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The purpose an out-of-ten rating serves in a review is as a brief, very brief, summary of the reviewer’s overall opinion, and can sometimes be interpreted as a recommendation, usually around the 8/10 mark, depending on the reviewer. These numbers have been under fire for a number of reasons. Some reviewers seem to think a 7 is a low score, making more than half the scale effectively non-existent. Metacritic just sucks in general. And reducing a critic’s entire analysis and opinion on a work down to “#/£” is so empty that watching the damn commercial could provide consumers with more information.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. Even the laziest consumer who ignores the actual review and goes straight to the score (or damn Metacritic) still takes that score in the full context of the hype and expectation around the object of review, the genre, and some understanding of the general tastes and disposition of the critic. If you’re looking at a AAA FPS that’s part of a long running series of the like, an 8/10 from Yahtzee Croshaw means a lot more than an 8/10 from IGN.

And for those who do read the text of a review, the final score can provide further context and overall perspective. If the reviewer provides an equal number of examples of good and bad things in the work, and then gives it a 9/10, it helps you understand how much more impactful the good was over the bad. Or if they mainly compliment it, but give it a 6/10, it tells you the work probably just exceeded low expectations. One might argue that the text of the review should be written such that this isn’t necessary, but the fact is not all critics are prolific wordsmiths so we shouldn’t discount the usefulness of other means of communication.

Despite this, I’m still opposed to scored reviews in how I talk about anime. If it’s done arbitrarily, it’s bound to create inconsistencies. If it’s done by some formula, it will fail to capture elements entirely unique to a show (also, a lot of anime critics who do have some grading formula treat sound and story as equally important… just no). And, above all, when I write about an anime, the point is not whether that anime is good or not. Also screw Metacritic (that’s the last time they’re mentioned, I promise).

I analyze anime, or an aspect of an anime, in whatever detail appears necessary. Even when I do end up making a whole review, the point is for it to serve as a description of the work as I understand it, a practice in writing and critique, and an invitation to discuss the anime with others. That’s what most anime reviews are, and by consequence…

Anime reviews are almost never buyers’ guides (at least the ones worth reading). Crunchyroll and other services, legal and otherwise, make anime assessable to the point where a “buyers guide” would be of any substantial relevance. You’re not paying for anything, except possibly that subscription fee. And if you’re like me and prefer physical manga books and anime DVDs (and VHSs when I can find them), you’re still probably at least previewing the series online.

With this level of accessibility, there is no reason for anyone to care what a reviewer’s score is. You don’t need an impression of their general opinion. If you’re interested in someone’s views or analysis of the series, the score is completely irrelevant, only their words matter. Because you’re not basing a decision on what they say, an anime review is effectively just one line in a broader conversation about the show.

All that being said, recently I have started using that score feature on MAL. While it may be useless for sharing critique and analysis, I think it’s good practice to be able think about what you like on a comparative basis. While two things being in the same tier shouldn’t necessarily mean they’re at all similar, it can be helpful in examining exactly what aspects you like about both of them, and how important you consider those aspects. It’s genuinely helpful in understanding your own tastes.

When I come to the end of an anime, and I get to that MAL page, click the drop-down box to hit “complete”, and look at the numbers 1 to 10, it gives me a chance to reflect on the show as a whole. Usually when watching a show, I start to form ideas about its themes, message, subtext, or just what I like or dislike about it pretty early on. And through the majority of the viewing experience, I develop and rework these ideas. Usually by the time I get to the last episode, I’ve formed a pretty strong opinion of what I’m getting out of it, and tend to go into that last episode looking for very specific details pertinent to the aspects of the show I personally have been most strongly engaged with. Which means I’m not looking at the show as a whole. That’s just not something I can do in sufficient depth my first time through it. Because of this, my feelings immediately exiting the show are usually only reflective of how the ending handled those particular aspects I was focused on. Seeing that 1 to 10 drop-down menu is an opportunity for me to clear my mind of that immediate response, and think of the show as a whole while it’s still fresh in my mind. I often try to compliment this score with a short comment on the show, also on MAL.

On top of that immediate review factor, it also puts me in the often awkward situation of seeing my tastes, in the form of my completed list ordered by score. Giving a series a score should be a difficult exercise, because if one show ranks higher than another, you have to be able to justify to yourself why that is the case. You should be willing to change scores from time to time, especially after a re-watch. But getting it “right” does depend on you being honest with yourself. If you have Akira, Grave of the Fireflies, and some Satoshi Kon arthouse shit all as 10/10, then relegate stuff like Dragon Ball Z and Haruhi down to about the 3 or 4 level just to show you’ve watched them and thus get to keep your otaku license but don’t think they’re actually good, and god forbid you put any ecchi or hentai on the list! Then you probably realize that you’re full of shit1. I find that if you’re going to bother giving shows scores, you may as well be honest about how you felt about them.

