Self-Identity and the Nature of Fandom

Alright, I know I am in the middle of a series, but I really need to list discuss this as I’ve tried to write about this topic several times but trash it before completion.

It’s about how we, as fans, react to attacks against our beloved media.

Let me first start by discussing the notion of partisan politics (well, Wikipedia calls it “polarization”).  It’s a fairly complex discussion point but this is an anime blog not a political one…so I’ll try to boil it down for you.

Partisan politics is often defined as sticking to your party’s (or your ideological leaning’s) principles.  It is often looked at as an irrationality, a “with us or against us” mentality which puts it into terms of “with my opinion or against it”.  There is great scrutiny about what process dictates partisanship but it creates a clashes between different groups based on these leanings.  People identify themselves by their party and internalize the values of the party.  This makes any attack against that party a personal attack and creates a much more personal level to the situation.

The above paragraph is somewhat technical so let me supplement it with an example.  Let’s say I live in a country with only two political allegiance: Alpha and Omega.  I normally determine which party I vote for by checking my own values and deciding, based on that and what the parties stand for, that I am most in-line with being either Alpha or an Omega.  But my rationale as a partisan voter is different.  My partisan reasoning would be that I am an Alpha therefore I would agree with Alpha values.  Instead of defining my political stance according to my own beliefs, my beliefs adjust to the political party.

This is a major issue in regards to debating issues.  Filtering out information that is not advantageous to supporting the predetermined position is a major facet of this partisanship.  Of course, this is more than a little debatable but I’ll try keeping this simple and not spend the entire post explaining various factors I believe are at play.  We can certainly debate the meaningfulness of the effects at another point.  Anyways, as this partisanship and polarization becomes a major factor, a filter for information begins to form.  Put simply, the information beneficial to the person’s side reinforces their opinion and they remember it easier while they throw out contradictory information to their stance.  There’s a quote that I’d like to use for this.

Here’s how politics works. There are always two sides. Let’s call them the “reds” and the “blues.”

If you’re a red, the goal is to make the blues look as bad as possible. If you’re a blue, the goal is to make the reds look as bad as possible. If they do something good, you ignore it. If they do something bad, you let as many people know as possible.

Have they raised money for a mental health charity? Don’t report that! Did they kickstart a project to help young women get ahead in game development? Definitely don’t report that! Did one of them send someone a death threat? Stop the presses, we need to get the story out now!

It’s pretty much as simple as that when it comes to bias.  It simply boils down to cherry picking what’s retained.  And this obviously builds a major issue.  All information is information.  Data is data.  Facts are facts.  Losing sight of facts makes it difficult to make well-grounded arguments.  Extreme cases of this bias creates the loud and angry sides yelling at each other on TV.  Two sides that refuse to acknowledge the other side’s valued points. This is when things get scary as the opinion that the individuals generate is not founded in thought anymore.

Now everything I’ve talked about includes only politics until now.  But it’s very easy to extend the argument to other subjects…and that’s where I get scared.  It’s easy to shift the topics from political parties and hot-topic issues to that of fandoms.  Consider movies, video games, anime, or other entertainment areas for example.  To mirror my words above, I may normally determine where I stand on anime related issues by checking my own values and deciding, based on that where I stand on the topic.  However, if I’m partisan in this topic, my would be that I am an anime fan/not an anime fan and therefore I would take the stance of this nebulous group.  It’s a bit of a stretch but I believe that the issues that laden partisan topics rear their heads in entertainment topics…and, of course, it’s this topic I’ll focus on from here on out.

The biggest reason I think these issues could come up is because, at its heart, part of partisanship is the emotional attack.  That an attack on the stance is an attack against the person.  This is just as easy to manage in entertainment mediums as in politics.  Key political divisions include those which ask about morality: abortion, right to die peacefully, and topics of that ilk.  These topics get people emotionally involved and many consider them “wedge issues”, issue which end up dividing groups.  Connecting this back to entertainment, these topics already strike close to home: it’s an entertainment medium and the fans actively pursue it.  An attack against the medium easily translates as an attack on the person because of this close emotional tie.  Blinded vision takes the statement as stated above and sometimes removes the possibility of seeing the validity of the other opinion, a problem as the commentary may have good commentary in it.

