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July 31, 2012 / Bradley

The Measure of a Good Anime

My most reliable transmissions from the inner workings of the mecha fandom’s mind is We Remember Love, and ghostlightning is not happy about episode 48 of Gundam AGE:

Note that I didn’t mention the story. Stories are important. It is not my purpose to devalue them. However, given that I am watching, and wanting to watch robot anime, I accept that the variety of narratives available to this subgenre are or will be limited. This set me free to enjoy the narratives that do exist even more, instead of seeking novelty.

I would rather see novelty and innovation in robot and battle dynamics than inventiveness and variety in story and plot.

This is what I signed up for. Thus, when a show fails to be competent, never mind innovation and novelty, in mechanical design and in root battles, the robot anime has failed.Mobile Suit Gundam AGE 42 fails.

You can safely read the whole thing, since it’s (relatively) light on spoilers and fandom jargon. Riffing on his point about what he expects and wants from mecha, I’m reminded of one of my core principles that I always keep at the top of my mind when digesting and analyzing anime. This idea isn’t a rule so much as it is a reference point that I start at, before building into more interesting territory. Most bloggers seem to “get” this idea, but because I haven’t seen it articulated elsewhere, it seems worth laying out.

The idea goes a little something like this: a good story meets its own expectations. An adventure story should feel adventurous, a romance should be romantic, a mystery should be… intriguing, so on and so forth. This idea is distinct from its poisonous cousin: a good story panders to what I want. In the interest of being unconventional, let’s use The Idolmaster as an example. When I’ve listened to fans explain why they like the show, they’ll talk about how the series made sure each character had its fair share of screen time, so everyone got to see their favorite idol get the spotlight for an episode or two. But that’s the correct answer to a different question (“why is The Idolmaster an effective piece of merchandise marketing?”) and also applies to a lot of harem cartoons even ardent The Idolmaster fans would agree are better off choking on a congealed wad of donkey cum and left to rot in the street. Seriously, fuck Tayutama.

The Idolmaster‘s story is much older and more interesting than innovative new ways to sell pieces of plastic: the struggle to be recognized as an artist. And the first half of the series does an effective job of telling that story, with the small idol company starting with nothing and slowly making gains through small successes, before culminating in a big concert. This doesn’t come easily, and the girls struggle with their egos, petty professional jealousies, and trying to put in the hard work required to get their talent recognized. The show’s close attention to detail is a strong asset here, since it does a lot to sell us on the drudgery of toiling in obscurity that’s needed to earn their fame. It gives the story a momentum that makes the glitzy, big concert so rewarding to watch- sadly, that momentum isn’t really carried through the second half, but it stays decent throughout. I wouldn’t argue that The Idolmaster is a great anime, but it is a good example of a good cartoon that effectively meets its own goals. Great anime, of course, exceed those goals with force. You wouldn’t do The Rose of Versailles or The Wings of Honneamise justice by saying they’re just good adventure stories.

This idea works closely with expectations but doesn’t march to its beat. It’s a judgement call that comes from experience and an open mind. The first time I saw Cyber City Oedo 808, for instance, I hated it. It seemed like a pile of animated gibberish that only faintly resembled the other cyberpunk anime I liked. But listening to Daryl’s review of the OVA expanded my understanding of how something can be entertaining, and on a second viewing, it became one of my favorites. He helped me see both the comedy and the ambition in its fractured madness.

This isn’t something I follow militantly, though- there’s plenty of anime out there whose problem isn’t so much that they don’t meet their story’s expectations, but that their expectations are too mundane or creepy or something worse to begin with. And while it’s really just one of several “rules of the road,” I’ve found that it’s the one I go back to the most when I’m explaining why I like an anime, like Pretty Cure.  It’s easy to explain why you love the exceptional; explaining what makes something more conventional good is the true challenge.

7 Comments

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  1. ghostlightning / Jul 31 2012 9:06 pm

    The measure of a good anime or the measure of a good anime’s story, plot, or narrative?

    I think a good anime is good illustration first and foremost (subjective, but not impractically so); good animation second (subjective, but not impractically so); then good application of aforementioned design and animation in storytelling (subjective, but not impractically so), then the rest follows.

