Face Off: Mike, Ray, and Mori Meta-tate on Anime and Art

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Yes, moritheil has become a discussion partner in this revival of our Face Off feature! Please enjoy this rather meta-level discussion about whether anime can be treated like art or not.

Mike: today’s topic: “is anime art?”

For myself, I actually addressed this issue at length in an old article of mine from 2007, and my basic opinion is: all anime is “art” in the sense that it’s a product of human creativity. The question is not whether it’s art or entertainment (a distinction that I think is artificial), but whether it’s good or bad art.

Moritheil: What standards can we use for “good” or “bad” art?

Ray: Wait a minute, why is every creative work “art”? Are fanservice shows art? Art should be something that addresses some issue, but fan service shows don’t.

Moritheil: I see Ray is on to the modern idea of art. Art has evolved from something that is a matter of historical record (pictograms), to entertainment and ritual, to something with a purpose. We now expect our art to say something, to mean something, to direct our attention somewhere for a reason.

Ray: Just because it’s creative work doesn’t mean it has to be art. In fact, entertainment isn’t really artistic effort, it’s used to please, to cater. And yes, I’m rather a post modernist. I’m not even on the modern definition.

Moritheil: Well, I think Ray is right to bring up fanservice shows. You can’t really lump Ikkitousen in with Yume Tsukai on the intellectual level. One is just a fanservice vehicle with rather explicit sexual content; the other is a social commentary.

Mike: I think sometimes too when people say “art,” they really mean “high art,” or something that’s enduring and profound. Like the classic novels or films or such. I’m actually going for a lowest common denominator definition and I’m rejecting the usual popular definition of it.

Ray:But MIke, the era is too different. Today’s world doesn’t work that way. And we are contemporary people.

Moritheil: Let’s say “High Art” rather than “good art,” as a lot of advanced art (intellectually) can be aesthetically terrible.

Mike: I’m reminded of a famous quote from the jazz composer Duke Ellington. When he was asked what kind of music he liked, he said, “there’s only two kinds of music: good or bad.”

I think with fan service shows, we do have to keep in mind what its objective is: to titillate, mainly. So I certainly wouldn’t regard it in the same way as, say, Cowboy Bebop.

Ray: Look, aesthetically bad or titillating, art should produce an intellectual response, not emotional.

Moritheil: In fact, bringing my prior statement back to anime, I’d say a lot of fan service shows are very well done visually, and a lot of “deeper” shows are not necessarily as good-looking. Initial D is, on some level, a car fandom show, but it’s also a coming-of-age tale about what it means to be a man and how that relates to street racing. And 99% of the characters are really ugly. But the story was so great I didn’t mind that.

Ray: Its story was great? It was about racing! 100% racing! Most people didn’t even bother with the story!

Moritheil: Allowing for the fact that it was a racing story. I make allowances when I read something out of my normal genre preferences. I’m thinking, btw . . . about Iketani and the girl who wanted to sleep with him. That’s a genuine coming of age story. It doesn’t have to occur in a racing anime; it can show up anywhere. It’s about his utter confusion and inexperience which leads him to wreck a good thing. He doesn’t know what to trust. I think that’s a pretty universal human story.

Ray: But the lack of experience and intellectual level makes it something less than “art.”

Moritheil: Now I want to clarify something – when you say “intellectual level,” does this have to be cerebral? Or can it be simply a universal human experience that tells a poignant truth?

Ray: Well, what I learned in university was that art isn’t an emotional response, it’s an intellectual response. I guess if it reflects a certain truth, then the definition passes.

Mike: That’s an interesting definition. I was thinking that at least for me, my favorite works engaged both the head and the heart. Now I’ve known works that mostly are emotionally compelling without being too “intellectual” (Mai-Hime), and others which are mainly intellectual (Serial Experiments: Lain). But the best ones are like Kaiba, which is both really moving and really thought-provoking. Does that mean that Mai-Hime isn’t “art” by that definition?

Ray: No, it’s not, because it stimulates in a different way. It’s catering to the audience without provoking a thoughtful response, from most of them anyway.

Moritheil: Yume Tsukai has a story arc about genetics and the phenomenon of siblings raised separately running into each other as young adults, and the pain that causes them, as well as the potential disruption to society. This comes up with other works as well, like Koi Kaze. To me, social commentary is always “high art,” but it’s very much an emotional story as well as mentioning the clinical, biological aspect of it.