An excellent example of that comes from the recent treatment of a CNN report about anime.  It deals with a recently passed law which does not extend towards the anime and manga industry.  Below is their video commentary.  As I still attempt to follow my site’s PG-13 general trend, I’ll make the same announcement news stations give: some may find the content offensive.

The article is poorly done.  There’s no two ways around it.  It’s sensationalist.  Many people will point out that the “explicit” material they censor is nothing more than a slightly violent cover.  A much calmer story about the loophole of anime and manga would suffice.  Maybe it’s just me, but this is what I expect out of traditional news sources these days…pure view bait.  Country doesn’t matter…views generate money and controversy generates views.

But this is where things take a weird turn for me.  Fans watch this article and spin it in directions that make no sense.  I’ll link one below.  If you’re The Anime Fan or one of his viewers, please note that I have the utmost respect for him.   I feel somewhat jealous that he’s comfortable voicing his opinions in a video as I kind of hate my own voice.  I get that this video is a rant and I understand the frustration.  I use his because another user linked the video to me in conjunction with the topic of the CNN post and I have a response from that topic on hand from that topic.

And I’ll take an excerpt from the topic I mentioned above.  I directly address a couple of points in this video and they seem to differ from the rant’s commentary.

[The Anime Man’s] claims don’t match the points in the article and he’s obviously ranting without fully determining how he should pick apart CNN’s article. And it is reactions like this that sometimes scare me. His points aren’t purely founded in fact – he makes connections which clearly don’t make sense if you watch the video. For example, [he] describes it as if the journalist claims there is something wrong with the Love Hina scene (a traditional hot tub scene – I don’t like fanservice and it’s not my cup of tea, but I have no problem with its existence). The reporter says nothing of the kind. He says, and I’m quoting here, “But these are not children and they’re not being r***d. There’s a big difference”. A simple cursory listen will catch that he doesn’t accuse Love Hina of anything like the material he has problems with. This is a sinfully painful inaccurate accusation for [The Anime Man] to make.

Of course, I’m not one to purely pick on one man here.  Everybody makes mistakes and I admit I have a large pile of error posts which I try to own up to when they show up.  Except the concern is the seemingly frequency of such errors.  A petition, actually, multiple petitions go into the method of painting CNN’s argument with a fairly broad stroke (I will say though that the final of the three petitions is fairly well-reasoned in the sense that they don’t focus on the “sexually explicit argument”.  It is arguable though since they never claimed the cover was really bad and even verbally comment “there’s blood there”.  Why CNN censored the cover is up to interpretation  It could be sensationalist or possibly just allowing it to air without issuing a “disturbing content” warning).

And it’s this side of interpretation differences that concern me.  To so degree, I think CNN has an actual story hidden behind the layers of sensationalism and silliness: that anime and manga were no covered as part of the latest law and that there are explicit imagines in some anime and manga.  Does it go much past that?  No.  But I think that argument actually exists.  I’m not sure I agree with it but I think there’s still the argument.  And my fear is sometimes that emotional investment and the anger associated with a personal attack on the hobby causes individuals to ignore that point and to simple build straw men that make it easier to attack the other position.
Let me state that, through all of this, I’m an anime fan.  I can’t think of any other way to describe a person who spends time dreaming about how anime influences the world, who blogs until the early morning about the nuances of anime, and spends an inordinate amount of time putting anime-esc characters in medium that may or may not be anime-esc to begin with.  Anime is part of my identity and it’s hard for me to imagine a world where I’m stripped of my favourite characters, shows, and music…all of which originate from anime or visual novels.  But I also want to keep open dialogue.  Ensuring that the correct statements transfer and that they are properly interpreted is key to understanding debate.  Using the CNN example again, I’m not sure that their point makes sense.  In fact, there are plenty of individuals out there who read it and got the correct statement and rejected it for different reasons.  But what I do want to see is that people interpret the commentary correctly before deciding on it.  A response that occurs because of the close emotional ties without consideration of argument and reasoning itself rarely helps.

