Oh boy, this won’t be easy to tackle. The question of what makes an anime good is a long debated one among fans, whether it be the reviewers on MyAnimeList, the anons of 4Chan and even the anime discussion channels on YouTube. This question in particular is difficult to answer because it can get very subjective due to how much the content of anime can vary.
One fan could like the dark and gritty tone of an anime like Psycho-Pass while another could dislike it for the very same reason. Reviews on MyAnimeList contain the rubric called Enjoyment, which can come across as extremely strange (or vague) because the enjoyment of that reviewer does not translate to that of another. One man’s trash is another’s treasure after all.
Here at Honey’s Anime, we try our best to devise the most objective way of judging an anime by its merits and flaws, in order to deliver the most helpful information to audiences as possible.
The rubric of visuals covers a wide array of topics, including but not limited to: animation, character design and effects.
Animation is objectively the most easy to judge. It is extremely easy for anyone to tell when an animation is obviously poorly done or very well animated. Poor animation can be anything from bad background designs, statue like characters when it’s not their turn to talk or the classic camera cuts to give the illusion of high pace action during action scenes.
On the other hand, good animation is good by virtue of the fact that it looks good. One of the studio’s most well-known for good animation is Kyoto Animation. Their anime variety leans more towards the slice of life or light hearted anime, and that is precisely the best place to look for good animation. Even without bombastic fight scenes to show off their animation ability, KyoAni is able to deliver impressive animation through the most subtle of things; like how well their characters flow from action to action, almost seeming natural despite being animated.
Character design can be a more subjective than objective rubric to debate on. What precisely makes a character’s design good? We propose that a simple test will determine the virtue of a character’s design. For simplicity’s sake, it will be called the visualisation test (pardon the pun). Imagine a character from an anime last year. It could be any anime. How well are you able to remember the details of the character?
Some characters are more easily remembered not because they stand out a lot, but because they have a key focal point that makes them easier to remember. Taking Chitoge Kirisaki from Nisekoi as an example. She wears a red bow on her head regardless of the clothing that she wears at the point of time. This red bow allows viewers to more easily visualise the rest of her character because of that focal point.
A bad example would be the Variant Play Arts Batman that was unveiled by Square Enix. It is so abundant with details that it is almost impossible to actually remember any. The armour is filled with a high amount of contours, and the wings have wings that grew skeletal arms on top. The icing on the cake is the extremely detailed helmet that adorns Batman. Would it help you to understand that it is a bad example if you knew this paragraph could not be written without referencing an image of that Batman multiple times?
Effects can include multiple things, from the light particles used to denote magical attacks to the drawn effects (eg. A character gets smacked and an impact effect is shown to imply the hit was hard).
These things can be used as a force for evil or good. When done appropriately, effects can be used to effectively emphasize certain actions or give a flair to attacks, similar to what Ufotable has done with Unlimited Blade Works. They can also be used poorly, especially in situations where they are used to cover up poor animation by filling the screen with particle effects all over the place.
Ultimately, it is not just about how good the particle effects are but how they are used.
Of course, sight isn’t the only sense that must be stimulated in a video but hearing must be utilised as well. The sound of an anime can include voice acting, OST and Effect Sounds.
How well voice acting is done within an anime can be hard to tell at times. This is not only due to how high the quality of the voice acting industry in Japan is, but it also includes the facts that studios tend to rehire the “good” voice actors over and over, so there is rarely any “bad” voice actors that appear within an anime.
Rather than the voice actors being at fault, most of the time it is due to either poor direction or miscommunication. It can be confusing for a voice actor to jump from studio to studio, playing different characters over the course of a week. They don’t have the opportunity to finish the recording of a single anime in one shot as most anime are done on a weekly basis.
Thus, they rely heavily on the direction of the studio to produce quality voice acting suited to the anime. This can lead to bad situations at times where the characters don’t seem to sync up with the situation; sounding bored during a tense situation or losing their shit during a time when they shouldn’t.
