“In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
― C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
Perhaps better remembered by the masses for his beloved Chronicles of Narnia children’s book series, C.S. Lewis was also quite the literary critic. Despite his obviously Christian perspective and faith, both which are present in his works, Lewis remains accessible to both non-Christians and Christians alike. You don’t need to be a Christian to enjoy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe just as you don’t need to be well-versed in literary critical theory to enjoy literature.
By extension, you don’t need to be an anime expert to enjoy anime.
Frog-kun at Fantastic Memes published an interesting dialogue post discussing the dangers of exalting objectivity as a valid quality measurement of a critic’s work. The primary part of the danger lies in the misuse of the word itself. When we think “objectivity”, we sometimes mistakenly think of something that presents any viewpoint as equally valid (no matter how ridiculous or irrational), or appealing to one “true truth” that actually is just a popular opinion. Or we see objectivity as a descriptor for a more clinical, detached experience of the work, a process where we excise our biases, prejudices and conscious selves from the work.
So what do we mean by “objective”? It’s safe to assume that we associate objectivity with truth. We define objectivity as a negative to subjectivity, objectivity is what subjectivity is not. Objectivity is truth that exists without bias, emotions, even personality.
When you think about it, evaluating an anime, or any work of art, really, objectively is difficult. Our experience of a work of art is so subjective, so dependent on our personal experiences. Even if our methodology for evaluating a work of art may not directly draw from personal experience, our thought process, in isolation, is personal and unique, and thereby limited to our selves.
So rather than strive for objectivity, since that’s pretty much impossible, would it not be more useful to sharpen our subjective lenses?
Reader-Response Criticism: Self-Centered or Selfless?
There are many schools of thought on how we evaluate and experience art. I’ll talk specifically about literary criticism, which is focused mostly on looking at literature but there’s a lot that we can apply to experiencing narrative forms, including anime.
Literary criticism, also known as critical theory, literary theory, or for some minimalist hipsters, just “theory”, is really just a fancy academic’s way of analyzing stories. When we read a book, there’s a lot more that’s going on than just the plot. Most people experience the story on an immersive, narratorial level–we get sucked into the world and characters of a tale, have a plot chase us around until we reach the end. And for some people, that’s where it ends. We close the book and think, “Hey, that was pretty good.” And we move on to other things, the characters and plot already half forgotten the next day.
Not that this is necessarily a horrible way to read. Some stories just don’t click with us. But it is a limited, superficial experience of a story.
What’s great about literary theory is the number of doors it opens. There’s no such thing as “one true way” to read a story, there are hundreds. Some schools of thought focus on looking at texts within various contexts–sociological, historical, gender, political, cultural. Others, like formalism, take the text out of any contexts and look only at the text itself–examining its formal features like style, syntax (word choice) and grammar. The weirder ones, like deconstructionist theory, break down the harmony quality of texts and spew out their contents as messy, ever-conflicting levels of literal and figurative meaning.
Reader-response criticism, as the term suggests, looks at texts through how readers respond to them. I like this school of thought because it’s accessible to non literary-minded folks.
It also provides an answer to the subjectivity vs objectivity conundrum that’s plagued any critic or fan (you can’t really be a critic without being a fan on some level). How can we be objective if we’re naturally subjective in evaluating art?
Reader-response criticism focuses not so much on the author or the text itself but the reader or the audience and their experience to it. To reader response critics, the text or work of art is naturally incomplete without a reader or audience. Literature becomes not a static, enduring object but a live performance between text and reader. Some critics study this performance through the eyes of the individual while others look more broadly into popular reader reactions and emotional trends.
For reader-response critics, the question of objectivity and subjectivity never becomes an issue. Why? Because from their standpoint, reading is always both subjective and objective.
How is this possible? The core of reader-response criticism seems to rely solely on the reader and their interpretation. Does this not mean reader-response criticism is subjective? Yes, it does but reader response criticism is more than just the reader’s reaction. It involves the text that elicits the reaction. And the text is objective in the sense that it is immutable. Both text and reader are irrevocably linked and complement each other. A reader cannot be a reader with the text and the text cannot impart meaning or provide experience without a reader. What reader-response criticism is a bimodal model for reading, which is really just a pretentious way of saying that there are two things at work when a reading takes place–the reader reading and the text being read. We accept the text as “objective” in that it is fixed and does not change. We accept that the reader’s experience of the text is an entirely subjective one.
