Some reviews are just terrible. We all want to be polite, to others and ourselves, when we think about how other people present their opinions. But be honest with yourself: you’ve read, or at least glanced over, some truly terrible reviews.
Most of the criticism I’ve read where I’ve had that impression do in fact hold viewpoints/conclusions I agree with. Likewise, some of my favourite reviews I’ve read have been ones I’ve disagreed with but have argued their criticism in a way that challenges my own, making for an engaging read that lasts beyond the like button.
Argued is the key word here. The art of criticism is the same as that of persuasion, of rhetoric. If you just want to put your opinions online for people to read – if you’re the kind of person who emphasises that it’s ‘just an opinion’ – you’re not reaching for criticism per se; you’re just aimlessly venting, and usually making a much worse case for your views than if you spent some time expressing them more convincingly. A terrible review is not one that you completely disagree with (though you might want call that a terrible opinion), but one that fails to make any kind of persuasive case for the opinion(s) it holds.
Persuasion is not about making someone change their mind, but making them begin to think that ‘their mind’ is imperfect – they’ll respond by coming over to your side or fortifying their own, or somewhere between the two. Either way, you’ll have done a good job as a critic by making people think about what they watch more.
It helps that there are common habits of anime reviewers online that, from what I’ve read, hold them back from effective criticism. These are listed below, in seven key steps you can take to ensure your reviews are terrible as well:
Step 1: Base your argument on subjective observations
“The main problem with the show is that X is just an annoying character, which is plain for anyone to see.”
Trying to convince a reader that a character is good/lovable/relatable or bad/irritating/useless by design is a lot harder than a lot of reviewers seem to realise. Often a critic will cite an example or two of subjective traits they possess (they’re nice/horrible to people, for instance) and then judge those as outright ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in order to explain why they found them awesome/annoying and you should too. Christ wasn’t speaking of this when he spoke of ‘building your house on the sand’, but the parallel is apt.
Not laughing at a comic character yourself doesn’t give you grounds to call them a ‘bad’ character. It gives you a window to explore why you had the impression you had: the objective facts of the show’s design, which extend from what happens, what we see and what characters say into how those ‘facts’ of the story as concretely as possible relate to each other. You can get a much more convincing judgement of a character if you note how they contradict themselves or their established nature than if you just take an abstract element of them and judge it for inherent quality, as so many people do. In the right situation, everything can be enjoyable.
The longer you interrogate them in the context of the whole show, the more subjective your views will have to become, but as long as you cling as much as possible to the facts of the story, you can have a much more solid foundation.
But many reviews don’t do this because of an aspect of reviewing that is often erroneously desired:
Step 2: Forcibly Make it Spoiler-Free
“Welcome to my full, in-depth, spoiler-free review!”
A ‘why you should/n’t watch this’ review is vastly different to a fully critical review. Why? Because one is not completely centred on the quality of the show. The former uses the critics impressions of the show and ties that to their incredibly subjective judgements on what people ‘should’ be watching to advise people about what they’ll likely find ‘good’ and ‘bad’ if they watch it themselves. Even if its against watching the show, it’ll make sure the reader can still ‘enjoy it to the fullest’ (which never happens anyway).
Full criticism of a show is for people who have watched it, have their own view of it and can have everything they just watched analysed. It has to be no-holds-barred in order to have a chance of being convincing. But many critics will give themselves the struggle of wanting to convince people of their opinion while trying to avoid offending anyone who hasn’t seen the show yet. It won’t work. Pick a goal and stick to it.
You can end up with a spoiler-free review that goes as in-depth as you can manage, but the lack of spoilers should never be the goal of a review that wants to sufficiently test or ‘prove’ interpretations of a show. If you want to give a definitive analysis of something in what you’ve watched, you need those aforementioned objective facts of the show to hand. All of them.
Step 3: Casually insult the opposition
“People who don’t find X unbearable must be the otakus the show always panders to, who really should have better things to fap to anyway.”
We looked above at reviews that hold back on the criticism for the sake of just giving advice on whether to watch something or not. Those have their place (and the more they hold back from thinking they’re being critical, the better). Reviews that become direct attacks against certain target markets or common opinions, however, don’t.
Your objective as a critic is to find as absolute an impression of something as possible, or expound upon multiple possible impressions and weigh up their different merits, and convince the reader of the case you make. This never works if you treat the alternative to your viewpoint as some kind of garbage. Respecting that people will like something you don’t, even if you can’t see from analysing those objective facts of the show how anyone who notices them and puts them together in a natural way can enjoy/support/care about it, will pay dividends in how much more convincing you become, and how much more you allow yourself to be challenged fairly.
Making your review snarky and fun to read for snarky people supporting your opinion is an exercise in looking for gratification, not insight. You also look like a moron.
Step 4: Put yourself on a pedestal
“As someone with 25 years of experience in that field, I can certainly say that it isn’t realistic. I don’t need to say anything else.”
There’s never any point saying something like the above, and it only detracts from the strength of your criticism. If you’re reviewing authenticity of setting, dynamics, even characters, you need to relate their objective facts to some facts about reality that the reader can access from themselves. Even 40-something academics with a lifetime of study into something continue to solidify all their impressions with reference to referenceable content, not justifications that hide behind the page or screen.
Your experience of ‘reality’ isn’t evidence for anything. Most of all, you can’t say ‘people aren’t like that’ unless you’re the God who made them – and he doesn’t have a internet connection. Present your research, not a life story you expect people to believe.
But even when you do that, many fall into a worse trap:
Step 5: Treat lack of accuracy/realism as inherently negative
“X is simply terrible because in reality, the subject matter doesn’t work like it does in the anime.”
