Critics spend most of their time engaged in the business of criticism — writing or talking about the things they look at — but not as much time reflecting on how they go about said business. I have seen as many different embodiments for why this might be so as I have read the works of different critics. Some don't feel it's their job; some aren't as articulate about their own work as they are its subjects; some are looking to keep the amateurs out, even if they won't own up to such a gatekeeping sentiment. But the more we talk about how one goes about this business of looking at anything critically — whether it's modern architecture, public policy, or the popular culture of another country — the more we see why it matters in the first place.
Over at Lauren Orsini's (really fine) blog Otaku Journalist, a discussion sprung up around how one could write a good review by way of answering some key questions. The comment I made in that thread has since become the source material for this essay, where I break down the key questions I ask myself whenever a show lands in my lap.
This isn't intended as a how-to manual or a Seven Steps To Becoming An Anime Critic essay. Not everyone else might want to follow these steps; in fact, I'd be surprised if they did, since all of us are wont to bring different perspectives to the table. Rather, it's meant as a jumping-off point, a way for other people to ask themselves what questions they find most valuable to raise when looking at the things they want to share with others.
1. Who was this show made for and what does that imply about it?
The "who" in this case typically means demographic — shōnen, shōjō, seinen, and so on — but also ought to include some sense of what time period the production was made in.
Shows like Eden of the East* and Terror in Resonance would never have been made in the 1970s. This is not just because of the subject matter, or because there was no strain of cultural criticism in the media at the time (if anything, the degree of culture criticism in popular Japanese media was far more prevalent in the '70s) but because the target audience for anime in that period mainly consisted of pre-teen-to-teen youngsters. There was as yet no culture of sophisticated older viewers as we know it now.
On the other hand, The Rose of Versailles, made mainly for a female audience in around the same time period, not only outlived its moment in time but continues to influence many other modern-day creations. Who it was made for, and why, wound up being less important than what sort of legacy it left behind, one greater than something aimed at any one kind of viewer.
2. What did it try to do and why? What did it in fact achieve?
Most shows or movies wear their intentions pretty plainly on their sleeves. They have to, or otherwise people won't be sure why they're even tuning in to begin with.
When we talk about what a show "aims for", this is what we mean, but there are two major complications that can come to mind with this. One is how a show can attempt to be something on multiple levels at once. Is it the mission of something like Your Lie in April to be funny, or romantic, or moving, or all of the above? If so, does any one of those things outstrip the others?
Another complication is how a show's intended aims may simply not be enough. Some would argue that it's not the job of a show like Shirobako to present us with a really incisive critique of the way anime is made. Others would argue that if it's not the job of a show like that to do it, whose job is it? (I take the second view — it's not that Shirobako is a bad show, but that it's not to be mistaken for anything like a serious criticism of the anime industry, and that feels like a missed opportunity.)
Author and critic John Updike once maintained that one should not flunk a piece of work for not achieving what it never set out to do in the first place. That said, sometimes a show can set out to do one thing and achieve another, although whether that is for the better or the worse is never something that can be predicted in advance. Shangri-La* is ostensibly science fiction, but is also such an insane potpourri of genre and concept that it ends up becoming more about its own sheer grab-bag multiplicity than anything else. Sometimes such mutation is part of the design: Kill la Kill begins as a high school fight story and mutates way the heck beyond that, all to the good.
3. How does it use what it has to achieve its ends, or not?
The way a show looks and sounds is as crucial as what it is about and how it is about it. In fact, the images and audio are a good deal of what it is and how it is about it.
This can be hard to suss out when what you see goes against your own tastes. A "bad" animation style is not always a matter of a low budget or an untalented staff; most often, it's a deliberate design choice. Likewise, a "good" animation style isn't always a saving grace; just because something looks polished and pretty doesn't mean it has any saving graces beyond that. (Makoto Shinkai's films in particular often fall into this trap.)
What matters most is that what we see and hear complements the intentions of the material and heightens the experience of watching it. REDLINE* is all hand-drawn to give its production an idiosyncratic look and feel, one that hearkens back more to the maverick animation of the 1970s like Ralph Bakshi than it does other anime. It works. Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt is not my favorite show by a mile, but I can't deny its pseudo-Powerpuff Girls look is a fit for its brand of snide satire. And The Tale of the Princess Kaguya used its painted-scroll look to draw us into its fairy-tale world, but also selectively disrupts that look when it's needed (as when Kaguya flees the palace in a blind panic).
