Media Goals and Critical Evaluation

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).

12 thoughts on “Media Goals and Critical Evaluation

  1. I’ve wanted to discuss the nature of scores since before my blog went on break, so for over three years now, I never got to it. One of the things which made me really want to resume blogging will dovetail nicely into this discussion in the future – the difference between “Good” and “Like”.
    Well, I’m not going to cover my own stance here at this juncture, but I want to pass my opinion on the third caveat.

    Take a look at my post on Evangelion 3.33, I felt the movie had a goal, immersing us in and exploring the concept of disorientation. Do I feel that concept has merit? Yes. Do I think it was done well? Superbly so.
    Do I think they should have done so, should have had it take as long as it did? No. I felt it hurt the movie immensely. It was an artistic and philosophical execution worthy of note, but not only at the expense of the viewers, but of the movie as a movie itself.

    But in general, it’s something that I agree with you, after hanging in indie (TT)RPG circles for many years now – judging whether a game/movie is good or not can be done on many levels, some are “Does it make you care?” Does it make you have fun? But also, and often very importantly, “Does it do what it aims out to do?”
    The “Make you care” and “Enjoyable” are often sub-sets of aims, but they can be distinct, which is important to note. Evangelion 3.33 doesn’t aim to please – but in the end scores are a weird and somewhat arbitrary amalgamation of the aesthetical values of a show (I consider pacing and plot here) and how much we liked it, subjectively. The only other option is for the scoring to be entirely based on subjective taste.

    • Woops, never responded to this one! I was also kind of floored by the strange priorities of 3.33, but my takeaway from it was that it, and at this point the Rebuilds in general, are basically a direct commentary on the original series – an ACTUAL deconstruction, unlike the original. It makes virtually no sense as a narrative continuation of the first two, and continues the second film’s strategy of barely beginning to develop characters, because it assumes you have the foreknowledge of their personalities from the first series and understand that they are basically supposed to be recreations of where those characters were at the end of the series (Shinji still lacking confidence but able to find goals and stick up for himself, Asuka still abrasive but now at least accepting of her mother’s death, etc). And instead of actually earning dramatic turns through the narrative, it relies on a series of key emotional touchstones portrayed through scenes and shots that directly mirror scenes from the original series (the decent into NERV, Shinji visiting Rei’s room, Shinji sitting prone by the metal staircase, the red sea you mentioned, etc). It also scathingly addresses the misguided complaints people had regarding the original series – here Shinji knows what he wants and actively tries to use the Evas, here the action sequences are broad and over the top but lacking in human context, here Fuyutsuki actually spells out the plot in a single speech instead of scattering clues throughout. And even the central theme of being unable to change the past connects with the fact that many people considered this series a revision of the past, when it’s actually got very different goals. I don’t even know if I can say I ENJOYED it, but I was definitely impressed by the brazen uniqueness of the concept.

      • I’ll start with the final comment – sometimes you hear people say “You’ve gotta be impressed by how brazen this bank-robber is!” – that I’m impressed does not mean I’m necessarily appreciative.

        We talked before about “You have to, to a degree, judge a work of art/project by how well it accomplishes its own goals.” Heck, I even address this in my own post, but sometimes, it’s just not enough. Sometimes you have to question the goals of the work itself, and pass judgement upon them.

        Combining the above two, as I mentioned in my original post, I don’t think the crowd enjoying the movie was even one of Anno’s goals. Since it’s not a documentary/social agenda film, one has to at least wonder about it. It’s not even a work with a social or moral moral, such as Hugo’s Les Miserables or Dosyovesky’s Crime and Punishment, respectively (I also must find time to re-read Les Miserables, been promising myself I’ll find the time for over five years now).

        Here’s another thing, there’s a definite bait-and-switch going on here. It’s a series of movies, and as such, aside from judging each movie on its own one could and perhaps should also judge a movie that is part of a series AS part of a series. The deconstruction of the concept of disorientation is definitely not what the first two movies had dealt with, except unless they were just an elaborate setup for the lesson delivered by this film.
        But, look at the way the second film ended, look also at the teaser for the third movie. They all told us “We’re finally going to deal with new content, we’re going to deliver unto you changes in the plot, we’ll be going new places, places not explored in the original show.” Shinji in the third film is all about revisiting the first two films and the original show. Not just in the artistic-directorial way you’ve mentioned, of following the footsteps of the original show in terms of specific scenes, but also in literally recreating the situation that had arisen previously in the show.

        The movie is titled “You cannot redo”, which he tries, of course you cannot redo, because you cannot undo the past, you cannot bring back to life dead people (except, that IS what everyone in the show, especially Gendo, are trying to do – EVA are resurrected dead people, Rei keeps coming back to life, Instrumentality project is all about people no longer dying and stopping the flow of time for humanity). But still, he retreads the steps taken before. The movie that was promised to deliver us to terra nova is busy retreading old territory. The “new stuff”, the plot-twists, they’re just a thin-veneer. The characters all remain the same age, how much more symbolic can you get for “Things did not advance”?

        Also, holy wall of text dude, use enter :p

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  5. I see your posts are quite grounded in classic writing theory. Now, while I’m not formally trained in this subject myself, I’m convinced it’s not fair – at least by your metric of evaluating a story with consideration of its goals – to critique anime in terms of standard literary merit. I’m not sure if I’m alone in saying this, but I approach anime completely differently from how I approach literature and other storytelling media. A lot of the time, story is not the point in anime. It’s about the creation of an appealing character. It’s often about leaving the actual depth unstated. It’s made to encourage the viewer to give back, both commercially and creatively. There are words I could bandy about in a discussion like this – modern, postmodern, whatever word suits your fancy – but the point is that the benchmark for success is different in this environment.

    So I admit it: I get a little nervous at discussions like these and when I encounter well-meaning anime critics such as yourself, who adhere mostly to classical theory. I’m not sure to what extent you take into consideration anime’s shifting priorities in your evaluations. I know it’s important to understand how well any given anime succeeds from the classical standards, but it’s only one viewpoint, and I would argue pretty restricting in this context. What are your thoughts on this?

    • A couple thoughts. First, I admit my perspective is just one particularly vantage point – I should probably just write an article on my perspective and priorities in evaluation, since as you say I come from a pretty strict writing-craft background, and that both colors my evaluation and leaves me less well-equipped to fully recognize and appreciate certain other strengths in a visual medium (though I’m trying to improve my understanding of cinematography/direction/etc).

      But perhaps more critically, I don’t think methods of storytelling evaluation are invalidated by anime’s goals – as I say in the article, I just think those goals need to be examined and acknowledged. A show like Evangelion puts the plot absolutely secondary to the character examination, and that’s fine because that’s a valid goal and Evangelion does it REALLY WELL. Or to pick a less convenient example, Aku no Hana focuses almost solely on mood and tone and is very thinly plotted, but I think its priorities are valid as well. But as far as “leaving depth unstated” to give the viewer room to project on the character, well… yeah, I don’t think that results in particularly vibrant fiction, and I’m not going to applaud a show for doing it. Shows designed to create a fandom or sate some specific need and not to just be good fiction are kind of antithetical to what I look for in art. Which means my criticism is not useful for everyone, and I fully accept that – but I don’t think this is something specific to anime. It’s the same with fiction, with film, with western television – there are many stories that make an audience happy by flying in the face of classic storytelling form by design. But “successfully makes its target audience happy” is not what inspires me in fiction, and there are many shows that DO revel in compelling craft and creative storytelling, and those are the ones I’m in anime for. So I guess it is a specific perspective, but it’s one I readily admit and am perfectly comfortable with.

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