Critical Evaluation, Part Two: One Given Perspective

Hey guys, back for Part Two of my critical evaluation piece. In Part One I argued, briefly, that art is valuable insofar as it imparts value upon the observer, and that in the collision between personal values and systems of aesthetic interpretation, we all have our own biases in such matters. Now, with that all said, it’s time to dive right in to my own stupid biases that make my evaluations crap that nobody should listen to. What kind of critic am I? Well, I’m actually pretty transparent.

I’m a student of literature. I’ve been writing successively less crappy fiction for about fifteen years, I majored in English and focused on creative writing back in my college days, and I’ve pretty much always been both studying writing craft and working on some writing-related project. This means I’m biased towards words – if a show has dialogue I find impressive, I will elevate it like hell, and if its prose seems hackneyed and maudlin, almost nothing else it does will move me. When it comes to this, I’m more of an adherent to craft (as I understand it – it should go without saying, but at this point, my statements should be qualified with “according to what I consider artistically effective” throughout) than many of my essays would indicate. For example, even if I thought Clannad worked as a thematically sound tragedy, I’d still consider it a failure simply because I don’t think its writing is good enough to be worth paying attention to. Very few shows have what I consider “good” dialogue (last year, the only two I’d put in this category would be OreGairu and Monogatari), but if you don’t have “passable” dialogue, you are screwed in my estimation. And this love of dialogue naturally extends to a preference for heavy localization over faithful but sterile prose – something I consider an expression of one of my other pillars, a belief that the mundane events of most stories are generally interchangeable, and far more important is the grace and creativity with which those events are expressed. You might even see my style of essay-writing as an expression of this belief.

Log Horizon

This writing focus also means I’m somewhat unsuited to evaluating a visual medium. Sorry! I’m working on that – I think I’ve gotten much better at critiquing good direction, art design, and animation, but I’m much more of a novice in those fields than writing. I used to dismissively refer to a show’s visual aesthetic as the “book cover” – I’ve gotten more appreciative of the power of visual storytelling since then, but it’s still the rare show that will impress me on purely visual terms. In fact, when it comes to shows overall, there are basically two things I consider artistically powerful – characters and themes.

That’s not a very long list, huh? Yeah, it kind of makes me an outlier among anime fans. Generally, you’d also see “interesting stories” or “compelling worlds” or “solid humor” or “exciting action scenes” up there – but for me, no. Those things are fun, and can certainly supplement my own priorities, but personally I believe all the best art articulates something real and true about either people or the world around us. The best art matters – it is rich with meaning, and possesses the ability to move, change, and inspire us. And to me, the engines of that tier of significance are human characters and resonant, well-explored themes. Some shows lean more towards one than the other – OreGairu is basically a strict character study, and Evangelion isn’t far off from that (though it does have strong thematic aspirations too), whereas most of Urobuchi’s shows are very clearly idea-driven narratives. But personally, I believe art’s highest calling is its ability to illustrate human truths in dramatic and emotionally resonant fashion, and if you want to get a 9 or a 10 on my scale, you almost have to bet on your characters or your ideas.

White Album 2

A couple shows manage to beat the system, with the most obvious being Redline. That isn’t a nod to other values – that’s an acknowledgment that my scale for anything doesn’t really end at 10. Redline goes far beyond the needed merits for a “10” in various aesthetic fields, and it is pretty much perfect at what it does, and so it earns a 10. Do I consider it as good as Evangelion? No, not even close – Evangelion’s more like a 14, even though my scale only goes up to 10. Does that mean I should lower my scale in general? No, I’m happy with where it is – for me, “10” is the point where a show’s aesthetic failings are just no longer relevant in light of its strengths, and I’d rather just talk about it as a platform for conversation than evaluate it like a side of beef. The low ceiling of my 10 point scale is an acknowledgment that scales are not a useful way of talking about powerful art – great art inspires thought, change, and conversation, and deserves better than a narrow-minded numerical evaluation. Which is also why most of my reviews don’t actually talk about a show’s overt aesthetic merits – if I’m talking about a show in the first place, it’s generally because it’s good enough that it should be watched, and talked about, and interpreted. Limiting your criticism to an evaluation checklist leads to an impoverished relationship with art.

Going down that checklist, around 8 we reach my usual ceiling on entertainment, populated by shows like Baccano and Code Geass. Baccano’s a great show, and I have no complaints with it – but it’s strictly a fun slice of entertainment, and as I’ve hopefully made abundantly clear, I believe great art aspires to be more than that. Ditto for comedy, which tends to cap out around a 7 on my scale, and by the time we reach 6 we’ve arrived at shows which generally succeed in their goals, but are either also decently flawed or don’t really seem creatively inspired. I don’t find stories for their own sake too exciting – twists don’t mean much to me (and most twists are either foreshadowed, archetype-common, or poorly executed anyway), dramatic scenes that work for me need to be based in either character fundamentals or thematic structure (sensing a pattern here?), and most narrative beats I tend to dismissively file under “stuff happening.” This doesn’t mean I’m anti-plot (or worldbuilding, or tone, or Insert Goal Here) or anything – it just means that plot is not by itself what I tend to watch a show for, though I can certainly acknowledge a well-executed one.