Often in a show you will find some kind of realism and some kind of idealism. Batman has an arsenal and skills we could only dream of, and often fights villains who are hyperboles of evil in our modern world. But in his fights he faces the dilemmas we do, displays the emotions we feel, and he gets stronger after he gets knocked down just like we can. Most superhero movies work like this, presenting idealistic power, opportunities and situations that reinforce the inherent struggles of the human condition through realistic emotional conflict.
Why does no-one care that Batman’s weaponry – in Gotham’s gritty, ‘realistic’ current incarnation – can’t be made in our world, and yet hiss at shows like Shirobako for being an inaccurate portrayal of the anime industry? I didn’t realise we all watched Kuroko no Basket to learn how to play basketball.
Almost all stories will in fact warp, enlarge or shrink reality in a mundane context (the laws of physics, what actually exists, how things operate) in order to heighten the realistic portrayal of the things we actually come to stories for – characters, conflicts and of concepts we’re naturally familiar with and relate to stories through. Its those aspects of anime we should be talking about the most when reviewing.
Your criticism leaves its goal wide open if you jump straight from spotting an inaccuracy to a judgement of quality. Take a moment to work out why there’s an inaccuracy, not believing you can judge intent from the surface, prioritising what matters most for the average viewer, and you might find that you’re putting too much attention on it and the story is actually directing you to what the inaccuracy is serving. Stories decide themselves what’s most important in them and work to communicate that to you. Sometimes they fail – but that’s just another thing you can properly criticise.
Step 6: Treat authorial intent as a religion
“After extensively examining the writer’s views on Twitter, I can now tell that he’s been trying to preach them all throughout the show. I’ll have to change my MAL score from a 9 to a solid 5, and that’s being generous.”
Bringing in another set of objective facts or subjective impressions of something other than what’s in show into your analysis of an anime and measuring the show against them kills any chance you have of staying focused on what you’re actually reviewing. If you really want to compare the show to what you’re read/seen/heard regarding what the writer might have wanted to make, argue or question through their work, do it the other way around. What does the show, as isolated as you can make it, give you the impression of? Do the objective facts of the show make it possible to get an impression that lines up with what the author has said they want? How possible?
Whether it’s a small project or the next Harry Twilight and the Lord of the Hunger Games, the best environment to experience art is is on its own terms, as much as possible. If a writer has put a message in a show successfully, you’ll get it from their work, not from their Twitter feed.
Furthermore, treating failure of intent as failure of design is also boring and stupid. A show can still be incredibly entertaining, even more so, if the author hasn’t communicated or constructed the way they ‘wanted to’. GATE was a great example of this, with everyone caring far more about the nationalism of the show than it’s character design which, if they had looked at it longer, often explicitly challenged the impression of jingoism the fictional JSDF gave at first.
With that still in mind:
Step 7: Treat source material as a God incarnate
“Even though it wasn’t bad, it was wayyyyyyy better in the manga.”
This is perhaps the most entrenched and irritating issue of a lot of online anime criticism; the failure to consider how much experiencing a narrative in one form affects your experience of it a second time.
The mind is naturally drawn to what it likes and/or finds easy to grasp (basic psychology), so when watching an anime adaptation you’ll be subconsciously looking for whatever you liked from the manga/LN. This means you’ll be instinctively less interested in the new touches the adaptation has brought to the story and, especially if you’ve been following the previous steps carefully, you’ll end up saying a lot of rubbish about what was changed or got rid of and how angry that made you and how that makes it a ‘bad’ adaptation because a ‘good’ adaptation would give you an exact replica of everything you felt from the manga, or even more.
With such an approach, you’ll never get as much, or more, from an adaptation. You need to treat the new version as a separate work by considering any changes foremost in reference to the rest of the anime. Adaptations aren’t made for manga readers anyway – they’re to push the sales of the manga, which means the target audience is primarily people new to the story. Also, while you can know how you feel when something is changed, you can’t tell in the middle of an episode/series whether a change is ultimately for better or worse until you’ve seen everything of the new version.
Eventually you can make intricate judgements comparing the old to the new in the many complex ways that adaptations, much like translations, offer the critic. But you must also, at that point, acknowledge that you’ve delving into criticism of both. You now need to convince the reader that your views on both the original are well-founded as well. Many reviewers that bring the source into their discussion don’t even consider doing this; they treat the manga/LN as inherently superior simply because it came first.
Bonus points if you:
- Use the term ‘flat character’ without knowing where it came from, or how outdated it is.
- Consider any important moment you didn’t find engaging as ‘forced drama’, misusing the already awful phrase.
- Forget that structure is a thing and think you can just vomit your thoughts onto the page and they’ll all make sense to the reader.
- Review each aspect of the show’s design (‘story’, ‘characters’, ‘art’, ‘music’, etc.) separately like they have no impact on each other.
- Use another show as a measuring rod during your review in order to illustrate your criticism without offering sufficient criticism of the measuring rod to make the comparison justified.
- Give a show a ‘seven out of ten’ after explaining in your review how much you can’t say its good and can’t say it’s bad (in that case, the remaining three out of ten is for you as a reviewer).
Now you should be all set to participate in the generic and incredibly flawed ‘reviewing’ style that is often celebrated on sites like MAL, Reddit, and unfortunately many blogs. Or, take each step as something to avoid, as I do whenever I comment on the quality of anime I care about, and you can rise above the common ruckus of opinionated people on the internet and do more than just vent words onto a screen. I’m not even that good at convincing people myself yet, but I’m always making progress, and always wanting to make progress, in learning how to effectively review any work of art, and bearing these things in mind helps to stop them seeping into what could otherwise be incredibly useful criticism.
Thanks for reading!
(this kind of post is something I'll be doing more of in the future, though this isn't the feature that'll alternate with Christianime on Sundays)
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