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The Most Important Things I Learned By Reviewing Anime

Updated on January 22, 2019
RachaelLefler profile image

I've studied anime, manga, and Japan for over a decade. My favorite anime/manga are sci-fi and seinen (mature).

Since I've reviewed so many different anime, I'd like to take a moment to reflect on what I've learned from that experience. Analyzing anime is not always easy. You have to pay attention to small details, but also get an understanding the "big picture" of what the creators of the anime are trying to convey. Clarifying one's thoughts in writing is a skill that requires both training and practice. Fans often disagree 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. It can act as a springboard to launch a discussion of literature, visual storytelling, animation, mythology, religion, philosophy, technology, and so on. There is debate about the political and economic side of anime; discussions of piracy, censorship, localization, dubbing, exploited and overworked animators, and the sponsors of anime production. Comparisons between anime and western media are also great illustrations of the differences between western and east-Asian cultures. Furthermore, anime includes archetypes and themes that transcend culture, and represent that which is universally human. So anime is a topic that rewards extensive discussion, criticism, and debate.

Critics vs. Audience: Two Differing Perspectives

When you learn from and study media extensively, and read other critics, you go from having the perspective of an audience member or fan, to having the perspective of a critic. In other words, someone who thinks carefully and analytically about the media he or she consumes. It's sort of like the difference between a kid who likes candy and an adult that understands concepts like sugar, calories, fat, and possible harmful effects thereof, from consumption of candy.

A lot of issues are caused by disagreement between critics and fans or audiences. That's because what they value in entertainment are different. Critics like serious dramatic works touching on larger moral, philosophical, and political themes. That's because such works are good springboards for further discussion of related questions and topics. Audiences, on the other hand, may prefer "light and fluffy" entertainment that gives them an emotional high, even if it isn't that philosophically relevant, deep, or complicated enough to be interesting in a serious discussion.

Critics are analytical and thorough. They call attention to inconsistencies in the plot, flaws that break immersion, even minor details that might be a problem for a series. If you have a well-trained eye, you will find the faults in everything, no matter how massively beloved it may be. Critics are generally uninterested in the emotional effect of a work.

It is the difference between paying attention to the quality of a message's delivery (critic) and reacting to the content of the message itself (audience). With this differing perspective, you can easily understand why critics and audiences often give different scores and opinions on different TV shows, books, movies, and so on.

What I try to do is have a balanced perspective between the two. I relate to anime as a fan first and critic second. That is, I first react emotionally to anime, and then analysis of the anime follows, making sense of my emotional reaction. When you learn media criticism, you will learn to better understand and articulate your emotional reactions to things.

Characters Matter Most

Anime is merchandise driven - the main characters drive the merchandise's appearance and therefore carry the "brand" associated with the anime.
Anime is merchandise driven - the main characters drive the merchandise's appearance and therefore carry the "brand" associated with the anime.

In literature classes, you learn that stories are made up of the elements of setting, plot, character, and theme. With anime, the characters are central, and that enjoyment of an anime depends on the viewer relating to, understanding, and liking the characters. Plot, setting, and theme become less important, and serve to enhance our understanding and enjoyment of the characters. But character design and the way the characters are written, whether they're multi-layered or superficial stereotypes, is what really makes or breaks a show.

Art is Important, But Not Everything

If you love something, forgive the occasional animation mistake.
If you love something, forgive the occasional animation mistake.

An anime with a badly written story but great art is like an outhouse with tinsel on it. You're not fooling anyone. Conversely, anime can be great, and ground-breaking, without necessarily having the best design or animation. Sometimes good anime have suffered from budgetary restrictions or technical limitations. But these are still worthwhile and fun to watch, despite animation faults or mistakes. So give an anime a chance, even if it looks a little wonky.

Non-Stereotypical Characters are Gems

The creepiest villain is also one of the most romantic characters?
The creepiest villain is also one of the most romantic characters?

The most important aspect of anime visually is character design. Usually, if an anime is based on a light novel or manga, this is already done by the manga or light novel author. Anime uses visual language in character design to signify important aspects of a character's affiliation, rank, age/maturity, personality, and behavior tendencies. Expect a character with brown hair and glasses to be studious and serious, and a character with orange pigtails to be a feisty tsundere.

Since I am familiar with this visual coding, what I look for are the deviations from these standard cliches, which can make an anime more interesting and the characters more compelling.

For example, Misa in Death Note looks, and sometimes acts, like The Ditz, but is also fairly competent at manipulation and thinking ahead. Asuka in Evangelion looks and acts like a typical tsundere and bully, but later in the series, becomes more cold, introspective, and withdrawn, because she can't handle a sudden inability to synchronize with her Eva unit. I like when characters evolve beyond, or are shown to be more than, our expectations set by anime stereotypes.

