Management: This is a two-parter that I’ve split up because while the original question was based on my panning of Sakurasou, it also concerns a lot of media evaluation theory that is much more generally relevant. I’ve divided it as best I can into separate questions to reflect this – Part 1 here should be relevant to everyone.
It seems impossible to fairly evaluate shows unless you take those shows’ own goals into account, and try to respect their specific priorities. Do you think some of the shows you rate poorly are merely a result of approaching these shows with the wrong mindset, or wishing they were different shows entirely? How do you reconcile your personal taste, or the nature of taste in general, with your attempts to assess art in a general way?
You raise some extremely valid points. Let me see if I can explain myself a little better.
First, regarding that “nature of taste” thing – in general, I agree with you. Everyone has different things they want out of art, and different shows can have a variety of different goals. I try, whenever possible, to separate my own personal preferences in art from my evaluation of the show’s ability to succeed in what it is trying to do – but this is obviously not wholly possible, and completely objective criticism is a fantasy.
That said, there are a few caveats to this for me. First, and most obviously, this doesn’t preclude evaluation entirely – it just means evaluation has to take a show’s goals into account. If a show is focused on a particular thematic point, you can evaluate how well it articulates or illuminates that point. If it is based on a particular character’s journey, you can evaluate how well or insightfully it depicts that journey. There are also always a huge number of craft elements which can be analyzed or critiqued – in addition to obvious things like soundtrack or direction or visual design, writing and storytelling are themselves largely craft-based, and a story’s structure, pacing, writing, etc can all be critiqued.
This leads directly into my second caveat, which is that many shows can be successful to people for the same reasons they might be critically panned. For example, Sword Art Online was a very popular show, but critics in general panned it for being an ineptly written power fantasy. Does this mean the people who liked it were “wrong?” No – many of them liked it because it was a power fantasy. This is often what is meant by “pandering” or “fanservice” – a show making choices that make its audience more happy at the expense of its value as a piece of artistically interesting or incisive television. Shows can entertain and fulfill the expectations of audiences for the very same reasons they’re criticized when evaluated according to classic artistic metrics of character writing, storytelling, thematic exploration, etc.
Which leads to my third and final caveat – my belief that not all goals are created equal. I can acknowledge that many shows fulfill what they intend to do while still not particularly respecting them as pieces of art. There are whole genres I feel this way about, and it’s not a reflection on the people who watch those shows – most of them know exactly what they’re getting. To give an example, I recently checked out the first episode of Dog and Scissors, which is an extremely routine anime comedy with a bunch of obvious jokes and fanservice. That is certainly what it is “trying” to be, so it is “succeeding in its goals,” but it seems ludicrous to me as a critic to judge that show as equal to something like Madoka, whose goals are far more universal, creative, artistically compelling, and thematically interesting. Many shows that succeed in their goals would still not garner particularly high scores according to my system of evaluation, because “succeeded reasonable well in its goals” generally lands around a 6 on my scale, and anything beyond that requires artistic excellence, ambition, depth, a strong personal touch, or something else to distinguish it as a work worth recognizing.
Regarding the nature of “taste” itself, I think that everyone has their own quirks and genre preferences, but that what people look for in shows can be broadly categorized in a pretty meaningful way. This article by my own favorite critic explains systems of evaluation and media consumption with more acuity than I ever could. He divides media consumption into four broad levels – as total immersion, attempt to reclaim immersive spark, critical evaluator, and fellow creator. These aren’t strict categories, and most of us experience different shows at different levels (or on multiple levels simultaneously), but in general, actively watching and considering more and more media will lead you from one level to the next.
Hopefully all of that put together kind of shows where I’m coming from as a critic, and that I both recognize and don’t fully adhere to the idea that all art is a personal experience (when it comes to evaluating it, not enjoying it).