    There are silly, simplistic stories in very competent anime:

    Redline
    K-On!
    Mazinkaiser SKL

    …and so on. But as anime they are very good, if perhaps not transcendent. It’s because the competence in illustration is obvious (I say competence, not greatness — because that is highly and impractically subjective); the “sakuga” or key animation competence is obvious, and then I can easily remark on how the design and animation style/decisions tell the story (this is not as easy to discern, as it requires experience in consuming animation, cinema, and having read many different stories) — these are choices to cut away to a different scene to sell the dramatic point of a current one (Sawako pausing to enter the club room to let the light music club girls have their moment to themselves); use of television ads in to establish character interest in Redline; use of split face technique to show two characters being united and saying the same (awesome) thing “WE’RE NOT SENDING YOU TO HELL, WE ARE HELL!” in Mazinkaiser SKL (a traditional super robot anime technique)… or we can talk all day about Revolutionary Girl Utena.

    This is why action anime is such a good thing. It’s a showcase of animation, until Kyoto Animation happened and animated the lights out of the most mundane things via K-On! and the Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya. The most expansive showcase of action is mecha anime, via robot battles, because it can show you three dimensional combat (from high above, from below, etc.) while retaining the humanoid form (arguably the the silhouette that we are most fond of — I know this is the case for myself). Robot anime shows this in massive scale — both in fighter size, and in number of combatants. You can have very good sword hand-to-hand combat duels in the likes of Sword of the Stranger, and in Guardian of the Sacred Spirit, but not only can you see such in Muv Luv Alternative Total Eclipse, you get the gunfights, alien swarms, and massive set piece battles too at all sizes (from human size, to building sized combatants).

    Non-action anime can approximate this, and the easiest way to do this is via musical performances: band playing is one (see Haruhi, K-On!, and the rotoscoped Kids on the Slope), but perhaps more effectively via song and dance scenes.

    So this is where I think Idolm@ster, AKB0048, and Macross Frontier MUST deliver. I’ve seen all three. Im@s has unremarkable music, and dance choreography — but is not remarkably bad; I don’t remember jarring CG. AKB0048 has jarring CG, unremarkable dance choreography, and at times terrible songs (Nagisa no Cherry fuck this shit) BUT, interspersed FIGHTING BATTLE ACTION in its musical performance scenes wherein you get infantry, hand-to-hand, AND robot action. AKB0048 covered all the bases. However, not exceptionally — but yes, competently.

    Macross Frontier has an unholy advantage in musical content, not very good dance animation, but is a MASTER in presenting idol song and dance performances WITH dynamic mecha fighter action (some of the fastest, and best for TV anime; the movies are on an entirely different level).

    Each performance from shows like this extend to about 3-4 minutes, the amount of animation, storytelling, choreography, etc. is the most extensive in Macross Frontier. You get more value in the duration of the spectacle.

    Some interesting and entertaining stories are marred by animation or production incompetence (I mention production incompetence in terms of managing limited resources to make the most animation goodness).

    BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad suffers a fair bit with its dirty and messy animation, which can be passed off as stylistic choice, but I don’t think it works too well to be called good in this area (I DO love Beck:MCS, in my fanboy way, so I’m not hating). Macross 7 is incredibly limited by its animation (so very, very awful; again not hating, it is my favorite sequel in the franchise).

    Production, specifically animation (with respects to action direction/choreography) is underrated at the expense of over-valuation of story and plot in the appreciation of anime.

    This I think, is wrong.

    • Bradley / Aug 2 2012 6:59 pm

      I like your point that an anime is so much more than story, which we often forget. This post really needed a better title.

  2. ghostlightning / Jul 31 2012 9:11 pm

    Oh, for the KyoAni haters I did not intend to say this studio invented good animation of the mundane so STFU. Ghibli also exists, among others.

  3. krizzlybear / Jul 31 2012 11:52 pm

    If Futari wa Pretty Cure is conventionally good by the standards that you’ve outlined, then Heartcatch PreCure is exceptionally good. I highly recommend it.

    • Bradley / Aug 1 2012 1:41 am

      I swear I’ll get to it! It’s… reasonably close to the top of my imaginary to-watch stack.

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  1. The measure of a good anime — 毎日アニメ夢
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