A Librarian’s Lament: Watching Anime, Thinking Critically

I can’t remember if I’ve used this image before or not, so if I have, here it is again!

Partially inspired by the discussion on this post and partially inspired by being really bored at work and thinking back to a conversation with a coworker whom I explained the literary/artistic value of comics in general and manga/anime in specific, I’ve determined that the problem with the world isn’t, as is traditionally assumed by members of the older generation, that kids aren’t reading as much, so much as kids aren’t being educated in the art of thinking critically of works of literary/artistic merit they take in. Of any form, be it live-action film, a novel, a picture book, animation, or what have you. This, of course, leads to a group of people who simply consume anime (or other things, but this is an anime blog) simply because they have nothing better to do with their time. It’s faintly disturbing.

I think the root of the problem is the education system, which presents students with books to read for class and then mandatory outside reading, which is universally loathed by all students. There’s a clear distinction between books for class (which are used to teach analytical principles, presumably) and books for pleasure reading (which are usually selected, at least in my hometown, from a list provided by Scholastic’s Accelerated Reader program, which reduces the literary merit of a book to a single abstract point value). The distinction between the two is clear–students are tested on how well the analyse the former, whereas the latter they’re frequently tested on whether or not they actually paid attention while reading the book. This is especially the case for the aforementioned Accelerated Reader program, which include only plot-related questions on their tests, and no analytical.

“So,” you find yourself asking, “what does this have to do with anime?” Lots! If students are brought up in an environment that encourages outside reading, yet only tests the student’s comprehension of plot details, this leads to them viewing all outside entertainment as simply vehicles for casual entertainment or, worse if you happen to be the reading sort, a utter loathing of the very act of reading. If a student views outside of class reading only on the superficial level so they can pass the test, wouldn’t this extend to all of their outside entertainment? The teachers may be teaching the students how to analyze a book, but they aren’t teaching them to do this on their own. And, therefore, when our hypothetical student encounters anime in the outside world, s/he views it not as a potential object of study, but rather as a cheap way to get some entertainment.

If anime merely means cheap entertainment to someone, then, of course, fansubs are the cheapest way to get anime, but I’m not setting foot into the dangerous waters of fansub legaity issues (my stance is “watch fansubs, buy DVDs”, for those interested, and in all honesty TRSI probably has a small shrine dedicated to me and my loyal DVD buying habits, because I have the nasty feeling that if I stopped buying anime DVDs the industry would collapse in short order. Unless it’s not as bad as Daryl Surat makes it sound like it is). The natural logic stemming from this is that anime is “just TV” and isn’t meant to be something to take seriously. The fact of the matter is, though, that anything can be taken seriously. I’m a firm believer in the fact that even the most banal and generic book, TV show, movie, whatever, can be critically thought about in some way. Granted, there probably aren’t a lot of blogs devoted to literary criticism of Law & Order episodes, but that’s not the point. The point is, anything, in any medium, that tells a story can serve as the inspiration for further thought on the issues it raises. You can be spurred to profound thought from a children’s picture book (Dr. Seuss is infamous for this) or through Russian literature or through a work of genre fiction. And drawing inspiration from a work counts as well; I know I’ve drawn inspiration from strange places before, and it gets you thinking, which is good no matter where it comes from.

It doesn’t matter what you enjoy, as long as you at least spend some time thinking about it. You certainly don’t have to be the next Harold Bloom (but you wouldn’t want to be Harold Bloom as that implies that you have some sort of bizarre sexual preoccupation with the Bard), or even have something particuarly profound to say, or a life-changing revelation. And, yes, I know not everyone is trained in the fine art of literary analysis; I know I certainly haven’t been, or at least, haven’t been extensively trained in this art, a fact probably reflected in my usual posting fare. The point is, it doesn’t matter what you think, how you think it, or even if you’re having an original thought. You’re thinking about things, and putting the work into the greater context of what it means to be human, whether it be being inspired by an anime character to improve or better your life, or complex doctoral thesis statements on Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. And actively watching is always good, and even if you don’t actively watch every series you watch (it would be somewhat hard to actively watch, say, Rosario + Vampire, I admit), there’s always that one work out there that seems to speak directly to you and only you. So give it a shot. It’s fun, maybe, I promise!

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15 Responses to “A Librarian’s Lament: Watching Anime, Thinking Critically”


  1. 1 Cathy 15 April 2008 at 11:46 pm

    The teachers may be teaching the students how to analyze a book, but they aren’t teaching them to do this on their own.

    Yes! I think even when teachers teach the students how to analyze a book, it’s less asking them, “What does this mean?” and more indoctrinating them so that they, say, always think the main character is a Christ figure, and so on. It’s super obvious when you sit in a lit class talking about The Scarlet Letter, because Hawthorne spells out what the symbols are, and after that students have no more to say.

