Sunday, November 17, 2013

Scribblings of a Madman: You Keep Using That Word

Well, it's the anniversary of my first review today, and I'm currently at my university stuck in exam and project hell. Huzzah! At any rate, I was planning on releasing my first solo video review today (after being pretty much inactive for the last few months) but it just wasn't in the cards, trying to wrap it up today would be incredibly stressful and exhausting and quite frankly I don't need that right now, it's bad for my performance, bad for my health and bad for my skin. It is coming along and I will have it done soon, hopefully next weekend, and after that I'm planning to come back with a vengeance, you can look forward to that, it's just that right now I have to do what's right for me. Until then, have some amusing musings.

Remember how when we were kids we'd hear a word and start using it without really knowing what it means? It's not as cute when you're a supposedly fully-functioning adult with a friend named Webster to consult on such matters. In every culture and community that values intelligence (and several that don't), there are those who feel the need to sound like they know a lot more than they actually do, and this is especially common among preachers, politicians, and media consumers. I'm an apolitical agnostic so you can probably guess which one I plan to talk about, but before breaking off it's worth noting that participants in all three cultures have a tendency to pick up and latch onto a few words, often perfectly good words, and use them to death until everyone forgets what they are actually supposed to mean. In layman's terms: buzzwords.

Let's take a step back for a moment and look at a little thing called "metacognition". In the simplest terms possible it means "thinking about thinking", and in a broader sense it's essentially the process by which we determine how we know what we know. In my experience, the best media critics are the ones who don't just react to a work, they think about why they reacted the way that they did and break down what that reaction means about the work itself. I bring this up because none of the words that have become buzzwords started out that way, they're all very useful words with perfectly good meanings, they all have a place in thoughtful and dignified discussions, but nine times out of ten when you hear them, it's in the form of an offhand reaction without any thought given to what makes that word applicable or why it matters. For the purpose of this discussion, then, I'll be going through a few such words common to media discussion, what people think they mean (or don't bother to think they don't mean) and how they're misused, and what they really mean.

This may be an odd inclusion because technically, if we're just going by the dictionary definition, it's generally used correctly. Angst is a broad term for anxiety, dread, extreme stress, and generally being troubled by life. Rather than its denotation, I include it on this list because of its connotation. It has become something of a bad word for people; it's associated with stopping the story in its tracks to dwell on a character wallowing in sadness with little to no progression. The connotation itself is not the problem, it's as good a definition to operate by as any and the word is nigh impossible to divorce from its connotation at this stage. Where it starts to get a little messy is when we see the word being applied by its dictionary definition while still carrying its unique connotation. In a nutshell, and this is the point I'm trying to make, the word is sometimes used to write off sadness, depression, indecision and uncertainty categorically. And it really shouldn't be, these can be just as fascinating and fulfilling as grand action spectacle and passionate declarations of love.

As we get further into this, there's going to be a bit of a pattern that I'll address now. Most of these words can be broken into roughly two categories by connotation: lazy praise and lazy criticism. "Artsy" is a special case that can swing in either direction depending who you ask. I don't really feel the need to explain this one, you know who you are, so let's try a different approach. A work that displays artistic finesse isn't necessarily artsy. Cowboy Bebop's understanding of the cinematic art form is masterful, but I don't think anyone in their right mind would call the show "artsy"; the strengths of its presentation are very straightforward and it rarely feels the need to jump out at the audience screaming "LOOK AT ME I AM ART"! I distinguish "artsy" from other words, such as "artistic", "artful" and "arthouse" (which will have to be the topic of another rant altogether, methinks) because it describes that very property: of a work actively jumping out at the audience and showing them its artistic side, such that it's very distinctly part of the appeal. So when is it good and when is it bad? Well, that's a diffucult question, but what it comes down to is as simple as whether a work's "artsiness" gets in the way of telling a good story.

Oh deconstruction, you lovely little mess of a word, you, where do I even begin? Let's start with the definition: deconstruct literally means to break something down into smaller parts, usually for the purpose of studying its inner workings. In fiction, it means giving attention to the oft-ignored logical consequences of a trope or setup. In colloquial usage this translates into another lazy praise word and, like its slightly more well-mannered cousin "subversion", is often automatically attached to anything that happens to be dark. Deconstruction implies cleverness and insight and I've seen plenty of dark works that have neither; Evangelion wasn't a deconstruction because it was dark, it was dark because it found dangerous implications in the concepts it chose to deconstruct. At the opposite end of the spectrum deconstructions don't have to be dark or serious. You know that thing in anime where boobs jiggle everytime a girl moves? Let's say the girl gets chaffing. Boom, deconstruction.

