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.