Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Screenshots from left: Spirited Away, Cowboy Bebop, Akira, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Graphic: Emi Tolibas.

Can a lifelong anime skeptic learn to love it?

Screenshots from left: Spirited Away, Cowboy Bebop, Akira, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Graphic: Emi Tolibas.
The College TryIn The College Try, A.V. Club editor Sean O’Neal makes a concerted effort to get into pop culture he thinks he doesn’t like but has never really given a fair shake, guided by the expert recommendations of fans.

How much of the stuff that you don’t like have you actually given a fair shake? I’m posing this question to you, the reader, as cover for the shame of my own answer. There are things—things with widespread, dedicated followers who can’t imagine not having them in their lives, who even pity those who have never experienced them—that I long ago decided are “just not for me,” without even bothering to investigate whether that’s true. How liberating it is to never bother challenging my presumptions; how freeing to my limited time and DVR space! My prejudices have saved me untold hours that I can then spend watching old 30 Rock episodes.

But then again… What if I’ve been missing out on something that might actually bring me joy, all because I’m too stubborn to really, truly give it a shot? It’s a nagging feeling that’s only gotten stronger as I’ve gotten older, and after more than a decade of working with intelligent people who are really into stuff I’ve spent most my life ignoring. Surely some of these colleagues have to be onto something, and very possibly they will die having experienced better stuff than me. It’s the pop culture equivalent of a midlife crisis.

And so, I’m issuing myself a challenge: I will give some of these things I only think I dislike [customary “New Column Fanfare”] The College Try. Each month—until I’ve fully vetted all my biases, or I simply can’t take it anymore—I’ll immerse myself in something that I’ve long regarded as “just not for me,” and give them the best possible shot to prove me wrong. A born pessimist and a natural quitter, frankly, I’m not expecting much. Still, I resolve to approach everything with an open mind, guided by the expert recommendations of friends, associates, and random-ass commenters, whom I will trust to give me an essential introduction to their passions, which I may or may not then shit on mercilessly.

Or maybe not! The most important thing is that I tried, as sincerely as possible. And in doing so, I’ll either discover something I unexpectedly like about something I only thought I hated, or I will forever absolve myself for continuing to dismiss it. I can either enrich my life or move on with it. How liberating that will be as well.

For my first undertaking, I’m beginning with something that’s arguably never been richer, more diverse, or more widespread in its popularity, yet which I have, for years, never given two fucks about.

The assignment: Anime

Anime is a medium, not a genre, so saying, “I don’t like anime,” is a bit like saying, “I don’t like magazines.” But let us at least agree that anime has the superficial trappings of a genre—a certain, recognizable look (there’s long been argument over whether The Boondocks counts as anime, for example), and a few tropes that have come to define it, especially for outsiders like me. Spiky-haired characters with illogical bodies yelling at each other about magic totems or weird animals. Skimpily dressed schoolgirls who alternate between displaying chipper, flushed-cheeked innocence and furiously shooting lasers from their hands. Somebody straps into a big robot or is revealed to be the ancient spirit of something or other or simply balloons to enormous size, then they begin rampaging through the city until they’re vanquished by more lasers and yelling, and everything wraps up with an incongruously silly pop song. Anime fans will tell me this is an unfairly reductive summary of a widely varied art form. But I’m only telling them what they already know: Anime has a branding problem.

Here’s another thing they probably know—a lot of that has to do with anime fans themselves. Granted, I’ve only known a couple of anime fans personally. One was a perfectly nice ex-co-worker at the video store, whose appreciation was just one part of an all-encompassing love of “geek” culture. The other was a roommate who wore Mandarin collar shirts and practiced tai chi in our living room; on the two occasions we dropped LSD together he insisted we watch Ghost In The Shell, patronizingly explaining to me how it represented the loss of humanity to technology. These were just two points on a vast spectrum of fandom—neither of them approaching its worst extremes, but not exactly selling it either.

I’ve also been on the internet, and I’ve seen the way anime fans talk to outsiders there—and especially to each other—with the kind of yipping, territorial indignation that can only come from having to preemptively defend a love of cartoons. I’ve listened to the YouTube rants and seen the inscrutable GIFs, stumbled across adult-man fights over “waifus” and blundered into the hentai hinterlands of DeviantArt. There is a reason that Google auto-completes “anime fans” with “are the worst,” followed closely by “anime fans are cancer.”