Note that “subjective” reading doesn’t necessarily mean “bad” reading. Subjectivity is part of experiencing art. We can’t help but bring ourselves in when we appreciate a story, a work of beauty, a song. However, subjectivity is limited, and because we recognize that, we crave for something that is more than limited, something beyond our experience, something more “truthful.” This elusive quality of unlimited and discrete truth is something we’ve labeled as “objectivity”.
Whether or not “objectivity” can be obtained is another issue entirely, and beyond the scope of this post. While “true objectivity” (which is far too difficult and vague a concept for me to pound out) may not be attainable, there are more “objective” ways of subjective experience. We may approach media and art with our limited subjective readings, but there’s no need to resign ourselves to passively following our preferences. Reader-response criticism encourages us to not just read subjectively, but to read actively, receptively and with keen awareness.
Active “Reading” in Anime Watching
Now anime, being a visual medium, is more than its literary narrative structure but, reader-response criticism offers a useful model for viewer consumption of media and literary art in general. Which includes anime. I’ll refer to C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism (1961), a reader-response critical work (fantastic read by the way and very accessible) that gives some great points on how to read more thoughtfully, actively and with purpose.
“Those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work, ten, twenty, or thirty times during the course of their life.” (2)
You know that knee-jerk reaction you get when someone mentions an atrociously bad anime? It doesn’t even matter if you only watched the first episode, or if you’ve never even watched it all. “Guilty Crown sucks! Only dumb people watch SAO! If you watch Infinite Stratos, you sir, have lousy taste.” We’ve heard it all before and yes, many of us are guilty of drawing these conclusions. Why? Because they’re easy shortcuts to evaluating anime. Excessive fan service? Check. Cliched characters in tones of extra bland? Check. A scandalously skimpy plot or sense of world-building? Check and check.
When we compliment someone on their good taste, we’re not praising their ability to discern what’s good, beautiful and proper. We’re validating their aesthetics for aligning with ours. Which is not really objective at all. But maybe striving for a purely objective view isn’t a useful pursuit.
I’m going to make a somewhat bold statement and just go out and say it: in general, there are no truly bad anime–only “bad” ways of watching. Sure, there are those notorious titles out there, spoken only in the most scathing tones by veteran anime critics. The fans of those infamous titles typically fall into two camps: the extremely vocal crusading defendant and the invisible person in the closet.
Some critics will even go a step further to denounce anything that’s remotely mainstream, denouncing popular franchises and titles with such certainty, as if art that’s accessible to the many must be shallow and audience pandering. Anime fans who pride themselves on having a taste refiner than your average “casual” fan tend to scoff at anime that’s too mainstream, preferring to laud quirkier and more obscure shows, just to show how sophisticated their taste in anime is.
I’ll use a personal example to explain this. It’s not a big secret that I’m a big fan of Yu-Gi-Oh, which is notoriously mainstream, not particularly well-animated, and blatantly commercialized plot centered on selling trading cards. The dialogue is “cheesy”, the plot overwrought with every shonen trope (considering how many episodes and franchises there are, they’ve had a lot of mileage for this). By the arbitrarily declared objective reviewer, Yu-Gi-Oh! would be considered a “bad” anime. So is it a show unworthy of a critic’s attention? Of a fan’s dedication?
From a reader-response critic’s point of view, the answer is no. There are no inherently unliterary works–instead, the problem is that there are unliterary ways of reading.
Lewis talks about the characteristics of unliterary readers, which he ascribes to the “many” as opposed to the “few” literary ones. There are several habits that distinguish a literary reader from an unliterary one. Unliterary readers aren’t necessarily bad readers–they’re just not that into reading.
#1: Unliterary readers (so, most people) don’t read things more than once. And who can blame us? We’re busy people and there’s a lot more going on in our lives than just leisurely activities. As a result, we read selectively, focusing on titles that personally interest us. Lewis’s point is that while good readers should read selectively, they recognize that re-reading books they’ve already read, is a more enriching experience when repeated. The unliterary reader is “lazy” and uses the “I’ve already read it” argument as an excuse not to re-read a work.
