What Audiences Want in Entertainment: Tips For The Wannabe Anime Critic
So, to celebrate that I've done over 50 anime reviews, I thought I would reflect on what I've learned from doing them. Analyzing anime is not always easy, and fans rarely agree on how to interpret and understand their favorite shows. However, analyzing anime is very fun and rewarding to me, and I really enjoy especially discussing interesting works of art with other people who enjoy them. Anime gives you a lot to talk about, involving literary tropes, mythological and religious references, philosophical query, and art theory. Comparisons between anime and western media are great ways to help understand the differences between western and east-Asian cultures, and anime also includes archetypes and themes that transcend culture and represent that which is universally human.
Critics vs. Audiences
Often, critics and audiences seem to disagree about what's good entertainment. Movies and books that have been hated by critics have been popular and commercially successful, and critics have liked many things that were flops at the box office. I think that I've noted a few differences between the ways audiences and critics approach judgment of entertainment (I'm more or less talking about movies but this applies to other forms of entertainment as well):
1. Critics want to see things that are important, audiences want things that are entertaining.
2. Critics spurn cliches and like to see innovation, audiences like familiarity and references to things they already know. Audiences like nostalgia, critics like avant-garde.
3. Critics prefer bleak, dark, and serious works to light-hearted comedy. Audiences can like darker works, but prefer to spend money on things with happy endings and uncomplicated morality (the works that make it very clear who is good and evil). Children's cartoons and G-Rated musicals are always likely to be both popular and hated or ignored by critics, for this reason.
4. Critics take an analytical, academic approach and are harshly against inaccuracies or implausibility. Audiences like to be dazzled by the emotional appeal of a story, even if it all doesn't quite make sense. (Moulin Rouge is a good example of this)
Neither of these approaches to entertainment is wrong, necessarily. They are just two broad categories of observer that most people fall into (I knew a woman who told me there was a difference between people who watch 'films' and people who watch 'movies'). People also tend to have personal reasons for judging a particular work, for example, I know a history professor who hates the classic film Gone With the Wind because of its inaccurate depiction of the Civil War era and slavery in the South. I knew someone who didn't like the book Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger for years until she took a literature class that taught that book, because she just didn't get the point the author was trying to communicate.
Both of these perspectives (audience and critic) are important in contributing to a complete understanding of a film or other piece of fiction. Criticism is important from a big picture point-of-view; to understand the meaning of the work to humanity and it's place in history. Audience reactions are powerful because they determine what will be considered classic, iconic, talked about decades later, and what will be left to collect dust on the shelf, forgotten in a year. A positive response to both affixes a firm "classic" stamp on a work. A negative response from one or the other usually signifies a failed film, either financially or artistically.
Basically, the critical response represents the quality of a message that is conveyed using creative methods, the audience response represents the breadth and depth of the reception of that message in the world. M.C. Escher said (I'm paraphrasing) that no one would paint on a desert island, they'd soon become bored without any other people to give them a response. The arts rely on audiences and critics to respond to their message. Art cannot move forward or develop in a meaningful way without feedback, however much some artists seem hostile to critics and audiences who "just don't get it".
What I've Learned From My Reviewing
Over the past couple of years, I've made over 50 Hub pages criticizing works of fiction, mostly anime, which vary from innocent G-Rated material to the most gory and explicit, from the most cynical works to the most optimistic, from the most silly to the most serious. I've seen excellent works that make me want to worship statues of the characters as gods, and terrible ones that make me want to give up anime forever and hide on a desert island for the rest of my life in shame.
Obviously, most of it fell somewhere in the middle. In my approach, I try to combine the perspectives of the audience and the critic, and also attempt to understand the thought process that goes into the creation of the work in the first place. Using what I'd dub a "hybrid style" of criticism because of my desire to understand multiple viewpoints, I have learned a lot about criticism of entertainment.
Here's a few things I've come to believe about criticizing anime and other forms of entertainment:
- Beautiful character designs and art are great, but the most important thing in an anime is the story, not the art style.
- Don't diss dubs automatically, some of them are more funny than the original translation (such as gag dubs like Samurai Pizza Cats or Shin-Chan). Other dubs are okay, the main problem I've had with them is I get tired of hearing the same voices repeated over and over again.
- Classic anime rules. If you can get past a sometimes funky art style, you'll find stories that are great by going back in time a little (like Lupin III, Doraemon, or Here is Green Wood).
- Life is too short to watch a long-runner in its entirety. I have yet to do it, although I plan to do a few carefully selected titles for Hub pages. The longest complete series I think I've ever seen still has less than 50 episodes. Trigun, for example, tells a complete, amazing story in only 26 episodes and one movie. Something that goes on too long becomes monotonous, inevitably. It begins to show that the creators are following a formula, rather than advancing anything interesting in terms of plot development.
- Not everything that's popular is good, but many things that are popular are good and you shouldn't decide to hate something in advance just because you hear it's popular and new (never hate anything before giving it a chance and watching a few episodes, at least.).
- Characters are the most important part of any story. Everything else simply relates to them (Plot: what the characters do and what happens to them, Setting: where and when the characters are, etc.). If a writer has created good characters that the audience will like or identify with and care about, they've already won half the battle. Master anime artists, such as Hayao Miyazaki, seem to understand this principle very well.
- Anime breaks all the rules. That's what makes it so refreshing. So, don't get upset when you see a series with a non-standard length, format, or something else atypical. Anime itself is atypical by nature, and that's why I enjoy it so much.
Tips For Analyzing Anime and Writing Reviews
So, for anyone curious about getting into their own anime criticisms, here are some things to do.
1. Check out what big-name critics whose opinions you respect are saying, especially about film. Western cinema is not anime, but more has been written and said about it in the West than about anime because it has a wider audience. Personal favorites of mine include Roger Ebert and The Nostalgia Critic (both natives of my state of Illinois, interestingly enough).
2. Reading as much professional-level anime, film, and fine arts journalism as you can get your paws on. Not just criticism, but pay attention to how they report the basic facts like setting, character, art style, etc. and the language they use, as well as how they make those facts sound interesting and appealing to readers. Some places you look will be ore academic, others will be more sensationalist. Try to get a sense for what kind of journalistic style you would like to re-create. My personal favorite anime magazine is Otaku USA. Another good source for anime journalism is the websites of anime companies like Funimation, Crunchyroll, and Aniplex, who hire professional journalists to maintain company blogs. I'd also recommend Rocket 24 News for a good example of journalism about Japanese cultural trends.
3. TV Tropes is your friend. Not only do they have a page for almost every anime, but the big anime series also have character and detailed, thought-provoking pages of reviews and analyses. Wild Mass Guessing is one of my favorite areas of the site, where fans submit their weird fan theories about their favorite shows. TV Tropes will help you by giving you a hip-sounding way to talk about characters, setting, plot, and theme, as well as the visual language of anime, without sounding stuffy like a professor.
4. TV Tropes also has an "Anime and Manga" section on their forum (here) on which you can discuss your favorite anime. It doesn't have to be there, but I'd recommend trying to find fans and discuss the shows you're reviewing with as many fellow fans as possible. You might not agree with all of them, but most of them will give you insight you'll be glad you had.
The rest is advice you'll get from anyone who writes: research, edit, edit, and edit (it's what I'm doing right now!). Comb your work for typos (they pop up like weeds), look to eliminate unnecessary sentences, and also to expand points that you want more emphasis on.
Good luck writing!