Did you read Part 1? You should probably do that first here.
High school years: Introduction to JRPGs and more anime
Video games were an important part of growing up, but in 8th grade I played my first RPG (not including Pokemon, which I always thought of as its own thing): Lufia: The Legend Returns for the Game Boy Color. It was the first game I ever played to see a diverse group of characters that were more developed than what I’d normally experienced. The plot really interested me, and I couldn’t get over the fact a video game was delivering a much more interesting story than many of the recent books I read. Golden Sun for the Game Boy Advance shortly followed suit, and I was as easily impressed. And both of these games had artwork that was clearly anime-influenced. It seemed like such perfect timing that I was discovering the world of anime in comics, television shows, and now video games. The fact that so many of these characters were around the same age as me was also pretty nice, as it made everything seem more relatable.
When I began high school, I had some money saved up. I was going to buy a PSone, the smaller, cheaper version of the original PlayStation. Now that I was more interested in RPGs, I wanted to play the one that I’d been interested in ever since I saw a friend play it a couple of years prior: Final Fantasy VII. I thought the art style was wonderful, and I’d been searching the Internet for pictures to try drawing from shortly before seriously looking into it. The characters had those familiar anime eyes, and something about the art style really stuck out to me. (For the record, I’m talking about the artwork featured in strategy guides and in-game. Sorry Amano fans, but I just couldn’t really appreciate his work at the time.)
I was blown away by the story and narration of FFVII. Lufia and Golden Sun were one thing, but this… this was something else entirely. I don’t really want to go through a lengthy examination of my experience with it like I did with Evangelion in the last part, so sorry for any of you not familiar with the game. But let’s just say it was yet another thing that was blowing my teenage mind, another story that had connected with me during this emerging passion of anime.
Luckily, FFVII was not quite so old as to be irrelevant. I bought it in 2002, only five years after it was released. I’m guessing since a lot of people my age who played RPGs didn’t start until they were closer to being a teenager, many of them must have played it within a couple of years as well. The friends I began to make all had some experience with the game at one point, and I found a lot of common ground between them as we got to know each other. I had friends introduce me to other anime-styled video games, like Xenosaga and other Final Fantasy games, and others who simply knew a lot more about anime than I did.
I made friends with a clique of people who all had different shows and manga to introduce me to. One, if not the first of them, was The Visions of Escaflowne. Strangely enough, this was apparently a show on Fox when I was a kid, although I have no recollection of it even so much as being advertised. It was very much a fantasy story, and I remember really wanting to finish the rest of the show after borrowing the first three DVDs from one of my new friends. Unfortunately, he only had the first three, and I wouldn’t get to finish the show until I purchased a box set of it a year or two afterwards. I’ll always remember the intro for Escaflowne; it had a very sweet sounding, albeit cheesy, J-pop song that often got stuck in my head. But beyond that, the intro had some of the most beautiful background art I’ve ever seen in animation, anime or otherwise. Besides very stylized characters, anime also tended to have some amazing backgrounds that were extremely detailed and often very beautiful. That was something I’d start to notice as the years went on, at least for shows drawn with traditional animation. If you can stand the song, go look up Escaflowne’s intro sometime on YouTube and check out those backgrounds.
While some friends let me borrow shows, I saw others on Adult Swim. But I actually didn’t start collecting many anime DVDs myself until the latter half of high school, when I got my first job. Anime was pretty expensive; I’d have to use whatever money I received for Christmas or my birthday to pursue this growing hobby of mine. I was only able to buy a few whole shows before I had a stable income. One was Excel Saga, a parody of anime in general. It was a pretty crazy show, with a main character that spouted words and dialogue at about 200% normal speaking speed. Me and a bunch of friends thought it was really funny back then, but thinking about it now sort of makes me cringe. I remember not really having a great experience watching it again the last time I sat through it – and that was when I was still an anime fan. I think this would be an example of one of those shows that makes anime seem to have dialogue that’s sort of juvenile, but I’ll talk more about what I mean by that later on.
