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Hey, Answerman!
Popularity Contests

by Brian Hanson,

Greetings, friends and readers! Welcome to Hey, Answerman!

Wow, so I got to experience my very first hurricane this week. That was not something I'd wish upon anyone else. I'm fine, of course - in fact, I feel sort of guilty even bringing it up, since there's still millions in New York and Jersey without power, and those of us around the Baltimore area got off pretty lightly, all things considered. Either way, damn forces of nature and their fury.

I've got some questions, now! I'm going to answer them.

You mentioned in a previous column that ADV assisted with the production of Kino's Journey. I was wondering if there was a comprehensive list somewhere of anime that were in part financially assisted by American companies? Yes, I googled. As an anime fan who hasn't found a new show that has tickled my fancy in almost four years, I'm wondering if my anime tastes were mainly in shows that kept an American audience SOMEWHAT in mind. For example, one of my favorite shows is Gungrave which wasn't set in a Japanese high school or some kind of fantastic version of a Japanese high school.

-DVD Buyer who is worried anime became a little too Japanese once the American industry dried up

Well, clearly you didn't Google hard enough, good sir!

Now, this is far from a perfect list, but using here's a quick list I assembled using ANN's own encyclopedia here.

ADV Films was involved in the production of AD Police, Chance Pop Session, Guyver The Bio-Booster Armer, Kaleido Star, Samurai Gun, and the abysmal Sin: The Movie! Geneon was involved in the production of a TON of cool stuff, like: Ah! My Goddess: The Movie, Ai Yori Aoshi ~Enishi~, Appleseed, Armitage III and Armitage: Dual-Matrix, Black Lagoon, Burn-Up Scramble, Casshern Sins, the Chobits Special, Ergo Proxy, Zero no Tsukaima, Haibane Renmei (a great, great show), Hanaukyo Maid Team: La Verite (ugh), Hellsing Ultimate, Koi Kaze, Ramen Fighter Miki, Samurai Champloo (WOO), Kyoshiro to Towa no Sora, The SoulTaker (loved it), Strawberry Marshmallow, Tales of Phantasia, and Tenjho Tenge.

That's a pretty varied list of titles there, with enough diversity to cover a lot of different tastes and genres. Basically, there's enough titles that ADV and Geneon pitched in for that'll please any number of anime fans 'round these Western shores. And now? They're gone, gone, gone. I shudder to think of a world where we didn't get stuff as universally good as Haibane Renmei and Samurai Champloo, and I personally would be pissed if something as graphically unique as The SoulTaker never showed up ever again. And then there's stuff like Strawberry Marshmallow, Tenjho Tenge and Koi Kaze, that definitely have their fans.

Now, it's time to be honest though; the absence of ADV and Geneon in recent years hasn't completely killed the market for interesting, unique anime series. I don't think it's necessarily fair to say that the overall quality of anime being released today is overtly inferior comparatively. There's always diamonds in the rough; one or two shining examples of quality that rise above the dreck. Your Tatami Galaxy's, Madoka Magica's, and the like.

Nonetheless, any time there's less money to be had for the production of new titles, that is unfortunate. This is an industry that thrives and experiments best when there's extra money to go around. That's when they're able to experiment. Experimentation breeds innovation; innovation means evolution; evolution, of course, is a necessity for survival.

I've said it so many times I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but here it is once again: when anime studios are afraid to experiment, they rely on tired tropes and moribund genres to break even instead of break out. The audience constricts instead of expands. Certain types of shows flourish, while others disappear. It's absolutely vital to the continuing health of this artform that creators are able to feel safe to truly innovate. Boundaries need to be pushed. And an easy way to make that happen is with some extra money - extra money that used to be easier to come by when Geneon was opening up their wallet even wider just for the sake of a North American DVD license.

Nonetheless, all that talk does a bit of a disservice to all the quality shows that have nonetheless sprouted up from the fertile minds and pens from Japan's best creative teams. If it's true that you haven't had your fancy tickled by the recent anime output, might I suggest continuing to scratch that surface? There's still plenty of good (and sometimes great) titles that should appeal to everyone. And most of them are just a click or two away; waiting to be instantly streamed on your browser.

So, the good news is, Japan's anime companies are still willing to take the time to give us good stuff like Madoka Magica and the like. The bad news is, without the help of American publishers, something as unique and terrific as Haibane Renmei might not have happened. That's a little distressing to think about.

