“Turn Your Brain Off”

Edited by The Davoo

Text version:

“Why can’t you just turn your brain off and enjoy something?”

Ask any critic for a list of their top 5 most annoying frequent comments, and this question is sure to be on there. Aside from the fact that it basically undermines the entire practice of criticism, what makes this question so frustrating is that it’s bullshit. No one is actually able to just turn their brain off and enjoy something–and if they were, then they’d have no reason to consume media in the first place–they’d be perfectly entertained by staring at a fucking wall.

Not having any critical judgement about anything is the same thing as literally having no taste. As soon as you’re able to distinguish between things that you like, and things that you dislike, then you’ve proven yourself to have a standard of critical judgement, even if you can’t define it.

But as much as I’d love to keep pulling this phrase apart and making fun of it, there’s another, slightly more nuanced question which critics get asked all the time that I think gets closer to the heart of what these people are really asking.

“Do you hate fun?”

There was a moment towards the end of the Winter anime season when I was watching Myriad Colors Phantom World and I legitimately stopped, took a step back, and asked myself, “do I hate fun? Because it’s pretty clear that this show has no real intentions of being anything other than fun; and yet I’m not having any fun, and I hate this. Is something wrong with me?”

Later into the show, there was a specific moment when I realized entirely why this show was not fun. It was during a scene wherein all of the main characters were being dragged into performing a school play by the head of the drama club, and where at some point it was revealed that the standoffish loner character who’d never been made an official member of the group was also there for literally no reason–at least in the context of the narrative. The meta reason for this character to be there is that it would theoretically be fun to have the entire primary cast participating in this play–but what I realized in this moment is that the prospect of having this character around meant nothing to me.

I did not care about this character at all. She had never done anything cool, she didn’t have an interesting personality or backstory, and she overall left very little impression on me. The idea that having her play a part in this school play would somehow make the episode more fun was totally lost on me, because I didn’t give a shit.

While ruminating on that, I remembered a time in which I did indeed have fun. It was in December of 2006, when I first marathoned the first season of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. In that show, there was an episode wherein Haruhi and Yuki were recruited for a school festival performance by a band who’s guitarists were both out of commission. The main emotional crux of the episode revolved around Haruhi’s involvement with this band–but Yuki was pretty much there just for fun; and her inclusion was absolutely genius.

That’s because Yuki is an incredibly fun character. She’s basically an alien with the power to bend reality, who uses those powers to do hilariously mundane things in everyday scenarios; and she’s got a really memorable personality and does all kinds of super-badass things. There’s a moment of realization when Yuki picks up the guitar and starts shredding these huge-ass riffs and solos that of course she can play the guitar perfectly, because she can learn pretty much anything; but the setup for it is so well-earned that it goes a long way in crafting what is overall one of the most legendary scenes in anime.

Fun is not something that you get to have without trying. Fun has to be earned. You don’t get to have fun by sitting around on the couch doing nothing; to have fun you have to do something–and likewise, if you want to make others have fun, then you have to work for it. You can’t just dangle keys in front of someone’s face and expect them to be entertained if they’re over the age of 1, because they’ve seen that shit before and they’ve got standards.

There are no shortage of ways that a series can achieve fun–even without the use of brilliant writing, deep characters, or profound themes. Sometimes, the key to making something fun is just to not fuck anything up. Recently, I encountered a pair of shows which both took a very similar approach to trying to create the pure sensation of fun–but whose level of success in doing so came down largely to each show’s margin of error.

Heavy Object is a show about a small team of soldiers who are tasked with trying to take down these gigantic metal war machines called Objects through the use of knowledge and tactics. The appeal of each arc was just in watching these characters try to distinguish and then exploit the unique weaknesses of each enemy Object–all while running around and wisecracking with a brisk, light tone. There is no reason that Heavy Object couldn’t have been a fun show, and it very nearly succeeded at being one for me. However, what kept taking me out of the experience and spoiling the fun was all the little piece of dumb bullshit.

