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.
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.
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.