The Critic Paradox or: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Love the Generic Blog Post Title

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[edit: This is outdated as fuck and I’ve long since moved past this stuff. I’m leaving it up partly because I think some of these points are still kinda interesting, but mostly because the comments are good. Anyway, here’s a post about me being a dork and cartoons and critics and shit.]

The way I approach anime, and art in general, has been changing drastically recently. Concepts I once grasped close have proven only to be phony axioms imbued in me by ~critics~. In my experience, critics have a tendency towards approaching things in a binary light. For example, things are often judged simply based simply on whether they have character development or not, without taking into concern how and why things are the way they are, and in what ways this affects the larger picture. Even something as seemingly simple as good production values vs bad ones has infinitely more grey areas than black or white ones. Stories are expected to have x, y, and z element, and if it doesn’t, it is clearly failing at something fundamental. It’s a sort a blatant shortcut for genuine critical thought and I aim to distance myself from it as much as possible. But… this all reads like I have definitive counterpoints to this, which I really don’t. I don’t know the right way to approach these things; all I know is that it sure as fuck isn’t this. Please allow me to spend one thousand four hundred and thirty three words essentially telling you “I dunno”.

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A lot of digital ink has been spilled on perfect characters—Gary Stues and Mana Mary Sues—and how they are an inherently bad thing for stories to have. This has been on my mind a lot since recent arguments on IRC with NILFriend. Arguments surrounding A Certain Magical Yang Wenli.

Yang Wenii is one of the main characters of Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Up to the point I’m at in the story (around episode 50 or so, please don’t spoil, thanks) he has yet to make any major mistakes. He prevails despite seemingly insurmountable odds (and his alcoholism!), he never fails to have a witty retort to lob towards his pig-headed superiors, he’s just super duper amazing awesome at war despite hating it, etc. etc.. The evidences are many and seemingly well-founded. But I really like Yang Wenli and it made me think about whether there is a time and a place for this sort of character—why I think he is good. Depending on the context of the story and how they’re portrayed and countless other variables, can perfection be a-okay?

Yup. Sorta. Sometimes. Maybe. I dunno.

The way I see it, Yang’s perfection is a product of his place and time in the story. The war had become static. Scenes depicting soldiers gambling over the outcome of a future sortie speaks worlds about how far removed from the gravity of the situation they were—how much it had become it had just become an accepted, normalized presence in everyday life. This, I feel, is why Yang’s rapid ascent in the ranks despite hating war just makes so much sense. He was the antithesis to this. A breath of fresh air that people didn’t know existed. A revelation. Out of billions and trillions and really-large-numbers of people in the galaxy, for one to rise to that political stature is no small feat and it commands a certain level of perfection. No one with any profuse or crippling character flaws could have managed it. He’s an incredibly smart, competent individual and in the context of this story, taking into consideration the flurry of external happenings, makes absolute sense and is a great asset to anime. I think.

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Now, there are many more cases where this sort of characterization is potentially more problematic. Aida Mana, from last year’s Dokidoki Precure, is a veritable paragon of perfection. She has a whole team of magical girls around her, but she takes most problems head on almost entirely by herself. Even in episodes focused solely on the ordeals of other characters, how they overcome these ordeals always comes down to Mana swooping in to save the day. This leads to everyone else feeling like baggage or mere plot devices necessary to show the impressionable little girls in the audience just how awesome Mana is. It NEEDS you to love Mana, so much that it undermines everything else about the show.

And now it becomes even more complicated… Is this really that wrong? (Spoilers for the end of Dokidoki Precure coming up) I mean, Mana being a literal goddess must sorta validate this. Isn’t it only natural that normal human beings (albeit magical ones) fail to live up to a goddess? Of course there are still issues with redundancy if the show feels the need to spend 50 episodes depicting how perfect a goddess is, and how this isn’t very interesting thematically, but are preconceived notions of what makes a Precure character good clouding my judgement? What makes Yang oh-so-right and Mana oh-so-wow-I-wish-she-would-die-or-something if these two things can be validated by the story nearly as legitimately? Questions like these, and many more, are leaving me confused.

Compounding my confusion further was the experience of watching Stan Brakhage’s short films (example). It’s just a bunch of moving colors. And I’m okay with it. I think it’s pretty. The same way I would a painting or something similar. There’s no story here, no characters, no music… nothing that a critic tends to latch onto and feed off in their writing. So how would one even approach talking about this critically? And if this is okay, doesn’t that sorta make style-over-substance works okay as well? Things that aim to be nothing more than spectacle. There’s definitely a place for them, I feel, but the idea of being critical towards them for what they’re not is suddenly baffling to me. But it’s part of this inane checklist approach that I see a lot of critical writing.  If it’s not okay, then why would a painting be okay? Does the fact that it moves automatically impose certain preconceptions on what it is “supposed” to be and how we approach it?

