What Defines a Work as Mature?


What makes a show “mature” or “for adults?” I see people throw these terms around in a condescending way, saying that shows like Steins;Gate or Madoka are inferior to shows like Monster because they’re aimed at teenagers. Are there any actual guidelines or metrics here?

Continue reading

Fundamental Biases and Art Evaluation

Management: This one was a really excellent question, and this topic is definitely something that critics need to be more willing to engage with and admit toHopefully this little confession won’t invalidate all my future criticism or anything.

You’ve previously talked about the distinction between personal enjoyment and artistic evaluation, and how what you like isn’t necessarily the most artistically impressive anime. Could you talk a bit about any fundamental biases you’ve noticed in your own anime appreciation/evaluation?

Oh, I’ve got a ton, in both the positive and negative directions.

On the positive side, I’ll definitely slant towards introspective and character-focused works over narrative or theme-based ones, though obviously this can change based on my perception of how well they accomplish what they try to do (Madoka’s all narrative and theme, and I absolutely love it). It generally goes Character->Theme->Narrative for me. I’m also a sucker for great or even decently well-articulated romance, and can follow one well-written and intriguing character through a generally mediocre show. I think pretty much the only things Ano Natsu had going for it were okay dialogue and decent chemistry between the main romantic pair, and that was all I needed to finish it. I also highly value snappy dialogue, and interesting narrative or pacing tricks and experiments (like the mini-arcs Gargantia builds out of various thematic points). I also really like imperfect shows that reveal a very distinctive creative vision, or, at the opposite end, shows that reveal a great mastery of storytelling craft fundamentals.

On the negative end, I could not care much less about setting and worldbuilding – they’re close to irrelevant to the way I evaluate art, and while I prefer a nice background world to a generic one, either way it’s window dressing for me. A character whose personality seems designed to make the audience happy, or moderate general fanservice, will rapidly sink a show for me. Leaden dialogue will sink a show even if the visual design is great and the story fairly well plotted. Narrative or dramatic cheating will often sink a show, particularly if that show wants you to invest in the reality of its world. Visual design in general is secondary to what I like about anime – again, if it’s got it, great, but it’s not what I’m there for and it won’t save a show. Sound design is also gravy – I’m in shows for characters, themes, and storytelling, and while everything outside of the writing can do great things to supplement or raise up those elements, they will pretty much always be supplementary, not central to my appreciation. Some shows do rise above this – KyoAni, the Monogatari franchise, and recently Brain’s Base have done a great deal of their character-building and storytelling through visual cues. This I really appreciate, and would like to see more of.

That’s all I can think of at the moment, but everyone has a million of them, and it’s a really interesting topic.

Quick Aside on Critical Media Appreciation


I feel that my experiences talking with the anime community have forced me to acknowledge too many flaws in shows I used to enjoy, thus lessening my enjoyment of anime. Do you think this is a necessary consequence of engaging with the anime community?


The process that you’re ascribing to the internet here is basically “forcing me to apply critical thinking to my media”. To me, this is the opposite of a bad thing; stress-testing my opinions on and off the internet has helped me become a more discerning and critically-minded human being. Moving from simply enjoying or not enjoying a show to appreciating the thousand pieces that make up its artistic DNA is like stepping out from black and white Kansas into technicolor Oz.

There are so many shows that really reward a deeper look, and you can still enjoy any show you connect to while also being aware it’s not a perfect work. In fact, sometimes I actually enjoy shows for their flaws – often what a director was trying to say is most apparent in the way their show fails or overreaches, and if I weren’t looking for things like this, I’d just think “bad” and miss the humanity of the show. For me, a critical eye for media only enhances my appreciation of anime.

On the other hand, I think the specific point that discussion on the internet has helped me realize is that enjoyment and aesthetic respect or appreciation are two very different things. I can enjoy mediocre shows because they appeal to me while acknowledging they’re mediocre; I can respect well-crafted shows that don’t appeal to me without feeling obligated to watch them. Being able to look at media critically shouldn’t stop you from liking what you like.

Thoughts on Formulaic Storytelling and Critiquing Entertainment

Management: This discussion was prompted by the creator of this blog post reflecting on the role repetition plays in enabling climactic and satisfying reversals in storytelling, and how our repetition-bred expectations can lead to more resonant moments in media. It’s a great article and a fascinating subject, and I only begin to explore the artistic implications here.


Do you consider the formulaic structure so much anime adopts a problem for you?


I really like the point your article raises, about formula-breaking moments containing that much more power and significance by virtue of how established those formulas were prior to that point. The problem as I see it is that those moments don’t actually validate all the formulaic stuff that came before – sure, they lend it added significance, but they don’t make it in and of itself worthwhile or artistically interesting. I don’t know if there are any easy answers here, either… hm… let me cover some other facets of this, and then I’ll try to loop back around to that.

Alright, first, I do think formula does in fact have a place in certain works. It’s generally not that compatible with tight storytelling/character-building/thematic explorations, but not all shows are about those things, or need to be – for example, I think Madhouse’s Hunter x Hunter reboot is just a very fun exploration of the shonen genre, and most of the arcs follow semi-typical shonen structures, but the show is meant pretty specifically just to entertain. Well-crafted popcorn can be its own reward, and I think formula can be used to great effect there.

