Musings: Elitism, ‘bad taste,’ and backlash


Is this high art?

This blog has garnered all sorts of vitriol throughout the past three years, especially in reaction to Fin’s oh-so-subtle critiques of shows like Code Geass and K-On! Despite this, however, I cannot recall ever once being called an elitist. It has probably happened before, but I just don’t remember it. I do, however, know that other bloggers have been called elitists for not liking certain anime series. In retort, the phrase ‘bad taste’ usually gets flung around until both sides are tired of screaming at one another. Well, I’m writing this post now to dispel the notion that there exists a distinction between the high-brow and the low-brow. I don’t even think bad taste actually exists. In fact, it’s funny that this could even be an active discussion in anime considering the superflat movement.

We get into this whole mess because some of us are fixated on the objectivity of the goodness and badness of any given anime. As a result, whenever I say that an anime is bad, people get mad as though I’ve attempted to state an objective fact. As an aside, do you really want me to say “I think” and “just an opinion” when these are clearly patronizing expressions of manufactured self-doubt in the guise of humility? Anyway, when I say that an anime is bad, I’m obviously stating an opinion, but this, too, often fails to quell the outrage. Some people seem to believe that if we embrace subjectivity, anything goes. We can simply make up opinions regarding any anime and it’ll be okay because “all opinions are valid.” Actually, this is wrong. We’ve been taught at an early age to differentiate between fact and opinion. Unfortunately, we have not been taught at an early age that there can be bad opinions and badly-expressed opinions.

You like chocolate ice cream. I like vanilla ice cream. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Obviously, the answer is nobody. It is, however, short-sighted to believe that any other conflict of opinions will be just as simple. For instance, when someone says, “Aquarion Evol isn’t a good anime, but I like it ’cause it’s fun,” it’s not that it’s wrong per se to like Aquarion Evol (or any anime for that matter), but this particular opinion doesn’t articulate what the person actually likes about the show aside from some vague sense of fun. Nothing has been communicated that could possibly alter my opinion of the show.


How ’bout this? Is this low art?

But look, in writing this post, I’m not attempting to insulate myself from the very criticism I have just identified. I, too, am guilty of articulating bad opinions from time to time. I didn’t like Redline when I saw it, and I still don’t. Nevertheless, did I express my opinion on the film as well as I could have? Looking back on it now, I’d have to say no. Opinions must be subject to scrutiny. Opinions must be constantly refined. Opinions must be held against other people’s opinions. In the end, you might just end up with a well-written opinion that is nevertheless ‘wrong.’ And yes, opinions are always in flux, and while this might not be quite as comforting as the ironclad nature of the objective truth, the reality is that our tastes are subjective.

“But dude, the name of your blog is “Moe Sucks.” How can you turn around now and say that tastes are subjective when you condescend to people who enjoy shows like K-On!

That’s a fair question. First, let’s get the semantic issue out of the way. I don’t think I condescend to people who enjoy K-On!, but I am certainly disdainful of their opinions. Still, I can no more blame someone for preferring K-On! than I can blame someone for disliking tomatoes. Just reflect on it a bit, and most of us will realize that we rarely have any control over our tastes and preferences, barring some exceptions. Having said that, I remain disdainful of opinions that merely express the fact that one finds K-On! “fun.” Where’s the self-awareness?

So then this brings us right to the matter of good taste vs. bad taste. I’ve written serious posts on shows like Kissxsis and Highschool of the Dead — y’know, shows with a lot of fanservice. These are shows that many people would consider “fun but dumb.” Naturally, I’ve been asked something along the lines of, “Why do you waste your time analyzing these shows?” Before I answer this question, I will have to admit that what primarily motivated me to write this post was… Batman. Yep, The Dark Knight Rises will be in theaters in less than a week’s time, and it got me thinking about the previous movie. In fact, I thought about how one might interpret both Batman and the Joker from a Marxist viewpoint.


In a hypothetical Marxist critique, this would have to be a critical scene in your analysis.

Of course, when I mentioned this very idea to others, this prompted a debate over whether or not Nolan’s Batman series could be considered high-brow enough for such an undertaking. Seeing as how I don’t buy into the false dichotomy between high- and low-brow art, I certainly would dive right into an analysis of The Dark Knight vis-à-vis Marxism. But alas, this isn’t a film blog. Still, the very question of whether or not there exist high- and low-brow art does apply to anime. I’ve made some comments (on this very blog, in fact) nearly two years ago about this very subject, so I’ll just reproduce them here with some edits:

Whether or not anime is (meant to be/intended to be/whatever) sophisticated (this is a ridiculous distinction anyway), it does not exist in a vacuum abstracted from its cultural context. Every piece of art, from a Brahms symphony to a Hustler photoshoot of a woman pissing into a pool, is a cultural barometer. To submit Kissxsis to a critical viewpoint is not an admission that it is sophisticated (nor is it an assertion that it is not sophisticated).