The weekend saw a very good, super minimal release of the Madoka Magica movies. Basically, a compilation of the TV series but still an incredibly good double feature. A friend of mine who went to see it with me was surprised at how deep and philosophical it was, admitting it was the first anime she ever saw. It also had the good fortune to be reviewed by Robert Abele, from the LA Times who gave it a fairly positive review.

Upon reading it though, it struck me how incredible the difference in value was between Abele and Zac Bertschy's stellar reviews of the series. Between the series and the movies, I didn't think the story lost any substance. I felt an aching conundrum because I thought they both gave fair and accurate reviews in regard to their respective readership, yet the nuances could not be more contrary.

Where Bertschy sums up the themes with "If Madoka Magica is saying anything, it's saying that life will absolutely crush you and entropy is inevitable, but there's reason to hope. That wishing for your loved ones to be safe and fighting for the things you believe in is the most important thing a human being can hope to do, even in the face of all that. If that isn't a happy ending, then I don't know what is" while Abele says, "...thematically intriguing about the rules behind this all-girl parallel world of freedom and risk." Their conclusions are also at odds about its final merits. Where Bertschy believes "It is a must-see for anyone remotely interested in what anime can accomplish as an art form," Abele thinks it is "worthy of consideration for anime aficionados who might dismiss this subgenre as so much super-tween silliness."

I am not displeased with either review because they are honest about their perspectives, but I do believe Bertschy's take has far more persuasion. His reviews gave me the encouragement to check out an anime I would otherwise dismiss. Abele says the same thing in that regard although for me, even as an anime fan, his take did not move me to see the movies. I think there is an obvious gulf here between weighing the merits of an anime. Who should people read and consider when evaluating Madoka Magica? Does one review or another better serve to bring someone to understand what makes it good or bad?

You've kind of hit on this already, but the key to a good reviewer - i.e. one who carries no presupposed bias in with them towards the thing they're reviewing, and still manage to report on their honest and emotional point of view - is also a reviewer who can tailor their writing to their intended audience. Sure, Zac's review is a lot more useful to you, but that's because Zac is writing his review from the knowledge that his readers maintain a certain familiarity with anime itself, and dollars-to-donuts is already well-versed in the lore of Madoka Magica. The LA Times, meanwhile, has a certain reputation to uphold, as it covers a demographic that is decidedly older and, dare I say it, stodgier, but maintains a certain pretension of worldliness and curiosity. Which is why they'd bother sending out a reviewer to check out Madoka Magica in the first place; mags like the LA Times have only so much space to devote to film reviews, but their readership tends to be a bit more adventurous in their viewing habits. Something like Madoka Magica doesn't really need, nor does it lend itself to, mainstream critics. The Madoka Magica film was being sold to a pre-sold audience, and sure enough, the screenings were already sold out, so it didn't really need any outside press; the LA Times simply prides itself on checking out the odds and ends of the Los Angeles area, especially when it comes to film.

Now, who "should" people read when "evaluating" Madoka Magica? I'm not really sure they need to consider anyone. Madoka Magica is a pretty universal thing with kind of a timeless message. That hope shines through even in the darkest corners of life. That striving for greatness can, and will, break your spirit and destroy your body, but it will, in the end, make you stronger. And I think anybody who doesn't see that for themselves... wasn't really paying attention in the first place.

No, Madoka Magica, like Evangelion before it, is kind of critic-proof. It has a lot of hoopla around it and very devoted fans, and it's filled to the brim with jargon and overt symbolism. If anything, that's where the value of reviews come in. Because it sparks an honest discussion that allows us to dig a little bit deeper than the surface and to look further inward than we probably would have on our own. The discussion spills along through the furrows and canals of the internet, inspiring countless articles, think-pieces, and .gif-filled Tumblr posts.

As far as pieces of persuasion go, however, you have to give Abele some credit - his audience has only a passing familiarity with anime, and one has to keep in mind that for the past decade, "anime" has been a shorthand for a pop-cultural joke. The mere fact that he's even paying lip-service to Madoka Magica's strengths, much less advising his readers to see it, is kind of amazing. The LA Times' audience is more likely to watch something like Samsara than Madoka Magica; to see it written with the same kind of effusive praise is incredible. To me, at least. Er, not to slag on my editor or anything. Hehhehh.

