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.

The Genre Ghetto

In TVTropes slang, “ghetto” stands for the attitude that a certain content type should stay limited to the narrowly defined pigeonholes that it’s critics made up. For example, the common western attitude that all animation should be made for kids, is the Animation Age Ghetto, or the common expectation that female-targeted shows are strictly for women only, is the Girl Show Ghetto.

These ghettos can even manifest themselves literally as closed-off areas where these stereotypically “inferior” stories can be rounded up and separated from “proper” entertainment, such as libraries sending all manga down to the children’s library, or separating everything all speculative fiction on a sci-fi/fantasy bookshelf, outside of everything else’s alphabetic order.

That latter one, the sci-fi ghetto, gets some of the most interestingly illogical reactions. While by now there are so many mainstream, popular, and even artistically acknowledged sci-fi stories, that you would expect it’s critics to just give up, that’s where prejudice shows it’s stubbornness: Instead of just admitting that, say, 1984 is an intelligent sci-fi novel, therefore sci-fi can be intelligent, the truly prejudiced can still think like this:

“Oh, sci-fi is that silly Star Trek-thing where spaceships shoot lasers at each other, and men wear pajamas, so if 1984 has none of that, it’s not really sci-fi, it’s Proper Literature”

And that’s not even an exaggeration. Critics, and even authors, have really argued that their works are not really fantasy or sci-fi, if they don’t fit into the crudest stereotypes of these genres. Just how arrogant you have to be, to redefine an entire genre according to your own admittedly limited familiarity with it, while dismissing the established definition made by it’s actual audience?  As anime fans, you might be directly familiar with that kind of attitude. While most of the above preconceptions are limited to the hilariously ignorant and old-fashioned mainstream, in case of anime, even our fellow fandoms and nerds and enthusiasts, who are protesting the same prejudices themselves, might think and speak like this:

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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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Summer season preview and thoughts

I’m usually not one to cynically comment on every season how “this will be a perfect time to focus on my backlog”, but truth to be told, the upcoming season really is the perfect time for that. Not because it would be so ridiculously boring, (in fact it’s not even the worst season in recent memory), but because the current spring season is so ridiculously good. If you only follow 4-5 series in a season, then you are better off with picking only the 1-2 best from the next one, and supporting it with the remaining great series of this season, than with any top 5 that the next ones could throw at us.

Even if you are watching 10 series like me, there are still some more that are worth of watching. I’m still backlogging Lupin III,

But enough gushing about this season, and let’s look into the next one. After all,  it still can have some pleasant surprises:

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Genre legitimacy

I was always interested in the fine line between a medium or genre convention, that one is expected to accept as an inherent purpose of the story, and other, minor tropes.

It’s another part of the neverending objectivity/subjectivity debates: If you can successfully argue that your favourite story did what it did because that’s how things are done in that genre, that gives the story some kind of legitimacy, and the best thing the haters can say is “Well, then I don’t like this genre”, but if you don’t manage to make that claim, then they can still say that your story is just a failed deviation of the greater genre.

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