Saturday, May 26, 2012

Style vs. Substance: Which is more important?

So, I recently watched the first episode of Mononoke, a rather esoteric anime. The show has a number of people who love it, a large amount of people who've never watched, and people still on the fence like me (and I guess people who dislike it, too). But, in watching it, I started thinking about what it was that made those people love it so much. I didn't really think it was the story, because, honestly, it was pretty uninteresting (not bad, mind you, just...uninteresting). Instead, I believe it has to do with the show's style. No one can deny that Mononoke has a unique art style, but the style I'm talking about goes beyond art. It's the element lurking behind all others, sort of similar to atmosphere.

     Before I discuss the style of a show further, though, I should probably first define it. I'm going to do this by telling you what it isn't; the substance. The "substance" of a show is its clearly identifiable, tangible (so to speak) aspects, like the voice acting, animation & art quality, music, and so forth. The style of a show is its more "ephemeral" qualities, the ones that can't be as clearly identified. Another way of saying it might be that the substance is the parts used to make the show, and the style is how those parts are used. Confused understanding me yet?

     So with the definition out of the way (cough), let me ask you a question, much like I did with my Journey and Destination post: "which of the two (style or substance) is more important?" Only, unlike the other post, this one has a more definite answer. Since this is a little harder to explain than bodies and endings, I'll just jump right in and start with some examples.

Unrelated eye-candy screencap that every blogger talking about Hyouka has used
     For anime, let's take two examples (and, please keep in mind that it's been a while, so I'm going off memory here): Trinity Blood and Fullmetal Alchemist. Trinity blood is a style over substance series, like Mononoke. In fact, 90% of the enjoyment I get out of TB is from the great style. There's a lot that contributes to it: the reminiscent architecture, the clouded, overcast skies, the conflicting politics, and the post-apocalyptic setting. But in terms of substance, Trinity Blood really does fail (or at least perform poorly). The characters, stories, fights, animation (in parts), and things of those nature are of a less than stunning quality, in contrast to the great style. That brings up yet more views: that substance is but a means of communicating style, or that style is merely a tool to further substance. However, I could write an entire post on how to define style and I still probably wouldn't reach a definitive answer, so let us stick with the definition we already have: that the style is how substance is used. Applying this, then, Trinity Blood is a series that has poor substance, but uses that substance very well, making the most of the material. On the other side of the spectrum, though, lie shows like Fullmetal Alchemist. FMA is what I call a substance over style show. It focuses on the stories, the characters, and important themes and conflicts that cause change in the people in the series. Of course, there is some style - the atmosphere created by the an alternate WWI/Industrial Revolution setting definitely contributes to the series - but it is dwarfed by the substance. Those elements are used well, yes, but the high quality of those elements makes it difficult for them to not add up to something excellent. Now, this example actually seems to run counter to my own opinion, since most, including myself, would agree that Fullmetal Alchemist is superior to Trinity Blood. However, what I'd like to point out is that I still enjoyed Trinity Blood enough to rewatch it twice, despite the substance being so poor. I did this purely for the excellent style of the series.

     Of course, I've also rewatched FMA, but the thing is that FMA is a really good show, while Trinity Blood is...not so much. But then, is it because of the substance that FMA is a better show? I say not. Take Seventh Heaven, for example. While I won't compare it with FMA, a lot of what makes Seventh Heaven good is the great style of the series. I mean, the dream setting is cool, but what was so good was the way that setting was handled. By now you may be thinking, "So, the style is only good for making bad substance sub-par to par?" to which I answer no. I'll explain this in a moment, but for now I want to look at another media form style and substance can be applied to: games (remember, that other thing I blog about?). Admittedly, with games the substance (in this case gameplay) has to be good, or it will still be a poor game no matter what. But even within this, it can be a game's style that makes the difference between a merely good game and a great game.

Behold, Disciples II
     Disciples II is a wonderful example of this. The core game aspects are not bad, in and of themselves. However, they are somewhat flawed and at times bland. The game as a whole, however, is still a great experience. Why? I say it's because of the style. Several things in Disciples II, from the ambient music to the nitty-gritty artwork to the dark and depressing setting all add together to create an excellent style, which in turn makes Disciples II a game worth playing. I mean, sure, Heroes 3 will probably always be a better game, but the style still took a product and made it better, perhaps better than just fixing the minor flaws could have made it.

