Colloquium: A Defense of Harems. Or…Whatever.

In this next guest post, I teamed up with misfortunedogged from over at Things in the Fridge to defend one of our most beloved anime genres: the harem. While it seems to get a lot of flak online from all sides of the community, we felt that it deserved some sort of defense (mainly because we still enjoy them—take that society!). In the same vein as Rebecca’s post on defending shoujo or Froggykun’s posts discussing tastes in anime or ways we can enjoy anime more, we hoped to talk about what it is that we like about harems so we could defend them from a more abstract, artistic perspective. Establish a framework for defending “low” art, what it means to “engage” with a medium—that type of thing.

Anyways, the first part of our discussion is below. Hopefully it turned out well, and feel free to throw in your own two cents on harems or anything else we talked about down in the comments!

Note: MFD = misfortunedogged, JS = joshspeagle

JS: So I’ll kick things off here. One of the things that always bothers me about when people criticize harems – or much of anything, for that matter—is that they tend to judge them based on values that don’t really mesh well with the show. I mean, when a show is going to be about fanservice and appealing to our “baser” nature, why impose all our high-brow literary requirements on them? It ruins the whole experience and shuts off a whole venue of possibly entertaining options.

MFD: That kind of thing has always bothered me when it comes to media—or any type of art, really. I think it’s really tied to one fundamental question: How do we engage art? Or, really, how should we engage art?

JS: I hadn’t thought of it in that light. What’re your thoughts on this then?

MFD: I would think most people tend to engage art carefully. But the thing is, art has a hazy effect on people. Authors John Gardner and William H. Gass have debated about the effects of art on society and vice-versa, and in the end the most genuine conclusion we’ve come to is something like “definite but uncertain.” It’s hard to tell how a story might influence an individual.

JS: Definitely. I actually remember reading an article awhile back where a study showed that (qualitatively) after participants read a book they enjoyed, they tended to actually begin displaying some of the traits of the main character(s) of the book (at least for the first couple hours). I’ve noticed this type of thing for a while myself after I’ve watched a really good show or read a really good book, and the idea that this effect might be more common is pretty interesting. So there’s a lot of power in how exactly we engage with art.

MFD: Exactly. You might watch a series and imitate the main character’s grin. You might take up smoking, or a wardrobe change.

JS: Or a change in hairstyle! I actually tried growing my hair out a couple years back because of this sort of thing. I really liked it (not many others were fans except for fellow otaku), but I soon discovered having one eye covered by hair all the time (or hair that reaches down the length of your face) is not actually all that fun, even if you think it looks hella-cool.

MFD: Haha, right. For me, it’s crossing my arms all of the time. Damned Gainax!

Noriko Takaya Gendo POSE

JS: Oh man, don’t even talk about Gainax—I actually lean over tables like Gendo lol.

MFD: Just goes to show the extent to which a story can rub off on you, right? You might even start believing a character or narrator’s ideas about the world. In the end, what an artist seeks to pass on is not necessarily what sticks with the viewer.

JS: I can definitely agree with this. I know that in many cases I tend to look at stories in a different way from how I think they were intended to be viewed by the creator(s) since I find that I enjoy them more that way. Or get more out of them—one of the two. Take some more general media, for example. Frequently we attach very personal emotions, meanings, and values to much of the art we consume. While often it might line up with what the creator(s) intended, many times that intent is not what sticks with you. A passionate song becomes a comedy when coupled with the right scenes. Music becomes special when used to commemorate occasions. Literature can become special because you read yourself into the story in a way completely different from what the author intended.

MFD: Heh. That last instance seems rather specific…

JS: Yea—I was just thinking of the time when I was discussing The Fountainhead with my roommate back at school. I had always treated Roark’s character as a sort of testament to integrity and essentially made many of his traits the defining features of my worldview, completely out of context with the worldview/philosophy that Ayn Rand tried to portray throughout the book. My roommate was completely shocked that I could deliberately misinterpret/ignore such an integral part of the book just because I felt like it, since many of the messages I got out of it would be completely invalidated if I had viewed it the way that Ayn Rand had intended.

MFD: Gotcha. Going off your last point, I’d actually like to ask: Is there a “right” viewpoint for engaging a story?

JS: I’d say no. What makes one viewpoint more “right” than another?

MFD: Technically, one can experience the art “closer” to what the author experienced rather than further away. This is where we get into research, sciences, and philosophy. If we can recognize patterns in the story, compare them to other apparent patterns, understand what is similar and different, where the line between “non-fictitious nature’s having its way” and “fictional liberty” is hazily drawn, we can cast a net that, hopefully, captures some of the author’s intent.

JS: This “hopefully” bothers me a bit. It seems to imply such a thing might not be possible.

Eye Power

MFD: That’s just it, though. What seems to us to be definite space is something of an illusion, if only because we aren’t the author and what we pull up with that net will never be equivalent. Even if we discover those questions the writer asked, the streets walked, the works read, the art will never be quite the same for us that it was for him or her.

JS: I mean, this is even true for the author himself—time separates us from ourselves as much as our identities separate us from others.

MFD: Yes! And the criticism we’ll write is not some exempt, self-enclosed existence, but fresh art of its own. The best we can do is attempt to experience and to articulate art most in step, tentatively, like a carefully-added cadence or pattern, with the writer’s art.

JS: So is the “right” view here that you’re expressing the one closest to the author’s views? That seems to imply a very particular sense of “art”—namely, an anti-personal one. Ultimately, it’s not you who then determines what the highest enjoyment of art is, but the artist. And your quest to see art his way is what you’re using to determine quality. To use an anime example, this is essentially like saying that to fully appreciate Mashiro’s artwork (from Sakurasou) you must attempt to “become” Mashiro.

Sakurasou Art

Actually, this type of logic can be applied to any sort of “objective” (well, subjectively object) viewpoint when critiquing art from a set of standards that you attempt to objectify. This seems to invalidate your own personal experiences here and fundamentally deny who you are. Or are you saying that the journey to get from where you are to where the artist is/was is an integral part of this “right” view?

MFD: That’s where I was aiming, and it isn’t. I really like where this is going, though. Let’s follow this thread.

JS: Ah, my bad! Well, the counter to such a viewpoint is then the completely personal one, where you judge from “completely” subjective criteria and disregard any of the author’s original intent. So sort of like what Stand Alone Complex is getting at. But this then runs into the opposite problem of completely rejecting the artist and denying someone else’s existence. I think a “right” viewpoint is one that straddles these two—appreciating the artist’s viewpoints while simultaneously affirming your personal experience and engagement through your interpretation. Or you could just screw the whole thing and attempt to make the engagement entirely visceral. That works too. Actually, a while back I attempted to divide the anime fandom into four groups (apathetic, personal, discerning, and omnivorous) based on the ways they “interpreted”—in this context,  “engaged”—with the medium. I’d say in the context of our debate, the apathetic fan tends to fall  into the “screw it” category, the discerning fan into the “anti-personal” category, the personal fan into the, well, “personal” category, with the omnivorous fan into some mixture of the three. Just a random side note.