Google, pulling no punches (Screenshot)
Google, pulling no punches (Screenshot)

In the lull between Star Wars films, anime somehow became the lingua franca of not just the internet’s proudest weirdos, but also its loudest assholes—and that was even before it became all tangled up with the “alt-right.” Professed anime fans like Milo Yiannopoulos used it to speak directly to the lonely, 4chan-dwelling men who would make up the soldiers of their meme war. Yiannopoulos started out doing Digimon reviews for Breitbart and ranting about the wrong kinds of anime fans as a pretext to pivoting into an even more toxic form of obnoxiousness. And while widely punched white nationalist Richard Spencer has admitted he’s not all that familiar with it, he’s certainly embraced it as a marketing tool. He told BuzzFeed News earlier this year that “the aesthetics of the alt-right, I would say, could involve anime”—“aesthetics,” in this case, involving the online proliferation of anime girls wearing Make America Great Again hats that Spencer and his troll ilk believe constitute their cultural revolution.

“There’s a massive overlap between anime fans and the kind of people who never leave their computers,” anime fandom expert Lauren Orsini said in that same BuzzFeed piece. “And there’s an almost as big overlap between anime fans and people who spend a lot of time on online forums.” And within the musky shadows of this Venn diagram festers the growing “anime right” faction of shitposters. It’s why Twitter is now crawling with Dragon Ball Z characters spewing racist vitriol for lulz. It’s why GOP strategist Rick Wilson memorably shunned Trump supporters as “childless single men who masturbate to anime.” It’s the alienation from mainstream society proudly adopted by dedicated fans of any niche entertainment, magnified by a genre whose fans are innately on the defensive, amplified and mutated by the posturing and shit talk that cloistered internet forums breed. In the end, it’s little wonder that some of those lonely dudes lugging Sailor Moon body pillows could be persuaded to carry a Nazi flag.

But anime is not its fans. And besides, these days—as with so many former “geek” provinces—it seems like a lot of people are into anime, not just the socially marginalized. Netflix just debuted Neo Yokio, in which Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig and Jaden Smith roped in American stars like Jude Law, Susan Sarandon, Steve Buscemi, and Jason Schwartzman for their loving anime homage—even if purists are divided over whether it actually does so with any respect. Those same acolytes are still complaining about Netflix’s Death Note adaptation, carrying over their lingering disappointments with the Scarlett Johansson-starring Ghost In The Shell, and preemptively bracing themselves as J.J. Abrams starts working on a remake of Your Name (with the lingering threat of various other live-action anime adaptations still in the wind). Anime is arguably having its biggest mainstream American moment, arguably to the dismay of its diehards, and to not be even a casual appreciator is suddenly to be an outlier.

And yet, there’s still this lingering reputation of what it means to be an anime fan that causes most people to deny it in the cold light of day. As an example, while spitballing this column, I made a shocking discovery: My wife—whom I’ve been married to for nine years, after dating for nearly 14—cautiously admitted that she used to be “really into anime,” having spent some unbeknownst-to-me years watching the likes of Sailor Moon and Vampire Hunter D. It’s the first new thing I’ve learned about her in more than a decade, and the fact that she kept it a secret for so long—and clearly hesitated in confessing it to me now—definitely speaks to the stigma that still surrounds anime, regardless of its growing popularity. What a shame to love something so sincerely, yet feel like you can’t even tell the people who know you best!

Anyway, after I got done making fun of her, I realized that the fact that I could love an anime fan, marry an anime fan, and father potentially anime-loving children with her… well, it only confirmed that there’s nothing inherently self-defining about liking anime. Maybe I would like it, too, if only I saw the right stuff? So I polled my anime-loving co-workers, most of whom prefaced their recommendations with “I wouldn’t call myself an anime fan, but…” After letting them squabble among themselves for a bit, they designed this four-course syllabus for me, which I then assigned myself to watch something from, every single week. And so my anime education began. Maybe I would emerge a secret, self-loathing anime fan, too?