Ray: My thought is this: people watch anime for entertainment purposes only. Very few people come to expect deep story telling, intellectual stimulation, and other things. Most just want to be pleased. Art shouldn’t be about catering to a specific audience, imo. But anime does just that. It’s sheltered truth.

Moritheil: Well, I guess what I’m asking is, are you saying that some intellectual merit qualifies a show as art, or are you saying that any emotional content disqualifies a show? Is it okay to have a show that tries to get a point across even as it entertains and titillates? Is that art?

Ray: Porn is entertaining and titillating. Is porn art?

Moritheil: It’s interesting that you bring that up. The standard that the law uses, at least, is “artistic merit:” is there a point to it besides just showing people salacious material?

Mike: That’s a really good point, Mori. We even now have legal rulings that purport to judge things like “artistic merit.” Which begs the question–so on what standards do we judge that? I think the usual definition was that it had to serve some “socially redeeming purpose,” which is also vague, but I think it is ultimately about what the point is.

Ray: So the courts now become art critics?

Moritheil: Well, if we get endlessly recursive, we’ll never have a discussion about the base subject matter. I was trying to get a feel for Ray’s concept of what art should be. If we can use the legal standard, then permit me to say a few things.

There are shows that have almost no engagement on the intellectual level. It is these shows that Ray refers to, and whether they are a majority or a minority of anime I can’t really say. Nevetheless, there are shows that are almost useless without the ability to engage them on the intellectual level.

Ray: Anime started out with the prior, you know.

Moritheil: Melody of Oblivion is an incoherent, disjointed, abortive tale, unless you understand its references, in which case it becomes an epic tale that weaves together myths and ideas from many different cultures.

But I will go one step further: there are now even shows that work on both levels. Consider Bleach, which most people would file away as an obvious DBZ clone on some level: it is a fighting anime where people fight, power up, blow away the scenery, and fight more. Despite it appealing to the vast majority of its fanbase on its merits as a fighting anime, it is not without some sophisticated references to the Japanese concepts of “spiritual swordsmanship” and actual kendo training (which is, of course, training to become a better person. Simplistically put).

And now we come to an important issue: if I understand it as a commentary on Japanese society and the role of bushido in the modern era as opposed to in the era it originated, but my friend watches the show and goes “hahaha, Tsukkomi comedy,” and his friend watches and goes “whee, big explosions and fanservice!” who is right? Does my perception of it and appreciation of the artistic aspects of the show fall to the fact that most people probably aren’t reading that much into it? Or does the common way of viewing the show take precedence? Does it even need to be pigeonholed into one category?

Ray: Well, I don’t watch Bleach but whatever concept and historical element is most likely stretched paper-thin and fades into the background.

Since we’re using specific anime as examples, I’ll go with Strike Witches. Yes, the concept here is reaching out to the unknown and having understanding rather than fearing, despising, and fighting the unknown out of prejudice. But with the exploiting of girls (in short shorts) and the moe and loli-con like characters, that theme fades severely into the background. Most of the audience will not come to seek the deeper meaning of it. It is diluted.

What’s its merit? It caters to drooling, lonely guys who want to see cute things on TV. But whatever else is lost in the shuffle. How is that artistic? Why is it artistic? And since most anime simply caters and does not insisting on engaging intellectually, why not just leave it alone as entertainment only?

Mike: I think Ray has a point, actually, and I say this as someone who loves to analyze–it’s true that most anime is intended mainly as popular, mass entertainment. It’s not that popular, mass entertainment can’t have pleasures other than that of titillation or big explosions or what not. Some are smartly written and well-drawn, or the like. But I’m reminded of something Author, of ani-nouto blog, once wrote about some bloggers rapturously reviewing Toradora: “You’d think it was an adaptation of Dostoyevsky.” There can be a point where it’s easy to lose touch, I think, and that’s what is often behind the charge that things are being overanalyzed to a fault.

Moritheil: Would it be safe to say that this is your appreciation of the series, which may or may not be universal? This gets back to what I was asking – do the percentages matter? If 99% view it as fanservice and 1% as art, would you say it is not art? What about 70/30? 60/40? How can anyone draw such an arbitrary line? Or is it possible to say that to you, it is not artistic because it is presented in a way that destroys its artistic merit, but that does not mean it is not artistic at all and cannot be appreciated as such? Part of art is the subjective experience, so why should the experiences of others determine whether or not something is art to you? (This discussion is ignoring the meta-level, btw, which I think adds depth that we’ve been leaving alone.)

