We all rate anime. Many of us like to use a number system. Even those who dislike numbers or a solid ranking system will still make comments such as “X was a very good anime” or “Y seemed a little below-average.” This essay is intended to explain my own preferred style of critical analysis and how I apply it to each anime I watch.
When it comes to ranking systems, numbers are the key. A numbered rating system works so much better than a system that relies solely on subjective words such as ‘good.’ What does ‘good’ mean? What is ‘good’ better than? What is better than ‘good?’ A number system helps to remove some of this subjectivity.
Within the broad category of number ranking systems, there are three commonly seen systems. Assume all systems begin with 1 as the worst ranking, with each number increase demonstrating rising levels of quality. The first system ranks from 1 to 5 in integers. The second system ranks from 1 to 10 in integers. An alternate version of the second system ranks from 1 to 5 incrementally by halves, standing as another 10-level system. The third system is what I refer to as “too complex.” This type of system typically rates from 1 to 5 by the tenths place, effectively covering 50 levels, while an impossibly intense system ranks from 1 to 10 by the tenths place, effectively covering 100 levels. This third type is far too inefficient for critical analysis because it gets caught up in its own complexity. Say such a system tries to rank art quality. Try to provide an example of each of the 100 levels of art rankings. While not technically impossible, this factor alone would take days of critical analysis over hundreds of series, focusing on miniscule aspects. This system misses the forest for the trees. Even complex systems that contain over a dozen different criteria don’t need a 100-level scale to rank each one.
So, the two types remaining are the 5-level system and the 10-level system. Let’s begin dividing this up by naming each level. The first split would be to separate anime into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories. Then we need an ‘average.’ Next follows an ‘above average,’ a ‘below average,’ a ‘great’ and a ‘horrible.’ Then maybe we can categorize outliers at ‘masterpiece’ and ‘worst anime I’ve ever seen.’ Here we already have seven categories, demonstrating that a 5-level system just isn’t quite specific enough to cover our ideal number of options. MAL uses a 10-level system that adds one more level above ‘good,’ one more level below ‘bad,’ and a second level of ‘average.’ To get a true average as a middle ground, an 11-level system with 0 as the absolute minimum would be ideal, but since I enjoy using MAL I settle on their 10-level system.
The ten levels, then, are as follows:
- 10 – Masterpiece
- 9 – Great
- 8 – Very Good
- 7 – Good
- 6 – Fine
- 5 – Average
- 4 – Bad
- 3 – Very Bad
- 2 – Horrible
- 1 – Appalling
Although I agree with most labels on this system, I’m not too fond of a few on the lower half. When I think of a truly average anime in my head, and then one below that, I wouldn’t call that lower-ranked anime ‘bad.’ I’d go with ‘below average.’ But that’s just me nitpicking over an aesthetic touch, so I’ll leave it alone.
Let’s go over what these rating mean before we get into anything too complicated. 5 and 6 are average; this means out of all the anime out there, these represent the slightly higher and slightly lower ends of generic. The more anime you watch, the more generic traits become obvious. Since the true middle would technically be a 5.5, a score of 6 is already a good score, since it says that the anime belongs in the upper half of the rating tier. A score of 7 implies a very enjoyable anime with many superior elements. An 8 is of typically excellent quality with one or two significant drawbacks, or a plethora of good but not perfect individual scores. A 9 represents an anime that is almost perfect, but possesses a few minor flaws. A 10 should only be assigned to an anime that truly could not be any better. Flip around the meanings a bit for the lower half of the rating spectrum to get a decent idea of what those rankings represent.
So I’ve watched an anime, and now it’s finally time to rate it. I begin by reminding myself of the golden rule of critical analysis: although entertainment is an important criteria, it is not the sole focus of the rating. Although most highly-rated anime are also highly enjoyable, it’s also common to find lower-rated anime to be highly enjoyable. Just because an anime is critically sub-par does not mean it can’t be an entertaining series to watch. The shining example I like to point to in this situation is Sword Art Online, though I’ll hold off on specific analysis until later.
Alright, so enjoyment is important. What are other important criteria? Common broad categories are characters, visuals, sound, and story. I’m fine with all of these; I use them myself. However, I believe each category can be further broken up into more specific sections.
We’ll start with characters. Some points I like to consider in character analysis are as follows:
- Believability – Is the character believable? Is the character realistic? Can I relate to this character? Can I see this character walking by me on a city street? Also considers character personality.
- Dimensionality – Is the character one-dimensional? Is the character complex? Also considers character personality.
- Development – Is the character stagnant from the first episode to the last? Does the character grow emotionally or morally?
- Likability – Is the character likable? Do I enjoy the character’s presence? Does the character leave a strong impression on me?
This serves as a fairly simple benchmark for character quality consideration. A lovable character with a fleshed out back story, complex personality and believable interactions is typically superior to a lovable character that does nothing but stand around looking cute and saying “nyaa” for 12 episodes. Additionally, some aspects lose their importance depending on the genre(s) of the anime in question. For example, the titan shifters from Shingeki no Kyojin won’t get slashed for being unrealistic simply because titan shifters do not exist in our world. Similarly, the girls from Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica won’t be marked down from using magic and fighting supernatural creatures. Oshino Shinobu from Bakemonogatari won’t be devalued for her status as a vampire. You get the idea. Believability represents more than just whether or not such a character could actually exist.
