Me At 22, Part 2: Anime and Mental Illness

Okay, let’s talk about this thing that was one of the biggest aspects of my life at 22. Let’s talk about how a president of a hip hop club went from DJing trap music to watching this:

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from K-On, which is my favourite anime

Coming into terms with, embracing, and exploring the anime world has been an incredible journey in these past few months. Having watched a lot of anime since last September, I’ve even heard complaints like, “all you talk about is anime” from my friend Chris. What may not be as obvious is that I’ve come a long way from watching anime for the sake of nostalgia to being able to consider it as an integral element of my life. This blog itself is a testament to that passion, and given this, I think I owe it to my friends to explain the whole phenomenon.

To be honest, it’s difficult to convey my fondness for anime because its personal significance is… well, very personal. I grew up watching anime so there’s that familiarity and nostalgia factor, and as I’ve said before, watching anime allows me to affectionately revisit the cultural attitudes and feelings of my upbringing. So yeah, some of it is definitely cultural, but saying this doesn’t really help anyone understand the extent of the emotional significance I have with anime.

When I actually meet people who watch anime, chances are, they’ll only be familiar with 少年 [shounen] anime, which is the genre of anime with action and adventure that predominantly features male protagonists. And you probably know them: Naruto, One Piece, Attack on Titans, One-Punch Man, and so on. This is the most popular genre of anime, and it’s probably the most similar to Western television shows. As for me though, I mostly watch 日常 [nichijou] anime (aka slice of life), which is where shows like K-On fall under the category of. It’s not for everyone, unfortunately, as Chris echos the general criticism that there’s no conflict and that it’s boring.

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I’m not even going to argue with this because honestly, much of K-On is watching cute girls drink tea, eat cake, and just goof around in general (it’s part of the sub-genre known as ‘cute girls doing cute things’). But on the other hand, people enjoy watching slice of life anime for its pleasant, comfortable, and heartwarming viewing experiences. I think it’s comparable to quietly enjoying a cup of tea for 20 minutes. But really, the strength of this genre comes from its characters, and in the case of K-On, its emotional climax at the end rivals just about any other story I’ve encountered.

Having said that, what initially drew me to K-On was its cute aesthetics, because I like cute things. And this was sort of a significant acknowledgement; being in contrast to the traditional ideas of masculinity, cute shows like K-On have allowed me to be able to embrace those aspects of myself that I wasn’t always the most comfortable embracing: being cheerful, cute, and silly. I mean it helps that I work and volunteer with children, and these attributes go together very well. Something I noticed is that a lot of adults, especially those who work with children, enjoy Disney films, and I think some of the appeal is the same.

Yet another reason why I liked K-On so much is because it’s about 5 girls in a music club. There were surprisingly a lot of parallels between running their club and running my hip hop club. And being a ‘musician’, I have to say that anime music and 声優 [seiyuu] (voice acting) work in general is super interesting. The style of music that make it to the charts in Japan compared to here are unimaginably different. Moreover, coming out of the lifestyle of drugs, and at the same time seeing the truth behind what is portrayed as a good lifestyle in hip hop, I just felt really sick of the derivative 808 trap sound. So me listening to anime music is partly the result of that.

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ganbatte = ~do your best

When I wake up feeling tired to go to work, in addition to drinking my matcha kale thing, I listen to one of these anime songs. And like, I can’t help but laugh while I’m biking to work because the whole thing is ridiculous–the songs themselves and the fact that I’m listening to it. The soundscape is just so different compared to my surroundings and context (a university campus) that it never fails to make me feel weird. But while strange and hilarious, the same high energy and cheerful attitudes of trying your best has helped me grow away from my habitually depressed mind.

Honestly, this 元気 [genki] (~healthy) spirit and the 頑張って [ganbatte] attitude in anime has been such a great reminder and positive influence in my daily life. In many ways, these aspects of anime–at least the ones that I choose to surround myself around–complements my Christian beliefs of joy, peace, love, and hope incredibly well. In fact, being a Christian might be a big reason why I love anime; all the positive ideals in anime like courage, hope, and justice might have seemed childish, but as a Christian, they’re not just optimistic, I believe them to be the truth in Jesus.

On the flip side, not all anime are nice and cheerful. In fact, most anime (even the slice of life ones) so often and so casually present the hardships of life. And this juxtaposition of cute characters being ‘real’ is… probably unique to anime. Take a look at the following screenshots/animemes from various anime:

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How do I say this… seeing these struggles and thoughts–whether the characters overcome them or not–have been immensely cathartic. Just in seeing their portrayal, I could feel that my afflictions are able to be understood by someone (at least by the author). It is because of this that anime has been so instrumental in helping me navigate through my journey with depression and anxiety.

Although this is probably true for any art in general–and also maybe obvious–you have to understand that many things in anime, or the way that anime communicates these things, are completely unique to anime. I couldn’t explicitly identify what these ‘things’ are, but I want acknowledge that anime has amazed me in their depth and intimacy of the emotions and thoughts that are explored, and thereby has given me a lot of opportunity to process many of my repressed or forgotten issues (many of which stem from my childhood, as they usually do).

