The Way of Criticism

Note: I might write a second part if I feel like there’s a need to cover more things, as well as if I come up with enough content to justify it.

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I’ve been a part of the anime community for a while now and one thing that I never understood is the mentality behind the common criticisms I hear. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t criticize anything, in fact those who know me well are very aware that I’m an advocate for criticism. It’s good for us to be able to explain why we dislike something, what we’d improve in it, why it failed, etc. However, every single day I see someone essentially spitting on criticism and giving it a bad name. I’ll attempt to explain exactly what criticism is for me and how I personally criticize fiction, giving guidelines for people who are interested in it.

The first thing we have to do is being able to tell hate apart from criticism. While I’m a relativist when it comes to fiction, meaning I believe there are as many perspectives on a fiction work as there are people, mindless hate and criticism are actually very different in my eyes. Criticism is when you’re pointing out what you perceive to be flaws and giving examples to complement your argument. So when you claim that something is badly written, you’re going to explain exactly what you mean by that, and not leave it at that, because that’s just too vague. And that vagueness is exactly what people who are hating on a work love. Since most of the time they can’t explain exactly what’s wrong with the work, they resort to cheap tricks and end up making a fool out of themselves by making their argument as vague as possible. I see this a lot of time, especially with certain kinds of people who love to hate on everything they watch (I don’t think I need to explain what kind of people these are). These vague arguments are made possible thanks to the infamous ‘buzzwords’ that float around in the anime community, and they are also used in other communities, though not as much from my experience. One of these buzzwords is one you might be very familiar with, ‘overrated’. Now, this one is straight up laughable when you’re attempting to criticize something. I myself use this word a lot when talking on skype with friends or something casual but when I’m actually trying to explain why I dislike something, I never use that word. The reason why that word just doesn’t do it for me is precisely because the worth of a a fiction work depends on what aspects we value the most. If I’m someone who cannot like a fiction work without the characters being great, then something like Shinsekai Yori, despite having amazing world-bulding and lore, just won’t do it for me. However, that doesn’t mean SSY is bad just because its characters are mostly used for world exploration and left mostly undeveloped and bland. We have to look at the message that Shinsekai Yori tries to transmite, and what it’s trying to do. Obviously it’s not a character exploration work, nor is it trying to be one in the first place. From the very start it’s exploring this utopian society that the characters live in, and attempting to transmit a message about what’s wrong with it. So if someone calls Shinsekai Yori overrated because its characters suck, that individual just missed what the show was trying to do. Different works have different formulas, and we can’t just stick to the old “story and characters” formula with certain pieces. One prime example of this formula being useless is Millennium Actress. If we’re judging it by using that formula, you’re going to be very disappointed because the characters aren’t well written at all and the story feels inconsistent due to it changing between the present time, the main character’s memories and the films she participated in. However what is it that makes Millennium Actress so loved by so many people? It’s its presentation, its way of telling a story and coveying the amazing themes about pursuing our dreams even if they are illusions made up by us. It’s a thematic piece that should be looked at as such, and not using a standard formula. So calling it overrated and then applying that formula to explain it just doesn’t work.