But regarding shows that actually want to say something, or develop characters with emotional resonance? There, I think it’s much more difficult to argue for formula, but there are still examples that kind of ride the borderline. For example, I think Cowboy Bebop is a great show that articulates a classic but still solid theme about the difficulty of rising above your past self and redefining/rebuilding yourself, but I also think it uses formula to great effect – many of the episodes are just “bounty-of-the-week” adventures, but they work very well as independent storytelling vignettes, and they contribute both to the mood/world-building as well as the slow-building empathy the audience is meant to feel for the emotionally distant/reserved protagonists. And many great shows are built almost entirely of similar thematically related vignettes (Kino’s Journey), and many other shows use a series of utterly unconnected and similarly structured conflicts to slowly build a mood and set of characters for the underlying story (Hyouka). There are endless examples of degrees of this, and frankly, the fact that anime is an episodic medium means that for most shows, the mere necessity of an initial conflict, rising tension, and resolution each episode will result in a number of semi-similar structures. This is just how storytelling works in mediums like this.

But I think your point was treading on more difficult ground – if the formulaic structure is useful purely because it provides a structure that can create suspense and surprise if deviated from. Honestly, within a single work, I don’t think this leads to incredibly successful art – it might lead to great moments, but as I said at the beginning, the subversion doesn’t retroactively grant all the prior material meaning, character, and distinction if it didn’t have those things to start.

However, I do think the meta-narrative trick of subverting expectations with the entire scope of a work can be effective and lead to consistent artwork, as long as that work is internally consistent. This is where I think shows like Eva and Madoka fall – even if part of their power comes from changing what came before, all the parts of those shows are solid on their own merits, and in fact the first few episodes of each provide some of that original context (though obviously well-written and tonally/thematically consistent with the later parts) to provide a portion of that dramatic turn even for people not well-versed in the relevant genres. Most of what makes these shows good is not their deconstructive or genre-defying nature anyway – it’s the fact that they’re well-written and well-produced stories with a lot of good inherent ideas, regardless of their position within an artistic tradition.

Incidentally, I think another interesting example of a similar effect is Aku no Hana – I don’t think it would come off nearly as effectively if audiences were used to rotoscoping, and that the art style intentionally serves to unbalance viewer expectations. But again, I think that art choice also results in a mood that works in that show’s favor outside of medium-conditioned viewer expectations, which makes this another example of “it works partially because of this expectation-subverting trick, but it also just plain works.”


Management: I’m rewriting this question so my response makes any goddamn sense – it wasn’t even really a question initially, but the subject is so interesting that I kind of went off on it regardless.

I think there may be differences in our standards of evaluation. I look for anime to succeed first and foremost as entertainment – and that moment of unexpected subversion results in great entertainment for me, regardless of whether it succeeds as “high art.” Also, you’ve covered a variety of ways formula can affect anime, but isn’t the phenomenon I’m referring to with Mazinger a little different from the craft arguments you’ve put forth?


I don’t really mean to deny or demean the role of entertainment in media, I just feel that even (in fact, sometimes especially) shows that exist primarily to entertain still work within structures that can be examined and discussed – they have “goals” just like any message-oriented art, those goals are just different. For example, I think Redline is a pretty perfect piece of entertainment and nothing more, but it’s far from a stupid work – it displays an incredibly high degree of craft through its mastery of propulsive storytelling structure and economy of characterization/dialogue. Its “goal” is to entertain, but it entertains by doing what it does very intelligently and well. I don’t think saying “this work is just meant to be entertaining and nothing more” means it’s not useful or interesting to critically examine that work – it might not have deep themes to discuss, but storytelling is an art form worthy of discussion even if you disregard “message” works. So when I talk about whether a work is “successful” or not (I also don’t really like the high art/low art divide, and don’t find it all that meaningful), I’m mainly talking about whether I think it did the best job it could to succeed in its own goals, be they tell a taut and entertaining story or illuminate the nature of the universe or whatever.

But your point about entertainment being a relative value is a sound one. As much as I believe there are definite ways mastery and execution of craft can be close to objectively measured, art’s effect on the viewer, and what specific elements that viewer responds to, will always be a subjective, personal thing. It’s always good to keep that in mind.

I also agree that the specific situation your article describes is different and distinctive from the ones I’ve been discussing. There’s something more fundamentally shocking there, something that really seems difficult to quantify according to classic storytelling models… if I understand the kind of series Mazinger is, it seems like it conditions you to love these characters in the context of one entire genre over years, and then flips the table on you. That’s not just deconstructing a preexisting genre – that’s changing the stakes of a world you’re already emotionally invested in. The only example of that kind of thing which immediately comes to mind for me is Clannad, which is basically one story and genre of anime for 35 episodes, then abruptly shifts to another story and genre of anime, while keeping the characters you’ve already associated with the first mode. The thing is, I don’t think Clannad actually works in the way I talk about things “working,” because, well, first the writing is just not very good, but more fundamentally because the kinds of repetition that characterize the early arcs are not the correct kind of repetition for the emotional turn it’s hoping to provoke – they reflect more on tangential side characters, and their emotional stakes are not tied tightly enough to the actual protagonists, at least not often enough.

But if a story did do that… if it used the kind of repetition I mentioned Bebop or Hyouka employing for many episodes, and then veered into a turn in the way Clannad or Mazinger does…

Yeah, I think there’s a whole goddamn lot of resonant storytelling potential there.

Damn, now I’m getting all kinds of crazy ideas…