Like how in just about every firefight, there’ll be a scene wherein the characters get spotted by the enemy, but have just enough time to wisecrack back and forth before the enemy starts shooting. Or how most of the time when they’re being shot at, they seem to be right in the enemy’s line-of-sight, and pressured under heavy gunfire, but miraculously never get hit, while constantly taking out enemy soldiers. Or how in this scene wherein their teammate accidentally fires her anti-personnel guns at them, they stand there staring while an epic rain of bullets falls all around them. Or how in this scene, the characters are sneaking into an enemy base while the guards aren’t paying attention, and the one guy just leaves the door open like he’s asking the enemy to notice. Et cetera.

On their own, none of these moments are that big of a deal–but what happens when all of them are stacked on top of each other is that they keep me thinking about things that I shouldn’t be thinking about, and slowly eat away at the dramatic tension of each scene. How am I ever meant to believe that the main characters’ lives are in danger, when they can make enormous tactical mistakes on a constant basis and never suffer any repercussions? If the appeal of this series is meant to be the use of strategy to overcome seemingly impossible odds, then why does it feel like luck is always on the side of the main characters, and like they can’t possibly lose?

This isn’t to say that I’m totally averse to shows that are just about crazy ridiculous bullshit–but this show isn’t nearly over-the-top enough to be fun on that level. If you’re gonna have a story where the rules of reality barely apply, then you really have to go over-the-top for it to leave any kind of impression. At the very least, if this show had been really nice-looking, or had well-directed action scenes and great animation, then it might have been cool enough to look at that I’d want to watch it anyways–but given that the show is uglier than sin, it has no such qualities.

Which brings me to a show from last season that succeeded in all of the places where Heavy Object failed, called High School Fleet. This one is about a bunch of cute high school girls who end up commanding a battleship, which they use to fight against other student ships while some light mystery plot unfolds around them. The story is nothing noteworthy–but it is very tightly paced and written, without any parts that drag or get boring. Its characters are simple and easy to understand, but all of them work to keep the series brisk and enjoyable. Its themes are as basic as they possibly could be, its action scenes aren’t particularly clever or tactical, and there’s not really any deep, philosophical, or unique reasons to enjoy the show.

However, High School Fleet is hella fun–because as long as you can buy into the central conceit of a bunch of cutesy moe girls running a battleship, the show doesn’t have any bullshit. Every action scene poses a legitimate threat to the characters’ lives, and there’s even some tension in the early part of the show over not being clear on how dark the series might eventually get. Each scene is paced and directed in such a way that the action is satisfying and engaging, even when there’s not a whole lot really going on; because it’s easy to understand the circumstances of each situation, and how those situations are affecting the characters.

And a lot of how the show accomplishes that is simply through the use of excellent visual design and animation. When there’s an action scene that’s meant to be frenetic and confusing, then we’ll get a shot of the ship’s scaredy-cat navigator frantically spinning the steering wheel while her eyes transform into spirals. When the crew are about to fire off a big fuck-off missile to assure their victory in a battle, then that missile launches with an impeccably staged and animated smoke effect. The music, voice acting, animation, and dialog all march in lockstep to create a tense and exciting scene in a show that you’ll probably never give all that much thought to when you’re not actually watching it–because the appeal of the show is that the actual act of watching it is fun.

And I love fun. I don’t think you’ll find a lot of people who actually hate fun. There are plenty of other things that media can to do be interesting besides being fun, but when something actually pulls off legitimate fun and does it well, then it’s worthy of being celebrated–and I think it would be insulting to the accomplishment of those works to suggest that the best way to appreciate the fun that they provide, is by turning your brain off

If you watched this video with your brain on, then I hope you still managed to have fun with it; and If you did, that you’ll consider sharing it around, or supporting my channel by donating to my patreon. Check out my other channels for more stuff along these lines but with different video structures–and thanks again for watching, I’ll see you in the next one.

