Two years ago this month, I had just started my position as an episodic streamer at Anime News Network. In the months ahead, I would write several thousand words a week on shows like Denki Gai, Yowamushi Pedal, Free! Eternal Summer, Ace Attorney, Ushio & Tora, and Gundam Build Fighters TRY. I would also go on to also review DVD and Blu-Ray releases and branch out into editorials, tutorials, and interviews.
After all this time I’ve only slowed down a little (by downsizing from three to two episodic reviews a week) and showing no signs of stopping. I’m in the middle of a couple review-related assignments right now and I was sort of dreading adding even more writing, my Monday Otaku Journalist post, to that pile. That is, until a cool Twitter follower asked me to write about my review process. Has it really been two years since I last brought up this topic? It’s definitely overdue. After all, I already had a blog post’s worth of lessons after three months of professional anime reviewing.
It’s an example of my embarrassing former self principle that I thought I knew what I was doing back then. Because while the foundations are the same, my level of self-consciousness and belief in my own authority have swapped places. Here’s how I got more confident in my process.
Separate “work” anime viewing from “fun” anime viewing.
People sometimes ask me how I can still enjoy anime now that I get paid to review it. Especially when it’s a show for which my reviews aren’t exactly complimentary!
However, watching anime is still a hobby for me. That’s because I very clearly separate the ways I watch anime for work and for fun. I watch anime for fun on my tablet or TV while lying on the couch. I watch anime for review while sitting up straight at my laptop, notepad app open. Being cognizant of my posture especially flicks a switch in my mind to remind me that while this is usually an activity I do for fun, now it’s time to focus.
Don’t watch twice. Just take good notes.
When I started reviewing, I watched every episode twice before I started writing to make sure I got all the details. That was unsustainable and frankly kind of boring.
Now I watch every episode once, but make sure to take meticulous notes. Sometimes, my list of notes is longer than the final article! Here’s some notes I took for Cheer Boys episode 7, which eventually turned into this episodic review:
0:30 these faces are unfortunate
Sho’s awful drawings don’t look that bad next to the characters themselves
4:47 “uniquely masculine cheerleading”
Hisashi is a real wet blanket
cracks are starting to show in the teamwork
everyone is just freaking out whenever Hisashi gets mad
“every time Hisashi opens his mouth, my heart stops” – Haru
So many stills to the point where it looks unnatural – one guy will be talking in the foreground while everyone is completely rigid
why is Wataru in a skirt? he is so weird he will always be my fav, a dose of personality in a sea of blandness
This goes on for 300 more words, but you get the picture. This is kind of embarrassing to show because it’s really stream of conscious, and nothing at all like the finished product I turn in after getting my thoughts in order. I write down my immediate impressions while I’m watching with as little editing as possible. I try to copy down quotes I want to use exactly, along with who said it (you’d be surprised how much I forget that last part). If there’s a clip I might want to watch again for more clarity, I write down the timestamp.
What do the fans think?
In my post two years ago, I was reviewing Nobunaga Concerto, which remains one of the absolute worst anime I’ve ever seen. I hated the jerky, experimental animation, the casually forgotten plot points, and what I thought was a total disregard for logic. And yet! A lot of people really love that show, including anime reviewers I respect.
It really bothered me that every time I put out a new Nobunaga Concerto episode review, there would be commenters complaining I just didn’t get it or appreciate history or whatever. It was like we were watching two different shows. For future reviews, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t as completely removed from the fan perspective, so I decided to frequent r/anime.
Reddit’s anime community isn’t exactly a microcosm of the total fan perspective, but it’s extremely reliable. Whenever a new anime episode comes out, a bot posts a comment thread where people can record their impressions. Usually I take a cursory glance at this thread before I start writing. Even when I’m watching a show I’m not all that into, seeing its biggest fans gush about it helps me to consider other perspectives
Of course, I can’t fall into the mindset of thinking “diehard fans are right and I’m wrong.” This bit me in the butt recently when I was reviewing an episode of DAYS. The r/anime commenters were piling on about how the episode depicted a particular foul in the game. And unfortunately, I took that at face value and noted an offside interference in my review, too.
Luckily, I happened to mention this to Grant, a friend of mine who regularly plays soccer (you might remember him as the guy who wrote this) right before publication. He disagreed about the call and I was able to ask my editor to swap the “offside” working as an “interference in play.” That night, Grant and I watched the episode carefully, pausing at possible fouls and concluded that the interference was too brief to indicate what really happened. That makes sense—this is an anime about friendship and teamwork and technical soccer details come second. Since then I’ve been extra wary about taking commenters’ opinions as fact.