First course: Spirited Away

Spirited Away (Screenshot)
Spirited Away (Screenshot)

The most common response I’ve ever received to “I don’t like anime” is “Not even Miyazaki?!” There’s a transcendent devotion accorded the films of Studio Ghibli—and those of Hayao Miyazaki in particular—many of which are regarded as some of the finest films ever made, regardless of genre or form. We’ve written loving odes to all of them here for years. Yet because of my personal anime bias, I’ve never been particularly moved to check them out, which has left me more than a little lost whenever my fellow critics make reverent reference to Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, et al. So everyone I polled agreed: You need to see a Miyazaki film, dipshit. Of these, the consensus was that Spirited Away would be the most accessible to a newcomer.

A “fairly simple fairy tale,” as our games editor Matt Gerardi described it to me, Spirited Away concerns a young girl, Chihiro, who becomes lost in the spirit world, consigned to toil in a witch’s spooky monster bathhouse. Along her journey, Chihiro makes some friends: Haku, a reluctantly helpful boy with a swishy Emo Philips bob; No-Face, a meek wraith who, indeed, has no face, and who spends most of his time drifting around silently; a “stink spirit” who gifts Chihiro with a magic, vomit-inducing dumpling, etc. etc. Chihiro must contend with the witch, her enormous baby, and her benevolent, shapeshifting twin sister in order to recover her name and find her way home again. All fairly simple stuff.

There’s a hallucinatory logic to all of this that makes perfect sense as it unfolds, no matter how ridiculous I’ve tried to make it look just by spelling it out here. Spirited Away operates purely on an emotional level, abstractly capturing the terrors of a child’s coming of age—as the film begins, Chihiro’s pouting about having to move to a new town with her parents—by tossing her, Alice In Wonderland-like, into a grotesque world filled with unsympathetic creatures who are always changing. From her parents’ plot-goosing transformation into pigs, to the reveal that Haku is also sometimes a dragon, to No-Face’s sudden metamorphosis into an all-consuming spider monster, the film captures that horrible adolescent realization that nothing can ever stay. And it does so with a refreshing lack of mawkish sentimentality, as well as a surprising amount of creepiness for a kids’ movie.

I wish I’d seen Spirited Away as a kid. That’s impossible, yet I know I would have had a much stronger connection with Chihiro’s adventures and the way they change her from sulky child to strong, self-reliant young woman, the same way those ’80s Amblin movies resonated for me. As a jaded adult who is possibly missing a heart, however, I have to confess, I liked, yet didn’t love Spirited Away the way others seem to. I get why others are drawn to its ephemeral approach to storytelling—how its fairy tale ambiguity allows for a more instinctively emotional experience. But my tolerance for fantasy has, sadly, always been pretty low; I was the kid who got in trouble for telling my kindergarten classmates there was no Santa Claus. I found Spirited Away to be a delightful film full of magic and wonder, but I finished it feeling even more like anime might just not be for me.

Second course: Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop (Screenshot)
Cowboy Bebop (Screenshot)

From what I’d read, the overarching theme of Miyazaki’s movies—that love, friendship, and the indomitable human spirit always win out over the darkness—has a polar opposite in Cowboy Bebop, a more cynical series about emotionally (and literally) adrift antiheroes who can barely stand one another. That definitely sounded way more up my alley. Even better, its creator, Shinichiro Watanabe, has called Blade Runner the film that “influenced me the most as an anime director,” even recently creating the anime prequel Blade Runner Black Out 2022 as a tribute. Watanabe’s certainly not alone there; Blade Runner’s cyberpunk themes and future-noir aesthetics have echoed across enough anime titles to make his actual Blade Runner anime somewhat redundant. But Cowboy Bebop’s jazzy riff on hardboiled detective fiction, aching existentialism, and sci-fi dystopia makes it a more direct descendant than most. Like Watanabe, Blade Runner is one of my all-time favorite films; ostensibly I should find something to like about Cowboy Bebop as well.

I’m not the first to say that Cowboy Bebop probably bears a more superficial similarity to Firefly. It, too, is a sort of space Western about a motley crew of bounty hunter “cowboys” traveling planet to planet in a junker spaceship, eking out a tentative living on the edges of the law. And unlike many anime series, the show is primarily episodic in nature, with some overarching serialization about the various shadowy pasts of its main characters. I wasn’t all that optimistic about getting through all 26 episodes in a month, so Sam Dunnewold—an Onion video editor who graciously loaned his box set to me—instead mapped out a viewer’s guide: Watch the first couple, skip ahead to episode five (when its chief antagonist is introduced), drop into the two-part “Jupiter Jazz,” then skip ahead to the three-part finale. This would give me the quickish-and-dirty version of Cowboy Bebop’s ultimately tragic story, he said.

