When the Visitor is the Tour Guide: Reviewing Unfamiliar Genres

I spent last weekend watching some awesomely bad anime with friends. One title that stood out though, that is the very opposite of bad, was the OVA Baoh, based on the work of Araki Hirohiko, creator of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. This was not my first time watching Baoh, as it was actually one of the seminal titles that made me into an anime fan when my brother brought it home years ago, but it’d been well over a decade since I last laid eyes on the blue man who shoots needle lasers from his hair, and I was eager to revisit. It was an uproarious time, and it sports one of the best dubs ever. Listen to the Anime World Order review of it to give yourself a better idea of the glory of Baoh.

Just for fun, I decided to look on Anime News Network for a review of Baoh, and what I found was a terribly misguided summary of the OVA, with choice quotes such as this:

Making matters even worse is the show’s ludicrous habit of freezing the action mid-battle to display the names of BAOH‘s attacks. Do we really need to know that BAOH has just performed the “Reskini Harden Saber Phenomenon”? Is there a quiz after the show?

Now, I can obviously forgive this review as it comes from a less enlightened era of anime fandom (2003) and most likely the original writer has improved and matured since then, but it does bring up a recurring problem in the realm of anime discussion: Those who know little about a show’s content or genre discussing the work from a position of authority.

Anyone who’s watched action-based anime knows that the Special Move Name Displayed at the Bottom of the Screen is a common theme in such shows, and is often used for dramatic effect in ways similar to the combination sequence for giant robot anime. This is why the above quote is so off-putting; it shows a lack of knowledge of the type of show Baoh is trying to be, even if it doesn’t pull it off perfectly. I feel that it’s like criticizing a Power Rangers show for using spandex and rubber suits, or a harem anime for featuring lots of attractive girls. It’s a problem which still plagues ANN from time to time, though I understand that when you review professionally, you can’t always pick what you want to review.

I’m not saying that people should not discuss or review anime of genres and tropes to which they’re unfamiliar or for which they have a strong dislike, but that to do so while assuming a position of authority just makes a person look uninformed and trying to toot his or her own horn, rather than actually look at the work.

In summary, if you’re going to give a negative review of Twilight, you can complain about how you think the writing is awful. You can complain about characterization. You can complain about the portrayal of vampires in the story, or even lament the popularity of the suave, handsome vampire. What you can do but should not however, is complain about the fact that there are vampires in Twilight in the first place, because–Surprise!–this series is about vampires.

16 thoughts on “When the Visitor is the Tour Guide: Reviewing Unfamiliar Genres

  1. Ah, I thank you for calling out on this, indeed, it truly bothers me when I see this. And I think it extends as well into people who complain about a show being a certain way when it was how the show intended to be. Like complaining that Lain is trippy and makes no sense, when that is exactly what the show’s appeal is. I mad ea post like this, but perhaps I took it to the extreme: http://fuzakenna.com/2009/08/03/the-reason-a-phrase-like-shounen-exists-is-so-youll-stop-bitching-about-shows-that-werent-meant-for-you/

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  2. Can you complain about the presence of a silly trope which is executed in a way that’s particularly jarring, because that’s what it looked like they were doing to me?

    I can’t really see how that particular complaint is any different from complaining about the overuse of suave, handsome vampires in Twilight (or similar stories). It’s basically complaining about a trope. Yes, it’s hypercritical to complain about there being vampires in Twilight because it’s fundamental to the premise and conveniently ignores the possibility that one can make interesting stories from vampires. If they complained that Baoh was an action series, then it’s clear they haven’t given it a fair go. But to criticize one of the tropes that appeared in it, basically for being jarring, despite the fact that it’s been done in other action anime before… that should be free game. I don’t see how something appearing in several genre anime before should absolve it from criticism. Hell, I’d have thought that was even more of a reason to criticize it.

    The only thing that I can see that they’ve done wrong in this instance is to not refer to the fact that this is something other anime have done, by pointing out one way or another that it is a trope. People can have opinions on tropes… I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

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  3. Criticizing the Special Attack Name Display and its usage is not in itself a big problem, but it is indicative of the entire review where the reviewer basically complains that Baoh is not enough like other anime. It’s like he went in with a narrow view of what makes an anime good, and because Baoh as an action series did not fulfill his desire for a strong plot or whatever it was given a low score.

    Keep in mind that he was not actually criticizing the trope, but rather wondering what it was doing in anime at all, like he had never even seen it happen previously, like he was trying his hardest to say that anime should never be cheesy. This is the real problem with the review, though like I said, I can forgive it for being from 2003 from a guy who clearly did not know better.

    Is Baoh AWESOME? Yes. Is it GOOD? That is up for debate.

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  4. @sdshamshel
    Yeah, but I still can’t see anything blatantly misguided about his review, except possibly the “wanton violence” complaint. Mind you, I haven’t seen the anime myself, but the crux of his complaints seem to be that the characters are flat and uninteresting, which makes the plot difficult to care about, the plot itself is unoriginal and repetitive, the storytelling is “uninspired” (admittedly, he doesn’t really expand on this, but the implication is that he thinks the anime spends too much time on the action sequences themselves and not enough on the story that happens between them) and then says something briefly about the voice acting (a technical complaint). If his preferences tend away from action anime that overemphasize action and violence at the expense of story, then I can’t see why these complaints aren’t relevant. If he were misrepresenting the anime in some way, then I could see why his opinion would be flawed or even invalid, but treating it as a perspective with certain ideas about the balance between action and storytelling, it seems like a reasonable enough point of view to me.

