Anime helped me cope with a tough year – and it also gave me a community

Anime helped me cope with a tough year – and it also gave me a community

“You should watch ‘Naruto,'” a friend said offhand last year. It was innocent enough, but when I was scrolling through Netflix in late 2021 and saw the yellow-haired kid in a flamboyant orange jacket, I decided to give it a shot. It was either this early Japanese cartoon or a new season of a semi-frequent dating show. At least that was how I reasoned it at the time.

A year later, I have become deeply invested in anime, watching all of “Naruto” and “Naruto Shippuden” in about six months, plowing through “Demon Slayer,” “Jujutsu Kaisen,” and about half of “Bleach” and “Boruto.” I’ve almost finished “InuYasha” and watched parts of both “Hunter x Hunter” and “The Seven Deadly Sins”. I currently have about a dozen more recommendations from both friends and family that will consume the next two to three years of my life.

It may seem a little strange for a Mexican-American woman of almost 30 years to become so passionate about something that is considered childish, but it has been incredibly difficult for me to reintegrate into society after the pandemic. People wear me out more than ever before, and the thought of coming home after a long day of social interaction to watch a TV show full of scripted conversations is not my ideal way to relax anymore.

A scene from "Naruto."

Instead, I prefer to disconnect from reality for a few hours at night by diving into the world of mythical demon dogs and chakra-laden ninjas. It’s funny because when I started telling people what I was watching, I expected to be made fun of. But so far it has not happened. If anything, people have given me unwarranted suggestions about their favorite anime. Their faces usually light up and we go through the list of anime we’ve watched to find common ground.

It’s comforting to know I’m not alone in using anime as a destressor. AnimeTok star Tony Weaver Jr. started watching anime before he understood what it was he was actually watching. He had found himself engrossed in watching “Pokémon” and “Dragon Ball Z” as a child, but it wasn’t until he saw the futuristic adventure series “Eureka Seven” that his passion for the genre really ignited.

“Anime drew me in because it gave me characters to lean on when I wasn’t strong enough to be myself yet,” Weaver told HuffPost. “When it was hard for me to make friends, I could imagine that I was a member of The Strawhat Pirates from ‘One Piece.’ If I needed strength, I could lean on characters like Goku. The long-form story-driven nature of anime really allows time for characters to grow, and I’m convinced that watching them grow during the journey helped me grow as a person.”

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“What makes me hopeful is that the newer generation of anime fans are more kind and diverse than ever. They are creating new norms for what an anime fan looks like.”

– Tony Weaver Jr., a TikTok star who covers anime

Weaver, who is also the award-winning author of the manga series “The UnCommons” and the first comic book author selected for Forbes 30 Under 30, has since turned his love of anime into a career with an entire TikTok dedicated to celebrating the genre and destigmatizing the stereotypes that surround anime fans.

“Things like misogyny, racism, and bad body odor have plagued our fandom for years, and I’ve seen them all,” Weaver said. “But what makes me hopeful is that the new generation of anime fans are more kind and diverse than ever. They’re creating new norms for what an anime fan looks like, and a lot of my content is focused on creating a safe place for them to do so.”

Like me, Weaver uses anime to de-stress. He leans on comedy shows like “School Rumble” or “Hyakko” in moments where he feels overwhelmed, but also finds hope for the future in the powerful stories. “Seeing the deep friendships has made me appreciate my friends a little more, and seeing characters break their boundaries helps me break mine too,” he said.

For Linda Dianne, watching anime was a way to cope with the events of 9/11. Dianne used to watch anime like “Sailor Moon” religiously, but found after the national tragedy that anime helped process the event.

“It was an escape and a safe haven, because if ‘Sailor Moon’ was on, all was safe in the world,” they said. While anime doesn’t necessarily help Dianne de-stress, they said it helps them cope with reality. “I feel like I’ve been able to use anime not only to explore world events, but also very heavy emotions, like grief. I think of life as a coloring book, and anime just helps me access more nuanced colors that I might not have had access to until I watched.”