For example, I have both Karas and Queen’s Blade: Rebellion rated at 6/10. Queen’s Blade is an infamous ecchi series with no deep artistic value, and Karas is a stunning CG masterpiece deeply rooted in Japanese cultural heritage. And the fact I have to admit to myself is, I enjoyed Queen’s Blade: Rebellion slightly more than Karas. By critically reviewing what I got out of each show and putting those scores on them, I cannot maintain any pretension. I can, and do, respect Karas for its technical achievement in animation, cultural and artistic value, and the fact that I can’t search desktop backgrounds for its female lead without getting pictures of piss2. But I can’t pretend I enjoyed it more, or got more out of it, than some dumb ecchi series. And because of that, I get to think about why Karas just didn’t do it for me. It’s because it’s so rooted in Japanese culture, specifically aspects of Japanese culture that I don’t fully understand or appreciate yet, and thus a lot of the anime is wasted on me. So I have incentive to broaden my understanding of that culture, and come back to Karas another time and hopefully enjoy it more. If I’d just given Karas its presumed 8/10 and moved on, or not scored it at all and moved on, not only would I be effectively lying, but I’d be depriving myself the opportunity to reflect on exactly where the show didn’t work for me.

I hope at this point it’s clear that my way of assigning scores to an anime isn’t easy or flippant. I don’t have any formula, and if there’s any core principle then it’s simply how “valuable” the viewing experience was to me, which is an intentionally broad standard that does not require any illusion of objectivity or universality. This means my scores cannot be taken to mean the same thing as review scores; they are not meant to indicate recommendation or even quality. And on their own they are meaningless; their purpose comes from the different ways they make me think twice about a show, both on its own and in comparison to other shows. I recognize that Evangelion is not a perfect anime; it has glaring flaws. But I rank it a 10/10 because it deeply affected who I am.

So if I ever get to the end of an anime and I cannot honestly assign it a score, I generally take that to mean I didn’t pay enough attention to the show. If I don’t even know how I feel about it, I probably barely watched it. There are exceptions to this; I know Elfen Lied very well, but because of when I watched it and all the conflicting thoughts I’ve had on it over nearly a decade, I’ve never been able to score it. I can pretty easily distinguish this from a show I just didn’t pay attention to. And if I find I didn’t pay enough attention to score a show, I don’t pretend I’ve completed it.

As should probably be obvious by now, my way of scoring anime is largely personal, but it does serve one social purpose. And oddly enough, it’s the thing that makes people argue about review scores the most. Difference of opinion. If you really like a show, and see I only gave it a 2, don’t get mad. Send me a message; let’s talk about the show. Then we get past the numbers and into the actual substance of opinion. After all, out-of-ten scores are pretty meaningless.

Don’t Lose Your Way

1) I realize this is probably a point a lot of people will take issue with, so let me clarify. It is fine if intellectually high-bar, culturally significant, and arthouse anime happen to be your favourites, and you don’t care for dumb fun or shounen action. Ghost in the Shell is a 10/10 for me. So is Evangelion. And I’m constantly debating about bumping Serial Experiments Lain up there too.
But the nature of reviews and acclamation create a culture wherein if a person has a dissenting opinion on certain works of art which are considered great by that culture, that person risks being discredited without a proper opportunity to defend their view.
While anime is much better in their regard than more conservative media, it isn’t completely free of pretension. I think Akira is, if not the best example, and least the most recognizable. Because the film has been so highly regarded for so long (and because this regard comes mainly from its intellectual and cultural ambitions, which are generally given a high level of credence and are difficult to oppose), anyone who says they don’t like it is expected to give a damn good reason why. If they can’t fully articulate this reason, or the reason is found to be insufficient, that person’s opinion regarding anime in general is somewhat discredited. After all, how can you claim to know a lot about anime but not like Akira?!
Similarly, if an anime is deeply intellectual (let’s make Evangelion the example this time, just because I want to set up for a reference ^.^), and a person voices a lone dissent, it’s easy to diminish that person by accusing them of just not being smart enough to get it. In other words, “What are you, stupid?!”
Both of these can be resolved by the critics very carefully and effectively articulating their positions, but, as I said with reviewers, we can’t just expect people to be master wordsmiths. Short an absolutely perfect argument, dissent to these types of works is often treated with much more scrutiny than normal.
Thus, there is this pressure to give these cultural landmark works, or works of perceived high intellectual value, high scores, without even necessarily thinking about your own opinion on them. Similarly, if you’re trying to put forward an intellectual and refined persona in how you score Japanese cartoons (first of all, get a life, but second and more relevant) you’re probably going to put the dumb fun or action series very low on your list.
It’s scores and lists that are based on this kind of thinking that I’m talking about.

2) Her name’s Yurine, and I swear this was true back when I first watched it, but now it looks like Google has changed their formula so less piss comes up. Though you do get pictures of Yurine from Luck and Logic now, which is basically the same as piss.