4. What is the actual experience of watching the show like?
Forget about what other people said; forget about nodding your head in unison with them. What was it like for you, sitting there and watching it? It's never a crime to admit you wanted to quit — or, conversely, that you couldn't help sticking around. What matters is that you look at your reactions, and know that they're your own and not just something you want to be able to say to other people. Out of that raw material will come something you can shape into a more systematic argument.
Under no circumstances should you feel impelled to speak well of something simply because it seems like the right position to take. I thought Ghost in the Shell: ARISE* was going to be far more interesting than it actually was, but it simply wasn't, and I had to be honest with myself about that. With that realization as a foundation, I built up over time an understanding of where ARISE fell short next to its predecessors (like the Stand Alone Complex TV series).
Entertainments are meant to entertain — to show us something we've never seen before, or to see the old with new eyes. If an entertainment doesn't even manage to be entertaining, that's a starting point for a discussion with yourself: Why was it like that? Was it me, or it?
5. Do you think your feelings about the show are an exception, or a rule?
In other words, look at your feelings about it and try to examine how they would size up against another viewer's feelings, especially a non-critical one. But don't do that for the sake of either re-aligning your perceptions with those of others, or being contrary. Whether you dissent or assent, do so by standing on your own two feet.
It was hard not to be aware of how The Wind Rises* was awash in a bath of critical acclaim when I sat down with it. Where others saw sensitivity and imagination, I saw sentimentalism and hagiography, and furthermore I felt those were downright dangerous attitudes to bring to its subject. Too much of the praise for the film seemed to stem from it being the last work of a man with a remarkable track record for masterworks, and not because the movie itself was arguably anywhere nearly as good as his other projects.
What I didn't want to do, though, was to hide behind iconoclasty alone as a strategy. If you break from the pack, be prepared to back up your reasons for it. But only because you should be prepared to back up your reasons for any conclusions you come to.
6. What perspectives from your own experience can you bring to the table to talk about the work?
No one watches in a vacuum. When you sit down with any show, any movie, you sit down with all the years of life and miles of space you have brought in with you. Leverage it. What other people find innocuous may strike you as being loaded with meaning (maybe not positive meaning, either), and the only way they might know about such a difference of opinion is through you.
This doesn't have to be a confessional thing, though; an approach like that is best left for an essay unto itself, if your main mission is to relate how a given anime intersected with your life experiences. In the context of a review, it's best used as a way to enrich the review's POV with something entirely yours — something only you can bring to the table. I know just enough about information technology to find most of the way computers are treated in entertainments to be laughable, but every now and then you come across a Ghost in the Shell or a Psycho-Pass*, one where the details are either technically credible or are used are part of a larger, more ambitious story that isn't about technology per se.
Share what you know, but only because that sharing will enrich your examination of the material, and not because you're trying to lord it over someone else. There are no winners in an Internet dick-measuring contest; there's always someone out there who can throw more boss credentials on the table. Worry less about being the authority, and more about being an authority.
7. What connections can you draw with other things? What understanding can you mine out of that?
Not just other shows, but other books, other movies, other anything. It helps to start with what might be most familiar to the readers, but taking bigger leaps pays off, I find (e.g., comparing Utsubora* to some of Georges Simenon's thrillers). This makes the palette of comparisons richer, and gives readers incentive to discover some of what you're talking about.
This process also helps you yourself see the work in a broader light. For a long time I could never figure out why Makoto Shinkai's works cloyed at me, why I always felt like they were the product of someone who was deft at reproducing passion experienced second-hand, but never the real original thing. Then I saw J.J. Abrams's Super 8, a replica of the look and feel of Steven Spielberg's 1980s-era films, but one that came at the expense of developing its own voice and vision. Abrams and Shinkai are both deft mimics, but their best work is produced when they go against that grain and listen to their own hearts. Unfortunately, they're both surrounded by industries that reward mimicry rather than originality, and so the decks may be stacked against them.
A final note. I no longer give out grades or ratings for shows, in big part because I've found they rarely achieve their intended goal. Pass/fail, or watch/don't watch is about as granular as I want to get — in big part because I feel the real discussions to be had around a show are much deeper than "Is it worth your time?" (Plus, I found that after a certain number of gradations, the ratings grow meaningless.) But it helps to at least say something in that vein, and I wouldn't say that someone else giving out stars or numerical grades is doing it wrong. But criticism is complex; one can like something for reasons that have little to do with how recommendable it is. The discussion is meant to be wide, and here I have listed a few of the ways I try to broaden it.