Bristle’s Babbles #4 – ‘Be Relative; Not General’

NOTE: Old post, sorta rambly. Also, this was previously intended for and posted on the forums of Hummingbird.me.

I’ve decided I’m going to give a few tips regarding critical analysis here because what I see is fairly imbalanced and cynical. There’s a few people besides myself who give ideas regarding analysis here on the forums, but as an aspiring critic I see a lot of it and it bugs me because there’s too many people encouraging negative attitudes. I want to help people to be thoughtful in a positive way, to really get the most out of what they watch.

Here I want to talk about qualities and flaws are relative to context they’re executed in and the purpose they achieve. Basically, one series may do something that would be considered a flaw whereas another series can do the same thing and get a much better result because it achieves something worthwhile in doing it.

One example of how a work can achieve despite doing something that sounds inherently flawed is Martin Scorsese’s film Raging Bull. Raging Bull is based on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, and LaMotta is characterised by nothing more than anger and jealousy. While that would be considered an inherent flaw due to lack of character depth, it isn’t in the case for Raging Bull. The reason for this is that the movie isn’t focused on Jake LaMotta as a person but rather his raw emotions. In that sense it achieves brilliantly by showing that. Another example is The Big Lebowski. I don’t want to go on for too long, so I’ll just refer to Siskel & Ebert’s review (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qrLzo9EdCw). Basically, Gene Siskel says the movie is cliched because it’s doing what a whole lot of other recent movies were doing at the time while Roger Ebert says that the whole point of the movie is less the situation and more the way the movie’s odd characters react to the situation. That’s yet another example of how being relative to context gives more insight.

I could give a million examples of films that do things other films do but achieve greater because of the context it’s doing it in, but I think I should give some examples regarding Anime. A simple one is the character of Shinji Ikari in Neon Genesis Evangelion compared to an almost identical character, Yukiteru Amano in Mirai Nikki. Shinji is a fairly controversial character to say the least, and to a lesser extent so is Yukiteru. While they behave similarly, the big difference is context. Shinji is a portrait of Otakus, and by extension a lot of other shut-ins. He’s introverted, sexually frustrated, reliant on others to shelter him and simultaneously self-centered and self-loathing. You won’t like him as a person, but that’s not the point. Shinji’s characterisation is at the centre of Evangelion, and as a portrait of Otakus and as a message about how they should live that characterisation in the original series is brilliant. As for Yukiteru, he has a lot of the same behaviours and tendencies as Shinji, but what makes him a lesser character is not only having less development but also for not having a purpose being the way he is. I have to note I haven’t seen all of Mirai Nikki so I may not be as informed as I could be, but from what I’ve seen and what many others have told me over time I think I can safely say that Yukiteru is a meaningless character archetype made by someone who completely missed the point of Eva. Shinji works better than Yukiteru because there’s a point to him being the way he is.

My purpose in saying this is that it helps to not generalise when it comes to critical thinking, particularly when it comes to characters. What separates good design from bad design isn’t what’s inherently good or bad but how those inherent qualities and flaws work in the overall perspective, and that’s what makes it relative to context and purpose.

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