On the Ninth Day of Anime: Terribleness as art (Valvrave the Liberator S1)

“If we’re looking for something entertaining, why don’t we show something like Valvrave?”

“Uh…” “Well…” “Ehhhhhhh”

I have this particular issue with the anime club about a construction called “So bad, it’s good”. As it affects our selection of anime, this is considered serious business. I believe it to be a legitimate label, while my colleagues do not. No one in my circle of management is even close to interested in watching terrible anime. They view it, quite simply, as a waste of time. There is some merit to their stance, I admit. For example, there is not much to be learned or appreciated from a bad anime if you’re interested in watching good anime. While I value that my staff would love to watch only “good” anime, their approach towards choosing anime to watch with other people is misguided. I believe that there is value, meaning, and most of all entertainment to watching series like Valvrave S1.

But sooner or later I get these kind of responses:

“There will be people who will like it unironically and we’d be hurting their feelings.”

“We could be using our time better.”

But most of all:

“All the entertaining parts are too far in between and too few.”

This is by far the most prevalent excuse I’ve heard, both from the internet and from people in the club, and it highlights a discrepancy towards how we as viewers approach media regarded as “so bad, it’s good”. It shows that we have very different ideas of how to be entertained by media. Think of Kanye West’s recent and terrible music video with Kim Kardashian. Take Freddie Wong’s impression of Sharknado (he thought it was too long) and his response to it: Bear Force One. I thought both of those productions were funny. A good chunk of people, and these are the people who contribute to the video’s huge dislike bar, did not find it funny. I understand why they would think that.

For some people, an entertaining story must include a degree of emotional investment. To be attached to characters, to immerse oneself into the narrative, the world, the concepts. Terrible anime take turn this idea upside its head, but for people like me this is where the entertainment lies. Sure, when you are not emotionally attached to the anime, the story seems trivial, perhaps juvenile, and find the whole experience to be unenjoyable. Yet these same things can be found enjoyable by others. It’s all about what you are willing to take from the production, and how much you care about authorial intent.

Remember that cute girl in Valrave that died for absolutely no reason? Remember how Haruto convinced L. Elf to join his alliance using a lame metaphor about the bitterness of coffee? Or how trained assassins still feel the need to repeatedly shoot an already dead body? Do you think the writers honestly thought that any of these things would have emotional impact? I say that this doesn’t matter. It’s more fun to assume that the writers did it for shits and giggles. To fuck with us. I’m saying it’s okay for a story to fuck with us because we shouldn’t give a shit about what the creators may or may not have intended. Their end result is just bad. That should be okay to laugh at. That experience, above all else, should be enjoyable.

So for me, an entertaining story is allowed to have a significant amount of emotional deterrent, so long as you supply your own enjoyment in its place. Terrible anime are not enjoyable, and that’s precisely what makes them enjoyable. That is an entertainment value that is completely separate from how I end up rating anime, yes, but there is a name for this phenomenon. There is a way to identify the feeling when you know a show is just fucking with you for its own metaphorical amusement. When you enjoy something despite it taking everything bad  and mediocre about anime and making an anime about it.

That phrase is “So bad, it’s good”.

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4 comments

  1. Okay, so, I disagree with this label or at least think it oversimplifies how we view entertainment in a couple of ways. I think you’re right in saying that the audience has to let themselves be engaged, that engaging with a story doesn’t all come down to the author’s skill. Ironic enjoyment, I think, is derived when the work breaks down the typical expectations we tend to have of fiction. It enforces this idea that stories, at their heart, are just stories. They don’t ever carry any literal meaning or real-world application! I think it takes a certain kind of audience to acknowledge that stories can’t – or shouldn’t – be taken so seriously and to let themselves be engaged in something so ultimately inconsequential. This sense of perspective is important if we’re ever going to pretend to understand how fiction is constructed.

    The question is: “How much credit do we give to the author for that? How good is ironic entertainment?” I like to think that with a work like Valvrave, due credit should be given to the show’s ability to create a straight-faced yet ridiculous atmosphere where anything can reasonably happen. There’s definite craftsmanship and you can definitely sense the fun the creators had with it, as you mentioned in those various scenes where the creators were very obviously fucking with us. In fact, that the Valvrave experience became dampened in the second cour because it tried to become more emotionally honest points to the idea that there is some skill involved in trivialising a story. It lacked the foundations for an honest story and its attempts to be honest reinforced its lies.

    So what I’m trying to get at is: there’s really no easy line to draw between what’s “good” or what’s “bad” in fiction. I’d argue that anything that draws an emotional reaction from the audience or engages them is “good”, and labelling a work as “So Bad It’s Good” tends to cheapen the effect the work has on us and to narrow our understanding of what fiction is actually capable of.

    1. This is where it gets a bit personal. “Ironic” entertainment is not a criteria used when I judge the quality of an anime. I understand well that it exists, and that I myself acknowledge when it occurs, but its application towards a comprehensive review can muddle the standards I set for other works.

      Say that in American football, you derive the same amount of enjoyment from a receiver making a miraculous touchdown against all odds versus a quarterback getting sacked, pushed back five yards due to the force of the opposing linebacker, and somehow penalized further back for it. Do you evaluate those two acts to be equal in significance? I don’t. We celebrate successful plays. We vilify screwups. Some people, like me, find enjoyment from analyzing exactly how the play went horribly wrong. Perhaps we laugh at it. It may appear as a greatest moment at the end of the year because you remember how bad it was. Yet, in the end, it will not be considered a “good” play because of the rules I follow when watching football.

      My active and consternated experience with Valvrave does not stop me from believing it to be a legitimately “bad” anime when compared to how I view other anime. See, the thing about ironic enjoyment is that it exists in a bubble: the brunt of the entertainment received from such an anime comes from myself rather than the show, and as such exists outside of the show’s capabilities to entertain me. Where do we draw the line when entertainment treads between intentional and unintentional? How much must we rely on authorial intent to justify ranking it amongst series that require a completely different outlook on anime altogether? I think figuring that out would be a silly endeavor. My criteria for judging anime must be consistent.

      You say that “So bad, it’s good” cheapens the impact of the show, and what I argue is that the nature of enjoying bad writing is, in itself, disingenuous. I don’t watch Valvrave to celebrate how bad it is; I watch because I laugh, and I laugh because I am personally compelled to make a game out of this anime to even consider watching another episode. That is an activity that does not make it to my final evaluation of a show, based on the standards I hold anime towards, and as such its potential for ironic entertainment is not equal to the legitimate entertainment I derive from other works. This is why, despite how much I enjoyed Valvrave, it scores a lowly 4/10 on my MAL. However, despite all of that, Valvrave still holds a special place in my anime history, alongside the likes of Guilty Crown, Black Rock Shooter, and others such. I use the label “So bad, it’s good” to identify these kinds of anime.

      Perhaps the more accurate term would be “So bad, it’s enjoyable“.

      1. I totally understand what you’re saying, because I also use my MAL ratings to separate what entertains me today with what I think should be held up in posterity. Looking back, I think I was misinterpreting your argument and assuming you were unwilling to give due credit to something that entertained you, but I see it was more nuanced than that. It’s one thing to not have rigid expectations for what makes a good story, quite another not to value good craft when you do see it.

        Sorry for my unclear initial comment and for the roundabout discourse that ensued! I think I’ve come to a better understanding of this subject now. Thanks for the detailed response.

  2. […] honestly, I’m kind of bummed out that I wasn’t asked this question. I mean, it’s not like I’ve written about the topic before. Nope. Nosiree. Not a single time. This is really […]

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