Mayoiga is easily the most-discussed show of the season. Yet, some people want to close down those discussions, arguing that no show that’s ‘badly written’ can be anything but bad, and nothing further than that. But is this right?
Mayoiga definitely doesn’t take itself seriously, and in doing so it opens itself up to the perspective of postmodern art, and offers a good demonstration of how we approach anime as art, and the pitfalls of having too rigid assumptions of value.
A week ago I attended an art exhibition at the Ruskin School of Art, for students taking preliminaries in their Fine Art degree to show of their year’s work. As expected, the show was packed full of weird and provocative uses of common objects, images and forms re-invented in order to engage their audience in questioning their design and purpose. There were no large landscape watercolours, no statues of attractive Greek men. We had strange displays of clutter and oddly-wrought installations. A number of the pieces were things I didn’t feel engaged with. I felt like they were part of some larger ongoing narrative of the exploration of an idea and because I wasn’t up to date with that, I couldn’t digest the significance of this thing being there and that thing being next to it. But all these students will be passing this exhibit-slash-exam, and so there’s definitely some things I’ll want to return to, the more I come to understand art, to see if I can decode some of the projects.
One of the pieces I was able to engage with fully, and to amazing pleasure, was an example of a technique that dominates a lot of modernist and postmodernist projects: failure. The comedy that results from something being dodgy in its construction in way that makes it or you ‘fail’ in some way, and makes you realise that, and why that’s, in a light-hearted way, siginificant. This exhibit was a bunch of symbols given letters on a wall – instructions for how to decode a message written in them, and, next to a white bin filled with white paper shreddings, three piles of cards with these symbols on and a note next to them saying ‘please take one’.
So my friend and I took one. We looked at it, and worked out what the shapes were and what letters they meant from the coding sheet. And then we read what we had picked up. ‘Zilch’.
And I remarked immediately to my friend ‘We’ve failed!’ And laughed. And he asked, why? And I said, ‘We were told to take one, and we took nothing!’
Small round of applause I guess. Had that been it, it would have been a nice little joke, nothing more. But after finding this one saying ‘zilch’, we felt like we had to see if they all said some kind of ‘nothing’ on them. So we picked up another one. But we couldn’t decipher this one very well – all it seemed to say was ‘gav’. But quickly again I started to laugh, and remarked to my friend, ‘We’ve failed again!’
Why? he said. ‘Because we were told to take one. We’ve now taken two!’
And the bin of paper shavings now makes sense. The piece is questioning with us, through how we end up interacting with it (and we watched most people do exactly as we did), how our society consumes things. We’re told to ‘take one’ but when each of those ‘ones’ looks different, we only want to go through them all.
And all this work of art was composed of was what I described earlier on. It’s no Mona Lisa. But the amount of pleasure my friend and I got from it was immense, and that pleasure worked directly in line with the symbolism the artist was using in their installation, so we could be sure that pleasure was ‘part’ of the work and not just some odd thing we got from it at random. After all, we had to remark about it one last time as we left: we realized, ‘It asked us to take one. And we took two. And then we put them back, and ended up taking nothing.’
End story. Why do I bring that up? Because I think Mayoiga is about as wrought as that piece in that exhibition. It’s the sort of thing where the artist has laid out very crude designs, and the pleasure people get from it is not like what we get usually from mainstream ‘art’ (which most anime marches to the tune of) – we’re not looking at the Mona Lisa here and remarking how much depth there is in her smile. Each of those individual pieces of paper had so little ‘depth’ to them as artifacts, in the same way Mayoiga is laid out as a bunch of characters who have so little ‘depth’ in the colloquial usage themselves.
So why are people enjoying it? The argument that ‘it’s a comedy’ has been lost on many people who argue ‘if I haven’t laughed, it’s not a comedy’. But that’s really not the right kind of thinking. We need to think ‘why do we laugh at comedy in the first place?’ And Mayoiga is making people question that – though some refuse to want to engage with that debate, a lot of people are opening their eyes to how much they can ‘enjoy’ something without it being ‘well-written’.
Why are newspaper cartoons good, then? Well, they usually have a written form of joke. But the characters are always so poorly rendered. When we approach a satirical cartoon, lampooning a politician or a hundred, the figure we have in front of us is about as crudely wrought as a character from Mayoiga. But again, we tend to find that funny mainly because they say something in satire. But think: would the satirical cartoon have as much sway if it was drawn like the Mona Lisa?
