How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Watch Anime

Once upon a time, when I was a child, I had dinner at a friend’s house. I don’t remember the friend. All I remember is that their parents served up something they called goulash, but was in reality a distressing mixture of greasy noodles, watery sloppy joe mix and, perhaps, a can of stewed tomatoes. It was disgusting. I hated it. It wasn’t like I was a picky eater or a pint-sized gourmand! We ate very cheap and unfancy foods in my family. This particular meal was especially terrible.

Although I didn’t know it at the time—this is important—it bore no resemblance whatsoever to actual goulash. There was no paprika anywhere near that meal. Not even the wispiest ghost of old Hungary had ever haunted its presence.

But for many years, I heard the word goulash, remembered that meal, and knew, without a doubt, that all goulash was terrible. I was well into adulthood before I saw a recipe for proper goulash and thought, “Huh. Maybe those people were just appallingly shitty cooks.

The point is: I have a history of this sort of behavior, and it explains why I didn’t start watching anime until I was in my forties.

People have been trying to get me to watch anime my entire life. I’m a geek who has lived a geek life surrounded by geeks, after all. I never hated the idea of anime or anything, but somebody once made me watch some gross schoolgirl harem thing that was so terrible it scared me off for years.  Because of that show, when people recommended anime to me, I always replied, “I tried it. I didn’t like it. It’s not for me.”

It didn’t help that it all seemed like a lot to deal with. Not the language difference—I actually prefer non-English shows because reading subtitles makes me pay attention rather than pretend to multitask—but the hugeness of it all. Anime is a vast media landscape that spans every possible genre, style, tone, and subject matter. A lot (but not all) is adapted from manga or light novels, and sometimes there are multiple adaptations and series and movies that span decades. Fans argue about all of these versions constantly: read the manga, don’t read the manga, read it in Japanese, don’t watch that version, no, don’t watch that version, skip those episodes, stop before that season, and so on.

It’s very daunting! When somebody says, “Watch my favorite anime!” they might be referring to a show about mecha, or ninja school, or high school romance. Or a blood-splattered gorefest filled with sociopathic schoolkids killing each other violently. Or a pleasant slice-of-life where anthropomorphic animals make Japanese dad jokes in a twee café. Or One Piece, which has nearly one thousand episodes and who the hell has time to watch one thousand episodes of anything?

When we get right down to it, it’s easy to find excuses to avoid trying A New Thing in our media and entertainment. We assume that if we didn’t like before, we won’t like it again, and that’s that. And there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this! Nobody is under any obligation to like—or even try—anything, even beloved and wildly popular things. Life is too stupid and full of pain to endure entertainment that doesn’t bring us joy.

But.

Sometimes we’re wrong.

We can change our minds. Our tastes evolve. We might have ridiculous reasons for avoiding something in the first place. Sometimes we have absolutely no idea what we’re talking about but believe it so fervently it becomes a foundational part of how we interact with pop culture. Maybe our friends wear us down, or the world wears us down, or we just want something different.

So I was having my morning coffee the other day, pretending to start work but actually fucking around on the internet, when I saw the recent post with the first pictures of the live-action Cowboy Bebop. I clicked on it. I oohed and aahed. I agreed when my friends expressed worry about the adaptation on our group text. I started making mental arguments in columns of “why it will suck” and “why it won’t suck.”

And some time later, long after my coffee had gone cold, I realized that I had finally, in the year of our ceaseless misery two thousand and twenty-one, at forty-two years old, become the kind of person who has really strong and heartfelt expectations for live-action adaptations of anime classics.

And maybe has some anime figurines on her shelves. Carefully posed in character.

And maybe, you know… Keychains. Stickers. Favorite theme songs. Opinions about the art styles of different animation studios.

It would have made sense if it had started with Cowboy Bebop. Over the years approximately one million people have said to me, “Hey, you’re a sci-fi fan who likes stories about ragtag groups of misfits in space, so you should watch Cowboy Bebop.” And I said, “Nah.” They persisted. I said, “Nah.” They valiantly did not give up. I kept saying, “Nah.”

Until finally I said, “Fine,” and my friends get the last laugh, because they were right.

So how do you get your most irrationally stubborn friend into anime? Well, I’m not sure, because what worked for me won’t work for everyone. The thing is, my rapid descent into anime did not, in fact, start with Cowboy Bebop; I was already well down the rabbit hole by then. Exploring a new realm of media and art is never an exact science. For all that our lives are webbed with inexplicable algorithms that tell us to watch The Bachelor because we watched Unsolved Mysteries, it’s not always easy to predict what’s going to be the right story for us at the right time. Sometimes the stories that dig their claws in deepest are the ones we least expect.

But if you want to start somewhere, you can try what my friends did, which was to declare, “We’re having anime night, and you’re making the drinks,” and let me mindlessly agree before I thought better of it, which is how they got me to watch Attack on Titan.

