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.
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.
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!