Do I even need to explain this one? It's the most bland, uninspired, nondescript way to praise content that has far too much to be summed up in one word. When used correctly it doesn't really do the subject justice, and when used incorrectly (more on the distinction between faux depth and actual depth later on) it's laughable. Incidentally, the word "depth" doesn't bother me at all, not because it's any more descriptive but rather due to a nice little quirk of the English language. "Deep" refers to the work as a whole while "depth" tends to attach itself to specific instances, so the latter invites the speaker to justify the point he or she is trying to make, and I have also occasionally come across works that couldn't be called deep as a whole, but have little bits of commentary scattered throughout that you could call depth. Maybe it's just me being pedantic, but the latter seems far less insulting to me. Not to say "deep" doesn't have its place, but be prepared to back it up.

Another trend in these words is their tendency to come in pairs; if deconstruction is the lazy praise for a dark work, then grimdark is the lazy criticism. Now it's true, I have seen plenty of stories that try too hard to be dark just to push the envelope without the internal logic to give such an atmosphere justification or meaning. That is what grimdark is supposed to mean. Consistently dark works that understand why the story they are telling needs to be dark, those are not grimdark. What's more, dark stories can be fun. No, I'm serious here, there are some playfully self-aware over-the-top dark titles can be creepy and twisted in a non-threatening, non-offensive (well okay, they're probably still pretty offensive) way. Case in point: the Major's speech from Hellsing Ultimate episode 4. Look it up on youtube, it's sick and twisted and so much fun! Really, though, if there's one word on this list I could completely do without, it's this one. "Trying too hard" is an apt substitute.

This one's a double whammy. Not only is it often misused, but it's also not necessarily a bad thing. Melodrama is simply exaggerating an emotion. So first off, screaming and writhing in agony isn't melodrama if you're having your fingernails wedged off with bamboo, and bursting into tears isn't melodrama if you've recently lost a friend and it's still sinking in, etc. If the reaction is justified, proportionate and in character, that's regular drama. But even if you do give a reaction a little more emphasis than what's due, so what? In a fun and passionate story that doesn't take itself too seriously, I have nothing against expressing big emotions in big ways to make the characters' investment as real to the audience as possible, it can be used to positive effect. There's a place for over-the-top in action and comedy, so why not drama? It can still be lovable and sincere, and both those things go a long way with me.

One of the fundamental aspects of storytelling is controlling what information your audience receives, as well as how and when. Obfuscation means concealing information from the audience--you know the drill by now, say it with me--without justification. So what justifies concealing information? To me, that usually comes down to whether we, the audience, have a solid grasp of the viewpoints of the characters we're following (though there are exceptions of course). So if there's a question that the characters in the story avoid asking because they're afraid to learn the answer, that's a perfectly valid reason to avoid bringing said question to the forefront. Getting back to the idea of metacognition for a moment, if the audience doesn't know what they are expected to know about the world we're seeing, then you have a problem. Probably the surest way to avoid fall into the trappings of obfuscation is to give your audience a sense of normalcy and let later developments unfold naturally from there. Then it's not obfuscation, it's subtlety.

There is no such thing as objectivity. Everyone and everything capable of making a decision is biased, period. A good reviewer isn't objective or unbiased and shouldn't strive to be; rather, a good reviewer should strive to be honest and fair. The end.

This word is probably the most dangerous on the list. Like everything else here it has its place, but if you don't have a solid grasp on what makes something good than it comes to naught. The vast majority of people out there, whether they're fans of movies, books, videogames, or anime, don't really have a solid definition to operate off of outside of what they like and don't like. It's perfectly fine to like what you like and not like what you don't like, but if you can't translate that into something more widely applicable then calling a highly praised something or other "overrated" just means you don't like it, and that only really means anything to you. That doesn't mean you should take how you feel about something out of the equation, of course. You felt that way for a reason and there are others out there who will probably share your reaction, but if you want to be taken seriously, try to frame your points in such a way that the audience can sympathize from an outside perspective. Underrated is a tamer word, much less confrontational; overrated should be reserved for extreme cases.