5 thoughts on ““Turn Your Brain Off”

  1. Great post and what about shows that are fun on accident? Also shows which are fun to watch because they are bad(like Garzey’s Wing as you have previously said and The Room), is turning your brain off to those so that you can enjoy them? Or is it by turning your brain off that you can appreciate the show? Also this post should have been called something else that conveys the message of this post instead of Turn your brain off which does not convey the message that you like fun.

    • I actually think It’s the fact that you can’t turn your brain off that makes things “so bad it’s good.” You’re expected to just go along with something so ridiculous that you’re brain can’t help but ridicule. It’s those little things, like the obviously forced, “Oh Hi Mark,” that grab your attention. Really, it’s your reaction becoming more entertaining than the source material.

  2. Hey Digi, doesn’t seem like you have public contact info so I’m leaving an irrelevant comment on this post about how amazing K-On! is. In particular I want to talk about my experience watching this show AND why it’s so heavily underrated by the anime community.

    Some background: I’m not an anime fan (Tried Cowboy Bebop and FMA, thought they were boring, though FLCL and A:TLA, if it counts, are among my top favorite shows ever). I found your channel by searching for analytical videos similar to the Plinkett Star Wars videos. I really love analyzing and thinking about stories and storytelling, so I was happy to find a channel full of lengthy explanations about aspects of storytelling and what makes some stories good and others bad. And you obviously like K-On! so I hesitantly decided to try it out.

    I WAS EXPECTING K-ON! TO BE SHIT. It looked like this stupid show about high school girls doing nothing and being cute and helping lonely anime nerds cope with the depressing reality of being forever virgins by giving them waifus and daughterus to project onto. And…it…blew me away….

    I noticed two things from the opening scene of the first episode where Yui wakes up, runs out, and trips. One was that the animation was really, really good (I hate the 2-dimensional and static look of so much anime. I just find a lot of anime visually boring, and I would say the same thing about modern Hollywood use of CG, could be a good subject for a video by the way hint hint….), and the other was that, ugh, this looks as stupid as I thought. Girl is late, runs out, trips, ha ha isn’t she clumsy and adorable she’s my waifu because I can’t handle the idea of interacting with women if they’re not infantile and helpless, I wonder when I’ll get to see her run with some toast in her mouth while the camera pans low so I can see her panties fuck this stupid genre.

    Then it shows all the distractions Yui runs into on her way to school, and I cracked up laughing. This show is consistently funny for me, Yui especially. She’s the Homer Simpson of anime, and I was not expecting that at all. The animation and backgrounds stayed great, it kept me laughing, and by the end of the first episode I realized I had a hidden treasure on my hands.

    I didn’t binge the first season! I didn’t want to, I wanted to make it last longer. Yui is so damn funny. Anime never makes me laugh. The gags are always exaggerated faces and people shouting, but K-On! has impeccable comic timing and imagination. It got to the point where I was just so excited anytime Yui said anything in her adorable scratchy voice because she was consistently on point.

    By the end of the first season, I had a new favorite show. The scene of Yui running to school with Geeta on her back while Fude Pen played was intensely emotional. I hadn’t realized how much Yui had grown and changed and how much the club meant to her. I hadn’t realized how much I cared until it started mirroring the scene from the first episode with all of Yui’s distractions. In contrast we get a focused, determined Yui running in place at the light. The instant it began with Yui catching herself instead of falling, I could feel the tears welling up and thought. And then “Fuwa Fuwa Time,” the encore and them all building up on their instruments totally inwardly focused….

    I loved this show.

    The first season wasn’t perfect. Sawa-chan got on my nerves. Her weird obsession with dressing up the girls and the way her life seemed to revolve around them rang false to me. I also kept dreading the inevitable fanservice and thought Sawa-chan was there to facilitate that, although thankfully it never happened. I didn’t like the running gag of Mio being scared all the time, it was triggered too easily to feel real, and it kept her from having fun at times. The gag got old fast and never really developed into anything different, although it’s a testament to the show’s strength that what bothered me most was that Mio couldn’t join in on the fun at the beach and other times.

