own content. Your content should be able to exist on its own, but not because it ignores everything happening around it. Bring that context to your conversation.
A failure to properly bring context most often results in a misrepresentation of information. AnimeEverday recently collaborated with Pause and Select to make a video on Flip Flappers. Ignoring the video’s lack of context with the mountain of essays written on Flip Flappers already, there’s a troubling misrepresentation of the fantasy genre within the video. AE argues Cocona’s “rejection” of a fantasy world in Pure Illusion goes against our expectations of the fantasy genre, further implying that “unwittingly embrac[ing]” fantasy worlds is a convention of the genre. This is simply false, and claiming so is detrimental to the critical narrative surrounding the show. Keep in mind that the way in which these shows are discussed and remembered by people is largely informed by these popular/front-page criticisms. We can all agree it is bad to base future analysis of art on original claims that are false or faulty, and thus we should be diligent in challenging claims we find inaccurate.
AE says this supposed breaking of conventions is “enough to praise Flip Flappers” which is another problematic representation of the show and its context. Why is that enough of a reason to praise the show? We don’t praise every show that breaks conventions (if Flip Flappers is even doing that in the way described). This notion all stems from a claim that fantasy has been “perfected” by Miyazaki and others. Even assuming AE is referring specifically to fantasy in anime here, rejection of fantastical worlds is more likely the convention than acceptance of those worlds. Spirited Away is really just one long rejection of fantasy, nevermind the enormous context of fantasy beyond anime. What does come to mind are recent isekai light novels, in which the convention is for the protagonist to accept their place in a fantasy world. Here, we can begin to see how, intentionally or not, context is omitted in order to sell the video’s opening argument.
Within the same video, Pause and Select makes arguments about Flip Flappers that are rich in context, but are nonetheless lost on the viewer. This brings us to the second issue.
- The Chain of Communication
For starters, I think PaS makes a decent argument in his section of the video, although I disagree with much of what he says about how Flip Flappers interacts with space. But it took me a long decoding session to even figure out what his argument was, and I’ve read Lamarre’s The Anime Machine and sat through art lectures at college. I’m sure someone of a different background would struggle to a much greater degree. I was not at a loss for context, and PaS was not lacking in providing context, but he was breaking his own chain of communication.
All of PaS’s content is heady and all of his writing stomps down with heavy boots of vocabulary, but that’s fine to a point. Everyone expresses their ideas in their own language. But the moment when words are inserted unnecessarily or when sentence structure self-destructs—that’s the moment communication ceases. To quote PaS: “Stretching out with several moving points, Flip Flappers utilizes thematically and aesthetically flat systems. Like the references, deep space is in service to the flatness of metastructure” (if I misheard any of that, let me know). Without turning this essay into a style manual: notice how the clauses of each sentence don’t have an immediately clear relationship to each other. The show stretches out via points…which has something to do with flat systems. The sentences themselves don’t allow for a simple flow between one another either because their meaning is so masked. Tracing this language and sequencing is obviously even more difficult when you can only hear the words.
However, communication can also be snuffed by vagueness.
A personal pet peeve and, if I may exaggerate, a bit of a plague on anime criticism as a whole is the use of the term “mise en scene”. This term is obviously useful, especially when you’re just starting to open up your ideas–PaS actually uses the term effectively in the above video, utilizing its vagueness to make a point without constricting further analysis of the show. But you run into trouble when the term is used to express a specific analysis—it is vague as hell. What are you referencing? Just point it out to me. Is it the lighting? Is it the placement of objects in the frame? Get to the specific detail immediately. No one ever uses “mise en scene” to refer to character acting or movement in the frame, so I have no idea why the term is so abused when it comes to other elements of composition. Please just shove my face in whatever you’re talking about. The audience should not have to decode what aspect of mise en scene you are referring via context clues. That’s not what I mean by bringing context…
I could ramble on and on about writing and style, but I’ll stop there and keep this section focused on clarity of communication. In brief: only use words that shoot straight; only say what you mean, not what you could mean.
- And then?
My favorite piece of anime analysis ever is RCAnime’s “The Monogatari Series –New Wave in Anime”. This video is a great example of effective criticism boiled down to a lean, raw form. RC’s argument is clear and he leads us through his points without missing a beat. Context about the New Wave is provided and used to strengthen RC’s argument. This context is immediately connected to specific examples from –monogatari. There is no vagueness about what “unusual editing” may be—RC tells us with precise examples. There are no misconceptions about the importance of New Wave filmmaking in the modern era. No faulty narratives are spun. The video’s only offense is RC’s complete inability to pronounce “Araragi” (inversely related to the quality of the video as a whole).
RCAnime is not the only person to have created content of a high standard. We wouldn’t have advanced so far as a community if that was the case. We have Digibro’s “10 Killer Cuts in Evangelion Ep. 1”, Pause and Select’s “Hourou Musuko and Love”, AnimeRuss’s “Clannad: Time, Flow, and Change”, and so many more. These are all fantastic examples of how to rise above a lack of research and poor communication. We can look to these examples and ask ourselves if our discourse is as clear. We can notice if our arguments are too isolated.
Obviously, I’m guilty of these shortcomings in some of my own work. Even as I was writing my Flip Flappers essay, I knew I was breaking the chain of communication for many people. I tend to luck out because my content is usually introductory, but I’m sure I have faults to be criticized. Part of the issue with a lack of context and research is that no one bothers criticizing those faults. Creators should be referencing each other. This is a call for a shift in what kind of content we produce, but I think it would go a long way to alleviate the issues described above. Build off the interesting arguments of your peers. Provide an alternative to the faulty arguments of your peers. Create a critical environment that elevates the perspective and knowledge of the mass audience, and allows for people to explore critical texts the same way they explore the shows we talk about.
Hopefully, we can all push each other and our community to greater heights.