Although Dianne and their partner currently watch “Dragon Ball Z” together, this was the first anime that made Zach Humphrey immerse himself in the action-packed and passionate world of Japanese comics. It was the first show that helped Humphrey find common ground with his older brothers. They loved watching the show together so much that they all styled their hair and pretended to go Super Saiyan while quoting the show.

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A still from Netflix "Sailor Moon Eternal."
A still from Netflix’s “Sailor Moon Eternal.”

Humphrey first started watching anime as a way to bond with family, but said it has since formed deep friendships and connections with roommates and even mentors. Beyond finding community among other wits — not to be confused with the problematic weeabos, who condemn their own culture and stereotypical Japanese culture — Humphrey said they admire anime as an inspiring art.

“Many people dismiss anime as a childish and melodramatic art form, but I find that these people simply do not engage with a rich art form with a long history,” they said. While they mostly watch anime now for a dose of much-needed nostalgia, Humphrey also finds solace in “idyllic” queer romance anime. “[They] show queer relationships in such a sweet and free way we don’t often see in real life.”

And it is this escape and hopefulness for the real world that captures the hearts of so many anime fans. For others, watching anime wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. Sara Delgado grew up watching anime unknowingly as a child. It was a standard cartoon morning ritual filled with “Dragon Ball Z”, “Dash Kappei”, “Captain Tsubasa” and even “Shin-chan Moomin”. As a child of the 90s, it wasn’t until “Pokémon” was released that she realized she had been a fan of anime all along.

“It wasn’t really a conscious decision, I just grew up with it,” she said. “It was on TV. I think people didn’t care at the time. It wasn’t until later that the distinction between anime and comics became more prominent, and so did the ‘otaku’ stigma.”

The idea that watching anime makes you some kind of social pariah took hold in the early aughts. Perhaps due in part to racism or a general aversion to things designated as nerdy, anime fans have had to navigate the delicate balance between their love of Japanese comics and societal expectations. Especially in the early aughts, a love of anime could be misunderstood and turn your destressor into something shameful for others. Now, however, Delgado said watching anime has become almost trendy.

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“I was at the airport not too long ago and I remember overhearing a teenage girl gushing over a classmate saying they were perfect because they watched anime. It’s not something I would have heard at the time — not to sound like an old soul,” Delgado said. “On the other hand, I think a lot of people still see anime as ‘less than.’ Some people don’t seem to understand that a ‘comic’ can have impressive storylines and be varied in design – never mind if they’re supported by colorful images or more grotesque images.”

The new generation of anime fans decry the oversexualization of female characters and the inappropriate conversations that have become an overused and unwanted trope in anime. These fans have sought to separate themselves from extremists who use their love of Japanese comics as an excuse to fetishize Asian people. They are actively trying to make this community better and create a space that is welcoming to all.

Yet, as anime fans continue to navigate the treacherous waters of enjoying something considered abnormal by the masses, they find solace in their passion. Delgado and her partner watch anime together every Saturday morning with breakfast.

“They may not be as light-hearted as the ones we used to watch as kids, but the nostalgic element feels comforting in itself. Whether it’s 20 minutes if we only have one episode to watch or a couple of hours if we need to catch up , for so long, we feel as carefree as we did when we were kids. That’s part of why I like it so much. I don’t think anime is therapy by any means, but just like any other type of entertainment, it can they can also be a form of escapism.”

Not only that, but the online community is so incredibly healthy. When you talk about your favorite characters together, delve into theories, or even bond over your shared love of silver-haired side characters, there’s a sense of togetherness in knowing you both enjoy the vast world of Japanese animation.

And for anyone reading this who wants to immerse themselves in this seemingly terrifying world, Weaver has only one thing to say: “Anime is for everyone. This community is full of kindness. So if you are looking for a nice place, [we’ve] got you.”

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