Looking for Meaning – #Controversed Issue 3

New to #Controversed?

In case you’ve missed the past two weeks, #Controversed is a weekly article series exploring critical writing that I’m doing for the month of November. Today I will explore the “all art is political” debate and how you can find meaning in anything. This is the third article in in the series as part of an event I’m sponsoring with Moya of The Moyatorium. Be sure to check out the first issue and second issue here. You can find the full information regarding #Controversed via the first issue if needed.

Is All Art Political?

There’s a long-standing debate in the anime community in particular that “all art is political”. By this most people mean that a piece of art, or in our case we’ll be restricting the discussion to anime, has some sort of sub-textual message. This could be a literal political statement, a social, or even economics based message depending on how broadly you want to define the political aspect of this claim.

I don’t think anyone who’s seen more than a handful of anime is really going to disagree that there aren’t anime whose messages are undoubtedly political. Japan is, for better or worse, a very nationalistic country and this is reflected in their media. You don’t need to look further than Ghost in the ShellCode Geass, or other military based anime to see that. However, even in other genres there isn’t a lack for this kind of messaging either. Most anime have some kind of a message so it isn’t incorrect to buy into this argument on a conceptual level, even a fluffy show like Lucky Star has a lot to say if you are willing to look hard enough.

Therein lies the rub though. While I don’t think the statement that “all art is political” is necessarily meant to harbor malice, it gives the wrong impression. Anime isn’t trying to alter your political believes, shatter your world view, or anything so dramatic. Can anime have radical ideas and be this sensational? Yes. Is that what most of it is? No.

When you think of the phrase:  “all art is political”, it comes with a certain connotation that is easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to. I’ve shared in the past my semantic reasoning when it comes to “objective” vs “subjective” media analysis, where some argue that you can determine the “objective” worth of a piece of art, but I find this reasoning to be incorrect.

Rather, there is an agreed upon schema, or established convention in which a piece of art can be appraised. This in turn, implies a grain of “objective” truth in ones analysis within said convection. The same logic can be applied to the topic of political art as well.

When this community talks about this topic the term “political” is ill-defined. There isn’t an agreed upon meaning behind the statement being made, which is why I failed to properly define it at the onset of this article. It’s broad and unspecific. However, I think both arguments are pretty silly and unproductive.

Circling last week’s article where I discussed bias, if you look hard enough for something, you’ll surely find it. This remains true even in this case. Enjoying this media as casual entertainment, seeking more academic analysis, or wanting to derive a message from a show is not in-and-of-itself a problem. The issue comes in forcing your notions onto others.

Art is a deeply personal experience one can pull any level of meaning from. This comes from our personal history, knowledge, and so much more that it would be wrong to assume some one-size-fits-all meaning in a piece of work. This is where I think most folks stumble in the conversation. So how does this all relate to writing critically?

Keep this sort of thing in mind when you write about media. Your experience is likely not someone else’s, which is to say we are unique. While there may be some general consensus regarding a work, that doesn’t mean YOU need to uphold it if you felt differently, but you should still present this other interpretation which is no less valid than your own.

There’s a difference between staying true to your convictions and being blind to what’s right in front of you. By taking in these kinds of discussions and different view points you can expand your own, and if you’re lucky, even deepen your appreciation or understanding of a given work. I know I’ve said this sort of thing a lot in this series, but if there’s one thing to take away above everything else, that’s just it:  there’s no one right answer.

Does Anime Lack Critical Analysis?

As a bit of a bonus, Moya asked us to read a question posted on Slack about the lack of critical analysis when it comes to anime as opposed to other works, such as classic literatureI wanted to touch on that as it’s related to the topic of looking for meaning in anything, not just anime. The problem isn’t that there is an actual lack of this kind of analysis, I’ve read many academic level papers about anime, but rather it’s a niche subject.

Knowing your audience is going to determine a lot when it comes to your approach, and until recently, for anime that meant surface level in many cases. While it’s true that our blogging community here is a bit more dedicated and informed when it comes to the animated medium, think about those “outside” the fandom, how much do they really know? Ask you parents, grandparents, or even just a friend and you’ll see just how little the general public really knows about anime in most cases.

That’s why you see those ridiculous articles online about anime, you know the ones, the super clickbait kind. It’s what more casual viewers are looking for, and it’s what’s going to interest them. Now of course, people aren’t stupid and they can handle deeper takes on the industry, so do we just not see this ever?

Obviously not. Even websites such as Kotaku occasionally do more serious looks into the industry, interviewing various people who work on anime. This is just a step above what came before, but perhaps you can already see where I’m going with this. Kotaku is a more focused outlet for “nerdy” culture, so it makes sense that their content caters to a more informed crowd.

The same thing can be said for us bloggers here. I see folks who do shallow articles and those who write novella analysis of anime, but the fact remains that it all is still pretty niche. People just aren’t rushing out to share anime and its analysis in as wide a circle as compared to live-action film or literature.