Ray: I thought popular opinions dominate in today’s world?

Mike: Well, if we want to talk about meta, there’s the whole “reader response” theory that I learned in English Lit, which is the idea that what the author intended for a work doesn’t really matter much compared to how the reader/viewer receives it. So an author may have intended to write a story that was supposed to be full of characterization and depth and all that, but if most people see it as a fan service show, that’s how it functions and that’s how it will end up being judged.

Ray: But shows like Strike Witches are service shows! It’s just so obvious!

Mike: And yes, in a way, with popular entertainment it’s going to be the case that a majority opinion will probably carry the day in the way a show gets received or remembered. Almost everyone is going to remember School Days as that show with a really violent and (to some) satisfying ending, and the idea of it being a huge subversion of the harem genre is going to be largely forgotten. And oh yeah, Nice Boats.

Moritheil: Economically, sure. But that has no bearing on an intellectual discussion of what is valid. You can say that as reviewers we will write for the most general audience possible, but consider the irony there: that itself panders to the common denominator and thereby goes against your approach to art.

Let me refine that statement: I don’t think that it’s wrong to say that for most people Strike Witches was not “high art.” But I also can’t agree with the idea that it’s impossible to have a subjective experience of it as high art.

Ray: Well, I’m NOT catering to the general audience, and we’re not talking about our writing here. And if we dwell on Strike Witches, then tell me, how do you experience it as high art?

Moritheil: I don’t necessarily experience it as high art myself, but, if pressed, I can point out that on a meta level it could be considered to be high art by someone familiar enough with the details. I don’t actually know those details for Strike Witches, so forgive me for shifting the target a bit, but I can tell you about Pretty Cure as art. Will that suffice?

Ray: High art? I’ve not seen it. I know the concept somewhat. It’s a show for kids but older otaku men watch it because it’s got pretty girls in it.

Moritheil: Pretty Cure is vapid. It’s a generic magical girl show devoid of originality. The show itself isn’t art in the sense that we’ve been discussing. But that is its genius, viewed from a meta level: it was an explosively successful show made out of dreck. The artists knew it, the staff knew it, everybody was in on the joke but the kids who bought the products. It even made fun of itself at points by being deliberately stereotypical.

I would say that the show, literally speaking, was not art, but the way the show was produced and sold and handled was artistic. And in fact that could be taken as a very piercing commentary on the state of the industry.

Mike: So yes, we have to be able to distinguish a relatively objective as well as subjective level. I can agree with that.

Anyways, here’s my closing statement: when talking about anime as art, we have to consider I think not just the intellectual level of things–though that’s important–but also the way it interacts with us as audience members. And that reaction is really a big part of doing reviews or criticism or analysis; it’s a way of being able to express why something is good or bad, why something works or doesn’t. I think this can be applied not just to the Kaibas or Lains of the world but even the Pretty Cures, and that is still a valid way of engaging anime (or any other popular media).

Ray: My bottom line is that the Otaku community (not general audience, nor the “anime community”) matters and when we say it’s not art, it’s not. Popular opinions (hell, we’re not even “popular”) have got nothing to do with it.

Also, considering the history of anime, only very few can be termed “art”, and therefore, based on the majority rules, overall, it’s not.

Moritheil: I’m going to respectfully disagree with the idea that art can be defined for us. Art is in the experience. It is true that in general if you want to have an artistic experience you go to a museum or read a classic literary work rather than wandering the streets late at night, but that is a consequence of the cultural designations that we have grown accustomed to. I don’t think it’s wrong to be skeptical when someone says Pretty Cure or Strike Witches could be taken as art – the odds are highly against it – but it’s not impossible either. And in that vein, is anime art? I think the best I can say is that it can be art. It doesn’t have to be art, but it doesn’t have to not be art either.

Author: gendomike

Michael lives in the Los Angeles area, and has been into anime since he saw Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1999. Some of his favorite shows include Full Metal Alchemist, Honey and Clover, and Welcome to the NHK!. Since 2003 he has gone to at least one anime convention every year. A public radio junkie, which naturally led to podcasting, he now holds a seminary degree and is looking to become Dr. Rev. Otaku Bible Man any day now. Michael can be reached at mike.huang@animediet.net. You can also find his Twitter account at @gendomike.

