An Alternative Use for Review Scores

Ranking board from Tiger and Bunny


Here’s a familiar story:  I was browsing ANN the other day and came across their review of the first six episodes of Majestic Prince.  Rebecca Silverman gave the show a C+ overall.  This has been my favorite mecha/sci-fi show of the season, so, while acknowledging and respecting her right to hold her own opinion, I was a bit annoyed.  MJP is not A material, but, in my opinion, it is better than C+.  Blah, blah, we have all been here before, yes?

Later that day, I was searching for some new music to listen to.  I checked out Pitchfork’s reviews of some recent releases and found a review of J Cole’s album Born Sinner.  Pitchfork gave it a 6.0 out of 10.  Know what the first thought that popped into my head was?  “Perfect.  This is exactly what I am looking for.”  I was delighted.  This was the kind of hip hop album I needed to get through the remainder of the morning.

It only hit me that evening that my day’s experiences with music reviews reveals a different way of interpreting anime review scores, namely seeing them as coded, shorthand descriptions.

Suggested Soundtrack for Reading – Stereo MCs “Connected”

I was familiar enough with Pitchfork’s hip hop reviews and the relationship of them to my own appraisals of such music that I knew what their 6.0/10 meant for me.  Rather than take their score at face value as an objective quantifier of Born Sinner‘s quality, I recalled other albums in the genre that the site had given similar scores to and how I felt about those albums.  Pitchfork has given such scores to albums that I responded positively to.  They were largely conventional, by-the-numbers hip hop albums that did not seek to break new ground.  I interpreted the 6.0/10 through that lens and judged, correctly so, that Born Sinner was a conventional, decent hip hop record.  This was precisely was I was in the mood for, and my familiarity with the source of the review helped me more efficiently find what I wanted.

So, why not apply the same principles to anime review scores?  Read reviews.  Read everyone’s reviews.  Become familiar with the tastes of as many critics as you can.  For most critics, much of the time you’re going to disagree with them, probably more often than you agree with them.  That’s OK though.  The important thing is not finding someone who completely syncs up with your own taste; that’s a unicorn.  Instead, the idea is to understand what a range of people think is important in anime.  You want to know what these folks like and dislike in terms of genre, themes, tone, setting, plot elements, characterization, etc.  When you can reliably predict a critic’s response to an anime (no need to be too strict here), then you have found yourself a guide you can count on.  Knowing what they like, how much they like it and why they like it, you can surmise fairly accurately what the show is like based on their review score.  In that case, all you need to do is relate that data to how you feel about such shows to decide if the show is worth a try.  As an added benefit, if you read a wide variety of critics, then you might just get interested in something you otherwise wouldn’t have bothered with.

Returning to the MJP example, I could use Rebecca’s review score to my advantage, rather than simply being annoyed about our disagreement.  Being acquainted with her work, I could view her score as a truncated description of the show, unpacked being something like, “Solid enough standard mecha show that doesn’t deviate from expected genre norms.”  Interestingly enough, I agree with such a description; I just happen to value these sorts of shows more highly than Rebecca does.  And, instead of stressing about the differences between what I value in entertainment versus what other critics do, I could exploit these differences to make my search for new anime to watch more a more productive one.

Now, this is not a foolproof method, and nothing beats actually reading a review.  However, if you’re in a time crunch, I think this can be a fruitful method to apply.

An Alternative Use for Review Scores

6 thoughts on “An Alternative Use for Review Scores

  1. I never thought of looking at a review in that way. That’s a good idea for both understanding the review better and not becoming angry at the critic in certain cases.

    By the way, have you reviewed Majestic Prince on your website or do you know of a particularly good review? I always find myself a bit wary of mecha shows, and Rebecca’s review wasn’t too flattering.

  2. In my experience, reviews that give scores aren’t any good, because they try to rank a work against a larger sample (shows of the same genre? recent shows? everything else?), but everyone always has a different ranking. Your feelings of indignation are also a reason why I don’t want to care about them–oftentimes I just disagree with them strongly.

    But really, what you’ve written here is an intelligent way of reading a review. I won’t say it’s *the* way, but it’s certainly better than what most people do!

    As I trust myself more in finding what I like and discarding what I don’t, I just zero in on what the reviewer says about the show itself–is the show laden with impenetrable dialogue? Does its plot not let up through twenty-six episodes? From there I can formulate my opinion.

    PS: My problem with ANN reviews is that they often get mad when a show isn’t what they want to be or fails to hold up to some standard they’ve set. They don’t let the show speak to them or approach it on its own terms. Which is why a lot of them are written in a why-was-I-forced-to-watch-this-shit, whiny voice.

    1. I like reading reviews, even with scores, because it acquaints me with different perspectives from my own. When acquaintance becomes familiarity, breeding generally reliable prediction, then I feel like one can make use of reviews for purposes of selection. There’s also the interesting phenomenon of the reviewer doling out a score that seems wildly out of character. I do sit up and take notice when a habitual moe-hating reviewer drops a good score on something like Potemayo.

      I don’t want to come across as saying that the method I discuss is the “best” or “only” way to read reviews and certainly don’t believe it to be the best way of selecting what to watch. In my mind, nothing beats knowledge of the creators plus an awareness of your own taste. However, I do find that reading reviews and reading scores as truncated descriptions helps me broaden my viewing horizons and avoid a media bubble.

  3. I find myself disagreeing with scored reviews on principal: reducing an entire experience into a number feels wrong to me, no matter how I look at it. I can also never agree with the mindset that a work of art is the sum of all its individual aspects. Breaking an anime down into categories like story, music, production values, etc. feels like a compartmentalised kind of thinking, and it’s easy to overlook the nuance of a work when you grade them numerically on those terms. That said, I know how they are useful to others as an indicator of taste, but I always agonise over what scores I put on my MAL, for instance.

    You bring up a good point about how if you read a lot of the same reviewer, you become familiar with their reviewing system and the scores, as part of a relative scale, start to mean something. I suppose in the end it comes down to HOW you read a review that determines what you ultimately learn from it, just as it comes down to HOW you watch an anime that determines what level you enjoy it on.

    1. It’s good to know someone else agonizes over MAL scores :).

      I am in agreement with the spirit of your comments about art and categories; however, I think we do need a way to talk about this stuff that anyone can relate to. Sharing our entire experience can be difficult, not to mention much less accessible than your typical review.

      The place I am coming from in the post is this: I don’t necessarily love review scores, but, given the reality of their ubiquity, those of us who have issues with them can still find a way to make productive use out of them.

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