Objectivity, subjectivity, bias, impartiality: my personal reviewing philosophy

Scoring anime is, for many, a difficult thing to do. Deconstructing it broadly, you’ve first got to experience the thing, reflect on your experiences and then sum up that experience in a numeric or graded format. Do tell, what is a 10/10? Does that mean something is flawless? Does a 1 or 0/10 mean something has no positive quality whatsoever? Is 5 an average score, or is the number system weighted against mediocrity? Even if you can figure out a scale to put your emotions into, you’ve still gotta relate all the different competing qualities you’ve just experienced into one, single number. What if the thing was flawless, but had a dodgy ending? Is that different to a slow beginning?!

I’ve been addicted to reading reviews – of all sorts of things, from music to domestic appliances – since I was 7 or 8. Over time, I’d gained an intuitive understanding of what feelings feel like a 5/10 or a C grade. Sadly, I went and deconstructed that notion and had to think things through more logically, more primitively than before, but I think I gained something in the process. A set of rules to strive towards, and a philosophy rooted in the deconstruction itself – the theory of which I think all critics should consider in one way or another.

sf-chronicle-movie-review-guy-2 copy.jpg

On my ‘Reviews by Score’ page, I show this image at the top. This is a really quick guide to a 1-5 rating scale. If something is that low, your gut feeling would be to outright stop watching due to intellectual or artistic insult, whereas at the top you might struggle to contain the positive reactions. This is a handy scale, and I do like the cartoony simplicity of it, but it isn’t perfect. Let’s first get into the good of this sort of interpretation of numeric scales.

It’s become something of an online joke that anything below a 7/10 is worthless. I thoroughly disagree this should be the case, though I understand this is a reaction to a multitude of over-positive reviewers and is possibly symptomatic of aggregate review scores like Rotten Tomatoes where lower scores might indicate noticeable mixed feelings. This image, then, suggests that a 3/5 (or 6/10 in my site’s scoring system) is an entertaining watch. There’s many caveats to this approach, but the idea is that something is good and watchable and not a regretted experience, and is therefore something that I am likely to recommend – though, and here’s the key, I would apply more vetting in my recommendation. A 6/10 might be a good recommendation for somebody looking for something within a genre or with a certain style, whereas I would be more willing to universally a recommend a 9 or 10/10 to anybody looking for a ‘good watch’. And, it’s worth adding, that I do not think a 10/10 is virtually unobtainable or something that should be given out only to ‘perfection’ or ‘flawlessness’, but that I think any perceived flaws in the criticism aren’t worth putting much, if any, weighted thought into, and that the good is very good.

As I alluded to earlier in my post, things get complicated when you look more broadly at the piece. To use an example bluntly, Granbelm is an example of an anime I gave a 6/10 to, but if I were to graph my feelings of the show during its runtime, there would be a range from 4/10 up to 8.5/10; referring back to the diagram, there would be aspects that would have me applauding Granbelm, yet other aspects that would have me turning off. Ultimately, I found the show’s conclusion (which, as aforementioned in another post, can rightfully or wrongly be symptomatic of the strongest feelings) to be a decent time, but I wouldn’t be jumping up and down to recommend it except to fans of ‘action girls’ or mecha animation fans.

granblemmmm

Granblem certainly had its moments. When concluding, consistency is something that cannot be avoided. Is my graphing example a bit silly? I don’t like to put too much maths into score calculations as component weights are not all equal, but I think you can understand the idea that they aren’t decided entirely by the sum’s output!

And that there is the big problem of rating in general, and why finding a critic you like may be difficult. Bias.

It goes without saying that any and all criticism is going to be subjective. It is, after all, subject to opinions, rather than facts (in the case of objectivity). We might be able to agree that there are certain rules of storytelling that produce something more fulfilling than less, and we might be able to agree that more frames in an animation sequence can make something more animated. However, ‘opinion’ rears its ugly head into these critical conversations when we determine how important adhering to storytelling rules might be, or whether having more frames was worthwhile in the artistic needs of the scene. Now and Then, Here and There’s most beautifully rendered scene (it goes without saying that this is in my opinion) was more to do with its genius cinematography, and Neon Genesis Evangelion accomplished atmosphere and dread with a handful of stills! This is subjective because we can have a conversation on it, but subjective opinions are prey to bias. Those animation fans might agree that Neon Genesis’ stills are important, but their personal likes may have drawn them closer to the impressively fluid big fights of the show! Likewise, an ending could have a disproportionate effect on somebody because they watched the show of a longer period and forgot earlier parts that they might have been more lukewarm on; that bias may not be a purely personally imbued trait, but a more abstract constraint affecting credibility of a subjective opinion.

