One truism that surfaces time and again when writing critically about any medium is that not everything that's influential -- a critical buzzword — has been an influence for the better. Sometimes it's the most ignoble, problematic aspects of a given thing that prove to be the most influential; sometimes, it's the wrong lessons that get taken away from something most enthusiastically. This isn't always as easy to suss out as it might seem, but it's vital to do it — doubly so when it comes time to talk about the things each of us loves unconditionally.

An example: I imagine by now we've reached a point where it's possible to say Evangelion did about as much harm as it did good. Possibly even more harm than good, because it created a paradigm for a certain type of show that inspired more slavish copying than it did envelope-pushing. We did see that many more shows where the protagonist's frail psychological state was a key element, but we saw far, far more mecha shows about kids pairing with their machinery to defend the planet from an inscrutable menace that blah blah blah. The wrong lessons are an order of magnitude easier to learn than the right ones.

It's not that I blame Evangelion for this state of affairs. It's that the influence of the show — something largely out of its hands — has been as negative as it has been positive, often for the same reasons, and that any serious discussion of the show's legacy can't leave that off the table. The fonder someone is of a thing as a fan, the more they owe it to themselves as a critic to keep in mind how that love can blind you to any work's potentially regressive legacy.

The benefit and the bane

Here's an example from my own table. As much as I love and admire Ghost in the Shell in all its incarnations, I have my misgivings about how many of the militarized-police tactics the show depicts are being depicted critically or skeptically. I don't think the show knowingly glorifies such things, but in a way that only makes it worse. I live in a time when serious misgivings are arising about how we unthinkingly give unprecedented power to the police, and I'm not entirely comfortable with how one of my favorite cultural products of recent years deals with that issue.

But the reason I mull this over, and in this fashion, is not because I want to give everyone else who likes GITS a lump of coal in their stocking. I think any serious discussion of a production we love needs to include this kind of skepticism. The point is not to wreck the thing in question, but to expand our understanding of it, to appreciate it without simply bowing down before it and touching our foreheads to the floor. My love for the GITS franchise is pretty unconditional — the sheer amount of good done with it so far is impossible to undo — but that doesn't translate into giving Ghost in the Shell: ARISE a pass just because it wears the same label. That show was only okay when it should have been great, and I owed it to both myself and my affection for the material to say so.

Fledgeling critics find that one of the hardest things to do is turn thumbs down on something they want to be identified with, even if only superficially. It's tempting to look like one of the cool kids, even if the total population of cool kids is very small indeed — in fact, in some cases, that only makes the urge to fit in all the stronger. Oh, to be one of the elect! But nobody gets welcomed into such company for being insincere with themselves — and once you lie to yourself about how good one thing is, the easier it is to lie about other things.

Not to undermine, but to tunnel into

It's not in bad taste, or a bad strategy, to speak about the negative or questionable qualities of the things we love most. It makes us all the more immune to future humbug and self-delusion, not just regarding the thing in question but whatever else we might come across. So what makes some people so reluctant to do it?

One easy theory is that few people are in the habit of tearing down (as it would seem to them) something they care deeply about. If you care about it, why attack it? Why look for its weaknesses and upend it to shake the flaws out of its pockets? But there's another theory that comes to mind — that someone who speaks ill of a given thing they love is likely to be seen in a negative light by others who love that thing unconditionally, or that they're worried about scaring off prospective fan-recruits for something by talking smack about it.

Most of those who love, say, Attack on Titan scarcely begin a discussion about it with a newbie by talking up its limitations: its graphic violence, or the way the franchise is threatening to turn into a sprawl of side stories and backstories. It's just common sense to talk positive to newcomers; nobody likes being scared off. Nevertheless, it helps to also be able to talk about where something might not find an audience, the better to know when something is likely to be either a hard sell or a dead end. This demands that someone know the material in a realistic way rather than an idealized one — to be able to speak freely with one's self, and in turn others, about what it lacks as well as what it has to offer.

The more advanced exercise to come after that is being able to recognize when, and how, the things you love sometimes don't return that love. Fans are born into evangelism, a kind of unconditional love for the thing that has captured their hearts — that has spoken to them, and made them feel a connection of sorts. It's only natural for them to turn that connection outwards and find fellows with which to share it. To my mind, though, there's a deeper love in learning to love things because of their flaws, rather than in spite of them. The very fact that Titan is turning into a maze of stuff is part of what makes it interesting to dig into and talk about, even when I'm not enamored of many of the resulting parts of the franchise — and I shouldn't have to be to call myself a "true" fan of it, either.

As the sheer amount of material out there piles up and the struggle to figure out what really is worth experiencing in the course of a lifetime only intensifies (a topic that deserves its own essay), it's becoming all the more important to understand the full length and depth of the shadow cast by some works. Doubly so since those works, and their creators, often have no say in the matter of what sort of shadow they cast. Nobody gets to say, pre-emptively, what deserves to have an influence or to what extent. But we do have some say in how to recognize all that, and in how passively accepting to be of it.



About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@genjipress) () is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.
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