11 thoughts on “Face Off: Mike, Ray, and Mori Meta-tate on Anime and Art

  1. This is a familiar question  in the otakusphere. Is it worth asking, or does it distract us from actually watching and then discussing anime? I say this because my teachers wouldn’t expect me to argue that something was or wasn’t art — they’d say that I was missing the point. (I wouldn’t suggest that they’re the ultimate arbiters of what is and isn’t a worthwhile topic, of course, I just think they might be right on this one.)

    Do we find ourselves discussing this so often because fans of anime, like novel readers in the eighteenth century, feel that their entertainment is despised by the general population? And there’s a gap between their approach and the Studio Ghibli, art-film crowd? I liked jpmeyer’s recent point that ‘art’ is actually a genre of film, the kind of film that doesn’t make much money and is attended by a certain type of person. Just as ‘literary fiction’ is a genre of novel: it’s defined by not being genre fiction, by its lack of spaceships, wizards, detectives and spies, and it’s read by a certain kind of person.

    I’d also like to respectfully disagree with the idea that art cannot be defined for us. I think, like all words, it already partly is (feel free to put an ‘always’ in front of that ‘already’, if you really, really want to): ‘art’ carries certain connotations and value judgements that no individual or small group (such as anime fans) can change. Which may be another reason why we address this issue so often.

    (You can, of course, use ‘art’ to mean whatever you like, but no one will understand you: you will be developing a private language, which is perilously close to madness).

  2. IKnight – Thanks for the comment, but I think that is an oversimplification of my statements.  I don’t argue that the definition of art is completely without reason or value; rather I argue that even despite not being what our culture defines as “art,” some things can convey an artistic experience.  It is ultimately this experience that we should be concerned with.

    I think at best these broad categories are to be understood as statistically valid generalizations, not as absolute fact.  Someone says a shovel is a consumer product, not art, but then a Dadaist buys one and puts it on display as a commentary on the state of art.  Then it’s art.  So I caution the reader against leaving with the absolute, simplified concept that some things are always art, and some things are never art: it’s better to say “generally not” and “generally so.” 

    Ray brought up that the vast majority of anime is not, as you said, the Studio Ghibli sort, and in that context, I made the statement that even so, we should be careful to avoid the blanket statement that anime is categorically not art, because that implies that it is never art.  I think you agree with this on some level, because you acknowledge the existence of Ghibli and their sort of work as art.  I do go further than you in that I think it’s possible to have an artistic experience without relying on something that sceams, “Hey this is art” the way that Ghibli does.

    Your method of definition above (“Art is what everyone thinks of when they think of art”) is fine for economic or sociological purposes where a line must be drawn. Of course it would be madness to get into a discussion of “what is art” when your boss wants to know “how much money did people spend on art this year?” However it doesn’t work well for fundamental questions, just like the sociological definition of a Christian as someone who goes to a Christian church is okay for a census but far off the mark of the original theological concept, and useless in a theological discussion. When we honestly ask, “What is art, really,” I consider that a fundamental question and respond on that level.

  3. I like the idea of a taxonomy that allows for ‘art’ to be a subset of creative works. I’m sympathetic to the view that not every item of creation is art.

    There will be intentions and pretensions from both the creator and the responder (taking note of Mike’s reference to “reader response” theory).

    In the media business (inclusive of marketing and advertising), “Art Departments” were renamed as “Creative Departments,” with “Art Directors” being re-titled as “Creative Directors.”

    I’m sure the effort and dedication to the craft of making media inspires many of its participants (including its audience) to occasionally relate to it as art. However, I do feel that it is better for all involved not to begin with “I’m making art/they’re making art,” as opposed to “the finished work can <i>be</i> art” – without having to generalize for all works in the medium.

    I personally feel more comfortable establishing individual works in innumerable media as art/artistic rather than making definitive statements on how each medium itself is art.

  4. I’m not really good at this kinds of discussion, but, just a one-liner for myself: “Anime is art, no matter how you look at it.” That also includes manga, too.

    But to contrast (or maybe to add on to it) each and every story therein is a product of creative fiction. Yes, fiction. Well, what’s it all about?

    But anyway, we’re talking about art here, right? And not about what anime is all about.

