Extra: When does “unique” cripple a show?

I will fully admit to being on the slow bus for most, if not all, anime fads. I see big shows late, only remember studio names long after their debuts, and am completely ignorant of nearly all cutting edge anime styles. But despite feeling a bit lost when other fans talk about these things, I’ve found my sluggish pace to have an odd advantage. Because I’m often outside the hype around particular styles and fads, I often come across these shows with a (hopefully) neutral air. Which is why I am often just as at a loss when people are turned “off” a fad as when they were all on board.

This streaming season has bright up a rather bland collection of shows overall, but one title specifically has gained a bit of ire: Mekakucity Actors. Apparently, the studio (actually only one of many as anime shows are often collaborations of multiple studios) behind it, Shaft, is quite well known for its very distinctive styles, including sharp edges, odd camera angles and architecture that, while futuristic looking, is completely impossible/illogical. A style that’s a bit too well known now, it seems. While their first few shows made waves, the hate over this new series is pretty heated. Which brings me to my topic: When does “unique” cripple a show?

From the perspective of one who is only vaguely aware of Shaft’s previous works, Monogatari being the most notable, I’ve now watched two whole episodes of Mekakucity Actors and I honestly can’t put my finger on why the hate exists. Sure the series doesn’t seem to have a real direction yet, my biggest beef with it thus far, and heck the main lead being a shut in is just way too overused these days. But those crimes are common enough in shows these days and not too surprising. Certainly nothing to throw a desk over. And the addition of interesting camera shots, items standing in for people and crazy settings is actually helping starve off the fact that this show doesn’t seem to have a point yet. So, why the hate?

After reading more than a few impressions, it seems that this show is being too “heavy handed” with its messages. An interesting observation that does nothing to really explain the hate away. Utena, a show renown for preaching it up high and mighty without actually telling the viewer anything definite, doesn’t come under such fire. Neither do more frivolous shows like Magi, which have long, painful scenes where all the main characters do is preach on morals that often times they break themselves mere episodes (if not moments) later. Again, the hate for that show is far less than for Mekakucity Actors. So we’re still stuck with “why?”

Could it be taste? Unlikely, as Monogatari is still often praised for being revolutionary all over the web. So how is Mekakucity Actors different? Perhaps it boils down to the reason behind the symbolism. Where as the above series often have deep reasoning and social critique on which to base their symbols (Magi being a disgusting exception), Mekakucity doesn’t seem to be rooted in anything beyond the surface thus far. It’s almost painfully easy to read the symbols. That said, just because something is more simple doesn’t automatically make it bad. Simple can sometimes be better, actually. However, shows like Monogatari did seem to make a mark on how obscure one can be while getting away with it and perhaps that same level was what people we expecting, thus leading to hate when the show did not pull out the exact same card. Had this show stripped itself of all the symbols and obscurities, perhaps the show would have been better received. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with the show. It’s not breathtaking, but not bad either. It’s just slightly above mediocre. Nothing to highly praise, but certainly nothing to hate deeply either.

So is it the “unique” elements that are killing it, forcing it to live up to far higher standards? Perhaps when a type of show stands out so much due to stylistic choices it’s inevitable that every show using that technique will come under unholy amounts of criticism ever after as a result. Maybe the fans are simply bored with the concept or maybe they’re just being stuck up pigs posing as critics. Is it even possible to be a critic and not be a stuck up pig (I say this with full acknowledgment that I can be quite stuck up myself when critiquing)?

In any case, I still have no idea as to that “why.” If you hate Mekakucity Actors (or love it!) and take pity on me, please let me know why you find it so distasteful. Because, from where I’m sitting, it’s simply a very mediocre, though fashionable, show.

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About inrosegalaxy

Raised on everything from Moby Dick to the Star Wars X-Wing books from a young age, it came as no surprise to anyone who knew me that I’d become a literature graduate and avid writer. But my love of a good story wasn’t restricted to the written word in my early years. Star Trek, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and badly dubbed Godzilla flicks helped shape my love of science fiction on screen as well. I wrote my first story while in the second grade. It was a horrifying tale about murdering a fairy-eating dog via a slice of pizza (in my defense, my only exposure to pizza was in the cafeteria and I swear you could legitimately kill someone with those things). I was a special snowflake. Today I write science fiction, fairy tales, Gothic epistolaries, fantasy and anything else that pops into my bizarre and twisted mind. I write new articles for my blog every Tuesday and Thursday. And if you happen to fancy Japanese animation, I also run an anime review blog, RRAR, which updates every Monday.

