Once upon a time, I held two opinions: that being familiar with a core curriculum of sorts for some variety of popular culture (a "canon") was essential to understanding it; and that the best representatives of that canon were untouchables — that they were beyond criticism by dint of being at the top of that particular pyramid.
My faith in the first has grown; my skepticism of the second has become complete. What's more, I don't think I could have come to the second conclusion without also coming to the first one. We need a canon — if anything, more than ever — but the last thing we need is for any part of that canon to be an object of religious veneration. And when it comes to something like anime, we need that canon to be both broad and dynamic.
That brings up a question: how to build such a list? But perhaps what we need more than any one list is a process for creating an anime (and manga) canon — an idea of how to build such a list, how to pull it apart, and how to stick it back together again.
The library and the agora
Most of us ought to be familiar with the concept of a canon — a body of work that constitutes the most significant representatives of a given cultural topic. Books and movies have well-defined canons, the former thanks to generations of scholarship and institutionalization (not always for the better, I admit). With the latter, it's thanks to some of the same kinds of work on a smaller scale, but mainly due to the enthusiasm generated by audiences and evangelists. Anime more or less follows in that mold.
Fans bring each other into the fold, and one of the ways they do that is by introducing a prospective fan to parts of the canon. One size definitely does not fit all here: someone with an aversion to blood and violence is not going to be brought in by way of Black Lagoon, and those unmoved by tales of heartbreak and unfulfilled dreams aren't going to shed tears at the likes of Kanon or Anohana.
But the canon as a whole is a mansion with many rooms, and even more doors in from the outside. In fact, the doors and windows are more the point than the rooms themselves. Having an anime canon — and one constructed to encompass as much of anime as possible — means it's all the easier to welcome people arriving from all directions. A good moé title (yes, they do exist!) has as much of a right to belong there as any broadly recognized fan favorite — not because one is "better" than the other, but because each offers things to fans, old and new, that the other can't and doesn't.
Seen like this, the function of a canon is less akin to a library, and more akin to an agora -- a public space, as it were, where people can encounter not only the works themselves, but encounter each other through those works. The number of women now in their thirties who encountered not only anime generally but each other through the original Sailor Moon can attest to that. People who once believed themselves to be alone against all, can now find a place for themselves and others — and have a catalog of works (and fans for same) through which to do it.
Out from under the glass
The canon isn't meant to be a fixed list of titles, though, any more than science is meant to be a definition of a fixed body of knowledge. Science is a way of knowing; a canon for anime would be a way to get to know anime.
Such a canon wouldn't remain cast in stone, but would expand and contract over time. In fact, it had better do that over time, as a reflection of how we rethink earlier works and welcome in new ones. If we add something like Attack on Titan to such a list — and all signs point to that already having happened — it matters at least as much that we also stay in the habit of looking back on such things every so often and feel free to rethink what made it worth adding.
For the most part, we don't have a problem doing that, and I see that as a sign of the relative health of anime fandom. Scarcely a day goes by when I don't bump into a stirring argument stumping for recognizing a recent title as a classic, or an enlightening re-reading of some old chestnut, whether pro or con.
Me, I think any title really needs to have been in the air for at least five to ten years before we can start talking "classic" status (the marketing departments of various anime distributors notwithstanding), but the point is that having such a debate at all is what's refreshing. How we talk about these things, how we consider them important, is what makes a canon. Any title can and ought to be a part of that discussion.
This is why the reason to induct any one title into such company is not so that we can cover it with Perspex and keep the fingerprints off it, like some Gundam model. It's so we can have more people get their hands on it, develop opinions about it, argue over it, disagree about it, agree to disagree about it. The point is not to elevate some things to the level of greatness and spit on others, any more than the point is to make all those who are into anime feel great and all those who are not feel left out.
The canon's cloud
But with that comes a paradox of sorts. If any title can and ought to be part of that discussion, what's to stop the canon from becoming a mere populist dumping ground? What's more, who gets to say what's in and what's out?
The not-so-unspoken elitism of that view is tough to swallow, not least of all because I've caught myself making utterances in that vein on and off. I don't like the idea that only an elite subset of people get to say what's in and out; that ignores the way fans give something a life of its own. If they rally behind something I have no taste for, the most I can do is make a case for why I'm not part of that particular crowd, but you can't argue people out of their tastes any more than you can walk into a church and tell people they're believing in the wrong god.
This is why I'm stumping for the idea of a canon not as a fixed list, but as more of a cloud — one where the overall behavior for how titles are regarded in it is more useful than the titles themselves. At any one time, some things are closer to the center of that, some farther out on the fringes. Over time, some are drawn in, others pushed out. What causes those movements isn't the decree of some list handed down by those on high, but by the general tone of discussion around them, the mind-set of an entire generation.
Let the canon commence
It's hard to codify something that nebulous, but perhaps it ought to be hard to codify. The better to keep it from ossifying, turning into a static artifact instead of a dynamic process. If it makes sense to argue against boxing up any one title inside its own reputation, it makes sense to do the same for the whole of the canon. Don't worry about the titles; worry instead about the discourse around them.
To wit: I am of the opinion that something like Naruto will, for all of its bloat and run-on (at least in its animated form), be revisited in future years with the kind of affection reserved for a franchise like Star Wars, in big part because of the way its growth reflected or paralleled the growth of a good part of its target audience. I can't say the same for Bleach, since it doesn't appear to have followed the same trajectory. (To my eyes, it's been a perpetual-motion grinding wheel of one-upsmanship.) But I would love to see someone make just such an analogous argument for Bleach, if only because I am always fascinated by how such arguments are constructed and how they can reveal insights not visible to us through out own prejudices.
Criticism is important here, but as a source of ideas — not as an arbiter of taste, or an absolute authority of last appeal. I can vouch for titles I think deserve their reputations (Fullmetal Alchemist), stump for things I feel are under-represented or not well known (Angel's Egg, Moribito), marvel at things I know are bad but engrossing all the same (Shangri-la), dissent on titles loved by others (The Wind Rises), and so on. But I can't expect such stances to work as functional replacements for how people approach anime, get to know about it, get immersed in it, form their own feelings about it. All anyone can expect to do is point the way(s) and be patient.
No project this open-ended can be handed down from the mount. It can only stem from from the gradual accrual of many weighings-in, of titles gleaned from multiple best-ofs over the course of years, seen and re-seen, debated and re-examined. What matters is not that we make a list, but that we check it twice, three times, ten times — not just for what's missing, but for why any one thing got there in the first place.
Let the shouting commence. Oh, wait — it already has! Maybe better to say: Let the shouting never end.