Why Geeks Like Anime
(May 11, 2000)

Geek Sociology

Why Geeks Like Anime

OK, the title's a little misleading, but it sounds good. Let me clarify before I begin. When I say geeks, I'm using the term in its non-pejorative sense as a blanket term for all those good folks who dig various forms of speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, comics, roleplaying games, genre movies, etc.); we can talk about the legitimacy of that term another time. And when I say anime, on this particular occasion I'm talking about the subset of anime shows about teenagers in love or in search of love. And I probably have not found the all-purpose universal reason why geeks like anime. But it's still a punchy title; shut up and sit down.

So recently I found myself pondering why it is that I like teenage romance anime (for reference, I'm thinking about shows like Kimagure Orange Road, Oh My Goddess!, aspects of Ranma 1/2 and Sailor Moon, and occasional motifs in many animes which have teenage characters). Traditionally, I have molded myself in the role of the Grumpy Hardass Mofo, who is unmoved by happy romantic stories, finding them sappy, saccharine, unrealistic, and icky. Yet I found myself obsessed with Kimagure Orange Road until I'd gone through all the tapes at my local video rental place. Sailor Moon on the Cartoon Network became a part of my daily routine. What's up with that?

One possibility is that as I get older, I'm getting soft, and more in touch with my Inner Wuss. This is probably true, but doesn't quite cover it. Another possibility is that the Japanese just do these things better than Americans do. This may be true too, but if I talk about that, I'll have to discuss my issues with American media, and I don't have space for that right now. Instead, I have another idea.

In any culture, the "teenagers-in-love" genre is, in essence, a paean to youth. It's not supposed to be a realistic depiction of what teenagers in love are like; rather, it celebrates a mythical time of purer motivations and earth-shatteringly intense emotions -- before the first heartbreak, before caution gets banged into our heads by circumstance, before all the things happen which the parts of us with no instinct for self-preservation wish we were brave enough to ignore. It is a fantasy world where a lot of the things that make human relationships hard can be, for a while, ignored. It is very little like my recollections of what adolescence was actually like. However, fantasy worlds where the hard parts of life go away are an important part of fiction: martial arts movies allow us to put ourselves in the place of people who kick much ass without having to spend years in grueling training or having to let people hit us a lot, and teen romance stories allow us to put ourselves in the place of teenagers who are beautiful and brave and happy.

In American teen culture, there is a code word for teenagers who are beautiful and brave and happy: The Popular People. And many, many American teenagers spend a great deal of energy hating and/or envying The Popular People. For many, many Americans, a deep bitterness towards The Popular People lingers on for many years. This is, I think, overwhelmingly likely to be true among members of the geek population.

This is basically why I don't like American teen romances. It's hard to identify with someone who clearly belongs to an archetype which a large part of me still hates. In the right mood, I can enjoy an episode of Dawson's Creek, but I could never identify with any of the characters. I recognize the world in which they live, and the unrepentant nerdpunk in me still believes that as pretty white kids with problems, they benefit from a structure which shields them from all kinds of bullshit which most of the rest of us had to deal with. I can't force myself to take their little dramas seriously, because I can see the lie of the setting.

In Japanese teen romances, on the other hand, I can't see the lie. I don't know enough about what being a Japanese teenager is actually like; all I know is what I see on TV. If I were Japanese, I might see myself in the chunky dork who's always getting nosebleeds, and consequently have the same problems I have with American TV. Because I can't see the lie, I can enjoy the fantasy.

This principle is, in my opinion, why the Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie was not terribly popular in geek circles, while the TV series has a rabid following. In the movie, Buffy was a popular and beautiful mall chick who kicked supernatural ass in her spare time. In the TV series, Buffy is a beautiful complete social misfit who is doomed to kick supernatural ass and periodically has a crisis about it. Much harder to identify with the movie Buffy. If the TV series were about the Saved By The Bell kids with supernatural powers, it would be much less popular.

A Brief Footnote: One of the really irritating things about loan words is they often don't pluralize well. "Animes" just doesn't look right, but saying "anime shows" or "anime series" over and over again looks clunky. And I suspect that the Japanese plural for anime is "anime", which also looks funny in English. Also, if you type too fast, you might type "ainm" instead of "anime", which means "name" in Old Irish. Stick with me, kid, you'll learn stuff.

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© 2000 Michael Suileabhain-Wilson. All rights reserved.