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.