Martin wrote a post on K-ON! that may warrant some consideration. This is not a criticism of Martin’s way of doing things; I quite enjoy his Mono no Aware, generally. This is, rather, an examination of certain assumptions in Martin’s post which may apply to many (particularly western) fans, an attempt to reveal these assumptions as cultural constructs, and my best guess at what that implies.
Martin never claims that his way of valuing art applies or should apply to anyone other than himself (in a way, he actively disclaims as much). I am to blame for the degree to which this post makes such an assumption. And it may be a mistaken assumption, but it’s probably necessary if I hope to examine certain of Martin’s claims as such.
Let’s start by sketching out some of the values Martin’s post seems to imply.
As difficult as it is, I have to admit that I’m enjoying K-On. Not because it’s intelligent, thought-provoking, original or a work of art. I’m enjoying it despite it not really being any of these things, mainly because something that’s so intentionally dumb is undemanding and therefore the perfect thing for unwinding with at the end of a long day.
Yes, it’s shallow, commercialised and derivative but truthfully as long as it makes you smile, who the heck cares? I’ve done at least three drafts of this post before wiping the whole lot off the screen and starting over; this is by its very nature a show that’s difficult to write about because there’s not much to it beyond the obvious observation that it’s cute, undemanding fun.
Thus, good anime might be:
- Intelligent (caveat: “intentionally dumb” is not strictly bad)
- Thought-provoking (caveat: “undemanding” is not strictly bad)
Whereas bad anime might be:
I’ll leave the arguments about how shows of its ilk are having a negative effect on the quality of the anime industry’s output as a whole for those who know more about it – there’s still enough stuff made that appeals to me and I don’t know enough about the Industry and its issues to speculate on that. But I am a music fan so I can’t help but (over-)think about how it fares as a show about music.
An anime about a rock band is doubly Relevant To My Interests really. …
Of significance here are Martin’s finding stories about music particularly relevant to himself, and his (wise, in my estimation) refusal to engage in doomsaying about the state of the industry as a result of moe et cetera. Again, it’s evident that Martin isn’t trying to push his art-consuming apparatus on anyone. He’s simply explicating — which is in all likelihood what makes his post so useful to me.
I’m interested in several of the modes of valuation listed above (particularly the notion that K-ON! is not especially a “work of art,” given my definition of “art” as a way in which an object is used rather than something an object is). But I’d like to focus on one of these modes in particular: originality is good; derivation is bad.
In this case, at least, I’m positive that such an approach is not unique to Martin. Here’s part of a comment by Kaioshin:
…I simply cannot relate to this school of thought that I’ve noticed cropping up…one that seems apologetic (something I agree should be unnecessary as ghostlightning points out [here]) of shows that are just mindless fluff because they are “relaxing”. I typically don’t find these school slice of life shows especially relaxing simply for the fact that I can’t stop noticing ways in which they are derivative of their predecessors in episode to episode plot lines. Derivative almost as rule.
…I also happen to agree that it won’t be around or remembered once the next school slice of life with moe girls show comes around unless it pushes the boundaries of the genre to define itself in a way that isn’t so easily emulatable. Part of the frustration I think a lot of people (myself included) feel with K-On is that it has a way in which it could be breaking from the pack in it’s music club plot-line, but rarely uses it and almost seems to want to avoid using it. Why?
Anyway I think it’s possible for a show to be relaxing without having to be derivative and commercialized…
Kaioshin is, by his own admission, literally distracted by the derivative nature of the K-ON! sort of moe show. This is not something for which he should be “blamed,” so to speak, as it isn’t something he can help. In the English-speaking world, at least, we’re riding in the wake of several literary movements which brought originality in vogue; the Romantics and high modernism come to mind. Even postmodern works, with their pastiches of cut-and-pasted elements, are expected to arrange these elements in refreshing ways. Compare Shakespeare, who (to simplify a little) ripped off as many old stories and lives of English royalty as he could manage, and appealed to his audiences by way of the familiarity of these stories and the fanservice and meta-references he inserted. Why don’t we hound Shakespeare for being derivative? Because he was influential, and he became influential by mastering the dramatic trends (i.e. market demands) of his time. Could an animation studio make waves in the industry without giving the people what they want?
Or are studios simply giving the wrong people what they want? Because, of course, producers aren’t producing moe shows to piss off a certain kind of fan. They’re catering to another kind of fan, a kind of fan regarding which Hiroki Azuma has much to say — and this fandom is as precedented by historical development as Kaioshin’s brand of fandom. Judging by recent trends, these moe fans seem to be the ones with the money, or at least the ones most willing to spend it. I’m hesitant to make any absolute claims here. But at the very least moe fandom provides an answer to Kaioshin’s question. Why does K-ON! almost insist upon not “breaking from the pack?” Because the pack is the point. The pack — the moe database, as it were — is as much an object of aesthetic appreciation as K-ON! itself. Perhaps it even eclipses the individual show. From a certain standpoint, K-ON’s derivative nature, its level of engagement with the database, is not a fault; it’s an accomplishment.
Perhaps unfortunately, then, I won’t end with some sensationalist appeal to one side over another. All sides are “right,” insofar as they can be — or at least all sides are justified in their preferences by the particularities of their life experience. You may consider this point of view symptomatic of that crippling passivity which, like so much else, happens to be the cancer that’s killing anime — and that’s fine, because you, too, are shaped by your experience, and how can I hold that against you?