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6 Lessons I Learned From A Year Of Watching Streaming Anime

This post was originally written in January 2014 and published on another (now defunct) blog. The example shows are out of date, but I felt the “lessons” they talked about were still relevant.

It’s a new year, which means it’s time for Year End Lists. Since 2013 was the year I started watching the online streams of currently airing anime, I figured I’d do something a little different than the usual “Top 10” or “This Year’s Worst.”  So here I give you my year end list, “6 Lessons I Learned From A Year Of Watching Streaming Anime.”

6. Some Shows Are Better With A Crowd

Attack On Titan was this year’s anime blockbuster, and the show that inevitably blew up Twitter the second a new episode came online. Needless to say, people were talking about it a lot. And I didn’t really, really get into the show until I joined in the conversation.

I liked Attack On Titan well enough from the first episode, and it has plenty to recommend it.  But it also has some very noticeable issues, namely 1) occasionally fitful pacing, and 2) obvious budget limitations that resulted in some at times ugly and laughably limited animation. None of these were big enough problems to derail the show entirely, but they were definitely easy to dwell on.

I watched the first half of Titan’s episodes several weeks behind the broadcast dates, as I preferred to watch the show by marathoning as many episodes as possible at once. That way, that the poorly paced episodes where little happened would quickly lead into the ones where shit jumped off and the crazy, kinetic plot twists and action sequences overshadowed the limited animation that came before. By the time the show hit its halfway point, I was all caught up and too hooked on the story not to watch each episode as it came out.  But I was also weary that having to take episodes individually was going to make all of the show’s problems stand out, possibly to the point of diminishing my enjoyment.

Turns out I didn’t have to worry about that at all, because being up to date on the show meant that I could take part in the conversation that was going on online.  And once I got to talking with everyone else about the show, I discovered that Attack On Titan becomes a hell of a lot more fun when you watch it with a crowd.  Like any good blockbuster, Titan is meant to be experienced by a large group of people at the same time, one that cheers, claps, and gasps collectively at all of its big audience-rousing moments.  Why bother dwelling on how off-model the faces were in an episode when you can take to Twitter discuss that episode’s revealing character moment,  its unexpected deaths, or its sudden plot revelations?  The show seems almost scientifically designed to make social media traffic explode, and being a part of that explosion was integral to enjoying the show to the fullest.

As with any show discussed rabidly on Twitter and elsewhere, spoilers were inevitable. It’s easy to understand why: Titan is the kind of show that is built around the buildup to big “OH SHIT, DID YOU SEE THAT?!” moments, the kind that you can’t help but talk about. Which meant that anyone watching it had to watch the newest episode right as it came out (if they didn’t want everything to be spoiled all over their feeds and timelines, anyway). A big part of the pleasure of streaming content is that you can watch it whenever you please, but Attack On Titan reminded me of that there’s also joy to be found in having a set weekly time to park my ass on the couch with a group of likeminded friends so that we can freak out about a TV show as it happens (thank goodness Titan aired on Saturdays). The fact that those friends were all contacted digitally was incidental. The key to truly enjoying Attack On Titan was being a part of the mass audience that was there to cheer with you when things (rarely) went right, be shocked with you when things (often) went wrong, and provide group therapy when things became almost nihilistically depressing (there’s an episode in the second half that takes place in the woods… things happen… it’s not pleasant).

5. Some Shows Aren’t Worth Finishing

I’m the kind of viewer who likes to stick with things. I like to examine and pick apart the media I consume, so even when I’m not enjoying a show I’ll often keep watching just to come to a more concrete grasp of why it’s failing. After all, knowing what you don’t like and what doesn’t work is just as important as knowing the opposite, and I’m a firm believer in examining and reevaluating why I watch things and what I’m looking for in art and media. The best case scenario for sticking it out is having one of those revelatory moments when you realize that the only thing wrong with something was the way you were looking at it.

Unfortunately those moments can be incredibly rare, and you’re often just better off jumping ship once you realize a show is headed in the wrong direction. Which brings me to Gargantia On The Verduous Planet.