    In a sense, I couldn’t agree more (at least for me) that Anime is absolutely art in its entirety. Hentai, anyone? LOL! For me, everything drawn is art. Regardless if whether the drawing sucks or not.

    I look at it in a perspective, in a way that it was drawn and also by its content which has been discussed here.

    To quip, moritheil with his Alien9 article talks about his negative impressions of the story, and how it was presented in such a way. It seems the story didn’t suit him with that one, but, that’s the art in it. Well for me, I did enjoyed the whole story of it and would want to re-watch the anime again.

    Yet, then again, its just me on how I view things in such a way. 🙂

  5. ghostlightning – Interesting.  That’s certainly a way of addressing the problem of categorizing anime as art or not-art.

    rollchan – I really think it’s okay to say that.  Which is what my lengthy explanations above boil down to.

  6. Let’s look at the dictionary’s definition of art: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarly for their beauty or emotional power (from The New Oxford American Dictionary).

    Anime (and manga) are born through creative skill and imagination, even the most banal porn product is, now matter how little of the aforementioned qualities are required.
    Anime (and manga) are visual forms of expression.
    Lastly, if art is to elicit emotion, you can see that anime (and manga) aim to do just that.

    I can’t help but conclude that yes, anime – and manga – definitely are Art.

  7. Arg.

    This kind of discussion is painful, because it’s just a battle of opinions. When a definition is treated as arbitrary, a debate focused on it is just redundant.

    My opinion? Anime’s just a form of media created with the intention of appealing to an audience in some form. AKA : art.

    It’s not like a painting has to have a backstory, characters and plot devices to be art. The same goes with music. So why not animation?

    *Shrug*. It’s difficult to argue with an opinion.

    Also, if it matters, I’m now having trouble posting here using the Opera browser, which is frustrating.

  8. @Maddy – Please see my comments to IKnight above, which address the issue of blindly applying an outsider’s concept of what art is, and attempt to explain the artist’s struggle over defining art.

    @CriticalDesign – My colleague’s assertion about normative definitions being socially correct notwithstanding, these are not merely opinions. Because the artistic experience is in the mind, how we think of art is crucial to our appreciation of it.

    Also, I’m sorry you’re having trouble. I’ll see if we can look into conflicts with Opera.

  9. “how we think of art is crucial to our appreciation of it”
    I’m pretty sure that describes an opinion, unless you’re willing to re-word it for my gorilla mind.
    From re-reading the discussion, I can’t get the idea of personal opinion out of it. Then there is the neutral comment of “well, it’s art if you see it that way but it isn’t if you don’t”. And why do we keep separating art from entertainment as if entertaining media isn’t art in itself?

    “My bottom line is that the Otaku community (not general audience, nor the “anime community”) matters and when we say it’s not art, it’s not. Popular opinions (hell, we’re not even “popular”) have got nothing to do with it.”

    So uh, the otaku community says it’s not art, it’s a popular opinion. So yeah, popular opinions /do/ have something to do with “it”…?

  10. CriticalDesign – Well, it’s a subjective experience.  An individual experience may be subjective, but the separate act of talking about a broad category of experiences doesn’t have to be.  It has been statistically shown, for example, that context modifies subjective experiences.  Such a statement is objective.

    As for Ray’s line, I’ll let him clarify that himself.

  11. I agree with Moritheil’s views on this, to an extent.  While I will concede that not all anime can be called art(depending upon the viewer and his interpretation of the anime), I think it is upto the viewer and what he gleans from the anime and in my opinion, classifying anime as non-art altogether is the equivalent of classifying other visual media such as film as non-art as well. I also believe that shunning the approach of art from an emotional perspective is wrong and that basing it solely upon an intellectual reaction is ineffective in distinguising anime as art or non-art. I think art is influenced to a certain degree by the emotional reaction it elicits from the viewer. If you are restricting the definition of art by saying it is only that which causes an intellectual reaction, then isn’t that a narrower definition that you are presenting, in the sense, that you have said that it is inappropriate to be judging art based on an emotional impact. What if the emotional impact of an anime causes the viewer to think and survey certain aspects of life or the nature of the emotions themselves? Would that be considered a valid intellectual reaction?

    I personally hold that this question does not have a clear yes or no. It is often subjective, in my opinion and what I may have found to be art in an anime, you might not have.

    Thanks for letting me comment. I find this website interesting and look forward to spending more time on it. 🙂

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