MFD: No, no, that’s enlightening! There are different levels of intent, of course, like why a symbol or image looks the way it does, or how exactly a character statement links to a theme. I think it was a good idea on your part to elaborate as many of the possibilities as possible, come up with a rudimentary framework. I think a lot of assumptions are made, traditions built, about how art should be engaged and read—societal ones. And there definitely are risks—problems, even—reducing all models down to one or prescribing “best” models. Art doesn’t have to do nearly as much as various people throughout history have demanded it to, nor necessarily emerge from the places they claim. I was trying to say that there might exist a fairest or most genuine way to read, and you’ve just fleshed out the argument for such a negotiation process—quite nicely! Really cool how that aligned.

JS: Haha thanks. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment, since I came across the same issue in high school (which has been nagging at me since). My literature teacher put forth an argument in class—written by some English professor, of course—that there was a “correct” way to interpret literature. In hindsight, I think that the better term is—as you put it—“fair”. Namely, the argument was that the correct interpretation was the one which fit the most elements with the least amount of assumptions and extrapolations. The specifics in this case revolved around several Dickinson poems and a couple books, but I think it holds true more generally. Ultimately, this solution is a great middle ground—it’s “objective,” but on explicitly subjective criteria, with enough wiggle room to incorporate your thoughts while still respecting the author’s original intent. It respects both parties, reaffirms both individuals, and can easily be used in discussion. You’re limiting your readings on purpose, of course, but in a positive, constructive way.

MFD: Actually, a good transition into the main issue.

JS: Alright—lay it on me!

MFD: Must we—can we—limit our readings? Say we already find a work to be abhorrent. The road to discovering a less-appalling reading might end up being too difficult. Leaving us…stranded, I guess I’d put it? Probably happens to reviewers all of the time.

JS: In my opinion, sure. You only need follow the reading you feel is “fairest”—and this criteria is whatever you make of it, so you don’t even have to follow your own rules! And you’re right, since this actually was a big issue with much of last season, with all the hubbub surrounding Crime Edge and OreImo S2. Windyturnip, for instance, couldn’t stand Crime Edge while Guardian Enzo, who loved it, couldn’t stand OreImo S2. They both just couldn’t find ways to view the show that made it less, well, terrible! Not that I’m saying either is wrong—both shows weren’t exactly “masterpieces”.

MFD: Masterpieces, eh? Gets me thinking. Assuming fair readings are possible—and, like you, I tend to think they are, since the spectrum of fairness arguments is wide—they’d most likely incorporate some conscious, sifting awareness of the breakdown of the line between “serious” and “unserious” art. Again, a social question, or an “individual within society” question. Has your train of thought been heading this way? Art can break down the “unserious” on its own terms; isn’t that some kind of aping seriousness? It obviously takes some measure of thought and cleverness, right? So, “unserious intent,” if you will, though still comprehensible intent. Some artists have this fantasy of standing at attention in some cosmic war, at the edge of the universe, suppressing existential collapse, breaking the line and holding it desperately; these are the “serious” artists in which some have argued we should leave the fate of our societies. They work hard to be the precise cutting edge, and all that. Much of the fantasy comes down to an elevation of highly mimetic art, that sort where you observe characters like Billy-Sarah Joycestu doing X, and you imitate their lives, avoid their mistakes.

JS: There seems to be a lot of Gainax influence in that last paragraph…

MFD: Ohhh, yeah. That –buster and Lagann fixation can be hard to break.

JS: I hear ya. Anyways—you were saying?

MFD: Right. Putting it straight, unserious work may not seem to be that work. To be honest, it makes total sense to decry such fictional worlds as societies not hoped for. But like I said earlier, we can’t boil down all models or visions of art to one, not even one involving the improvement and protection of societies. And it isn’t as if ostensibly unserious work can’t have anything…well, serious to say, for a moment. In the end, we do need to come down on what we at least think the assumptions of the work are; if we haven’t grasped its mimetic frame, we may give it too little leeway, or too much.

JS: Sure, I can buy that.

MFD: An example: I remember Froggy-kun’s referring to most 2-D works as literary failures. He even bolded the declaration, which seems a little…extreme—but you know he’s right, according to basic definition. What do you think he really means? They definitely are confused, in that they don’t calculate too well for strong counteracting feelings like disgust or boredom, delicately organize effects in some “enlightening” or “clarifying” way.

JS: I think it’s just that they most often tell really shitty stories. The themes are muddled, the plots generally have holes all over them, and if they were picked at for being clever or having literary merit they’d definitely not be high up on the list. As you said, they’re arranged in order to get effects, most of which are “base,” distinctly visual/meme-based, and probably anti-mimetic if you’re judging it on reproducing reality or even verisimilitude (since it tends to swing escapist), which tends not to really fit into a “literary” framework too well.

MFD: Huh. Wow. All the more reason for us to try to grasp mimetic frameworks.

JS: So how do you suppose we try to get a handle on this?

MFD: Let’s…start with what we know. Okay. All stories are fake, comprising pieces stitched together into some conceptual “whole,” right? The marionette strings can be either more or less visible. Our experiences of those stitched-together pieces are variable, which means that our grasp of a fictional world—as opposed to the real world, full of history, data, and facts—is more contingent than artists and philosophers had previously assumed. Even in the medieval era, romances, ostensibly old legends, featured characters who might talk, assume, and behave like the author’s contemporaries might. Similarly, a cartoon protagonist might behave in some ways more closely aligned with “our” reality rather than “his” or “her” own.

JS: So the boundaries between “fiction” and “reality”, the artist and the artwork, and the object and the viewer are becoming extremely blurred. And we should understand exactly how these stories are “fake” or “constructed” in order to get a better sense of what it is or what it’s trying to do.

MFD: Or the myriad of things the framework’s done to us, mm-hmm. We’ll need to navigate, and we’ll need to start somewhere. Your average 2-D series, as an example, is full of contrivances, psychological weirdness, and face faults that might seem…well, like convention! But it’d be silly to try actually dating what looks like a yandere, or a violent tsundere. For better or worse, we label people like that “off their rockers.” If Aristotle’s framework is useful here as a springboard into our own thoughts, we could agree that all art utilizes some conception or level of mimesis, but then add that not all art is as committed to being highly mimetic, or depicts said commitment in the same way. We’d also admit that people these days don’t so much mind the blurring you’ve mentioned. More confusingly, our feelings of “truthiness” depend on pattern, how often something happens, whether and in what way “our world” stuff is juxtaposed with “wacky world” stuff. Something can grip us in the very depiction, even if it’s way improbable, has nothing to do with our world, or even a traditionally-coherent “world.” Verisimilitude is weird, man.

