Towards the end of 2013 I went from freelancer to full-timer, for something like the third time in my day-job career. It was well worth it — the job I'm in now is easily the best I've ever been in — but it also meant losing the flexibility of a freelancer's schedule and getting back on the clock. As a result, I have less free time than I did for years on end, and that means less time for indulgences like re-watching things. What lemonade I've tried to make from those lemons — hey, now I have an excuse to actually watch things I haven't watched before! — always comes off tasting a little sour.
The really great shows and movies that have become a part of my mental landscape for anime — old chestnuts like Giant Robo, AKIRA, Cowboy Bebop, or Macross Plus, or more recent gems like Princess Jellyfish, Steins;Gate, or C: Control -- all have that much more to say whenever I come back to them. It's always because I've changed. But it wasn't until recently that I thought about all the specific ways I might have changed between viewings that make the rewatching experience special.
1. You often forget
At bottom, the most basic reason to re-watch anything is because it's slipped out of mind. You may remember the general outlines of it; you may remember a scene here or there; but more often than not, the whole thing has condensed itself down to a few general associations. What it was really about, moment to moment, has faded. Reading someone else's discussion of it might bring some of it back, but filtered through someone else's consciousness. The best way to re-encounter such a thing is to do it yourself.
Back when Speed Grapher first appeared, staking out territory that was halfway between grotesque and just gross, I thought highly of it and wrote accordingly. Today, I might well just turn my head and cough. But this for me is the best kind of (re-)test case: What's it like to come back to something that pushes boundaries, and that I once defended on those terms? Will it still work, will it fail, will it work for entirely different reasons? Opportunities like that are rare, and as enticing as any presented by an entirely new show.
2. It's hard not to see some things this time around
The more anime you watch and the more manga you read, the more opportunities you have to train yourself about what's on the page/screen and why. Sometimes, things I missed first time around — or saw but discounted — come back with the force of a blow later on down the road.
Typically, this manifests as things that don't register as being problematic, because you're too young or naïve to notice. I have a hard time accepting how stuff like the incredibly awkward, tone-shattering attempted rape in Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise totally blew past me the first time I saw it, but now it makes my wrinkle my mouth in dismay. I won't go so far as to say it ruins the whole film, but it points to how the creators themselves had big gaps in their worldview and perceptions of women. It doesn't keep me from watching the movie, but if it derailed someone else, I'd hardly blame them.
On the other hand, sometimes it means being able to see the real value of something underneath its potentially distasteful skin. When I first encountered Black Lagoon, I actually hated it — someone trying to ride John Woo's coattails by littering the page/screen with mindless violence, I thought. Then on returning to it more recently (I was watching it for the sake of a paid review) it was hard not to notice how smart and sharp the material really was, that the violence was more of a delivery mechanism and a vehicle for subverting our expectations than just a cheap way to goose the audience's senses. Black Lagoon is one of the very few examples out there of a property that pulls off such a thing consistently. (It wasn't until I ran into such sub-Tarantino garbage as Bambi and her Pink Gun that I learned the true meaning of "mindless violence".)
3. Familiarity breeds not contempt, but consideration
The more you watch something you love, the more you learn to love it. Or, maybe better to say, the more you find ways to love it that don't necessarily involve flattery.
AKIRA will forever be pivotally important in my mind, but for a while it was hard to re-watch it with anything in mind but reflexive praise and awe, like I was rehearsing how to defend the thing against any potential detractors. Eventually I weaned myself of that attitude; by the fifth or sixth viewing, I was seeing more flaws and drawbacks than anything else. Now I saw why just as many people were turned off by the film as were turned on to it: the violence that was often just as gratuitous as it was stylized; the remorseless cynicism about human nature (if there was ever a movie about the idea that humanity was a thing to be overcome, this is it); the unlikable cast.
But realizing all this didn't cause me to turn my back on the film. If anything, it only encouraged me to dig all the deeper into it, to find things to say about it that didn't simply involve putting it on a stick and waving it like a flag.
4. Broadened tastes over time means more ways to see the same material
Such an insight would typically take this form: I never used to watch shows of $GENRE, but now I see what I was missing! But changing tastes also lend insight when re-watching an existing show. Hajime no Ippo opened my eyes to how sports anime were less about sports and more about striving for a goal, an effect it's been said to have on many others as well.
In my case, it also helped me pay more attention to the way characters in shows not revolving around a sport or activity would also strive towards a goal. Princess Jellyfish features a main character who goes from settling for almost nothing to striving for something, and it becomes clear her problem wasn't that she didn't have the Right Stuff, but that she didn't have a concrete goal — something the sports shows always give their characters to shoot for.
All this I knew the first time I watched the show. But on coming back to it, with the plot already established in my mind, it was easier to allow observations from other directions to make their way in. The effect might have been even greater if my experiences with sports anime had come in between viewings of this show, but it was pronounced enough this time to take note of all the same.
5. You never step in the same river twice, but you can sure try
Who was it that said, "I would give anything to be able to read Hamlet again for the first time"? A professor I had in college, possibly, and even then I knew what he meant. I was already of the same sentiment re: 2001: a space odyssey or The Seven Samurai or GoodFellas.
It's impossible to ever see a show for the first time more than once, barring forgetting completely about it — and even then I've found you don't completely forget; you have your memory jogged incrementally as you go along. Not the same thing as the absolute original experience. But now I wonder: even if we could fulfill that longing, what would it give us? If a show or movie is great, if we revisit it just to have the thrill of experiencing it again, what more would being able to see it as if for the first time really give us? Especially when it comes to those titles that only improve and deepen each time we return?
If I come back to a show, even with most of my memory of it missing, it's less about the show and more about what's inside me. At twenty, I still believed all the things I experienced could be — and ought to be — ranked top to bottom: first, second, no good. At forty, I see those things horizontally, not vertically; a palette, not a ladder. All the things I come back to now — things I used to dismiss as frivolities, or praised for the wrong reasons — offer up so much more that I wasn't able to see before, all because I wouldn't let myself. To me, that's better than being able to step into any river twice.