It’s been nearly a year since the first Watson Watches article was published, and the time has now come to wrap up this particular series for good. As I wrote back in that first article, the goal was not to attempt to convert Watson to otaku-hood, but simply to gain a different perspective than many of us, after years of watching (and/or writing about) anime, were used to seeing. This final post is to get Watson’s conclusions on the shows that I forced very nicely requested he try out, and also to ask him a few more generalised questions about his experiences.
Using any kind of ranking system that appeals to you, how would you score each anime that you were given to watch in terms of purely subjective appeal?
Azumanga Daioh was my favourite out of all of them. It gets 6 cutesy female characters out of 7, with a bonus allocation for the surrealism and absurdity that made it into each episode. The visuals weren’t fantastic, but they certainly seemed to fit most of the time and the same applies to sound. It was light, it was fun, and sometimes that’s exactly what I want to watch. In fact, it’s the only anime I’ve watched for this that I wished there was more of. Kaorin deserves her chance with Sakaki, that’s all I’m saying.
Kill la Kill comes in second. It looked a bit rough and ready, and didn’t waste any time on extravagances like scene-setting or similar fripperies. But to its credit it made no bones about what it was going to be, and played to its strengths in that regard. I have no hesitation in awarding it an entire 36-page catalog of ridiculous lingerie battle outfits (although I’m sure the designers have plenty of ideas along those lines themselves). The only reason it doesn’t get more is that it was a little too fast-paced and ridiculous for my tastes. Well, that and I couldn’t find an appropriate place to use the phrase “disgraceful titstravaganza” in my article about it.
Third place is more of a struggle, but I’m going to give it to Free!. The series was absurdly good-looking, and I’m not talking about the improbable physiques. In fact, the only rippling of anything that I’ll mention is the water, which also looked fantastic. Unfortunately, the fact that I was impressed by the background and visuals so much is actually a bad thing in some ways. When I’m watching something critically I’m usually down in the core, working the story and characterisation gnomes to death, and Free! falls into a bit of a hole in those regards. This let my attention wander to other things. As a result, I can only give it 3 glistening masculine bodies with moisture rolling off them. If it had committed to either being more fully story-driven or providing spectacular slice-of-life moments I would have given it more.
Death Note scrapes in to fourth place, mainly because I liked what it was trying to do. Having a purely psychological central conflict was an interesting direction to go, and I think it deserves credit for the attempt. As I said in the article, its failures were of degree, not direction, and I really do think it was a good attempt. Unfortunately its failures were just too jarring for me to think much of it. The main characters – I hesitate to use the term protagonists – certainly didn’t do it any favours. In terms of the amount of intellectual power it’s bringing to bear, I can’t honestly say there’s enough to light a small city. Or even a small house. Maybe a small room. 40 watts, at best.
This leaves AnoHana in fifth place. It wasn’t exactly brimming over with interesting ideas, and it didn’t really handle the ones it did have all that well. Some aspects of it even annoyed me, which is not a good sign. It barely qualifies for one mysterious flower seen on a fateful day, and be grateful that I don’t start pulling petals off it for the way it wilfully ignored one of the more interesting characters.
And finally, Kuroshitsuji. Despite the freedom to choose any ranking system I like, I simply cannot think of something that’s appropriate for something that made me regret watching it so much. What’s fitting for a show that doesn’t respect its source, its setting, its audience, or even itself; and whose creators apparently care so little for it that they can’t be bothered with even the most obvious implications of their decisions? Victorian insults, that’s what. You are a zounderkite, sir, a zounderkite and no more. Good day to you, sir. I say good day!
Using the same ranking system, would these scores change if I asked you to now rate each anime from a more objective standpoint?
Some of them would, yes. The scores above are heavily biased by my personal feelings about the shows. Being more objective about them… hmm.
Obviously, top place would go to Free!. Stunning visuals, along with no weaknesses in any technical area, earn it a full 5 glistening masculine bodies with moisture rolling off them.
Kill la Kill romps in to second place, earning an entire 72-page catalog of battle lingerie, as well as a bonus centerfold that comes in a sealed section. It makes its weaknesses work for it, it’s totally upfront about what it’s doing, and it does the hell out of it with great enthusiasm.
I’d put Death Note in the third slot. It doesn’t have the same technical advantages as the first-place winner, but it does have a thoroughly interesting central conceit in the battle of wits between the main characters. A selection of 100-watt bulbs, suitable for lighting up a modest house.