JS: Verisimilitude—such a great word. I agree with all your points here, and I think we can turn to Gainax for some more perfect example of this, since we haven’t referenced them enough already, right? Look at TTGL, for instance: so much of it is very clearly wacky, but lots of features about the show seem to resonate very strongly with viewers. As if, through it’s strange and wacky over-the-top way, it’s making its way towards some fundamental “truth” or theme that most people empathize with, some part of “our world” contained in that “wacky world”. “My drill is the drill that will pierce the heavens”—such a ridiculous line, but one that still grips me to this day. Alternately, we could look at how exactly the separation of the two is important. Building off your example, most anime fans will admit to having some sort of soft spot to many types of characters (e.g. tsundere), but perfectly realize that in real life it just wouldn’t work. And then in the next sentence can talk about how such a show with said character(s) was deep, moving, and really “spoke to them”. Some might even go so far to say character interactions/plot developments were “realistic” (you also discussed this sort of thing in your Usagi Drop post I think), and have trouble differentiating between whether this is true in the “wacky world” or the real one. So this feeling of “truthiness” really jumps around a lot.

MFD: Awesome. Building on that example, it’s probably worth pointing out that the idea of art’s getting at truth can be really nerve-wracking to begin with.

JS: Quick clarification: you mean some subjective “truth”, or the objective “Truth”?

MFD: Just…“truth.” That truth claims are a hazy thing, and that people seem to ignore this, is my point.

JS: Ah, okay. I was just curious because the same “getting at truth” sentiment is present in spades in physics. People are always conflicted about whether our models (e.g. General Relativity) really tell us something about the nature of reality, or whether they’re ultimately descriptive and always will be. It’s a hard question and tends to invoke a lot of passionate debate on both sides.

MFD: Yikes, I believe you. Things also get really weird, really fast, when you get into questions of moral realism. Art, philosophy, probably even science have such an awkward relationship, although they are remarkable close—perhaps kin. Art and philosophy utilize and shade into each other. A philosophical work seems to be truth, get at what is, but who would deny that it names, renames, ennobles objects and concepts? Soul, spirit, mind, essence, Absolute! Both have a fixation with determining the relationship—if only to let each alone in the end—between appearance and reality. Is art about what “is?” Should it be? Still in the dark there. But a desire for truth is not necessarily what drives it, either, so much as a desire for…organization? Though the organization may at points align with truth. Or…should I say, a vision of organization? Argh! Grrr. Ultimately, what do we mean when we say that “truth” is important, or “That’s not how it is!” when we read a book? And why should anyone care?

JS: So I just remembered this was supposed to be a discussion on defending harems lol. How do we bring these lofty ideas to bear on the genre?

MFD: Oh, man! Hmm. Are you familiar with the work of the Soviet literary critic Viktor Shklovsky?

JS: Not at all—enlighten me!

MFD: He’d be a fun source to work with. See, in the 20s he published a book called Theory of Prose, detailing the concept of “art as device.” He theorized that literature could be broken down into motifs that would take on new shapes, baggage, and meaning depending on where they went, where they’d “been,” how they were ultimately arranged, permutated. Y’know, contexts wherein language is used. The artistic effect would just come down to a destabilizing one on the reader, one where you are jarred into trying to “see,” grapple with what feels like a new or foreign experience, rather than just to label and “recognize.”

Viktor Shklovsky

JS: So essentially that literature ends up being composed of elements, which gather meaning both internally and externally as they travel around over time. What do you mean by them having a “destabilizing” effect on the reader, though? Do you mean that he’ll be encouraged/prompted to try and get to the “heart” of their meaning and/or the author’s original usage/understanding of them? That he’ll be forever skeptical and questioning of the motifs he’s encountering because he doesn’t know where they’ve been, in contrast to just assuming the most familiar meaning—this “recognizing”—is the correct one?

MFD: Well, the word Shklovsky used for it was ostranenie, a punny concept (ha!), one which kind of doesn’t exist in either language. We’ve tried defamiliarization. Our possibly-closest grasp, though, came about because we resorted to making up our own word: e(n)strangement, the sort-of “making something feel estranged from or unfamiliar to a reader.”

JS: I think I see what you mean here. It’s like how many male harem leads are meant to be very bland to serve as self-insert characters for the viewer so they can feel like they are more actively participating in the story. But this type of character, besides being “fake”, also is a trope—a “motif”—that is reused and recycled in ever-changing iterations and takes on new meaning as it is exposed to other cultures outside of Japan (i.e. most of the visceral Japanese school life connections are lost on the viewer). And so we are estranged from the very thing we are meant to try and become. Sound about right?

MFD: …That’s a really stimulating extension of the point. Thinking about it, I suppose motifs of choice, tendency, backstory, etc. are built up, patterned into a larger “character” motif. You’ll bump into people here and there arguing that “art must be immersive” or whatever, but even then there are loads of ways through which texts steer us away from taking social “rules” or “laws” and aesthetical assumptions in what seems to us “the usual way.” Which, of course, largely translates into our “usual way.”

You’ve nailed two major actors: the creator-author, which was Shklovsky’s angle (since they build the works), and the reader within different contexts—his implicit concern, we might say. Amorphous, changing society informs reader, writer, and “context”—and so, well, why not expand the concept to the 2-D phenomenon? Russian formalism did lend itself well to such interpretative broadening. Your average foreign reader, fair as he or she may be, won’t “get it all,” and neither will the Japanese reader. I could see this being a scary prospect for some, motifs supposedly slipping out of our control and all.

JS: I mean, it’s a scary prospect for me personally. It’s this precise reason (that I now have a framework for!) that I’ve been so interested in understanding Japanese culture—this paranoia over possibly missing some underlying meaning, some evolution, some permutation. I need to understand these motifs—all of them—or else I feel my understanding of the show is biased and incomplete. And that makes me uncomfortable, anxious even. You just fundamentally can’t get all of it, since society, mankind, history, everything—it’s all just too big. Too grand. Way too much to ever take in. It’s exhilirating, don’t get me wrong, all the possibilities and the freedom and the chances to explore and make new connections and all that. But still really frustrating.

MFD: It’s a bummer, sure. Shklovsky doesn’t quite go as far as answering your earlier question about effects on the reader as a person, not in that work, anyway—not in some drawn-out, expository way. He wanted to divorce the sociopolitical from what he thought would have been the “purely” aesthetic, from the more-immediate technique. He wanted to determine what literary effect might be in a very fundamental or concrete sense, and investigate all of the different directions in which it could go. Clutches at transcendent or historical whys, assessments made by the reader must follow. He liked dancing upon what he deemed to be the conceptual line between art and everyday life. The premise being that art is not mere communication, with the goal of an understanding or interpretation “lock-on”—even more obviously not because art seems to be so idiosyncratic, so winding and indirect.

JS: I actually see a lot of similarities in this train of thought with Makoto Shinkai’s work concerning the soft line between art and everyday life. Reaching towards something like the hyperreal, maybe. Anyways, continue.