Visuals is another major category. Let’s run through the expanded criteria:
- Character Designs – How are the character designs? Too simple? Too complex? Too distorted?
- Backgrounds – How much attention was put into the backgrounds? Is there detail and complex color? Are they flat and bland?
- Lighting – Goes hand-in-hand with shading. Does it look as though light is hitting realistically? Is there an absence of shading, or is there too much? Is glare present? Do characters and objects alike have shadows?
- Animation – How do things move? Are movements smooth? Are movements believable? Are special effects cool? If CG is used, does it integrate well or awkwardly stand out?
This category is a bit more subjective. It would be easy if all anime looked relatively the same, because then such criteria would apply perfectly. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately?) they don’t. There are nearly as many different art styles as there are anime. Even within certain broad categories of styles, specific artists and studios will each have their own individual quirks and preferences show in their drawings. This becomes even more subjective when we consider deviant art styles, such as those used by Shaft. Shaft likes to alternate between overly simple and immensely complex backgrounds. Characters are often very realistic in appearance with individual defining exaggerated aspects. Bizarre angles and varying styles of shading are used for effect. In scenarios such as these, it’s important to consider the broader categories as a whole and not get too hung up on the details. Another aspect to consider is the time period in which the anime was made. Newer art styles are often more complex, more refined, more realistic, etc. Consider the standards from when the anime was originally made and rank it accordingly. Regardless of art style, taking in the art as a whole before ranking is better than slashing the art because, say, you aren’t fond of the character designs. Remember, don’t miss the forest for the trees.
Sound is a category where I’m not especially hardcore with my ratings. I break it down simply into:
- Voice Actors – Do the voice actors do a good job? Do their voices match their characters? Do their voices accurately portray a normal human reaction whatever scenario is occurring?
- Background Music – Is there background music? Is it enjoyable? Does it fit with the atmosphere of the scenario?
- OP/ED – How are the OP and ED themes? Are they generic or creative? Are they catchy? Are they enjoyable?
- Sound Effects – Are sound effects realistic? Do they improve the atmosphere or detract from it?
I’m not a huge stickler for sound. As long as there are no detectable flaws in voice acting, that area will get a good score. Background music is often hard to analyze over the course of an entire series, so much of it comes down to enjoyment. OP/ED quality is very subjective; a catchy OP will get a high score even if it’s generic, while an OP that just didn’t click with me as a viewer will receive a lower score. Again, this category is somewhat dependent on the time period during which the anime was made, as sound is one of the things that has changed greatly over time. An example of an older anime with excellent sound quality would be Cowboy Bebop.
Story is a bit of a difficult one to nail down. Rough criteria include:
- Premise – Is the premise believable? Is there enough appeal that I want to watch it simply by reading the rough outline?
- Plot – What is happens in the story? Are these happenings hooking or cringe-inducing?
- Pacing – Is story progression believable? Is it evenly paced?
- Conclusion – Am I satisfied with the ending? Did I like the ending? Did the ending tie everything together or leave loose ends?
Story is another somewhat subjective area, mostly because it contains the ‘plot’ category. Not all anime need a plot to function properly. Of those that do, some plots will appeal to some viewers while turning away others. Sports anime do not appeal to anyone, and even the best sports anime I’ve ever seen would likely receive a poor rating if watched by the wrong individual. This extends to all other genres as well; a devoted romance watcher might not care for an action series, while a comedy lover might find a mystery to be boring. Regardless of what kind of show I’m watching I try to consider first if it’s something I want to watch, then how the story is carried out on an individual basis. Pacing is another bizarre category that receives a positive score more often than not. I simply look for how fast events move relative to how fast they’d realistically move, and I watch out for glaring factors such as time skips. The conclusion is also very important. More than once I have thoroughly enjoyed an anime until the last minute, then almost put my head through my desk in frustration at whatever contrived ending the producers felt the need to include.
The last category is enjoyment. Criteria are relatively simple:
- Impression – Was the anime enjoyable to watch?
- Re-watch Potential – Is the series worth watching more than once?
- Broad Appeal – Is this anime something that can be watched as one grows older, or as decades pass, without loosing value?
The most important aspect of this category is simply, “did I like it?” This is often the difference between an anime that’s ‘so bad it’s good’ and an anime that’s simply ‘bad.’ Additionally, it’s worth considering whether the series was so enjoyable that I’d jump at the chance to sit down and watch it a second or third time a few months later. Finally, the ‘Broad Appeal’ sub-category represents the timeless nature of the anime. This is to allow anime that should be enjoyable even 20 or 30 years from now to stand out. Do you remember any of the mediocre anime from the 1980s? Neither do I.
