The Art of Trash

One in a while I will watch or read something that I fully admit is objectively terrible, and the question I’m inevitably asked is: “Why do you bother?”. The easy answer, the one that is perhaps most used to justify the behavior of anyone born into the post-modern world of the 21st Century, would be irony.

The lens of irony that we use to consume media in the contemporary world comes in a few forms — it could be that, at least in the colloquial sense, a text is “camp”, where the text both incompetently made and yet so earnest in its production that one can’t help but be charmed by the text. The infamous Miami Connection (1987) is perhaps the greatest example of appreciating a film through this particular lens and there are many podcasts and webshows devoted to looking at movies in this manner.

There’s also the idea that a text can be “so bad that it’s good”, which has given birth to the concept of a “hatewatch”, where one enjoys watching something terrible precisely because it is terrible. For me, Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom was one of these shows, where the writerly smugness of each script threatened to infect the audience through the screen.

Of course, there’s also the “guilty pleasure”, where one enjoys a text despite knowing that it’s culturally accepted as “bad”. Music is the one medium where everyone has at least one guilty pleasure, that song that one is embarrassed to admit that they enjoy lest they lose credibility as someone with “taste”.

But from time to time, there are texts that don’t quite fit into the box of irony for me. The most recent example of such a text is what convinced me to take the time to reflect on how and more importantly why I will watch something that I know is terrible by any measure.

I’ll let Wikipedia describe Hundred’s plot:

Hundred is the only weapon that can counter the mysterious Savage life form attacking Earth. To become a Slayer who wields this Hundred, Hayato Kisaragi successfully enrolls in the marine academy city ship Little Garden. However he feels a strange yet familiar sense of incongruity towards Emile Crossford, his roommate who somehow knows him from somewhere. On top of that, as soon as he enters the school, he is challenged to a duel by the “Queen” and the school’s most powerful Slayer, Claire Harvey.

And, as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words:

Hundred, which recently ended is season (and is available on Crunchyroll), is the symbol of bad anime. It’s the kind of anime that undoes any goodwill that the Ghibli films might have accumulated to a casual anime fan who is completely ignorant of the trash that litters late-night Japanese television. The main character, Hayato, is meant to serve as the audience surrogate as they project their male power fantasies onto a character who is surrounded by women who happen to be inexplicably in love with him. For all the hand-wringing about the representation of women in “nerd culture”, I can only imagine this show — and countless others — causing rage-induced brain hemorrhages in those who see the importance of the politics of representation in our culture.

But I’m not here to explain the contemporary anime marketing machine, because that would lead to an entirely different discussion altogether. What I want to discuss is how I enjoyed Hundred in a manner that stems from something other than irony. That’s not to say one couldn’t watch this anime ironically, and certainly every season there is a bevy of anime detritus that one could watch with a mocking eye. But there is a special quality that sets Hundred apart from its peers that is almost intangible.

For me, it is distinguished from other shows of its ilk by its ambition. I’m not sure who to attribute this ambition to, since I don’t know anything about the author of the light novels that the series is based on (other than he clearly ripped off the equally terrible Infinite Stratos) and the series director, Tomoki Kobayashi, hasn’t really done anything that I would consider notable, but there’s a inescapable feeling of crass cynicism in the production that propels the show forward.

Let’s catalog some of the tropes that are in this show:

