For the last week or so I’ve had two discussions bouncing around in my head taking up space.
One was this post over at Full Frontal Moe criticizing the idea that Eva is a deconstruction of the mecha genre, and the other is this tweet thread from Thaliarchus about how we judge newer examples of a genre as more mature than older ones.
All of this got me thinking about how we (as fans and critics and critical fans) talk about influence and impact when it comes to a genre.
Without criticizing the idea that either of them put out, I want to get my own ideas about this subject out.
But let’s start with a little bit of table clearing.
A lot of people descend into hyperbole when they talk about influential shows. I’m just as guilty of these over generalizations as the next person. I could easily stand on a hill and say that Eva defined anime for the later part of the 90s and the early part of the 2000s.
That is obviously not true. The same thing goes for calling a show groundbreaking and genre-defining.
Also, the gulf between what I know and what I think I know is far and deep, so I could be totally off base with what I’m saying here. I will let you decide.
Also, I apologize for how many times I’m going to write influence, influenced and influential. It’s probably going to be a lot.
Art, commerce and influence
People often confuse art and commerce when they talk about whether something is influential. They’ll look at a television show and then they’ll see another show and see the similarities. Really, that’s expected. People are pattern-seeking creatures.
The problem is that we will often attribute a cause to the pattern. Going back to Evangelion again. Someone will see Eva and then see the similarities with Serial Experiments Lain and they will automatically jump to the conclusion that Lain’s creators were influenced by Eva.
While it might be true, it’s also equally dismissive of the dozens of other artistic influences the creators might have as well as their own ingenuity.
Before anything else, we need to move the conversation about whether a particular piece of work is influential away from the artistic influences of the creators.
One of the main reasons is that we can’t really trust creators to give us honest accounts of what they cribbed and what they came up with on their own. I’m not convinced that any creative person really has a full grasp of what motivated them until after they’ve finished. Sure they might have a goal, they might even have idols, but there is a certain amount of alchemy that goes on when those are combined. I believe it’s more instinctual than analytical.
So outside of the grip of that artistic fugue, I don’t think artists are really any better than the rest of us in coming up with why they did the things they did.
Another issue is that these works are not made in a vacuum. We often think about auteur directors, but more often a TV show or movie is a collaboration between dozens, so picking out one particular creator can be a fool’s errand.
But beyond their lack of trustworthiness, what the artist was thinking at the time doesn’t matter.
Let me repeat that because that is at the heart of my problems with this discussion. When we’re talking about the influence of art, it doesn’t matter if future artists drew inspiration from it.
That’s because influence is not a function of art, it’s a function of commerce.
Why Space Runaway Ideon doesn’t matter
Matteo at Full Frontal Moe is not the first person to trot out Space Runaway Ideon when talking about whether Eva is influential.
There is a fundamental problem with this comparison. Ideon doesn’t matter.
Spelled out more clearly, we don’t talk about Ideon outside of the context of Eva. For example, try to find a column or a review of Ideon that doesn’t mention that it inspired Evangelion. Even more, show me the decades of figures and other merchandise that is still being produced after Ideon’s release.
There is simply no comparison between the two shows when it comes to market penetration or cultural mind share.
The problem is that without Eva, Ideon would only be remembered as something else that Yoshiyuki Tomino directed. It would be on a list with Garzey’s Wing or Brain Powerd. No matter what its role in the creation of Eva, Ideon is not in any way as influential as what followed it.
This is because influence is not about art, it’s about commerce.
When enthusiasts and critics talk about influence, they often like to pretend that the business of fiction does not exist. They like to draw straight lines from their favorite shows to their other favorite shows.
But the importance of Eva is that it made money, and it continues to make money. The gloomy and psychologically tortured Shinji may have not been original, but his existence proved that a show with that type of hero could make money.
The same goes for the visuals and some of the storytelling techniques. Creators knew that the public would accept those variations. Even more importantly, production companies knew that they could successfully sell shows like Eva.
We can trace a line from Eva to shows like Lain, Texhnolyze, Boogiepop Phantom and, even, Gankutsuo because Eva used unconventional animation. This isn’t because those artists were directly impacted, but because Eva proved to be a starting point for what is acceptable in commercial television.
We can also do the same thing for brooding young anti-heroes in mecha shows. It’s not because that was wholly original, but because Eva made it commercially viable.
Now Eva certainly wasn’t the only reason for this. As Thaliarchus pointed out, there was a move to late-night anime at the time. This also opened the door.
This leads me to my last thought on the subject.
Commerce and culture
At one point, I called Eva the beginning of anime ennui. That might not be entirely true, but it certainly seems like there was a period from the mid-90s to the late 2000s where every anime was preoccupied with how to “evolve man” or how the world was ending.
Now, it’s pretty obvious Japan was going through some tough times. Economically, they were in the middle of a recession that would reshape their position in the world. As Matteo pointed out, they also had to deal with earthquakes, terrorist attacks and a serial killer.
It’s important to note that for something to be commercially successful, the viewing audience needs to be receptive to it.
But sometimes, I think this muddies the same conversation. If Eva, Fist of the North Star or Gundam didn’t exist, would something else have just taken their place? The answer is probably.
Influence is not predestined. It’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time with the right idea. That is what makes it hard to talk about with any certainty.
I realize that is not the strongest point to leave off, but that is what I’ve been thinking about.
What do you think are the influential shows? Do you think it even matters to try and find those patterns?
And, as always, thanks for reading.