Sometimes fans/bloggers/other writers will see me mention a Miyazaki movie or something and say, "Oh, you're an anime fan?"
Well, yes, I say. Haven't kept up with it much in recent years. But yes.
And in fact, I was thinking this week about how much Japanese storytelling has shaped my life. I became an anime fan in 1996, when I was 14, the same age as Sailor Moon, who happened to be on American TV that year. But really, it started before that, didn't it? It started with the Super Nintendo game Final Fantasy II. I knew it was Japanese but I didn't really think about it much at the time. After all, RPGs back then all played off of western fantasy conventions.
But even then I was starting to pick up bits of Japanese myth (kappas), visual storytelling culture (why does a bubble come out of a character's nose when an enemy casts a sleep spell on them??) and storytelling tropes in general (men with androgynous good looks? yes please). I was obsessed with Final Fantasy almost beyond any other obsession of my life. The amount of fan fic, fan art, and board games I concocted based on it...
When I first watched anime itself I thought it looked awfully weird, but then I quickly became so hooked I would watch anything I could get my hands on, even if it was episode 9-10 of something I'd never seen episodes 1-8, even if it was boring, even if it was unsubtitled. Anime was still a hot, rare commodity at that point, not as much so as it was for 80s anime fans, but still. I joined the Japanese Animation Club of Orlando, which showed an evening of anime once a month, one movie and several episodes of various ongoing series. Then you could check out a couple of videos from the library as well. This is where I first saw all the Ghibli movies, even ones most people still haven't seen like Only Yesterday and I Can Hear the Sea.
Oh, and the guy who gave me my application to join the club? I thought he was nice, although I didn't see him again for awhile because he had moved to West Palm Beach. That was 1997. Now Dade and I have been together for 12 years. Who knows where I'd have found a partner if not for anime...
My first job also happened to be in anime, although only for a few days. My sister and I worked a dealer's room booth for one of the vendors. I mostly handled the anime CD section because I could read enough Japanese to find CDs fairly quickly. We were paid in merchandise and worked about 10 hours with no lunch break. At one point the boss would send someone on a McDonalds run just before his employees started fainting. Good times. After the day was over, though, he would buy us all dinner at Kobe.
There comes a time in every anime fans life when they feel compelled to cosplay. This time also came for me too. First I concocted a half-assed Vampire Princess Miyu out of my karate gi, then I joined an actual cosplay group (with a mom in the group who sewed everything for us, SCORE) and it was Miaka from Fushigi Yuugi in her Suzaku no Miko costume, and then Black Rose Duelist Wakaba from Revolutionary Girl Utena before I finally just started wearing a dark blue school uniform to conventions.
Which, by this time, we were actually running ourselves. Dade and his friend Fred had organized Anime Festival Orlando, floating the first one on Fred's credit card, a wing and a prayer. People showed up and the convention still happens to this day, although we no longer have anything to do with it. I handled the merchandise table, where I could also make a few bucks selling sketches of people drawn like anime characters. At one point I drew 20 people in one hour.
The thing about being an anime fan that I find so fascinating in hindsight is that it isn't uncommon to just plain get drawn into Asian culture in general. For one thing, Japanese culture begins to feel like a part of your life in a way no other culture does except whatever you grew up with. I studied the language, I learned to use chopsticks, I started seeing not just a man in the moon but also a rabbit pounding mochi, I ATE mochi, I bought Japanese fashion magazines and made my own strange fashion combinations, I learned about Momotarou, kitsune and tanuki, and who Nobunaga Oda was... The list is endless.
Japanese entertainment also tends to draw a fair bit from Chinese history and myth, so that can also lead to a fascination with and knowledge of at least some aspects of Chinese culture, so you start to also know about trickster monkeys, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei's oath in the peach garden, a variety of adorable little hats and shoes, and the sad, beautiful sound of an erhu. And my quest for anime stuff led me into Orlando's Vietnamese district, a part of town that we NEVER went to when I was a kid, but as teenagers we begged our mom to take us there all the time, which led to us getting acquainted with bowls of pho in Vietnamese restaurants with little shrines by the door, and spending time in Vietnamese markets, sometimes striking up conversations where we learned to use clever kitchen tools or how to decorate for the Lunar New Year.
I don't know if anime is like this for everyone. But it occurs to me that I ended up growing up with this other culture, one that I had no genetic claim to at all, one that changed everything about me--the foods in my pantry, the way I dress, the way I tell a story. I don't really have any deeply profound comments about this, but it strikes me as a good thing, a step toward a world that is more inclusive of different cultures and traditions, more open to new stories. I think that after I got into anime I became more open to everything...different foods, different music, different stories. I am grateful that I have both the western and eastern to draw from, a long history with each.
I've been thinking of this lately in particular, because after several years of running conventions and dealing with fans in a particularly...annoying way, at times, we were all burned out and stopped attending conventions, stopped dressing up, stopped, for the most part, even WATCHING anime. I never stopped reading manga, as I love that form of storytelling far too much, but I saw very few anime in my mid to late 20s. I actually felt kind of turned off from it. So many ornery cosplayers out there. So much bad anime. So many ornery cosplayers dressing up as characters from bad anime. I was tired of seeing white kids yelling "Chotto matte!" at their friends instead of "Wait up!" (come ONNNN), kids wearing Tri-Gun jackets at the local mall... I guess it's what everyone goes through when their niche interest goes mainstream, but it also felt kind of like I was just growing out of it, I guess.
But this year we started watching the original Gundam series, a classic older than I am, and I have to admit, I fell in love with it all over again. I always though Gundam was about giant robots in space, but it's really about war--capturing so well how war can seem utterly futile, destructive and horrible, yet inevitable, important and sometimes even necessary all at once. It's good stuff. Although it is also about giant robots in space. And I think that's one of the best things about anime--it can be so unabashedly commercial and yet so deeply profound, all at once.
And now? I really want some Vietnamese food. Damn.