Look, this isn’t for everyone. It’s about traumatized and tormented young people surviving in a corrupt, hopeless society while giant monsters try to eat them, and usually succeed. The monsters succeed at the eating, I mean. The people don’t usually succeed at the surviving. Sure, there’s a lot more going on than that, but the spoiler-free premise is that giant monsters try to eat people. It’s bleak as hell, relentlessly violent, and wildly divisive, with deeply pessimistic views on structures of authority, governments and society, and human nature as whole. (Plus it has a super alarming fanbase!) Beloved characters die all the time. Sometimes you want to pause and scold the characters, “Doesn’t anybody remember that genocide is bad? Anybody? Hello?”

The pilot episode hits like a punch in the face, even if you have consumed enough alcohol to make the world a bit blurry around the edges, and leaves you thinking, “What the fuck…?” And then, “Did they just really…?” Then, “I have to find out what happens next.” Because if you don’t always want things to be nice, the bleakness, the batshit worldbuilding, the propulsive plot, and the nonstop and really incredibly cool action can pull you right in. It worked on me.

I’m not even sure I like Attack on Titan. But I find it engaging and fascinating, and it was the first anime I watched that made me desperate to know what happens next, and sometimes that’s all it takes.

***

 

But sometimes you don’t want to be reminded that everything is terrible. Sometimes you want to believe that good people can get nice things. And that brings us to Yuri!!! on Ice.

Also known as “oh, right, that gay figure skating anime, I’ve heard of that,” Yuri!!! on Ice is a note-perfect romantic comedy in twelve flawless episodes full of laughs and food innuendo and figure skating. Watching it is like cozying up by a fire with your most cherished loved ones to sip cocoa and chat about happy things while snow falls gently outside.

My friends (shout out to Leah and Lynnea, you jerks) put it on one day while we were getting ready to do something else, and they’ve been laughing ever since about how easily it drew me in. I’ve always liked romance novels, and this is a romance novel in anime form. It’s about two figure skaters—one after his career has crashed and burned, another at the top of their sport and growing bored with it—who become skater and coach, and friends, and find joy in their sport once again, and mentor a small angry Russian teenager, and fall in love. Everything about it is charming and smart and delightful, as well as very funny and beautifully animated. (The figure skating animation especially is so, so good.)

I watched Yuri!!! on Ice from beginning to end all in a rush, then turned around and watched it all over again immediately, because it was the first show that made me think, “Oh, oh, that’s why anime sometimes gives people stars in their eyes and fluttering in their hearts. I get it now.”

***

 

Then sometimes your friends recommend something to you, and you think, “Yes, that’s nice, I can see the appeal,” but you still don’t really know what you’re getting into until it’s too late to escape, which is how I binged my way through Mushishi.

It’s hard to imagine a story like Mushishi really working outside of manga and anime. It’s the story of a man who wanders around the Japanese countryside in some unspecified pre-industrial era, helping people deal with encounters with strange and unsettling little critters called mushi. The effects these mushi have appear to be supernatural, but the lore is clear that they are simply a part of the natural world that people don’t know how to interact with. A stranger shows up to help them, then he leaves again.

Every episode of the anime plays out the same way. There’s almost nothing connecting the episodes except the man and the mushi. The stories are often melancholy and strange, full of people baffled and grieving in situations they don’t understand, but it’s never bleak or bitter. We learn a little bit about the main character over the course of two seasons, but not much. There are maybe two or three other briefly recurring characters. We rarely see any of the world outside of small mountain villages. The art is gorgeous, awash with greenery and nature, to the point where watching can feel a bit like getting lost in a heavy, humid forest because you just stepped off the path for a bit, and now the path is nowhere to be found.

I’ve never seen anything quite like Mushishi, because I’ve never seen anything else that commits so fully to actually being what it’s ostensibly about: a meditative meander through a strange world, meeting people only through glancing encounters, with no purpose except the journey itself.

***

 

But, of course, sometimes you don’t want an untethered ramble through misty mountains. Sometimes you want characters and plot so well-crafted and tightly woven that it makes you weep with jealousy, and that’s how you end up watching Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.

Consult any internet list on the topic of Best Anime Ever and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is probably very high on it. I know that sort of praise can be off-putting. We all have kneejerk reactions to avoid something wildly popular and acclaimed because we want to be contrary, or we don’t think it will live up to the hype, or we don’t want to risk liking or disliking things that other people feel very strongly about. It’s a common response. I understand. In this case, it’s stupid. I’m glad I got over it.

So this is the story of two teenage brothers trying very hard to fix a tragic mistake they made out of grief and desperation. It’s also the story of traumatized veterans acknowledging that they fought on the wrong side of a horrific war and resolving to do something about it. It’s about tearing down a fascist government. About the lies people tell in history, politics, religion, and war. About magic being both wondrous and gruesome. About fucked-up families and found families. It has a huge cast of fantastic characters—good and bad and everywhere in-between. It has both a serial killer and a tiny baby panda and sometimes they are in the same scene and it makes perfect sense.

I’m mad that I can’t write a story this good. That’s really the highest praise I can give it. I’m mad! How dare you, Hiromu Arakawa! How dare. While I was watching I spent a lot of time clenching my fist and grumbling, “Fine, fine, you were all right, this is great, it’s the best, ugh,” even though I was alone in my apartment with only judgmental cats for company.

