The single biggest problem I face as a critic isn't warding off snipes in the comments sections, working on a minimal budget, or even coming up with something original or useful to say. It's time management. There's just so much stuff out there, even in a cultural niche like anime, that covering anything more than a tiny percentage of it single-handedly is impossible.
To that end, I've taken to talking about things when they're over, both for the sake of my own time management and as a way to pull together a cohesive analysis. But even that approach has limits: How do I cover something that's been running for years, and will most likely continue to run for years, without the kind of volume-by-volume or episode-by-episode coverage that eats into my time and leads me to draw snap conclusions I'm not always happy with?
The "arc by arc" review
Let me start with the one-go-to example I thought of when I first drafted the idea for this essay: Berserk. The manga has been running for literally decades, with various slowdowns and hiatuses along the way. Friends of mine who are no less devoted to following Kentarō Miura's creation to its absolute end speculate grimly about whether or not he'll live long enough to see it concluded. (Wheel of Time creator Robert Jordan had a contingency plan for just such a thing, but if Miura does, too, I'd rather we not need to find out.)
Now that a new TV series has kicked off to continue adapting the material from where the old one left off in the Nineties, I'm obliged to pull Berserk off the shelf and start talking about it again. After some dithering about how I was to go about doing that, I settled on what I call the "arc by arc" model.
Stories with the scope of Berserk, and even shorter ones like The Flowers of Evil (I'm thinking specifically of the manga incarnation, not the TV series), are sold in volumes, but to my mind the more accurate unit of consumption for such stories is the story arc. By breaking something like Berserk up into its component arcs and talking about them individually, I could talk about all the things that mattered in a format that did it justice, including the development of the story across and between arcs.
One other fine thing about this approach is how it works well both for stories that are ongoing (Berserk, Vagabond) and stories that are complete (Monster, Blade of the Immortal, Rurouni Kenshin). If I want to talk about something that's run to dozens of volumes, but a simple one-and-done discussion doesn't really cut it, I can divide it up by arcs and examine each one as a separate story. Not only is this a logical way to look at a whole work, it gives me the luxury to do it at my own pace, whether the story in question is complete or not.
... but not volume-by-volume
One thing I knew I didn't want to do was go volume-by-volume. This has been more the case for manga than anime, since anime releases these days are almost inevitably season sets rather than single discs (unless you're buying imports). But I've come to feel the same way about episode-by-episode reviews of ongoing shows, too.
I lost my taste for doing that sort of thing by way of previous incarnations of this job. In such venues, I ended up reviewing a lot of stuff volume-by-volume by necessity. When a volume of something came out that fell into one of my beats, I was obliged to look at it then and there. For one, that was what everyone else did; for another, that was the most effective way to keep the pipeline full of review product.
It didn't take long for me to resent this approach. For one, it forced me to talk more about the picayune details of a story rather than its larger intentions — things that only emerged over time and were best discussed as a whole. It felt like busywork, and not actual criticism. Too many of the attempts to talk about what it all added up to turned into the kind of "I guess we'll find out more about this next time" blue-skying that I hated writing. I also hated the way constantly having to stay on top of the pipeline of new releases left me with little to no time to do my own research projects, even when I knew full well those things wouldn't have fit the formats of the sites where I was working.
Something I should make clear: I'm not casting aspersions on other people who go volume-by-volume or episode-by-episode, whether because that's their job or because that's their passion. Some folks thrive on documenting the way a given work unfolds in the smallest details. I applaud them; that takes a level of dedication I've rarely been able to summon even for the shows and films I'm most excited about. I love Berserk to death, but even the snail's-pace releases of new Berserk volumes hasn't compelled me to switch to a volume-by-volume analysis model for that franchise. There's just so much else out there to talk about, too.
But every now and then I get handed an individual volume of something longer that acquits itself well enough on its own, such that a standalone review seems to do the job. That was the case with the most recent volume of Black Lagoon — talk about another series that's taking its sweet time coming out! — in big part because that also helped serve as a way to kick off discussion of the series generally without having to go through a full-blown recap. Someday that'll happen, but not right now.
The "at first/and then" review
Another approach I'm preparing to employ is what I call the "at first/and then" approach. Here, I sit down with the first volume of the item in question, give it the best discussion I can based on what I see, and then circle back to it one more time after it's concluded.
This approach seems to work well for a couple of cases. It's ideal for medium-length series, new or reissued, that don't lend themselves to arc-by-arc breakdowns, such as Blame!. It's also useful for diving into a series that's clearly still ongoing, but which I don't feel I should wait until it's concluded before talking about — e.g., A Bride's Story. I feel especially bad for having put off any discussion of that chestnut for so long; some part of me is probably resisting trying to say anything definitive about it until it's all over.
Right there is one of the bigger traps I've made for myself in this line of work: the impulse to treat any given work by trying to say something definitive about it for all time, as a way of putting it behind me and moving on. But this is a mistake, and not just because there's no way to ever make a truly definitive statement about any creation; it's impossible to do that even for yourself. You don't come back to something at the age of forty the same way you do at the age of twenty, even if you love it. You don't come back to something at the end of it the same way you did when you were first introduced to it, either. No creative work is ever just a static artifact; it's changed as much by the future audiences that approach it as much as it was formed by the circumstances that originated it.
Even in the light of all that, I still feel it's useful to try and encapsulate my feelings about a work, whether all at once, or from the beginning and then again from the end, or in slices that complement its own internal design. I suspect I think of such things as attempts to be definitive because life is short, and there's only one of me, and there's oh so much out there to read and watch. A fellow has to start somewhere — and continue somewhere, and end somewhere.