So in addition to being a video game critic, I'm also an avid anime watcher who frequently rates as well as sometimes reviews anime too. I have a full list of every anime I've ever watched neatly organized and rated on a 10-point scale which you can view here. Ironically despite being more gamer than otaku, I keep a more comprehensive list of my anime due to having started tracking my progress much earlier into the start of my hobby. At any rate though, let's get down to business.
The reason I'm mentioning all this is because today I'd like to examine some common pitfalls I see in the critical examination of products from both mediums. To put in simpler terms, I often see critics be too forgiving of a game/anime's flaws or in other cases too harsh due to placing an overemphasis on more trivial aspects of the product's design. Dammit, that still sounded sorta complicated, but I think you get the idea.
As a first example, let's start with the anime television series known as Fullmetal Alchemist. If you're unfamiliar with the anime, here's a little history on its development process. Fullmetal Alchemist like many anime started off as a manga (Japanese comic book) series before being adapted into an anime. However, the first anime adaptation started airing before the manga was complete, so the animation studio ran into a typical problem that occurs in the industry; what do they do once they have caught up with the incomplete manga story? At this point they have several options. They could make up their own continuation and conclusion of the story based on their own interpretation of where they think the series should go, they could write in a "filler" side story to hold fans over until there is more manga content to work with, or they could just simply end it on a cliffhanger and wait it out while potentially losing fan interest due to a lack of new content. Each choice has its own set of risks and consequences. In the case of Fullmetal Alchemist, they chose to invent their own conclusion to the story not based on the author's vision in the manga.
Now fast forward a few years. Despite the risky move made by Studio Bones, in the end it paid off and the original 2003 series turned out to be a huge success. Fans were still craving more content though, but the story had already concluded. Thus, now seemed like the perfect opportunity to retell the story following the manga to its completion. And so, six years later, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood was born. And once again, it was a huge critical success. But then something peculiar happened. Suddenly fans were becoming very dismissive of the original series; citing that merely because it doesn't follow the story of the manga it is therefore an inherently inferior product. Not only is it an inferior product, but some went so far as to say that it is a *bad* product and that you should just skip it entirely, so in a strange turn of events, Fullmetal Alchemist had become a victim of its own success. It was due to the popularity and success of the original series that we were even given the chance to have a big budget remake like Brotherhood in the first place, yet here it now was being left in the dust; overshadowed by its successor and shunned by many of its former fanbase.
So now we have encountered my first major annoyance, and in my view, a failure of critical analysis. Brotherhood now ranks as the number one highest rated anime of all-time on MAL, and all I can think every time I see that statistic is how much I find it to be a colossal misstep on the part of critics. To me, there's no question after having viewed both series that the original anime is better in just about every conceivable way. Much of what made the original series so compelling was its very maturely-handled themes, incredibly well-developed characters, and its surprisingly emotional delivery of the story that really feels genuine, all of which were characteristics mostly absent in this largely average and dare I say even soulless retelling. So why? I keep asking why is it that the original series is obviously so much more intelligent and on a completely different level than its successor, yet Brotherhood is soaking up all the attention in the limelight? The number one reason I am continually referred to is because Brotherhood follows the manga.
At face value, I can certainly understand why this point is worth some merit. Typically when artists take adaptations into their own hands that don't follow the original author's vision, they are very prone to creating plot holes and inconsistencies in the portrayals of characters. After all, there's usually no one who understands a character best than the person who created him, right? Usually.
Yeah, about that ending I had... I should go.
And therein lies the problem. There seems to be an undue importance placed on original source material where it is completely unwarranted. There's really no inherent value in a particular piece of storytelling just because it's written by the original creator of the intellectual property as opposed to a third party source. A true critic should judge media on the quality of its presentation and strictly on its own merits independent of whether any prestigious names happen to be attached to it. After all, we have many examples of original authors making mistakes; even fairly large ones.