12 thoughts on “Extra: When does “unique” cripple a show?

  1. I don’t hate Mekakucity Actors, but it frustrated me enough for me to drop it after 2 episodes. The main issue for me is the feeling that the anime is trying to be unique, but doesn’t realise (or else simply doesn’t care) that it’s only repeating everything that Shaft has already done before – the same visual tricks, many of the same narrative themes, and the same sense of heavy-handedness I’ve seen in many of the studio’s other titles; all of which are presented to us here as though it’s high-brow art. I’ll fully admit that I have no idea if this is what the creators are really thinking – clearly I don’t know what’s actually going through their heads. But when any show feels like it’s trying way too hard to be cool and/or artsy, it immediately gets my hackles up.

    • Which was one of my conclusions: the anime is being judged, not on its own, but based on other Shaft titles.
      On its own, it hasn’t really done anything bad. If you isolate it from Shaft’s other work, it’s just a random show that doesn’t quite know what it wants yet, likes odd art and angles aaand that’s it. No big crimes.
      Although, that alone, the not knowing where it’s going thing, is enough to cause busy reviewers to drop it. I mean, a good show needs to catch you episodes one, preferably, or episode two at the latest. Otherwise it’s just a huge waste of valuable time (harsh truth of our reviewing realm).
      My issue is that people aren’t dropping it for that, but only judging it based on previous Shaft show standards, which, I guess, is a rather high and/or undefined standard no one seems to apply to other anime. Its odd.
      Maybe, like you mentioned, their style just rubs people the wrong way.

      • Well, yes and no. I’ll certainly agree that a big part of the reason Mekakucity Actors has drawn such distaste from some viewers is because it’s so similar in look and tone to many other Shaft titles. However, judging the anime on it’s own terms, I’d still have to say that it comes across as pretentious – I (and I’m assuming a few other people) think that it’s trying too hard to be artsy, and that it plays out as something which believes it’s smarter than it actually is. I don’t have to have watched any other Shaft anime to think that, and while I can’t say what I would have thought of Mekakucity Actors had it been my very first Shaft experience, I genuinely believe these feelings would still hold true. The fact that I’ve indeed seen Shaft in action before only emphasises these impressions; it’s not the core reason for them.

      • Ah, that makes sense. In the line of thought, though, how do you think people would have reacted had the “artsy” been turned down then?
        Personally, I think it wouldn’t get hate, but many would probably have dropped it anyway do to lack of direction (srsly, what are they even going for in the overall story?).
        Also, considering how much anime looks identical these days, at what point is a show not “unique” and fallen into the pretentious stage? As someone who is a writer, and thus doesn’t dabble in drawn art forms, I’m curious when it becomes too much.
        There are similar cases in writing. Experimental writing, for example, gets put under stresses like this. Some believe the experimentation pushes writing forward, while others think they’re “trying too hard.” For me, I tend to take it case by case, though overall I tend to encourage experimentation. It’s better than the same thing endlessly repeated. Although, I HAVE read works that went too far and simply made no sense whatsoever. Or got so wrapped up in the presentation that they never got around to actually saying anything worth saying.
        Would you say this is kinda the case with Mekakucity Actors?

      • I think you’re right in that people would still have dropped the show had that whole ‘artsy’ thing not been a factor. I mean, it seems to be one of the foal points of the entire show, so if it was taken away there probably wouldn’t be all that much left.

        In answer to your other question, yes, I do think that’s the case with Mekakucity Actors. Or at least, a lot of people perceive that to be the case. Since I only watched two episodes though, I’m wary about making too many generalisations about that.

        I do want to say though, I absolutely don’t believe that experimentation is a bad thing. I’ll happily slam an anime for poor execution or whatever else, but I’ll never say that experimentation in itself is just another word for pretentiousness. What I do believe is that a completed product shouldn’t be something that basically jumps up and down screaming, “look at me, I’m unique!” to its audience. I think it was Toni Morrison who in an interview said something like, “If you can see the work that went into something, then it’s not finished.” And I definitely agree with that – the very best anime (and best books, movies, etc.) that I’ve seen are those that come across as natural or effortless.