Shinkai

MFD: Ah, Shinkai. I follow, I think, at least insofar as the artistic “capture” of life never gets you “life itself,” but builds a device that maybe gets you fixating on the nature of everyday life. So, granted, Shklovsky’s approach may seem extreme, and it admittedly brings to mind that old accusation of artists’ being “pie in the sky” good-for-nothings. We put stories together in certain ways for reasons, obviously. But it’s useful here, if only as a mental experiment. We’ve already discussed art’s weirdness in capturing “truth.” We’ve touched upon the realization that art is fake, questionably copyable, and that “criticism arguments” are social arguments. It probably makes sense in most cases even to call them political arguments—I think George Orwell said something to this effect, that all issues are political issues. We want more of something to exist, we want traditions to last, we cast toward a society we hope for. But more or less, Shklovsky wanted to hint that art nonetheless can and does get away from political ends, and to encourage folks not to settle for ceilings so much. And, uh, the Bolsheviks didn’t take to that.

JS: Oh, I can imagine that didn’t sit well there. Still, it’s a pretty intriguing train of thought. It seems to sit quite well with what I think and feel about art.

MFD: Like I said, it’s a fun idea. I do think there’s a lot of room for the suspicion that harem shows aren’t really “inbred.” That such a declaration doesn’t really make sense when you think about it.

JS: Wait just a sec. I’m a little bit confused by the term “inbred”. What do you mean there?

MFD: The ol’ carbon-copy-shows-from-X-genre argument. The extension would be that, with the market so “oversaturated,” we’d have before us a higher concentration of unpleasant representations. By the way, this absurd question just popped into my head from out of nowhere: “What about feminist reverse-harem guro?” I guess, where’s the line between the sexist male-subjecting-female domination and the feminist iteration? What about sociological honesty in acknowledging sexism’s awful role in the whole mess? Can’t databasing viewers do what they like in their readings or fixations?

JS: Those topics are enough to write whole theses on—let’s not take on more than we can chew here! And of course you bring up the database lol. Can’t escape Azuma!

MFD: I know, I know. Dat database. I think displacement and freshness feed into modern-day text-reading, especially once we start talking about the 2-D database, which already features so many “unserious” works. If there’s a hypothetical context within which I could see Shklovsky’s theory making a heck of a lot of sense, it’s that one. New generations of viewers are constantly using the database, consumers keep coming back for more stories, more pieces, and the harem section is doing things, is reshuffling motifs—enough to keep people occupied, “enstranged,” anyway. The database continues to have potential for a ginormous number of permutations. And the number of series out there has accordingly increased. Yeah, there will be “better” and “worse” ones—as has always been the case. The criticisms never really seem to change; the worries are literally ancient. These days, it’s that otaku watching a lot of this are…I dunno, more “at risk” or something? And uptightness about the risks.

JS: Right. We can see how shows like To Love-Ru take the harem concept to its limit, while others like Date A Live seem to try and poke fun at themselves. And then you end up with deconstructions like the Monogatari series and Oregairu, and maybe even OreImo if you view it the right way. And there are still more traditional harems bouncing around (heh), like Samurai Bride or Photokano. So definitely still a lot of stuff available.

OreImo

As for the criticisms, they’re the same as in every single medium: people are worried that we aren’t smart enough to distinguish between fantasy and reality. They had the same concerns with the introduction of television. And video games. And even books! I mean, take violent video games. People have been harping forever that violent video games (and even earlier that, violent television) will lead people to imitate those acts and become violent themselves. Yet many studies (at least, as of a couple years ago) show that the only thing that playing violent video games tends to do is increase visuospatial cognition, AKA hand-eye coordination. So it seems like the average gamer knows the difference between fantasy and reality. The same spheal can apply to anime—although there are many crazed fans of these shows (oh god con memories), most of them really can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. People realize SAO isn’t real life, they aren’t Kirito, and that all girls are not like Asuna. Sure there are risks, as there are with every medium, but for the average person something like this shouldn’t really be an issue.

But I seem to have gotten off track from talking about the database. Let’s shift back to that.

MFD: Seriously, no problem. If you can’t gather all of the influences, and you can at best read fairly, and your “issues” readings are social, one starts delving into such studies and numbers. What seems odd or off-putting to certain groups will slip into the most wholesome-seeming of 2-D titles, and decoding the effects is often a Gordian knot. What “matters” more is based on what we think “sticks” more reliably. What “matters” more is what people debate. So…what actually “sticks,” reliably “sticks?” Personally, the constant reshuffling of 2-D motifs (of even  animation staff) strikes me as a relief, because it happens at a rapid-fire pace, and the works nonetheless hit us in various ways with the realization that we are assuming creatures—affirming, double-taking, reevaluating ones. And that don’t feel too bad.

It’s a weird phenomenon, the database, because we who utilize it are of course still concerned with things beyond it. Maybe we behave more animalistically here and there, but the vast majority hasn’t yet become full-on animals. So we have to remain honest with ourselves about the situation, and about our benchmarks. The database itself isn’t impermeable, but it does seem partitioned, somehow. Mimetically, very few of its works are the sort civilizations would seek to build societies upon; relatively few are even emulated in the more broad-brush, directly-translatable ways. Which would bring the level down to pieces. But then, not every 21-century mecha show is Evangelion, and you could end up totally off reading into what you think are conceptual links. Even the freakish relationship between Avatar: the Last Airbender and FLCL is a cheat (though nonetheless an awesome example of what we’ve been discussing), because Western TV doesn’t work the same way as a potential database, and the anime-based shows are far from common (they’retrying). And FLCL is genius. Of course, morally-speaking, a heck of a lot of this stuff is pretty low-resolution to begin with. All I mean by the m-word here is that implications of aesthetic choices were carefully annotated (or not), painstakingly thought through (or not), and are conducive to uplift. “Cutting-edge.” Y’know, enabling us to face collapse and darkness, to maybe survive it (or not).

JS: Right. You can be responsible about not taking things like this too “seriously” while still being intellectually engaged with the material. Reveling in the “stupidity” of it all while still being aware of what it is. You can get past the “it’s good, isn’t that enough?” excuse—when you think through how “low-resolution” this stuff really is, you realize that you can have your cake and eat it too. A work doesn’t need to be particularly well “thought out” per se in order to enjoy it!

MFD: At least, not according to a consumption model emphasizing the “what you can pull off” a bit more than moral complexity worth a damn. There may be better or worse things to be lazy about when you create a work, however we should measure that, and sure, I’d like every work I encounter to have been meticulously thought through. But why all that pressure? Why be expressly “correct” or “political,” when you can let out a deep breath and put your energy into being “fair?” Why try to dictate someone else’s fun, as if we’re making anything more or less than a political statement?

I take that earlier comment back about every work I encounter. Adventure Time is a little too dense for my Western cartoon expectations.

JS: Oh Adventure Time. What a show. Anyways, I couldn’t agree more with what you said earlier. We should get back to this at some point.