Among my experiences through anime, one of the most significant journeys I went through is processing cultural alienation. Thinking back, my childhood feels like a different world. Even without romanticizing the childhood era, 90s Korea was certainly and literally a different world compare to my life now. And since this has shaped my identity, in everything from my personality to perspective, I’ve struggled with the idea that other people will never be able experience or understand what I’ve felt to the same extent. I’ve cherished these inexplicably deep and profound childhood memories, especially in connection to anime, but with it also came loneliness.

What has helped a lot was finding the anime community. Take the most popular anime movie of all time, Spirited Away, for example. What’s incredible to me is that the experiencing of its emotional profundity of childlike wonder is… more or less universal. Even if it’s not exactly the same as how I experienced it, I can now believe and trust that everyone gets it. This highlights one of my most cherished aspects of anime, and even with drugs, my favourite aspect of its influences was that it somehow connected me back to my childhood. It wasn’t inventing anything new, it was in reclaiming these lost or forgotten connections that made the whole experience so profound.

There is a distinction between childish and childlike. Childlike is the uninhibited boldness, creativity, playfulness, love, and trust. It’s a state of being that makes sense to be alive and proud. I had a dream the other day that made me remember this feeling, and it caught me completely off guard. It is at times like these that I realize that we often forget really important things, even profound things. But looking around now, everything I do including work, volunteering, art, and church is connected to realigning myself with who I am, who I was, and what I was made for.

My favourite type of characters in anime is popularly known as a ツンデレ [tsundere], which is basically the characteristics of someone who has trust issues. This character archetype is overused and misused in the industry, but when represented correctly, is an incredibly human character. These characters are often sarcastic, defensive, anxious, and frustrated by their own behaviors. I myself resonate with tsundere characters, often acting out of my brokenness to other people, and it’s such a beautiful process to see characters or people overcome their trust issues.

This year was great in that I almost never watched anime by myself, but with my roommate Edward. Sharing the experience of watching anime with Edward allowed me to build trust and the feeling of being connected. And honestly, half the fun was in making fun of what we watched. But what anime was also able to do was facilitating discussions about life’s various philosophies, ideals, pain, suffering, joy, and etc. In my experience, anime covers more ‘life’ than any other genre, especially the formative adolescent years. With this once again tying back to my upbringing, as well as being able to feel like Edward and I are on the same page through watching anime together, this was a very welcomed healing experience.

As my identity became increasingly defined by my anime fandom, my interest towards other things, including hip hop, naturally receded. I would opt to watch anime at home with Edward instead of going to a hip hop show with Chris. I wanted to watch K-On with Chris instead of The Get Down, which is what we used to watch just a summer ago. Given that hip hop is what brought us together first place, we kind of started to spend less time together.

I mean it’s unfortunate because embracing anime for all that it means to me has been a paramount process. And of course, I understand that not everyone is going to enjoy anime, but it sucks that I can’t share what I love with my close friend. What hurts though is the sort of condescending and weirded out attitude towards anime Chris has been showing. Even though it’s understandable, this kind of attitude is exactly what makes me feel alienated and ashamed of my identity.

So, we talked. But at the time, I definitely wasn’t able to do a very good job expanding on anime’s significance, so I’m hoping that this post will help. We shared some good perspectives though. Chris’ main criticism was that my anime consumption was excessive. And I mean, he wasn’t totally wrong. There definitely have been times when anime was a means of escape, and from his perspective, I certainly had been only talking about anime. Where I disagreed was him saying that watching an hour of anime everyday is excessive. Really, it should be no different from watching an hour of Netflix everyday, which is pretty common, or from engaging in your hobby for an hour of your day.

Bottom line though, Chris’ advice was this: it’s not about the art but how it helps us connect with people. He explained that the reason why he is the part of the garden club isn’t so much so because he loves gardening, but because it creates community and connections. It still sucks that he finds K-On repulsively boring, and that he thinks my hobby is weird, but I’ll have to accept it. And although the conversation was frustrating to have, I see arguments and conflicts as a necessary thing in order for people to grow together.

Two days after this conversation, however, God gave me some comic relief. After church that Sunday, I met two students from Japan, and I instantly connected with them. I looked at Chris and couldn’t stop laughing. As soon as I saw Sotaro, I was like, this was meant to be. I talked to him about Madoka, which he has seen, and drew the connection to Jesus. I was like bam, anime isn’t so useless. Anyways, since then, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Sotaro, watching anime, exchanging languages, music, cultural, and so on.

This bring us to the last story, regarding NHK. I had been meaning to watch NHK for a while, understanding its significance from such comments in GendoMike’s post. I mean just look at this amazing moment in history; back when Digibro still commented on other blogs, and before TWWK had watched NHK:

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The week that I watched NHK (two weeks before the aforementioned discussion with Chris) was brutal. As enjoyable NHK was, it was also very raw and deeply sad. As it dealt with what it’s like to live in isolation, with paranoia, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, I realized then that what I had gone through in my first year of university was hikikomori. And sure, I knew that I was depressed and stuff, but this was me to a T–it didn’t just hit close to home, it hit home directly.