Ultimately, my point is that both reviews do their civic duty in helping their respective audiences "understand" what makes it good. Abele had the task of informing his cynical "mainstream" audience about this strange two-part film adaptation of a popular anime series, while Zac had the unenviable job of talking about a movie where pretty much his entire readership already had their minds made up before they even bothered to read his review. Either one is dangerous; the fact that you look fondly on both is, I think, the best compliment they could ask for.

Dear Answerman,

Why is Inu Yasha more popular than Ranma ½? I understand it's a matter of opinion and even if Ranma was more popular Inu Yasha there would still be many people who liked Inu Yasha more. It seems weird to me though with how much more popular Inu Yasha is considering it's from the same creator and not as good. My guesses would be that Inu Yasha got an anime on Cartoon Network to help boost it and its timing was right when it hit big for many people. Ranma was released earlier and not on TV, and granted it's a big early hit, it never really went mainstream. How much does timing and exposure play in the popularity of an anime, and do you feel there are many shows that missed it's opportunity simply because of these?

Really quickly on this, before I launch into a completely separate issue entirely: yes, yes, yes! InuYasha is more "popular" because of its TV airing on Adult Swim and Teletoon and elsewhere in the Western world. Millions upon millions of English-speaking fans were exposed to it. And they loved it. Why wouldn't they? Rumiko Takahashi knows how to hit an audience's narrative and character pleasure centers like a tactical missile strike. Fun, lovable characters in outlandish scenarios, fighting tooth-and-nail against impossible odds. Romantic entanglements with slapstick jollyment. Nevermind that Ranma 1/2 never got a TV airing; how in the world could it ever be aired on national television? Even if you cut out the nudity (rendering entire scenes and episodes unairable), the entire premise of a sex-changing protagonist is something far outside the comfort zone of most broadcasters. Especially in the early-to-mid 90's, when Ranma was one of the hotter anime commodities.

In a way, though, that oddity is exactly what helped it in those early days of western fandom. Where else, outside of anime and manga, could such insanity exist? I remember my exposure to Ranma came from the Super Nintendo game - specifically, a review in EGM. "What the heck? A boy who turns into a girl, whose father is a panda? Characters named 'Mousse' and 'Shampoo'? What is this quackery?" I thought to myself. A couple trips to Blockbuster Video some years later, and I understood. Boy, did I love it.

Forget all that, though. Does it really matter? Honestly, does it really matter which series is more "popular" when it comes to your opinion? Star Wars is certainly more popular than 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I don't think it's even a question about which one is the better movie. (Don't disagree with me on this. I will fight you. On Twitter.) A crummy James Patterson novel is probably more "popular" than the works of J.D. Salinger, but I don't think it's a matter of "popularity" to consider which author will stand the test of time.

"Popularity" is a fleeting, useless thing. And besides that, it comes with unnecessary baggage. For Christ's sake, we're all anime fans - in the 2012 pop-cultural landscape, "anime" is about as "popular" as scabies. We're the freaks and weirdos who would rather watch Japanese cartoon characters talk and fight and love each other instead of reality TV stars compete in triathlons. To the public at large, the things we like are weird and scary. So why are any of us ever worried about what's "popular"? We're talking about diminishing returns, here. To think, right now, there's probably some cynical, angry butthole who refuses to watch Madoka Magica because it's too "popular." God forbid something ever catches on and is beloved by its intended audience. Similarly, God forbid if I still like Master Keaton, which probably sold somewhere in the tens of copies.

Popularity is irrelevant if we're actually discussing art here. Popularity should only be mentioned when we're chewing nerd kibble like sales figures, box office, Amazon rankings, and bestseller lists. It's a gauge to figure out numbers, facts, and statistics. That's all. Nitrogen is the most common element in our atmosphere - does that make Nitrogen the most "popular" element? Does that make it... the best element? Well, why isn't Oxygen more popular than Nitrogen? Don't we talk about Oxygen a lot more often in our daily conversation? Lord, I can't even remember the last time I heard Nitrogen in a casual chat.

Nitrogen is simply the most common element. Argo was the number one movie at the US box office last weekend. The Avengers sold more copies on DVD and Blu Ray than anything else last week. Nelson DeMille's book "The Panther" sold more hardcover copies than any other fiction book, according to the New York Times. More kids know about Mickey Mouse than Albert Einstein. Most college students can name more songs by Beyonce than Beethoven. None of this means anything. Other than "popularity." They're facts and statistics that get bent and warped by logically illogical fools, who are applying the wrong kind of judgment to art and entertainment.