In the end, voice acting is usually mostly good, and if it’s bad, it’s easy to tell because they stand out more from the rest of the good quality ones. Voice acting ends up being a non-issue most of the time, unless it’s bad, which is rare.
Also known as Original Sound Track, an OST is the music used by an anime that is usually composed by a third party hired by the studio itself.
How nice an OST can be is highly subjective. Someone can enjoy the OP of Guilty Crown and dislike Staple Stable of Bakemonogatari, both of which are liked by many fans of either series. Thus, liking an OST itself cannot be considered a good criteria with which to determine if the Sound of an anime is good.
A more objective way of looking at OST is the way in which it is used. It’s easy to use generic happy music in a happy scene and generic sad music in a sad scene, but when the correct track from an OST is inserted at the right time, it creates such a strong feeling in the viewer that even if the scene itself isn’t the most heart-breaking in the anime, some tears could flow regardless.
There is a form of conditioning called classical conditioning that can be used with OST. The original theory uses a bell, a dog and some dog food. Each time the dog smells the food, a bell is rung. This follows with the dog salivating because of its hunger. When done enough times in appropriate conditions, the dog will salivate when the bell is rung even when there is no food. Hence, it has been conditioned to the point that it automatically reacts.
There is an anime that uses classical conditioning particularly well. It is the classic hit that is ranked #9 on MyAnimeList, the Clannad series. Clannad is known to be a particularly sad series, despite its romcom scenario. But it isn’t just its story that evokes such emotions in viewers, but the way its OST is used to such great effect.
One example is the track Shionari (or Roaring Tides). If you’re a fan, look it up now for greater effect. This particular track is played whenever there is a sad scene in Clannad. Over time, the viewer is trained to associate this particular track with the emotion of sadness. When Shionari plays at the start of the scene, viewers can already feel the impact of emotions despite the fact that nothing has actually happened yet. It has become an automatic reaction.
While an anime is obviously not real because it is animated, an important aspect of anime is the immersion that viewers can get sucked into. The less suspension of disbelief the viewer has to use, the better. One deal breaker of immersion is bad sound effects. A gun that sounds more like an airsoft gun, swords clashing that sound more like utensils scraping or even footsteps that don’t have the appropriate impact.
If an effect sound is too artificial, it can get jarringly obvious for the viewer that what they are watching is not real. Obviously exceptions apply, especially when an anime is meant to be over the top or defy the laws of physics completely. But in most scenarios, artificial sound effects can ruin the experience to a high degree.
The content of a story is highly subjective to most viewers. Hence, it will not be considered as a criteria for a good story. Others like pacing and character development will be discussed instead.
Pacing is a very important aspect of storytelling. Go to fast, and viewers can’t catch what’s going on. Go to slow, and everyone falls asleep. The prime example of bad pacing would be any anime with too many episodes, usually well over a hundred. This belongs mostly to long running Shônen anime that follow its equally long running manga series. It’s not entirely the studio’s fault that the pacing ends up bad.
There are a multitude of issues outside of actual anime, like the manga’s pace or scheduling. These problems accumulate and ends up being a mess. Another example of bad pacing is The Irregular at Magic High School. While not a bad anime itself, it has some problems with its pacing. Slight Spoilers At the start of the episode, characters spend 3-5 minutes discussing why flying is impossible with magic. By the end of the episode, the main character has learned to fly. Spoilers End Introducing a problem and resolving it within the same episode (unless the show is episodic in nature) dissolves any and all tension from the series. This is what happens when the pacing is way too fast. The problem in this scenario likely stems from the difficulty of translating the story from a light novel into anime form.
An anime with good pacing could be Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso. Without spoiling the anime itself; it starts with a problem that needs to be solved, there is a climax in the middle and a resolution presents itself in the end for the story. Nothing gets solved in a speedy manner, but it also doesn’t drag its feet.