I wrote about Kissxsis because there are interesting parallels between it and contemporary Japanese society. Just because Kissxsis was primarily created to get our socks off — so to speak — doesn’t mean the parallels I have managed to tease out of the series are suddenly made up, fantasy, or ivory tower musings. For instance, Romero have often denied that Night of the Living Dead ever attempted to make explicit statements about racism. Were numerous film critics utterly wrong, then, to see parallels in the movie with the treatment of minorities in American society?

To entertain the idea that there exists a distinction between high- and low-brow art is to ask the wrong question. Rather, what’s important is what a piece of art accomplishes, what it reflects, what it means to different people, what it can tell us about the culture it comes from, and what sort of audience it attracts or repels.

Finally, I want to touch on fan backlash, or more specifically, the backlash against the anime adaptation of Sword Art Online. The general consensus seems to be that the adaptation fails to stick to the exact plot of its source material (a series of light novels), and thus, A-1 Pictures has committed a grievous error. Maybe, maybe not. Certainly at this point in time, I don’t think SAO as an anime is anything special. Even so, diverging from the source material’s plot is not necessarily a detriment.

At this point, I think it is important to differentiate ‘plot’ from ‘story.’ The plot of a story is literally just the events of a story arranged in a particular sequence. Insofar as the anime adaptation of SAO is concerned, I’ve been told that it veers drastically from the plot found in the light novels. Nevertheless, a story is the plot plus all the other elements of the medium. To put it another way, storytelling bestows a perspective onto a particular sequence of events. In the visual medium, we must look at more than just the exposition. Because it’s a visual medium, the visuals are often more important than what’s being said. Has SAO‘s visuals contributed meaningfully to its story? At the moment, I can’t say that it has, but I’m merely trying to explain the crucial difference between novels and visual media.

Now, I’ll concede that SAO‘s plot has deviated from the plot of the light novels, but why is this necessarily a bad thing? Why do we want the same exact perspective in two different mediums? What purpose would this serve? You could argue that the anime adaptation of SAO conveys a less complex story as a result of its judicious plot editing, but again, it remains to be seen whether or not this is a detriment. If the anime has a different story to tell, i.e. a different perspective on the same loose collection of events, A-1 Pictures may have had their reasons in diverging heavily from the light novels. Of course, the studio might have just been lazy, but after two episodes, is anyone confident enough to make this judgment? One fear I’ve heard is that the adaptation may focus moreso on the romance, but perhaps this is the point — a point which does not automatically render the adaptation a failure.

In the end, the backlash inevitably returns to the fact that the anime doesn’t stick close enough to the source material. Adaptations are not, however, meant to be carbon copies of the original. Simply recreating the source material generates nothing but a self-referential void: “Look! That scene was in the book!” Well, of course it was! In criticizing the anime’s fidelity to the source material, nothing has been communicated that should alter my opinion of the show. In the end, every adaptation should be able to stand on its two feet, not whether or not it resembles the original enough. If the anime manages to tell a good story, the concerns will have been rendered moot. Having said that, I’m not claiming that SAO is currently any good. I just think it’s too early to tell how its story will turn out.

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18 thoughts on “Musings: Elitism, ‘bad taste,’ and backlash

  1. Eucliwood

    The Joker is simply a misunderstood social scientist. The Dark Knight works on the same principal as the “Break the Cutie” narrative device. Make the reader empathize with the character and proceed to destroy her. In Dark Knight, Batman takes the role of the little girl. The love of his life is taken from him, the city turns against him and his sole chance of legitimacy and salvation is turned into a two faced criminal freak. So, to summarize, Batman is a little girl and Sword Moe Online is awesome. I am no money. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Sataniel

    You seem to adhere to opinion that for many anime fans “different from source material is bad”. I can’t agree with that. It’s simply matter of statistic. In most causes when plot in adaptation is different from source material it ends bad for adaptation. Of course there are exceptions. Anime adaptation of Narutaru deleted one of the most illogical scenes from manga and changed the way some characters are introduced in. And viewers saw that the change was good. And we have Medaka Box which would be better anime if beginning was shortened.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      In most causes when plot in adaptation is different from source material it ends bad for adaptation.