This is a difficult one to talk about because in some ways I actually don't feel like it's overused, just misdirected. In many ways audiences have more of a role in what and how shows, movies and anime are made than ever before, and the most successful (notice I don't say best) works take advantage of this. But if I'm going to keep some semblance of consistency, I'd better talk about how this word gets misused, because it does indeed get misused. This is another case where the denotation (giving people what they want) isn't as important as the connotation (doing so at the expense of good storytelling), and once again the latter is the definition I'll be going by. By that definition, it's not pandering for a story to be conscious of its target audience and go out of its way to be relatable, some of the best stories, by successfully connecting with a specific age group, have managed to become unexpectedly timeless (see: the Toy Story trilogy). There is nothing wrong with tapping into what your audience happens to enjoy; while many of the best stories are the ones that don't try too hard to please everyone, a dispassionate tale that pleases no one isn't worth telling.

Those of you who know me well were probably waiting for this one, and if you're familiar with some of the things I like you'll know why. Yes, I'm the guy who wants more from his entertainment than entertainment. I like stories that have a point they want to make to their audience, layers you can analyze and dive into, little details scattered throughout that you won't notice the first time, metaphorical and philosophical underpinnings... basically, I like depth. Yeah, there's that word again. So where do you draw the line between pretension and genuine depth? Well, this is another topic that could fill an entire rant, but what it comes down to for me is whether the purported truth it's conveying feels natural. If the events in a narrative, rather than following any internal logic, come off as contrived and artificial for the sake of making a point, if they discuss philosophies and themes without providing any real evidence for them, then why should we believe there's any truth to what the story has to say? If the creators are more concerned with making a deep story than with the actual depth they want to convey, they're just pandering to intellectuals, and that is what makes true pretension. It follows, then, that real depth, even if it's hard to get and not always fun or pleasant, can make its message feel true to life, like the most obvious and natural thing in the world. If complex, layered, thoughtful narratives aren't for you, that's fine, but that doesn't make them pretentious, they're still complex, layered and thoughtful.

I'm not saying you should start an effort to banish any and all of these words from your vocabulary. These words exist for a reason, they do mean something and you should use them when they're the best words to convey that meaning. Still, take some time to consider why you make the connections you do. Knowing what you're saying allows you to say it with more confidence and believe in it with greater conviction, and I think that's something worthwhile to strive for.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Spice & Wolf Review (Lilac Anime Reviews Crossover)

I never thought my first video review would be a crossover. Isn't life full of funny little surprises?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Scribblings of a Madman - What Makes a Masterpiece?

As I struggle to complete my upcoming review, continuously putting it off and failing to meet my self-imposed deadlines, I decided to take a little breath of fresh air and talk about something a little broader and more universal. My last attempt at a vlog was pretty embarrassing, I don't intend to attempt that again for a long time, so from now on I'm transitioning to text rants, which much better fit my style and afford me more opportunity to fine-tune my wordings so that I can at least appear to know what I'm talking about. Hopefully I'll do a better job of making these with some semblance of regularity. I already have a few in mind, actually.

To start off, I'd like to thank the wonderful Tiel Figs for creating a new banner for my page, I think she did lovely work. At my request it bears the slogan "What makes a masterpiece?" because I believe it's a question every self-respecting critic should ask him or herself at some point. Masterpiece. That word has been debated up and down to the ends of the Earth, and the more time passes the harder it is for an agreed-upon definition to be reached. Is it an enduring classic that's withstood the test of time? Perhaps it's something that's simply loved and enjoyed by many? Maybe it refers to a work that is the best of its kind, or is it perhaps based on some more "objective" criteria? On my end, if I rate something at a full 10/10 that means I consider it a masterpiece in my book. At the time of this entry I have yet to award that rating, but that does not mean I am averse to doing so, not by any stretch, nor that I have yet to see a show or movie that I deem worthy of that honor. I just haven't gotten around to reviewing them yet (though I'll be reviewing one such show in the near future). Before I get to that point, though, I think I owe it to myself and my audience to pin down just what makes a perfect 10 to me, and what my line of thought is for my ratings in general, so my readers (you) can get a good idea of what I score a show by and decide for yourselves just how far to trust my opinion. That's all any review or critique is ever worth at the end of the day, after all: just an opinion.

