12 Days of Meditations #11: On taste

If you go to any discussion board on anime, chances are you’ll stumble upon a discussion of taste, or the lack thereof. Anime fans use taste as a way of curating friends–after all, it’s very natural to seek out people who agree with your preferences.

Anime fans also use taste as a way of mocking and demeaning other people.

How does this differ from other kinds of media, then? Admittedly, I haven’t put much thought to this, but if I may hazard a guess, anime as a niche media engenders geek behavior, and one of the most repulsive aspects of it is elitism.

“Filthy casuals!” the 4chan denizen would say. Casual describes a person who is only mildly interested in the hobby. He or she may not have spent as much time and money as the devoted fan. To the elitist anime fan, the so-called casual represents everything that’s wrong with the hobby. With their poor, undeveloped taste, they patronize inferior works and inflate sales figures. And because of their numbers, the industry would undoubtedly cater (or pander, if you want to adopt the dialect) to these people, on the expense of what might be better works. (your face when light novel trash gets a third season while your deep, pretentious shit will never have a sequel, etc etc)

Naturally, this is a problem. When I didn’t know any better, I was an obnoxious fan, and judged people according to their tastes. I would never befriend a Narutard, I would say, and coldly brush off people who proclaimed their love for the big modern shounen works. As I gradually matured, however, I came to learn that taste isn’t really a conscious choice for most people, nor should it be a pissing contest. There is no litmus test for good taste.

I have a friend who’s pretty smart, knowing a lot of science, history, and languages. I would go as far as to call him a sophisticated man, but for some reason he likes to watch a lot of magical girl and slice-of-life anime.

“Why not watch something like Darker Than Black?” I asked him once, trying to recommend the show to him.

“I get enough of that dark shit in real life, why should I bring it over to my hobby?” he said. He then explained that it’s the bright and happy shows that warm his heart and give him the will to carry on another day.

Something clicked in my head, and I never disparaged moe anime ever again. What monster would demean such an earnest answer?

ghostlightning used to say, “we will not like anime because we are not ready for it“. And we will never like some anime, because we will never be ready for them. Our taste, such as it is, will prevent us from appreciating some anime that are by all accounts good. Why, we just don’t like them. Just as I can’t stand mayonnaise or current alternative rock or Key shows. We need a certain perspective to like something, and if we do not have that, our enjoyment could backfire.

It’s hard to watch something that conflicts with your life, or, in my friend’s case, pervades his waking life that he watches anime precisely to escape from it. I think Darker Than Black (the first season at least) is a great show. But its hard-boiled tone and dark mood would put off a whole lot of people, and it’s perfectly valid to criticize the show for that. If I told those people that their taste sucked, then I would be ignoring the context that shaped their own lives. Sadly, this happens too often online, where we could reduce people into what they say. (And even that can be misconstrued, without the nuance of tone.)

The more anime fans I meet, the more I’m convinced that the right show for someone isn’t what you’re thinking for them, and they have to find that for themselves. All we can do is help. I find this wonderful, because it’s a celebration of diversity–that not only the hobby but the people who partake in it themselves could be so different.

So when people proclaim something like, say, Sword Art Online as an excellent show to me, I still try my hardest not to snicker or launch into a tirade on how I think otherwise. I have to help these poor people, I think. But would they appreciate it if I said their taste sucks? Hardly–it surprises me how much we tend to forget that people become defensive if they see you personally attacking them. Many hold our favorite shows like close friends and become upset if someone badmouths them.

Rather, I would enter into a discussion with them, find out what makes them think Sword Art Online is a good anime, and gently steer them into better shows, so that they see and understand for themselves what a good anime should really look like. To educate someone, you must make them want to learn for themselves. Thankfully with anime, it’s pretty easy because you just have to point them to good shows, and their taste will improve. Once they watch enough anime they could look back on their old favorites and say, “I can’t believe I liked that show before!”

(Of course, not everyone is willing to go out of their comfort zone, or challenge their favorites, so you’ll have to respect that, too.)

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4 Responses to 12 Days of Meditations #11: On taste

  1. Shinmaru says:

    This is basically how I try to conduct myself now, and your Darker than Black example is the type of thing that turned me in that direction. Too many people like to cast fans of works they don’t like as slavering idiots when this is often not the case (even if they do it in jest). To me it seems obviously more interesting and productive to find out why someone enjoys something than to shit on them for it. Never know when someone might have an interesting reason!

