A recent “Ask John” column at Animenation.net posed the question whether “original” anime–meaning anime that isn’t based on a previously published manga, novel, or light novel–is inherently better. John answered in the negative, and I have to agree. Storytelling skill is storytelling skill, no matter where it comes from or whether it’s borrowed from somewhere else. But it does bring up some interesting issues about the creative process which are worth thinking about.
I do think there’s something to be said for favoring shows that are not necessarily “original” anime, but shows that are the product of a single vision and imagination. The great anime auteurs are examples: the works of Miyazaki, Makoto Shinkai, and Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion are instantly recognizable, true expressions of their creative character, and high quality. Most recently, Dennou Coil, a longtime labor of love for creator and director Mitsuo Itou, also showed singular vision, consistency, and originality. And, contra John, I think Onegai Teacher is actually also a good example of taking an inherently hackneyed genre and breathing some life, emotional heft, and consistency into it–and it was conceived and scripted by a single person.
Of course, most anime are based on manga and, increasingly, light novels. Manga and novels are necessarily created by a single person usually, and the trouble often comes when the anime producers decide to deviate in some ways from the manga–the creative decisions that go into such changes are often tricky. (We saw the outrage that occurred when the director of the Bokurano anime revealed his dislike of the manga and his intention of changing the story accordingly.) The visual arts of film and TV are generally collaborative and, at least in Hollywood, scripts will go through endless revisions before it actually sees film. It’s often easy to tell in less good works whether something was produced by committee and what was a single person’s failed vision. (The bad Oliver Stone movies are still recognizably Oliver Stone movies.) In either case the number of people who work on something is not as important as whether the story works as a story, period. Why having consistent and singular creative vision might be important is that typically they take more creative chances, are sometimes more likely to break out of the increasingly rigid genre conventions in the anime world.
My own perspective on this is skewed by the fact that my background is in prose fiction writing, which is very much a solitary art. I always tend to be suspicious of committee work and when I watch film I tend to go for the ones done by well-known writer-directors. But when I look for interesting anime, aside from a few names which I will always pay attention to (mostly the ones I mentioned above), I decide to pick it up based on whether the storyline looks interesting and appealing to my tastes, not how many people helped to create it.
As they say, a tree is judged by its fruits, and I have seen many a show with singular vision grow stale and awry–ahem, Hayate no Gotoku. You gotta bake it right before I can eat it right.