Reflections On the Craft of Reviewing Fiction and Anime in Particular as Well

“He is a man of thirty-five, but looks fifty. He is bald, has varicose veins and wears spectacles, or would wear them if his only pair were not chronically lost. If things are normal with him he will be suffering from malnutrition, but if he has recently had a lucky streak he will be suffering from a hangover. At present it is half past eleven in the morning, and according to his schedule he should have started work two hours ago; but even if he had made any serious effort to start he would have been frustrated by the almost continuous ringing of the telephone bell, the yells of the baby, the rattle of an electric drill out in the street, and the heavy boots of his creditors clumping up and down the stairs. The most recent interruption was the arrival of the second post, which brought him two circulars and an income-tax demand printed in red.” – Confessions of a Book Reviewer, George Orwell

What is the point of book/anime/game reviews? Well, they are recommendations (i.e.‘read this book, don’t watch that anime for it is trash’). The reason people read reviews at first is just because they want to know what to watch and what to not watch to save their time as well as their patience. The obvious danger of relying too much on reviews and on other people’s opinions about fiction is that you will effectively have your opinion about fiction dictated to you (Examples of this include the visceral hatred many seem to display for the Twilight saga and the Transformers films). Another more subtle issue is that the relationship between you and that work of art ceases to be purely personal and it instead becomes communal. This has been made worse by the internet I think as you are only a google search away from other people’s opinions about fiction, even obscure fiction. There are many advantages of course to this communal environment for example if you use a listing website with user reviews like myanimelist or rottentomatoes you can quickly gauge if a title is so bad that it isn’t worth checking it out and for the more creative souls there is an audience to display their fan creations on websites like fanfiction.net, youtube, archiveofourown etc… I think that perhaps what push people to take this extra effort is not just the work of fiction by itself but the opinions surrounding it, one way to judge a piece of fiction is to look at its fandom, this is rather unfair I think because the work of fiction should be able to stand on its own. For example the rampant speculation and fan theories in the Evangelion fandom perhaps reveal that the show was not clear enough on its themes or plot (Don’t crucify me I love Eva but I don’t like how one has to look at outside sources from the series to understand what is going on). All of this said I think that the biggest thing lost by reading reviews is that element of surprise, of opening a book and not knowing whether you will like it and then being pleasantly surprised, of starting to watch an anime without knowing what it’s going to be about, not a single plot point and then being mesmerized by a beautiful story, of picking up a manga just by glancing at its artwork etc… I have personally gotten used to reading reviews and do not watch anything unless it has been recommended to be by at least a half decent source like a MAL rating a few months after a show has aired. I have a low tolerance for trash shows, eight years ago I watched and read anything that I could get my hands on and I enjoyed it but now my tastes have become much more restricted after watching too much anime.

So far I have only talked about reviews from the perspective of the reader but what about the reviewer? I think that writing a review, just as writing in general, helps to cement a certain a view about a piece of work and also other similar works although at other times reviews are nothing more than bookmarks in time as your opinions may vary over time out of your control (the scary thing about changing your mind, as Peter Hitchens puts it in a different context, is that often you can’t stop it,). I have seen people regret their opinions in reviews they wrote a long time ago (e.g. Gigguk on his negative Evangelion review although I am not certain of this, I am basing this on some comments on his video about saying that on a Podtaku podcast).

Should you read reviews of the stuff you are going to review?

Well that is a tricky question, reading reviews can lead to simply restating other peoples opinions in your reviews, in which case – what is the point(unless you are getting paid for it)? So I would like to say no but it is very tempting as you are sitting there wrecking your brain unable to start a review to do a simple google search to ‘look’ at what others are saying and then be disappointed that what you thought was your own original insight has already been pointed out by many before you even set it down in ink on paper or in pixels on a screen. I think it is alright to read some reviews before you watch something but not as you write the review, unless of course your review is a reply to someone else’s review.

Some people have different criteria like ‘sound’ ‘animation’ ‘plot’ ‘characters’ as a sort of guiding checklist to keep your review on point, I think MAL does have such a criteria which is regularly ignored and I can see why – I don’t really know that much about ‘sound’ or ‘animation’ and so on so my anime reviews often read like book reviews only concerned with the themes and the characters and plot unless the animation and sound aspects are so spectacular or so bad that even a lay person like me has something to say about them – this ‘book review’ effect is exacerbated by the fact that I am almost invariably reading subtitles when I watch anime because I do not know Japanese and I would rather listen to the saccharine squeaks of Japanese anime voice-actors rather than to Americans speaking in American (I am British), I am joking of course it’s just that the English dubs are not always available and they are not just translations but also adaptations of the Japanese source material, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a Japanophile (as I am primarily interested Japanese anime/manga/LN/VN/WN otaku culture and a little about the post-war politics, economy and the current demographic crisis and the geo-politcs brewing in the background or is it the foreground of it all?) but I guess I am otaku enough to want to know the untranslated references in anime, if it’s a series that I particularly like I will watch both the dubbed version and the subbed version provided they are both good (like the Steins; Gate dubs and subs) in some cases I also prefer dubs but I will address the old dubs vs subs debate in a separate post (although I admit I have nothing much to add to it but just to be thorough and for the views I will probably write about it). Any way the point is that ‘pre-set criteria’ approach to reviewing doesn’t work for me although I can see it works for reviewers like ‘GRArkada.’ I prefer a more ‘review based around one or two main themes of the work of fiction plus some comments about the characters and plot’ kind of approach – following my A-Level literature teacher’s advice to write a lot about a little – this can of course degenerate into pretentious overthinking where the reviewer/critic uses the fiction as a prop to talk about whatever he likes but if he keeps in mind that he is trying to tell someone whether to watch something or not I think that can lead to a more honest assessment of the fiction rather than a detailed checklist-like assortment to see whether a work of fiction meets certain ideological requirements of the reviewer.