Azumanga Daoioh makes fourth place. Its production values aren’t that great, but it uses ordinary slice-of-life moments to convey moments of whimsy and humour quite skillfully. 3 cutesy female characters total – it’s not bad, but it’s not going to set the world on fire.
Neither is Anohana, come to that. Down in fifth place we have a show that isn’t actually bad, but neither is it actually good. The only things that really stick out about it are all mild negatives – the story is a bit confusing and unclear, the characterization seems shaky, and unless you really like emotional angst the plot isn’t going to do you any favours. Again, it only earns one mysterious flower – although at least this time the petals aren’t in danger.
And finally, bringing up the rear, is Kuroshitsuji. Once again there’s nothing particularly bad about it in most respects, and it even has a creative element in the idea of the demon butler. But even though I am doing my best to be objective about it, I just can’t overlook the cavalier attitude towards continuity and the setting as a whole (and that’s being as polite as I can be about it). For a show that expects to be taken seriously this is a crippling flaw. At best it’s a totty one-lung, and as Victorian insults go that’s about as generous as I can be.
Although these anime titles were chosen based on the potential for eliciting an interesting response rather than on any consideration for your personal tastes, would you say it’s been an overall enjoyable experience?
Yes, it has been enjoyable. I’m not much of a TV kind of guy usually, so I didn’t have a lot of background to make comparisons with, but that also let me take the shows on their merits. Even the shows I didn’t think much of had their thought-provoking aspects, and this was a pleasant surprise.
One of the things I found most enjoyable, though, was having the chance to discuss the shows with an informed community. Artemis’ questions provided an excellent springboard for considering my own thoughts and reactions to the shows I watched, and being able to see what other people thought also contributed to the experience. So I’m going to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved for their role in this; both the audience for engaging with the articles and Artemis for coming up with the shows, the questions, and a forum for the ensuing discussion. This helped the whole endeavor turn out as pleasantly as it did; I think it’s quite likely that if I’d just been watching the shows for and by myself, I would have felt differently about the whole affair.
Having watched these shows, have you come to any particular conclusions about anime as a whole?
There are a couple of things that seemed to come through in most of the shows I watched, and a couple more that I’m inferring from them.
The most obvious thing to me is that anime seems to make extensive use of a pre-existing body of knowledge which its viewers are presumed to have. The characters, settings, jokes, plots – just about everything is based on this shared ‘cultural context’ (which I’m putting in quotes for want of a better term). I won’t say it completely relies on these factors, because it’s possible to enjoy the shows without having them, but until one develops that basis the experience is likely to be fairly mystifying. It’s like watching a conversation full of in-jokes and shared experiences; you might understand all the words being used but you’re sure you’re missing a lot of what is actually being conveyed. It also means that newcomers watching a particular anime are effectively watching a different show to experienced fans, which I find interesting in a philosophical sense.
Secondly, and also fairly obviously, is a very different attitude towards sexual behavior and presentation than I’m used to. How much of this is intended as titillation to draw a bigger audience and how much is a genuine cultural difference is an open question. In any event, it seems clear to me that the creators deliberately include such things, and expect the audience to approve of them (or at least accept them as fairly unexceptional). This raises some other questions in turn, of course, about the society that generates these people and their views… but fortunately, that lies outside the scope of this article (and my pay-grade, come to that).
As for the inferences, anime doesn’t seem particularly interested in trying to attract more people into its viewing population. The assumptions made about cultural context means that the barrier to entry is significant to those who don’t share it, and this doesn’t appear to be viewed as something worth trying to overcome on the part of the creators. It might also mean that those who have successfully overcome that problem to become part of the viewership have a tendency to be dismissive of newcomers or ‘the uninitiated’. I don’t know if this is an issue or not, of course, but I’ve certainly seen it happen in other circumstances so it’s a possibility. I think it’s also worth pointing out that this accessibility issue no doubt contributes to anime being so widely misunderstood.
Another inference I’m drawing from this is that anime tends to use this cultural context as a sort of shortcut. There’s a sense that there’s a list somewhere of stock characters, settings, themes, and ideas about how the world works and so on – and I get the feeling it’s a fairly rare piece of work that doesn’t draw heavily from said list. If everyone is already familiar with these prefabricated elements, then this saves a lot of time and effort: you don’t have to say why this particular character is an antagonist, the audience can just look at his spiky hairdo and know instantly everything they need to about his character, motivations, actions, and likely fate. Of course, for viewers who don’t share this understanding, the result contributes even more to the impermeability of the genre as a whole.
Would you now consider yourself an anime fan, and/or do you feel like you might now seek out other anime to try in your own time?
