I Was A Judge At Scotland Loves Anime

by Kim Morrissy,

“Scotland Loves Anime is a yearly anime film festival” is still an amazing sentence for me to type. Anime films routinely get screened at Japan or Asia-focused film festivals around the world, but a film festival just for Japanese anime? You don't see that much outside Japan. And to top things off, the UK is regularly among the first English-speaking territories in the world to Screen Anime films in theaters. If I were still living in Australia, I'd feel very tempted to take a 20-hour flight to the UK to watch all the latest anime films in one place. That's how good Scotland Loves Anime is.

But I live in Tokyo now, and I've already seen the films. So I didn't actually have a reason to attend Scotland Loves Anime this year… not until Andrew Partridge, the organizer of Scotland Loves Anime and President of Anime Limited, met up with me and fellow ANN contributor Callum May. He said:

“Hey, do you want to be judges this year?”

The way Scotland Loves Anime works is fairly simple. Among the dozen or so films screened at the festival, four of them are put in competition. There's an Audience Award, which the audience members decide through the democratic method of sticking popsicle sticks inside numbered boxes. Then there's the Jury Award, which is decided by a group of judges who get drunk and argue furiously with each other around a dinner table before casting their votes. The jury is comprised of three or four people who are connected to the anime industry in some way, as journalists, distributors, and so on.

This isn't the first time a writer at Anime News Network has been a judge at Scotland Loves Anime. Justin Sevakis, ANN's Answerman, was a judge in 2015. During his time on the jury, Justin shared many lurid details from the time he worked on hentai releases in the 90s, leading to the infamous X-rated edition of the Scotland Loves Anime podcast.

One thing I didn't tell Andrew before accepting the offer to be a judge (because who turns down a free trip to Scotland?) is that I don't actually think of myself as a critic. Yes, I've written reviews for ANN. I did the weekly streaming reviews for Violet Evergarden, even. But that was mainly because I was in the right place at the right time, not because writing reviews is my vocation.

In the first place, what is a critic? By that I mean, what differentiates a critic from any media consumer who reflects on what they've seen and articulates their opinion on its merits? These days, it feels like everyone's a critic, or at least has the capacity for it. I've seen a lot of people identify as critics even when they don't get paid for it, so it can't just be about money. On the flip side, the reviewers here at ANN often talk about how they consider themselves plain old anime fans just like anyone else. The more I think about it, the blurrier the divide seems to me.

In any case, like with most trips I take, I decided not to to think about it too hard. I'd watch all the films on competition and vote for the one I liked best. Simple.

Or maybe not.

At this point I got extremely distracted by Scotland and its Scottishness. Edinburgh Castle! Bagpipes players on the streets! Those funny red telephone boxes!

Squirrels! (They are on every continent except for Antarctica and Australia; they are exotic beasts to us Down Under.)

Wandering the streets of Edinburgh like a gawky tourist without any sense of direction led to my first mistake: I arrived at the Edinburgh Filmhouse five minutes late to the screening of Calamity of the Zombie Girl, the first film on competition. Thank god there was around 20 minutes of ads before the film actually started, which was then followed by another 20 minutes of a completely separate film, called Walking Meat, that had nothing to do with the main feature. At last Calamity of the Zombie Girl started playing, and it was terrible.

It was then that I made my next mistake, one that completely undermined my role as a judge. Unlike most film festivals, Scotland Loves Anime doesn't hold “critic” or “press”-only screenings; the judges sit with the rest of the audience. We don't watch the movies in silence and isolation; we hear the audience's reactions around us. When something funny happened, people laughed. This definitely improved my experience with Calamity of the Zombie Girl, which is a schlocky horror film so ridiculous that the out-of-nowhere incest isn't even the most outrageous twist. I became another member of the audience, howling with laughter at each inane moment.

So, I voted in the Audience Awards. What's worse, I gave the film a 5 out of 5 rating.

There's a debate around the idea of “So Bad It's Good.” If you really enjoyed something that you thought was terrible, how highly should you rate it? How much should the viewing experience itself weigh into a critical evaluation? Either way, it was probably irresponsible of me to give Calamity of the Zombie Girl top scores because it gave me a few laughs when I wasn't even planning to vote for it in the Jury Award. Jonathan Clements, chairman of the jury, publicly called me out on that when he came onstage to introduce the next film. That was when I realized that judges weren't supposed to be voting in the Audience Awards in the first place. Oops.

Fortunately for me, my vote as an audience member never mattered. Nobody thought that Calamity of the Zombie Girl would win any awards, and indeed it didn't. Right from the beginning, all the judges knew that the competition would really come down to the next three titles: I want to eat your pancreas, Penguin Highway, and Mirai. Had I voted as an audience member on any one of those titles, it might have influenced the result of the Audience Award - the scores were that close.

It's here that an interesting gap arose between the audience and the judges.

I'll cut to the chase and say that I want to eat your pancreas won the Audience Award, but it didn't win the Jury Award. Despite the fact that three out of the four judges admitted that they were brought to tears just like the rest of the sobbing audience, the jury voted it the second-worst film. What happened?