    It’s clear from the review that he was never going to rationalize himself into liking it. He had a certain impression of it while watching it and then justified it in terms of what the anime did. I can’t really see what else he was supposed to do within the review, except for making oblique references to other similar anime to show that he hadn’t just considered it within a vacuum (and he did to an extent by referring to Terminator and The Incredible Hulk… I’ll just conveniently ignore his hyperbolic comparison to DBZ).

    @21stcenturydigitalboy
    Yeah, but aren’t you blurring “intention” and “appeal”. Lain’s appeal might be that it doesn’t make sense, but tell that to the legions of fans who spend hours trying to rationalize it. Or the director, who said something along the lines of wanting to make a story which would only make sense to the Japanese audience. The intention of Lain isn’t clear. Isn’t that a reasonable enough criticism, ie, the fact that it’s very intention is obfuscated to the point that it’s almost beyond scrutiny. That might make it appealing, but surely that’s a weakness, especially if you compare it with something that is equally as mind-fucking, but then eventually comes to make sense in the end.

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    • that’s saying that coming to make sense in the end is automatically better, and that’s not necessarily true. I like that Lain leaves it open to decide what to interpret of it, and I don’t think that counts against it.

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      • Well, I wouldn’t say it’s automatically better, maybe there’s an example which will come along and prove my preference in this instance to be wrong. But, in this case, I’d say it’s a much more challenging thing for the writers to be able to do, which is why I’d tend to say it’s better. Some writers may be able to put together something which is genuinely trippy, but even fewer are able to do that and have it make sense, and this is probably because most writers have to face “trippiness” and “making sense” as two things which have to be compromised. When a writer comes along that manages to make something which is just as trippy as Lain, but still makes sense at the end, then I will probably be very impressed.

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  5. I think the complaint is getting lost because the reviewer didn’t like the the show (for a myriad of reasons). Just imagine for a minute that he DID like BAOH but still queried the idea of putting the attack names on the screen. He isn’t complaining about a trope (which would be perfectly valid) but rather implying he has never before seen it done. If that’s the case, then the complaint becomes the lack of knowledge. Whether or not the he liked the show, the complaint is still the same.

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  6. I’m not sure if I care about “validity” and criticizing tropes in either their use or their existence. To me this post is about “to do so while assuming a position of authority just makes a person look uninformed and trying to toot his or her own horn, rather than actually look at the work.”

    You can be a valid person and a valid pompous asshole, we need to realize that there’s a choice in the matter. :)

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  7. @Sorrow-kun: Think of it this way: say I pick up Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations to read. Dickens is renowned for having florid, verbose, and highly ornate prose (oft attributed to Dickens’s own desire to have a higher word count so he could make more money from serialization of his novels). A great number of people dislike or actively despise the Dickensian overly verbose style, but a similarly great number actively like and enjoy his style.

    It’s one thing to dislike overly verbose prose and criticize Dickens’s use of it. It’s quite another to say that Great Expectations is a bad book, or by extension that Charles Dickens is a bad author, in part or in whole on the basis that you hated the prose style. And the opposite is also true: liking verbose prose and praising Dickens for it is different from saying Dickens is a good author, in part or in whole on the basis that you liked his prose style. You can like or dislike Dickens/Great Expectations based on the prose style, but the superficials of the prose style does not inherently make Dickens/Great Expectations “good” or “bad”–which in today’s world are tragically becoming synonyms for “like” and “dislike”.

    Is it a game of semantics? You bet–but, then, all verbal communication, written and oral, is a semantical game, and we are merely players, performers, and portrayers.

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  8. @omo
    Yeah, but being a pompous asshole doesn’t exclude someone from making a good point. I’m not sure whether that’s the case in this instance (or even if it matters) but I’ve seen it all too often to take the view that the “pompous asshole”‘s opinion should be immediately dismissed. Ultimately, what someone has to say is much more important than how they say it.

    @OGT
    Yeah, but a complaint is still a complaint. Its prose style is probably a superficial thing, and it’s impact on Dicken’s ability to weave a story is minor at most. But it still impacts the experience. And that’s a large part of reviewing, ie, reporting on one’s experience and weaving it into a judgement call. To say Great Expectations is a failure/masterpiece based on one stylistic aspect, obviously that kind of opinion is easy to dismiss. To list it as a minor complaint alongside other, more critical major complaints. I don’t see what makes it irrelevant, then.

    And, I agree, “like” and “dislike” have essentially blurred into “good” and “bad”. People haven’t increasingly lost the distinction between “quality” and “enjoyability”. But, to look at it from another view, if it is not on the individuals who consume the media to decide what is “good” and what is “bad”, then whose responsibility is it?

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    • The thing is that being a pompous asshole does not exclude someone from making a good point, however not having any good points means you probably shouldn’t act like a pompous asshole.

      The problem with the Baoh review, or any other similar review, is that it basically compares Baoh to other anime that aren’t like Baoh at all in an effort to try and legitimize what anime is “supposed” to be. It’s not so much a matter of “good” or “bad” or even “likes or dislikes,” but rather the idea that you do not judge an apple based on how much it is not like a wrench, even if you think wrenches are ten times more awesome than apples.

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      • But surely one’s own preferences must play some role in putting together a review. A limited role, granted, but it must have some influence (just by the very fact that reviews are written by humans, not robots). I think this is probably where we disagree, the question of how much influence one’s own preferences should have over a published opinion. The pompous asshole stuff, in all honesty, doesn’t make a difference to me. People can be as pompous and authoritative as they like. Ultimately, to me, it has almost no influence either way on the legitimacy of an opinion.

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  9. There’s a huge difference between coming to the correct conclusion through proper reasoning, and coming to the very same conclusion via a fault-ridden thought process. When it comes to making a point, the ends do not justify the means.

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  10. Pingback: Otakunvirka » ITT: Overrated anime

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