The Anime Link: Anime can be pretty complex. Don’t dismiss a show just because you’ve already watched it once. Try re-watching a show that you found particularly interesting or moving–you’d be surprised how much more you can still get out of it.
#2: Unliterary readers might read frequently but often very rarely deeply or actively. For many people, reading is a hobby to pass the time, rather than an essential lifelong pursuit. It’s hard to block out time in the day to just sit down and concentrate solely on reading. Reading becomes an ornament rather than a centerpiece. You read while waiting for the bus, while in transit, or sneak in a few pages or two while doing errands. The multi-tasking culture of society makes deep reading a rare rather than a regular occurrence and it’s really only those privileged in academia that they get to make reading their lifelong work. Students, for better or worse, get a taste of the luxury that is free time to read and think.
The Anime Link: Keeping up with all the new anime, let alone re-watching, is an exponentially growing timesuck. You either need to have a LOT of time on your hands or you’ll need to cut corners and either watch selectively or watch quickly without much devoted attention in order to even cover a good fraction of the anime out there. And given how fast-paced anime output is, you don’t get a lot of time to think about what you’ve just watched.
#3 Because they don’t often read deeply, the unliterary reader rarely finds themselves emotionally moved by a literary work.
“The first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion, or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before.”
Obviously this doesn’t happen too often for most of us. How often do you hear someone wax poetic on a poem? Profess love to a novel? Gush praise at the mention of a beloved short story? We all have our favorite stories but the ones that touch our hearts are relatively rare. Unless you’re an avid reader. Try asking an avid reader what their favorite book of all time is–from the way they agonize, you’d think they were fussy parents trying to decide which of their children should live. In any case, if you read a lot and deeply, you’ll have a bigger repertoire of works that have profoundly affected you than say a casual reader who’s read maybe a few books in their life.
The Anime Link: Have there been any anime you’ve watched that have fundamentally changed the way you look at the world? Characters that have deeply resonated with you for any kind of reason? Perhaps an animation style or color palette that you found moving? People look for different things when they watch anime. Some just look to be entertained, others watch to contemplate something profound or previously unexplored. Regardless of what we might be looking for, we consume anime because we want to “get something out of it.” And as long as we get something out of it, then can a work be considered “bad”?
Not necessarily, if it’s an anime that can hold up to multiple active viewings and still bear fruit for the viewer, then it can be considered a “worthwhile watch.” This is the reason why nostalgic watches can withstand the test of time. Our earliest watched anime often tend to be influential ones and we find ourselves returning to them again and again because we still feel emotionally connected to them.
#4 Those who like about books tend to talk about them. A lot. Someone mentions that book and suddenly all of your inhibitions are blasted to smithereens. You raise your voice and talk rapidly in that bubbly cadence that lets everyone within hearing vicinity how damn much that book speaks to you, so often that you can easily quote from any page without breaking a sweat. A good reader can talk at length about their favorite book and often in great detail, vividly recalling characters, plot points and thematic elements. There’s nothing that delights a literary reader more than a good ol’ discussion.
The Anime Link: A no-brainer here. Why do anibloggers blog about anime? Because, despite the dizzying array of different preferences, deep down, we all like anime. And presumably, our readers (both active commenters and lurkers) like anime too. (Unless you’re just a troll who’s just needling folks for shits and giggles. If that’s the case, then get out and actually start watching some of the anime you’re bashing on.)
When it comes down to it, anime is just another form of storytelling. An anime doesn’t need to be artsy, or utterly profound or thematically ambitious, to be a meaningful watch. It should, however, strive to tell a story and tell it well.
“We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” (19)
So, no room for elitists for the school of reader-response theory. Any distinctions made between high brow and low brow fare should be disregarded. A book doesn’t need to be a “classic” to be worthy of one’s time and attention. Literature shouldn’t be defined by a set canon–(at least for English literature, the established canon mainly represents the works of “dead white guys”)–readers, guided by their preferences, should read deeply. You don’t have to watch every “classic” anime out there and it makes no sense to evaluate your sense of taste according to the “conventional” anime fan. We all like different things, and of course, should not only acknowledge our preferences but also understand why we like them.