I know not everyone agrees with my reviews, but I hope this anecdote at least shows how seriously I take them. I will watch and rewatch a 30-second clip as many times as it takes.
Don’t obsess over the comments.
For me, this means not reading the Anime News Network comments on my reviews at all, since I have learned from experience that I can’t just casually interact with them.
When I started out, I made sure to participate actively in the comments on each of my reviews. Things have gotten toxic in 2016, but in previous journalism gigs I have been contractually obligated to “interact with readers in the comments.” I’m not sure if news sites still make journalists do this—most of the ones I know have removed their comment sections!
But what I have had to gradually learn is that reviewing is not journalism. Journalism is about dispersing the facts as accurately as possible. If somebody can dispute your article, that means something is likely wrong with it! But reviewing is about expressing your opinion, and if somebody disagrees, it’s not the same as somebody disputing a source or a fact.
Comments stress me out because years in journalism have led to me treating everything like a “correction.” If somebody thinks something is wrong in the article, I want to fix it! When I started, my poor editor, Jacob, was getting constant requests from me to go back into the review and clarify something because it seemed like a commenter was taking something the wrong way. But reviews are based on opinion, not fact, so they can’t really be “wrong.”
Today, I don’t read the Anime News Network forum threads on my reviews at all. I haven’t demonstrated to myself that I can interact without looking for things to change in every review. I figure that if I actually got something serious wrong, I will find out—my editor will tell me, or somebody will reach out to me here or on Twitter.
Full-series reviews require consistency and focus.
I’m in the middle of reviewing an anime series right now so this is very much on my mind. My process for full series is different than episodic reviews.
Usually, my deadline is 7 days from the date my editor gives me the assignment. So I’ll watch anywhere from 20 to 40 episodes in a week.
First, before I even start watching, I do my homework. I look up the director, the animation studio, and the soundtrack composer. I note the show’s reception and popularity. No show exists in a vacuum and it’s important to me not to go in blind.
Then I proceed to watch the entire thing, even if I’ve watched it before. Many of the shows I’ve reviewed for Anime News Network are re-releases of Gundam shows, so I’ve seen them before but not recently. It’s vital to me to re-watch the whole thing, this time with an analytical eye.
Instead of taking notes every episode, I do a note dump every four or five. Otherwise I’d have way too many notes to be helpful. You saw how many I had just for Cheer Boys!! For me it’s most important to take notes at the show’s halfway point and after its conclusion.
Full-series reviews are a little like running a 10k race (I’d probably say a marathon if I’d ever run one). You need to be spend a lot of time with one show, around 2+ hours a day, for a week. It’s important to stay focused on the show until the moment you turn in the review.
Grades are the freaking worst.
Especially when it comes to my full-series reviews. I stand by a lot of things I’ve said about anime over the years, but I wish I could just change all the grades to “it has good parts and bad parts, I dunno, just read the review.”
For me, the issue is grade creep. This is my usual internal narrative: “If I gave this episode a B, then this other episode that’s a little worse is a C+. But it doesn’t feel that bad. If only I could go back and give the first episode an A, so this one could be a B.”
I think it all started with one of my first reviews, Mobile Suit Gundam on Blu-Ray. If only I had given this a higher grade! It’s a classic. Now I find myself using that as the benchmark by which I set all other grades, which is crap. “Is this better or worse than Gundam?” is a pretty nerve-wracking question to be asking myself even once a month.
It’s tough. I love anime. I want to be consistent, but I don’t want to give something I liked a bad grade because I’m trying to stay true to a system I set up in 2015. On the other hand, not everyone has time to read the entire review, and a grade is an ideal shortcut.
I wrote about this last year in My Biggest Weakness: Grading Reviews. My opinion hasn’t changed. But in a two year career of growing increasingly confident about every other aspect of my reviewing process, I think it’s OK that I still need to work on one thing.
I had a lot to say about my review process today because when it comes down to it, anime reviews are deeply personal. Unlike with journalism, I can’t say I was simply stating the facts. This is about me—why I like something, this is how I feel about it, and there is nothing out there that can change that. (Just try convincing somebody their favorite anime sucks and see how that goes.) It’s tough because while sarcasm and apathy are the norm in so many parts of Internet interactions, reviews are one place we remain genuine and exposed. It can be scary to share this much, but it can also be exhilarating.