Thursday, April 30, 2015

When Empty Vessels Write Dull Reviews On Old Anime Nobody Remembers

I originally wrote the majority of this while I was ill and the review I criticise is a week old, but I still stand by it. Make of it what you will. The fact of the matter is that those who consider themselves at the top of the anime fandom food chain shit me to tears most of the time;

The only reason I post stuff on my blog is because I like writing. I enjoy writing about my hobbies and interests and to a lesser extent my life. I really don’t give a toss if anyone reads my posts or agrees with my reviews. However if you are a paid writer for a commercial website, you’d think you’d be able to write in a manner that was far above your bog standard 14 year old anime reviewing blogger. Well apparently that doesn’t apply to Zac Bertschy, Executive Editor of Anime News Network (ANN).

I fully admit that I am not a fan of ANN, especially since the quality of the site has slid further and further over the last few years. Certainly the “news” part of Anime News Network is mostly comprised of material that is more often than not several days old and increasingly sourced and translated from commercial Japanese anime news sites. Increasingly even more material is lazily taken from other commercial English language Japanese pop culture-centric websites such as Rocket News 24. Other material is regurgitated from press releases. Very little of it could qualify as original material. You have to remember this is an anime news site which has been running for 17 years. Even after all this time they still don’t have a permanent Japanese correspondent. Compare with Otaku USA which regularly posts article about events, shops and cafes in Japan. Even sites like Crunchyroll and Otaku Mode Tokyo provide better anime news which is neither their core businesses.

But the thing which pisses me off so much about ANN is the bile spewing bore that is Zac Bertschy. He’s the guy who turned the Answerman column into “Opinionman” and once even had the audacity to blame falling US anime company revenue on people who bought complete collection sets over single disc releases. Hilariously he claims he is a journalist. Seriously. Apparently journalism is all about stating your opinions really loudly and as fact, as well as regurgitating days old news from other news sites as well as press releases. Reporting on entertainment isn’t journalism. No one in their right mind would consider the lowlifes at TMZ as journalists, so why in hell would anyone working at some dinky anime website be a journalist?

So I think it’s time to talk about Mr Bertschy’s review which annoyed me to no end; the rerelease of “She, The Ultimate Weapon (aka Saikano or Saishuu Heiki Kanojo or My Girlfriend, The Ultimate Weapon)”. Unsurprisingly he bagged it to hell and back. This got me to thinking; was it really that awful? After watching the show over the last few days the answer is; of course not. But the reason that I find his review awful is not that I don’t think that Zac can’t have a different opinion to mine. It’s the fact that he not only wilfully misinterprets what happens in the show, but as a supposedly professional reviewer in reality he’s really no better than your average anime fan with a blog.

Starting from the very first paragraph, Bertschy claims that a term for manipulating the emotions of your audience is commonly known as “kicking the puppy”. Never heard of the term? Well I’m not surprised. I can’t find any reference to that term or the evidence for his claim that it’s a well-known and used term in screenwriting circles. Maybe he means “kicking the dog” or variations on that. But that term actually describes the clich√© of an evil character just doing something evil with no real meaning other to demonstrate to the audience that he’s evil.

He then proceeds to claim that Saikano was “shoddily produced by Gonzo back in the olden days of 2002”. Really? Compared to what? Let’s have a look at other shows from that period; “Aquarian Age”, “Seven of Seven”, “Gun Frontier”, “Happy Lesson”, “Get Backers” etc. Yeah, there’s a list of high quality stuff there. Of course when he means “shoddily produced”, what he actually means is “I don’t like the art style”, made apparent with remarks about the character designs looking like “one of those Precious Moments toddler angels, just a little bump for a nose”. This is hilariously hypocritical as Bertschy publicly chastised anime fans that disliked the rotoscoping in “Flowers of Evil”. He also seems to conflate actual animation quality with video resolution, rating the animation as a “D-“ and saying this;

All of this is made worse by the show's incredibly poor artistry. SaiKano was produced in a terrifyingly low resolution back in the early 2000s, a digipaint nightmare made to look good on CRT TVs and nowhere else. […] it was produced in such a low res that you can't even make a properly anamorphic widescreen disc for it – this show is letterboxed, which means it appears in a little box surrounded by black bars on your TV, unless you're still rocking a 32” Zenith like it's 1998. […] It's aliased to hell and back, and the cheap, clumsy digital animation looks even worse when it's swimming in jaggies. The show has a particular problem where characters are routinely drawn with accidentally enormous feet, which makes their walk cycle look completely off”.

Putting aside the bizarre comment about the poorly drawn feet (I have no idea what in god’s name he’s referring to) and the fact my copy of the show (region 2 Japanese DVDs from 2003) has surprisingly very few aliasing problems even when zooming in to fill the entire screen, video resolution has sweet F.A. to do with animation quality. It doesn’t matter if the show was shot on 8mm film stock, 480i video resolution or for ultra-high definition or if you’re watching it on VHS or 4K streaming video. None of that stuff has got anything to do with animation quality. As far as I could see, apart from some low grade CG shots in the first and final episodes, the animation looked as good, if not better than most TV anime released in that year. And the digital colouring and composition looked far from “cheap” and “clumsy (again, compare to “Gun Frontier”, “Get Backers” etc.) and looked quite natural compared to harsher looking digital painted shows like “s-CRY-ed”. Certainly a couple of the animation cuts in episode 9 and 10 looked off model and of course a show from 2002 isn’t going to have the same level of animation detail as one from 2015, but obviously Bertschy doesn’t care about such comparisons.