I made it to episode two.

Look, I’m in no position to judge Cowboy Bebop’s characters after only spending an hour with them. I’m sure that, like any good antihero story, the dominant air of disaffection, which comes off as slightly forced in early outings, deepens with its backstory reveals, and that the introduction of different members of its ensemble allows for a more diverse range of interactions beyond dudes grousing toughly and sarcastically at each other. But I was bored almost immediately. The show’s ennui felt like an affectation appended to some fairly standard sci-fi gangster stuff and drawn-out gun battles; the main protagonist’s suave, chain-smoking version of jaded “cool” felt like the exact kind of misanthropic posturing that many of those self-styled internet rebels adopt. It all just left me cold.

Sam told me that, more than anything, he loves Cowboy Bebop because “it’s beautiful to look at. I love the way it can encapsulate a whole story in a single image or the juxtaposition of two. I’m really into purely visual storytelling, and it’s great at that.” Indeed, Cowboy Bebop is filled with lots of purely visual moments, highlighted by languid pauses—long, languorous draws on cigarettes and slow walks through the shadows that allow its smoky jazz score to shine through. I can certainly understand why others would find that appealing, but I mostly just found it dull. I’m also not that excited by watching cartoons kick and shoot at each other. And I’m starting to think this lack of appreciation for iconography above all else might be my No. 1 hindrance in getting into anime in general.

Third course: Akira

Akira (Screenshot)
Akira (Screenshot)

This was the sole agreed-upon “essential,” though I didn’t really need anyone to tell me that. Akira’s reputation long precedes it—and furthermore, it’s often seemed to have the greatest potential to win me over based purely on its design, which mirrors that grimy-glittering, “Hong Kong on a bad day” aesthetic I love so much about Blade Runner. It’s also been cited as influential on works as disparate as The Matrix, Looper, and Stranger Things, and repeatedly held up as the movie most responsible for fostering anime fandom outside of Japan. Akira might be the one thing in this world that Kanye West and Richard Spencer agree on besides Trump. If I didn’t enjoy Akira, it seemed, I probably just don’t like anime.

I enjoyed Akira. What’s more, I enjoyed Akira for reasons I could not have predicted. I liked the look of it, certainly: the pulsing glow of Neo Tokyo’s skyscrapers; the little vapor trails of color left by its sleek, daydream-doodle motorcycles as they whizz through the endless night; the clean diagonal lines and sophisticated amber-orange hue of its color palette. But surprisingly, I also enjoyed the plot—which, again, doesn’t make a lick of sense. To sum it up with a log line I would probably scoff at, putting the DVD immediately back on the shelf: Government experiments turn a teen biker into a telekinetic rage monster, a mass of writhing flesh and adolescent sulkiness who threatens to destroy the whole world, and only his equally bratty friend can stop him. Also, there’s a terrorist subplot, along with a group of ghoulish, psychic ghost children led by one that resembles a tiny Rush Limbaugh.

Akira is a bloody, dizzying, often overwhelming mess. It’s part sci-fi dystopia, part “wild in the streets” teen flick, part apocalyptic disaster film, with dashes of Cronenbergian body horror, Heavy Metal psychedelia, and punk nihilism. Even after watching so many things influenced by it, I’ve still never seen anything quite like Akira. I found an anime I like—which, judging by the way it’s disparaged as entry-level in online anime communities, means congratulations, I like the anime Sex Pistols. Still, it’s a start!

Fourth course: Bubblegum Crisis

Bubblegum Crisis (Screenshot)
Bubblegum Crisis (Screenshot)

Whatever curiosity and cautious enthusiasm Akira stoked was immediately doused by this series, which Matt Gerardi recommended to me as also having a “Blade Runner flavor.” That was borne out by the intro to its pilot, at least—those initial, intriguing camera sweeps over its own post-apocalyptic future Tokyo, which even had a few of those Metropolis-like pyramid skyscrapers dotting its blipping, beeping urban night sky. I made it approximately 15 minutes past that, just after the Streets Of Fire-influenced sequence of its lady warrior rock band donning sexy stockings to perform a Pat Benatar-ish pop ballad, and right around the moment one of them catches her brother staring at her breasts.