MFD: Hey, you know I’m up for it. I mean, you’ve just re-read Otaku; we’ve got to feed that refresher into this stuff we talk about at some point. Crunch some numbers, too, or whatever. Try quantifying some effects rather than just making statements. But yeah. Maybe you can convincingly attack database anime from the standard of personal ostranenie-levels: basically, not being moved enough anymore, though something might come along later on that does. Which would free you to abandon the title, or the stuff. There’s always playing masochist and just being honest in your review, including a thought on how you think your views work. What you do or don’t know, do or don’t care about at the moment. Why shouldn’t you be free to try recapturing some semblance of pleasure in the process?

JS: Well said, and a perfect summary of what we’re trying to get at. Let’s end this here then—I think I can enjoy my pantsu and oppai in peace now! ;D

MFD: Boy, do I hear that. Bye-ni!

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33 responses to “Colloquium: A Defense of Harems. Or…Whatever.

  1. Pingback: Wrote My First Not-Solitary Post, Was Fun | Things in the Fridge·

  2. tl;dr so I’ll just say this. I’m not inherently against harems. I like the idea of projecting myself in a situation where a bunch of girls fall in love with me because I’m straight like that. The only problem is that most harems are so goddamn lazy and completely un-fun in their setups to the point that they come off as a desperate broken homeless girl begging you for sex. Ewwwww, no.

    Also, a bunch of harems these days also do that stupid white-knight syndrome that even Disney tries to stay away from nowadays to the point that there’s no give or take in the relationships. One girl, maybe, because that can open up some good story ideas. But four or five? Dullllllll!

    The final problem is that most of them are not funny ala the Love Hina manga. But let’s just agree to disagree whether Monogatari, Highschool DxD, and such get laughs.

      • Agreed. I just never tend to think of it when the term “harem” comes to mind, the same way “FMA” doesn’t seem to really be shonen. Which I guess just shows how mediocre both genres tend to be in general.

  3. I’m mostly not against harems because I’d be extremely hypocritical if I was. I typically don’t enjoy panty shots, b00b jokes, and women competing for love because I’m not the intended audience. I do however enjoy the odd reverse harem if they’re either funny or innovative enough (Ouran High School Host Club being a prime example here). It strikes me that I can’t really criticise harems when I’m right there in front of the screen watching essentially the exact same material, only it just so happens to be aimed at women instead of men.

    • Again leaving space for JS’ response, but…you recently wrote a post on demographics, which I found interesting since I thought through it (very superficially, I’m afraid) when trying to figure out Usagi Drop. I’m curious, because admittedly I don’t know too much about the topic: how do you think the proportions between harem and reverse-harem map out, do the reverse ones get fanservicey in the same physical way, and do girls really get into that (or any such show) to the same extent guys seem to? Maybe it’s too intense a question, but I thought to ask it all the same.

      • Hey misfortune, I know this question wasn’t directed at me, but I thought I’d chime in on the female perspective of harems/reverse harems. I’ve seen a decent number of reverse harem shows and yes there is definitely a lot of fanservice. However, when you say physical you seem to be insinuating sexuality, which while the highlight of traditional harem shows, is generally not the focus. Instead, reverse harems tend to focus on how handsome, charming, or brooding (Edward Cullen-esque) the males are. I can’t speak for all girls, but at least in my experience, I don’t look at the males with the idea of sexualizing, but rather as potential boyfriend candidates–someone who I’d want to be in a serious, loving relationship. (That being said, I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a sap when it comes to this stuff.) Of course it’s an added bonus if the males are “sexy”, but the focus tends to be on “handsomeness” instead. This isn’t to say that it isn’t in there at all, there are usually ripped, shirtless guys running around at some points, but it definitely isn’t the focus unlike traditional harem shows which are full of awkward sexual encounters and cleavage/panty shots.

      • I think reverse harems aren’t likely to show fanservice in exactly the same way as straight harems do, e.g. panty shots and the like. What reverse harems have instead is fanservice such as sparkly bishounen and calculatedly implied male/male relationships. As to girls getting into it in the same way that guys do, I can’t really say since I haven’t talked with many other females fans about this. From my online wanderings though, what I can say is that there are some extremely passionate fangirls out there – hence the immense popularity of anime such as Ouran, Fruits Basket, and more recently Free.

    • I think it’s easier for men to enjoy a reverse harem than for women to enjoy a harem. A little bit less physical focus, more on the romantic side, I think. Or maybe that’s just me attempting to justify why Free! is AMAZING.

  4. First of all: Well done with your collaboration! This was a rambling, often indirect but always fascinating defense of harems. What a deliciously high-brow conversation this was – even more so because of what the topic was about! Makes me think the greatest intellectuals are the ones who understand the lowest common denominator, not the ones who try to exclude that factor in their arguments. Loved all those geeky Gainax references ;)

    Now, cutting to the meat of your argument, there are a couple of things I want to say in response. I agree with you that there is a “fair” interpretation of art that both attempts to understand the artist’s intentions while embracing personal, subjective notions. Art is, inherently, what you make of it. You have to put in some kind of investment to get the most out of it. Kind of like the whole Equivalent Exchange thing in Fullmetal Alchemist – always comes in handy.

    Consumers of art, to me, are artists themselves. I’m going to leave the physical acts of fan interaction aside, like fanart and fanfiction, since they are obviously works of art and that goes without saying. But the critique, like misfortunedogged said, is also a work of art because it attempts to present a particular interpretation and to convey that to an audience. I’d go even further than that, though. I’d say any act of interpretation, conscious or not, is, in itself, an expression of art. Art is, like you said, a connection of different strands of influence coming together to form a whole. That’s essentially what interpretation is as well: we’re picking together different ideas and coming up with some kind of holistic argument based on that.

    Then comes the issue of what we choose to accept and what we choose to reject: the argument of quality. My personal philosophy is that a work of art that feels internally consistent with multiple avenues of interpretation is what I would loosely define as a “masterpiece”. But any work of art has merit, including the trashiest of harems, even if it requires more active viewer input or a particular brand of interpretation to actually enjoy. I consider myself quite the literary snob (my bookshelf consists primarily of works from the Western canon) but I can still enjoy harems in the spirit that they’re made in. In fact, I revel in these base extremities – to me, the line between “low art” and “high art” has never been all that important for me.

    Ultimately, I think that any anime is worth my time because I’ve chosen to make my engagement of art a way of life, but this is not so with everyone!

    Often, we come across two types of reviews:
    a) the review that is more indicative of the tastes of the reviewer
    b) the review that is more indicative of the nature of the material being critiqued

    I would say both types of reviews are useful. As casual fans with minimal exposure to the proper context anime is created in, type a) is probably more useful when read with a discerning eye. We can have greater familiarity with reviewers and their tastes because we can often see where they’re coming from. We want to know what is “good” and whether it is worth our time. So the reviewer’s recommendation comes in handy.