    I also wasn’t thrilled by Asuza. She brought some good things to the table, giving us an outside view on the core group and pushing Yui to be more responsible and serious, but her constant criticisms wore on me. It did seem to be part of her character since she was just as critical of Jun. But Asuza was never part of the core group. I bonded with the main four because I went through the process of creating and sustaining the club with them, and watched an incredible new bond form. Asuza just kind of joined that, attached onto it, and so I never had the same attachment to her that I did with the others.

    Although I did think Asuza’s situation at the end of the show was the saddest. Not only were her friends in the Light Music Club leaving, but Asuza herself would never have the full K-On! experience. She would never spend three years forming the friendship of a lifetime like Yui and the others did. She got two years as a partial outsider, and then presumably one with new underclassmen who will get the full experience with each other, but Asuza will be a perpetual outsider. Considering that she’s gotten to see up close just how affecting the full K-On! experience is, that’s genuinely tragic.

    Even though the first season blew me away and left me emotionally affected, I wasn’t too excited about the prospect of the second season, oddly enough. I watched the first episode and then didn’t look at any more for a while. The first season is its own self-contained story and doesn’t need a sequel. But I did get into the second season eventually, and it was incredible. I was really impressed by the way that, starting from the field trip episode, the show did an amazing job of capturing the feeling of various experiences. I started the field trip episode intending to watch a few episodes and couldn’t because after that one episode I was worn out. I felt like I had gone on the field trip with them. It kept doing that: the feeling of being bored with your friends on a rainy afternoon, being in school when it’s hot, when it’s cold, when it’s wet, the feeling of preparing for a school play, of pulling an all-nighter, of in-jokes and the joy of cleaning a room, how different a classroom looks as a senior accepted to college. Probably more, I’m sure I missed some. As a writer, it’s hard to be that evocative. K-On! consistently pulls it off and makes it look easy.

    Yui is really funny. I feel like no one talks about this. I’m in stitches constantly when she’s on screen.

    K-On! is visually spectacular. The backgrounds, faces, directing, angles, use of motion and light…every anime looks like shit next to this one, how do people watch other things? K-On! kept giving me unique and engaging visual experiences. I can’t think of a single other series, anime or otherwise, that even compares.

    By the end of season 2 I felt like K-On! was one of the most immaculate, careful, observant, and skillfully crafted works of art I have ever experienced. At some point I’ll watch the movie and extra episodes, I’m still coming down emotionally from the close of the series. Yet it’s weird how K-On! doesn’t get nearly as much respect as I would lavish on it. It’s like if nobody cared about Michelangelo’s “David.” You don’t have to be into the genre of high school girls being cute and slice-of-lifey (I’m certainly not!) to realize that you’re looking at a masterful display of craftsmanship.

    Which brings me to the subject of why K-On! is underrated: it’s a really smart, subtle, sophisticated show. People who are inexperienced with narrative or who aren’t paying attention are going to miss it.

    It’s not an intellectual show. There isn’t deep symbolism about how Kantian ethics relate to modern capitalism as 21st century religiosity or anything like that. But it’s incredibly dense, visually and narratively, and it doesn’t explain anything.

    There’s a writing maxim I’m sure you’re aware of: “show, don’t tell.” K-On! is the epitome of this. The characters never spell anything out, and neither does the camera or auditory cues like background music. It’s all just there. It’s like actually being with real life friends: at no point do they explain their character arcs. You have to pay attention.

    A great example is the episode in season 2 where Yui is concerned about her haircut for the senior yearbook photo. It’s obvious this is symbolic of her fear of graduation and adulthood and leaving her friends. In a lesser show this would be handled by at some point making this connection explicit. Yui would start crying and say that she doesn’t want to graduate, or Nodoka or someone would have said something like, “This isn’t really about the photo, is it?” Instead, K-On! actually makes the episode about Yui’s haircut. It’s seriously just 22 minutes of Yui being overly self-conscious about her hair. (Culminating in the most tense and visually thrilling haircutting scene I’ve ever witnessed.) Yet the deeper meaning is there for anyone able to see it. It’s just never spelled out.