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Cultural Influences on Anime Preferences

Okay, so I’m really lazy when it gets to posting.

I think this topic is pretty self-evident, but let’s start with a basic rundown:  Let’s say you’re in North America, watching your favourite show.  Suddenly you get the great idea to start discussion the show with the faceless mass of the internet.  You post your thoughts and think [x] is “oh so cool”.  You got to bed, smiling and thinking that your opinion will be a lovefest for the character.  But, oh my.  The next morning you see, as is common on the internet, that a flame war has broken out.  A contingent of Japanese fans are scratching their heads, wondering how the hell you can like [x].  Then a legion of other viewers come to your defence and call them idiots.

This conflict between two different cultural areas are not uncommon.  Debates like this occur in video games, movies, film, literature…virtually everything.  And this seems perfectly natural: we’re all people.  Liking characters is something that is tied to our personality…so of course there’s someone out there who doesn’t think the exact same thing as me.

But I think there’s a bit more to it than that.  I think the culture of our upbringing will influence what character or actions we agree with.  I’m a mecha fan, so I’ll generally go to the mecha anime first.  And here I’ll select one of the most divisive mecha characters I know: Kira Yamato of Gundam SEED.

I predict this will go well...

Why bring him up specifically?  Well, Kira I find is one of the strongest examples of this cultural division.  In Japan, he’s extremely well thought of.  Many years after Gundam SEED Destiny, the sequel to his first appearance, a popularity poll was conducted.  And Kira was extremely high up.  Actually he ended up #3 for male leads.  And the #1 and #2 spots are iconic characters of the franchise.  By comparison, Kira is pretty heavily reviled.  Destiny is considered and extremely base breaking anime on either side, but it had the (in)famous reputation of being the “worst Gundam ever” for a while on North America dominated sections of the internet and Kira’s ability to absorb the entire show and make it about himself too front and centre.  It’s not hard to find articles which rag on him.  Actually, it’s much easier to remember him by his nickname of “Jesus Yamato” by English-speaking fans.  Seriously, look that up on Google.  You can find old forum wounds about this character.  Actually, it’s more of a hateful conversation, since it does seem to be mostly by cultural lines.  This sort of division isn’t uncommon either.  Emil Castagnier (of the video game Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World) gets very similar treatment.

So I’ve mentioned before that I think this is due to culture.  The trend seems to be along these lines:

  • Male characters which show more feminine aspects (common are: crying or having a more feminine shape) are generally seen in a poorer light in the North American audiences (I will keep using the term North American as I’m not sure of the European trends as much) compared to Japanese audiences.
  • Conversely, North American audiences greatly support characters which show the exact opposite.  In this effect, a male character who shows hypermasculity, or whatever you want to call it as that term tends to come with negative connotations, get the a-ok.
  • Similar trends occur with female characters.  Tsundere archetype characters and other characters which fall more on the “assertive, spirited” side of things are more popular with North American audiences while the more demure characters which fall in line with the yamato nadeshiko archetype gets more support in Japan.  It’s almost the exact opposite; the more assertive female characters seem to be popular in North America.

These trends can be seen fairly easily through popular anime.  Kira is a solid example of the male trends.  A commonly stated case for the female characters is Asuka Langley Soryu (Neon Genesis Evangelion).  In Japan, the popularity of Rei is often akin to that of anime’s leading sex symbol.  At least, at the time.  She easily swept the most popular characters slot and held at top spot for quite a while.  It took nobody else but the iconic Lina Inverse to unseat her (amusingly, another character voiced by Megumi Hayashibara.  Though I guess that really shouldn’t be unexpected given her massive portfolio).  On the other hand, and I can’t prove this with any links like the above…I did a search of 5 polls with 100+ rankings and with voter base of primarily USA citizens, I found Asuka dominated the polls for North Americans, being the most popular (often by a 25% popularity to the next most popular being at 15%.