First and foremost, I'd never pretend to be the all-knowing arbiter of anime excellence, nor should anyone, but I do think that the best critics are the ones who can base their opinions on factors that go deeper than personal taste. That doesn't mean stripping yourself of all personal passion or emotion, there is a very simple reason no critic should ever do that in a review: in all likelihood, most of your audience is going to be human. We're not just zeros and ones that react predictably and precisely to whatever input we're given, we're also governed by passion and emotions, and that is the entire reason we enjoy stories of any kind, otherwise why would we care about these events that have little if any connection to hard facts? We don't just want to know what the narrative has to say, we want to feel involved, to get lost in the atmosphere and develop a connection with the story and its characters, so it's a critic's duty to show that he or she cares, otherwise why would the audience have any reason to believe they should care?

Rather than defining what the word "masterpiece" means from the ground up, which strikes me as a lovely little exercise in futility, it might be better to start with what it doesn't mean. Firstly, I've never subscribed to the "best of its kind" definition of the word, for a few reasons. To find the "best" work in any given category requires some other qualitative criteria anyway, which strikes me as a little messy, and that's not even getting into how finely you can categorize before you start overspecializing. But let's assume for a moment that you do manage to finely divide every anime ever made (for the purpose of this blog, we'll limit ourselves to anime) into tidy little categories... does that mean each category is guaranteed exactly one masterpiece and allowed no more? And if a comparable or better work came along, would that somehow retroactively make the previous "masterpiece" somehow worse? So much for true art being timeless. This leads to a mindset of elevating mediocre works because there's nothing better at what they do, regardless of whether it's worth doing, and devaluing excellent series by weighing them against one another, as though the idea of two works excelling equally at similar goals is some kind of heresy. Clichés and tired concepts deserve to be acknowledged, of course--I couldn't help comparing Pumpkin Scissors to Fullmetal Alchemist--but for the most part I try to look at every anime I review without assuming the audience has seen any other specific series no matter how famous, (though I may assume a certain level of general experience in the medium). A truly great anime should stand on its own, and indeed the best ones do.

By that same token of keeping to the show's self-contained merits, mass appeal and popularity only go so far with me. Obviously they'll play a factor, if there weren't people who I think would enjoy a show I'd never be able to recommend it in good faith. Accessibility, being able to reach out to a wide and diverse audience, is important and always will be, only a fool would deny that, so if I can't in good faith say "everyone should give this a chance" I'm not sure I can call it a masterpiece. There's an exception to every rule, I call them as I see them, but broad appeal is definitely a factor. That said, it's not as simple as a popularity contest, some shows are more popular because they got more exposure or came out at a lucky time with little competition. That's why even non anime fans may have at least heard of Dragon Ball Z, while I'm sure most of you can think of a few underappreciated gems you believe more people should see. Many of the most "popular" movies, books and anime, in terms of sales, fans and viewers, target a large but specific demographic in a way that doesn't translate into broader appeal. If you're a 90's kid like me you probably grew up on Pokémon, but outside its target audience its viewership was mostly limited to parents who'd watch it with their kids, but never on their own. Most everyone I knew had moved on and outgrown the show well before middle school; it just couldn't hold up against older, more discerning audiences. To give a less extreme example, in my review of Bunny Drop I noted that I could recommend it to just about anyone, but it was a little too small and unassuming to recommend it emphatically, so I couldn't in good faith give it a perfect score.

I also most certainly don't interpret a masterpiece to mean a "perfect" work, for the very simple reason that nothing is perfect. I don't grade an anime the way I'd grade an exam, deducting points for every "error" I find, because that tends to come down to petty nitpicking. Some series come very close to perfect in my eyes, and I might call them that when shooting for hyperbole, but really that just means it was good enough at what it did that I could forgive its flaws. Of course, this brings us to the question of where to draw the line between a forgivable flaw and an unforgivable flaw. Honestly? That's up to personal judgment, the question of how much is enough and how much is too much will always come down to the individual. I may try my hardest to substantiate my opinions with logic and evidence, but if my thinking is so alien to you that I might as well be a little green alien, it won't mean a thing to you. When determining whether you're going to trust a critic's opinions, don't look to whether he or she likes the same things you do, but rather to whether he or she likes them for the same reasons you do. There will always be someone who just operates on a different definition of what makes good writing, good characters, good presentation, and a good anime, and that's fine. For the purpose of my reviews, I stand by my own definitions and criteria and leave it to my audience to decide how much my perspective matters to them.