      I never disagreed with this (nor do I necessarily agree with it). I’m merely saying that simply being different from the source material is not enough to justify an adaptation as bad.

      Reply
  3. alsozara

    Enjoyed the post very much. Don’t have much to add, I pretty much agree wholeheartedly. I will say that when people whine about divergence from source material, they do usually also elaborate on why the original take was generally better. I haven’t seen many people say something is bad for diverging without giving any further explanation.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      I haven’t seen many people say something is bad for diverging without giving any further explanation.

      It usually along the lines of “the story is less complex,” without accounting for both the strengths and weaknesses of the visual medium.

      Reply
  4. ToastCrust

    The REAL problem with Sword Art Online’s fidelity is that it omitted the sex scene.

    I mean, isn’t that why people are watching it? Instead it’s all like… action and boring stuff. ;)

    Reply
  5. AidanAK47

    “Adaptations are not, however, meant to be carbon copies of the original. Simply recreating the source material generates nothing but a self-referential void.”

    An adaptation might not need to be completely accurate to the original. However that wouldn’t justify differencing without good reason. If a action described in the original source can be transferred to anime without problem then their should be no reason to change it. The result would only end up weaker. If the original had flaws which could be changed for the better then it’s all good. But if the original is changed for the sake of making itself different from it’s source then all you end up with is a weak copy of the original which is in turn worse than a exact copy.
    I also don’t believe that recreating the source material word for word is pointless. It makes the story more accessible for those that don’t have the will to read or like to read. The fans as well get to see the story they love played out before them. Words from a book can only do so much and seeing the events played out before you can incite new feelings about certain scenes.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      However that wouldn’t justify differencing without good reason. If a action described in the original source can be transferred to anime without problem then their should be no reason to change it.

      First, why do we need justification to deviate from the original? Who dictated these supposed laws of storytelling? Secondly, no story can be retold without first being reinterpreted. No two interpretations are necessarily the same. Every interpretation is subjective to the interpreter’s perceptions. In an attempt to recreate the story of the original, you must fight against this very natural inclination and for what?

      But if the original is changed for the sake of making itself different from it’s source then all you end up with is a weak copy of the original which is in turn worse than a exact copy.

      Why must it be necessarily worse than an exact copy?

      It makes the story more accessible for those that don’t have the will to read or like to read.

      This is impossible. It cannot be the same story, i.e. the perspective rendered unto the plot. When you switch media, you necessitate a change in the story. What you really want is for the adaptation to share the same plot as the original. Fine, but that does not mean that the story is necessarily worse because the plot has been amended or abridged. By focusing on plot changes, the implication is that you conflate visual media with, say, textual media. You may not like how the plot has been changed, but that is not to say that the story in the adaptation will suffer. The story may very well be worse, but I’m arguing that merely critiquing the change in the plot is not enough to derive this conclusion.

      Reply
  6. AidanAK47

    “First, why do we need justification to deviate from the original? Who dictated these supposed laws of storytelling?”

    If it ain’t broke then why fix it? You need justification because you could be changing something that could change the way a character is seen or lead to misunderstandings. Take for example in the second episode of sword art online. At the point where the player is stuck by the boss where in the novel Kirito deemed he was dead the moment he hit the ground. However in the anime he ran over and tried to use a potion on him with the player refused. This single change brought forth numerous misunderstandings. Why did the player reject the potion? If he was dead the moment the attack hit him then why didn’t he disappear immediately? Why did Kirito offer him the potion if he should have know that he was already dead?
    As for your second point that would only refer to very deep literature with various interpretations. These are light novels. They are not complex books. Most go as far as to explain the very emotions in each scene.

    “Why must it be necessarily worse than an exact copy?”

    Because no matter how well a writer tries to emulate another persons work you will always see the change. It would take someone with great skill to take a someone else’s story and make it your own. Anime history has shown that many have tried but few have succeeded.

    “This is impossible.”

    It’s been done. Believe it or not KyoAni actually adapt works word for word. And again you are judging based on actual novels. Light novels are a simpler breed.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      If it ain’t broke then why fix it?

      I don’t believe something just because it’s a commonly-held platitude.

      This single change brought forth numerous misunderstandings.

      Did it? The change was no accident. Don’t you think the anime was trying to communicate something to the audience that might have been different than what was in the novel? You say that Kirito knew Diabel was dead the moment he hit the ground, but you’re basing your knowledge off of the story in the novel and not the story you see before you.

      As for your second point that would only refer to very deep literature with various interpretations. These are light novels. They are not complex books. Most go as far as to explain the very emotions in each scene.

