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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.

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