Where exactly does this come from?  That’s a good question.  I did a little research on more general cultural differences and some are more useful than others, but they are all interesting insights and provide an excellent basis for understanding this popularity divide.

One of the biggest differences has always been in the way romance is handled between the Japanese culture and much of the North American culture.  How this is dealt with directly feeds into how characters are build and how the romance between different characters is initiated, engaged to viewers, and ultimately resolved.  It’s why, commonly, the female character’s actions tend to confuse the North American audiences more than they do the Japanese.  Probably one of my favourite reads for this is a blog post about romance from a North American in Japan.  It’s worth a full read.  I’ll wait.

Quite the cultural divide, isn’t it?  The lack of emphasis on initiative and instead focusing on being able to predict what the other person is thinking is very astounding.  It easily explains a lot of why character [x] and character [y] can go 40-odd episodes without ever taking a step.  It may seem odder to the North American audiences as the romance in North American culture is much more direct, but it’s simply the basis by which are more intuitive to Japanese audiences.  Passivity and emotional control is a huge takeaway as well.  The one line that got me was “Seiji told me much later that dating me made him feel like he was gay, because I was active in bed, and he couldn’t connect that with anything except masculinity”.  Strict gender roles have been well documented within the realm of romance in Japan and the interaction of romance between characters which are sometimes grating to North American audiences can be explained a bit by this difference in action/initiative.  I mean, how many times can you think of the “twice shy” scenario of characters [x] and [y] liking each other but not do anything about it?  While some may find it annoying, it follows that concept of needing to predict the other person’s opinion.

So I think this leads us to reasoning out why female characters with a more demure presence are more popular in Japan: it’s because, simply put, they conform to the Japanese norms more.

But this doesn’t explain everything.  The ideal male norm in Japan is also one of control.  But this conflicts with the culturally favoured characters.  I think we need to take a more general step backwards and consider the culture in terms of acceptable behaviour.  The Canadian Journal of Behavioural Sciences released a paper in 2009 expressing the differences between Canada, USA, and Japan, in terms of what the subjects considered appropriate emotional reaction.  I’ve copied the important results for this discussion below:

The results indicate that Japanese display rules permit the expression of powerful (anger, contempt, and disgust) significantly less than those of the two North American samples. Japanese also think that they should express positive emotions (happiness, surprise) significantly less than the Canadian sample.

This really goes to the heart of why popular male Japanese characters act so differently in my opinion; the cultural definition of a character comfortable with himself I find is one willing to act against cultural norms.  I mean, the most popular character is rarely the rule abiding person who doesn’t stand out from a crowd, right?  James Dean portrayed that perfectly in Rebel Without a Cause.  At least most of the time this seems to hold true.  However, in Japan, the cultural breaking, so to speak, would be to express more emotionally.

The oddity here is that I’m applying different rules to different reasons.  It almost seems like a “well, it fits” type of approach.  I think one of the big differences here is that one directly works with the area of romance and ideal femininity more and the other is how the character interacts with society.  I think a bit of the old standby of the areas of anime I focused on primarily here: I spoke mostly about shows which are meant to appeal to the male audience.  I do suspect that if we talk about shows which appeal to female audiences, the roles would reverse.  In other words, in a show designed for female audiences, the female character who breaks the rules more will be considered ideal and the male character who follows them more are more ideal.  For example, in video games the most popular female characters for female players in North America include the more stoic Samus Aran and Commander Sheppard.

My predictions, of course, comes down to desired partners.  The old concept of escapism stands out for me; people like to explore characters and escape what they see day-to-day.  By having a bit of a rule breaker, you get to see things that stand out from what you know.

So, what does that mean?  I think I can summarize my opinions as such:
The target audience will want to be someone who breaks the cultural standards and will enjoy characters of the opposite sex which are in line with the standards.  In Japan, the standard is to have more controlled emotions and in North America,

Of course, this is all being written at 1 AM…so I’m sure I’ve missed stuff.

Classic Debate: Subs vs Dubs

Wait.  What?  Are we seriously doing this?  Seriously?  Well, I guess.  Sort of.