  • The main character, Hayato, has no actual ability, but is inexplicably the strongest fighter in this universe due to an infection that is completely out of his control. He is the generic nice guy hero who is everything to everyone, allowing the audience to come up with their own reasons for why he would be the object of so many of the female characters’ affections.
  • A female lead, Claire, who is essentially the oujo-tsundere trope made manifest. Her family is rich, she is the student council president, and she initially hates Hayato for daring to challenge her authority until she falls in love with him. Oh, and because this is anime, she has a female entourage who is in lust with her.
  • Another female lead, Emilia, who spends the entire series pretending to be male because the cross-dressing female character leads to many “hilarious” misunderstandings, including one in which Hayato walks into his room just as she happens to be taking off her clothes. Hayato saved her when she was young, which justifies her obsession with him. Oh and like Claire, she also has a female subordinate who is in lust with her.
  • Yet another female lead, Sakura, who notices Hayato after she sees him in battle. She’s an idol, because idols are popular in anime fandom right now, and in an amazing coincidence, she was also saved by Hayato as a child — although in a more abstract, psychological manner.
  • Hayato’s sister, Karen, is obsessed with her brother and doesn’t want to see her with any other women. Because if you’re going to go all the way with creating a text that aims to exploit as many tropes as possible, you might as well throw in some implied incest.
  • Hayato’s secret power is activated by swapping bodily fluids with someone who is infected with the “Variant” virus, which for plot reasons gives him a reason to kiss every female character in the show.
  • Villains who fight the protagonists of the show not for any ill-intent, but for justifiable reasons. Which, in turn, allows Hayato to save these villains and potentially add new love interests.
  • A child genius named Char, because reference.
  • A maid robot, because you can combine two tropes into one character.
  • A trapped maiden who is locked in a coma-like state.
  • A morally ambiguous shadowy figure who secretly manipulating everyone behind the scenes, ripped straight out of Evangelion.

When I look at all these components, and see them crammed into a 12 episode anime series, I can’t help but admire the fact that the producers of Hundred threw everything, including the kitchen sink, into making the most generically awful yet crowd pleasing anime that I’ve seen in a while. In my head, the people in charge of this show got together in a room and had a brainstorm session where they tittered as they added each point on the list above to a whiteboard. At the very least, there is a deliberateness to how the show is crafted that makes me believe that this entire enterprise wasn’t simply a happy accident.

In my mind, Hundred is one of a rare breed, where the people in charge understand that they are making something terrible, but do their best anyway because they have nothing to lose. It reminds me of the fabled fourth season of the terribly generic relationship sitcom ’Til Death, a show that no one watched and would have been cancelled if not for the inanities of studio deals and syndication numbers (interestingly, Sony would essentially save Community in the same manner, trying desperately to do anything it could to convince NBC and then Yahoo to pick up enough episodes in order to reach the magic number of episodes required for strip syndication). I don’t want to go into ’Til Death’s fourth season, as there is already an excellent AV Club article on its sheer insanity, but this is a show where the producers stopped caring about the premise of the show so much that they took the time to organize a Blossom (yes, that Blossom) reunion:

As the AV Club article suggests, given that the producers were burdened with simply creating content in order to fill out an episode order and that Fox burned these episodes off whenever they had room on their schedule because no one was actually watching the show, the producers essentially had free reign with the show and exploited that opportunity as much as possible.

In some ways, I imagine that is an artist’s dream scenario. Imagine you are given a mandate to produce something that exists only for business reasons. You know that no one cares what you make as long as it is 20 minutes long and can fit into a network’s broadcast schedule. Have at it! It’s the rare singularity where the bean counters and the artists share the same goal, and when it happens, it can lead to some amazing results.

Don’t get me wrong though. Hundred is absolutely a terrible show that offers nothing to most people. In the same way that there is absolutely no reason for anyone to watch ’Til Death or films like Undefeatable (1994) outside of some morbid curiosity. But there is absolutely craft in these types of productions that you don’t see in art where you can tell the producers are simply going through the motions in order to collect a paycheck. These are “bad” texts, but they are genuinely better than the truly bad texts that constantly litters our culture everyday. For example, I can unequivocally say that Hundred and ’Til Death are better television shows than Vinyl and the second season of True Detective. The latter are examples of art created by writers who are indulgent, stroking their own ego as they produce the most expensive unwatchable television ever (and essentially getting the head of HBO fired).

So yes, there is a lot of trash out there in the entertainment world. But once in awhile, you’ll find that diamond in the rough that makes you appreciate the art of trash.