This past season was an unusual one for me at Ganriki, in that it had no less than five shows I ended up watching all the way through or sticking with as they entered a second cour. Some were great (Drifters, Flip Flappers) and continue to be great (March Comes In Like A Lion). Some failed to live up to their promises (Bungo Stray Dogs, Izetta: The Last Witch). What drew me to them and got me thinking about them weren't the fact that they were new shows, though, because some time back I made a pledge to myself that I was in no way honor-bound to talk about something just because it was new. I still think that's the case, but I'm obliged to question my own motives. I can't pretend nothing is interesting unless it still holds up five or ten years later, but I'm not in this to stay ahead of the competition, either.
Making it up as you go
Not long ago I bumped into an essay by George Orwell, "Confessions of a Book Reviewer." I remembered reading it ages ago, before I started having the nerve to call myself a critic, but after I'd already started reading the works of critics I would later take cues from — Roger Ebert, Edmund Wilson, and so on. Later, though, when I started reviewing things on a schedule, these words would come back to haunt me:
... the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash ... but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about. If he is a top-notcher in his profession he may get hold of ten or twenty of them: more probably he gets hold of two or three. The rest of his work, however conscientious he may be in praising or damning, is in essence humbug. He is pouring his immortal spirit down the drain, half a pint at a time.
In previous lifetimes I wrote anime reviews for a couple of different places. One of those jobs paid actual money. (It wasn't much.) The other paid solely in product. What I found most dismaying about both situations was how, because of the flood of material sent my way, I felt time and again this obligation to invent reactions to things. If it were up to me, I would have either reviewed only half as much material as I'd been given, or I would have swapped half of what I'd been given for things I wanted to track down and talk about. But the pressure was on to talk about what had just been released, because that was what most people cared about, and otherwise the stream of screeners would dry up, and then where would we be?
Later, after Ganriki got under way, one of my sources of screeners for the site did in fact dry up. But I didn't feel heartbroken at the loss of free stuff. Instead, I felt liberated, as I was no longer obliged to talk about every wretched thing that came my way. Many of the things I got sent unsolicited were "major" titles that I had no interest in talking about, because I'd already thrown a bucket down into that particular well and hauled back up nothing but mud and sticks. To paraphrase an old joke about record reviews, I wasn't in the business anymore of telling people something had a good beat and they could dance to it. The things I really wanted to talk about were, by and large, things I would have ended up spending my own money on in the first place. Liberation kept me honest.
The same standard applies to finding some angle of discussion with the current season of shows. Sometimes, it means not bothering with things that are immensely popular, that might well draw quite an audience if I contrived some discussion around them, but which I don't feel equipped to talk about in a constructive or insightful way. I've got no plans to talk about Yuri!!! On Ice, not because I think it's trash (from all I hear, it's quite the gem), but because many other people are already doing a fine job analyzing it, and in ways I could never hope to approach. Odds are by the time I circle back to it, if that happens, I would at best be providing third or fourth generation copies of other peoples' insights.
Is this an unreasonable view? I don't think so — I think it's just a matter of being practical, of going first to the things that have automatically staked themselves out in my field of attention, of not pouring anything down the drain half a pint at a time. There are twenty-four hours in a day and only one of me.
Ground rules for your ground game
What's hard is not making such a stance sound like an argument against something. I suspect it sounds that much more like such an argument when it comes from the mouth of someone who is just pretentious enough to advertise himself as a critic or analyst of the material, and not just someone looking for a pastime. But even a critic has his tastes and inclinations, and he's better off being honest about them upfront. If I take a miss on Yuri!!! On Ice, it's more because Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju has captured my attention, because I find I do indeed have something personal and specific to say about it, and not because the former show has defects that turn me off.
The best way I have to put it is like so: This argument is not anti- any particular show so much as it is pro- my own tastes and inclinations. It is not designed to make anything I don't cover into a second-class citizen. It does mean if I'm drawn to something that's of the moment, it's for my own reasons, and I have to own up to them. Sometimes that approach lets me stay abreast of the present (March Comes In Like A Lion); sometimes it means swimming back into the past (Revolutionary Girl Utena). In every case, the motives I have for myself are:
1. Do I really want to talk about this thing?
This is not as straightforward as it seems. Knowing what you actually care about and what you don't is not easy, because it means you have to disentangle your actual interests from all the things that can set them adrift. Two big potential sources of interference are a) peer pressure and b) second-guessing your audience. The first is when you say to yourself something like, "I bet XXX over at site YYY would love to see something like this," in which case you are no longer taking your own interests and turning them outwards, but making assumptions about what other people want to see from you.
