Attack On The Flowers of Originality

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So, Aku no Hana. And it’s art style.

It’s unique art style.

The two major camps in the reactions to it, seem to be divided as either “it’s great that something is challenging the sameness of anime, and everyone who hates this is a moefag” or “This one is not just different or artistically ugly, but badly executed, so we are hating it anyways”

I’m going to ignore that second defense now, since I neither know, nor care enough about the details of animation technology to decide whether Aku no Hana is “objectively bad”. Let’s just talk more about the first problem, whether or not we need more originality in animation styles, than what we usually have nowadays.

Two seasons ago, I wrote a pair of posts about originality and clichés, shown through the first episodes of Zetsuen no Tempest, and K. Using K as an example of a show that is trying so hard at surprising us with the “macro-innovation” of an unrecognizeable genre, plot, and setting, that really it just feels rootless and unpleasantly alien, while Zetsuen no Tempest is comfortably setting up a tale as old as time, about love and revenge and saving the world, that felt comfortably familiar, while it had enough “micro-innovation” in it’s execution to still feel exciting.

While I said this about writing and narratives, this time, I think most of the same points applies to animation styles as well: Much of the confusion that we have about whether or not we need to respect Aku no Hana’s direction, boils down to whether or not we need macro-innovation of anime, that is, entirely flipping the table and producing something never seen before, or we should be content with minor twists inside the established basics of the anime style.

Even though that latter probably isn’t brought up often enough. Listening to some of Aku no Hana’s supporters, you would believe that every anime between this and Mushishi looked exactly the same.

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Pictured: “the anime style” in 2012

Which is, of course, a big oversimplification. Fujoshi shows look different from slice-of-life moe shows. Shonen fighters look different from melodramatic romances. And then we have the actual quirky innovation, like KyoAni’s excessive production values put into shows like Nichijou and Hyouka, or Shaft’s surrealism, or Jinrui‘s watercolor style, or Shingeki no Kyojin‘s surprisingly thick outlines for a high budget show. These are all examples of micro-innovation, used to guarantee that all anime doesn’t look exactly the same.

The problem with praising Aku no Hana’s style as an Original one, is that it’s overstating the importance of macro-innovation against the gradual changes that make most other anime interesting. Looking at the above picture, you can find certain similarities between all these styles.  But these are all the most fundamental, reasonably expected demands of appealing charcter art, the cornerstones of character design, that people find appealing. Just as you could find vague similarities in their narrative tropes, but those are the cornerstones of what themes can interest viewers.

Of course, Aku no Hana is not trying to be appealing. Just like the original Flowers of Evil, it’s intentionally trying to be alienating, strange, ugly. And that’s fine. there are always some artists who are trying to make a point against the entire world. I guess they are important, in some abstract sense, but exactly because they are criticizing the entire system, they will never actually be constructive. People will watch Aku no Hana, like it or hate it, and then go back to watching” normal anime”. They are are not ging to change their minds, and decide that from now on cute is ugly and ugly is cute, or that they don’t like the “anime style”‘s paradigms at all. Because if that would be the case, they wouldn’t be anime fans in the first place.

Only micro-innovation can change that, with subtle changes over a long time.

K, and the dangers of originality

It is common, both in the anime fandom, and in other media fandoms, to use phrases such as “originality”, “innovation”,  as synonyms of “good”, while dismissing all “formula”, and “trope” and “cliché” as signs of being bad.

Then again, it is also common, to argue against that, and claim that there is nothing truly original in the world, and it is the execution that matters, not that it is comparable to the things before it. In my experience, that argument usually takes a back seat, and normally only brought up as an excuse for why the speaker’s favorite show still happens to take place in a high school, or involve a mysterious girl dropping into a boy’s life.  But in principle, we all seem to agree, that the more innovation the better, and the more clichés the worse. So what’s behind this?

The way I see it, we all like to be surprised by the stories that we watch, but at the same time, to be surprising, every story needs to build from pre-existing expectations. We sometimes dismiss a show like Accel World or Sankarea with the claim that they are unoriginal, because they are so predictably following their genre conventions, that  you can pretty much tell how the characters will behave based on their hair color, and when starting an episode, have the unshakable feeling that the last scene will end with the protagonist shouting “Eeeehh???” while a girl moves in with him. They fail at surprising you so spectacularly, that you might as well be watching another show for the second or third time, and that would be just as exciting.

Then we have a show like K. Everyone can see that it’s original, even the first few scenes tell that much:

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Judging an anime by it’s cover

Welcome, to the summer season! I will describe my experiences with the shows in detail after their third episodes, because I realized that writing “first impressions” after a single episode would be redundantly similar to my season preview, with barely anything more than guesses and hopes about their actual content. But there are already two shows, that proved to be noticeably different from what you could expect based on their promo picture. Unsurprisingly,  the rest of the internet didn’t notice this, and blindly tailored their later experiences to their initial assumptions. Thus, it is left to me to point out the obvious, and expose that people are being wrong on the Internet. Fortunately, the two cases follow the same logic, so I can explain them in one post:

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It’s all in the presentation!

One of the things that amazes me about anime genres, is how precisely you can gauge a show’s content, solely from the art style. The character designs, the scenery style, the amounts of CG, the dominant color themes, are all used together so predictably in setting the atmosphere, that often, a glance at the season preview charts with the promo arts is enough to decide which shows I am interested in, even before reading the title or the synopsis.

Everything from detailed clouds painted on the blue sky giving a melancholic summer atmosphere, to eye colors matcing the hair colors, that makes the characters more artificial, has it’s intended place. And that’s a really nice thing, even if in some unfortunante cases, it might happen a the cost of making the show all the more predictable. For example, if you look at the cast, and think “Oh, I bet that petite, short blue haired girl in front of the mecha will turn out to be a stoic outsider, with a sad backstory of why she is so emotionless”, and you turn out to be right, then the show fails to be interesting.

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My opinion about everything

Just one more of these introduction posts. Isn’t it annoying, when you meet someone on the Internet, whose taste in anime you find interesting, but when you check out their list of all watched shows, there are one or two random anomalies that you can’t explain? Then you can either hope that they will post a review about the show in the future, or directly ask them, that might make you sound like a rabid fanboy (“Hey, how is it possible that you didn’t like my favourite show? Explain yourself!”).

To avoid this, I will now list a very quick, 1-2 sentence opinion about everything that I ever watched. Fortunately, it isn’t all that long. It’s in alphabetic order, with sequels included in the first season’s description:
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