Gargantia (the newest series from anime’s current new wunderkind, writer Gen Urobuchi of Madoka Magica, Psycho-Pass, and Fate/Zero fame) starts with an incredibly strong first episode that sets up a promising “stranger in a strange land” premise: a marooned soldier from a fascistic space army is stranded on a flooded planet and is taken in by a native sea caravan, where he learns to deprogram himself from his single-minded, militaristic worldview. And immediately after that first episode, Gargantia begins a long, all too apparent descent into disappointment and mediocrity. But I continued to watch, hoping that the show would turn itself around, that the promise of the first episode would appear again, despite all of the evidence that it had completely evaporated and was never to return.

Surprise surprise, it never did.  Gargantia was a dud, one that I knew would fail to deliver no matter how long I watched it. But I’d made it that far, so I might as well keep watching, right? That’s the thought that kept me tuning in every week, even as I started resenting the show for wasting my time. The last episode came and went with no enjoyment to be had, and I had to admit that I should have listened to me self when I had realized six or seven episodes before that there was no reason to keep watching. That’s a lot of time spent on something I wasn’t enjoying or learning from in any way. Sometimes, walking away is the only sensible course of action.

4. Some Shows Are Worth Sticking With

My reaction to watching each of the first four or five episodes of Watamote, aka No Matter How I Look At It, It’s You Guy’s Fault I’m Not Popular, was always the same: “I really don’t think I can keep watching this.” Whatever else you can say about Watamote, you can’t say that it’s an easy watch. Any show that revolves around the daily life of a teenager suffering from debilitating social anxiety is probably going to have moments of awkward viewing, but Watamote takes it even further than most fiction dares to go. It’s unflinching in portraying the unpleasant circle of embarrassment, seething hatred, and self-loathing that its main character Tomoko is trapped in, and it never diminishes or apologizes for how nasty and awful a person she can be because of it. In the very first episode, Tomoko has a panic attack throws up into a trash can simply because she can’t stand to look at herself in the mirror. In an episode not long after that, she sits in a classroom seething with rage and wishing that the other “bitches” and “sluts” in her class all get raped because they have the confidence to talk to boys that she doesn’t. Every episode has at least one moment of cringe-inducing horror and embarrassment. Whether taken in pieces or as a whole, Watamote is the nearly hopeless tale of a mentally disturbed girl who seems irrevocably trapped in a recursive cycle of shame, anger, and a self-fulfilling prophecy of eternal isolation from the rest of the world.  Oh, and it’s a comedy.

While watching the first half of the show, I wondered aloud why I was putting myself through the experience, and often convinced myself that whatever episode I had just watched would be my last. But week after week I came back, and I’m happy I did. While at times Watamote is so difficult to sit through that watching it can feel like an act of ritual self-flagellation, it’s also probably the truest, most personal portrayal of mental illness and depression I’ve ever seen, in anime or otherwise. It’s an amazingly compelling character study of a type of character that usually never gets fair or accurate treatment. Tomoko is the story, and the people telling it not only clearly understand her and her problems, they also want to make the audience experience and understand them too, even when it’s not flattering or sympathetic to her. Her story is tragic, upsetting, funny, alienating, endearing, and always compelling. It might not be an easy watch, but Watamote is worth it.

3. There’s No Accounting For Taste

Most of my communication with other anime fans happens on Twitter, and I like to keep my feed free of bullshit. I don’t have time for all of the petty, rancid nonsense that you can find flooding most nerd forums courtesy of obnoxious people who want to ruin everyone else’s day or can’t accept anyone else’s opinion as genuine, so I don’t bother following them or interacting with that kind of people. The result is that the online crowd I run with is one that, whether we agree on the merits of a particular Japanese cartoon or not, there’s still a productive discussion to be had… most of the time.

Gatchaman Crowds was possibly this year’s best example of a controversial show. Not just because it garnered extreme reactions both positive and negative, but because the lines that divided the audience were so unpredictable. Gatchaman Crowds wasn’t divisive in the way that harem comedies or ecchi shows are. The appeal of those shows for its audience is simple and obvious, and the fights over them are always the same old group of people who love and angrily defend them against the same old group of people who despise and dismiss them, and always for the same reasons. Crowds, on the other hand, was divisive in a way that split the audience along much different lines, and one where reading the praise its devotees lavished upon it made me think I must have been watching an entirely different show than they were.

