Two major categories have sprung up in anime discourse. There are referential anime such as Yakitate Japan and Lucky Star, and there are anime which are designed to be watched with no prior knowledge of anime, such as Bleach and Naruto. In keeping with the concept that otaku culture is like a language to be learned, I will refer to the former as “advanced” anime and the latter as “beginner” anime.
Obviously this is a simplification. These categories are not pure and exclusive. Many essentially non-referential shows, such as Full Metal Panic, still have the occasional reference. Heavily referential shows such as Genshiken or Dai Mahou Touge can still be watched without getting all the references. Overall, however, there is an increasing creep of metatextual issues into the actual body of anime that air each season.
Is this good or bad?
Before we answer that, we should take a good look at the phenomenon. The creep of meta-issues has happened before in other media, and continues to go on to this day. Music critics talk about music which is made to appeal to musicians as opposed to music which appeals to the casual listener with no knowledge of musical theory. Film critics have similarly gone on about things for so long that Kevin Smith released Jersey Girls with a disclaimer that it was “not for critics.” (While this was an appeal to the fact that hyperawareness of criticism can stifle the creative atmosphere, he was roundly mocked for it.) Webcomic artists broke the fourth wall with astonishing regularity in the 1990s, after which it rapidly became painfully unfunny and overdone.
This is not to say that “beginner anime” are not intellectually complex or do not warrant attention. Just because a show does not reference other anime does not mean it does not reference other things. Bleach references many concepts from Kendo and Buddhism, most obviously being a “spiritual swordsman,” a metaphor it makes all too literal. Naruto contains elaborate motifs that refer to legends of tengu, kitsune, and other mythical creatures. Melody of Oblivion, perhaps the most exaggerated example that comes to mind, is an hours-long foray into classical Greek myth, Indian concepts of enlightenment, “Music of the Spheres” mysticism, and the philosophical aspects of Zen archery. It is quite possible to watch the show without first having cultivated an appreciation for at least a few of these things, but the details of the world will seem much more arbitrary. Patterns will not be apparent.
It is not necessary to know about the story of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike to get the idea that Sky Blue’s sacrifice in his opening scenes is morbidly heroic, but being aware of it adds the sense that the author of Melody of Oblivion has chosen his references and scenes deliberately. One who has the cultural context of, say, Double Suicide at Sonezaki will appreciate the subtleties of the historical Japanese use of suicide as social critique, as opposed to its absurd frequency of appearance in Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei. However, even without such context, keeping a date book for double suicides is naturally absurd. Thus, even if the meta-level parody is unappreciated, the goofiness on a literal level is universal.
In Bleach, viewers laugh at Kurosaki Isshin’s tendency to attack Ichigo at random – but there really is a classic Japanese tale of a swordsman whose master trained him by attacking him at all hours, day and night. Not knowing this makes Bleach seem that much more inane and random. On the other hand, the story is written so that appreciation of this nuance isn’t strictly necessary. In a similar nod to practicality, the heavily referential Lucky Star opens not with a reference to Super Robot Wars, but with a skit about eating chocolate cornets.
In the end, anime must be accessible. It must be familiar, somehow, to the audience. Whether that familiarity is one of shared archetypes, shared watching experiences, or shared knowledge from outside anime, the requirement is there all the same. “Advanced” and “Beginner” or “predominantly referential” and “nonreferential” are merely labels we apply to make it easy to steer someone to the anime best suited to them.
We would do well to remember this.