I took summer school classes between my sophomore and junior year of college, because why pay attention in class during the regular year when you have rap lyrics to write? I was supposed to get a roommate, but he never showed up. So, having the entire dorm room to myself, I created a biological preserve for pizza and anime. “Pizza and anime” is what druids will chant when I am inevitably resurrected in some kind of doomsday blood ritual, and I couldn’t be happier with that fact. I’ve done the calculations, and I’ve spent about a month of my life on anime.
Pizza IS life, so you can’t really bring math into that equation.
I don’t regret the 42,000 minutes that I’ve spent on anime, because, for the most part, it brought me joy. This is a column about why some anime rules. I’m not here to defend the ones about embarrassed high-schoolers or weird sex, because A) I can’t get into half of that, and B) the other half hits too close to home. But if you’ve ever been watching Gundam Wing and thought to yourself, “This is the raddest shit ever,” this column is a fist-bump to you. Enjoy it, because we all know it’s not something that’s going to happen a lot.
#5. Finding Good Anime Feels Like An Accomplishment
Subtitles and actually having to seek shows out turns off a surprising amount of viewers. A majority of the entertainment that we watch is only watched because it’s presented to us. It plays at a theater within driving distance or it airs on a channel that we frequent. It’s what often leads us to believe that the glut of movies that we watch now are worse, on a basic level, than the movies that we watched back in the ’70s. Not true. We’re still getting all of the good shit from the ’70s, like The Godfather and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Taxi Driver. That’s all still being presented to us at a fairly steady rate. But if we lived back in the ’70s, when shitty movies were presented to us at the same rate as the good ones, we’d probably be nostalgic for the ’30s. Not searching for things skews our idea of how our modern entertainment compares to past entertainment.
Anime, on the other hand, is very rarely presented to us, unless someone with money has decided that American kids will love it and buy its Nintendo 3DS tie-in fighting game.
The ones that we are presented with are usually the ones with the most digestible concepts. People get in giant robots and they fight. People own monsters that they use to fight. A guy writes names in a killer notebook and thinks. They’re the ones that require the least amount of hand-holding because, for the most part, the people in control of what goes on TV think that the people who watch TV are the dumbest creatures in existence. The same concepts over and over will eventually start to wear on a person. And since anime doesn’t have a real “golden age” on American TV that most people can misconstrue as something that was perfect, all you’re left with is a bunch of people that just really don’t like anime.
That’s why it feels so special when you find one that you really enjoy. I’m not saying that you can’t enjoy a bunch of shows about digital monsters.
You can and you will.
But there’s something about digging through the bowels of the Internet to find one with adequate subtitles that gives you a slight sense of vindication. You’ve gone a few steps further than what most people would do in their quest for entertainment.
It’s not that you’re better than them, though. Statistics about people not reading books after their time in school ends are often used by your parents’ Facebook friends as proof that people are just getting stupider, but when was the last time that a book was presented to you as something that you “must” do anything with? So much of entertainment is consumed only because it’s being tossed at our mouths. When you find a good anime after looking for one, it feels kind of cool.
#4. It Also Feels A Little Rebellious
Censorship is a strange, constantly evolving beast that combines the best of the world’s irony and moral guidelines and twists them together into something that gets all of those manga-flipping snakes off that monster-forging plane. The creators of a cartoon about people that solve their problems through fighting want their characters to throw a closed fist just as much as you want them to. But the reason that they refrain is because they don’t want to be slammed with the note “During the fight between Wolverine and Blob, we noticed that there was a child in the background. Could you put a mustache on him so that we’re not implying that a kid is being mentally traumatized by all of the violence?”
The first time that I ever regarded an anime as “different” from Western cartoons was when I watched Dragon Ball Z. What turns a boy into a man is a blend of puberty and experiences, but what turns a boy into a weirder, older boy is Dragon Ball Z.
I didn’t latch onto it as quickly as my peers, but in middle school, my classmates were stunned by the fact that animated characters were beating the shit out of each other and spitting up blood as if they were carrying it in their mouths all day, waiting for the right occasion.
You watch cartoons for years, and then, when you finally reach an age where everyone is telling you that cartoons are for little kids, along comes an anime like Dragon Ball Z to make you rethink your view on growing up “properly.” That’s where the reaction of “It’s not cartoons, it’s ANIME!” comes from. You’re right at the point of your life where everything starts to change, and suddenly your childhood starts fighting to the death with itself.