Some critics championing objective reading call the reader to isolate himself from the text. The reader is irrelevant, it is only the text that matters. Reader-response criticism is just the very opposite–the reader is of the utmost importance. As fine as a text can be, it cannot exist wholly without a reader.
Lewis tells us that the way to read is opening ourselves to the text, to “receive” art rather than have it “do something” for us. He calls this process a kind of “surrender”, where we take ourselves out of the picture–along with our preconceptions and prejudices–as best as we can.
We can be good critics without being elitist. We’re all guilty to some extent of limiting our anime choices to ones that we know we like. For example, I favor heavily toward shonen titles and avoid slice-of-life and/or shoji titles like the plague.
As consumers of anime, we should be open-minded to what we watch, especially in trying out shows that lie beyond our comfort zone and our preferences. Because there is a ton of anime out there to be watched and by restricting ourselves too narrowly, we run the risk of missing out on some great stuff.
I’ll reiterate this once more: with very few exceptions, there is no bad anime, only poor ways of watching it. Too often we denounce an anime based on a bad reputation and using that as the main excuse to avoid watching it altogether: “I heard it was bad, so it’s not worth my time watching”. Or if we find ourselves watching into something (often at the behest of that one friend we can’t say no to) that we tell ourselves a self-fulfilling prophecy “that doesn’t look like my kind of thing” and grimly pat ourselves on the back for having such discerning taste when our nonexistent expectations are met.
Does this mean that we should watch everything and anything? Ideally, if we’re really devoted to anime we should strive to watch as many anime as we can but devotion is measured in other ways than just quantity. For most, watching 30+ anime per season (which totals to about 120 anime per year) is simply not feasible, so we become selective with our anime watching. And selectivity isn’t a bad thing, either but being selective for the sake of selectivity is not so good either.
As much as Lewis tries to move away from the elitist’s epicurean taste for the most venerated, most obscure (and thereby, “exclusive”) of works, he also admits that truly bad works do exist.
“There is a sense in which bad work never is nor can be enjoyed by anyone. The people do not like the bad picture because the faces in them are like those of puppets and there is no real mobility in the lines that are meant to be moving and no energy or grace in the whole design. These faults are simply invisible to them; as the actual face of the Teddy-bear is invisible to an imaginative and warm-hearted child when it is absorbed in its play. It no longer notices that the eyes are only beads.” (21)
Not that Lewis is knocking on teddy bears but he’s also describing something that happens when we get too emotionally invested in a work of art at the point where we don’t see the work for what it is (objectively) but for what we want it to be. To Lewis, the reason why people like “truly bad works” is for the same reason a child loves their teddy bear…they give the “bad work” further depth through imagination and emotional play. To the child, the teddy bear isn’t just a toy, it is their best friend, closest confidante and stalwart defender against the dark mysteries of the adult world. Emotional attachment, as much as it allows us to access the work of art, in excess can cloud our judgment.
Should Cross Ange and Mahouka fanatics be decried for their “appalling lack of taste” then? One might be tempted to say “yes” but part of being a good reader is recognizing the multitudinous nature of subjectivity and that there is more than one valid way of experiencing a work.
Does this mean that all opinions are objectively valid? Of course not! Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but good readers understand that not all opinions are valid and that being a good reader involves a degree of empathy and discernment. You may understand why someone might find Guilty Crown the best thing since sliced bread but understanding does not lead to agreement. Good reading is a precarious balancing act of being open-minded and receptive to all artistic experiences but also carefully analyzing and picking apart the shiny trappings of “Event” (what Lewis calls “plot”) to look at what’s really underneath.
“As the unmusical listener wants only the Tune, so the unliterary reader wants only the Event…He reads only narrative because only there will he find an Event. He is deaf to the aural side of what he reads because rhythm and melody do not help him discovered who married (rescued, robbed, raped or murdered) whom. He likes ‘strip’ narratives and and almost wordless films because in them nothing standards between him and the Event. And he likes speed because a very swift story is all events.” (30)
How many times have you heard the argument, “Well, it’s just entertainment, so it doesn’t have to be anything deep, so long as it’s entertaining?” We don’t necessarily watch anime because we’re looking to have our paradigms shaken, our personal philosophies challenged, to receive some profound knowledge on humanity. We watch anime mainly to have a good time, to enjoy the exciting plot turns. And that’s perfectly okay.