The way the audience vote works is that the viewers put their popsicle stick in the numbered box immediately after the film ends. This means that a film with high emotions and a strong ending will inevitably do better than a slow burner. Being a romantic drama about a terminally ill teenager, I want to eat your pancreas was basically The Fault in Our Stars in anime form: the witty dialog made the audience laugh, and the tearjerker ending made them cry. Those feelings hadn't faded by the time the audience cast their vote.

Meanwhile, the jury had a whole day to reflect on the film before voting on it, and that space of time affected their judgment considerably. Roxy Simons, a film and TV critic, said that in retrospect it was the beautifully animated homage to The Little Prince that touched her more than the actual story and characters. Callum May, creator of the YouTube channel The Canipa Effect and fellow ANN contributor, said that he found it hard to like the male lead character. As for me, this was my fourth time experiencing the story of I want to eat your pancreas (and my second time seeing the anime film), so I was immune to its impact. Only Almar Haflidason gave it one of his two votes, and this was mainly because he appreciated the way the film drew out reactions from the audience. As someone who works in marketing, he said that he would really love to work on something like I want to eat your pancreas.

For the judges, there was more debate between Penguin Highway and Mirai, two rather mellow films with child protagonists. Mirai in particular was not a crowd pleaser. It had an episodic structure instead of the traditional three acts, and its climax was underwhelming, especially when compared to previous Mamoru Hosoda films. What the film did have was buckets of charm and tons of relatable moments, especially for parents and children.

Honestly, I came into Scotland Loves Anime expecting that Mirai would be the critical darling. Mirai may have underperformed in the Japanese box office, but the English reviews (including my own) have been positive. Furthermore, Hosoda was the only big-name director up for competition. I assumed that his victory was assured.

That thought was what influenced my final vote.

I'd watched both Penguin Highway and Mirai before coming to Scotland Loves Anime and gave both films an A- score. In other words, both films were equally excellent. I'd hoped that through rewatching them back-to-back I'd be able to work out which one was better, but halfway through watching Mirai I realized to my dismay that I still couldn't choose.

I could technically split my vote between both films, but I rejected that thought almost as soon as it came to me. If I was going to vote, it was going to be with conviction. Only one of the films would get the award; in the event of a tie-breaker, Jonathan Clements would cast the deciding vote.

Here's what the other judges voted for:

Callum: 2 for Penguin Highway

Roxy: 1 for Mirai, 1 for Penguin Highway

Almar: 1 for Mirai, 1 for I want to eat your pancreas

In total, Mirai had 2 votes, and Penguin Highway had 3 votes. It was a much closer tally than I'd expected. From the way they talked about the films, it was clear that Roxy and Almar liked Mirai most from the selection; they just wanted to highlight the other film they enjoyed too. As for Callum, he also said he loved Mirai, even if he preferred Penguin Highway in the end.

Since I couldn't still couldn't make a simple decision between which film I liked better, I gave up on comparing their merits altogether. Instead, I thought like an anime journalist.

“Hosoda is a prestigious director; he doesn't need awards from small film festivals to build up his reputation in the West. On the other hand, Penguin Highway is Studio Colorido's first feature-length film, and even hardcore anime fans don't know who Hiroyasu Ishida is. Penguin Highway stands more to gain from an award than Mirai does.”

And so I put my two votes towards Penguin Highway.

Among anime fans, awards don't really matter. That is to say, anime fans won't be more enticed to pick up an anime title because it won an award. Awards are something to argue about on social media or forums for a day, only to be quickly forgotten. Such is the case with the Crunchyroll Awards, for instance, which became a joke among fandom because they only served to highlight the flavor of the month. The “best anime of the year,” as it turns out, were things that fans were watching already.

For distributors and people outside the anime fandom bubble, however, awards are a little more useful. They indicate prestige. Hardcore anime fans may not all agree that Hayao Miyazaki is the best anime filmmaker, for instance, but his films consistently sell better in the international market than the majority of anime fare because of the prestige behind them. Journalists at major publications like The New York Times won't look at fandom conversations to decide what anime film is “worth” covering; they will look at the number of film festival awards it has won. The long list of film awards is one of the reasons why your name. got attention from mainstream newspapers. For better or worse, that's the kind of environment anime films exist in right now.

For example, the Australian anime distributor Madman has already used the Audience Award at Scotland Loves Anime to promote their release of I want to eat your pancreas.

The final tally of the votes looked like this:

Penguin Highway: 5

Mirai: 2

I want to eat your pancreas: 1

Calamity of the Zombie Girl: 0

I don't regret voting for Penguin Highway over Mirai, although I do wonder if Penguin Highway snagging the Jury Award will further the narrative that Mirai is Hosoda's most underwhelming film. So don't get me wrong - Mirai is a fantastic film. You'll probably like it even more if you have kids. Make sure you watch Penguin Highway too! And I want to eat your pancreas, if you're so inclined. (Calamity of the Zombie Girl is already streaming on Crunchyroll, if you really must.)

Going to Scotland Loves Anime as a judge was really rewarding for me. Even though I'd already seen most of the films beforehand, I got a lot out of discussing them with the other judges, all of whom brought some fascinating insights to the table. You can listen to our podcast discussion here to get a sense of how the other judges picked their votes. I've been told that Scotland Loves Anime invites all sorts of people with different backgrounds to become judges every year - rumor has it that next year's judges will be people who hate anime. (Or so I've heard - I still don't really get British humor.) Well, whoever they are, I'm looking forward to it!

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