Interpreting Interpretation: Part 1

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.

Sometimes the curtains are just blue, rather than a subtle foreshadowing of the protagonist’s secret depressive tendencies, as well as symbolic of the way that he hides his inner tumult from the world outside, you know?

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.

I think the relationships between the three groups in general are eerily accurate in so may ways.

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].

An example of this type of reasoning can be seen in Eva. While a focused fan (or possibly an omnifan) could easily be taken in by the Christian symbolism present in the show, according to Evangelion Assistant Director Kazuya Tsurumaki it actually had no meaning at all:
“There are a lot of giant robot shows in Japan, and we did want our story to have a religious theme to help distinguish us. Because Christianity is an uncommon religion in Japan we thought it would be mysterious. None of the staff who worked on Eva are Christians. There is no actual Christian meaning to the show, we just thought the visual symbols of Christianity look cool. If we had known the show would get distributed in the US and Europe we might have rethought that choice.”
And so the discerning fan who possibly had done a bit of research finds that this interpretation is inferior to others. Note though, this does make the assumption that original intent can influence the validity of possible interpretations, a very “discerning fan”-esque thought, and so a bit of a circular argument.

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].

I mean, it’s great and all to look at Kamina and be like “OMG JESUS FIGURE” and pick apart his relationships with the cast of TTGL, but really he’s just f*ing badass on every level, and sometimes it’s fun just to carried along for the ride.

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.

Also sometimes it’s hard to defend what we watch. Or why events even happen in shows. I mean, General *Eugene* (an absolutely terrifying name) gets beaten by Kirito and dies IN A GIGANTIC FIREBALL.
“Why am I watching SAO?” I’m a KiritoxAsuna fanboy – no deep reason.
“Why is the show good?” Uh… it isn’t really…
“Is it even ideologically consistent?” Well…
“Does it even matter?” *scratches head embarrassingly* No…

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.

The x-axis indicates the degree of openness of the fandom to outside stimuli, while the y-axis indicates the “affinity” of the fandom in question (with positive meaning more constructive, and negative more destructive – the troll and the mindless rabid fan are good examples of the sentiments expressed I think). See their post and subsequent comments for more details.

9 responses to “Interpreting Interpretation: Part 1

  1. Hey, welcome to blogging! And thanks for using your second post ever to engage with us.

    You point out something very important here, namely that fans change all the time. I mean, everyone does. But it’s worth acknowledging that you don’t consume things how you used to, and that your habits may change again in the future.

    I wonder about the existence of the apathetic fan–I tend to think you have to “interpret” on some level to be entertained at all, but then I define interpretation very broadly. In my mind it would include something as simple as relating to a character personally, though that does rely on narrative. Is “YESSSS AWESOME EXPLOSIONS” technically interpretation? Maybe, but there’s a whole argument to be had about that question, and it needs the input of people with more visual and musical experience than I have. I’m a stories and words guy.

    • Thanks – I was partly inspired to start blogging by your (and Shance’s) posts, so it’s really cool to hear back from you! :)

      You do pose a good point – I’ve defintiely changed a lot over the years, and probably will in the future as I continue to consume any type of media, and I definitely should more explicitly acknowledge that.

      Hm…I see what you mean. I guess even relating to a character would be considered interpreting if you considered it as simply providing an explanation for some facet of a show that is not actively stated. You could also define interpretation as more explicit questioning or elucidation of an aspect of the show rather than more traditional (and frequently unconscious) empathy, but that raises a bunch of issues. So maybe the apathetic fan is a bit of an extreme, say at the end of a gradient for the “intensity” of a personal fan.

      As for your question…I can agree it is a valid question! I would tend to think that defining the explosions as hella-awesome involves in some sense processing it and making a judgement, which could be seen as interpretation of the facts. But if you intend for interpretation to be defined as inherently explicative (I feel I belong more in this camp), then it wouldn’t be seen as such. Definitely an issue up for debate though. I wonder if someone like John Cage might’ve had interesting things to say about this – he was all about pushing the boundaries (quite drastically) of what could be interpreted as music.

    • Hello, hello! I believe this is my first post on your blog, and I still find it fitting to post here rather than on your recent posts. I thank you for letting me be your inspiration for blogging.

      I believe Pontifus’ point is exemplified the best on one of the most traditional ways that a person can express himself/herself: Writing and literature. In a post about OreImo, I wholly explained of Kuroneko’s opinion in writing in that “there is no absolute correct way to write”. The same applies to anime, with the only difference being the increased and erratic frequency in the shift on the way the storyboard is being developed according to interpretation. I guess consumption and production of content go both ways when it comes to this.

      • Thank you for posting cool stuff!

        I checked out your post on OreImo – it definitely does hit home about some of the points I was curious about and that you and Pontifus seem to have tried to take out of media consumption and production. At least, it was something that I had missed the first time around. So many more reasons to love Kuroneko! Hopefully I’ll have hammered out some more stuff in a similar vein in the coming weeks that’s been congealing since the first post, so you’ll have more stuff to comment on/critique/rip apart. ;)

  2. You’re on to something great, here; I’m keeping my eyes open for the next part of this. What I’m going to write isn’t nearly as tight as I’d like it to be. This is written to induce discussion, rather than to declare a particular view.

    Connecting to your NGE point: Moby-Dick might be a great example of what you mean. That novel is rife with images. Symbolism, too, of course—but I’m referring instead to *images* (which, by definition, aren’t really tied to some in-story or plot narrative, but only loosely to larger narratives). Floating on a coffin, the color of the whale, et cetera. You get carried away in interpreting the novel (so we are told, anyway), if you try to interpret a coffin or whale as something symbolically solid; what you’re supposed to feel is deeper, foreboding, and fluid, depending on the scene.