  2. Let me say this though…

    I was ready for Gundam SEED. The atoms of my body were ready. But SEED was shit LOL.

    I watched Space Dandy last night. I thought I was ready, but I now I don’t think so. I don’t know what to make of it.

    I was not ready for Nobunaga the Fool. But holy shit, I will keep watching.

  3. omo says:

    This Body Is L@dy style of taste is something I can get behind, but rather than to steer people to whatever it is, in my experience it usually comes to, to use the sense of taste analogy, refinement of palate.

    To use your SAO example, it’s actually quite popular, and the name of the show gets around over here. People know it, and if it’s something they find on their own and they enjoy it, that’s usually a sign that people can engage that work on a level that works for them.

    I think 10 years ago I might be able to enjoy SAO much better than I can today. So it’s not that the show is ~problematic~ (although it could be, but that’s not the point) but that I simply have other demands out of my anime than people who enjoy SAO. I mean to put it in more blunt, wider brushstrokes, most of these kind of people don’t watch 20+ shows a season. On the other hand, I do. So it’s clear that what I get out of watching anime is different than those who would “watch crap shows.” And it’s even more clear that I watch more crap show than most people, because 20+ shows a season means something like 10-15 crap shows a season.

    But because now my palate can discern a lot more, much deeply, and much more clearly, from crap shows, that I can savor a much wider variety of anime and stories that others cannot. Some are crap, but at the same time once a year or something you run into something really intricate and amazingly crafted, that those who don’t have that palate won’t be able to see all those layers that makes something good. But by that same token, you know such a show won’t have mass appeal because it require that acquired taste, so to speak. Because it won’t be able to achieve certain things as well as other, less sophisticated works, that most people look forward to when they pop in some anime.

    Cannot be helped!

  4. Me says:

    Overall, I definitely agree with the sentiment of what you are saying (in the first part of your argument) in that judging someone for like or enjoying a certain genre or type of anime is not really correct. It’s up to that person who decide for themselves what type of show they like (along with guiding to excellent anime that they may not know of).

    However, I feel like you somewhat contradict yourself in your SAO example until the end of your argument. The first portion of your argument states that “There is no litmus test for good taste.” This means (if I am interpreting it correctly) that one person’s likes may be different to another person’s likes and that is all right. However, you basically state that SAO is not an excellent/good show. The two paragraphs in which you state that opinion essentially insults anyone who likes SAO and believes that it is a good/excellent/decent show.

    I myself happen to regard SAO as a good/better than average show, and while I am not the totally cultured anime connoisseur who has watched the widest and deepest anime, I have watched my fair share of anime. I can admit that SAO definitely has faults–huge ones even–but for me personally, I believe that it is a pretty good show. However, when you state “gently steer them into better shows, so that they see and understand for themselves what a good anime should really look like,” you contradict your earlier argument of not telling people that their taste sucks.

    Additionally, your argument following the SAO example sort of contradicts your earlier arguments. You say that given enough time and effort, one can guide people to have better tastes, but is not that also a contradiction to your argument? You say that someone’s life circumstances or their taste makes them more inclined towards one type of anime or another. What is wrong with liking mainstream anime/shounen anime with light plot and not too much characterization? Not everyone always likes the deep intricate anime with super deep plot and tons of characters. Granted, sometimes people are too prejudiced against good anime and only watch the mainstream anime, and in this case, your argument would be the best, guiding them to more or less “better” anime and opening up their tastes.

    Take the example of someone who eats only a certain type of vegetable and meat. Say that you were to introduce him to a different type of food, and they earnestly try it and give it a fair shot, but in the end, they just don’t really like it. Their taste is their taste, and while it may be unfortunate for them not to like the food that you (or the person giving them new food) likes, that fact in no way means that they have bad taste. I mean….maybe if they said that toxic waste was the finest cuisine….then they might be a little weird…but other than that, I don’t think you can really judge whether their taste is “good” or not.

    I really feel that if you had remained on the first part of your argument, the second part would have come across (to me) better. It is true that education comes from that desire to know more, but I feel it is not “improving their taste” as much as it is “widening or broadening their tastes.” In stating that their tastes are improving that is a judgement based on your tastes versus their tastes, and you can rarely make that statement objectively.

    Overall, however, I do respect your argument, and for myself, I do realize that my tastes are limited and can certainly be broadened. But I definitely do not feel that someone’s tastes are “better” than mine no matter how much anime they have watched.

    In essence, “sophistication” (subjective as that may be) does not equal “better.”

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