The rule to draw from this: Talk about the things you know you want to talk about, not the things you guess you want to talk about.
2. What do I have to say about it that will not seem like a rehash of most every 100-level commentary out there?
I don't always succeed at this either. Time and again I find myself writing about something I both love and respect, only to find the love slobbering over everything else and forcing my hand, leaving me with lazy hyperbole instead of a prism or a lens through which to see the material. If I'm going to call something a best-of-breed, I had better bring something to the discussion other than my own assertion that it is so.
When I opened my essay on Princess Mononoke with just such a superlative, I knew I was breaking a long-standing personal rule ("don't just call something 'the best of' anything"). Rather than back down, I decided to try and justify the exception to the rule. Very rarely do I do this, simply because so little out there deserves to be put on so high a shelf. It's all too easy to knock it back down again. But that movie was a piece of work that had not only survived its moment in time but flowered all the more after it. If anything deserved that kind of treatment, it was Princess Mononoke.
What I also had to do was find something to do with that film other than just nod approvingly in its direction. Finding something original to say about a piece of work, especially a popular piece of work, is tough, and it ought to be. It's always best when an insight just seems to erupt spontaneously out of the nature of something (Barakamon), but sometimes it's a matter of taking my native enthusiasm for something and finding a not-terribly-untenable justification for it. I felt like so much of what I could say about something like Blade Of The Immortal would boil down to "Isn't this wonderful?". And with Ergo Proxy, I didn't want to just say "Isn't this deep?", because that was the easy way out. Why it was wonderful, or how it was deep (or how it might not have been deep, or how at first it seemed one way but later I changed my mind), mattered more.
3. How do I get past my own tastes?
This is the hardest mission of the bunch.
Among the pieces I am proudest of on this site are the ones where I take all of the incarnations of something and lay them side by side. Most recently I did this for all the manga adaptations of Sōseki Natsume's Kokoro, a piece that I suspect will get fewer readers than the fine print on your last phone bill. I didn't do it because I thought it would ring up a million views; I did it because I wanted to take the various treatments of a story that means a great deal to me personally, and demonstrate all the different ways others had done justice to it or, sometimes, not done justice to it.
Projects like that are my favorite sort to work on. They are also the most difficult to make a case for. When you are discussing something where your main motivation for discussing it at all is utterly personal, it's hard to keep the discussion from turning into hagiography, from just promoting the thing itself because it's not well known. There has to be as much of a discussion of substance about those things as there would be for something everyone knows on sight. More so, actually; how else are you going to make a case that there's something there worth talking about?
Here's another way I've phrased this question: If the work is important to me personally, in a way that may be difficult to communicate readily, can I find a way around that and express what it is about the thing in question that makes it so significant? Sometimes I have no guarantee that I can do this, and I just have to hope my enthusiasm for the material makes its own case.
If I had the remotest chance of monetizing this site to a degree that I could make a living off of it, I would have entirely different priorities. For one, you might well see me covering a bigger slice of the stuff that came out in a given season. But I don't think my original mission — to look at the things that demand to be looked at in a penetrating way, to spread the word about the things that most need it — would take a back seat to any of that.
I think now about all the things I promised myself I would get around to seeing, and how they still languish: Gangsta., Paradise Kiss, pretty much everything under the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure umbrella, The Heroic Legend Of Arslan, the remainder of Erased (sue me, I got sidetracked), Yona of the Dawn, 91 Days, Night Raid 1931, Terror In Resonance, Rokka: Braves Of The Six Flowers, Kiznaiver, Hozuki's Coolheadedness, Kyousougiga, The Perfect Insider, Un-Go, Samurai Flamenco, Wandering Son, Bodacious Space Pirates — the list goes on and on.
This is not because I automatically think any of these shows will be good, but because each has some element that turns my head, and that demands I satisfy my curiosity. When any show has that at all, I sit up and take note.
And when I do find something worth talking about, from a point of view that's wholly mine, I never feel like I'm missing out.