    But I would say that type b) reviews are most useful to the reviewer himself. It’s not a feign at objectivity but rather an immersed attempt to understand the source material from multiple avenues of interpretation. It’s much more artistic, much more personally engaging. Misfortunedogged’s review of Usagi Drop strikes me as an example of type b). It strikes me that despite the negative stance of his review he ultimately got more out of the anime than the average fan who liked it (including myself!)

    Most of the time on the Internet, we see reviews of harem anime written in the style of type a). So I would love to see more type b) reviews. Am hoping discussion like this can lead to more of that. More understanding, more “fairness”, but still a great amount of discernment and critique.

    Good job! Am looking forward to more of this :)

    • I want to leave room for JS to respond, but I’ve got to say: I’m surprised at how sympathetic the responses have been so far. Our style was a bit of a gamble, but it seems enough of it came through!

      I am intrigued by your take on interpretation translating into art—I think I’m even inclined toward sharing it outright—because it more or less seems to skip carefully around the communication vs. art trap-hole. Like, why art often seems so tautological or circuitous, rather than direct. So then, even in a dry, expository essay there would be art to be found, at least at some level. The issue comes down to how to proliferate, intensify, hone it—which leads to normative claims, benchmarks of how many should care, and why.

      Even your particular definition of “masterpiece” is interesting, because you aren’t just saying, “the more people that like it,” which one would be tempted to reduce the argument to. You’re tying in benchmarks, like you said, evaluations of quality.

      Part of the reason “high” and “low” art benchmarks don’t matter so much is because the structures and pressing issues that would keep us thinking we should uphold them are collapsing. Whether or not the concepts mattered before, or ever existed, we don’t care now. So I think you’ve phrased it honestly; it’s not necessarily or totally that the conventions are for instance BS and evil or whatever (I’ve read this take, and it bothers me), but that value systems are changing, and “authorities” can’t assert them with nearly the same force they used to.

      Lastly, I think you’ve nailed it, in your self-reflection and receptiveness. The world, history, universe, or whatever is huge enough to navigate, huge enough to slip away from our needs and assumptions. This is what I think we were going for. We could have just said, “like what you feel like liking, or at least let others do so.” But you’re picking up on our expansive subtleties, here. Sincere thanks for working with us on that.

    • Let me repeat misfortunedogged and say thanks for the response. There’s not too much for me to add here (and sorry for the delay in responding) but here are some thoughts:

      I completely agree with your interpretation of art and…of interpretation itself. And while I like to think of art this way, in practice I feel I’m going to stick to more conventional definitions of art, simply because they’re more useful for most of the discussions I have. I think I made a similar case for interpretation back in my earlier “Interpreting Interpretation” stuff, and for now I think I’ll stick by that type of stuff.

      I very much like your definition of “masterpiece”, but I tend to disagree with it on two grounds (I know you mentioned it’s “loose”, but I felt I needed some substantial comment!). First, I don’t think a show needs to hold up under multiple avenues of interpretation – if it just has one that is done extremely well, that’s enough. Many Ghibli films, for example, are quite clear about how they’re meant to be interpreted, as are many others, and are still considered masterpieces even if they aren’t consistent with other viewpoints. If you meant that there’s just a lot “there” in the films to be extracted/interpreted though, then this is a moot point and/or a misunderstanding. Second, I’m a big believer in the power and delivery of the message over the specifics of the presentation. A show to me can be completely internally not consistent and still be a masterpiece. Would such internal consistency make it better? Probably. But it’s definitely not necessary for a show to be a masterpiece for me. I haven’t really fleshed out exact criteria, but roughly I would say that I ultimately tie down the definition of masterpiece to “what really MOVES people”. Doesn’t matter the reason, only the result. However, I would have to say that my definition would need a lot of work, and probably would remain heavily subjective, and against the “fair interpretation” argument I’ve advocated above. So you’ve probably got it right here.

      Really good point on the reviews – I also would like to see more of b). Possibly attempt to write some if I ever find the time (or just read yours, since I know they’re coming ;D).

    • See, what I love about discussing art (of whatever sort) so much is that it can be informative on so many levels. By learning what you thought of something, my understanding both of the artwork and of you is deepened. And then the way this contrasts with my understanding of it reflects back at me! I’d say the thing, though, about your Type B reviews is that a lot of the good ones are still such that they could only have been written by whoever they were in fact written by. So if MSD’s Usagi Drop review seems more informative about UD than about MSD, I’d still say that the angle from which the show is seen still does a lot to let us know where MSD is standing; in fact, the advantage that this sort of review can have over Type A reviewing (in my opinion) is that it’s a much more difficult sort of thing to map onto a network of “here are the things he liked, here are the things he didn’t like, here are the things I like, here are the things I don’t like,” which exposes a much more complicated picture of the reviewer. This can, granted, be more frustrating if I simply wanted to know whether or not I’d benefit from watching something.

      • Right. I think you’re right about “personality” (if I can boil the idea down to that) and “good Type B reviews.” It can be lazy as hell, or just poorly-written. To the best of his or her ability, the Type B reviewer tries to communicate how the story worked its magic on him/her, when, and why. This incorporates more than understanding of what happened, and did I like it, or the kind of stuff I/“people” like. There’s less responsibility on a Type B writer to be black-and-white about things, or even to be clear—but there’s also remarkable potential. The Type B review is still somewhat utilitarian (practical, serving something of a distinct purpose you can judge its success by), but you can get away with a lot more, even idiosyncrasies and lack of clarity.

        Which is why the concept is hit-or-miss. Some try to be kind, amiable, or easy about it; I know I do. If you disagree, I work with you toward an understanding. I try to be accessible. My writing, particularly since I know I write longer posts (it’s the only way I feel I can be as thorough and sympathetic as possible), has improved significantly over the years. For UD, I was pretty clear about where I stood: that I didn’t like it, that it didn’t cohere for me and didn’t work *on* me as “good” art because of that, but that YMMV in terms of “good.” Then I elucidated several ways in which it might be judged good, and my personalized rebuttals.

        The thing is that, in a lot of ways, I consider myself to be in a weird spot within the fandom. These days, I tend to examine shows that people consider well-enough structured or somehow life-affirming. I’m super-literary, I write and want to go to grad school, and so it’s a no-brainer that I’m going to be picky on a personal blog. There’s a vested interest; it makes sense that I’d improve my skills by “nitpicking” and writing in a way that people might call pretentious.

        That’s another downside—the angle itself, considering the environment, is alienating. I watch more shows than I ever blog about. I don’t do things episodically, and I don’t compare genres or patterns. With the ‘sphere, people’s opinions are boring, repeated a bunch of times, unsympathetic, or I don’t care enough. In terms of hits, this approach isn’t a problem for, say Pontifus and Cuchlann, or maybe here (and they don’t post so often)—but I don’t know how well off r042 (who also writes for them) over at Ideas Without End is. He’s been at his posts w/o comments for weeks. Sheesh, *that’s* a trooper for you.

  5. On an additional note, between Josh, Froggy, and Misfortune, I think my capacity for high-brow intellectual snobbery has been thoroughly exhausted ;). Although I must say that I’ve gleaned a great deal from all your artistic analyses haha.

