You and your fandoms are constructs (and that’s okay!)

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)
  • Original
  • Art
  • Cute
  • Fun

Whereas bad anime might be:

  • Shallow
  • Commercialized
  • Derivative

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?

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14 Comments

  1. Tropes are derivative?

    I think you already made the case via Shakespeare LOL.

    Some people just feel they have to go out of their way to establish how BAD a show is, and feels important that other people agree, or at least acknowledge how bad the show they like is.

    For example, ME for ZZ Gundam, though I wouldn’t scour the internet for discussions just to prove my points. It’s the same fundamental behavior. And while I don’t subscribe to this myself, this I think describes the behavior of many fans quite well:

    “My the shows I like are irrelevant/unpopular. People must have shit taste/are stupid. The shows they like MUST be awful.”

    I don’t know if you can be as generous as your non-conclusion suggests if you think about it.

    Reply
    • Pontifus

       /  29 April 2010

      Depends on what you mean by “generous.” My claim — well, the claim I meant to imply — is that, while I may have preferences contrary to yours, I won’t give you as a human being a bunch of shit about it. I think I can probably pull that off. It’s not that I can (or want to) just agree with everyone.

      And there’s probably a judgment tucked away in there about the practice of going around and starting fights. That’s unavoidable, and I’m not trying to hide that sort of thing to make myself look beneficent. But if I don’t have much use for especially argumentative blog posts, I won’t hold my reading preferences against the writers.

      I don’t think there’s a requisite connection between finding people who agree with your tastes and insulting people who disagree. The latter is simply unnecessary, in my estimation. And, by extension, we needn’t take every statement of personal taste as an affront. But I say even this at the risk of insulting someone who does art communities differently than I do — it’s a vicious cycle. I say everyone’s right, or that it doesn’t matter, and then someone says I’m wrong, and so on. I haven’t refused to take a side here; my conclusion is conclusive insofar as it places me firmly in a certain camp. I just like this camp because it doesn’t require that I get all up in arms about everything.

      I don’t know about tropes being derivative — I wasn’t really trying to argue that. But you’ve made me wonder whether we ought to distinguish between “tropes” and “moe elements” — whether they’re different enough that failing to distinguish between them will make things unclear, or whether they’re practically the same thing, or serve the same purpose.

      Reply
  2. Well I have some questions to ask regarding the content of this post if you don’t mind. The lines I picked up on were “K-ON’s derivative nature, its level of engagement with the database, is not a fault; it’s an accomplishment.”, “the pack is the point” and “brand of fandom”.

    With the first two lines I mentioned I have to wonder, would the accomplishment you are proposing be equivalent to and/or part of the pack’s accomplishment? That is to say would the success of K-On that you are proposing belong to the pack – since you also propose that the pack is the point – and not merely to K-On alone? I seem to be sensing something a little Marxist in this proposal which is intriguing, but perhaps I can ask you to expand on the idea.

    Brand of fandom is a little more of a personal question because I noticed you referred to my brand of fandom as a parallel to that of the moe otaku fandom, perhaps even one that operates in an adversarial position? What then would my brand of fandom be and would you seek to define it in the same manner that Azuma attempts to define his subject in otaku? If you don’t mind expanding on this as well?

    Reply
    • Pontifus

       /  30 April 2010

      Well, I’m using the “pack” to point to the general sum total of all the little elements that go into a show like K-ON, elements of the sort that remain fairly constant between shows and might give rise to complaints about derivation. If Azuma is to be believed, there’s a subset of fans who watch a show like K-ON not only for its self-contained plot, characters, and so on, but to get closer to that grand database of elements. The “accomplishment” I referred to is just the ability of the individual show to engage heavily with the database; I don’t think I’d call it a collective accomplishment, though maybe there’s some reason to characterize it that way.

      I’ve made some assumptions about your fandom, but I’m not trying to tell you what kind of fan you are — if you tell me I’m wrong, that I’ve mischaracterized you, then I’ll believe you. With that said, I’ve assumed that 1. your valuing of originality over derivation may have something to do with your having developed as a reader/viewer/fan/etc. in a western context (Canada, am I right?), as we tend to value originality in the west, and 2. in Azuma’s terms, you’re the kind of fan who prefers large, cohesive narratives (given that your blog about page says you’re a fan of Gundam and LoGH), and Azuma does situate that kind of fan in opposition to moe/database fans, at least to some degree. But I’m not really willing to make definite statements about huge groups of fans from just these assumptions. My operative principle here is that if enough of us write about a few of these local concepts, we may begin to get a big picture if we look at everyone’s contributions.

      Reply
  3. First off, thanks for accepting my missteps and putting out an interesting line of thought – hopefully I’m not digging myself further into this hole I accidentally made here. I originally intended to encourage people to ask themselves “am I enjoying [insert title here] and if so, why?” Unfortunately, I didn’t word it as well as I hoped I had, which resulted in a few misunderstandings.