The ‘overrated’ word is the worst in my book, however there are more buzzwords that I think are just lazy excuses. One of them is “otaku-pandering bullshit”. Let’s think about this one for a moment: it’s true that fanservice in anime is primarily directed at the people who will buy it, the otakus, and therefore they include some jokes or scenes with boobs shaking or something similar. Someone who has seen a good amount of anime should be familiar with this trope. Now, I’m as annoyed as the next person regarding this trope, due to how overused it became, however it doesn’t work as criticism by itself, especially if you just use the term and don’t even give examples. Sometimes the fanservice doesn’t get in the way of the story progression and it doesn’t hinder the development of the characters. Can you really blame the staff for adding fanservice to try and improve the sales? Don’t forget that anime don’t sell well enough to make the people in the industry rich, it’s actually the opposite. I’m personally fine with fanservice as long as it’s not too much and it doesn’t interfere with what the show is about. Of course some shows are all about it, and they are announced as such in the first place, so what you see is what you get. That’s why I never understood people complaining about ecchi anime having too much fanservice. Why are you complaining about something that is inherent to the genre itself? It makes no sense whatsoever. At most you can criticize the anime industry for having an oversaturation of these types of shows, to which I would absolutely agree, but it doesn’t work for individual shows, I’m afraid. Additionally, why don’t people complain about western shows doing the same? The most popular shows like Game of Thrones do the exact same and have tons and tons of pointless sex scenes and nobody complains as much as they do with anime. Is it because in anime we only get a ‘tease’, and rarely do we ever get actual sex (outside of hentai)? Fair enough, but unless the sex scenes are actually relevant to what the show is trying to accomplish, they are much more annoying than the fanservice in anime, and usually they go on for much longer too. Another lazy excuse that most people will recognize is ‘good/bad writing’. Now I use this one a lot but never as a standalone argument because it doesn’t fly. It’s important to explain what you consider to be good or bad writing and giving examples about it, otherwise nobody will understand your point. To me bad writing is when the situation doesn’t feel natural because the author didn’t do a good job at setting it up, or when a character isn’t written to be a character but just a walking archetype or a member of a harem. I always try my best to explain why I think something is not well written because that way I’m both avoiding being vague and also giving whoever reads my argument the ability to argue back by disagreeing with what I said. If you leave it at “it’s badly written”, the argument stops there: who can argue against something like that when they don’t even know what that means?

The last buzzword I want to cover in this article (there are many more but if I went over each one, we’d be here for months) is ‘pretentious’. Now, this word just reeks with hate. It has no worth at all when criticizing something and very rarely will you come by someone who uses it and is able to explain exactly why the work is pretentious. The reason why this word is popular is mainly because of the anime series that have something to say, and it’s usually something to be taken seriously. Now let’s use my personal example to explain why this criticism doesn’t roll. I am a fan of Neon Genesis Evangelion and its sequel movie, and I love discussing the themes that it presented with other fans, and while I do admit that Eva does have a lot of problems, it does what it sets out to do perfectly, which is to study the mentality of the characters and how their trauma makes them seek isolation and human warmth at the same time. That’s fine and all, but what about the religious symbolism and abstract concepts that it uses? Those are what make some people call it pretentious after all. Well, calling something pretentious because of symbolism is a pathetic and lazy excuse to explain why you didn’t like it. The word ‘pretentious’ implies that the show is trying to be more than it is, however Evangelion uses that symbolism from the start, even if it’s way more subtle in its earlier episodes, and it DOES have a reason to be there, it’s not random. On the other hand, I hate Serial Experiments Lain because I felt like its themes weren’t at all well portrayed, that it wasted too much time being abstract and that it lacks substance. In general I like the idea behind it, which was the fear of the internet making people lose their individuality back in the 90s, but its execution is really poor and most of the time I didn’t understand anything that was on screen, whereas with the End of Evangelion movie I always managed to follow what it was showing, even if it went completely abstract, which it did, because it still maintained its substance and message. However, I won’t call Lain pretentious because I didn’t fully understand it or because I thought the execution was terribly flawed, instead I’m going to explain exactly what makes me think that Lain could have been much better and why I’m not too big on its core theme. Disregarding something as “pretentious” is just a lazy way of explaining that you didn’t understand what the anime was trying to tell you, or that you just didn’t like its themes or thought the execution of said themes was problematic.