  6. Hey all! Firstly, I absolutely loved this post.

    Secondly, I wanted to focus a bit more on this section (and please forgive me for inadequately block quoting):

    “I guess, where’s the line between the sexist male-subjecting-female domination and the feminist iteration? What about sociological honesty in acknowledging sexism’s awful role in the whole mess? Can’t databasing viewers do what they like in their readings or fixations?”

    I know that this has already been partially-addressed in Artemis’s comment and responses, so consider this a bit of an addendum. A while back, I presented a panel at Anime Boston on sexism in anime with my former A&V compatriot The_Patches, and I think that a few of our findings could be pertinent to this particular portion of the discussion. Firstly, when we parsed the current anime season (the slide of which can be found in the presentation here) we found that, contrary to the vocal opinions that we had seen both on twitter, ANN, etc., that series were being marketed less towards a male audience (meaning fewer harems and so-called “moé shows”) they were in fact, almost entirely marketed towards men. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it does mean that female viewers, like myself, have far less series marketed towards them and must often go into viewing anime with the mindset that it’s not meant for them. This was why, when Patches asked me initially what I personally thought of male-oriented fanservice (panty-shots, boob-grabs, etc.) I responded with a shrug, saying that I’m already aware that these series aren’t meant for me. This isn’t the best attitude to have, but it was easy to adopt once I had seen that much anime. In my opinion, it’s always important (and honestly fascinating) to note who controls the market, and how, when a market becomes fairly narrow, it can hamper the process of allowing things that are outside of said market to be produced.

    Secondly, I’d like to expand on a point that both Artemis and Rebecca touched upon in their comments: the difference between fanservice in a harem vs. fanservice in a reverse harem. In a reverse harem, like Ouran, as Rebecca already pointed out, the males are potential boyfriend candidates and not simply eye-candy. In fact, as Ouran progresses, although the series begins with the characters as more beefcake than people, it develops each and every one of the male characters beyond their initial attractiveness. Patches used the example of Erza of Fairytail fame to show the opposite in a more male-oriented series, where a female character is initially presented as tough as nails, but grows softer (and less effective of a fighter) as the series progresses, making her more subservient in both character design/costuming and personality. All too often, a harem will inevitably strip the female characters of any agency they may have had, while reverse-harems will give more agency to their male prospects. Additionally, there’s the effect on characters like Yoko Littner, who stays an amazing and strong-willed character with a great amount of agency throughout the entirety of Gurren Lagann, but is costumed solely for the male gaze. (A wonderful character who counters this in a shounen series is Winry Rockbell, so it’s not as if there are no female characters in existence that do this in male-oriented series, they’re just few and far between. It’s probably additionally worth noting that Hiromu Arakawa is female. ^ ^)

    Anyway, I’ll shut up now, as this was simply a side point in this article, but I loved it, you two, thank you so much for this. ^ ^

    • Thanks for weighing in! We did want as much talk or knowledge on that issue as we could glean, so we appreciate input, no matter how tangential a point might seem.

      XD Would you believe that I intended and tried to sit in on that AniBos panel? Alas, I arrived slightly too late and then…[sigh]

      So male-oriented fanservice just…bounces off? None of it sinks into your thinking? It’s good that I’m learning this stuff. Does the female-oriented stuff actually tickle your fancy, or is just “not enough?”

      What you say is a shame. Growing up, and even these days, I do remember hearing women murmur (or even talk out loud, I think) about guy’s abs and jaws and flawless faces and butts and sexy voices. So then I got to thinking in relief, “Finally, chicks get to ogle guys the way they want and nobody cares. Even in Japan, there’s got to be enough of a similarity, such that 2-D girls can lose their shit being surrounded by dudes with awesome abs!” After all, I don’t really think there’s any subconscious resistance to male-idolization from both sexes—if only because it looks more “realistically perverse.” Guys admire dude bodies, whether there is something subconsciously homoerotic there or not. Studies will tell. But anyway, somehow the female-targeted stuff ends up, on the average, being the “mellow” stuff. Does that mean women just…don’t care about that physical stuff as much? Or do they care (maybe obsess as much as guys do), but they’re stupidly and unfairly pushed into feeling guilty about that?

      Reflecting on what you’ve said, I’m definitely for all kinds of stories across the board. I want women to be able to choose and behave wisely—just like guys—but to go for what they want the way they want. In other words, yeah, reverse-harem stories that objectify guys. Some with awesome characterization, some with the ordinary lazy sort. And the female leads required for that would need to be awesome, probably larger-than-life. I get antsy just thinking about it, super excited. Aside from dealing with the assumption that objectification at all is “morally good” or beneficial, I think there are plenty of women who want such a story. Hell, I’d have a blast watching it. Wouldn’t everyone?

      >_<

      Or does that merely mask deeper problematic issues? Argh! What’s the degree to which the male and female viewers ogle the same things? I mean to say, when an attractive or moe girl’s looking up at a ripped guy and having an interestingly-written conversation, are we anticipating sexual union, or are we admiring each separately? Consider that Kamina is supposed to be this Achilles-artist pinnacle of masculinity. Even Simon doesn’t really take to wearing shirts. Instead they just…I dunno wear sarashi and waist cinchers.

      And if there’s one thing I’ve come to hate about Fairy Tail (I pretentiously ranted in a post about how I was done with subsequently-released shounen specifically because I was sick of that series), it’s its lack of passion with respect to pleasing the demographic. Which, for one, includes exactly what you’re talking about. It denigrates women (I don’t mean to castigate it seriously or anything), in the ways that you describe (Lucy and co. are a bore…the guys, too), but then it doesn’t come clean about its bias and just sell any of its entertainment value all of the way. It doesn’t help that it’s fairly easy to think of shounen series that surpassed in each of its assets. But that’s rambling. Again, I’m just glad I get to hear your take on this.

    • Echoing MFD – thanks! We definitely enjoyed discussing all this stuff, so I’m glad you really enjoyed it. It’s also been great to see such positive and constructive responses to our dialogue.

      In my opinion, it’s always important (and honestly fascinating) to note who controls the market, and how, when a market becomes fairly narrow, it can hamper the process of allowing things that are outside of said market to be produced.

      I also find this type of thing incredibly fascinating, and would like to add my own quick two cents. I met up with a friend here in Japan (a fujoshi who absolutely adores Kuroko no Basket and cosplays regularly) and got a chance to talk to her about some aspects of otaku culture, since I was interested in how the perceived demographics here in the US map over to the real market in Japan.