    The fact that this little incident is based on misunderstandings is I think the reason why there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. It surprises me even now how certain shows polarise opinion when they don’t seem to be making grand statements, being knowingly divisive or trying to break the mould. Unfortunately, the amount of marketing and hype (both from the advertising and word of mouth among the fans) makes it virtually impossible to judge a title on its own merits…Evangelion is another good example of that.

    It’s quite an experience though to find you’ve overcome certain preconceptions and prejudices – hence why I decided to write about this recent case (at which point, the process of my realisation may have made me sound like a bit of an arrogant ass along the way!). Funnily enough, I found a similar thing with Lucky Star. Again, that was a show that some loved and some hated but ultimately felt like a guilty pleasure to me. It really did feel like a self-proclaimed music snob/nerd discovering that, much to his own embarrassment, he likes Perfume. But then, is it really something to be embarrassed about? I really like Perfume now… (:

    Reply
    • Pontifus

       /  30 April 2010

      Your motive came through for me, at least. But, being how I am, I had to turn it into “why do we enjoy anything?” — which is a much less reasonable question.

      I don’t know if it could ever be possible to judge a show on its own merits. When we see anime for the first time, we probably compare it to western animation and film; we may not know what its merits are supposed to be, so to speak. And the second show will be compared to the first, and probably to some of the things to which we compared the first, and so on. And this is to say nothing about marketing, and peripheral products like figures and art books, and so on.

      So context is inescapable — which is part of why I don’t know if I’d claim that I’ve overcome prejudices so much as traded them in for other prejudices. I’m more inclined toward fairly neutral posts free of absolute claims than toward combative, contrary posts — and while the latter may have value in promoting discussion, they don’t have much value to me personally. Maybe I prefer prejudice vs. fan activity over prejudice vs. genres and preferences (not that I’m the kind of person who will jump around the internet berating people anyway).

      Lucky Star is a funny example for me; I wrote about it after I’d been blogging for two or three months, and before I discovered subjectivity or indifference or whatever it may be, and the post amounted to little more than “Lucky Star fails, and here’s why!” But I don’t think we should have to be embarrassed about what we like, which is something we more or less can’t help, hence my frustration at fans arguing over personal preference — under no circumstances should we be made to feel that we have to defend ourselves regarding something that is the way it is largely beyond our immediate control.

      Reply
  4. lelangir

     /  1 May 2010

    I mean…I tend to think that all extravagant k-on hate is reactionary knee-jerk. And that defense of k-on is no better. Can’t we just fap to our yui and be in peace? I don’t know if reactionary (knee-jerk or otherwise) discourse is at all useful. I guess it is in that we learn…but that’s quite a roundabout argument. Not to dismiss what you wrote – I agree with it.

    Reply
    • Pontifus

       /  1 May 2010

      Can’t we just fap to our yui and be in peace?

      I’ve tried to provide an answer to this question here (namely: yes). The point is that we needn’t accept “you don’t like what I like, ergo you’re dumb” as our knee-jerk reaction, when it might be “you don’t like what I like, and I don’t really care,” or “you don’t like what I like, which is kind of interesting for a few reasons,” or something else that doesn’t reduce the fandom to the usual petty factionalizing bullshit.

      I prefer not to be pessimistic about it, and concede that we have no control over our knee-jerk reactions, and thus that we’re all just doomed to petty factionalizing bullshit. Which is possible I guess, but I hope not. Maybe discourse about reactionary discourse might help. Then again, maybe not.

      Yeah, maybe this is my reactionary knee-jerk response to reactionary knee-jerk responses. Paradoxical paradox is paradoxical.

      Reply
  5. Surely it’s not news that anime creators are now following the money.

    “why do we enjoy anything?” — which is a much less reasonable question.

    I don’t know that it’s a less reasonable question, but it enters the realm of psychology and biochemistry rather than literary criticism.

    Reply
    • Pontifus

       /  3 May 2010

      It depends, I suppose; people have certainly tried to approach that question through the lens of literature. I can’t say those particular individuals are especially well-regarded in literary studies. But, granted, lit studies is interested in all sorts of things outside the text these days, especially history; I wouldn’t really be any guiltier of not doing criticism, so to speak, than most critics.

      All that aside, though, I’m guessing it’s simply a harder question to answer insofar as it tries to account for “we” rather than “me.”

      Reply
  1. Contraception, I Mean, Constructs - aloe, dream
  2. On Originality « Anime wa Bakuhatsu da!
  3. When everything’s made up… « Cuchlann
  4. The Plot to Put a Plot in K-ON!! Can it Be Done? | We Remember Love

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