I was as thrilled as many other people were to hear about a new property in the Steins;Gate franchise headed our way. What caught my eye in the Kotaku article announcing said new release was this line: "The original Steins;Gate is a phenomenal visual novel—and the subsequent anime adaptation is, quite honestly, the best anime I have ever seen."
This is hyperbole — affectionate hyperbole, hyperbole I happen to agree with, but hyperbole all the same. In my own experience, hyperbole only goes so far when you're a critic, and there are ways I've seen it do more harm than good in such a capacity.
I shouldn't sound as if I'm calling for a total ban on expressing enthusiasm for a title. That's silly and untenable. Rather, I'm outlining a way that critics and advocates (they are often one and the same) of anime can avoid what to me seems an earnest mistake: the urge to praise something in a way that ends up burying it.
First off, a confession. Despite setting a rule for myself that I wouldn't talk about any piece of work in hyperbolic terms on this site, I've gone and done exactly that. But hey, I had an excuse, or so I told myself I bent (okay: broke) the no-hyperbole rule when talking about Princess Mononoke, if only because I felt it was entirely fitting for a piece of work that after fifteen years has only proven its standing all the more. Steins;Gate hasn't been around for even a third of that long, so I am reluctant to put it on so high a pedestal, lest it be knocked off and broken.
It's not that I don't think Steins;Gate is a fine piece of work, or that the folks at Kotaku are mistaken for saying as much about it. In that respect, I'm right with them. One of the articles I've been sitting on as a possible incentive for Patreon supporters of this site is an examination of what makes the show as good as it is. My issue is that calling the show one of the greatest ever actually obscures the show's true qualities instead of illuminating them. Hyperbole is an easy way to send a signal that you find something worthy of recommendation, but in the long run that makes it harder, not easier, to discuss what's worthy about the thing so loved.
Steins;Gate is messy and imperfect and brilliant and thoughtful, and there is no contradiction between all those things, between the good, the bad, and the mistaken. They are all part of what makes the show what it is, and makes it as good as it is. I think I touched on that a few times in the podcast I did about the show (along with Space Brothers) with L.B. Bryant at Otaku Review. I am not thrilled with, say, the way the character of Ruka Urushibara is handled in the story, for instance; he's meant to be regarded sympathetically, as a character and not simply a fixture, but the writing and plotting fail him and us as well. An argument can and ought to be made about how transgendered characters aren't served well in anime generally, but that failure is as much a part of the story as anything else. There should not be the compulsive sense that if we talk about how the flaws in a thing also make it distinct, that talk will somehow invalidate it as a whole — or, worse, will turn people off. But not every show is for everyone, and we shouldn't pretend otherwise.
Praising with faint damns
I have hyperbolized more than a few times in the past myself, and my own feeling is that the compulsion to hyperbolize is one with the need to evangelize. To wit: I think this thing (show, movie, album, restaurant, etc.) is the greatest of its kind, or one of the greatest. Therefore, I would be remiss in my duty if I didn't take the opportunity to let others know. By itself, this is not a bad impulse; it stems from the desire to have what one believes to be good work recognized broadly. What it doesn't do is encourage us to think about the work, and to figure out how to transmit our understanding to others.
Why I shrink from hyperbole now is because it makes for less of a critical device than an evangelical one. It works in the short term to spark curiosity about something: what is it about this thing that has someone so excited, that causes them to be so — well, hyperbolic! But from my own experience, the more you rely on hyperbole to awaken interest in something, the more it makes one into a cheerleader and less into a critic. At least some part of criticism is in getting others curious about something you feel is underrepresented — or, for that matter, something deserving of attention but not of the kind it has typically garnered. Both of those not only require you to see something as a whole, good and bad together, to speak of it, but require that to be able to transmit to others what about it is so special — and in a way that awakens their entire interest, not just their passing curiosity.
Another reason I'm finding it useful to wean myself from hyperbole is that it goes against a principle I wanted to do justice to when I started this site: the idea that it makes more sense to talk about a cultural phenomenon in a horizontal way, rather than a vertical way. "A palette, not a hierarchy" was the way I put it both then and now. It makes more sense — and it's more fun, besides — to put things next to each other as much as possible, instead of atop each other. To call something the best ever creates a false hierarchy that isn't even needed: does something really need to be that good? Doesn't that kind of love blind us to what's truly special about something, and burn us out on making fine-grained distinctions?
What it all comes down to, though, is the need to find a way to speak well of things that is as true as possible to the way they actually are. Not long ago I wrote, and discarded, an essay about the series Wandering Son*. The discarded version was mostly me wiping away tears and finding various ways to say the show was one of the most heartbreaking and moving things I'd ever seen. I ditched all that because I knew I wasn't doing the show a service by simply emoting; I needed to demonstrate why it broke hearts. I still haven't managed to produce a workable version of that essay, but I will say that the show's greatest strength is not in how much it attempts to do, but how little — how it focuses on the smallest and simplest of things, things that to a young person are the size of their entire world, are in fact their entire world, and how the adult world too often looks on at such things and shrugs because it sees a problem to be solved instead of a person to be empathized with. To me, that description contains all the hyperbole and more that I could offer for such a show.