Finally I would like to talk, well write about the ‘leach’-like nature of the reviewing business. When it comes to the internet and blogs in general the bloggers are leaching off some other ‘real’ medium, for example like how most internet alternative news outlets use traditional news outlets as their sources for information, a very similar thing can be said about the craft of reviewing as the reviewer in effect acts as a publicist for the shows he likes by recommending to the audience as a sort of middleman sorting out the good from the bad which is something useful but this doesn’t change the fact that they are not producing anything other than analysis and critique, and the question as to whether they would be able to create something that they could objectively exalt according to their own standards remains open, i.e. unanswered. I wouldn’t exactly call this hypocrisy but something less which I don’t have a word for but which is embodied in the thought ‘If you know what it takes for a great story then why don’t you make one? Oh is it because you can’t.’ Perhaps it is unfair to ask them this for it is not their role and so I haven’t but I can’t say I haven’t thought it and asked it from myself (which resulted in that dreadful novella I wrote and posted on this blog a few months ago and which perhaps for the best no one has read – no I am not indirectly asking you to read it using reverse psychology- don’t read it and don’t accuse me of asking you to). As you may have noticed all anime reviewers I have mentioned above (GR Arkada, Gigguk) are video bloggers on youtube rather than bloggers and that is because most popular anime reviewers are youtubers, this isn’t surprising given the visual nature of the anime medium and of course it is much more comfortable to listen to someone than read small text on a blog like this. Mother’s Basement(another anime reviewer on youtube) recently made a video noting how illegal anime streaming services like KissAnime are leaching off of the anime industry and I think he is right but in a way I think that bloggers and reviewers who depend on the anime industry are also in a way leaching off of it just like Journalists could be said to leach off of miserable events for their ratings and views. Of course it is different – anime reviewers are publicists for anime while illegal streaming websites… well they are popularizing anime as well, in effect a significant portion of Mother’s Basement viewership would be gone if websites like KissAnime would be gone because that is where his viewers go to watch anime. I guess then that it would be fair to say that Mother’s Basement and all other anime reviewers are leaching off of the illegal websites he was lambasting – KissAnime being the main one. But what is the point of this all? Well, I was watching a Japanese drama series called ‘Starblazers’ about Hideaki Anno et Gainax and a mangaka who saw himself as Anno’s rival when he was in university and I have read some interviews given by the self-proclaimed ‘Otaking’(not Anno but the guy who directed Otaku no Video) at the MIT website (Just search for ‘Rei anime MIT’ and you will find a page with all the links to the interviews), I guess it could be classed as an ‘inspirational story’ I mean the story of Studio Gainax rising above from nothing amid innumerable financial and other hardships and what struck a chord in me was his comments on how otaku in the age of the internet and computers feel that it is enough to create websites and create commentary because they can easily get that communal aspect of their hobby without exerting themselves to create original creations themselves. I think he was spot on, I do not deny the hard work done by the youtube reviewers sinking hundreds of hours into their work to make anime more accessible to mainstream audiences but are they really satisfied by being publicists for other people’s work? And secondly I don’t really think that video reviews which are time consuming to make really add anything substantial that is not present in written reviews except of course the ability to reach a larger audience which matters of course but just like modern anime the only thing that cleaner animation has provided only a shinier surface to the same(or worse) scripts.

The next paragraph is a short run-down of the deviations of my opinions about anime ‘classics’ and ‘masterpieces’ from the majority of critics I have read. I suggest you to skip it if you don’t know that much about anime.

My tastes are pretty conventional although there are times when I do disagree with the majority of the anime ‘community’(that is one word I hate) for example ‘Your Name’ (and for that matter ‘The Girl Who Leapt Through Time) are both silly simple romantic comedies with cute girls and with time travel as an unexplored plot ‘convenience’ device and nothing more (Watch ‘Steins;Gate’ one of the only good time travel anime which bothers to conjure up some sort of explanation and agency other than time travel for plot convenience) and most of Hayao Miyazaki’s works are to be blunt either environmentalist propaganda (even at his best I think in Princess Mononoke) or plainly boring ‘pretty colours’ like Spirited Away and lets not talk about his later bland works for which reason I think he retired. Or that ‘Ping Pong The Animation’ was aside from its unusual style was just the usual low stakes sports anime that has been done and redone worse since that baseball anime called ‘Touch.’ Finally ‘Kaiba’ is just another one of those shows that puts style over substance to mesmerize the senses of its viewers with its weird minimalistic cartoonish visuals in contrast with its ‘edgy’ ‘mature’ themes who will be distracted by how ‘forward looking’ ‘avant-garde’ it is to hide the poor boring characters, the quick and vague explanations etc… And let’s not even talk about that awful romance anime about cannibalistic monsters where the world was ending but the tension felt more fake than when watching a Hollywood blockbuster as I didn’t care about that fake world and even less about its two main characters. I think the problem that this director (and Miyazaki too to an extent) has is that he makes his characters run around too much to explore the weird settings which overshadow his characters whereas when he deals with a small cast in a confined setting he is much better like in the ‘Tatami Galaxy’ which for me was only rescued through its excellent ending(the last two or three episodes). Akira was just beautifully animated shock factor, to be frank it felt like an advertisement to read the much superior manga from which it was adapted from – but that’s not even an excuse, there just wasn’t enough time and the movie felt too long. The second Ghost in the Shell movie was just an exercise in quote mining different philosophers for a substitute for a proper script and some pretty colours, it wasn’t even that pretty.

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