Was Crowds a clever, compelling show filled with relevant social commentary and irreverent deconstruction of the tropes of the sentai/superhero genre? Some people certainly think so, and have passionately and eloquently argued their case. But no matter how well they did, none of them has even dented my impression that the show was a sloppily told, overly didactic mess with a penchant for moralizing with the unpleasant grace of heavy machinery, yet still couldn’t make a cohesive point. When Crowds fans all agreed that the show’s hero Hajime was lovable and inspiring, many people hated her for being an obnoxious Manic-Pixie Mary-Sue whom the show would bend over to accommodate and deify no matter how nonsensical or simpleminded her actions and words were. And while the show’s defenders have a point that the casting went out of its way to be progressive in its representation of gender, sexuality, and identity, how are they not bothered that most of those characters amount to nothing more than cardboard cutouts, there either to constantly fellate Hajime with their praise or else act as easily confounded straw men for her to overcome with constant, irritating ease?

Even though Crowds started airing nearly 6 months ago, it’s still a semi-regular topic of conversation on my feed. And neither side seems closer to understanding the other than they were before. As I mentioned above I like to keep my fan interactions to people who are sane and reasonable, so this hasn’t resulted in any serious feuds or ruined friendships.  But Crowds shows that there will always be something that the group will never be able to agree on, and that you have to learn to take it in stride. After all, there are people on my Twitter feed who like Bakemonogatari. I try not to judge them for it too harshly. It’s not easy, but I do my best.

2. Be Willing To Be Surprised

If someone had told me before Fall of 2013 that there was going to be a show about a scantily-clad schoolgirl trying to tear people’s clothes off that was not only incredibly entertaining but successfully managed to include an allegory about the relationship between societal control mechanisms, oppression, sexuality, and clothing, I probably would have stopped taking their opinion seriously. Then Kill La Kill came out.

I never thought I’d actually enjoy a slice-of-life comedy about Japanese high schoolers forming an idol group, but Love Live had such an infectious, dopey 80s-movie charm that by the time the first episode ended with the main character joyously singing and dancing into oncoming traffic I had to admit there was something enjoyable there. (I’ll watch more that series one day, I swear I will!)

When it was first announced, it was easy to think that the rotoscoped Flower’s Of Evil would only be an interesting novelty that would stay interesting for about one episode, a curious anomaly that only existed because the director couldn’t get a live action series approved.  Despite the fact that they were obviously chosen to look as bad as possible, the screenshots that the show’s opponents were fervently passing around to anyone they could get to look at them didn’t help with that perception, either.  But then it turned out that Flowers Of Evil was actually brilliant, and that the stark, alienating look of its rotoscoped faces and hyperrealistic backgrounds was all essential to how it built and told its story.  It was the first great series of the year, and a lot of people decided to hate it before it even came out and never reconsidered.  Too bad for them.

1. No Matter How Bad It Looks, There’s Probably Something Worth Watching

Every time a new season’s shows were being announced, it was easy to grumble. Every new season always seems to be packed full of things that were sure to be awful: Another I Can’t Believe My Little Sister Wants To Ride My Balloon Pony. Three more poorly animated dating sim and light novel adaptations. A handful of shows about hideously deformed boobs and the manchildren who love them. Volume 26 of Studio SHAFT Throws Random Shit Onscreen For 22 Minutes In Hopes You Won’t Notice This Is Just Another Insipid Otaku-Pandering Comedy (That Might Be Legally Classified As Child Porn In Some Jurisdictions).

 And yet a few weeks into every season, all the grumbling was forgotten because every time there was at least one surprise hiding in the lineup that made it easy to forget about all the crap. 2013 might not be a standard year, seeing as it gave us a murderer’s row of great shows with Titan, Flowers Of Evil, Watamote, Kyousougiga, The Eccentric Family, Kill La Kill, and all its other gems. But it does make for a good demonstration. Every season, I worried that it looked like there wasn’t going to be much that was good. And then every season, I found there were more good shows than I had time to watch.  Which is why if this list wasn’t already so damn long, my other lesson learned would have been “You’ll Never Have Time To Watch Everything.”
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