      Her response first off was that trying to define an “anime” fandom in Japan doesn’t work the same way in the US because everything is so integrated – from manga to cosplay to video games to anime to Vocaloid/utaite culture. Just like “nerd” or “geek” culture in the US is much more than just being say a bookworm or a video game afficionado, for instance. When I pressed her though what the proportion of viewers who watched anime looked like, she quickly agreed that, as you found, “anime” fandom is heavily male-dominated. However, she countered that other areas of the fandom, such as cosplay, are heavily female-dominated, and much of the outlying subcultures display a mix of both genders. Having myself gotten a taste of the intensity of the female fandom both in Ikebukuro (visiting “Otome Road”) and Comiket (since I attended on the female-oriented first day), I can say that it’s definitely quite something, and that I’m hopeful that in the future this will lead to change in the industry.

      the difference between fanservice in a harem vs. fanservice in a reverse harem.

      I completely agree with this entire paragraph. I find that female fanservice, which tends to be emotionally-oriented, much better than male fanservice, which tends to be physically-oriented. I still enjoy both regardless, but I do wish that you could have both (so that you could have your cake and eat it too), and examples fulfilling this seem to lie few and far between. The first thing that comes to mind is Spice and Wolf, with the relationship between Lawrence and Holo, and I think Free! probably is the closest thing I’ve seen for this of late (since the guys, plus Gou and Ama-sensei, manage to hit all bases at once).

  7. Pingback: Putting It All To Rest: Hourou Musuko and Aoi Hana | Things in the Fridge·

  8. My favorite thing about this dialogue is that you hardly talk directly about harems at all and instead work through a massive theory about narrative art in general that can inform how one might watch a harem show. (Not complaining!)

    One of my favorite bits, though, was the whole concept of “enstrangement”, and there’s a bit here that I didn’t see you guys mention directly (though I may’ve just skimmed over it): whenever we’re introduced to a genre, the stuff we notice is first how goddamn weird a lot of the genre’s basic staples are; gradually, over time, we grow accustomed to them. The result is that the first time you see a harem show, you don’t have a network of other harem shows (and thus the associated motifs) to draw upon and can only compare with stuff outside of the genre, so everything is likely to seem strange to you, even with the most generic shit imaginable.

    As you watch more and your network of references expands, you move past the surface of what the motifs are and instead look at how they’re presented, which can blind you to the fact that they are, to begin with, kinda bizarre. (Speaking here partly from the experience of watching shows of a sort I was used to with people who weren’t.) And this gets really interesting when you consider how frequently writers like to undermine and twist the basic ideas of the genre they’re working in: very subtle parody might not be recognizable as such at first (especially if you’re a kid; it took me years to realize that Galaxy Quest was a comedy!), so an “experienced” watcher will likely find a rather different sort of strangeness in, say, Bakemonogatari than a “novice” watcher would.

    • Thanks, leaving space for JS to add thoughts, and all that:

      We hinted at this with the nature of the database—I think. If it comes down to being “direct” vs. reading the expansive comments we received (like yours), though, the choice is obvious XD

      In a certain, general sense, I quite agree with you. But let me push on your point a little:

      What is genre? What makes genre? Your answer to this question probably guides what you think is “enstranging” or not enough so. If all art has some vision or defamiliarizing effect, some might make the argument that an earlier work attempted X in a different context, even if it’s outside of said genre. An example: I’m taking sporadic notes for an epic-time (I mean *epic-time*) Soul Eater anime (i.e. not the manga) post I one day want to write linking back to Beowulf. The guys who wrote them seem to have really gotten Plato or Freud (who evidently was into Plato’s ideas—he did reversals or parallels to it). I see very many ties: three main monsters (fought in the same order with similar psychological themes), duty, psychological imbalance or excess, et cetera.

      All of that just to say that, if I suddenly wanted to, I could merely argue that in sharing motifs or reshuffling them, they are tied together—arbitrarily “within” or “outside” a genre. Even Evangelion is a mecha show, Madoka a magical girl show. The result would simply depend on my terms, and how sincere or thorough people take me to be in my take on genre history and norms.

      What a great contribution your comment is! Stories always seem a little weird, then they get “really” weird, and then people copy that weirdness and we get stuff that’s “really” weird in new ways (since by that point we’ve gotten used to the “old-style-really-weird”). If we restrict our meaning, and allow for arbitrary genres to retain validity (and we do), there’s a lot to be said here. In that we use such arbitrary structures, stories will tend to be clustered based on genre patterns—even if the authors resist the very idea. Readers develop something of a dependence on such patterns, broaden them to something at the meta level, and construct some kind of sense of “how such stories go.” In the end, you’re always changing the conveyance of the story, the patterning. But at the not-microscopic level it can appear that you’re doing two-ish things. One is changing the little ideas, concepts, or “tropes” (as TV Tropes uses the word). The other involves shattering the storytelling vehicle itself and reshaping it. Relatively few anime do the second thing in a way that more obviously emphasizes the attempt, that communicates “we are changing the very way in which a story is told.” Texhnolyze, Lain, sort of Bakemonogatari (more a Shinbo/Shaft thing, I think). Eva, obviously.

      Even Gurren Lagann works, because the power *is* explicitly metaphysical and trope-y. It tells a narrative of the universe (which space opera mecha has a tendency to attempt), but explicitly through the vehicle of actual legend/hagiography/romance.

    • So first off, I think your point about the evolution of “estrangement” is a really insightful one, and one that isn’t necessarily tied to specific “genres” or whatnot – it’s extremely generalizable, and can work for almost any classification scheme you (or the viewer or the artist or anyone else) wishes to impose. This is something MFD pointed out, so the fact that your argument isn’t dependent on this feature sidesteps some of his objections (although his digression is still insightful).

      As for “estrangement”, I think a great analogy for what you’re trying to say would be moving to a foreign country. At first, you’re overwhelemed by the sights and sounds, the culture, the environment – the novelty of it all. You feel (rightly so) as if you’re a stranger in a foreign country, removed and “estranged” from the populace. But, over time as you get settled in, you start to get accustomed to these things, and instead start to pick up more of the underlying socio-cultural/historical/what-have-you features of said country. And since you’re a foreigner, you might feel “estranged” from this underlying stuff because you’ve come from a different place. Given long enough though, and you’ll integrate more fully into the country and culture. Then, your focus instead shifts over to the idea of what it means to be a part of said culture and what exactly culture is and all that jazz – and you just spiral one layer deeper. In the end, you end up causing yourself to become “estranged”. Obviously, there also is the inherent estrangement between any one person and every other person that takes place throughout this whole process, as well as the fundamental estrangement between you and things that are not you. Since exploring art is much like exploring new worlds, I think there’s a lot of overlap here.

      So we can see that, yes, the idea of “estrangement” changes the more inundated with some area of art we become – the more we become a connoisseur, an active consumer, or even a more willing participant. The instant we make judgments, choices, and/or interpretations about and around art. Where does this ultimately lead us? Well, mainly that we are somewhat estranged from the concept of enstrangement itself, since it seems to warp and shift the more we try and pin it down. And so, for better or for worse, the discussion comes full circle ;)

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  13. Sorry, can’t take this whole “art” discussing seriously from a guy who says things like “Estetica in general appealed to me (and my real-life anibros) simply because the lead was an alpha male in almost every sense of the phrase.”

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