Edited by The Davoo
“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.