      • “Natural and effortless.” I’ve never really thought of it that way before, but some of my favorites totally fit that. Princess Tutu being the biggest. That show has a lot to it. The art, overall story, individual stories (episode by episode), the music, the town, there’s just so much to it that says so much, yet it never feels overwhelming. It’s easy to follow, almost deceptively so.
        I only found out recently that it took 11 YEARS to make that show. Years of studying live ballet, German villages, pouring over old fairy tails, myths, opera and countless script re-writes. I had never suspected it took more than the usual time to make that show because, well, the story always felt like it was made the way it was from day one. But it wasn’t. Not at all. It went through a ton of work first and I’m so very glad it did.
        Makes me wonder… how many more shows would benefit from that extra time and effort? I understand the marketing side when a work is coming from a manga or light novel. Time is precious as they’re counting on riding the wave of popularity from the original version. But when a show is supposed to be an original, with no previous version, it would help to put a bit more into it. Some studios do. Most don’t. But how wonderful would it be for some to slow down, take it one step at a time, and really focus? Considering how little patience companies have waiting for profits, I see why that happens once a blue moon. Still…. shows like Mekakucity Actors and countless others could have been so much more… Heck, Last Exile’s “sequel” could have actually been *gasp* good.

      • Wow, I didn’t know that about Princess Tutu – that’s really interesting. I mean, I guess if I had stopped to think about it then I may have suspected that more planning time went into the show than into [insert other random anime series here], but 11 years… now that’s dedication! Which thankfully paid off – Princess Tutu’s a great show.

        Haha, with you on the Last Exile sequel as well. I’ve certainly seen worse sequels, but it was far from excellent work.

      • I know, right? It’s so sad because the world of Last Exile is amazing. And the art wasn’t clunky looking in design as some steampunk tends to me. It was, well, kinda smooth and natural looking in the world.
        Then the sequel came along and they took a Moe Gun and shot it dead. Such a waste of a great world, a loss of great potential. And it happens a lot now. My brother (who shall be writing a guest review this coming Monday! Excitement!) ran into another show that did that. First season was great, then season two came along, injected the Moe Virus and took out everything the show had been known for previously.
        Why? Why do companies think moe saves a show of its crimes? Has moe alone EVER redeemed a badly written show? I honestly can’t even think of one.

      • Yeah. I think the worst show for season two Moe Virus, at least in terms of artwork, would have to be Gunslinger Girl though. So bad.

      • I can’t say I’m too surprised. Actually, I was more surprised that they didn’t try that from the beginning. I mean the name alone begs for it.
        Too bad indeed as my brother is a fan of the manga and it seems quite serious and compelling. A shame they bent over backwards for the sake of a sick fad in anime that really doesn’t do the story, characters or fans any favors.

      • I personally wouldn’t call the entire moe fad “sick”, but I do take your point – I’m hardly it’s biggest fan either.

        Gunslinger Girl sounds like it should be creepy as hell based on the title and/or synopsis, but the first season is actually pretty good; intelligent, thought-provoking, and nuanced. I’ve seen it slammed by some viewers for its slow pacing and lack of any solid conclusion, but I tend to prefer character-driven stories and so quite enjoyed it. Season two, however… sigh.

      • That does sound like a shame. I hate it when a good run is tarnished by something that could be so easily avoided (I talked to my brother and since he’s nearly done with the manga, he assured me that it never loses it’s serious tone, so it must just be the anime).
        I was a bit harsh. Most of the time it’s harmless, just amazingly annoying. Still, it IS sick that it’s so catered to and pretty much every anime feels like it needs it now. It’s just painful. Now-a-days whenever an obvious moe character shows up I instantly don’t care for or hate said character. They’re almost always the worst 2D characters of the bunch. Which is saying a lot as the main characters are often pretty bland these days too.
        That whole “pants” thing in action, I guess (meaning viewers can imagine themselves as the hero easily because he’s so bland he could be anyone. Aka putting on the hero’s pants). But a good story gets you to experience things alongside the hero, not take his place. And for that to happen the hero has to be a real character, not a stand in for the viewer. >_<
        PS – "creepy as hell" is the best way to put it. when I first heard about the show I avoided it like the plague. It sounds horrid! It was only after my brother got into the manga that I learned that it wasn't anything like I initially thought. Cause, yeah, the story just sounds like an excuse for tons of fanservice junk, no story and guns everywhere. The guns part is the only one I got kinda right, as it turns out. xD

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