Every cliché I’ve ever seen bandied around about anime—the empty hypersexualization of women, the bad music, the ludicrous pile-ons of weapons and technology in place of actual story, the WTF moments of casual incest—seemed to be contained in that very first episode, and I bailed on Bubblegum Crisis before those rocker ladies could even put on their mechanized exoskeletons (or whatever). I just felt embarrassed to be watching it. From what I’ve read, the characters are given slightly more shading in the 1998 reimagining Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040, but, eh, that’s okay. What Bubblegum Crisis taught me, like Cowboy Bebop, is that “Blade Runner flavor” alone isn’t enough to sustain my interest; no amount of futuristic sin city vibes outweighs feeling like I should close my laptop when my wife walked in on me.

(Post-script: I later found out Matt hasn’t actually seen the show himself, but rather recommended it to me “based on the kind of stuff I knew you were into.” I remain insulted.)

Extra credit: Paprika

Paprika (Screenshot)
Paprika (Screenshot)

Our internet culture editor, Clayton Purdom—who also dislikes Cowboy Bebop, Bubblegum Crisis, and most of what he calls the “glowing-eye, magical schoolgirl stuff,” and who warned me to “trust no one’s taste in anime”—gave me this last-ditch recommendation. Paprika is the final completed feature from the late Satoshi Kon, whose films largely concern themselves with psychological explorations of the boundaries between fantasy and reality. In other words, it’s about as far as one can get from giant robots and glowing-eye, magical schoolgirls. And it ended up being the part of this little experiment I enjoyed the most.

Paprika, based on sci-fi writer Yasutaka Tsutsui’s novel of the same name, concerns a female psychologist named Chiba who uses a small headband device to enter people’s dreams as her peppier alter ego, Paprika, to diagnose the sources of their anxieties. (Inception owes a lot to this movie, both conceptually and in visual flair.) When that device is stolen and used to bring a literal nightmare parade of tiny, chittering geisha dolls, schoolgirls with smartphones for heads, and various anthropomorphic appliances into the waking world, Chiba must find the “dream terrorist” behind it and restore the line between reality and fantasy that technology has collapsed.

Paprika is an alternately playful, deeply disturbing film, full of moments of comic surreality and out-and-out horror. And, a single scene of quasi-tentacle porn aside, there’s not much about it that feels stereotypically like “anime”—at least, as I once thought of it a month ago. It’s simply a vivid, imaginative mind-fuck; it’s the kind of movie that, when confronted with anime skeptics like myself, I could see getting all huffy about, lecturing them condescendingly about their unfairly reductive ideas. I’m happy to have forced myself to watch it, and—his warnings aside—I now trust Clayton’s taste in anime, at least.

Final thesis

I went into this whole endeavor with a narrow view of an incredibly broad art form, along with some prejudiced beliefs about the kind of people who like it. But I’ve learned there are definitely degrees to anime and to anime fandom—and that yes, it is possible to learn to like, if not wholly love, anime, despite years of being put off by its culture and clichés. I probably wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m now an “anime fan”—at least, not yet. But I am, at the very least, anime tolerant, bordering on anime curious. The fact that I now know there is a “kind” of anime I like is, in itself, a momentous reversal of opinion.

To that end, I’m interested in checking out Satoshi Kon’s other work, particularly Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress. Clayton also recommended the series Kaiba, which he says is similarly “a super high-minded and disturbing abstract sci-fi.” And I will probably (someday, particularly if my daughters express interest) investigate more of Studio Ghibli’s output—and if anyone has suggestions for a second at-bat there, I’d be happy to take those. Hell, I might even give Ghost In The Shell another shot, this time without LSD or my ex-roommate. Based on the results of this experiment, it’s unlikely I’ll delve into what I understand to be “classic” anime series like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, or Neon Genesis Evangelion; that said, I’m certainly open to anyone’s recommendations. Nothing with endless fight scenes, hokey folklore, or incest, please. So, submit all three titles that that applies to in the comments. Hey, I kid! We’re all anime fans here.

Next month: I will make an honest, though probably futile effort to get into Frank Zappa. If anyone has any specific suggestions for doing that (besides “don’t bother”), let me know!