Character development is crucial to the plot of any anime. No matter how good the scenario is presented to the viewer, if the characters are unlikable, hard to relate to or don’t grow at all, viewers are more than likely to be turned off by the anime. The worst part is, they won’t be able to fully diagnose that characters have poor development by the end of the anime.
Ansatsu Kyoushitsu (Assassination Classroom) is an anime about a class of children being trained to assassinate a teacher. In total, there are three teachers, 28 students and a few villains in the series. Yet, each character is developed to an acceptable degree at the least, and major characters are more developed than main characters of long running series.
Each student can more or less be identified by their specialty and their background should it be significant. Why is this the case? The anime, and conversely the manga originally, practices a concept of show, don’t tell. Instead of telling you a character is good at robotics, they place the character in a scenario where they are able to show off their skills to a large extent. This significantly cuts down on the amount of exposition bombs and flash backs that have to be given.
In its own way, it fleshes out its characters in a more human approach than assigning traits to develop them. There are other ways to develop characters well, like showing the difference between them at the start of the series and a later point, but this is just one of many.
At the end of the day, if a character is poorly developed, it’s usually too late to tell, so be sure to watch out for this fact in reviews online.
4. Source Material Faithfulness
This rubric doesn’t apply to all anime. Some studios have anime with an original story developed by the studio itself. However, more often than not, studios adapt the stories of their anime from manga or light novels. As both are significantly different mediums, they will be talked about separately.
It is easier to be faithful to a manga. The visuals, character placement, background and story pacing are often laid out in the manga itself. Most of the difficulty for the studio comes with splitting up the chapters into episodes and animating the in between portions.
The biggest problem with adapting a manga is when the anime is developed faster than the manga. This leads to fillers that could contradict the manga, leading to the anime not being faithful to its source material. If for example, a character develops a technique during a filler, but never uses it again throughout the series, wouldn’t it come across as weird?
Other than fillers, if a studio veers off the story of a manga too much, it can be extremely easy for viewers to spot and it is an offence that can rarely be forgiven. Moreover, if the visuals and sound don’t fit the tone of the manga, it can be very upsetting for loyal fans.
Light Novels have been rising in popularity for the past few years. Due to their abundance and ease of production, studios have begun to adopt LN for use more and more. It helps that there is usually a present fanbase for each LN at the time of adoption, giving some guaranteed viewings. But it can be very hard to adapt a LN to anime form well.
Unlike mangas, LN do not go into overt detail about its backgrounds, character placement, action scenes or even chronological plot development. Furthermore, each LN author has their own style of writing and some can be so eccentric that details can be lost in translation.
A good studio is able to fill in all these details and arrange that story in such a way that there is a coherent story that is faithful to the source material despite being presented differently from the LN. And that is a very hard thing to do.
Very little needs to be said about this section. It is simply the culmination of the few criteria presented above into a single one. Why is this section needed if that’s the case? Because it’s possible for an anime to excel in one aspect and fall flat in another.
Nobody can accuse Kyoto Animation of having bad animation. Whichever the series, it always looks good. So that’s a big tick for the visuals aspect. But that doesn’t make all their projects good. Take for example Myriad Colours Phantom World. While the visuals are better than ever, and the sound could be considered average at the least, the pacing of the story is not done very well.
It is an anime with an episodic nature, following the footsteps of shows like Pokemon or Cardcaptor Sakura, by having a “problem of the week”. However, it fails to fully utilise the format as its main characters are underdeveloped, leading to audiences not connecting to the problem of the week as well as they should. Moreover, the lack of an underlying story to tie the overall series together is not present.
With that said, it becomes abundantly clear that there needs to be a rubric that ties all aspects together, to illustrate how well the visuals, sound, story and source material mesh together in the final product. Even if an anime scores only average for the first 4 rubric, it could score highly for the Overall rubric if everything ties together well.
Despite what has been said in this article, the question of what makes a good anime will still be contested over and over for years to come. This is just our take on the answer to the question. Hopefully, it adds to the discussion in a good way and veers the debate towards a positive direction in the future.
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