Then we get on to Bertschy’s bizarre interpretation of the relationships in Saikano. He claims that most of the female characters “including Akemi, Shuji and Chise's mutual friend, and Fuyumi, his first love, goes through some manner of sexual and emotional humiliation at the hands of Shuji, who they all claim to love”. Um, what? Fuyumi was 14 year old Shuji’s teacher (Shuji is 17 in the present) when she had an illicit relationship with him. Now it’s quite obvious in the show that Fuyumi is a very needy and somewhat unbalanced woman (you’d have to be to have a sexual relationship with a 14 year old). She’s forcing herself on to him and you could easily suggest that he’s was the victim of sexual assault as a 14 year old, and that an adult woman having sex with a 17 year old schoolboy isn’t a great idea. It doesn’t seem to occur to Bertschy that Shuji’s relationship and feelings towards Fuyumi are more than a little complex and not as black and white as he makes them out to be, especially now that he has a girlfriend he wants to protect with her own set of “unique” problems. As for Akemi, she’s just confessing her love on her deathbed. I agree that particular scene is emotionally manipulative and not all that subtle, but to claim that its “sexual and emotional humiliation at the hands of Shuji” is patently absurd. Even stranger is Bertschy’s bizarre claim that Shuji’s relationships with these two women turn Saikano into “a crappy harem fantasy sneakily bolted on [to the story]”. Um, what the heck? In what alternate universe could this show even be remotely considered to be in the harem genre?

Later Bertschy clumsily berates “Saikano” for what he considers to be poor attempts as drama threaten to derail the show “like a dangerously overfilled clown car” (yes, he actually gets paid to write this tosh) and suggests that the “apocalyptic sci-fi premise is just window dressing for the emotional fireworks on display. You get people with the sci-fi hook and then nail them to the wall with your nuanced and relatable character writing (see: District 9, Children of Men, Cowboy Bebop, et al)”. Which is all well and good, but in the three sci-fi shows he has mentioned, all are sci-fi first and foremost. The sci-fi element plays a very large part in all three, whereas in “Saikano” it’s not really a big deal.  Shuji and Chise’s relationship is at the core to the show. I get that he’s trying to say that the show’s drama is poorly done, but you can’t really make the comparison between those movies and “Saikano”.

In the forums Bertschy gets a little upset with people comparing “Puella Magi Madoka Magica” to “torture porn”; “[…the] accusation for Madoka seems to be a hyperbolic, purposefully barbed response to the show's popularity rather than a sincere or genuine reaction to the show itself”. Well why don’t we compare both shows? Both Kyoko Sakura and Sayaka Miki have back stories just as sad and tragic as anyone in “Saikano”. And let’s not forget Mami Tomoe suddenly shooting the other girls in episode 10. How is that any less shocking or emotionally manipulative than anything in “Saikano”? Then there are the obvious parallels between Madoka Kaname and Chise; both receive powers that they don’t want but feel compelled to use, and both ultimately end up sacrificing themselves in order to save people they love. And let’s face it; you could easily make an argument that the writing in “Madoka Magica” is really no better than what is found in “Saikano”. Let’s see how well “Madoka Magica” holds up in a decade or so.

Because Bertschy cannot connect with the characters in the show (with all the conflicts raging across the world in the last decade, he can’t put himself in the shoes of young lovers who find themselves unwilling caught up in the conflict?), he questions the sci-fi aspects of the regarding Chise’s mechanisation. No sense of imagination this bloke. I mean seriously, does every little thing have to be spoon fed to the audience? Baffled at military tactics, Bertschy asks; “If they have this ultimate weapon that can literally erase a town in the blink of an eye, why are they bothering with ground troops?”. One could stupidly ask the same thing in regard to the Cold War. I mean why have armies when nuclear weapons could obliterate the planet several times over? He also asks; “Why do they have to hunt her down later? Wouldn't they install some kind of tracking system?”. One would think that seeing she is an “ultimate weapon” and is shown to have external control over military satellites and the like, that yes, it’s not too much of a stretch to believe she could hide her presence from the military. See what I mean about this guy having not an ounce of imagination?

Finally in the last paragraph of the review he brings out his oddest comparison of the show yet; “Really, this is dysfunctional, poorly-made tragedy porn. Like pornography, it services only one emotion and nothing else, and like pornography, it's profoundly uncomfortable to watch in a room with other people, so the idea of getting together with your buddies to laugh at all the dark-hearted angsty gnashing of teeth is unpleasant at best”. Putting aside what is probably the most utterly lazy and overused way to describe something which is one dimensionally gratuitous (i.e. the addition of the word “porn”), there’s the comparison between pornography and this show. Seriously, how would watching this show in a room full of people be comparable to being in the same room watching pornography? Only in the hyperbolic bizarro world of Zac Bertschy, that’s where.

When this guy is the editor of arguably the biggest anime website in the world, you have to question fandom as a whole. Comments in the ANN forums on the review had the usual bleating of sheep with practically no dissenters. Click bait nonsense like this review for a 13 year old show that only a few people will buy irks me to no end. Other than to create controversy and cause a few page hits, what was the actual point of the review? For a hilarious comparison, read his thoughts on the show back in 2002. From "genius" to "awful". But this is Bertschy’s shtick; be sarcastic, be negative, act like some hipster anime critic, all tip and no iceberg (to paraphrase Paul Keating).

Bertschy does write as if his opinion is that the be all and end all of everything and the way he belittles anyone with dissenting opinions, which only further entrenches this perception of him. Seeing as he criticises the majority of anime and to a large degree its fans, one can only wonder why he still works for ANN. If he hates anime so much, why in hell would you torture yourself by writing about it every day? Add in the fact none of his views are particularly enlightening. When you consider that there is an infinite number of anime bloggers and Tumblr pages spitting out content just as infuriating and shoddy for free, so why would you read the deep as a puddle thoughts of some doofus that thinks his opinions are vitally important to the world?

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