The night I finished it, I was overcome with the familiar feelings of sadness, helpless, and wanting to escape. I didn’t even feel like watching K-On to cheer up, I just felt numb. Just… what was I supposed to do when NHK had revealed my own brokenness and insecurities that I had not thought about for a long time? I even felt frustrated in knowing that drinking nor smoking nor masturbating would really help me. So like… after wrestling with my thoughts and praying about it, I eventually fell asleep.

Even during the next morning at work, I couldn’t shake the heaviness off. I was plagued by the weight of this despair ridden feeling that I used to live with. When I was eventually able to make sense of my sadness, I realized that what I really wanted was to be able to console Misaki. So after work, I came home and told Chris (who was there) about my conflicting realization.

I was sad because I loved Misaki. She was a sweet, lovable, cute, and sad girl who I wish I could hug and tell her that everything was going to be okay. That there is in fact a God out there who loves her and that I would love to do with her. But I felt conflicted in wondering if it was unhealthy to feel this strongly about a character. Because really, people like her exist, as did I, and if anything, I should be concerned about them not this fictional character…

Chris, as usual, thought all of this was a bit weird, and didn’t really say anything in response. So I prayed. I wanted God to give me an answer. Is anime bad for me? How should I process these feelings? Just what should I do? I wanted to retreat to my bed and have a feels trip, but I had to get going to a long meeting.

As you may or may not know, I work with children on the autism spectrum, and that day was our monthly team meeting. As the child would be turning an adult soon, we were having a big discussion regarding his future. These aren’t always the most cheerful conversations because things can seem bleak in assessing and affirming the child’s limitations.

But what came out of the meeting was truly a Disney moment. In considering what really mattered in life, it was that “all we need is a few good friends”. In such circumstances and context, we all felt the validity and reality of that statement. There are a lot to consider and stress over in life, but really, life is satisfying with good relationships. It was like magical and encouraging, and it helped me to snap out of my depressed state of mind.

By the time I got home, it was already getting dark. I was starting to fall back into despair mode when I got a phone call. To be honest, I didn’t really want to talk to anyone then, but I picked it up. One of the first things my friend disclosed was, “I don’t like being alive very much”. In that instant, I was ready. I wasn’t prepared per say, but I was on his frequency. I felt strongly about this, and I could tell him, with genuine conviction and understanding, to live. I felt so heartbroken for him. But in that, and in realizing my heart to pour love into Misaki, I was able to let him know that he is loved.

It took me a while till after the phone call to realize what had happened. I got my answer, and shockingly so quickly. I kind of couldn’t wait to rub this in Chris’ face. And so, this day communicated to me that God can use me, and God can use anime. A week later, I watched Madoka with Edward on Good Friday.

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PS
This was obviously a celebration of anime. There are, undeniably, a lot of questionable aspects in anime, which is why I’ve been so intentional in researching the medium and the surrounding culture.

PPS

This post took me such a long time to write and I was wrestling with it for 2 whole weeks. In the end, I realized that 1) don’t try to be perfect but just enjoy the process and 2) not everyone will resonate with my emotional experiences, but still, sharing them might show someone that they’re not alone.

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2 thoughts on “Me At 22, Part 2: Anime and Mental Illness

  1. TWWK 21 Jun 2017 / 9:10 AM

    What a lovely post! I enjoyed it so thoroughly. It’s amazing how God uses anime…just simply amazing. That reaction you get from Chris is usual. I have an anime FB page for my church’s college group, and even among them (they’re mostly at that basic shounen level of fandom), they react like Chris does. But when someone gets it, really gets how anime can demonstrate these incredible truths to us, can speak to us, can help us grow and even help others do the same, BAM, it’s so powerful, such a revelation-type moment. I think much of that has to do with simply how humans are BUILT to respond to storytelling, to art, to music; it’s how God created us. Some anime episodes and movies can translate as modern day parables; as Christ spoke to the crowds in stories, anime can speak to us and demonstrate truth. But as Christ needed to decipher his parables for his disciples, there are those of us who must take anime and translate it for what it often is, what all forms are art so often are – humans reaching for an invisible God in the only way we know how, and God reflecting himself and his love in us and through what we create.

    P.S. I never finished NHK. It’s such a hard watch. I plan on making a “pick what shows that TWWK should watch” type of list for 2018, and I’ll add this among the choices.

    Like

    • simoku 21 Jun 2017 / 1:14 PM

      I’m so happy you enjoyed it! I enjoyed reading through your comment as well 🙂 Although I’ve learned that this medium isn’t for everyone, I’m nonetheless excited to share Godly values that are revealed through anime.

      Oh wow, I would have never guessed that you haven’t finished watching NHK. I agree that it’s a hard watch though. You know what I’ll be voting for!

      Liked by 1 person

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