    That’s the way K-On! works throughout its run. It’s hard to say, especially in the first season, what an episode was “about” or what “happened.” It’s not like you get The Episode Where Yui and Mio Overcome Their Differences And Bond or The Episode Where The Girls First Learn To Play As One. These things happen, but they happen over the course of episodes in a continuous manner rather than as discrete events within single episodes. It makes it feel more like real life friendships at the expense of dumbing things down for the inattentive or inexperienced viewer. A:TLA and FLCL also accomplish this, but neither to the degree that K-On! does.

    So it’s easy to watch K-On! and think nothing is happening. A lot is happening, more than in most series, I’d wager. The show is incredibly dense with character, narrative, and visual stimuli. But the show doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t point at the important things for you to see, it doesn’t stop and tell you what just happened. That’s actually part of why I couldn’t binge it. The show is so dense and mentally taxing that it would tire me. It’s almost closer to reading a book than it is to watching a cartoon.

    Let me talk about Mugi because Mugi is the shit. She’s also a great example of what I’m talking about. Mugi gets less focus than even Sawa-chan in the show. But my favorite moment of K-On! revolves around her. It’s, I think, the second time they go to one of her ridiculous beach houses for “practice.” We know that Mugi is self-conscious of her wealth, that her upbringing and background have created barriers between her and her peers so that friendship has been a rare experience for her. We also know that she has no idea of what an actually normal life is. But she’s going through this very teenager thing where she’s incredibly self-conscious about her wealth and concerned it will drive a wedge between her and the others, and in the meanwhile the other girls just think it’s really cool that they get this awesome beach house and totally don’t care. It culminates in my favorite single scene in all of anime. A yacht, Mugi’s family yacht, or one of them, anyway, comes by. The girls are all amazed and excited. Cut to Mugi, shrieking in tears on the phone at her father in a very teenage girl you-ruined-my-life fashion that she didn’t want the yacht to be sent.

    I love that moment. If you’re paying attention, you understand it all, and because the show never has a moment to explicitly point at Mugi’s arc here and explain what’s going on, it feels more real and more rewarding as a consequence. And it is in fact an incredibly human and realistic portrayal of a totally common teenage experience even though the particular circumstances are very unusual. Yet it’s also easy to see how someone could miss the depth of this moment and see just a stupid joke about a rich girl with no sense of scale.

    This moment tells us a lot about Mugi with very little. In particular it shows us how much she cares about the other girls, and how much she wants the other girls to care about her in return. This show is “show, don’t tell” on steroids, and I love it. But I love it because I love rich, complex, dense narrative crafted with mastery and care. Someone looking for light entertainment, less fascinated by narrative, might just find this show confusing, hyperactive, and overwhelming.

    And of course it’s Mugi who starts the encore at the performance at the end of season 1. Nothing needs to be said to show us that Mugi more than any of the other girls wants the show to continue because of how she personally relates to the light music club. This goes hand-in-hand with your point about how the show draws out individual characteristics while maintaining the group feel as in the marathon singing-while-running scene. Mugi doesn’t have an Ui, or the Mio-Ritsu friendship, or Jun. She has K-On! as her only connection to her peers, and she wants the K-On! experience to keep going because that’s the only time that she can HAVE the kind of experience that she craves. It’s also why she later starts copying Yui more and follows her in some of her absurd ventures. Mugi is looking to taste as much of normal life and friendship as she can. So when she starts playing her keyboard again after the first performance of “Fuwa Fuwa Time,” she’s saying to the others, “Please don’t stop, let’s keep going, I love playing with you all.” It’s not about the music or the energy of the show. It’s about the group of girls and their friendship. And that’s what K-On! is all about. The perfect dovetailing of an individual’s character arc with the show’s overall arc and theme. That is perfect, perfect storytelling, I do not have the words to compliment it enough.

    I’m writing this partly because I feel, as you might be able to tell, that K-On! is an extraordinary work of art that doesn’t get nearly enough credit. So…know that it is. People who think it’s another dumb show about cute high school girls aren’t paying attention or don’t know how to pay attention. This show is a masterpiece.

