Anime has helped me get through a tough year — and it’s given me a community too

“You should see ‘Naruto,'” a friend said casually last year. It was harmless enough, but when I was scrolling through Netflix in late 2021 and saw the yellow-haired kid with a flamboyant orange jacket, I decided to give it a shot. It was either that early Japanese cartoon or a new season of a half-hearted dating show. At least that’s what I thought at the time.

A year later, I got really into anime and watched Naruto and Naruto Shippuden. in about six months I’ve squeezed through Demon Slayer, Jujutsu Kaisen, and about half through Bleach and Boruto. I’ve almost finished Inuyasha and seen parts of Hunter x Hunter. and “The Seven Deadly Sins”. I currently have about a dozen other recommendations from friends and family that will take up the next two to three years of my life.

It might seem odd for a Mexican-American woman in her 30s to speak so passionately about what is considered childish, but re-entering society after the pandemic has been incredibly difficult for me. People wear me out more than ever, and the thought of coming home after a long day of social interaction to watch a live-action television show full of scripted conversations is no longer my ideal way of relaxing.

A scene out "Naruto."

Instead, I prefer to disconnect from reality for a few hours a night by immersing myself in the world of mythical demon dogs and chakra-charged ninjas. It’s funny because when I started telling people what I was watching, I expected people to make fun of it. But so far it hasn’t happened. If anything, people have made unwarranted suggestions to me your favorite anime. Their faces usually light up and we go through the list of animes we’ve watched to find common ground.

It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one using anime as a stress reliever. AnimeTok star Tony Weaver Jr. started watching anime before he understood what he was actually watching. He watched Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z as a kid, but it wasn’t until he saw the futuristic adventure series Eureka Seven that his passion for the genre really ignited.

“I was drawn to anime because it gave me characters to lean on when I wasn’t strong enough to be myself,” Weaver told HuffPost. “When I was having a hard time making friends, I imagined being a member of the Strawhat Pirates from ‘One Piece.’ When I needed strength, I could lean on characters like Goku. The long-form, story-driven nature of anime really gives the characters time to grow, and I firmly believe that watching them grow in their journeys has helped me grow as a person.”

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

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

Weaver, who is also an award-winning author of the manga series The UnCommons and the first comic book writer to be selected for Forbes 30 Under 30, has since turned his love of anime into a career, with an entire TikTok dedicated to celebrating of 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 firsthand,” Weaver said. “But what makes me hopeful is that the newer generation of anime fans are kinder and more diverse than ever. They’re creating new norms for what an anime fan looks like, and a lot of my content focuses on giving them a safe space to do that.”

Similar to me, Weaver uses anime to relieve stress. He draws on comedic shows like School Rumble and Hyakko for moments when he feels overwhelmed, but also finds hope for the future in powerful storylines. “Seeing the deep friendships made me appreciate my friends a little bit more, and seeing characters push their boundaries also helps me break mine,” he said.

For Linda Dianne, watching anime was a way of dealing with the events of 9/11. Dianne previously watched anime like Sailor Moon religiously, but after the national tragedy realized that anime helped process the event.

“It was an escape and a safe haven because when Sailor Moon was on, everything in the world was safe,” they said. Although anime doesn’t necessarily help Dianne relieve stress, they said it helps them deal with reality. “I feel like anime allowed me to explore not only world events but also very strong emotions like sadness. I think of life like a coloring book, and anime just helps me access more nuanced colors that I might not have had access to before watching.”

Although Dianne and her partner are currently watching Dragon Ball Z together, it was the first anime that prompted Zach Humphrey to delve into the action-packed and passionate world of Japanese animation. It was the first show that helped Humphrey find common ground with her older brothers. They loved watching the show together so much that they all gelled their hair and pretended they had become Super Saiyan while quoting the show.

A still from Netflix "Sailor Moon forever."
A still from Netflix’s Sailor Moon Eternal.

Humphrey initially started watching anime to bond with her family, but said she’s since formed deep friendships and connections with roommates and even mentors. Aside from finding community among other Weebs — not to be confused with the problematic Weeaboos who denounce their own culture and stereotypical Japanese culture — Humphrey said they admire anime as an inspirational art.

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

And it’s this escape and hope for the real world that captures the hearts of so many anime fans. For others, watching anime wasn’t necessarily a conscious choice. Sara Delgado grew up unknowingly watching anime as a child. It was a typical cartoon morning ritual full of “Dragon Ball Z”, “Dash Kappei”, “Captain Tsubasa” and even “Shin-chan Moomin”. As a child of the ’90s, it wasn’t until after the release of Pokémon that she realized she had always been an anime fan.

“It wasn’t really a conscious decision, I just grew up with it,” she said. “It was on TV. I don’t think people cared about that back then. Only later did the distinction between anime and cartoons become clearer, as did the ‘otaku’ stigma.”

The idea that watching anime makes you some kind of social outcast caught on in the early days. Perhaps due in part to racism or a general distaste for things labeled nerdy, anime fans have had to strike the delicate balance between their love of Japanese animation and societal expectations. Especially in the early hours, a love of anime could be misconstrued and turn your stress relief into something shameful for others. Now, however, Delgado said that watching anime is almost trendy.

“I was at the airport not long ago and I remember a teenage girl flattering a classmate and saying they were perfect for watching anime. I wouldn’t have heard that back then – 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 realize that whether it’s backed by colorful visuals or more grotesque imagery, an ‘animated series’ can have compelling storylines and varied design.”

The new generation of anime fans is decrying the over-sexualization of female characters and the inappropriate conversations that have become an overused and unwanted trope in anime. These fans have struggled to break away from extremists who use their love of Japanese cartoons as an excuse to fetishize Asians. They are actively trying to improve this community and create a space that welcomes everyone.

As anime fans continue to navigate the treacherous waters to enjoy something considered abnormal by the masses, they find solace in their passion. Delgado and her partner watch anime together every Saturday morning for breakfast.

“They may not be as light-hearted as the ones we saw as kids, but the nostalgic element feels comforting on its own. Whether it’s 20 minutes when we just need to watch one episode, or a few hours when we need to catch up, for that time we feel as carefree as we did when we were kids. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much. I don’t think anime is therapy by any means, but like any other form of entertainment, it can also be a form of escapism.”

Not only that, but the web community is so incredibly healthy. As you chat together about your favorite characters, delve into theories, or even share your shared love of silver-haired supporting characters, there’s a sense of togetherness knowing you’re both enjoying the wide world of Japanese animation.

And for anyone reading this and wanting to delve into this seemingly intimidating world, Weaver only has one thing to say: “Anime is for everyone. This community is full of kindness. So if you are looking for a friendly place, [we’ve] got you.”

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