Finally, and I cannot stress this enough, how highly I rate something is not determined by how much I like it. Well, not entirely. There will inevitably be some overlap between my personal favorites and my most highly-rated shows because we tend to like the things we think are good and see good in the things that we like. This is where things get tricky, and reconciling a critical eye with an inescapable personal bias is perhaps more than anything what I set out to talk about from the very start. I mentioned earlier that personal passion shouldn't be ignored when critiquing a work, and I stand by it. Ironic enjoyment aside, if a show leaves you feeling entertained then it must be doing something right and if you just can't seem to get beside it then clearly it shouldn't be a masterpiece in your book, I couldn't respect anyone who gave that coveted title to a show they hated. Even so, it is very possible to like something for irrational or purely personal reasons that don't translate to a wider audience. I love jazz, I'm more likely to watch and enjoy show if it has a jazz soundtrack, but that doesn't make it better, it just means it's more aligned with my personal taste. I'm also more likely to hate a show that had the potential to be great and fell short than an utterly bland title I wasn't invested in to begin with, but the disappointments are the ones that hold up better critically, because they got it half-right. I could keep going, but I don't want to get sidetracked so this may be a topic for another day. Hopefully you get the point, I can't imagine that would be the part that lost you if you made it this far.

So by process of elimination based on what I think a masterpiece is not, I have to judge a work "on its own merits", viewed through a lens of personal criteria and bias in terms of what makes good storytelling, but also separate from a simple gut-reaction gauge of how much I like it. So now we get to the crux of the matter: what makes good storytelling? Well, I can't speak for everyone, but there are a few things I generally look for. It has to feel complete, or at the very least to have brought its core ambition to fruition, with a solid and satisfying resolution that leaves little room to build off of what's already been done. That is to say, it has to have more or less lived up to its full potential. In addition, I look for definite creative and artistic ambition; wondering "what was the point" at the end of a series leaves a sour taste. I also look for works that make good use of their medium and tell their story as you only could through animation; some say the story is all that matters, that everything else is just window dressing, but by that logic you might as well just read a plot summary off of Wikipedia. A distinctive style is what gives a work presence, and an image is far more likely to sear itself into the audience's memory than an event. Other things that are generally compliments coming from me (and probably anyone else) are "well-written", "thought-provoking", "great characters", "well-executed", "a work of art", "beautiful", "timeless", etc., but rather than the sum of its individual elements, I find that a work's overall quality comes down to how well its strengths come together. The real trick is for an anime to recognize what it wants to strive for and focus all its other elements around its core strengths, which is how you create a balanced whole greater than the sum of its parts. That sounds simple in theory, but I've seen many a potentially great creation fall prey to the all too common pitfall of just not knowing what it wants to achieve.

These are all just guidelines, though, to be taken with a grain of salt. I certainly don't want anyone taking my word as gospel, I'm essentially just another guy with another opinion. What makes a masterpiece? At the end of the day there's no single right answer, no magic formula for excellence, despite the desperate efforts of many a creator to find one (though there do seem to be a few for popularity). There's no framework for constructing an instant masterpiece from the ground up. But that's the beauty of it. I've never watched the first scene of an anime and instantly thought "this is a masterpiece". It may have the potential to reach that higher plane, but creating a masterpiece isn't about where you start, it's about where you finish and how you get there. It's about slowly but surely building a powerful experience unlike any other, one that can be revisited again and again and only become more beautiful as time goes on. It's about doing and saying more with a concept than you'd think possible at a glance. It's about creating something so well-crafted and satisfying that what little flaws it has end up not mattering at all. A masterpiece is something that, while I may not be able to guarantee everyone will love, I can wholeheartedly recommend everyone give it a chance. It's the most difficult achievement any work of art can aspire to, but if realized, there is nothing more rewarding.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Pumpkin Scissors Review

That blue light, so cold and damp. I can still see it, like the ground fire of the will o the wisp. Makes me wonder... if he was some kind of monster during the war?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Claymore Review

"Eventually, either its corpse or my own will turn up in the streets of your village. That's your only certainty."

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Five Point Podcast - Bartender

I make a guest appearance on The Five Point Podcast with fellow reviewers Bobcat and Burk. Together we talk about Bartender, a show that attempts to put a positive spin on the phrase "drink your sorrows away".

Keep it classy.