Oozing awesomeness
     Once again, though, we have two products. One is less than spectacular, but the style makes it good. The other, however, has more focus on the substance (in the case of Heroes 3, gameplay). And in two times out of two, the product with substance is better. Does this mean, then, that mere style will never overcome substance? I disagree, and to illustrate my point, I want to bring up the 1997 game Fallout. Fallout should, by all accounts, be at worst a disaster of a game, at best a boring one. Glitches, a clunky interface, a less than spectacular combat system, lousy graphics (though I suppose at the time they were good), and unfinished/unused content left in should have killed the game. And yet, I consider Fallout to be my favorite game of all time (after Jazz Jackrabbit 2, of course), as do many others. The reason lies in Fallout's style, in its atmosphere. The game actually manages to make the clunky interface and even the glitches help your immersion, makes the most of the poor visuals by using them cleverly, and makes the unfinished content feel natural and realistic (I'll explain this in fuller detail when I review the game). The way the parts were used (i.e. the style) made the game a success. Only, this time the style didn't just make the game better: it made it the best (and really, I'm not the only one who thinks this). If we use Fallout as an example, then, the style of a product can make it excellent even if it has poor substance.

Fallout. Truly an amazing game.
     The subject of style can even be brought even into the blogosphere. Take, for example, the illustrious blogs 2DTeleidoscope, Listless Ink, and The Beautiful World. Between the three of them, these blogs have published a number of posts of sexuality, hentai, and other less than comfortable topics. However, because of the way (or rather, the style with which) they handled those topics and posts, the results are extremely tasteful and wonderful to read, in spite of the subject matter (seriously, go find some and read them). Since I don't want to put the spotlight on anyone, I'll shift this away from blogging, but it was just something interesting to mention and certainly seems to support my current theory. Better yet, let me relate this back to anime as long as the topic's in the air. Take a genre that is normally treated with less than enthusiasm, like a generic school harem anime. The subject of much criticism for its overuse and often boring/formulaic stories, harem anime are some of the most disliked in the industry. But, does that mean that harem anime can never be good? Of course not. Every anime has the potential to be good. Whether or not it actually will be is of course a different matter, but it has the potential. So what if someone fulfills that potential and makes a really awesome, engaging, tasteful, and overall well-made harem anime? Suddenly we have what many of us thought impossible: a harem anime that's actually good. What caused this? Well, the substance could have something to do with it. Better scripting, more interesting characters, a better executed story, and so on could all have made the show better. But that just gives it the potential to be good. Only if that potential is properly utilized, however, will it actually be good. Thus, going by the definitions we've been using, the style (how that potential is used) is what has a much bigger impact on the quality of the show. Tying all this back to the beginning of the paragraph, the style of the product (in this case anime) would turn the negative subject matter (in this case harem anime) into something excellent.*

     There's another point I'd like to bring up before I end this. So far, I've only mentioned shows that would be bad if not for the style. In other words, shows with no or little good substance to speak of. However, I have yet to bring up a poor show that has only substance and no style really worth mentioning. While you may disagree with the show I pick, please bear with me here. Remember, these shows that supposedly exemplify style and substance were all picked with my own opinions, so focus on what I use the examples for. Anyways, with the disclaimer out of the way, the series I'm talking about is none other than the wildly (or so I've heard) popular shoujo series, Fruits Basket. Fruits Basket is (remember, in my opinion) really a pretty bland series. I've always felt that it's too formulaic (not stereotypical, mind you. Just...formulaic) in the way it tells its story. Note that this is not a substance problem. The story and character are really not bad. What's bad is the way they're used; in other words, the style. The plot progression is as you'd expect, the characters fit the molds created for them throughout (i.e. they're mostly static), the music is kept to the background (as opposed to popping out and making a scene really emotional - most of the time, anyways), and the list goes on. Now, Fruits Basket isn't a bad show, in the same way Trinity Blood isn't bad. The style is quite poor, but the quality of the substance is enough to make it "average." I just wanted to show that the quality issue goes both ways.