See, this isn’t going to be a typical “which is better” post about the subject.  I don’t want to be the type of guy who makes decisions for people, art and quality being a subjective field and all.  Though, I guess you might base some decisions off this if you really wanted to for some reason.  What this will go into some of the differences between subs and dubs.  So, where do both of them have strengths and failures?  That sort of thing.

Brief History Lesson: Why Did We Start This?

So, the most common question I think is “why exactly did we start caring about who did the acting”?  Well, and this is mostly for younger readers (and I’d be extremely pleased if those who talks to younger anime fans pass this on), when anime was released on VHS, the translation company generally only ever did one language print.  And that, of course, meant that viewers couldn’t get their choice of what they wanted to see.  Either the fans of dubs or the fans of subs had to suck it up.  And losing your favourite show to shoddy subs or dubs only heightened the tensions.  As a quick example, I’d point to the Slayers franchise, which had seen a lot of heat on this in years past this from both ends.  Dubs have often seen as the money for companies, so it was often sub fans were on the short side (an oft quoted number was a 9-to-1 sales rate historically of dubs to subs).  And even if subs were released, the tapes came out as more expensive to recoup costs.  Oh, and I’d remiss to say that if you’re in a small town or something, you’d likely be out of luck getting a sub tape without a lengthy drive into larger markets.

In the years since, the rhetoric has dialed down somewhat.  With the advent of DVDs, neither side has to officially surrender territory, as it were,  So that took a lot of heat out of the debate.  But, as the fact that I’m writing this up alludes, it still exists today.  Though the reasons are much less rooted in accessibility and are much less personally vested in nature.  I might suggest the situation has reversed somewhat, as dubs tend to need to fight for survival these days, being less popular and less frequent than subs.

A Case for Subs

What exactly about the original language makes it better for viewers?  From a basic point of view, the culture is a huge sticking point.  Anime is written by Japanese writers, animated by Japanese artists, and voiced by Japanese voice actors.  In this line of thought, it’d be best to be see in its original creation.  This argument would be one of heritage.  A similar line of thought would be to have to see the Mona Lisa or Starry Night instead of seeing a repaint of it.  Along a similar opinion, one may be compelled to think that translators, as hard or lazy as the one in question is, may not be able to accurately translate everything.  The culture, the emotions, the jokes, the subtle motifs…all those could be lost with poor translators.  This was a much bigger issue historically as translators would often cut and paste things at will.  Compare Voltron to its original anime which spawned it, GoLion and DaiRugger XV.  Or Robotech to Macross.  Indeed, historically, this has been a huge issue.

The battles fought on this point are often much smaller in scope today, often being around language and use of it.  Subs don’t have the restriction of being tied to certain lip motions when the mouth is visible in a scene.  You can put whatever you want in text, as long as it’s legible.  This basically lets you do direct translations from one language to another.  Basic motifs and subtle wording can be translated much easier than having to go through a verbal language restriction.  There can be very minimal amounts of screwing around with the original intent, in the way the writer wanted you to see it.  To some viewers, this can become a strong influencing force.

But What About Dubs?

Dubs host a different territory, and most of the points for it often come off the back of comments made by subs.

A common point is to consider how difficult it is to translate some jokes.  I’m a Martian Successor Nadesico fan, so I’ll use the example of Izumi Maki.

Creepy stares and amusing remarks are about five seconds away.

In the show, Izumi takes the role of a joker – a person who lightens the mood quite often in stark contrast to her deep, reserved, and depressed look (though, I don’t blame her – some of the spoilered parts of her past tend to do that to you).  Anyways, Izumi’s jokes are often harboured in complex and unusual puns, at one point being so obscure, they make a fourth wall breaking joke just to explain what the heck she’s saying.  Have you ever tried to translate puns?  It just doesn’t work.  As a result, the subs could be considered less in the culture of the show because of the fact that you wouldn’t get part of Izumi’s character unless you’re fluently bilingual.