And with that, I hope I’ve covered at least the major questions of why my list of top anime is such a piece of shit. I’m writing-biased, I don’t find narrative to generally be its own reward, and I believe human characters and resonant themes are the cornerstones of great art, though I’m also willing to acknowledge stuff I feel goes above and beyond in other categories. And with that, let’s get to the list!

In a couple weeks. I haven’t actually written it yet. NEXT TIME!

22 thoughts on “Critical Evaluation, Part Two: One Given Perspective

  1. Umm, Evangelion a 14? Am I really the only person who thinks that for all its good characterization Evangelion is a bit poorly planned in general? And I’m not just talking about plot, I also think that its pacing is more than a bit awkward. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I saw Revolutionary Girl Utena – which is when I screamed “THIS! This is what I would have liked Evangelion to be like!”.

    Yeah, I think if I had to address a “perfect” anime for me it’d be either RGU or Paranoia Agent, with criteria ideally quite similar to yours. I guess I’ll have to wait your list before I begin discussing these things :D.

    • Evangelion definitely has structural issues, but for me, faulting it for that compared to other shows is like docking a Scorsese movie because a boom mic is accidentally in the frame of one shot. It’s just on a tier so much higher than the rest of anime when it comes to character writing that its failings seem trivial by comparison.

      • It’s just that for me it pushes a few big NO buttons, I guess. One being the use of symbolism without actual research/meaning behind it. I am more of a plot person than a character person, I suppose. Anyway, while I can see it being really innovative in its era, I’d argue that even its character writing has found its match in some examples of more recent anime. Utena would be an example, and I think the best (as in: most realistic) character writing I can think of was in Planetes. Though thinking about it, both of these are adapted works (well, I think Utena was more kind of a multimedia project…? Not sure really), so Evangelion might still be the best one of TV originals. There are many things I enjoyed about Puella Magi Madoka Magica and I’d argue I overall liked it more than Evangelion, but character writing isn’t one of them, really.

        • I would call Utena’s anime an original. I think Saito said got a lot of her plot direction from Ikuhara anyway.

      • I felt similarly when I rewatched Eva recently. It was my first real anime so I thought my retrospective opinion might be biased, but the re-watch confirmed to me the character depth is on a whole ‘nother level from most other things.

        Plus, it’s a “this is the way things are” story, which I generally prefer to the more popular “this is the way things should be” stories.

  2. This was an eye-opening read. Thanks for that.

    I now understand why you value writing above other things. Some of your reviews/final impressions have frustrated me in the past since I’ve been unable to grasp why you give the scores you do, but it makes sense now.

  3. I await your list with much curiosity.

    Reading this, I was also reminded of one of the things on my own mental checklist that I quickly elevate shows for. I appreciate good writing – like you, I was an English major and have also done creative writing, although because of the PhD my main focus tended more towards the academic – but what I really love seeing in anime is breathing space. All too often I see dialogue that shouldn’t be there to begin with. It’s not necessarily terrible dialogue, but it’s almost always pointless. While I don’t mind dialogue-heavy shows in the least, I do mind it when an empty space is filled with completely needless words, for no other reason than because the creators wanted to fill the silence. To me, some of the very best anime titles out there are those that don’t run from the quiet.

      • Haven’t seen Usagi Drop. Miyazaki’s works… well, they are great in general. Funny, I don’t think I ever stopped to realize the role of silence in them. They just flow very naturally to me. And speaking of Ghibli, “Whisper of the Heart” would be another wonderful example.

  4. To connect these two accounts, my comment in your recent post:

    Your post pretty much explains where we differ. I think that big aspirations are nice, but I’m perfectly fine with entertainment for the sake of entertainment. My biggest problems are with shows that will have big, contrived setups for some kind of philosophical payoff when it just feels so fake. One of the reasons I like Kill la Kill so much is that it’s approach to personal philosophy pretty much lines up with my own. I also don’t mind finding my own meaning or theme in a show that wasn’t necessarily meant to.

    Also, I don’t really have a rating system. Anime (or just media in general) is either amazing, good, forgotten, or so horribly bad that I couldn’t forget about it if I wanted to.