Now that I’ve talked about what not to do when criticizing fiction, I’m going to give some short guidelines about how I personally go at it. The first thing is that you should watch the whole anime before writing a review or criticizing it. The reason for this is because as much as you might want to say that you can identify shit after one episode due to how many years you’ve been in the community, it’s simply not possible. Let’s look at Chivalry of a Failed Knight for instance. It has the most overused setting in the medium at the moment, and that’s all you get to see in the first episode. However when you actually give it time, it shows that it’s not at all like the others, because this time you have a main character that struggles a lot due to his shortcomings, a main heroine who is looked at as a genius and her hard work disregarded due to that, and a little sister who is in love with her brother not because of incest-pandering like some people would call it, but because she grew up watching everyone insulting him, and she felt sorry for the guy, which she eventually mistook as love. Would you be able to tell the characters could be described with more than a one-liner after just one episode? Of course not, nobody would. The exception to this rule is when it’s a comedy. I personally don’t write reviews or criticize comedies at all because there’s usually little I can say about them, but usually the style of comedy used will be the same throughout the anime, so chances are, nothing is going to happen that changes your opinion on it. Another important thing to do when criticizing is avoiding generalizations and instead using comparisons. One thing I hear some people say is “Ping Pong the Animation is bad because it’s a sports anime”, and I can’t even begin to tell you just how wrong this is. You can’t use the genre itself as a means to criticize something, that’s as bad as saying that an ecchi anime has too much fan-service. Instead of generalizing genres or settings or the fact that it’s a LN adaptation, I always seek to compare it with other works that are similar to it. With the previous example of Chivalry of a Failed Knight, we can compare it to, say, Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei which has essentially the same setting but instead of the focus being on the characters, it’s all about how cool a power is and it uses several info-dumps to explain a single action that the main character does. Chivalry wins precisely because its characters are so superior to the ones in Mahouka, the incest references has a reasoning behind it in Chivalry and the main character actually struggles to get through situations and the hatred that other people have for him due to his lack of ability, whereas the one in Mahouka is made so people self-insert in an overpowered character that all girls love for no reason, which shows laziness when writing the character. The popularity of a work should also be avoided as criticism towards that work because it has no bearing on its quality, and the same can be said when praising it (so no “many people like it so it has to be good” mentality, that’s just a sheepling’s mentality). Additionally, and on the same line of logic, avoid using other people’s opinions or reviews as a way of saying that something is bad. I’ve seen many “my friend says it’s terrible so it’s terrible” comments on forums and that’s just being really lazy. To this end, avoid being blinded by hype, whether in an ultra-positive or ultra-negative aspect, since hype just produces backlash, and the more hype there is, the more backlash there will be, and it’s best to stay out of that hype if you want to be serious about criticizing something. Extremism is never good.

Another thing that is very important to understand is that the production values should not be the main source of criticism. The reason for that is because regardless of the show, its core is in its themes, story, characters, presentation, etc. The artwork, animation and soundtracks are there to complement that core, but they are just the seasoning and never the main dish. I do mention them in almost all of my reviews but more as a side thing than anything else. Praising or criticizing an anime for its production values is pointless because you’re just praising or criticizing whoever funded the anime. This means that when you want to explain why, say, Fate/Zero is great, you won’t start by saying it has god-like Ufotable animation and instead that should be reserved for later in the review. It’s also important that you don’t look solely on the positive/negative aspects of something, but both. One of the main examples I have about this aspect in particular is Clannad. Now, it’s easy to criticize Clannad regarding the ending, since despite it not being an asspull like many people said, it does hurt the structure of the story a bit, and it’s never a positive aspect in a story. However, to disregard everything that it accomplished before of that is just insane, and not the right way to criticize something. That’s where the difference between the critic and the elitist lies (which I already talked about in a previous article): the critic knows what he’s talking about so he’ll mention both the good and the bad and what should have been improved, whereas the elitist will hate on it by using buzzwords and vague criticism. Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that other people will have different opinions from your own, and that your opinion is NOT objective by any means, though it can have more or less value than someone else’s depending on how informed both parties are (not everyone deserves to have an opinion but everyone deserves to have an informed opinon). This one is extremely common in political science and it can be applied really easily to fiction, because of all the ‘ad hominem’ arguments that float around, like when someone says “you’re a fan of Urobuchi so your opinion has no value” or “my opinion is objective and yours sucks because you haven’t seen as many anime as I have”. I wish I was joking but I’ve actually seen those kinds of criticisms before, and they weren’t a satire. Attacking the other party is NOT acceptable under any means since what’s being discussed is an anime, not the quality of the taste of the parties discussing it, so avoid that at all costs.

Now there’s many more things I would want to talk about regarding this matter but due to lack of time, I’ll leave it at that. The important lesson to take from all of this is that we all should look at fiction as ‘critics’, because it helps us develop our brains and our ability to argue, which will help us a lot in real life, plus I personally find it very fun to analyze the shows I love or despise, since I like to know exactly what I like or dislike about them, and then compare it with other similar shows to see whether or not there’s a correlation. At the end of the day fiction is all about enjoying ourselves so each person should be free to look at it however they want, but keep in mind that if you want to be taken seriously when criticizing something, you should follow certain guidelines and avoid making a fool out of yourself.

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