I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call myself a fully-fledged anime fan. That implies a level of dedication I’m not sure I can truthfully commit to. But I’m certainly more charitably inclined towards anime than I once was. As for trying out other anime… well, yes and no. I’m certainly willing to try it. In fact, I’ve already watched a few other anime that I enjoyed a lot.
I’ve always been a bit of a sci-fi fan, and Planetes was a good fit for that. It was so good that I ended up watching the whole series, and mostly I think it was an excellent piece of work. I felt it was let down slightly by the last few episodes, which seemed to be out of keeping with the tone that had previously been established, but that was really a case of it not quite living up to itself. On the whole I thought it was great.
By rights I ought to have hated Working!!, but weirdly enough I liked that too. Perhaps the silly aspects of it and ridiculous characters helped me not to take it too seriously. It certainly didn’t hurt that the show didn’t take itself too seriously either. Incidentally, having now seen inside Japanese family restaurants, the portrayal is surprisingly accurate, at least in physical terms. Obviously I can’t really comment on what relations between staff are like.
However, all the anime I have watched so far, even outside those that Artemis chose for these articles, have been the result of a recommendation made by someone else. If it wasn’t for those recommendations then I probably wouldn’t have bothered with them. Personally I’m fine with this, as there is a large amount of anime produced and I don’t have the time, knowledge, or frankly the inclination to try and keep up with everything that comes out and judge it for myself.
You suddenly have the power to create/be in full charge of creating your own anime series! What would it be like?
I’m going to approach this from the perspective of what I would want to watch as a viewer. If I wanted to make a huge mountain of cashy-money, or change the world, then obviously different answers would apply. But let’s not worry about that right now.
I think the most important thing to me is characterization. I want characters I can engage with, who act and react in ways I find plausible and in keeping with the setting. Plot and storyline are also very important, but I’m willing to accept limits on them in order to get strong, well-realised characters. Where development of those characters is in order, I want them to get it. After that, I think internal self-consistence is next on my list. The implications of events will have to be acknowledged in some way.
Getting more specific, I want a fantastical setting. Reality is all very well, but I spend quite enough time there as it is. When I watch anime I want to escape that, not be immersed in it, so I want a setting that allows for fantastic characters, events, and abilities. But I also want an internally self-consistent one, as I mentioned above, and for me the easiest way to combine those would be with some sort of far-future science-fictional setting. I can’t think of a better one than that of The Culture, from the late Iain M. Banks Culture series (The Culture, Culture Series). Let’s not delude ourselves about this, The Culture is space opera, not hard science fiction – it makes no attempt at scientific realism. But that’s ok with me, because it does do a fantastic job of dealing with the implications of the technologies and ideas that it introduces. Banks’ stories focus on the human and political aspects of the universe he has created, and that’s what I like them for.
Having just decided on a fantastic setting, I’m now going to say that I think I fairly muted and realistic visual aesthetic would suit this show best. That will make the fantastical visual effects stand out all the more when they come up, and help the focus stay on the characters rather than the settings. Something like that used in Planetes would suit me nicely. Good fluid animation is absolutely necessary, in order to help with the air of realism.
The real problem, of course, is the limited number of episodes an anime has available. Banks’ stories can be accused of many things, but excessive brevity is not one of them. Unless one of his short stories can be successfully adapted, then we’re probably looking at an original story using the same setting and themes. Somehow getting the important setting details to emerge from the show as you watch it will be crucial, since there won’t be time for lengthy episodes of exposition or background, so a skillful writing team will definitely be required. As a bonus, this also rewards attentive viewers.
The soundtrack is a somewhat less certain area, since I’m not really a music expert. I think something inspired by classical or baroque sensibilities would suit the setting and visuals well, but if the musicians want to include modern instruments and themes then I’m ok with that. What is most important is that it fits with the overall ‘feel’ of the show; we don’t need another forgettable electronic-rock/synth-pop opening song here.
Speaking of feel, this is going to be a drama. It’s certainly going to have some lighter moments, since wry commentary is definitely one of the things that emerges from Banks’ work, but these are set against a backdrop in which bad things can happen, and are all the more significant for their relative rarity.
So there you have it. That’s a show I’d like to watch, and it’s what I’d make if I had the chance.
Question of the post: Final thoughts and/or questions regarding the Watson Watches series? And based on his response to these questions, do you have any specific anime recommendations for Watson? (As this post will likely garner comments from several bloggers, Watson has requested that recommendations be limited to only one or two titles per person.)