A couple of years back at Otakon, I screened two movies that couldn't have been more dissimilar: Makoto Shinkai's Children Who Chase Lost Voices, and Tekken: Blood Vengance. The former was from a director people were deigning to call the "new Miyazaki"; the latter was crass commercialism. Such was the conventional wisdom, from the critics anyway. By the time I finished watching both films, I'd thrown such conventional wisdom under the bus.
It was easy to tell myself Children was the "better" movie. After all, it was the more ambitious one, the nobler one, the one that had loftier influences, etc. But telling myself that was one thing; actually maintaining such a mindset after the experience of actually sitting through the film was something else altogether. Not even the staunchest peer pressure made Children feel any less ponderous or outright derivative of its inspirations. By the time the film entered its final reel, I felt like it had gotten stuck in neutral and was drifting backwards downhill.
The word I studiously avoided in my discussions of the film was boring, even when I knew full well the film deserved it. I also felt all the comparisons to Miyazaki were misleading: even at his worst, Miyazaki and the rest of Studio Ghibli's products hadn't been anywhere nearly that ponderous, or piously goody-two-shoed, or downright humorless. Plus, it wasn't even the sort of project I could praise for its "ambition", because it was hard to say how high it was aiming when almost all of its moves were taken straight from Studio Ghibli's playbook anyway.
But still, I kept up the façade of being impressed. I felt an invisible pressure to say nice things about the film and not be considered a spoilsport. And so I wrote an appropriately reverent review that, to coin a phrase, praised the film with faint damns.
Tekken, on the other hand, was a case study in audience pandering. Its plot was addled stuff — the games themselves have more intelligible plotting, for goodness's sake — and it existed as little more than a vehicle to exhibit Namco Bandai's intellectual properties beating the digital stuffing out of each other for ninety minutes. But it it never apologized for itself, it never pretended to be anything but a thrill ride, it didn't wear out its welcome, and it was actually fun to watch in all its absurd 3D-rendered glory.
The beauty and the blandness
If what lies at the core of my argument here is nothing more than Shinkai's work being a little too overpraised for my tastes, I might as well cop to admitting that right now.
Yes, Shinkai's first burst of fame was entirely deserved: it was a hell of an effort to create something like Voices of a Distant Star single-handedly over the course of many months. Then came Five Centimeters per Second, and while I was impressed, I could also see how Shinkai's approach could too easily earn him the kind of derision used by a friend of mine (who described Shinkai as someone who made great-looking screensavers).
But then the steam began to run out. Along came The Place Promised Us in our Early Days, and then Children, and most recently The Garden of Words, and I felt like all that had been intriguing and praiseworthy about his work had been replaced by a veneer of glossy, rigorously machined beauty over a custom-built set of slow-moving clichés. Even the emotions came off as, if not manufactured, at least perfunctory and obligatory. I liked The Garden of Words better than most of his other recent work, but I suspect at least some of that was due to it being short enough not to wear out its welcome: a trim 40-something minutes, compared to Children's feature-length meandering.
My problems with Shinkai's work don't mean I've written him off. In fact, I want all the more for him to overcome his worst, most ponderous tendencies and really astonish me. He has it in him to not only become the filmmaker he's widely bruited of being, but to become even better than that. (The problem with being "the next Miyazaki" is that such a figure would inherit all of that man's limitations along with his best qualities.) But as of late Shinkai is stuck producing things that are more interesting to admire the design of, or to argue the merits of, than they are to actually watch.
Never apologize for your tastes, but do own up to them
Not long after my Otakon experience, I mulled over the whole experience in more detail. It was easy enough to say that a "good-bad" anime is better than a "bad-good" one — that Tekken worked because it wanted to merely entertain, while Children had (allegedly) greater ambition but fell far short because it was too busy emulating its inspirations instead of trying to be something original.
The problem was, I wanted to discount all of that in favor of a hierarchy of taste. In other words, I was looking for more of an excuse to say, "Children deserves to be thought of as the better project" — to have some laurels I could rest on so I wouldn't have to break rank and admit that maybe Children was, well, just not that good. A lot of that was self-image: I wanted to be thought of as the kind of person who liked "something like Children", without having to also deal with the messy responsibility of not actually liking "something like Children".
But that's hubris, and I know it now. Snubbing Tekken for Children on principle does not make me a better critic because it proves my taste buds are in the right place. On the contrary, it makes me a lousy one, because it's a symptom of how I couldn't look my gut feelings about something in the eye, and be a little less of a snob about them. This is doubly important when dealing with anime, since so much of what's interesting about it in the first place is the way it spans both the commercial and the creative, the sublime and the ridiculous, sometimes in the same breath.
We don't have to hate ourselves for being turned on by something we ought to hate, or for being turned off by something we ought to love. We just have to not lie about it for the sake of looking good — for fellow critics, for the audiences we write for, or for the guy in the mirror.