So here’s a brief digression before anything Kara no Kyoukai related, and my second post! Here goes…
Interpretation in media and art has always been an interesting question, and especially one I’ve been quite keen on since I tend to be paranoid about that sort of thing. I blame high school for making me especially cynical of just going ahead and trying to interpret things for fear of over-interpreting and imbuing some level of meaning that wasn’t intended to be there.
Anyways, the crux of the issue of interpretation comes down to three main points (or more – let me know if I missed some): how do we interpret things, why do we interpret things, and what do our interpretations actually mean, if anything. This is an important issue when dealing with any media, including anime, and so I’ll try to lay out a means of how I think these things are, or ought to be, done, in the next few posts. The second and third points are also seldom addressed in my experience, and so hopefully I’ll find something interesting to say about those. This is part 1, which deals with the “how” (the Who?).
Analysis mainly comes in three flavors, and Pontifus actually has written a good article, Interpretive Strategies in Three Distinct Flavors, detailing them, and so I won’t go into them here. His final summary diagram, however, is priceless.
Similar to his (any blogger with an unknown gender I’ll reference as a ‘his’, since it’s easier than ‘his/her’) terminology, I’ll refer to them as focused, discerning, and omnivoric. I’d like to add a fourth category, apathetic, to encompass fans who simply consume and don’t attempt to interpret. Shance has written a follow-up article from the omnifan’s perspective, Neutrality and the Unheard Woes of the Omnifan, which details a bit more about the omnifan’s dilemma (sadly, it doesn’t have direct parallels to the Omnivore’s Dilemma). Most people generally fall either in one camp or some mixture of them, and although the discussion above has used anime as an example, it applies to any medium.
Obviously some classifications above (discerning, omnivoric) seem to be a bit more “high level” than others (focused, apathetic), and Pontifus’s post (and the subsequent comments) do deal with this; however, I’d like to make the case that it ultimately depends on your perspective and what you want to actually get out of interpretation. I’ll discuss this issue more in detail next time, but for now here are two examples illustrating what I mean.
1. A relatively young chap discovers anime through some type of means (let’s say Toonami, for nostalgia, although it’s recently come back on the air). Being young, he watches shows simply for enjoyment and doesn’t try to distill some deeper meaning or possible “life lessons,” whatever that means [apathetic]. As he matures, he begins to try and piece together themes, events, etc. in shows, and uses his personal experiences to make sense of them [focused]. He eventually seeks out discussion and a community – where to his surprise he discovers that other people have interpreted things differently! He realizes that there are lots of possible interpretations and accepts that they are all just as valid as his own [omnivoric]. However, after extensive discussion, he finds the notion of all interpretations acceptable difficult to swallow, and believes that there should be an interpretation that is generally superior to the rest, and can be shown to be superior [discerning]. He vacillates between the last two categories extensively [omnivoric or discerning].
2. An experienced consumer of literature, let’s one an omnivoric one, discovers anime, and right from the get-go proceeds to interpret and validate shows [omnivoric]. However, he finds that if he is simply looking for these shows to deal with issues and possibly teach valuable life lessons, and so proceeds to look for superior interpretations that he finds most interesting [discerning]. However, he realizes that trying to interpret shows based on the opinions of others to such an extent is a lot of wasted effort if you’re only looking for personal fulfillment, and so he picks the most personally relevant interpretation and takes it to heart [focused]. After all his issues have been sorted out, he finds that the act of interpreting shows detracts from his enjoyment, and begins to simply watch them for their entertainment value [apathetic]. However, discussing his with friends naturally leads him to still interpret shows to a certain extent [focused or apathetic].
In the examples above, we see the fluidity of these camps, with both parties having legitimate reasons from progressing from one camp into the other. While I feel like the typical anime fan probably has experienced more of (1), that doesn’t make (2) any less valid. And actually (2) progresses in reverse because he came to grips with why he tried to interpret things in the first place, as compared to (1) who simply continues to try and improve for no obvious reason.
I come from a mix of the two stories: although my life story followed the narrative structure of (1), my interpretive style very much developed from frequent reading and literature classes in high school, which I later applied to anime in the style of (2). I tend to exhibit a mix of the omnivoric and discerning interpretive styles – I believe that there is a superior and defensible interpretation (the ones that form the most coherent explanation containing the most elements from any given work with the least assumptions), but that all interpretations are valid at some level.
Is any camp superior to the other? It all depends on your opinions are about the meaning of interpretation – about why we should bother trying to interpret things in the first place – which I will try to deal with in part 2.
EDIT: I discovered that Shance (and Pontifus) did a subsequent analysis of fandom, An Open Analysis on Fan Affinities, after Pontifus’s article on interpretative strategies. While only tangentially related to this post (which focuses on the latter), I think the final graph they came up with is interesting.