You could scarcely have found a better example of the disconnect between mainstream media criticism and anime fandom than the recent review of the Love Live! The School Idol Movie theatrical film, released in the United States in limited engagements. That many people have concurred with the review's assessment of the movie is beside the point, because a negative review out of ignorance for a given franchise or niche isn't the same as a negative review done by someone who knows that territory well. But it's also futile to automatically expect fairness about niche entertainments from mainstream media outlets.

First, the review, by Randy Cordova of the Arizona Republic:

If you’re a major fan of the "Love Live!" world, [the movie] is possibly enjoyable. If you’re not, it is shrill, garish, confusing and badly paced, with cheap-looking animation and characters that resemble Walter Keane’s big-eyed waifs. The color palette, which looks like what you expect to see after drinking too much Pepto Bismol, is off-putting.

I'm going to refrain from directly speculating about how accurate the review is, even when it comes from someone totally unfamiliar with the source material. I myself am not familiar with it, hence my hesitancy, although I've heard some who do know Love Live! well say that the review isn't far from the mark. But again, that shouldn't be the point. The review was written out of ignorance not only for the material, but for the whole niche it represents. There's no way it can be remotely fair, and that's part and parcel of the way mainstream-media culture criticism works.

Most of the movie review sections for newspapers, including many of the largest ones, are little more than consumer-advice columns. They're not so much interested in movies as movies, but as consumer experiences. The average moviegoer is not interested in broadening his awareness of what's blooming in the far corners of the rest of the world's pop culture scene; he wants to go out, spend fifteen bucks, and be not too bored for a couple of hours. It's pointless to complain about something that most movie reviewers wouldn't even see as their job.

In that sense, for Randy Cordova to shrug and say fans of the existing material are the best audience for the film was the best possible strategy. He's right about that part, at least, even if the rest of the review stems more from his ignorance than anything else.

Anime fans are routinely annoyed at the way their entertainments of choice get short shrift in mainstream venues of discussion. The well-reviewed stuff tends to be the standalone feature films — not just the Ghibli productions but also highly regarded one-offs like Mamoru Hosoda's offerings. But the stuff that really draws fans out in droves, the themed spinoffs from existing properties that are a relatively recent phenomenon -- Bleach, Naruto, perhaps Madoka Magica -- get the brushoff.

It's rather funny. Fans get peeved when material made to satisfy fans first and foremost isn't received with open arms by audiences who have little or no obligation to meet that material halfway.

Anime fans are far from the only people to experience this kind of annoyance. I remember the irritation felt by fans of Tyler Perry, when the first of his movies hit theaters. Critics wrinkled their noses at the adventures of Madea & Company, instead of giving Perry props for creating mainstream cinema for black audiences on his own terms. But the critics knew full well most audiences don't care where something comes from, or on what terms, and so they responded with the same "if you're already a fan, this will be critic-proof" line that also characterizes most of the mainstream discussion of anime tie-in material.

Two lessons seem to stem from all this. One, the people who critique anime need to remember that even existing anime fans don't know the whole story. If you talk about something like Love Live!, you owe it to people to explain, at least provisionally, what the material is about and why any spinoff incarnation of it either works or doesn't. It isn't easy, but in the long run it means less unthinking shutting-out of people both inside and outside of fandom.

Two, if we expect mainstream media to meet us halfway about this material, that mission is part and parcel of reforming mainstream criticism of movies generally. A responsible critic reviewing any movie not in English owes it to himself and his audience to know at least a little about where the material came from and why.

But again, when you see your role as a provider of consumer advice and not of actual criticism, it's no wonder such things fall by the wayside. Especially for something that to heathen eyes seems — rightly — to be "just for the fans".



About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) 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.