      This is perhaps the unassailable gulf between us. I refuse to the draw that distinction and I see no reason to. Who has the arrogance to decide what is and what isn’t deep and/or complex?

      It’s been done. Believe it or not KyoAni actually adapt works word for word.

      You’re not addressing my distinction between plot and story.

      Reply
      1. aidanak47

        “Did it? The change was no accident. Don’t you think the anime was trying to communicate something to the audience that might have been different than what was in the novel?”

        Nope. The sad truth is that the story was cut down to fit in one episode because of anime season constraints. They needed to fit in this short story as it introduces the main main heroine but the short story was too long to fit in one episode. So this episode was basically animators trying to cut up a story and piece it together into something coherent. This change in question was probably to cover for the plot by turning the dying player into a martyr but this doesn’t make any sense as they kept the dialogue which showed he was just after the last attack. Resulting in a confused mess that leads to illogical actions like Kirito’s sudden arrogant declaration of being a beater.

        “This is perhaps our unassailable gulf. I refuse to the draw that distinction.”

        Our ways of thinking are a little too different. There are stories which are what they are and attempting to apply alternative interpretations is a fruitless and meaningless effort.

        “You’re not addressing my distinction between plot and story.”

        That’s because It’s a bit hard to address. Are you are referring to the changes made to a work in order to fit it into a 13/26 episode format? If that is the case Light novels adapt better than manga and visual novels in that regard. Most if not all light novels if into a five/six episode per novel format. Very little would need to be changed. Of course the anime won’t be 100% exactly the same but it would be close enough.
        So you are saying that something was changed does not mean it is lesser in quality? I would agree with that. However like I said before a single change can lead to misunderstanding. If a change happens but instead of hindering the story it improves it then no one would complain. However this is a rarity. Hence why most would complain about changes in the plot.

        Reply
  7. kekekeKaj

    You’re such an elitist! :P

    PS Why don’t you just write that goddam Batman article instead of being a cocktease!

    Reply
  8. Gunner1960

    as an answer to your question , it is high “art” , i find it to be more creative than Worhol’s soup art & also have more meaning. as for the low “art” it falls into the category of “art” , each telling a story or conveying a message or feeling. that is the artists job. Now onto changing story lines/plots since it’s being billed as this title or that title whatever medium it’s applied to from one source to another medium there are certain guidelines that must be followed else it’s just false advertising or a lie , anyone gonna go buy tickets or stand in line for hours to see the new batman movie that has some film crew following Dr. _____ aka “Batman” into caves as we learn about the daylight habits of bats? if the theater isn’t wrecked by rampaging fans that don’t get a refund… after all it was the new “Batman” movie …

    Reply
  9. seelosopher

    You acknowledge that taste is subjective and should not be dismissed as just good or bad, but are you also trying to argue that opinions cannot have this immunity? What you may be aiming to criticize here is the arguments backing these opinions, including the opinion of there being bad taste. However, these are not always disclosed and are even rarely well-plotted.

    Most people often don’t ask themselves why they feel something, they just do, and any foreign attempt at rationalizing this will be met with hostility. So while you persuasively express why the “bad taste” / “good taste” dichotomy is a hindrance to the consideration of any art or entertainment medium (and I agree) you fail to apply this same approach to opinions themselves. Sentencing them to the pits of the good or bad only gets in the way of the real question: why?

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      I don’t understand what you’re trying to get at. Your preferences can’t be wrong per se. Your opinions, however, can be badly-expressed. What is hard to grasp about this? In practical terms, i.e. in a discussion, those are “bad” opinions. If you’re going to go into a discussion, you should be ready to back your opinions up from the outset. I shouldn’t have to ask, “Why?” As for personal opinions that are never disclosed to others, I wasn’t referring to those.

      Reply
      1. seelosopher

        Yes. In the context of a discussion, you could offhandedly refer to an opinion as “bad” and (for the purpose of practicality) forgo tacking on “-expressed” to the end of that term. But, in your post, you refer to both of these notions by name, and not interchangeably:
        “Unfortunately, we have not been taught at an early age that there can be bad opinions and badly-expressed opinions.”

        These semantics are ultimately important in a heated moment. If you make it sound like you’re judging a person’s opinion by its qualities, not their arguments for or against them, they can get a bit defensive. Or, at worst, apathetic.

        Reply
        1. E Minor Post author

          In the context of a discussion,

          On a blog, what other context is there?

          If you make it sound like you’re judging a person’s opinion by its qualities, not their arguments for or against them, they can get a bit defensive. Or, at worst, apathetic.

          Nothing is personal. If someone doesn’t realize that, I’ve no time to hold their hand.

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