GidEEdD

Now and Then, Here and There was no slouch when it came to impressive animation, but the cinematography of episode seven remains some of my all-time favourite.

Credibility is the utmost important thing when crafting a subjective opinion for a review or a discussion. You need to use authoritative language in such a way that you persuade the audience – not that your opinion is objective, per se, but that the foundation of that opinion is a solid one. That’s, fundamentally, the most important thing, and I think it really needs reiterating that any opinion is obviously an opinion and that critical discourse isn’t about rightness or wrongness but about firmly rooted feelings that have been considered with thought. An objective conflict requires strength of evidence; a subjective conflict requires strength of feeling. Credibility and bias must, therefore, be negatively correlated.

So, when writing my reviews, I need to ensure that personal reactions are as reduced as much as possible. I let loose the waterworks at the end of Maquia, which resulted in my final feeling to the show being akin to the 5/5 image in the comic – but this should mean nothing to you, as this statement is overflowing with personal biases; 1) that the ending is important as I have made no allusion to the rest of the story supporting why I cried and 2) that me crying is in any way related to the piece of work and not, in fact, entirely rooted in my own transient experiences. Instead of talking about my reactions, I need to talk about the art itself – and that review is hardly my finest hour! What effect the art has on me must must must be a product of the work in as much of a vacuum as possible, and not because I think motherhood dramas are good and that existential philosophy happens to speak to me.

veg

I often read reviews to empower my feelings on a show and understand what other people like, particularly in situations where I struggle with this. Violet Evergarden’s reviews are all too frequently immersed in ‘I cried so it’s good’ motives, meaning that I seldom was able to understand what other people felt about the show beyond sentimentality.

And thus I strive for impartiality. I strive to distance myself, as much as possible, from my feelings when I write reviews. This sounds like an impossible task, but it is doable. Hold the review at arm’s length; it’s about the work, not about my life, and it’s certainly not a sob-story or a mouth-piece for me and my feelings, but a qualitative evaluation for you, and as many other people as possible.

This is, ultimately, why there exists a difference between my MyAnimeList’s ratings and my blog’s ratings. Those ratings on MAL are for me (and to stick it to the zeitgeist algorithm by giving popular anime a 1/10 haha gottem) and the ratings on my blog are for you. Achieving this is simpler than it sounds – I read the review back and think what score seems to associate with the text itself, not my feelings on the matter, and this works because I’m not going to publish masturbatory monologues to myself about how much I love Yami to Boushi as a seminal yuri work for being a seminal yuri work, but because I tried to write about it as a whole rather than the 30% or so that makes up the content I liked (and I welcome you to argue that that number is, in fact, much lower!).

This also means that I attempt to, as much as possible, rate something in a vacuum – this has the fallout effect of the ’10/10 pedigree’ (and vice versa ‘1/10 disasterpiece’) possibly becoming diluted with time as other 10/10s are not scored in relation to one another but by virtue of their own possible strength, and I therefore believe that there is no need to hold out on giving these ‘perfect scores’. Rating works like this is hopefully a pleasant experience for the reader, as they don’t read a review’s conclusion, drenched in negativity, before a 7/10 score confuses them because I’m unafraid of being harsh with numbers, or an overly positive review with a 2/10 score confuses because there exists an extremely similar, better anime (as in the ‘clone’ problem, where forerunners deemed already excellent overshadow later entires to such a degree that some may consider it worthless to check out anything else slightly inferior).

On that final tangent, I’ve been unable to write a review of Kannazuki no Miko – possibly my favourite all-time anime – for more than 7 years now, and that’s because I can’t explain why I like it. My love for it is deeply rooted in personal context, because I find the large majority of its plot-points, antagonists and the like to be, frankly, rubbish, with the glimmer of hope in that epic, star-crossed lover lesbian romance to be impacting me particularly; I do not think that I have the skill as a writer to push the message I want across, and thus, I don’t.

Reviewing exists as an outlet for my opinions; how I formed them, yes, but not the circumstances that lead me to form them. Clarity, with a touch of authority; if you can walk away understanding whether I think something is good or bad and if you can trust the thought I put into that, then, in my opinion, I will have written a successful review.

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