We all watch anime for different reasons. Some of us want a time sink, some of us want entertainment, some of us want an artistic experience, some of us want a combination of things from our anime, even differing our expectations by show. And when we’ve seen a show we love, for whatever reason, we usually want to tell people about that show. It is one of the great pleasures of encountering any form of media: finding something you like and sharing it with others.
Yet, many of us (myself included) struggle to articulate what it is about a show that drew us in, and struggle to defend our favorite shows from the negative criticism of others. And on the other side, many of us fail to effectively communicate our problems with a particular show.
While I’m not proposing a cure-all for the issues of description that plague talking about anime, I have come to believe that the most common underlying problem is a failure of critical thinking and evaluation. This is a less a criticism of the individuals who watch anime than it is of the culture as a whole, a culture that promotes mindless consumption of entertainment without accepting the inherent responsibility that comes with interacting with any form of media.
This isn’t to say that everyone who watches anime must do so through the lenses of literary criticism, cinematography criticism or social criticism. Those lenses are just that: lenses, limiters of perspective that promote a more focused, directed engagement with a show. Rather, I am campaigning for the general role of critical thinking as a process of thought applicable to any lens, whether that lens is academic criticism or the criticism of basic entertainment. What I want to present here is a tool that will hopefully serve as an aid in articulating positions from all corners of the critical arena, whether that be from an assessment of fun or an assessment of plot structure.
No matter what we are watching, whether it is a richly thematic piece like Kyousougiga or a sugary fun show like Nyarko-san, we cannot “turn our brains off.” As consumers of media, we accept the minimum barrier of interaction with a show – namely, the responsibility to know why we like something. If we cannot articulate why we like something, we not only forfeit our ability to defend our preferences, but also disservice the show we claim to like. After all, I’m not going to convince anyone to watch Blast of Tempest by saying, “I liked it because it was good!” But if I can articulate my belief that Blast of Tempest “engages with the theme of acknowledging and moving on from the past in a potent and meaningful manner,” I may very well be able to compel someone with an interest in that theme to watch the show.
The following five steps of the critical thinking process as applied to media, and here specifically applied to anime, are a system of thinking which organizes reasons for liking any particular show and weighs them against viewer expectations and needs. Let’s begin.
Step #1: Description—Immersion in the Anime
The first step of the critical process, Description, is the easiest of the first three steps. Immersion in the anime, although it sounds somewhat intensive, simply means watching the anime from your particular expectations and reasons.
I like to call these collections of expectations, methods and purposes watching styles. Any expectations are valid, whether they are high or low. Any method is valid, whether it be a one-day marathon, weekly watching with notes, or multitasking while grinding levels in an MMO. Any purpose is valid, whether it be for entertainment, staving off boredom, learning, or criticizing. The important thing is to be honest about your intentions and style. If you aren’t giving the show your full attention, that’s fine. Just remember that style of watching limits your experience to a certain spectrum of immersion.
The watching style is important because it defines the aspects of a show to which you are unconsciously and consciously alert. The Description step is the process of identifying those aspects: writing, themes, characters, devices, gags, plot twists, and others. The absorption of these aspects is what makes up our positive or negative reaction to a show. In this step, you simply identify the existence of these aspects consciously.
It may sound difficult, but in practice, this is simply a matter of saying, “Ryuuko and Satsuki’s battle in episode 3 of Kill la Kill was awesome,” or “Myoue’s conversation with Koto in episode 10 of Kyousougiga was really moving.” It’s only an identification of moments, not of evaluation. That comes later.
Step #2: Analysis—Discovering Patterns
In the Analysis step, you move from picking out individual aspects of an anime to collecting them in groups and identifying patterns. Like Description, Analysis is an identification step, not an evaluative one.
Analysis is the discovering of and focusing on the patterns unveiled by the aspects identified in the Description step. Applied to anime, this means categorizing events, characters, gags—essentially anything critical to the production a show’s good effect in relation to your particular watching style.. Again, this isn’t making a judgment on the effect of these patterns, only revealing their existence, focused by the methods and needs of your watching style.