    Interpretation: assigning meanings to sequences. “Hoo yah!” reactions to something “cool” are still something to be “read”—there are plenty of people who get things like that “wrong.”

    Insofar as an empathic reaction can be foreseen, intentions can be assumed and picked up on—though not precisely, never precisely. “Intentionality” in these cases may be something of a bracket, conveying, “Reflect on the coolest thing you’ve ever seen, and extrapolate from there.” Anyway, we all know that a primary and primal point of story is to engross. Ultimately, we’re supposed to feel a story as if we were there, or even were those characters. Verisimilitude, yo.

    So, yeah, even seeing an awesome explosion (with no depressing character deaths insinuated; that makes the example easier), and jumping up to go, “Yeeaahh, boi!” is never really wrong. We may question the appropriateness or range of the action (especially if it’s distracting), but the impulse itself is less often questioned. Why is that? Perhaps because there exists some kind of…what, narrative?—we’ve tapped into. We are aware, however comprehensively, of how these sorts of elements have been treated, in both life and art. So interpretation is always going to be informed to some degree by culture.

    I do believe that ideologies, “discourses” (don’t we love that word?), and such are different enough. They counter each other, react against each other, are logically opposite on occasion. But they’re at least linked in the premises they attempt to address; how much so? Well, we could debate that one for a long time.

    Whether or not artists can really answer specific, “for all time” questions (the better ones, I think, don’t arthritically obsess over that, because nothing stays the same, anyway), I think the more important thing is that they contribute to large, nebulous, soupy questions. That isn’t a comforting thought, but Chekhov said that fiction primarily elucidates or better articulates great and significant questions—rather than declares answers.

    The relevance of Cage’s indeterminacy to this topic, as Aristotle would say, “is now obvious.” Sorry. Poli Sci joke.

    • You’re on to something great, here; I’m keeping my eyes open for the next part of this.

      Oh geez – now there’s pressure!

      Moby-Dick might be a great example of what you mean.

      Moby Dick – oh, what a book. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the entire chapter devoted to the color white. I can agree with you though – the novel almost seems to need to be interpreted. Otherwise it runs the risk of just being a poorly constructed narrative that rambles at length about unnecessary topics much in the style of Dickens (at times). I still can’t decide my views on it – such a bizarre book…

      “Hoo yah!” reactions to something “cool” are still something to be “read”—there are plenty of people who get things like that “wrong.”

      Under your definition of interpretation (which is the most general one) I’m still not sure this counts as interpretation. I mean, you’ve assigned a reaction and a feeling to a sequence (in this case an explosion), but I’m not sure if you’ve given it “meaning” per say. But then again that’s based on the definition of “meaning” – what does it mean when something has “meaning” (tautological a bit, I know)? Saying explosion as “cool” is assigning a feeling/concept to a sequence (where it comes from is still up in the air), and whether that counts as “meaning” I’m not so comfortable with, since it’s mostly association. I like to think of meaning as inherently explicative – and association you not only have but can consciously recall. But runs into the same problem I had with interpretation – mainly trying to distinguish between conscious thoughts and unconscious sentiments/thoughts.
      Of course with the explosion there must be something to bind the two together, so I can’t find a problem with your statement (and subsequent explanation/disgression). I guess it’s just because I like to think of “meaning” (like interpretation) being inherently explicative (or at least a conscious realization), so such an association would have some understood basis (a reason for it). It might ultimately be wrong, but at least there would be one. I’d much prefer a statement like “let’s say explosions have been associated with cool, badass protagonists in lots of movies and they evoke a lot of biological stimuli that raise adrenaline levels and make you feel good, and so you’ve associated explosions with awesomeness, and that’s why this explosion is awesome”. And thus while you’ve “interpreted” your original sentiment/association (by giving a reason for it), the original “that explosion is awesome” sentiment still remains just that – a sentiment.
      But in the end, I probably have to agree with your definition (and Pontifus’s statement). In the more academic sense, though, I’ll probably keep my previous definition to limit the topics involved and the amount of ground I might have to cover.

      So interpretation is always going to be informed to some degree by culture.

      Oh, definitely. We can go back to Moby Dick for that – Ishmael and Queequeg now seem to evoke much homosexual overtones in the beginning of the novel, but back in the day that interpretation wasn’t really there. It’d be an interesting topic to discuss…

  3. For me, over analyzing deep plot ironies and themes, and subtle ideological concepts come with the downside of also picking up every plot hole, inconsistency and bad twist there is.

    • Plot inconsistencies and such are not necessarily a bad thing though. Frequently, I find that thinking about a show not only brings me to notice these types of things, but appreciate why I choose to see them as plot holes in the first place, since they could have been justifiably implemented for the sake of a better show. I find this often makes me a better viewer, and helps me appreciate the show more and get more out of it (even if I sometimes I don’t end up liking it as much).

      I also try and make an effort to not “overinterpret” shows as well, so I’m with you there! There’s a fine line between clever/SODEEP and bullshit, and while trying to examine shows critically is useful, trying to over analyze is just an exercise in deluding yourself and getting caught up in your own world and ideas.

      • Some things are transparent enough that a teenager could pick them up but watching Eva at fourteen I didn’t know what the hell was going on at the end. Be sure enough that I had an opinion on it though, and that was half the fun of sharing it with my friends because then I could hear theirs theories as well and we could discuss it.

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s