I outlined five major categories for analysis, so now I’ll explain how I use them to rate anime. Each category is worth 20 points. Each sub-category is worth 5 points, with the exception of the Entertainment category where the ‘Impression’ sub-category is ranked out of 10 to give a little weight to the subjective side of viewing enjoyment. This provides each anime with a score out of 100 possible points.
“But Rick, I thought you said a 100-level ranking system was too complex!”
I did, and it is. This is still a 10-level ranking system. In fact, each individual component in four of the five categories is only ranked out of a possible 5 points. That’s a point each for ‘awful,’ ‘bad,’ ‘average,’ good,’ and ‘fantastic.’ Entertainment is ranked with a possible 10 points for each aspect. Once the components are summed together, the answer is rounded and the anime is assigned a final score between 1 and 10.
Of course, this rating system has evolved over time, and is continuing to evolve now. When I first began watching anime, I threw out 7-10 ratings like there was no tomorrow. I’ve edited my impressions a seemingly countless number of times since then, and as a result my current average MAL score is a 6.4. Rounded, that’s a 6, which is the upper end of average. This fits perfectly with my tastes; until this season, I never attempted to watch every new airing anime. Instead, I’d painstakingly search for each individual series that looked good and then marathon it to completion. Even with a more sophisticated rating system, this still increases the likelihood that I will watch good anime, or at least decent anime. And even considering the way I distribute scores, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy many of the 4s and 5s on my list. On the contrary, there are only a handful of anime on my ‘completed’ list that I can honestly say I didn’t enjoy.
The values are additionally skewed a bit by incomplete series. I will not assign a numerical rating to an anime until its conclusion in order to get the strongest opinion for each category in my critical analysis. However, if an anime truly fails to capture my attention or is simply so bad I can’t stand to finish watching it, I will often relegate it to my ‘on hold’ pile to be finished on a rainy day. Though considering the number of anime on my ‘on hold’ list, I’d need a lengthy typhoon or two to clear it out. If I were to finish these anime, many would fall into the lower half of the rating table, further shifting my average towards 5.5, the truly average rating. Although if I assign the median score to every category on my table, I actually come up with 5.8 as the true average. Though this is, again, skewed a bit towards the positive end, this does make my current average of 6.4 seem even more fitting, especially considering the types of anime I typically try to watch.
Of course, everything I’ve said assumes that the viewer holds minimal bias, and unfortunately this is not often the case. Certain viewers will simply prefer certain shows over others. If an anime is engaging and hilarious, it will be harder to objectively assign lower critical scores even if, for example, the sound is horrendous or the art is extremely bland. Positive factors leave a positive impression, and negative factors leave a negative impression. An anime with an intriguing premise and flawless execution will still be likely to receive a lower score than it might deserve if I despise the protagonist and have to suffer through him/her for 12-24 episodes.
It is impossible to completely remove bias. Even the assumption that a review is being written without bias itself creates a bias that the review is now completely objective, and as it is completely objective it must be correct. Individual perceptions and preferences come into play, seemingly unrelated factors such as the reviewer’s mood will have an effect, and any prior knowledge of an anime’s supposed positive or negative status will leave a lasting impression. Because bias will always be present, it’s important to divide up the critical analysis with enough sections to minimize the impact of any particular element of bias.
Before I conclude, I’d like to provide a quick example of an anime for each of the 10 rankings, just to give an idea of where different shows end up with my system and personal preferences.
- 10 – Steins;Gate
- 9 – Neon Genesis Evangelion
- 8 – Trigun
- 7 – Mobile Suit Gundam 00
- 6 – Kami nomi zo Shiru Sekai
- 5 – Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai!
- 4 – Strike Witches
- 3 – Haiyore! Nyaruko-san
- 2 – DearS
- 1 – Highschool of the Dead: Drifters of the Dead
I also want to point out some exceptions and qualifiers to all the information I included above. I always rate each anime independently. So, the first season of an anime, the second season, insert OVAs, an ending OVA and post-season specials will all be rated independently of one another, with some obvious exceptions. The ratings I proposed are intended for standard anime series of at least 10 episodes of around 25 minutes each. It also works well for rating long OVA episodes, OVA series and animated movies. I use a different system, however, for abnormal anime such as: bonus shorts, short episode anime, single-episode OVAs, etc. I generally give default scores of 5 to bonus shorts and specials, adding or subtracting a point or two based on quality. Single-episode OVAs are usually rated as an extra episode of the parent series if there is one, unless the OVA does not fit into the main story and/or has significant flaws. Short episode anime (between 3 and 10 minutes per episode) simply receive a slightly adjusted version of my typical rating system with leniency and understanding kept in mind. This is all done to keep the rating system fair; it’s silly to expect complex plot and character development from a series of 5-minute bonus specials included in a DVD box. At the same time, however, giving them a score equal to that of the parent series can skew the averages considerably, especially if the parent series possesses a high rating, and therefore an average default score is generally the ideal.
That probably about sums it up for now. Hopefully this gives a good idea of how I like to do things. It would be nice if you agreed with my rating system as well. If not, oh well, feel free to use it as a source of an alternate perspective to your own.