I never had that look of wonder in my eyes while watching Fruits Basket...
     Even with the decent usage of shoujo elements, however, I feel that Fruits Basket is a less satisfying show than Trinity Blood. Actually, that's not quite right, especially because I try to make a point of not comparing shows. Instead, let me say I feel that a show all about substance is less satisfying than a show all about style. Anime (and to a lesser extent, gaming) is a visual media, and that allows for a freedom of style unattainable by any other media form. If there is a really, really good story, made with all kinds of plot twists and interesting character developments and all that, then tell me: why should I care about this being in an anime/game? If the story is that good, I can just read it in a book. Will the story be any worse? Well, no, not in a strictly technical sense, because the story is the same. But, will the way the story is told be any worse? That is up to opinion, but I believe yes. Or rather than worse, let's just say different. You can do things with visuals that words can only dream of. It's that saying "A picture is worth a thousand words" all over again. Of course, it isn't true all the time, and this isn't a critique of how books are worse than visual media. I believe they both have their place. But, bottom line; a really good story can (usually) be told equally well across any format. However, only in an anime (or a game) can a story be told in that specific way. No other media form can touch the potential housed in the style available to visuals.

     Anyways, now that you've gotten all this information, let me ask again. Which is more important, style or substance? As you've almost certainly guessed, I believe that the style of a series or game (but not necessarily blog) is more important. Of course, I won't say that the substance is unimportant. On the contrary, I believe it's remarkably important; there is simply no replacement for a good story. I just feel that it's more important for a series to use its substance in a way that only it can do. There's no denying the style is important, too. There's no replacement for the unique way in which a story is told. Overall, it would be ideal to have both, but as our harsh friend reality has shown us many times over, this cannot always be the case. We often get series like Trinity Blood that fail our substance tests but stay afloat with unique style. On the opposite end of the spectrum we have series like Fruits Basket, which are entirely substance with no (or negligible) style to make it stand out or be memorable. And so, if you were forced to pick between one or another, which would you choose (not Fruits Basket and Trinity Blood, of course, but substance and style)? Like I said, I'm on style's side, because I believe it can do so much more than substance. I recognize, though, that my focus is rather narrow, and I'd love to hear of conflicting examples you've run into. I'd like to believe that the one's I picked were representatives of the rule and not the exception, but I may be wrong. And, aside from that, I'm always willing to accept other viewpoints and ideas. So, what I'm saying is, sound off in the comments! Do you also think that the style is most important, or does substance matter more to you? 

*I realize all this is hypothetical because there actually has yet to be a really good harem anime (to the best of my knowledge). However, I believe my point stands. For example, take Sket Dance. The show, at first appearance, is little more than just another highschool comedy show. However, because of the series' style and the way it handles both comedy and serious issues, it becomes much more than "just another anime." And (though I admit I have yet to see it) I feel that Puella Madoka Magicka may be the same way, though I may also be wrong about that. Anyways, just some food for thought.


  1. First of all, I have to thank you for the compliments about our site. (I'm in seventh heaven right now, standing near 2DT and Yi...)

    Secondly, I think that there's a flaw in how you define substance and style. Style is indeed how the substance is the way a story is told. BUT the way a story is told in anime are the animation, the music and the voice acting, which you put in substance. The visuals and sound of an anime are what software is to hardware. Perhaps storytelling belong to style as well. They present the story/plot, characters, dialogues, they give them shape and either boost them or fail them- and that's still largely subjective. Then the other important thing you forgot to include is the emotional relation with both the style and the substance. That's what makes mecha a mostly male genre or some older anime fans show a preference in old school anime.

    Now to your question (defined though in my way). It depends. There are shows I've enjoyed for their style value, like The Sensualist. I certainly didn't watch this for the plot. It's an old erotica of a sorts. Usually though I prefer substance and of course substance I can relate to. Hanasaku Iroha was dropped because the visuals were outstanding but the characters, story as well as the storytelling itself (another part of style) were non-sense to me. The same goes for the latest Shinkai's film, Hoshi ou Kodomo, as well as for Mawaru Penguindrum, which although was perfect almost eveywhere, lacked for me relatability to my life and the notions weren't sth new for me... I also have rants on character development, story holes and coherence.

    About the anime you've mentioned, I both agree and disagree about Fruits Basket. You know where I agree. I don't think though that the substance was good. Tohru sucked as character and in the anime the plot was barely visible.
    Mononoke is a favorite of mine for two reasons: relatability in the Nopperabou ark and for its style that enhances the stories. Its really atmospheric and I love art nouveau and Ukiyo-e.

