So iknight’s got me thinking about language lately. Thanks. Just thanks, because all I needed was my mind churning around in semantic circles like some car where the wheels on the right side have gone out.
Okay, so it’s not his fault. But I’ve been thinking about the word pretentious. Doesn’t that word just sound like what it is? Pre-tent-ious. And while I don’t think the anime reviewing circles have totally mashed that word into a bloody pulp, I do think it’s really really overused.
The problem I have with it, is that it’s a gut reaction word. On top of that, it’s a word that holds all of it’s meaning in the connotation and a little bit in the denotation.
The denotation of the word is:
” characterized by pretension: as a: making usually unjustified or excessive claims (as of value or standing) b: expressive of affected, unwarranted, or exaggerated importance, worth, or stature “
At least according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. (Yeah, it isn’t the OED, but it’s good enough for me.)
So really, it isn’t about the show at all. The word is reflective of claims that are made about the importance of the show. What I think it’s come to mean is a story that seems to think too highly of itself without actually delivering. The problem is that I don’t think it’s really reflective of what people are actually reacting to.
How Joyce and Hemingway relate to anime
Okay, so a long time ago I was forced to read “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man” (now that’s a pretentious title if I’ve ever seen one). During the lead up to reading it, I learned Joyce mainly wrote for a small group of his friends. Now all of them really liked what he had to say. In all honesty, I think that’s what people are reacting to when they say a show is pretentious.
Essentially, there is this show (take your pick, but I’ll take Lain), that is directed at a particular audience (people who like theme heavy science fiction with a broken narrative). Now the target audience is going to love it. While the rest of everyone else is going to sit around scratching their heads going, “Huh?”
In Literature, the supporters would call it art. They’d sit around discussing the various implications and talk like this is truly the most important piece of writing that has come along for the last decade or longer. The same thing happens in anime to a certain extent, but mostly because anime in general doesn’t attract the same culture.
The type of culture that is attracted is a Hemingway culture. Now I use Hemingway in specific because he stated that he wrote for a mass audience. He wanted people to understand what he was writing. He didn’t doll it up. He didn’t obfuscate what he was trying to say by fooling around with form or language. He just said it. Now that doesn’t mean he couldn’t be subtle. But he focused on the story first and the rest of the stuff second.
In general, that’s the type of culture that anime attracts. We usually want more Hemingway and less Joyce type of stuff, because it’s geared at a mass audience. (That’s why something like Lain will never have the commercial success of something like Cowboy Beebop.)
So which one is better?
Okay, so I’ve kind of hinted at my feelings on the subject. But I think there’s two general trains of thought that go through anime. There are the storytellers and the artistes. Now the storytellers focus on story first and theme second. In fact, I think the perfect example of that is Paranoia Agent, which while it had a pretty big theme that was overtly important to the plot, it didn’t forget that the characters needed to go through arcs, that there needed to be a build in tension, that people were watching this show for the show and not for whatever the creators are trying to say.
Whereas artistes are dedicated to art-form. They don’t care about the audience that “doesn’t get it”. They only care about the people who will admire their brilliance. And on general audiences, that doesn’t work. For the most part, their message gets lost somewhere in the broken narratives, the symbolic discourses and the bizarre twists. The artistes are doomed to be misunderstood and derided. And they should be, because they don’t give enough of a damn about their audiences to really make a story.
Just to prove how unoriginal I am, Michael over at AnimeOtaku wrote about a similiar thing a while back concerning ErgoProxy