No. Crudeness engenders subversion. That’s why a tragedy always falls apart when its characters aren’t ‘believable’. But comedy doesn’t. Throughout history there have been many kinds of comedy where sloppiness of design facilitates the ease and subversive gaze of the audience – and the gaze is essential. There’s a reason we get ‘into’ laughing in a good comedy and don’t stop. The story makes us have a sideways look at everything. And those that allowed Mayoiga to tilt their perspective have been finding it funny; I think those who have resisted that tilting are the ones who haven’t been. And they’ve resisted because they see sloppiness as something to be serious about online. ‘I’m a critic,’ they say, ‘and therefore I must discern good and bad writing where I see it.’ And what they miss is that this writing, without them taking that sideways look, is only going to be a mess. But if they enter into the bizarre-ness of the show themselves, it becomes a pleasurable mess. If someone didn’t engage with that display of the pieces of paper, they’d just see it as a bunch of clutter. Plenty of people pass postmodern exhibits and argue it’s ‘bad art’ when they haven’t engendered the essential experience that is art – the interaction with the work, and humbly letting the work tell them how it wants to be seen and trying that out and seeing if it’s fun.
There are so, so many more examples of what Mayoiga is doing this season in art. The composer PDQ Bach has created, to critical acclaim, purely musical comedy in the Classical style. It’s hard to appreciate it enough without familiarity with Classical music though; you don’t tend to understand what’s being faulted, and so you don’t get the signals to see things ‘sideways’ and find them funny, just like if you were told a political joke and didn’t know the politician. One scholar, Hockett, has noted in a grand paper of ‘Jokes’ (1977) how there are two different kinds. ‘Poetic jokes’ rely on word-play and are always understandable and as funny as they should be as long as you know the language. ‘Prosaic jokes’, on the other hand, require an outside depth of knowledge being brought into the joke in order to find it funny. Go on /r/jokes and see how many would be funny if you didn’t have a context with which to define them.
The best comparison to Mayoiga I can think of from literary history is something from the dark depths of Surrealism. Alfred Jarry once wrote a play called ‘Ubu Roi’ (‘King Shit’), and after a bizarrely-dressed figure holding a toilet plunger arrived on stage and yelled the first word of the play, ‘shit’, there was rioting for fifteen minutes before the play could resume. There was far more rioting after the whole thing was done.
The play is hilarious if you take a sideways look at theatre with Jarry, but so many of his critics wanted to take the play ‘seriously’, and wanted the characters to be ‘realistic’, ‘well-written’ and for them to uphold their prejudices for what made ‘good theatre’. Not holding a toilet brush and swearing by talking about snot. We have kid’s cartoons like that nowadays, but this was for a fully adult audience. What’s amazing, and what Jarry obviously intended, was that the rioting became part of the play itself. It was never staged again. Now, scripted into the biographia of his performance are fifteen minutes of chaos in the audience. And how are they any different to the riot of a play he put on for them?
The context that defines Mayoiga’s jokes is this acceptance that ‘faults’ in art, like the faultiness of Jarry’s play, can be a boon; the ‘poetic joke’ side of the show is how crude and crazy, like a newspaper cartoon, its characters act and behave. I don’t think MS Paint Adventures would be as funny as it is if it was rendered in 3-D with the graphics of Skyrim. Would you? But if you are demanding that Mayoiga’s characters be as ‘developed’ as in any other story, you’re effectively demanding that.
Am I enjoying Mayoiga? Actually, no. After all this is said, I’m not a fan of it. I really think the project would work better in another art form or with another design at the helm – I think part of the problem is because these characters are drawn as in any average anime, we get the same strict demands of audiences for them to be as ‘developed’. Imagine if the cast was drawn like the cast of Space Patrol Luluco – wouldn’t we more readily ‘unhinge’ our perspective and, through engaging with the show and what it might be saying about stories it’s emulating, come to enjoy it more?
I’m not enjoying Mayoiga, but I’m enjoying the reaction to it a lot, and that’s what makes up so much of the story’s overall ‘depth’. Oscar Wilde once noted that ‘when critics disagree, the artist is in accord with themselves’. And we know the kind of shoddy characters Wilde sometimes put on the stage. A more modern critic of theatre, Peter Brook, has one ‘acid test’ for this sort of thing – after the performance, what remains? Real theatre leaves an impression that feels vital to its audience. The fact that Okada has helped in writing a show to be ‘intentionally bad’, and that we have a division between those who want to open up a discussion on the art of doing that, and those whose only rhetoric is ‘yes but it’s still bad’ and the semantics to that effect, is a success. Any comment that says ‘something intentionally bad is still bad’ hand-waves away the very idea of discussing a work.
If you don’t want to discuss Mayoiga, fair enough. But don’t use that as an argument for thinking that no-one should be discussing it. It’s like telling me not to engage with those odd pieces of paper in the Ruskin show, when you just walked past it, judged it as ‘bad art’ because of how crude it looks, asking where the Mona Lisa can be found.