    1. Your a great blogger, you deserve it.

      Hmm...I think there are two sides of most "ingredients" of a show, one that contributes to substance and the other, to style. Let's take a random shot, for instance. The quality of the artwork in that shot (e.g. the level of detail, how embellished the backgrounds are, etc.) might be the substance part, whereas the angle of the shot and how it's framed (and the shade of colors that are used, and so on) might be the style. The same could hold true with animation. For example, *what* one chooses to animate might be stylistic (e.g. crows in the background), and *how* one actually animates it might be substantial (the crows could be animated poorly or with a high level of detail/movement/quality). For voice acting, what kind of emotional element do they bring to the script and character lines would be the substance (how "good" a job the VA's did) and what kind of depth and personality they bring to the character might be the style. The tough one is music, because the "quality" of the music is about 99% subjective, but that would be the substance (and the mood/atmosphere it brings would be the style). I do really like that software to hardware analogy, though. I don't know, it's all a very arguable definition, which is why I tried to just stick to the original one in the post.

      As for story*telling*, yes, I definitely agree that it's a part of the style. Looking back, the "better executed story" in my post was misplaced.

      The emotional relation is an extremely important part of how anime affects us (it's what creates the nostalgia factor), but honestly speaking, it's still a little beyond me at this point. I think the current extent of my ability to dig into style and substance. If I ever do "level up" in terms of my analytical abilities, though, I definitely want to look at how that affects us as well. :)

      Okay. I agree that how much you can relate to the characters is important. I think the reason I dropped Hanasaku Iroha, though, may have been due more to a lack of realism I found in the show (as well as some of the characters). Either way, it certainly is an example of how the substance can be important.

      And, as for Fruits Basket, I agree that *Tohru* sucked as a character. And I didn't really like anyone else (although I found the snake guy pretty amusing when interacting with the dog dude). But I thought the story wasn't done that poorly. I thought it made good use of foreshadowing and build up with the two main conflicts (the house head accepting Tohru and Kyo - that's his name, right? - the cat guy's transformation and reasons for banishment). Like I said, it's been a while, so my memory may be making it better...either way, it wasn't a great story, and certainly not enough to save the show from being average.

      Phew! Another awesome comment! I'm getting so much great discussion and so many wonderful responses today! Thanks for commenting and livening up the blog!

    2. Ok, I think I understand what you wanna say more now... The thing is that style is rarely very clear to most of the people. The style is felt rather than perceived- unless you are trained, know about cinematography etc. I believe style influences our unconscious more. So this is really a tricky question for most of the viewers.

      Relatability is very important and I wouldn't leave it outside, because it's like you conduct a survey and ignore a major factor on purpose. Reality, as you understand from your own reflections, is complicated. Asking black or white rarely reflects the truth.

      You write highly interesting posts lately. It's natural more people would comment.

    3. "You write highly interesting posts lately. It's natural more people would comment."

      Wow, thanks so much! That really means a lot to me!

  2. Unlike you, I think I mostly prefer substance over style. If we're talking about anime with good stories, I think part of the qualifications is that it's unique (most cases). It could either be unique in what it's telling or by how well it tells it. That's what gives it its originality that makes it something memorable.

    Though, I guess I do have my own cases where style over substance wins. I'm referring to studio SHAFT. Tons of people have come to love them because of their unique animation and atmosphere created in each series. Their series like Denpa Onna or Maria Holic don't have much of a story, but they have plenty of style and that's what keeps me watching. I guess their now most famous series Mahou Shoujou Madoka Magica is probably a good case where both style and substance merge perfectly to create one great series. Though, as you mentioned, that harmony of the two doesn't happen that often...

    Ultimately, I can only love a series so much if I'm watching it just for its style. I guess I just like to be entertained and interested in an anime before anything else.

    1. I feel like being unique in what it's telling would be substance. Unique in how it tells it, however, would fall under style (at least, that's what I believe). Though it's kind of tricky, considering that defining style and substance is so hard.

      Same here, there are several exceptions to my "rule." I was suggesting a "what if you could only have one" discussion purely for the discussion aspect. So it would definitely make sense for there to be exceptions.

      I feel can understand that quite well. In truth, the decision between substance and style was practically a coin toss for me. It's definitely true that being too "artsy" can make a show boring after a time.

      Thanks for commenting!