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And to convolute things further, can’t this line of thought be used to excuse almost anything in fiction? Is the typically insipid harem genre (the good ol’ “bottom of the barrel” example!) not somewhat validated by their premise? After all, there are many people that find a beauty in dem naked cartoons. Is that any less valid than how I feel about Brakhage’s films? Almost invariably, they involve a ever-expanding cast of beautiful girls latching onto some dullard and promptly falling under him. The premise is clearly contrived to get to a point, but the same could be said of many things. Cell phones are often absent from anime to make drama more personal. Maria-sama ga Miteru depicts a religious school packed to the brim with totally-not-lesbians-what-are-you-talking-about. Sure, plausibility is a common complaint, but just as perfection is not an inherent failing, the mere implausibility of a scenario shouldn’t be either. Them being generic is another gripe, but as this very cute blog, Moe Alternative, points out, originality is not an inherent quality either (nor is the lack of it always a detriment). I don’t want to give the impression that I like harem anime. Excepting rare examples like the Monogatari series, I can’t stand them. But with this newfound uncertainty, I’d have a hard time expressing why in a critical way.

So how does criticism even work? Do we just talk about how these things made us feel and try to explain why? I’ve always shied away from that sort of writing, as usually feel insubstantial to me. It tends to be stuff along the lines of “Air made me cry, so it’s good”, and I don’t think people would take much away from that sort of thing. Perhaps there’s a way to pull it off well. Once again, I dunno.

And that’s what has my mind stalemated into a state of unsure paralysis. Everything I thought that was fundamental to criticism seems absurd to me now. It’s to the point where I deleted all 800+ ratings from my MAL and the legit prospect of maybe writing professionally for [insert prominent website here] was nearly enough to send me spiraling into a panic attack. I just can’t understand what being a critic means anymore. The whole thing seems to be a paradox, no matter how I look at it. I just thought I had to try to express this feeling and that maybe it would have shed some light on the whole thing, but I just feel even more bewildered now. Maybe people could explain what being a critic means to them.

BUT, to end this on a note of positivity, I will actively try to sort this shit out through writing. I plan to use this blog more often to attempt to express what I used to through numbers. Numbers are dumb anyway, let’s talk about fashion gaemz.

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4 thoughts on “The Critic Paradox or: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Love the Generic Blog Post Title

  1. I can appreciate that view of Yang Wenli, and that is partially my defense for LOGH’s emphasis on outstandingly charismatic, intelligent, and simply lucky individuals despite just how questionable a lot of their actions may be. The work uses these characters to bring out messages about the overall structure of the governments (of many things), such as the duality in Yang Wenli vs Reinhard’s philosophies on war, or simply using Yang Wenli’s moralizing to make the Alliance’s corruption more transparent.

    Although, I think the concept is good (and not uncommon to use martyr characters for example within the same fashion) but the execution mediocre heh. It easily ruins the complexity of the story and other mumbo jumbo but I’ll save my rants for another day. :)

  2. well, g-g-gosh. idk.

    – You said that you shy away from writing that comes down to talking about how things make us feel and why, but I think that’s how criticism works. Or that’s what it comes down to. Everything beyond that is just “beyond” by degrees of eloquence. I don’t think a person’s criticism should attempt to make itself objective and attempt to explain the series from the reader’s or everyone’s perspective; the critic should speak for the perspective and opinion one has the most knowledge of: the critic’s own. Anything else is a presupposition of what the reader wants; it subordinates one’s own critiques under what the critic thinks the reader would expect and want. Anyways, I always just saw criticism as the nuanced justification of what the viewer felt.

    – I don’t think anything is inherently good or bad or whatever. Like you mentioned about Gary Stus and Mary Sues. But if nothing in a story is absolute or inherent, how can one have an internally consistent, well-defined critiquing and rating system? But why does such a system have to exist? A person’s taste appears to me to be too expansive and multi-faceted to be stuck under a singular and simple definition. But that also leads to just how internally consistent does that system have to be, what does consistent mean? How consistent? If the constants in a story (i.e. Gary Stus) can’t be seen as absolute indicators of quality, I don’t think those constants should be seen as absolute indicators within one’s critiques either. As those constants are seen as neutral factors for an anime’s quality, it should instead be analyzed how those constants influence the anime as a whole. I don’t think it should be, “I liked the Gary Stu in this story yet I disliked the Gary Stu in this story”, but it should be, “The Gary Stu in this story and the Gary Stu in that story aren’t inherently different, yet they were both utilized in different ways that changed both those sets of stories, characters, etc.” The constants should be seen as how they are in context, relative to the work as a whole. (uhhhhhh not sure if this whole bit makes much sense???? [wait isn’t this reiterating “Depending on the context of the story and how they’re portrayed and countless other variables, can perfection be a-okay”? ummm])

    – For MAL reviews, ratings are sectionalized into animation, plot, characters, etc.. as if those aspects should be equally weighed or be given equal attention. But most people don’t place equal importance into each aspect. But how does one weigh each aspect? Should character be more important than plot or vice versa? And in shows that are spectacles, or shows that focus on exciting action scenes, or focus on atmosphere, should those shows have more weight put on animation and music? I think one thing that should be addressed is what the viewer thinks the creator intends for his or her work, within that work. Like for harem anime. Usually, for a typical harem, it is created to titillate the viewer, to satisfy the viewer’s fantasies, and to make the characters likable or at least fetishized or sexually appealing. Has the creator succeeded in those goals? Or are those goals impossible to reach for certain viewers? Can one find the entire harem genre a failure under an ideological stance, for objectifying the women characters, for being male-centric, etc.?

    OK I’m just gonna end it here because it’s late and I’m tired and I spent too much time on this.

    P.S. Numbers [i]are[/i] dumb. Inherently reductionist BS that fail to present what a person actually thinks about a work, basically meaningless.

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