Is it worth pursuing a unique visual style even if it adds nothing to the narrative, or does it simply amount to crying for more attention from “sophisticated” viewers?
I think there are a couple different arguments that could be made here, and the topic is, as you admit, a broad and ambiguous one.
First, there’s the argument that many people have made here and that seems true to me – in a visual medium, there is no such thing as a visual style that exists outside of the narrative. It always affects the viewer’s experience, and thus the best visual style should be the one that best services the needs and goals of the show. If that is a style that will be labeled “pretentious” by some, so be it – it’s only actually pretentious if it really does somehow work counter to the show’s own goals, and thus is being misused and its effect misunderstood.
But I think you could also make the argument that most anime following such similar visual standards is basically a failing of creativity, and that the only reason these styles come across as so intentionally provocative is because there just aren’t enough shows that experiment and take risks with their visual storytelling. I can respect the need for works that try bold ideas and fail, because it is the shows like that which lay the groundwork for future successes incorporating those bold ideas. OP raised an interesting point about how the history of anime has guided visual and storytelling standards to the point of polish we’ve currently reached, and that makes some sense to me, but I feel there is ample room for other, wildly different visual styles and standards that also achieve those effects, or at least that the pursuit of alternatives is a valuable one. So even in shows that don’t necessarily use their unique visual style to greatest narrative/thematic effect, I can see something valuable, because I consider them trailblazers who are feeling out the future potential for narrative and thematic resonance that only these kinds of experiments can discover.
Not only that, but as IssacandAsimov noted in his discussion with BrickSalad, there is (though this isn’t necessarily true of anyone here specifically, I’m just speaking generally) definitely a tendency to ascribe some provocative intent to unusual visual styles, which I frankly feel is unfair to the shows that use them. Obviously these styles are often used to create some specific effect, but I feel the starting assumption within the audience that they are aspiring to be some different kind of art can damage their effectiveness – it’s like the audience has less trust in the show, and expects it to have to prove itself, because it has started with an art style outside of the norm.
On a related note, someone raised Aku no Hana as an example, and that brought an interesting thought to mind – the specific value novelty and unfamiliarity can bring to a show. Obviously Aku no Hana creates its mood through every element of its production, but I feel one distinctive component of that is the fact that its visual style is something people are not very used to – they are not familiar with seeing characters regularly portrayed in this way, and so they are immediately put at a comfort-level disadvantage. This effect would not exist if shows like this were more common, and Aku no Hana would be less effective as a mood piece for it.
I think the point I’m stabbing at here is more communicable through using comedy as an example. A necessary component of comedy is novelty – jokes that are familiar lose their power, and humor is very often derived from undercutting expectations, which is not a repeatable trick. Comedians constantly have to chart new “storytelling” terrain, because the demands of their art requires a constant influx of novelty. Obviously this is not necessarily the case within visual storytelling (Aku no Hana only works so well as an example because part of its goal is to remove the viewer from their comfort zone), but I think it’s an interesting result of the pursuit of new visual storytelling methods that’s worth being conscious of. As well as the opposite effect – that the standard methods of visual representation used by so many anime result in a constant feeling of “safety” or “familiarity” that complements or contrasts with everything else the show is trying to do. Many shows take advantage of this effect, or deliberately use it to thwart expectations, as people here have noted. Shows like Madoka or Evangelion take it the step further of presenting both that visual style and a familiar starting narrative framework, but I think that standard visual style by itself isn’t truly neutral, and can carry its own set of expectations.
Management: This was a discussion question raised on TrueAnime, and my response only really scratches the surface of the directions you could take this. BrickSalad and IssacandAsimov go incredibly deep on the topic of subjectivity in art evaluation, and their back and forth was both very illuminating and partially the reason I didn’t really touch the subject myself. I mean, you’ve all seen my style of critique – I clearly fall pretty far on the “art is not a wholly subjective experience, and in fact is most often a craft that can be judged just like any other – a show will sink or float based on its structural integrity just as easily as a boat will” end of the spectrum.
I think one of the main takeaways of my wandering points, which I should have made more explicit in my original response, is that the fact that non-standard art styles immediately connote specific intentions in the viewer’s mind makes the application of those art styles almost doomed to failure, because the average viewer will be spoiling the actual intent of that artistic choice by automatically assigning their preconception of what artistic choices like that say about what kind of story the work is to that piece of art. And it seems to me like the only solution here is to be utterly unbiased in your approach to any media object (hah), or for the medium to reach the point where unique art styles are so ubiquitous that they no longer carry the pretension baggage they currently do.