“Keep your cartoons off my goddamn lawn!”
I started watching anime again in the middle of one of those long-distance relationships that transforms from affirmations of “This is special! These often fail, but we’re different!” into a slog through an emotional quagmire that ends with one person wondering if they were being cheated on the whole time, or just in the last few weeks. After months of racking my brain and trying to better myself to the tune of “What Do They Want? How Can I Be More Appealing To Them?” I threw myself into something that would require no posturing or seriousness. Watching anime was a big middle finger to the idea that I had to become a different person because I was in college now, and in college all relationships should be serious, exhausting affairs where you take turns either demanding attention or throwing your hands up in futility. Oh, and speaking of things with a limited shelf life …
#3. That Some Shows Last Forever Is Actually A Good Thing
Let’s just get this out of the way: My favorite anime of all time is One Piece. For those who have never watched it before: It’s about pirates with special powers that sail around and fight other pirates with other special powers. My taste in anime now is largely the same as it was when I was first exposed to Super Saiyan. If it features punching that is, in any way, faster or stronger or weirder than how a normal person would do it, I will watch at least 20 episodes worth of it without fail. This line of thinking extends to other forms of entertainment, which is why I consider The Raid and The Raid 2 to be the finest films of the last decade.
Look at all that punching!
Here’s the “problem” with One Piece in the eyes of people who’ve tried and failed to understand anime: So far, there have been over seven goddamn hundred episodes. By the standards of almost anything aside from the soap operas your elderly kin watch, that’s an impenetrable fortress of backstory and catching up that today’s busy lifestyles just don’t provide enough free time to conquer.
Beyond that, there’s a notion that any show that goes on for more than an unspoken number of episodes is automatically a bad one, because having a lot of something good is always bad. This not only ignores Newton’s Law of Pizza but is also a viciously dumb way to judge the quality of a show. That something has kept enough people’s attention to compel someone to spend the money and resources to keep it going for an extended amount of time somehow automatically equates to a lack of quality is absurd. Sometimes it just means not everyone has found a reason to abandon it. Luckily, I started One Piece when it was at a much more manageable 400 episodes, and about a seventh of those episodes made me feel like I was trapped in some kind of classical conditioning experiment. The show became my roommate during those summer school semesters, and every once in a while he’d forget to shower for a few days.
But, see, the huge number of episodes in some anime series is exactly what keeps people interested in them. If you spend weeks on a show with no long breaks, you’re going to come out of the other end of that experience far more devoted to the eventual outcome of the series. The break between seasons of American television gives us time to cool off on shows. It’s this gap that allows stuff like American Horror Story to stick around.
That break is necessary for the show’s longevity. With that break, every new season offers at least some glimmer of hope that it will be better than the last. The trailer will look great, the buzz will be deafening, and then about four episodes in we collectively realize this season will be as much of a disappointment as the past few have been. If they were capable of producing something every week and maintaining the overall quality and just generally dominating their time slot for time eternal, they’d probably do it. That break, in the long run, makes audiences more forgiving of terrible shows and, even worse, less willing to admit when they’ve carried on for way too long.
If there’s a new episode to see every single week in the foreseeable future, it’s going to remain important to you even after you’ve binge-watched all of the old ones. There’s a stereotype of people who are into these “forever” shows, like anime and soap operas and pro wrestling, that portrays them as fanatical gremlins. And while I’m far too tall to be a gremlin (I’m more of an anime bridge troll), I can’t deny that the sheer amount of some of these shows has endeared them to me. In a few cases, I wish I could time travel back to 20-year-old me, smack his computer off the desk, and shout, “BLEACH IS NEVER GOING TO GET BETTER, YOU MONSTER.” And One Piece is really the only long-running one that I’ve kept up with to this current date, because I dream about time travel a lot. But I enjoy it, and I can’t deny the fact that part of the reason that I enjoy it is because it’s always been around.