Another part of the culture aspect worth considering is how much the original director wanted it in a certain language.  This is a more fringe aspect, but some directors, Hayao Miyazaki being famous for this, will select the cast of the translated versions and try to work actively with the translation crew to ensure the original theme and emotion was kept.  In this sense, the concept of having seen it as the staff wanted you to is often nullified, as the crew explicitly wants you to see it in your language.

And, sometimes, the shows will just flat-out have a better cast.  Rarely are there people who won’t exude credit onto some dub casts, including Cowboy Bebop and Haibane Renmei (watch for it on this blog in the coming weeks!).  But we also have to consider then that rarely is it that people compliment train wreck dubs.  Love Hina in English is a particular disaster.

The Unknown – Unfamiliarity and Anime Viewing

Of course, one issue I’ve always had with anime dubs vs subs is the fact that, at its core, it’s often debated with limited knowledge.  I don’t mean this in an insulting or aggressive way…bear with me for a second.

I’ll ask some of the sub fans of Code Geass what they thought of Johnny Yong Bosch, the voice of Lelouche.  Well, the short answer is that many people thought he was terrible.  Now, let me ask some of the Japanese viewers what they thought of his Japanese analog, Jun Fukuyama.  This is where it gets weird with voices – Japanese fans thought Bosch did a superior job.  Now, this seems a bit contradictory on the surface, so let’s think about this.  What exactly could cause this?

I’d suggest that the issue is a lack of familiarity with language.  When we’re presented with a stilted presentation of something we’re not familiar with in a foreign language, we just sit back and think “Is that how it sounds?”.  I can pick out issues with my native languages just fine but if you speak to me in Spanish, I won’t be able to tell you what you’re saying, let alone decide if you provided me with a convincing performance.  You could just as well be saying “My hovercraft is full of eels” instead of “Welcome to my house” for all I know.  In fact, there are sometimes these bilingual jokes on television where writers intentionally place stupid sounding foreign language jokes for the few bilinguals in the audience to poke fun at.  And this, really, prevents us from giving an accurate evaluation of a performance.  Some things, like overall tone, yes, you might pick out.  But some problems, like subtle perpetual overacting, will be lost, giving an incorrect assumption on quality.

Worse yet, in my mind, is the assumption that subs are definitive.  In a basic example (I’m not 100% sure – I used to be Japanese fluent, but am 4 years removed), the translated version of daisuke can either go to “I like you” or “I love you”, simply stated (I’ll avoid using characters whenever possible – not all computers have the language installed to read it all).  In Japanese, the actual translation comes down to context.  The exact same phrase, used in two different scenarios, can have different meanings based on context.  This is a fairly easy to distinguish one (complicated romantic situations aside), but there are more ambiguous cases than that.  And it comes down to language barriers again.

And this I think makes the debate something that I can’t and won’t press a real opinion on.

Conclusions

Okay, so through all that, what do I really want to say to anybody out there?  Well first, make sure you consider the pros and cons of watching a show in a certain way.  There will always be advantages and disadvantages to certain viewing habits, even if you are fluent in both your dub language and Japanese.  Second, consider keeping your mind open to both possibilities.  Sometimes there are incredible dubs.  Sometimes, it’s better to read the script.  Third, you may consider learning Japanese.  If you’re a hardcore fan, making an informed decision on the actors and their quality can hugely impact your ability to watch.

Finally, there is no “right” answer for viewing subs or dubs.  Entertainment is a subjective medium.  Like there’s no right way to enjoy music or read books, there’s no right way to maximize anime (though there are correct ways to critically analyze them).  Other than the obvious “watch in whatever gives you the most enjoyment”.

Has Anime “Peaked”?

I’m sure you’ve heard this question yourself at one point or another: are we over the hump?  Is the best anime ever created behind us, the future just a shell of its former self?  The topic seems to rear its head every couple years.  And honestly, I think I’ll take my own stab at answering this question.