The Best Anime Break the Rules

When you become familiar with more and more anime, the less excited you get about new anime, generally. This is because you come to know anime tropes so well that very rarely does a series or movie truly do something you didn't expect. What keeps me going, then? It's finding the rare anime that break the mold, question the mold, or exist in an alternate reality where the mold never existed to begin with. What I like about anime is that it's by nature creative and experimental. What I dislike about current anime is that a lot of it is playing too safe for the sake of profit. This means a lot of anime that comes out is paint-by-numbers. They simply follow popular trends, rather than venturing to the edges and experimenting with new storytelling. If you become a critic, you will come to see how good anime inspires by being different, and bad anime is almost all the same. That's actually why I get some entertainment value out of anime labeled "the worst" or rated the lowest on anime rating sites like My Anime List; these things are often experimental and unique, albeit in a way that results in failure. From such anime, a potential animator could learn how to make stories that are also unique, without failure, by taking the interesting concepts in the bad anime and expanding upon them, making them make sense.

You Learn to Challenge Your Preferences

I make no secret that I prefer subs (to preserve cultural authenticity), and that I prefer anime of the 90s and early 00s. I also like yuri, strong female leads, magical girls, and the bishoujo art style, and do not like shounen.

But the cool thing is, reviewing so much anime has caused me to challenge my assumptions and personal preferences. My prejudice against dubs was challenged by phenomenal dubs, both serious and comedic, such as Samurai Pizza Cats, Shin-Chan, and Ghost Stories. Other anime have also challenged my perception of genre. For example, Kill La Kill blends the genres of shounen fighting anime and magical girl anime, with elements borrowed from major works in both genres. In this way it brilliantly satirizes the conventions of anime in general. I was able to enjoy this show, despite it having my pet peeve; an angry and loud protagonist, and its lack of elegance or grace in the artwork. I could see how these things were done on purpose, in a creative, irreverent spirit. Similarly, I hate the isekai genre in general, but Re:Zero changed my perspective on it.

So one cool thing I've learned by studying so much anime? Stereotypes and prejudices are trash!

How to Research

Researching articles in anime is tough. You need the primary source, or text, which is the anime itself. Sometimes you simply won't have time to watch the whole thing. Life is too short to watch a long-running shounen in its entirety. For such anime, research often consists of watching the first arc, a few major plot-turning episodes in the middle, and the final arc, the climax.

Then you want secondary sources. The opinions of the masses are, to a critic, the opinions of sheep to a lion. But, it is worth looking at the opinions of experts you respect who talk about the same topics you plan to cover. Not only is this just a smart business move, scoping out your competition, but it's good to learn not just their conclusions about an anime, but their arguments for thinking the way that they do. This will help you clarify and explain your own argument, even if you end up with a differing opinion.

Read any anime-related journalism you can get your hands on. Also, look at Western film criticism. Since there is a larger audience of film fans, there is more journalism covering film in the West. From these you will learn a lot that is also applicable to anime.

Finally, use sources like Wikipedia, TV Tropes, and Fan Wiki. It's a quick way to get the relevant facts about a series, even if it's one of those long-runners for which watching all of it would just be impractical. Episode summaries on Wikipedia are your friend, helping you separate the filler from important, main episodes. TV Tropes also has "Wild Mass Guessing", a discussion page for fan's pet theories, no matter how insane, as well as discussions and reviews for anime series. You can also find discussions of anime on Quora, Reddit, and various anime sites' forums. Don't copy other people's ideas, but your blog can be a response to things other people have said about your favorite shows.

How to Edit, And Why Editing is So Important

When you write regularly, you definitely learn how to self-edit, and also the importance of editing, which cannot be overstated. Being able to self-edit is more than just a good eye for spelling and grammar, although that is important. It also entails an understanding of how your work will be read by someone who isn't you. When a stranger sees your work, he or she reads what's in the page. When you read your own work, you have what's written, plus ideas in your head. The reader cannot see this part of your work.

Understanding this, editing becomes a process of making sure that everything you want to say gets written down. It also means everything that is written is maximally effective. There are no unnecessary sentences. The concepts flow together. The content keeps a consistent tone. The work stays interesting throughout, never slackening.

Editing is a constant process. Articles will undergo numerous revisions if you hope to keep them worthy of sharing and reading. This means updating facts that have changed, fixing your mistakes, changing the way you wrote a paragraph, changing the whole organization of the article, or just changing a minor detail like fixing a broken link or changing the headline. Writing about anime, or anything, as a job entails more editing tasks than writing tasks, most days. You have to stay on top of the accuracy and clarity of your content, especially when the information changes.


Like editing and blogging, learning is a continuous process, never finished. The best way to learn anything is by doing. By writing, I've learned how to write. By writing about anime, I've learned a lot about anime. By continuously editing my blog, I've learned about good editing. Some of what I have learned has challenged my preconceived notions and personal opinions. I hope that sharing what I learned by writing will inspire others to write for themselves. Writing has helped me grow a lot, especially in terms of learning how to form arguments to defend my opinions, which extends into many other areas of life besides the discussion of anime.

I believe in writing's transformative power. I believe it has something to teach everyone. Thank you for reading!

© 2012 Rachael Lefler


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