***

 

Now it’s time for a confession. All of those shows appeal to my pre-existing taste in stories. But none of them were what got me into anime.

We live in a mysterious and chaotic universe, where happenstance and serendipity laugh at our mortal cravings for predictable order. In the face of such feckless cosmic whimsy, sometimes the only thing you can do is give up and admit you have no idea what you like after all, which is how I ended up as wildly proselytizing superfan of Haikyu!!

Two years ago, I would have agreed that I would probably like shows about monsters and magic and romance, even if I wouldn’t have actually watched them. But if you had said to me, “You’ll love a show about sports,” I would have laughed in your face. I don’t care about sports and never will. There are some things that stretch our willingness to experience new pop culture just a shade too far.

Remember: Sometimes we are wrong.

To be clear, I still don’t care about real-life sports. But, much to my surprise, I care very deeply about fictional Japanese boys’ high school volleyball. That’s what Haikyu!! is about. That’s all it’s about. Not “volleyball, but really teenage angst.” Not “volleyball, but really players’ home lives.” Not “volleyball, but really school and dating.” It’s volleyball. Every episode, every scene, every plot development, it’s all volleyball. The basic premise is that a very short but very determined bundle of human sunshine joins his high school volleyball club, where he has to learn to play well with a very talented but very grumpy teammate, but that description—while accurate—can’t even begin to capture why Haikyu!!, out of all the anime in the universe, was the one that finally sucked me in.

Over the course of the seasons, you get to know a huge number of players on numerous teams, and never once do you feel like anybody’s entire world is on the line. Because it’s high school volleyball. There are disappointments, setbacks, and disagreements, but they get over them. Nobody has to change who they are or learn bitter lessons; they just figure out how to be better versions of their weird, wonderful selves. The worst that happens is that somebody misses a serve, or jams a finger, or loses a match. None of it is forced to stand in for some kind of fraught metaphor for the larger social issues in teenage life. You can’t like Haikyu!! ironically or with cool detachment. That doesn’t work. It’s cute and it’s earnest and it’s about volleyball.

And yet. And yet.

It’s a bit of a truism that good writing can make any story engaging, and that is certainly true here. (I could write many pages about how well Haikyu!! manages escalating tension in an ensemble cast without ever utilizing angst or trauma. I won’t! But I could.) But there’s something else going on as well.

Over the past couple of years, there’s been a lot of talk in pop culture about stakes in fiction, specifically about the sort of apocalypse fatigue so many readers and viewers experience when it feels like every story is about the end of the world, but none of those stories actually mean anything. The abundance of superhero movies has certainly brought it into greater focus, but they were following trends that already existed. The fate of the world is always hanging in the balance. Even if it isn’t, in a more intimate story, the fate of a character’s entire world must be. Fictional detectives can’t just solve crimes; they have to solve this time it’s personal crimes. Decades of demanding higher stakes, higher stakes, higher stakes in every writing class have finally caught up to us, and now we all must come to terms with the fact that we have seriously wondered if Thanos erased half of our gut bacteria and athlete’s foot too.

I’m as guilty of stakes inflation in my writing as anyone, but I still feel the fatigue that comes with altogether too much world-shaking peril. In real life, alas, we don’t get the option of turning off the show to escape the peril. That has certainly affected our relationship with fiction, with how we create it, how we experience it, and the expectations we have for it.

On the one hand, I am glad that there is space in fiction for us to wrangle with our very big problems; I would not change that for anything. But on the other hand, I often find it difficult to find the emotional energy to care about escalating fictional stakes when the real stakes of real actions are constantly outpacing our ability to handle them in horrifying ways. I don’t know all of what it does to us to live in a reality that surrounds us, at all times, with terrible and complicated problems that we cannot stop caring about but also cannot individually solve. I only know that it makes us tired. So very, very tired.

And in that exhaustion, I’ve found, it can be a balm to care about something that has very low stakes in the grand scheme of things. To get into a story about something small—because small is not the same as insignificant or meaningless. Something that only matters as much as we allow, so we can let the emotions tied to it be as big as they need to be. Something that can be a gentle reminder that our capacity for caring might be exhausted, but that’s not the same as being completely numbed.

For me that reminder came in the form of shōnen sports anime, which served as the unlikeliest and most wholesome gateway drug into a new realm. I never would have considered it possible two years ago. But let’s be honest: There are a lot of things I never would have considered possible two years ago, and most of those things are very definitely on the “oh gosh wow I wish I didn’t know I have to worry about people being that terrible yet here we are!” side of the scale. Compared to all that, getting over an idiotic hang-up and finally giving a fair chance to a type of media I previously avoided turned out to be laughably easy. Why on earth did I spend so much time scorning something that can add a little joy to this bleak life? I don’t know. It was really quite ridiculous of me. I’ve learned my lesson.

So go ahead and tell me what to watch next. I’ll try to fit it in before the end of the world.

 

Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for children, teens, and adults. Her most recent novel is the science fiction thriller Dead Space. Her short fiction has appeared in ClarkesworldF&SFAsimov’s, Tor.com, and other speculative fiction magazines.

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