The biggest problem I have is that we quantify when the “peak” of anime is.  How exactly do you decide when we have gotten to the best of anime?  I’ve, as mentioned previously, studied engineering, so I like numbers.  I’m comfortable with them.  When I go to bed, I sleep with hugging a calculator.  Okay, that last one’s a lie, but you get the point.  I want to know how exactly we’re deciding what’s the apex of the anime era.  I’ve tried the method I’ve always heard below.  If you have any other ideas, let me know.  Anyways the common line I’ve heard is that the golden age of anime will have occurred when the best shows were most frequently produced (the second most common is: when the best overall anime was produced, but that follows with the same path of thought).  I really, really hate this concept.  It’s simply too hard for me to imagine using since we’re taking an extremely multi-dimensional issue as quality of a show and compressing all those facets into a single univariate metric: a sliding scale of good-bad.  Everything else is dropped.  And this, in addition to human subjectivity, make it a major hurdle.

I’ll try to show this by example.  Try listing the best anime period.  Go ahead.  Take a few seconds and scribble/mentally list down your top 5 anime.

Done?  Good.  Well, let’s take a look a few I found lying around.  These weren’t exactly hard to find, as most belong to friends of mine (in no particular order), but I think this gets the point across:

Person 1: Elfen Lied, Gintama, Death Note, Clannad, Fate/Stay Night
Person 2: Full Metal Panic? Fummofu, Air, Gintama, GaoGaiGar, Usagi Drop
Person 3: Lucky*Star, Kanon, Toradora!, Kanamemo, Higurashi
Person 4 (my own): Serial Experiments Lain, Martian Successor Nadesico, Slayers NEXT. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Boogiepop Phantom
Person 5: Junjou Romantica, Gravitation, Loveless, Lucky*Star, Kanon
Person 6: Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica, Yuru Yuri, Hidan no Aria, Gosick, MM!

While I don’t fully expect you to check against it, the list stands for itself: I count about 27 different “top 5” shows in a maximum of 30 possibilities.  The idea of deciding the era of best anime is something fairly impossible to do when we can’t even agree on what the top anime are period.  And that’s why I don’t like this metric: it’s too simple. This isn’t a problem just in anime, but in all subjective medium.  List your top 5 books, movies, video games, board games, comics…anything subjective and you’ll mind it’s nearly impossible to create a consensus.

A Field of Clones: Marking Without Subjectivity

Okay though…let’s say we remove all human subjectivity.  Everybody is the exact same…we’re all robots who don’t have biases towards certain works, art styles, or character types.

Even then, I can’t see this question ever being answered in this manner.  There are too many variables to consider even then.  We’re crossing genres, eras.  How can you compare, let’s say, Mazinger Z‘s quality to K-On!’s?  Neon Genesis Evangelion to NarutoParanoia Agent vs Gosick?  The old saying of comparing apples to oranges come to mind.  What is better: Having a great story or spending your budget on music?  All this is extremely subjective work and it becomes extremely difficult to analyze what is good and what is bad in this manner.  And then, how do we reconcile the difference in art quality?  There’s no question that today animators have the tools to make shows that animators of days gone by could only dream of.  And if they so desired, they could even replicate the old style.  So what do we call an old show which worked hard to make the prettiest show it could, but hasn’t stood well to time?  For most of you, I’m sure you remember a time when the movie Jurassic Park was THE line for special effects supremacy.  Heck, some of you may have remembered when it was Star Wars.  Point being, we can’t judge them by simple metrics.  Jurassic Park is outdated by today’s standards, but context needs to be taken into account.

If we try to limit this any further, to constrain the fields to take into consideration context of era, we’re still stuck.  We still are comparing across genres.  Is a harem show better than a psychological thriller?  Is a show designed for children inherently worse than one written for adult audiences?  We have too many questions here even.  And if we try to separate by genre, we’re getting into further specifics that we can’t use to analyze what the best era for anime as a while is.  We’re just listing when the best eras for specific genres are.  Such a thing is typically done with Hollywood films.

Where Does That Leave Us?  Has Anime Peaked or Not?

To be blunt: I can’t say.  We have no evidence of the claim, but nothing to defend with either, since we have no measurement system – the one which I’m familiar with is flawed in its approach.  Now, that isn’t to say that it possibly hasn’t peaked.  We just don’t have evidence of it happening.  It’s kind of like me saying “We have measurements of 8, then 9, then 5.  Are we in trouble?”.  You have no way of knowing how to answer that without further information.  Same here…we have no good way of knowing what direction we’re heading really since we can’t consolidate into a useful metric.