    Also, I can’t exactly tell people that I’ve just fallen in love with this show about cute high school girls or they’ll think I’m a weeaboo getting off to tentacles and whatever, so it feels good to get this off my chest.

    Make a whole video series about narrative craft in K-On! plz I will watch it even if no one else does.

    I should probably mention K-On! doesn’t speak to me on a personal level. I was never in a band, I was never with a really tight group of friends through high school. The show is just really damn good anyway.

    Keep fighting the good fight, peace, also, can we talk about how good these songs are? Like, for real? Fude Pen is my jam, this shit is dope.

  3. The main point behind that “annoying comment” Digi is suspension of disbelief. Some people can achieve fun from crap because they only want fun. Someone who chose criticism as a hobby or job will never be able to be as easily entertained as a simple spectator if they do strive to be good at their craft of critic because when they watch a show they assume a superior position over the shows as if they were watching it from above. The average person or anime enthusiast will simply let him or herself be carried along for the ride in the middle of the story while a critic will watch it with a more scrupulous eye and simply notice things that others won’t even notice because they don’t want to. I think the comments of spectators should not annoy critics because often they simply want different things out of a show. And it is much easier to suspend our disbelief in clearly dumb shows because they made it clear in the first place. Those who make these shows are pretty much saying “Don’t try to take us too seriously or at all seriously because that’s not what we do here”. That’s why i did enjoy those shows that you mentioned without too many problems while shows like Psycho Pass had me sometime cringe at what i saw. Im often faced with this dilemma because i have a brother who simply can’t or won’t let himself be entertained by the same things i like so i have a lot of difficulties in finding a show among the many that i watch that will actually catch his eye and keep him glued to it long enough for him to be entertained by it. It is the curse of the critic to have difficulties having fun because that is entirely their job. And that’s also why scenes like one in Ratatouille with the mean gourmet critic being swept away in memories by the main character’s food are accurate and amazing in describing this exact dilemma. Don’t worry Digibro, there’s nothing wrong with your sense of fun, it’s just ours that is detachable :V

  4. I think that behind those questions “Why can’t you turn your brain off?” and “Do you hate fun?” there are in fact two different points that you kind of mixed together, particularly in your analysis of Heavy Object.

    Those questions stems from people who enjoyed shows you didn’t, and if you try answering why it is like that, then in my opinion it clearly boils down to those two points:
    – they were able to disregard a larger amount of bullshit than you were, without it spoiling the show for them, and they can’t understand why it’s not the same for you. There are 3 ways of disregarding this bullshit. The first one is to acknolewdge it but just think “I don’t care”. Alternatively, they did not see the bullshit in the first place, because they weren’t paying enough attention to what was happening on-screen. A third possibility is that they lack the analytical skills or knowledge to understand that said element is indeed bullshit.
    – their “fun” is not the same as yours, in another word they found fun in something you think wasn’t fun, out of purely differing tastes. But they themselves aren’t aware of it, they can’t put it in words, or they can’t understand than another person’s “fun” is not the same as their own.

    I think these 2 points are fundamentally different. In your analysis of Heavy Object you stated that for you it wasn’t fun because of all the bullshit happening and preventing you from enjoying the “Elite few winning against all odds” gimmick. In that case I think it’s less because of the bullshit itself than because said bullshit spoiled the one and only point you found interest in that show, and that in your opinion it had no redeeming qualities.
    Maybe people who enjoyed Heavy Object were brain-dead and thought it was well-written with compelling battles. Or more likely they found enough enjoyment in things you thought weren’t worth it. Maybe for them watching humungous war-machines was enough to make it a fun show, I dunno. Maybe it was their first anime and that was what made it enjoyable (like the key thing for the baby).

    I don’t know if I managed to make my points, my english is not the best and I sometimes struggle with writing ><

    Just out of curiosity, how many episodes of Heavy Object did you watched ? I dropped it within the few minutes of the first ep, it was probably the worst first ep of a 24 min show I've watched since Rettousei.

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