Why is Aesthetic Overlooked in Anime Critique?

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In the behind the scenes feature on the DVD of the 3-episode OVA Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, director Akiyuki Shinbo states that the series was born from the idea of creating a “gothic lolita” anime. That is exactly what the series is–nothing more, nothing less. Its story combines elements of gothic horror with themes from the novel Lolita itself–but this story mostly works as a springboard for the show to explore the visual aesthetic of gothic lolita; not only in terms of the fashion styles, but in the greater general sense of each of those words. It seeks to encapsulate every characteristic of the gothic and lolita aesthetics, and the marriage between them. Every single aspect of this OVA works towards that aesthetic.

From a critical standpoint, Petit Cossette poses certain complications. Its story and characters aren’t memorable in the slightest, but it seems like the creators never particularly cared about those elements to begin with. How much one enjoys the series will come down to how much they buy into the aesthetic. Does the idea of Akiyuki Shinbo, whom you’ll likely recognize as the director of Madoka Magica, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, Bakemonogatari, and others, going completely unhinged to a Yuki Kajiura soundtrack sound like enough to get you hooked? Can you appreciate early-2000s CGI when it’s being used moderately well in combination with striking shot composition? Does the phrase “gothic lolita” excite you? If yes, then you’ll probably enjoy Petite Cossette. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

It seems obvious enough, right? Everyone likes things for their own reasons; but I think there’s an odd sort of bias among anime fans pointed against shows that focus more on aesthetic than they do on storytelling. And sure, its fair enough to assume that most people will appreciate a story and characters that connect with them emotionally more than anything, but when I think about how many people can easily get into music and illustrative art, I get a little confused.

After all, while music and art can definitely tell stories and illicit emotional responses, these mediums rely far more heavily on aesthetic than anything else. Musical genres are often defined by the kind of mood they create. Black metal feels exactly like the name implies, as does pop music. Art often appeals to us immediately on an aesthetic level before we even stop to think about it. Yet, perhaps because so much of anime does attempt to focus more on storytelling and character development, most people don’t seem to look for anime based on its aesthetic as much as they do on the type of story that it is.

But overall, I think pretty much everyone who watches a lot of anime is watching it for aesthetic reasons on some level. After all, if you didn’t care about the aesthetic elements at all, there’d be little reason to stick with anime as a medium of choice. You can find plenty of great stories in novels–and if you don’t like reading, there are countless films and TV shows which are worth your time. To be focused on anime suggests that something about that medium in particular grabs your attention more than any other medium is capable of doing, and of course this works in reverse for other mediums as well.

The most critically acclaimed anime are the ones which can tell a good story with good characters while also being aesthetically pleasing. We don’t love these shows just for telling good stories, we love them for doing so while BEING anime, because we love anime as a medium. We’re less concerned about whether or not anime is necessarily the best storytelling medium, and more concerned about whether stories within that medium can appeal to us.

Even so, I understand why for most viewers, it’s the combination of both story and aesthetic which ropes them in, and purely aesthetic experiences may not be as appealing. Still, I think there’s a lot to be said about anime that go out of their way to communicate a certain style without trying to do anything else. Petite Cossette conveys a feeling similar to a music video. When I think of it, I always think of this one AMV which set clips from the show to the song Porcelain Heart by Opeth, and how watching that was almost as appealing as watching the show itself, because the aesthetic of the song fit that of the show so perfectly.

I’d love it if more people appreciated that animation is a medium not necessarily bound just to telling compelling stories, but can also be about conveying compelling atmosphere. It can be about putting on something like Petite Cossette on Halloween, with the lights turned off, and just feasting on the visuals; and that can be just as much of an entertaining and rewarding experience as that of a good narrative.

4 thoughts on “Why is Aesthetic Overlooked in Anime Critique?

  1. Visual critique is overlooked because people are not taught how to do it. Most people who go through mandatory education learn a lot about critiquing story, character, theme, symbolism, etc, because it’s drilled into them.

    As an amateur a lot of the time I struggle with how to explain or express something that I see, because I don’t have the framework or language to put things into a way that is easy to understand. I suspect a lot of people that’s the case. Perhaps also there’s a case to be said that visual literacy is something people also need to learn in the first place. They may like the way something looks but they probably don’t know what it means.

    • Very interesting way of putting it. I’m about to make a video doing shot-for-shot analysis of shot composition in a couple eps of Psycho-Pass, so maybe I can help contribute to the critical conversation.

  2. I’m with omo. I mean, take this season’s commentary so far; how many people are talking about Garo at all, compared to Amagi Brilliant Park? One has actual themes and content to discuss, but people still try to discuss the one that looks aesthetically appealing, but has little actual depth.

    Another issue is that aesthetics can be challenging, on purpose or simply because they aren’t the actual focus of the anime. Viewers often only watch a given anime for aesthetics, and don’t even realize it, trying to justify their love for something based on other criteria (and it’s often very silly, though hardly their fault).

    In fact I think people only know how to argue about aesthetics when they have a negative reaction to them. See many viewer’s distaste of Kaiba, or the “shark faces” of House of Five Leaves, or the negative reactions to Mushishi – 99% of the negative reactions seem to be based solely on disliking the aesthetics.

  3. Pingback: AniWeekly 10/19/2014: Lupin, Tezuka, & Nighmare Fuel - Anime Herald

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