  2. 2 tj han 15 April 2008 at 11:59 pm

    Possibly. But rather than education, which has more or less remained static or even progressed (at least where I come from), I think it’s more along the lines of mass media drowning out everything else.

    I disagree that everything can be analysed. What about the typical moe mongering show? Not a chance. Besides, even in the supposed good old days, it was the creme of the education crop who analysed stuff for fun and leisure. The regular joe just watched TV and slept. The Internet lends a voice to the regular joe now, and it appears that the world is dumbing down because of that.

  3. 3 Ryan A 16 April 2008 at 12:11 am

    mike at anime|otaku likes to critically assess different media works and then relate them to anime, very interesting stuff.

    On top of Thinking Critically, I find the notion of reflecting and or stimulating ideas from pieces just as valuable as objective viewpoints/critical thinking. The reason is that critical assessments are seemingly bounded, but reflection or stimulation are boundless. Hopefully, as students grow they begin to recognize what is valid, invalid or good in either case.

  4. 4 OGT 16 April 2008 at 12:13 am

    @tj han: Not all criticism has to be literary. Moe shows can easily be dissected less from a textual perspective but more from a contextual perspective. What does the fact that Japan is spending time and effort creating moe series for otaku consumption? What does it tell you about the culture that animation studios produce moe series, and that BS-i, a subsidiary channel of government-owned NHK, has aired a few of them in its time, notabling Mahoromatic and He is My Master?

    You may not be able to draw a conclusion from a single such moe show, but it’s entirely possible to utilize even the most commonplace of moe series in a cultural anthropology argument.

    I tended more towards the literary side of analysis in the post because that’s what I was thinking about at the time, but there’s no such thing as a work of fiction that you can’t apply to some analytical purpose.

    @Ryan: I don’t really care what kind of thinking anyone is doing. I care that they’re thinking, and not sitting there absorbing and not processing. That’s worse than a vegetable. That’s a sponge.

  5. 5 Mike 16 April 2008 at 1:28 am

    Bravo on this post. I think that’s the best part of blogging for me; it keeps me as an active rather than a passive viewer, and I have found that my training in literary analysis has helped a lot at least in analyzing storytelling. (My education in analyzing visual art is far less, so I have to work hard to do that to nearly the same level.) And you are also absolutely right that one angle of analysis can be more on the meta-level, as with what the moe explosion of recent years means for the whole industry and social trends (and perhaps using a show or two as examples).

    All this has turned me into something of a snob, though. :) But I continue to believe that we need standards even for things considered “low art” and “entertainment” (words I am loath to use normally, but there was a whole debate about that on the blogosphere before). With media being so all-pervasive in our lives it’s important to not take things in uncritically, and in order to do that there has to be a basis for critical thought.

  6. 6 reslez 16 April 2008 at 3:00 am

    Aside from blogs we’re in a post-literary world. Reading used to be reserved for elites until the advent of mass literacy in the 19th C. Now we have tv, radio, video games. Reading books is anachronistic for the average Joe. If you’re worried about people learning to think critically, consider that books aren’t the only way to get there… and that most people never get there anyway (and never did). As for whether/how well kids read books, didn’t Socrates complain about that too?

    As for anime, my criteria for separating art from pop culture dross is “did watching this series make me feel something?”. I absolutely agree that anime can and should be analyzed, but that’s the extent to which I usually go. I actually feel this field is something of an unexplored goldmine for English-speaking academia. Such a wealth of material.

  7. 7 The Animanachronism 16 April 2008 at 3:48 am

    It doesn’t matter what you enjoy, as long as you at least spend some time thinking about it.

    Yes, dagnammit, yes.

    I’m not sure if everything can be analysed – though your point that even the most mind-numbing show can be read contextually is a good one. I did once write about Rosario + Vampire, but the show failed to be entertaining enough for me to finish – and the post I did write was relatively unoriginal.

  8. 8 Caitlin 16 April 2008 at 6:34 am

    Great post! I agree that actively watching something is far better than passively watching it. From previous comments, rather than say that not everything can be analyzed, I’d say that sometimes, people over-analyze the media in front of them. Some times a cigar is just a cigar? But I do agree that they can provoke semi-related thoughts in the real world.

  9. 9 Matt 16 April 2008 at 8:16 am

    Honestly, I don’t think people give children enough credit. There are limits to what teachers and parents can do, ultimately it’s down to the child and if they want to think about what they’re watching or reading, or if they don’t. If there’s any problem with this generation, or any generation, it’s that the majority of people are stupid.

    Please forgive this cynicism, I’m 18 myself, and now I’m in university I know an awful lot of intelligent people, but when I was back in school, most people I knew were lost causes. I don’t think the attitude of “you’re watching this, think about it” can be encouraged, I think it’s either something you have or you don’t. If people have an inquisitive mind, they can’t help but think about what they’re watching.

  10. 10 Diane 16 April 2008 at 11:43 am

    Scholastic doesn’t publish Accelerated Reader – Scholastic publishes Reading Counts which measure students in Lexiles AND has a point system.