#2. It Changes The Way You View Storytelling For A While
The worst thing that anime did to me, aside from leaving me with a serious misconception about how many magically charged kicks the human body can take before it ceases to remain identifiable, was that it momentarily made me think that there was only one really good way to tell a story. If a narrative wasn’t told in the form of huge, nearly impenetrable arcs, it wasn’t worth telling. For example, if I was going to retell the story of a date from the aforementioned long-distance relationship, and I was going to do it with what I’d learned from anime, the episodes would have been entitled as follows:
“Olive Garden On The Horizon! Daniel’s Early Arrival”
“Unanswered Texts! Daniel’s Iron Will!”
“How Was Your Trip? A Gate Of Pure Silence!”
“Where Is The Waiter? Bathroom Break Round 1!”
“Endless Soup And Salad! The Right Choice!”
“A Mistaken Choice! The Gate Of Silence Opens!”
“Trevor Stayed Over Last Night? An Unexpected Problem!”
“Daniel’s Swift Recovery! More Soup, Please!”
“The Waiter’s Final Assault! Daniel Ignores The Bill”
“Who Are You Texting? Daniel’s Sad Discovery”
“The Parking Lot Awaits! Set Sail For Dorms!”
“If I Start Now, I Can Make It Before Dark! A Goodbye To A Friend”
“Strength vs. Will! Daniel Must Stop Crying!”
Coinciding with feeling rebellious about it, watching anime gave me another reason to feel disdain for the shows that I watched when I was younger. Western cartoons usually didn’t have over-arching plots like anime does, and since I was equating anime with something that was more mature, I dismissed single-episode stories as lackluster and childish. You couldn’t tell a good story in the span of one episode, and to try meant that you weren’t living up to your potential as a writer. Luckily, I stopped thinking this way, because, holy shit, younger me was an idiot without bounds. But, for a while, it didn’t matter that I had the emotional resiliency of a doll that cries when you press its hand. I was watching one-on-one conflicts that sometimes took weeks to resolve. My metaphorical chest hair was a labyrinth. That’s probably why …
#1. Its Relative Obscurity Breeds Obsessiveness
Characters like Batman have been saturated into pop culture. Before we ever see an animated Batman or a Batman film, we know who the character is and a little bit about what he does. Anime, though certain series and tropes are widely known, hasn’t reached the level of something like famous American superheroes. When you decide to get into it, it’s easy to fall down into the rabbit hole of it. Most of the jokes and reactions and emotional cues are created to appeal to a different culture. You’re opening yourself to new stuff. And a lot of that new stuff is terrible. I did the writing equivalent of shrieking naked from the top of a mountain when I talked about One Piece earlier, but I can’t stress how much of the genre is abysmal.
Not One Piece, though!
When you first delve into anime, especially when you’re a teen, it’s also easy to get defensive about it. Everything is new and weird and you feel like you’re discovering unknown territories when you find a series that isn’t on a major channel. The only other people that seem to be fans of it are those that you meet on message boards, which creates a kind of exclusive environment. Since it hasn’t become a part of our society’s entertainment consciousness, opening a water cooler conversation with, “So, Samurai Champloo. Great, huh?” …
… will get you a reaction that is akin to the one that you’d receive by asking what part of the penis do you use to have sex, and what part do you whisper to when you need the inspiration to go pee. To many, anime is synonymous with the saddest parts of fan service and the most squid-like parts of sex, and those that enjoy it are the saddest parts of the squid.
Stepping back from anime after I’d been deeply into it for a while helped a lot when it came to identifying why I enjoyed it. I could finally get past the blanket statement of, “Anime is more adulty than cartoons, and so am I, because I am into anime.” I could finally say, “Yeah, fuck that show,” because it was no longer this special, lofty form of entertainment that, while I could grasp it, would serve only to baffle and enrage all of the lesser minds. It was just another genre, and like all other genres, it had a lot of faults and a lot of richness. I do not need to rush into battle to defend it whenever its honor is at stake. However, I do need to remove most of my clothes and sing the One Piece opening themes in Japanese. If my family calls, tell them that I have transcended again. They know the drill and will understand.
Anime fans can get pretty defensive, because they’ve invested so much time into their show. But even they can’t defend a karaoke version of a Nazi speech, as seen in The 4 Weirdest Anime DVD Extras (Are Weirder Than You Think). And what will they say when watching this wacky, gun-toting episode of Pokemon detailed in 5 Inexplicably Creepy Episodes Of Family-Friendly TV Shows? Also, why would there be guns in a universe in which your pet can shoot lightning?