Practically, this looks something like: “Kill la Kill had a lot of moments with an energy level like the Ryuko/Satsuki battle” or “In Kyousougiga, all of Myoue’s interactions with Koto and the other characters seemed really important” or even “All the characters in Kiniro Mosaic are really cute!”
Step #3: Interpretation—Finding the Effects of Patterns
The Interpretation step asks questions and tests the patterns for meaning. It extracts messages, agendas, subtexts and compares the discovered patterns with other well-done examples of the pattern. That’s the definition, but articulated in a less academic way, it looks more like this: The Interpretation step examines the effect of the patterns on the viewer, and the results of those effects. And, importantly, it queries the reasons for these effects.
It is in this step that the watching style, viewer reaction and the show itself interact most closely. It is the most personal step, the step that sets the stage for making a decision on whether or not you like a particular show. Here you look at those patterns, remember how you felt about them as you watched, and ask, “why did I feel that way about these moments in the show and the show as a whole?” In a deep thematic work watched in a style that wants to understand the themes, this consists of interrogating the thematic construction of the show, determining the theme, identifying your reaction to the theme and finding why you reacted the way you did. In a comedy watched in a style that wanted entertainment, this would consist of compiling the jokes, analyzing the comedic system, identifying whether or not your thought the jokes were funny and asking what about the humor worked for you.
Applied to specific shows, the Interpretation step might looks something like this: “I was really hyped each week to watch Kill la Kill because I loved the adrenaline rush the craziness of the show brought me” or “Kyousougiga really hit me hard emotionally because the theme of family really resonated with me” or “Is the Order a Rabbit? is super fun to watch because of the randomness of some of the jokes catches me off guard and makes me laugh.”
Step #4: Evaluation—Making Positive or Negative Judgments
The Evaluation step makes an evaluative judgment on the meanings and patterns, saying whether or not an anime is good, bad or just mediocre by subjecting personal preference to the critical process. In traditional usage, the step is supposed to be devoid of personal opinion, but here I have altered it to make it the step in which one comes to a final conclusion of preference for a show.
This statement of liking or disliking an anime has been backed up by the previous steps, which means it is no longer just an empty statement, but a choice defined by actual reasons. I actually think it follows very obviously from the Interpretation step: positive effects of a show generally lead to a positive evaluative judgment and negative effects generally lead to a negative assessment.
Thus: “I liked Kill la Kill because all the craziness kept me excited, interested and entertained.” “I liked Kyousougiga because the theme of family was really well explored through Myoue’s character and his interactions with his family, and made the whole show emotionally resonant.” “I liked Is the Order a Rabbit? because the cute characters and off-the-wall humor made it a fun watch.”
Summed up, Evaluation is simply saying whether or not you like a show, stating your watching style (“made it a fun watch”) and giving your reasons (“the cute characters and off-the-wall humor”).
Step #5: Engagement—Response
The fifth step, Engagement, naturally follows from the other four. Engagement is your response to the show: absorbing the messages, rejecting the agendas or subtext, buying the discs, drawing fan art, writing fan fiction, or (most commonly) recommending the show to someone else.
One note about recommendations: if your recommendation is given in the format of the Evaluation statement (like/dislike, watching style, reasons), it will be in the format that is easiest for others to choose whether or not they can use your recommendation.
So, those are the five steps of the critical process as applied to anime. Although it may seem a fairly involved process from this description, it really is just the process of finding your reasons for why you like or dislike an anime based on your personal experience. Many already go through the steps unconsciously, and just forget to articulate them in their reasoning. Steps two and three (the most important steps) are the steps I see most often neglected in evaluations of anime, as people move straight from the Description step to the Evaluation step. By bypassing reflection on the show and one’s own response to the show, the viewer is left with unclear reasons. It not only diminishes the usefulness of their opinion to others, but also leaves the viewer in the dangerous position of absorbing the show without really considering the messages left behind.
To close, I want to give credit for the names of the steps to Media and Culture (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2014) by Richard Campbell, Christopher R. Martin and Bettina Fabos. I have used their terms and general conception of the steps, modifying them (very heavily in places) as necessary to fit the particular medium of anime.
Thanks for reading to the end, and I hope these five steps are useful for you in the future!