  11. 11 OGT 16 April 2008 at 12:29 pm

    @Matt: People do not give children enough credit, hence the relative lack of popularity of books such as The Phantom Tollbooth, and, presumably, the rising popularity of manga, especially Shounen Jump manga. I think it was Andrew Cunningham who said that YA fiction especially needs to have more light novels marketed towards a general audience.

    Some people care about other things intellectually, and some people don’t care about intellectual activity nearly as much. I could talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs here, but I don’t think I’m quite equipped to do so.

    @Diane: Oh, oops. I thought they did Accelerated Reader, I forgot which they controlled. I’ve dealt with both (my high school used AR and then RC while I was there) and, regardless of the maker and maker of product, it’s still a service that I think is a stand-in for actual teaching.

  12. 12 TheBigN 16 April 2008 at 1:34 pm

    I did once write about Rosario + Vampire, but the show failed to be entertaining enough for me to finish – and the post I did write was relatively unoriginal.

    But you still did write about it at least.
    I agree with tj han that the problem isn’t necessarily solely on education’s head, or on the head of the mass media. I’d want to say that it’s out current society, but I couldn’t back that up.

    Yet the phenomenon is something that I noticed observing my college anime club. When I came in as a freshman, most shows shown during the schedule were shows that you could take and leave, but also encouraged you to think more about what’s going on. And that standard kept till I left because I helped keep it going while I was there (elitist at it may sound). But from conversations with the incoming class my junior year, I noticed that “newer, upcoming” fans looked more for pure entertainment more than anything else, and that seems to be much of how things are going to be wrong for the future.

    Is looking at anime, or anything rather, as pure entertainment wrong? I don’t think so, but it’s definitely not what I’m looking for. :/

  13. 13 jpmeyer 16 April 2008 at 5:01 pm

    I wrote a grad school term paper on Paris Hilton’s sex tape.

  14. 14 cuchlann 1 May 2008 at 4:35 am

    “@tj han: Not all criticism has to be literary. Moe shows can easily be dissected less from a textual perspective but more from a contextual perspective. What does the fact that Japan is spending time and effort creating moe series for otaku consumption?”

    First, I thought I’d mention that this is a fairly typical thing to see in literary criticism right now, and it has been for a while. The fancy name for it is “new historicism” (or, if you like the British version instead, “cultural materialism”). Just, you know, pointing that out. ; )

    Anyway, I like what you’re saying. I even have more evidence! One of my students last semester asked me some questions about an essay, and I started talking to him. His questions were things that were answered, and pretty clearly, in the essay itself. I kept talking to him, and eventually asked if he’d read it. He said yes, and I had gotten to know him for a few months, so I believed him. But in talking about *how* he read it, basically he went over the words. It’s the difference between memorizing something and knowing what it means.

    End result? Many of the students were upset that I kept asking them why they thought things — they hadn’t pieced it apart in their heads enough to provide reasons. They got better at it, which is all I can really hope to achieve, I suppose. Well, most of them improved.

    Uh, yeah…

  15. 15 George 30 July 2008 at 10:35 pm

    Seeing a picture of my favorite librarian, Patchouli Knowledge, and Alpha Hatsuseno, my favorite post-apocalyptic café manager, I was predisposed to agree with almost anything you said. But objectively speaking, as we used to say in philosophy class, you’re dead on. The Japanese don’t seem to make the hard distinction between popular and fine art as we do. Pouring tea or building a wall can be every bit as artful as singing an aria. Much of what we in the West categorize as fine art started out as popular entertainment, decoration, or religious ritual. Anime is like books; some of it is just throw-away, but some is worthy of serious thought and reflection. That doesn’t mean Revolutionary Girl Utena will rival Macbeth with the lit crit crowd of the 22nd century. But it doesn’t mean that can’t happen, either.

    I’m an inveterate analyzer, compelled to look for patterns, symbols, and meanings in poetry, movies, paintings, but also anime, manga, and video games. Yet I wouldn’t be too quick to scorn people who simply watch and are affected by anime. Nobody analyzed Sappho or Li Po for a very long time; long enough for them to have no say in what everyone was thinking and writing. So too, perhaps, anime. I think it’s something very special; some of it has touched me and reached me like little else. But for most of my colleagues, it’s, at best, just interesting cartoons.

    As for education, well, if you mean the public kind, it’s delivering unto the halls of academia too many young people that regard knowledge as a ticket to punch that gets a diploma and a better job. Even Great Teacher Onizukas (and there are some, bless ‘em) have a hard time working within a system obsessed with quantification and assessment. One of the joys of homeschooling my son is never, ever having to give a grade or a score for reading a book or writing a paper. Or watching anime, which we’ll do as soon as I get home from the night shift at the library: Ergo Proxy, a great anime for old philosophy majors!

    Thanks for the provocative post. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your blog.


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