But I See So Much Garbage These Days! 

Ah.  Well, there is.  But this is hardly the exception to the rule.  If you’re one who watches movies, do you remember Reign of Fire? Don’t Say a Word? Contraband? The Avengers, but with Sean Connery?  They all exist.  And it’s not like I’m picking back water movies for the most part…these are all 15 years old or lower with some fairly reasonable in terms of their actors and budgets.

So what’s the point of bringing that up?  Well, people have short attention spans.  No way around it.  We don’t remember things past a few years unless they are really standout.  There is such a large amount of stuff happening in our lives and so much flooding of our entertainment that we tend to forget everything mediocre in short order, only being able to recall the really good or the extremely bad.  And it’s not like everything is really bad, just that most are mediocre.

How does this play into our belief that anime is going downhill?  Well, when all you remember from 1997 is Slayers TRY, Oh My Goddess!, and Revolutionary Girl Utena and compare it to today, things tend to look a bit greener on that side.  Little does anybody tell you about any of the other 35 or more anime series going on TV unless you’re a fan of the genre.  And, if you’re really unlucky, you may remember something like Don’t Leave Me Alone, Daisy, an anime about stalking.  Flat out. Simply put, if all you remember are the hits, you will imagine things to be better than they are.  Give modern anime a few years time and the memories of the mediocre will vanish, only leaving us with memories of the horrible and (mostly) the good.  And this is the often described “nostalgia goggles” effect.

But this also cuts a little in both directions too.  Modern shows tend to polarize to the extremely negative or positive opinion, harder than you would expect.  This is because they are remembered against a much weaker field than shows which have been time-tested.  In this sense, they’re competing against a weaker audience.  Let’s go back to the example of 1997.  Those shows are compared to shows of the era, but nobody remembers the garbage of the year.  They’re comparing it against shows from years beside it now.  From 1996, they’re now being compared against Martian Successor Nadesico, Rurouni Kenshin, and (infamously) Dragonball GT.  From the other side, they’re also being compared with Cowboy Bebop, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Trigun, among others.  That is a fairly tough crowd to be in…much more so than their original crowd, which made them stand out better.

What if? What if? What if?

Okay, so let’s just say, hypothetically, that anime is post-apex.  That whatever we see now is going to not hold a candle to the past.  Mediums can sometimes die out in favour of others going forward.  And just what if anime actually is on the edge of a cliff, spiralling towards its own demise?

We have seen this before.  For example, literature used to hold a great control over our quiet, indoor entertainment.  I don’t think it’ll ever hold the exact same position again.  Not with e-books, not with libraries adjusting, not even with smart phones wired into our eyes I imagine.  Even certain art forms of literature have experienced this.  Poetry used to be the great expression of soul.  To some degree, that’s what movies are for now.  Granted, literature and poetry still exist today, but not to the degree they used to.  If anime is a dying art as well, then I think we’ll see it take steps back, into a niche art.  There will always be anime.  To alter a quote from the mayor of my recently water-logged city, “It may be very, very different, but it will still exist”.  And when this happens, I think fans must be ready for change.  Things are never going to be static.  In the last 30 years, we’ve seen massive shifts in popular anime genre already, from the somewhat bleak stories of the ’80s to the expansion into America and the child market of the ’90s, to the resurgence and integration into popular culture in the ’00s, to the not too unfamiliar modern phenomenon of the moe character type.  There’s no reason to expect things to stay the same forever.  Being such a large market will likely not be a permanent occurrence either.

That’s not to say that good shows can’t exist.  Oh no.  Good writing is printed today.  Good plays are being written, excellent poetry is being dreamed up.  Similarly, good anime can still exist.  And that’s something to always look for.  There will always be a hit coming around the corner.  It may not be at the same frequency, but there will be something to watch.  And it will be good.

But honestly, I don’t think we’re there yet.  To me, that’s a struggle for another day.