Did that title blow your mind? There are few more obvious statements I could make. To be honest I struggled with it quite a bit. I just couldn’t figure out how to explain what I wanted to talk about in one sentence. Let me give you the context:
I have now read 3 articles more or less in a row stating that visuals where either a very important thing to modern day anime fans or The most important thing. And then these articles went on to explain that this was “bad” and responsible for the decline in quality and creativity of storytelling in anime. I’m pretty sure at least one of them was implying that modern viewers lacked wisdom and attention spans to appreciate quality. There was a snide tone to the lot really. It also went into the old vs new debate but that one is for another day. (Preview: I think that 90% of humans prefer things that have nostalgic feelings towards….)
Today I would just like to share my views on the relative worth of visuals in anime. And by visuals I will not be talking about specific design elements because the actual quality of designs tend to depend way too much on individual tastes for me to base myself on. Instead let’s talk about the level of detail and consistency in said designs. How expansive and varied colour palettes are. Background details. Variety in characters and settings. Fluidity and quantity of actual animation and CG integration. I figure that roughly sums up most of the elements that we usually associate with “visuals” in anime. I bet I forgot something super important and you guys are going to school me in the comments. Go ahead, I deserve it.
With regard to how important I personally consider these elements to be. Well, super important. Honestly, it’s one of the main reasons I watch anime instead of western animation or live action. I really like moving pictures and I find the attention to and mastery of visuals in anime difficult to match outside the medium. Can I still enjoy an anime with what I consider subpar visuals, definitely. But they have to have something (character, plot, comedy…) to make up for it. And I can also enjoy an anime with what I consider a subpar story if the breathtaking visuals make up for it. I go to museums too. Those are almost entirely visuals cause apparently you’re not supposed to touch the paintings, or so the keep telling me….
This is just my personal take. You can of course assign as much or as little importance to visuals in anime as you’d like. I have no business telling you how to enjoy it. Neither does anyone else in my opinion.
I just wanted to look at this double insinuation that enjoying anime for the visual aspects is 1) somehow indicative of a lack in the viewer ( lack of intellectual sophistication, lack of knowledge, lack of mental stamina…) and 2) contributing to the overall decline of the anime industry.
Of course what follows are only my thoughts on it.
First, I really don’t see the correlation between liking art and being intellectually lacking in any way. I know that we make fun of people saying they only look at the pictures when they read books but ‘cmon… It seems to me that if a person particularly enjoys one medium over another, it’s likely that they are drawn to what makes that medium unique. Without the animation, colours and audio, most anime is a manga, and without the pictures, mangas are books. If someone is choosing to watch the anime instead of reading the manga, it’s most likely because they like the animation and visuals. That doesn’t seem surprising to me.
I know some people are going to say it’s because they don’t like reading or because it’s “easier” or “quicker” to watch anime but I don’t really buy that. Ok the reading part may be true for some but a lot of us watch subs where we still have to read all the dialogue and under pressure at that. No matter how convenient streaming has gotten it’s still way easier to throw a manga in your bag that you can read anywhere and although it may be quicker to watch movies than read the books they are based on, I find it’s the opposite for manga. I can usually read the equivalent of 3 to 5 episodes worth of manga in the time it takes to watch a single episode of the same show (depending on the adaptation.) For instance I recently read all of the available Given manga in a bit l under two hours and the events of season 1 end a bit before the halfway mark. So basically, I read about 2 seasons worth (24 eps) in less than two hours.
Considering this, I really figure that we pick anime because we like what it has to offer over other mediums. And in the case of manga, where the actual stories become almost identical, a lot of what makes anime different are the visuals. This is a long way for me to say that I personally think it’s pretty natural to consider visuals as fairly important in anime….
What about the argument that it’s ok for them to be important but they shouldn’t be the only thing that matters? Once again I’m not really qualified to tell people how to enjoy anime but I have to imagine visuals aren’t the only thing that matters to most fans as I’ve seen beautiful anime flop frequently enough while less visual impressive series thrive in popularity. So I can only guess that the average viewer values other elements as well.
Fine then, what about this idea that if we put disproportionate importance on visuals, it encourages studios to put out badly written anime as long as it looks good. And therefore, it leads to loss of overall anime quality.
Again I’m not sure about this one. I guess it’s possible but it seems to be based on a few assumptions I don’t share. One being that it’s “easy” to create a beautiful anime. Or at least easier than to create an engaging story. Which is why studios would naturally choose to make something visually stunning rather than narratively engaging if they have the choice. And I have not really seen any true evidence of that. Of course this is just personal observation so I really could be wrong.
To me writing a good story is hard, it takes talent. But the same can be said for creating a beautiful image. Or for putting together a fluid animation. Or for voice acting a part convincingly and emotionally. Basically, all of these artistic elements are difficult to create and I don’t know that any one is empirically harder. There are tons of talented artists out there but just as many writers. I personally know dozens of fanfic authors. Some are truly great at it.
But it also goes to budget. Generally speaking, it’s usually way more expensive to make a visually impressive anime, regardless of the story it’s attached to. I understand the argument may be that studios won’t be as demanding from their script writers if they can make up for weak plot or characters through stunning imagery but why would they want to since it’s way cheaper to simply make script revisions.
And I do think studios use visuals as a form of fanservice to give their prestige projects the best chance possible. But I think they do so because they believe that the series will be enjoyed by fans. The anime industry is sort of volatile, a few flops can hurt a studio. But big budget flops can be devastating. To purposefully greenlight a project that executives honestly think is a bad story and then pour tons of resources in it, is plain stupid from a business standpoint.
You could argue that the expects are out of touch and picking scripts that are subpar but to think they are doing so on purpose because they plan to rely on a huge production seems unlikely to me.
I guess a further argument could be made that fans watch bad stories only because they are pretty giving the impression that those are the types of stories we want to see and that creates more bad stories. That sounds like the most reasonable argument. And maybe I’m just part of the problem but I haven’t seen that many great looking animes which I thought were badly written. In fact, I’ve seen some great anime with so so visuals but almost all the bad anime I’ve even also had unimpressive productions. The only exception I can think of off the top of my head is Maiyoga (poor show) and you can’t really argue that it was popular with fans….
This is why for me not only should you like anime for whatever reason you happen to like anime. Heck if you only care about how shoe lace physics is handled then you do you! Also please start a blog because that sounds fascinating! But in general, I’m not yet convinced a focus on visuals has had any negative impact on the anime industry.
Just my minimally informed opinion though. Except the like whatever you like bit. I stand by that!