I think this whole notion of "popularity" obfuscates the real conversation we should be having about the actual merits of the things we ingest in our entertainment diet. I wish people would actually read a Twilight book before decrying it as garbage, rather than railing against it merely for being "popular." Things are good because they are good and you like them, not because other people don't like them, and vice-versa.

Of course, we've all succumbed to our baser instincts now and then. We've all passed judgment on "popular" and "unpopular" things from time to time. That could be fun to talk about!

Speaking of talking and popularity! This is the part where I let the popular vote - of you, the readers - take a backseat to my usual dictatorial reign of long-windedness. Look, I even had a question last week! Here it was!

But! As things sometimes go, I didn't get a ton of responses this week. Unsurprising - there were kind of a lot of things going on last week, such as massive storms and the like - but let's look at what B.J. thinks should be voted on!

The first thing that came to mind was something that eliminated all future anime series that take place at some school of some kind. But then I thought that was a bit harsh; I mean, the only reason I don't like it is because there's so much of it lately. Maybe thirty years from now, when all anime take place in a Denny's, a high school setting will seem quaint and interesting again. So maybe an initiative that enforces a law where an anime Studio can't reuse a setting for an anime series if the last series they used that setting is still going or has ended within the last two years. At least this will force producers to think a little harder before they greenlight a series. It seems all they do now is think of a gimmick, place it in a high school setting, and call it a day.

Our other respondent is AAO, approving a measure I'm sure would pass in the anime House and Senate with only minor filibustering:

As far as ballot initiative goes I would love for an anti-region lock law in general. I'm currently studying abroad in Japan, and had to switch my laptop's region code to DVD2 so that I could rent movies to watch, as well as help host movie night for my job. It's going to be rather inconvenient to get back to the states and switch again, as any anime I buy over here would be useless without a region 2 or region-free DVD player (and I'd really like to buy Creamy Mami while I'm here!). I can understand the economic reason for region locking, but honestly I buy my anime from whatever country I'm currently in. I appreciate US anime companies providing the option of Sub or Dub, and even, with the case of Right Stuf's Utena release, the original extras on the Japanese DVD's. Honestly, I would love to never have to worry about region-lock, even beyond streams.

Much love to you two, AAO and B.J., for humoring me. Next week, though! Barring any further natural disasters or Disney buyouts, I need and would very much appreciate your response to this missive on popularity!

Now you've got this week's question, and it's time to get answerin'.

For those of you new to Hey, Answerfans!, I'll explain the concept.

Believe it or not, I'm genuinely curious what you think.

That's right; as much as I love the sound of my own voice, I do love to listen to what other people have to say on a subject. I'm finding that over the last few years, the attitudes, reasoning and logic that today's anime fans use eludes, confuses or astounds me; I have so many questions for you, and I'm dying to hear what you have to say in response.

Welcome to Hey, Answerfans!

Basically, we're turning the tables. Each week I'm going to ask you a question, and I want you to email me your answer. Be as honest as you can. I'm looking for good answers; not answers I agree with or approve of, but good, thoughtful answers
. People feel passionately about these subjects and I'd like to see that in the responses I get. I'll post the best answers I get, and maybe some of the crappy ones. Sometimes there may only be one or two good ones; sometimes five or more. It all depends on what I get in my inbox! Got it? Pretty simple, right? Start writing those answers and email them to answerman [at] animenewsnetwork dot com.

We do have a few simple ground rules to start with.

Things To Do:

* Be coherent.
* Be thoughtful.
* Be passionate.
* Write as much or as little as you feel you need to to get your point across in the best possible way.

Things Not To Do:

* Respond when the question doesn't apply to you. For instance, if your email response starts with "Well, I don't do whatever you're asking about in the question... " then I'm going to stop reading right there and hit delete.

* Be unnecessarily rude or use a lot of foul language.
* Go off-topic.

That's all for me, friends and well-wishers! If you've got a question or even a response you'd like me to feature here, don't hesitate this very second to inform me by e-mailing me at answerman(at)animenewsnetwork.com! Happy trails, and Rock The Vote, my fellow Americans!

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