I was prompted to write this piece after watching the premiere of the new anime series The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki. This show is a spin off of my long-time favorite anime series, and this episode caused me to reminisce fondly about my love of the original, which I discovered soon after my foray into the world of anime.
For most of us, myself included, our first "romantic" experience is not something we look back on fondly: more often than not, the memories we have of it are painful, embarrassing, or at the very least, incredibly awkward. We've all been there. But I also had another type of crush as a teenager—which I am now able to look back on fondly: one for anime.
I know, it sounds dweeby when I say it like that, but before you laugh, consider substituting anime for something more innocuous—say, video games. I'm willing to bet that most of you, in fact, have fallen in love with something before, be it a band, a sports team, or a book that really spoke to you. What's different about anime, though, is that it will always be a relationship you keep tucked away in some corner of your life—keeping it all to yourself, or sharing it only with a group of close friends, sort of like the awkward memory of that that first crush.
Since graduating and moving out after high school, I've come to believe this type of relationship can, in fact, be more substantive and more meaningful in the long run than the pretend "relationships" people enter with one another when they're too young to possibly understand what they're getting into, and that most of us would just as soon forget. Anime, though, has reciprocated my interest with new shows: new worlds to get lost in and new characters to love. For years this gave me much greater satisfaction than the small handful of pitiful crushes I had as a teenager, without the awkwardness or pretending people do out of inexperience.
This is not an admission I make lightly. While here in America, such hobbies may be simply written off as "just a phase," or "weird, but ultimately harmless," being too outspoken a member of any fandom is highly stigmatized in Japan. They even have a word for it: Otaku. To many Japanese people, and not just adults, sadly, loving anime means you're automatically either a creep who fantasises over drawings of little girls, or at least someone who has not grown out of a childish hobby, depending on how generous they choose to be. This is truly unfortunate, especially for someone like myself. It seems the further I progress in my study of the language, the more I find myself avoiding the subject during classes. However, embarrassing as it might be from time to time, I cannot deny the influence anime has had on my personal life. To illustrate this, I will connect this back to the show which got me thinking about all of this in the first place.
I didn't just fall in love with anime, I fell in love with an anime: The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, a fantasy/slice-of-life series about a high school girl who doesn't fit in because of her interest in magic, the occult, and various conspiracy theories. Instead of remaining an outsider, she creates a club to investigate these things and drags along an eclectic group of people who all happen to have more to do with the supernatural than she realizes. This show, for all its eccentricities, really spoke to my own feeling of being a social outsider and answered it with hope: the hope that I too might find a group of people who share my interests. I know I'm not alone in this: many people I know have similar experiences upon watching this particular series. I believe the show owes much to its popularity to this effect.
I'll admit, it took me almost a full year before I felt comfortable enough to share my own interest in anime with others. When I did, though, it was the most liberating experience of my life. No longer was I an outsider to my peers: I belonged somewhere. It's all very cliché, but no less meaningful for it. My relationship with anime has continued to help me grow as an individual and has introduced me to new communities of people, both online and at both of my universities, with whom I can connect, just as the show's narrator's—Kyon's—relationship with Haruhi does.
I was sure that this experience was a meaningfully one for me when just this afternoon, towards the end of the premiere of Disappearance, I had an unexpectedly emotional reaction to a particular scene: a flashback depicting the first meeting between the extremely shy Nagato and Kyon, who helps her check out a library book. In the show, this experience becomes a treasured memory for her as she begins to realize her feelings for him years later. I was caught so off guard by my own reaction to it that found myself tearing up all the way through to the end of the credits as I experienced the feeling of falling in love with anime all over again.
I am fully aware that my love of anime is an imperfect one: it can never deliver what a proper, adult relationship can. And, like all imperfect relationships, it will ultimately leave me feeling dissatisfied if I expects more out of it than it can give. Thankfully, no love of things has to be exclusive. I happen to share my interest in anime with my girlfriend, but I know many people who do not and are nevertheless quite happy. This, too, is something one seldom learns in young-adult relationships, but that one cannot help but learn as a lover of any niché product like anime: not everyone is going to be able to feel that passion you have, no matter how many shows you make them watch with you.
If there were one takeaway message I would like to leave you with it would be this: to not judge others for their interests, no matter how strange (or childish) they may seem to you. The love of things is a relationships that, as I hope I have demonstrated, can be very fulfilling, and it is just one part of that person's journey—one that all of us take—towards building satisfying relationships in life.
Update: I have made numerous revisions to this article over the past few weeks. The subject matter is personal enough that I feel compelled to change it after every re-read. I cannot promise I will not do so again some day, either. For now, though, I'm going to try to leave it alone.