A friend of mine asked in the comments of a previous post how I go about categorizing anime series before I've even watched any of them. Specifically, people who follow this website will be familiar with my First Glance posts where I make some pre-judgments about a season's upcoming anime and decide essentially how much energy I'm willing to devote to reviewing them. I decided that explaining this process would probably create enough material for an entire post on its own, and this is the result.
I think that pre-judgment of anything is generally frowned-upon. "Don't knock it 'till you've tried it" as the old saying goes. Unfortunately our fandom is such that there are too many TV anime, anime films, and manga available to us at any given time (legally and instantly) that most of us really don't have the time to consume them all and express a rich and fully-formed opinion of them. As a self-styled critic of the medium, I've taken it upon myself to give informed commentary for the (possibly imagined) benefit of others, but I think that there are a lot of people reading who don't have a clear idea of what that means. This is mostly my opinion and I don't speak for anyone else but myself, but as someone who juggles a completionist compulsion with a knowledge of what's a realistic use of my time and resources, I hope that this serves as sufficiently informative as to my review process and might help quell any suspicion that what I do does not, in fact, involve a great deal of work and a large chunk of my free time.
I think that the first thing that people need to understand about me is that I have a very complete, intimate knowledge of my own tastes as an anime viewer. That might not sound like anything special, since most people are familiar with the types of things that they like and dislike. While it's a bit difficult for me to put into words, I'm experienced with articulating my opinion in a way that's directly informed by the type of person that I am. I'm a woman. I'm older than the average anime fan (yikes). I'm sensitive (or try to be) to matters of social justice. I'm a wife. I have mental health issues (social anxiety). I like animals. It's these aspects of my person, and many others, that feed into how I react to media. I've spent months and years coming to terms with the ways that these parts of me affect the way I see the world and how they inform the reviews I write.
I'm also, and I say this without trying to come across as arrogant, fairly knowledgeable when it comes to my chosen fandom. Not only do I watch a lot of anime, but I also keep up on news and previews, and make an attempt keep my ear to the ground and stay abreast of fan reactions and buzz. If it's anime news (and especially news relevant to my interests), I've probably heard it before you get a chance to tell me about it. I also like to know about the people who make the anime I watch, and there are several directors I like to keep an eye on. This part of fandom certainly isn't my forte, but I'm getting there.
With all that said, how do I decide whether or not I'm likely to find an anime good, bad or mediocre?
It all starts with the announcement of an anime adaptation. I mentioned keeping up on anime news, and while I don't scour Japanese news sites and painstakingly translate snippets of news, I do follow several English-language media outlets where such things are announced. In any case, news of a green-lit anime series can come anywhere from a few weeks to several months before the series is set to hit the airwaves, and announcements trickle in all the time. For an example, check out this announcement that appeared on Anime News Network today (8/28/2012) for an upcoming series called Koutora-san. There's not much information here, just a piece of promo artwork and a blurb about the story, but it's enough for my brain to file it away for future reference. Even though these announcements don't have a lot of information, there's often enough that I can begin to think about whether it's something that I might be interested in. What I can tell in this case is that it's a romantic comedy story with sci-fi elements (not my favorite genres, but not my least-favorite either), and that the staff members mentioned in the article as working on the series have all worked on other series that I found underwhelming or outright didn't like (not a great sign, but not a total deal-breaker either). On the upside, the character designs don't look gross and they're nice and colorful. At this point, I would probably put this on the lower end of "Medium Priority."
Of course, that's not the last word by any stretch of the imagination. As it gets closer to an anime's premiere date, generally more trailers and promotional artwork will become available. Also, more details about the story emerge that might allow me to refine my opinion. Earlier, a teaser trailer was posted for one of the Fall Season's upcoming noitaminA titles, Psycho Pass. This is a series I've been interested in, not only because I think the premise of combining technology with psychology (and the social issues which arise because of it) sounds interesting, but because it's part of noitaminA, an institution which has generally featured a lot of anime I like in the past. On the other hand, this trailer for To Love-Ru Darkness, a sequel to an ecchi series which has had a couple of TV seasons and OVAs already, shows a lot of skin, telling me that I will probably not like it very much (as I did not really like anything else I've seen in the franchise). Obviously these aren't the last chances either of these series will get, but I already have a pretty good idea of how I'll be reacting to the finished products, even just based on limited imagery.
By the time I'm ready to make a "First Glance" post, I have access to the final "Seasonal Chart" for the anime season in question (the link will send you to a preliminary version of the Fall 2012 Chart). These charts are useful for compiling information and artwork from all the upcoming anime series in one place and help jog my memory about the series which have been popping up in the news for sometimes several months. This is the point at which I'll do my first categorizations. Things that I'm really looking forward to, like the aforementioned Psycho Pass, will generally end up on my high-priority list, while something like, say, a new season of Seitokai no Ichizon, an anime I found unfunny, gets bumped to the bottom (or, technically, the post for sequels). Once again, this is certainly not the final resting place of some of these series. In the past, series that I've rated fairly low have really surprised me (the dubiously-named Bodacious Space Pirates turned out to be one of my favorite series of the year so far), and those which I've been anticipating somewhat turn out to be not that great after all. But, as a rule, I tend to be pretty accurate in guessing, at least according to my personal tastes.
The final word always comes in the watching. It's here that I get a first-hand look at what all the news, information and previews have been leading to. I've gotten a lot of complaints in the past from people protesting my "first episode" method of reviewing, which is why I've altered my approach somewhat by incorporating follow-ups (usually two or three additional episodes' worth) into the primary review. Personally, though, I find that my impression doesn't change all that much from the outset. Despite arguments to the contrary, I cannot name a series that I've seen which has a terrible opening episode and which has somehow improved itself sufficiently to crawl back into my good-graces. Most of the time the reasons that I find an episode of anime to be bad boil down to issues of fundamental philosophy. If the first episode is terrible to women or other marginalized groups, it speaks to some very deep issues that sidestepping and ignoring the problem will not resolve to my satisfaction. On the same token, I find it uncommon for a series with an especially compelling opening episode to go down the tubes to the point where I'm angry to have recommended it. If that situation does arise, I usually try to take the time to do a full-series review so that I can articulate their problems (I did this with Deadman Wonderland and Kamisama Dolls).
In any case, I hope I've made it clear that my reviews are the culmination of sometimes several months of work and that my "pre-judgment" of anime isn't done based only on unsubstantiated assumptions. I realize my opinions are not to everyone's tastes, but really whose are? No two people have the same life experiences, after all. If anyone has any further questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer them. Otherwise, I hope this helps clarify some points and makes the purpose of the site more transparent.