For what feels like most of my life, people have wanted me to watch and like anime. First it was one of my best friends in elementary school with her abiding love of Sailor Moon. Then it was my first roommate in college, the one who was obsessed with… um… well, frankly, I didn’t care and can’t remember what particular shows she enjoyed. We didn’t get along, and I have less than fond memories of her slurping ramen noodles and donkey-laughing at whatever show she was watching… at three a.m.
So I made it to adulthood without ever gaining a foothold on the genre*. The strange story lines, the bright colors and alien appearances, the focus on teens and children, the often unintelligible plots that just didn’t translate into English culture, let alone language—all of it turned me off. But when I met my husband, who likes anime and whose recommendations I have a harder time ignoring, I was systematically presented with a veritable universe of characters, stories, and artwork to try on for size. Drew knew I would find something to like in a category that contains more variety in stories and subject matters than most small-town public libraries, from historical fiction to sci-fi to middle-school drama.
After a few mishaps with giant robots and creepy schoolgirls, I set him a few guidelines, meeting at least two of the three following criteria:
1. The artwork needs to be pretty.
2. The cast needs to include strong female characters OR, at the least, the male characters can’t all be sexist a-holes.
3. A fantasy or fairy tale element is preferable, but not strictly necessary.
With the help of these guidelines, Drew introduced me to xxxHolic (pronounced simply, and oddly, “holic”) and Mushishi, both of which are fantasy, have a few strong female characters (though their portrayal isn’t always what I’d call the feminist ideal), and have a strong connection to Japanese myth and folklore, which I can dig. We watched xxxHolic from beginning to end, though main-character Watanuki’s shrieking hysteria nearly drove me away many times, and we made a good start on Mushishi, though an incident with an entire bottle of wine and an episode about an ear-worm monster ended badly and I haven’t *gulp* managed to return to the show yet.
Enter Revolutionary Girl Utena. We told our manga-loving friend Amy about my staunch indifference to most anime, and she told me I needed to watch Utena, because the show had taught her so much about feminism and had honestly changed her life. She thrust the DVDs into our hot little hands, and we gave it a whirl.
On its face, Utena sounded perfect for me. Female lead wants to be a prince (better translation: knight?) and sets out to rescue “Rose Bride” Anthy from what appears to be a secret society at their school. Sounds like it makes sense, right? Pretty straightforward girl-rescues-girl! Until girl seeks mystery prince, other girl betrays girl, secret society seeks heaven, other girl has incestuous relationship and her brother, other-other girl has incestuous relationship HER brother and, well, I have no idea. Remember what I said about unintelligible plots? This show is so incomprehensible, so opaque that even Drew eventually admitted defeat, and then only after arguing that it was all alchemical metaphor for, uh, something.
Whomp-whomp. Anime fail.
After that, er, mishap, we returned the DVDs to our friend, and nothing more was said about anime.
Then, last week, I came home from an errand and Drew said, “You know, I just tried an episode of anime you might actually like. It’s about otaku girls—you know, the uber-fans? Well, the main character is an otaku who loves jellyfish, and she lives with a bunch of other otaku girls. It’s sort of about how they feel like they can’t fit in, and I think you might actually identify with it!”
Hmm. When I type that out, it sounds kind of insulting, but it totally wasn’t. I swear.
Anyway, it sounded interesting, so we gave it a try and… *drumroll*… I loved it!
Princess Jellyfish tells the story of a group of otaku women who live in the lone holdout building in a neighborhood targeted for gentrification. The story actually manages to parallel the women’s feelings of awkwardness and isolation with their love for the “retro,” eccentric old building they inhabit, and their push-pull relationship with the outside world is crystallized in their reluctant friendship with a “Stylish” who has acceptance problems (and secrets) of his—I mean, “her”—own.
And how did it do with my criteria?
Well, it’s not fantasy, and the artwork isn’t notably beautiful, so it actually rather failed. But it tells (to me) a real story about real women, and I absolutely identified with the characters. My little rules ended up getting me shows that alienated me for other reasons, and because I was so bound by my own expectations of anime as a category, I eliminated whole swathes of stories and refused to acknowledge entire groups of characters.
So floored by how much I actually liked Princess Jellyfish, I wandered into the manga section at my local bookstore recently, and the ENORMOUS selection there completely overwhelmed me. Serials about Greek gods? Check. Romances? Check. Sci-fi epics about assassin girls? Check. Fairy stories? Check. Stories about anything and everything that might possibly interest me, told with every technique from gorgeous pencil sketches to comic book-style drawings? Oh yeah.
In the end, I learned my lesson. Anime is absolutely not a well-defined term that means “silly, garish cartoons about girly superheroes and giant robots.” Rather, it’s a medium filled with rich worlds, diverse characters, and thought-provoking stories. Check it out: you won’t regret it.
Just be sure not to set yourself any silly rules… and remember that not every “Stylish” is what he—I mean, “she”—appears to be.
*Anime is more accurately called an art form or style than it is a genre, but it’s very often CALLED a genre by folks who don’t quite understand what it is—like yours truly, until very recently.