So overall, the notion that you don’t need to spend a lot of time learning the background genre before touching the deconstructions doesn’t tend to go down too well. Nothing new there, of course. And also predictably, since I’m pretty much in the habit of only bothering with the exceptions, I’d like to go over some thoughts on the matter.
There are two arguments I consider worth paying any attention to out of the mass of them. Firstly, there’s “you won’t enjoy the deconstruction as much as if you knew what was going on.” Let’s take a closer look at this. Why exactly does knowing the background result in such amazingly better results? Well, for one, there are explicit references to other specific things. For instance, in Watchmen, there’s a distinct moment in the trailer where you’re supposed to notice how alike to Batman Night Owl is. This gives you a little thrill of “hey! I got that! I know what’s going on!” This is nice, except when you instead interpret on an intuitive level as a rip-off rather than a homage. But even on the positive side, it’s just not that great. Oh, you get to get more references? Woop-de-doo, good for you.
I think the deeper reason for getting more out of it is the subversiveness. After experiencing a sufficiently large quantity of a genre, you start to get very familiar with certain things it will do. By subverting those expectations, a good deconstruction can make you think about what’s going on. For instance, Evangelion has the main character go up against an enemy in a classic “chosen one realises his power” arrangement. And the result is, well. Deconstructive, to say the least. There are two problems though. Firstly, a lot of tropes are more universal than their genre. Yes, there’s stuff you’d only notice was strange if you were a mecha fan beforehand. There’s also a large middle ground of stuff you only need a passing familiarity with the genre to grasp – like the Evas’ biological nature. So overall, being a fan only gains you the subtlest stuff.
More importantly, though, look at what the familiarity-first argument is asking: it’s saying you should consume a certain genre to the point of predictability and even boredom just so you can get the thrill of taking it apart! If you enjoy a genre for its own sake, fine, but typically you’ll have already consumed a lot of it if you enjoy it (weirdly enough). A lot of the reason to watch only deconstructive pieces in a genre is because you don’t typically like the genre, but find that removing or subverting a lot of the ordinary elements of that genre makes it a lot more fun. For instance, FLCL removes pretty much the entire plot, runtime, visual continuity and budget. Ha, okay, but seriously: deconstructions also tend to be much shorter. Madoka runs up 6 hours; Cardcaptor Sakura about five times that (if you watch it “efficiently”). So why should you choke down litres of a genre you’re tepid about just to enjoy a sip of the subversiveness?
The second reasonable argument is “watching the deconstruction will damage your appreciation of the actual genre.” On the one hand: yes, maybe it will. But watching Garden of Words might damage your appreciation of all other animated works forever: it’s still worth doing because it’s amazing. And, well, I say maybe. I’ve read nearly all of Discworld and, you know what, regular fantasy fiction wasn’t destroyed for me. I still love it! I still like superhero stories after Watchmen, Kick-Ass and Worm. And I didn’t read comics as a kid: I loved the deconstructions first. Overall, I think I can declare this argument simply false. It’s worth noting that Madoka might be a special case: it’s known to be pretty brutally violent in a genre composed primarily of sunshine and rainbows. That might be sufficient to actually damage one’s later appreciation.
Speaking not just for myself, though, we again come to the problem that there might never have been any potential for later appreciation. If there wasn’t – if you were simply never going to like the standard-issue magical girl anime (and they are pretty standard-issue) – then there’s no harm in not bothering with them. And this brings up what I consider the strongest argument: seeing something taken apart on a grand level can be the most effective possible introduction to a genre. Even if you don’t end up wanting more, you get to see the most you possibly could have done. Ultimately, the choice may be between seeing a short, sharp, introspective look at a genre through the lens of experience, or not engaging with it at all because watching a huge quantity of ‘prerequisite’ just isn’t appealing. And I for one hope you choose to try out something new when given that choice.