What’s not okay is watching anime only to stimulate our sense of entertainment. Because by only watching anime to be entertained, we sell ourselves short of what anime has to offer.
Regardless of our preferences, the anime that stay with us are the ones that have touched us somehow. Whether it was a certain character that we connected with or a certain world that enchanted us, the anime that we laud as “good” or “classic” are the ones that have withstood the test of time, that have stayed fresh through re-watches, that have perhaps changed and continue to change the way we look at ourselves or the world in some way. These special anime endure our scrutiny precisely because they are more than “Tune” and “Event”–more than a central, singular theme and plot. Certainly they may contain these elements, but like an onion with infinite layers, with every re-watch, we discover the marvelous and strange in what we thought to be home. The familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the simple unfurls its deeper, inexhaustible complex whorls.
How to Be a Good Anime Critic in Ten Ways
Being a critic isn’t earning a membership into a posh, exclusive club. You don’t need special skills or expertise to be a good anime critic. All anime fans are critics to an extent, but being a good critic does requires work. Subjectivity is inevitable, and while it is not necessarily a bad thing (indeed, it may be the only way to truly appreciate a work of art), it does demand focus. Which is something that we all can work on more. For the list-minded, here are ten practical ways one can become a better anime fan (and critic!), all suggestions drawn from what has been discussed in this post.
1. Watch more anime outside your comfort zone. It’s easy to stick the tried and true but it is rarely exciting. Exploring other genres may be perilous but the hidden gems out there are well worth the risk of getting a stinker.
2. Watch openly but selectively. Keep an open mind but unless you’ve got all the time in the world to watch anime, it’s best to watch selectively. Some pre-evaluating anime prior to watching is not a bad idea but keeping your watching criteria flexible can lead you to good anime you would have never otherwise tried.
3. Go beyond the anime’s “Tune and Event”. Watch actively. Drink in the watching experience but don’t sit there like a rubber duck that moves to the swift currents of Plot. Engage yourself in the anime, question the plot, analyze the characters and unearth those thematic threads.
4. Rewatch anime. For the ones that make the cut, re-watches are a must. If an anime confuses, upsets or unsettles you in anyway, put it on the re-watch list. Some surprises can’t be sprung out until the next re-watch.
5. Think and discuss about anime with others. Have some thoughts on the anime you’re watching? Share them with other fans! (and even the ones that aren’t into anime). Anime may have a rather insular community but it can be universally discussed with anyone who is interested in storytelling, animation, and Japanese culture. Subjectivity is limited anyway, so might as well get in on what others think about what you’re watching.
6. Empathize and analyze other viewpoints. Realize that while it’s a great feeling when people agree with you, it’s, perhaps, even more awesome when someone disagrees with you. Not by the flaming variety but in a constructive, thoughtful way. Take the time to see how others see it and then make up your mind as to whether or not you can agree with it.
7. Pay attention to your preferences and understand why. Recognize that you have biases, preferences and prejudices. Understand how these preferences shape how you think and the limitations that they may pose. Be conscious of your shortcomings and be willing to work past them.
8. Avoid a “one size fits all” method of evaluating anime. People have different ways of evaluating anime. Some ascribe to the cold cut method of numbers a la MAL rankings. Others favor a more holistic approach or something in between the two. These methods evaluate anime in different ways but are by no means the only ways of evaluating them. Different anime do different things but the anime that can do more are often the ones that we evaluate positively.
9. Watch the anime in its entirety before evaluating it. It’s tough, especially when an anime starts off really badly and seems to get worse with each episode (or god forbid, each minute). But it’s hard to properly evaluate a work without seeing it in its entirety. This would work especially for anime that show some degree of promise.
10. Have fun watching anime. It seems really obvious but something that more jaded anime critics may have forgotten through their veteran years of slogging through hundreds of anime. Remember the reason why we all started watching anime in the first place–because it’s fun!
All quotations are taken from C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism (1961), an awesome text and introduction to reader-response criticism.