There are three reasons for this:

  1. Anime is still a niche topic. I’m sure that some folks would love anime to stay less popular forever, but I for one wouldn’t mind it moving towards a more mainstream appreciation. There are pros and cons, for another day, but this is a hurdle that must be cleared if this kind of deeper look into the medium is to be appreciated.
  2. Analyzing anime isn’t taken seriously. By this I mean, in more professional circles. I know I’ve written a few papers in university on the topic, and I know others have as well, but they are far-and-few-between. Which is to say, those who are accepting the work don’t really want to see this kind of thing right now, so it’s not as productive over more conventional topics.
  3. Lack of a market. This leads to a general lack of a market for this sort of thing beyond the niche audience. On the one hand, you’ll see the success of YouTube personalities because our niche is hungry for this sort of thing, and some of them do a great job of making it digestible at any level, but at the same time… even they stray from really going super deep.

It’s something to chew on at least when you are thinking about your next article. Find the balance, stay true to your niche interest but try and keep your exploration accessible. You may just find that you have more success by doing so. Until next time folks!


Thanks for reading folks, I hope to see you in the next one! If you want to join this week’s discussion the prompts are:

  1. Try analyzing a piece of media using a critical theory that you like! Feel free to use ones that weren’t mentioned above, or combine any of them to your liking (e.g. Marxist feminism, eco-colonial theory).
  2. “All art is political” vs. “let people like what they like!” appear to be opposite ends of the same controversy, and both takes have the potential to be highly egregious. What is your take?
  3. Check out this Stack Exchange post: Why isn’t anime critically analyzed like other forms of literature or entertainment? Do you agree with this observation? What are some of your thoughts?

Remember to use the hashtag and tag us if you post them! If you are in my Discord, submit them under the submissions tab as well. Finally, if you want to support my work here please consider a donation by clicking either of the buttons below.

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13 thoughts on “Looking for Meaning – #Controversed Issue 3

  1. I think all art is political, but I’m probably being coloured by my education here in that humanities people always have something to complain about (which I did touch on in one of my own Controversed posts). A lot of what causes controversies to blow up is conflation of one thing with another (e.g. with the Shield Hero thing, it was conflating the perception that Naofumi was an “incel” with how one normally doesn’t see women get away with being accused of things, particularly touchy things such as rape and assault where they are normally the victims, among other things), which is exactly the double-edged sword the people who kick around subjective arguments (not just limited to the humanities, although the humanities people do most of it) play with.

    There’s a market for anything, no matter how niche – like I said in my Controversed post for this week, you just have to dig for it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The question of critical analysis of anime is an interesting one. There’s no reason some anime series can’t or shouldn’t be more deeply analyzed, and as you say such analysis does exist out there. But it’s true that the medium is still pretty niche when compared to others.

    The controversy surrounding that statement that “all art is political” is an interesting one too. I think the problem with that statement is the implications that usually seem to be behind it — that “X anime/manga/whatever is bad because it promotes what I see as bad politics” completely without willingness to entertain other views. At least that’s how it usually looks when I see it posted on Twitter. That’s not to say the kneejerk reaction to it’s always measured, though. It usually just ends up with an unproductive back-and-forth and a lot of pissed off people on both sides.

    I have my biases, but I try to acknowledge and account for them when I look into issues around the contents of anime, manga, and games. I hope I manage to do that well enough. Anyway, great post, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Greed on the “political ” side. If someone thinks that all art is political, I believe that it is because they themselves have the mindset that causes them to see all art as political. Because while SOME art is political, other art isn’t.

    Like Bob Ross paintings, or the hamster dance song… I fail to see how these things are political, and feel like someone would really be grasping at straws to come up with something. These days I feel like many things are only political because people make them so.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great write-up! When it comes to the politics of art, I am someone who accepts a fairly broad definition of “political.” I think all art reflects how you position yourself in the world, and is therefore an extension of your social/political/moral beliefs, whether you are conscious of them or not. But yes, as you say, “political” in discourse is such a charged term that to call a certain work “political” sounds like a severe accusation.

    The lack of a market for academic analysis is a good point! I feel like anime is so deeply branded as “geek” culture, alongside video games of every sort, that to subject it to rigorous criticism almost feels like an offense to some who identify as part of this culture. Interesting stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pretty much yup, I don’t think saying at is “political” in that it can carry additional meaning is the problem, rather just the discourse.

      For academic work, like I said, it exists to an extent. Primarily on YouTube and independent blog but in more “professional” spaces you mostly just see Ghibli stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Very nice. I mean you already know where I come from I think all art has to ability to extract something political but that doesn’t mean that every piece is political charged or attempting to be. Same with objectivism being that you can have object metrics and criteria but the amount of weight and preference you put onto those does come with a degree of subjective.

    Haha also a good reminder about how anime is still a niche interest. I couldn’t believe (well I could because it came from the “Steven Universe is Nazi sympathizing propaganda” person) seeing on Twitter someone saying Friends is bigger than any anime because it’s intrapersonal drama.

    Good write up, as always my good sir.

    Liked by 1 person

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