By now just about every gamer has heard about Mass Effect 3's inexplicable narrative flop during the last ten minutes of the game. Even though the writing up until that point had been mostly on par with the rest of the series, suddenly in the final stretch of the game's conclusion, huge breaches of logic were made consecutively one after another, creating plot holes almost as big as the explosion from the Citadel that followed them. Whether you played as paragon or renegade Shepard, his determination to defeat the Reapers was always constant, and Shepard would never suddenly agree to his arch enemies' ridiculous ultimatum after seeing them commit the largest scale genocide the galaxy has ever known. Yet here he was, astonishingly leaving the Reapers' abhorrent justifications for their actions unchallenged. In all of about two minutes I was easily able to construct a more satisfying and consistent conclusion in my head than what was presented to me by BioWare despite that they are the original authors of the story. I would have personally taken any fanfiction interpretation of the game's conclusion over what BioWare ultimately decided on. And there's many more examples of media better served by third party contributors. Peter Jackson's adaptations of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are vastly superior to the books even though he took many liberties particularly in his re-imagining of The Hobbit's story. I find Tolkien's writing style to be rather drab and boring, whereas Jackson was able to inject some much-needed emotion into the narrative. Remember when Star Wars was at its best during Empire Strikes Back? Yeah, that was when it wasn't being directed by George Lucas.
Getting back to the topic at hand, the bottom line is that while it might seem like conventional wisdom that canon and original source material are always better, it really shouldn't be assumed, and I think Fullmetal Alchemist is a strong demonstration of that among several other examples I've now given. So, if it's not the fact that it follows the manga more closely, what else might be driving Brotherhood's popularity over its predecessor? The second most common defense I've heard is that its ending is much more fulfilling than the 2003 series. To a certain extent, I can see where this point is coming from. Admittedly, Brotherhood's ending is more cathartic in the sense that it ties up all of its loose ends and generally finishes on a high note. On the other hand though, its upbeat ending feels rather hollow; almost like an undeserved victory in some ways. Due to the rest of the anime's inability to depict the emotional struggles of its two main protagonists as superbly as the original series did, when they finally got the respite they had long sought after, it just didn't feel as genuine or powerful as its predecessor. While Fullmetal Alchemist's 2003 iteration may not have delivered the fairy tale ending many might have been hoping for, that was sort of the point of its story. As a darker take on the narrative, it effectively depicted the passage of Edward and Alphonse into their adulthood, demonstrating that they've learned to accept the consequences of their actions and the limitations of their existence as finite human beings; no longer naively attempting to rely on alchemy as a magical crutch to solve all their problems. It is precisely because of its ending being less idealistic that it turned out to be much more thought-provoking and therefore more satisfying for me.
This brings me to the second major fault I often find with critical analysis of media. So long as a franchise ends on a high note, critics will be all too quick to ignore many of its faults. Let's just assume for a moment that I agreed with the previous point that Brotherhood's ending is indeed superior to the 2003 series. OK, but that still says nothing about the quality of the other remaining 63 episodes, which for all we know could be total crap, and if you intend to do any kind of proper evaluation of the series as a whole, that still needs to be accounted for too. I think the best example of this overlooked mistake is exemplified in the anime series Clannad: After Story. Many fans of anime tout it as a brilliantly-moving romantic drama that will have you shedding manly tears and rethinking your entire life, and while I might agree with this, the problem is all that emotional revelation doesn't really happen until in the last third of the series. The other half of the anime is largely comprised of dull filler that I really struggled to get through and almost gave up on. After Story could have really benefited from being at least a full 12 episodes shorter, but because that ending was so emotionally powerful--so moving--I was really torn about my rating when it came time for me to evaluate it. In the end though I had to give it a 6/10 because I was forced to acknowledge that the series was severely flawed in spite of its expertly-delivered final act. Regardless, my efforts certainly haven't stopped Clannad: After Story from attaining the #4 top-rated anime of all-time on MAL with an average rating of 9.16/10. Sigh. Well, I did my best to try and warn you if you're sitting through the early episodes of this series wondering why in the world anyone cares about it. As a quick footnote, I'd also like to mention that the reverse mistake can also be made here in that people are all too quick to pan a product if the ending was bad even though it might have delivered in nearly every other respect. Mentioning Mass Effect 3 again, as much as I might be tempted to pan it for how much I loathed its ending, I can't deny that it succeeded at wrapping up lots of other story arcs and made some nice improvements to the combat system, so I would still call it a good game in spite of its flaws.
To bring this discussion back full-circle, I think it's important as a critic to be honest with yourself as much as possible and really consider a piece as a whole; not just the parts that stood out to you the most. No matter how much you may want to be forgiving of various flaws in a product because it delivered so well elsewhere, you still need to acknowledge its faults and vice versa. It's really unfortunate that Fullmetal Alchemist has now become such an underrated series because it truly is an amazing story that offers something for everyone even if you aren't normally a fan of anime. Sadly, it will probably continue to be ignored due to lazy critical analysis. Brotherhood may offer shinier production values, but it really is more flash and less substance.