    • Kill la Kill’s an interesting example for these sorts of discussions. One way I might frame my storytelling preference is that, for all that storytelling is a “performance” by the creator, I also very much like to think of it as a “conversation” – as a direct imparting of perspective and sentiment from a creator to a viewer (which is then interpreted through their own experience). And with Kill la Kill, I often feel like I’m trying to have a conversation with someone who keeps changing the subject. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that the show is failing, but more that I can’t enjoy it as pure performance because it keeps starting conversations that seem compelling only to veer into other ones, and that’s the sort of thing that my interest will naturally latch on to. I actually might like the show more if it just didn’t start these conversations in the first place.

      • I notice a lot of influence from Film Critic Hulk in your writeups, or maybe it’s a focus on literature. After listening to the podcast, I think that I disagree with you almost as often as I agree with you, though I’m not sure because I had trouble telling the voices apart and was too lazy to go back to the beginning and try to figure out who was who.

        Focusing on Kill la Kill, I’ve been rewatching some of the old episodes, and I think I’m going to stick with my assertion that the show is about having the strength to find your own way in a philosophically overloaded world, and I think they start with Satsuki’s first speech. In Kill la Kill’s world, saying no is much more important than saying yes. Also, the song that Matoi keeps ignoring.

        Not focusing on Kill la Kill, I think that what you call conversations are more or less speeches to a crowd, and that shows that actually have conversations with the viewer leave at least some room for debate. Not in the sense that they purposefully weaken their arguments, but in the sense that on some level they acknowledge that other arguments could exist.

        • I think a line has to be drawn between purposeful ambiguity and messages just not being articulated in a convincing way. Utena has plenty of purposeful ambiguity, for example – it doesn’t explain all of its own ideas, but they are all explored in some depth, and the fact that they reflect on each other becomes obvious through the show’s base presentation, not because it’s pushing one given agenda. Whereas I feel Kill la Kill leaves plenty of room for interpretation largely because it just doesn’t complete its own sentences – you can assign a great number of reads to the show because it just offers a variety of touchstones, not fully articulated arguments.

          I also think a show can offer one strong perspective without being didactic. In fact, I think this is generally one of the strengths of art – that it can put ideas in more personal, human tones, allowing you to actually feel the way a creator feels about a given idea. Urobuchi’s shows obviously do this – their general pattern is “this is the way I feel the world is, this is what I feel people are like, and this is my conclusion.” This doesn’t “prove” his point and stifle debate – it merely articulates a strong, passionate feeling in one direction, which I think is valuable.

  5. Interesting that you write that art should be able to move and inspire us. I definitely agree with you, but as you said everyone has their own viewpoints, experiences, and values. I know people who loved TTGL and clannad after story because it changed their lives as a person. Really big fans of Gurren Lagaan believe its a journey to manhood and it inspired them as well to be better and wasn’t more than just entertainment. You might not agree with those people I’m sure, but on the other hand, shows that you really like and felt had meaning is like by other people for far different aspects of a show or just not liked. Evangelion, for example, though widely respected, is a series that many people don’t like because they hate the characters and the plot. They don’t feel connected or just don’t like the lesson that is being displayed. and so don’t consider Evangelion to be art or something they can appreciated. Another good example of this is your analysis of the Monogatari series. While I really like the analysis you made, most people like and watch Monogatari for a much different reason than the in depth character analysis and themes that you did.

    I guess I’m just reaffirming what you said in your Part 1, on different tastes, values, and how one views a series. Different people opinions on different shows and their own analysis is always interesting to me to see how another person think and what values he got from a show that I didn’t. Its fascinating. Anyways, I will be looking forward to your list, though I can probably suspect a lot on your list. XD

    • Yeah, it’s all connected – because I consider art’s insight and emotional truth generally its highest calling, and because the effectiveness or worth of that truth is always partially a reflection of my internalized system of criticism and media appreciation, my list will always be my list. And I think you’re right, my list will probably not be that surprising 😛

  6. I’m a student of literature.

    Explains your wooing over fiction discussion in Oregairu and Kyoukai no Kanata (among other things). Not that it’s a bad thing, really.

  7. I’ve said this before, but after reading about your priorities, I’m going to once again have to recommend you get around to playing Umineko. Seriously going down your checklist it’s all there in ample amounts. Some of it may not be apparent right away as Umineko takes a bit of time to delve into it’s multiple layers. Anyway I know you have already said you plan on it at some point, but the more I read of your tastes the more I want to see your opinions on this fantastic gem of literature.

  8. Pingback: Top 30 Anime of All Time | Wrong Every Time

  9. Pingback: Top 30 Anime Series of All Time | Wrong Every Time

  10. speaking of dialogue, have you ever seen serial experiments lain? i think it was one of the most visually evocative anime i’ve ever seen. by the way, i’ve been stalking this blog for a while now:) love your writing!

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