There’s an occasional tepid debate that gets revived every so often in the anime community which essentially is: should manga (source material) be taken into consideration when reviewing or even interpreting anime.
I (as well as anime, reviewing and blogging authority Karandi) have always been pretty steadfast in insisting that anime adaptations are a stand alone medium and should be considered as such. If a show is incomprehensible without reading the manga then I’m sorry but it’s just incomplete, and that’s a failure of the anime. Some stories might be so great as to warrant the extra effort but it’s still overcoming a drawback not eliminating it. This is the straightforward question.
The more complex and debatable one is: does (should) author’s intention matter when watching and (mostly) reviewing anime? What I mean is, should there be any tempering of viewer interpretation? I have personally been guilty of assigning lofty aspirations to creators of particular series, and in turn praising said series based on those aspirations. Or mitigating bad viewing experiences because of a supposed great message behind it all, whether I actually saw that message or not. And the really tricky part is that those outside influences are also part of the viewing experience.
Let me try to explain. For this, I’ll go back to a fan favourite when it comes to arguing about random anime things: Madoka. I saw Puella Magi Madoka Magica (I have to look up the exact name every time…) like I see most anime. Knowing next to nothing about it going in. I knew it was very very popular from having heard the name so much throughout the years but that’s it. I watched it. I liked some things about it, others less. I disliked the pacing and some of the camera work but adored the Homura reveal… Anyways, that’s not the point. After seeing it, I started paying attention to reviews and articles on the show, now that I actually knew what they were talking about. I was genuinely confused at seeing Madoka consistently praised as a Yuri show.
The series I had seen was an ode to friendship. Homura’s devotion to Madoka was the desperation of a lonely girl trying to save the life of one of the very few friends she had, compounded by her sense of guilt at believing herself the cause of her friend’s suffering. I interpreted pointed looks as worried concern or fondness rather than desire. I naturally saw it as a story of two people who cared enough about each other not to want the other to die with no ulterior motives. Personally, I didn’t pick up on any homosexual undertones or really any sexual elements at all.
But boy did everyone else….To most people the sexual undertones seem as obvious as the ones in Revolutionary Girl Utena, a story that explicitly tackles gender norms, identity and sexual orientation. Odds are if you randomly look up a list of great lesbian romances in anime, you will see Madoka mentioned somewhere. And you see, both interpretations are right. To me Madoka will never be a story exploring homosexuality, and if I had watched it hoping for that, I would have been disappointed. As such I can’t recommend it to others on that basis but I will mention that some viewers did see such themes. And I would fully expect those viewers to recommend it as such. What I won’t mention, and haven’t even bothered to consider at all, is whether Gen Urobuchi wrote those themes into his work.
Basically, even if we consider art to be a form of self expression (and anime an art form), it’s a one way streak. Once the story has left the authors’ hands, and the images have been wrest away from the illustrators, the show belongs wholly to the audience.
As such, if a studio decides to put out a show that’s meant to parody fanservice tropes and practices (cough Kill la Kill) but falls short in humour or execution it could end up being enjoyed only on the basis of the fanservice it was trying to call out (cough NOT Kill la Kill), then it’s not a parody . It’s just ironically promoting the elements it was trying to mock and effectively just another echhi show, regardless of the original intentions.
But remember when I said that outside influences can’t be disregarded all together either. Well if we take my ecchi show example above. Maybe I watched it and was left with an impression of a smutty show that was a bit too precious.
Let’s say I then reviewed this show accordingly. That’s fine. It’s my honest experience and one that’s likely to be shared by anyone that’s similar to me, in comparable circumstances. Because I have the smartest readers, someone will surely comment that it’s one big joke (and they’ll do it nicely, because I also have the sweetest readers). At this point, maybe I’ll think to myself, well it wasn’t a very funny joke and nothing will change. The again, maybe this knowledge will shift my perspective and I’ll suddenly see the same show as a brilliant subtle subversion.
However, the important element here isn’t the original intentions of the creator but the evolution of my personal vision of the work and the lasting impact it made on me.
I realize I may be contradicting myself. I once wrote a post about my views on sexualized fanservice in which I basically said that the deciding factor (for me) between creepy and enjoyable fanservice, was intent. At first glance, this is essentially the opposite of my earlier post. But what I meant was perceived intent. I’m pretty sure actual fanservice intent is always: catching!
As I’m writing this, I realize I don’t have a neat way to bring it all together. I came across the expression “in the end only audience remains”, in a text about writing plays and more specifically cautionary tales. It illustrated for playwrights, the dangers of having a moral tale have a drastically different effect than intended on the audience if it’s too subtle, unclear or too *clever*. And that in the long-run it doesn’t matter what you meant, it matters what the masses understood. i.e. Only the audience remains. I really liked the expression.
It reminded me of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” which clearly says: don’t sweat the details man…some things just don’t matter. It was meant as a gentle mocking of people who obsesses over the slightest thing. The famous last line (eerily applicable):
Yet in the wastes of time has come to be viewed as a plea for originality and carefully laying out your path in life. And even though most of us know this, we still often think of the road less traveled by its interpreted meaning rather than its intended one.
We see similar effects all the time. We even have actual words that have lost their original meaning, and had their definitions revised. You can’t fight the people.
So, as I was reading all this random stuff (I lead an exciting life folks) I figured that this notion, of attributing ultimate meaning of a piece to the beholder rather than the creator, was of particular interest to those that analyse an review “art”. I’m not sure what the lesson is mind you. That’s what I’m trying to figure out with you guys. But I’m going to reassess the importance I give to what an anime was trying to do versus what it actually does.
Let me ask you guys, do you agree with this or are you of the opinion that an author always has authority on his own work? That he or she is voice of God and if you don’t see a story the same way, then you’re simply misinterpreting things? There’s an argument to be made for that side too.