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.

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What makes Japanese cartoons “anime”?

What is anime? All animation from Japan? All animation of a certain style? Then what about Japanese animation outside of that style? What about the international productions?  An old debate, that is surprisingly common in more ad-hoc anime viewer groups; youtube comments, gamer forum threads, and personal discussions,  and rarer in the blogosphare, on anime-themed sites, and in other groups self-identifying as the “academic” opinion leaders of otaku culture.

Maybe it’s because the latter doesn’t want to deal with something that is seen as the petty whining of obsessive-compulsive categorizers. Or maybe because after a certain amount of anime watched, the borderline cases will start to appear more and more clearly fitting into one group anyways.

It’s easy to believe that Avatar or Teen Titans are exactly like anime, when all the “other anime” that you have watched, is limited to Death Note, Naruto, and Elfen Lied. Then as your MAL is growing several hundred titles long, you will start to detect hundreds of little differences between them that you might not even consciously notice or at least you couldn’t describe, like the different emphasis on lip-synching, the details of background scenery or in shadow effects, and the exact way faces are drawn. (beyond just “small noses and big eyes” (Because seriously,that’s about the most generic description you could give for pretty much every cartoon ever)).

And then the plot starts, and it’s even more obvious that there are plenty of fundamental differences between how a western and a Japanese writer would think about storytelling. Even when they are actively trying to imitate each other.

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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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The culture that made anime into what it is

In many ways, anime is fundamentally different from all western media. Not just as the result of current business models, or recent trends, but also due to some deeply rooted traits of Japanese mentality.

Japan is pretty unique that way, with it’s mass media that is comparable to ours in it’s scope, but still very foreign in it’s execution. Most other countries that are similarly foreign to us, are either too poor, or too oppressed to have large media, while the sufficiently wealthy and free countries are being assimilated into the monlithic, globalized “western culture” that makes them almost identical to us. But for various reasons that I will not discuss here, Japan managed to both reach modern lifestyle, and to maintain exceptional amounts of it’s foreignness.

Trying to understand these cultural differences between Japan and the West, can be useful not just for making detached philosophical observations about art, (like realizing that values that we considered normal are just our arbitary local customs), but also for understanding the daily events of the anime industry. Why did this show tank at the sales? Why did that show get a second season?

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Never Live It Down

On TVTropes, the page Never Live It Down is about an audience reaction, when fans are so obsessed with one particular scene with a character, that they will ignore everything else that the character ever did, and start thinking of them as a one-gag character instead. It’s kind of like a meme, except that often there is no specific quotable content that gets spread, just a general attitude. And it isn’t treated like a meme either, since people aren’t intentionally spreading it just to make an easy joke at the character’s expense, but actually seem to believe in it. For example, when Ouma Shu is seriously described as “a whiny kid like Ikari Shinji”, it’s likely that those people are honestly only remembering the last few episodes of Evangelion, when after lots of fighting, and many good reasons for an emotional breakdown, Shinji finally broke down, and filling in the blanks that thy can’t remember to, with those few scenes.

In the past days, there were two different news, that’s discussions in the fandom made me think of that as an analogy: First, the last week was the prime time for posting Spring Season previews in the blogosphere, and the Key Visual Arts VN Little Busters was announced to be getting an anime. The former discussion included Hyouka, an upcoming novel adaptation by KyoAni,  and the latter warranted speculations that it might also  be made by KyoAni. Here is one particularly noticeable theme that went through both discussions. (paraphrased):

“KyoAni? K-on! Moe Moe! K-on??!! Moeblob!!!! Moemoe… K-on!  Is KyoAni the Moe of all K-on?  Moe meets K-on! Moeblob k-on moe.”

Oh, and there was also some discussion of the concern that these shows might end up being too moe, and resembling K-on, but you get the idea.

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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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