The other show was FLCL, or Fooly Cooly. It was a show that premiered on Adult Swim one week and… well, it was something all right. It was made by the same studio that created Evangelion, and both of them were mind fucks (and the character designer for FLCL happened to be Yoshiyuki Sadamoto as well, so that’s already a plus in my book). While Evangelion had a serious plot that at least flowed together, FLCL was just… nonsensical and cartoony. There was this boy who got hit by a girl riding a Vespa; robots started popping out of his head and he needed to fuse (?) with his own that kind of just appeared out of nowhere; he’s got this weird relationship between his older brother’s ex-girlfriend and the Vespa girl; some weird FBI-like agent with weird eyebrows starts getting up in the main character’s business… it’s a weird show. Admittedly, I read the manga first (which had some great art, by the way), and that was just as weird, if not more so. But if anime was teaching me anything, it was that weird and different stuff follows it, and I wanted to experience more if it. I found it available on DVD in 2003 (my sophomore year of high school). The thing was, it was only available on three separate DVDs at $30 each. (Guess where all my Christmas money that year went?) It was kind of absurd, considering it was only six episodes long with two episodes on each disc. But whatever. I bought it anyway. Because that’s what I did. I was so enamored with the world of anime that I would be willing to spend $90 on what was essentially a miniseries that was three hours long. But at least it would be a show I’d end up rewatching a lot, both because of my interest and because it was so short.
And strangely enough, the more I watched the show, the less random it seemed. Beneath all the silliness and randomness seemed to be a show comprised almost entirely out of metaphors. For example, at the core of the show, it’s about a kid growing up. There’s all this talk about baseball and comparing himself to his older brother who went off to play baseball in the US, and how the main kid never swings a bat but always carries one around. A lot of that translates to becoming your own person and taking your own actions. Stuff like this is sprinkled throughout the entire show, and back then it reinforced the idea of what a powerful storytelling medium I thought anime was. I’m not sure how much I’d like it now; it’s probably been at least six years since I’ve seen it. Maybe a revisit should be in order to see if it has too much “anime” in it to really appeal to me anymore.
While affording anime was an issue, it was much easier and accessible to purchase manga. At $10 per book and a generous temporary job of babysitting a friend’s younger brothers for $20-50 a week, I usually got to visit the mall once or twice a month and take a couple books back with me. Like DVDs, other friends let me borrow manga, too. A couple of the earliest ones I can remember borrowing were the above mentioned FLCL and Onegai Teacher. Both were very strange, but again, I was blindly worshipping anime at this point and was interested in whatever I could get my hands on. These would eventually be some of the first series I began purchasing, as well as the manga adaptation of Escaflowne, which had a dramatically different story and art style. Nothing like encouraging someone to buy more stuff by making two different mediums of the same story so completely different.
However, when it came down to manga, Love Hina was the series I’d gotten the most into and reread more than any other series. Unfortunately, Love Hina is the type of thing that I would be embarrassed to admit to liking in when I was an anime fan. It was a harem show, where there was a main guy surrounded by a group of girls that all fell in love with him. But just like when I watched the Tenchi Muyo series on Toonami when I was in middle school, I didn’t understand or even know what a harem show was at this point.
Love Hina, strangely enough, was one of the most recommended shows by the girls in my circle of anime fans. There was a nerdy, pathetic, yet adorable-ish main guy character, so I guess I could see how his clumsy shenanigans were appealing to girls.
But man… this manga had fan service. Lots of fan service.
It was a romantic comedy, and the inner romantic in me got all sorts of feels as I kept reading the story of a dumb guy desperately trying to get into Tokyo University because of a promise he made to a girl he liked as a little kid (and while I thought that was soooo romantic as a teenager, as an adult I can’t even begin to describe how obsessive and toxic this is, especially considering he doesn’t even remember who the girl is).
But when I try thinking of it as a good manga with a solid story now, all of the fan service kind of gets in the way of that. I mean don’t get me wrong, I was 15 when I started reading this and enjoyed the fan service back then. I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t. There was a hopeless romantic in me that loved the story and also a teenager with raging hormones that enjoyed the many panels of exposed cleavages and towels barely covering girls as they took baths in hot springs. It didn’t seem like an issue back then; this type of thing appealed to anime fans who liked girls, while the ones that liked boys had their own set of manga with handsome dudes wearing half buttoned-up shirts while caressing each other’s chests (I believe Gravitation was one of these that I saw a lot of girls reading frequently). I was learning how much more open Japan is with nudity (at least that’s what everyone told me), so it never seemed that weird to me. It seemed more like an aspect of the show back then, rather than the main focus. It was just, you know… another part of the world of anime.
But as the years would go on, fan service stuff like this felt more and more… awkward. I guess when I was in high school and all the other characters in anime and manga I was experiencing were around the same age, it was more appealing. But after high school, going into my 20s, watching shows or reading manga with a lot of fan service made me feel… creepy. When certain anime shows or manga put so much focus on sexualizing high school girls, you can’t help but feel like something’s wrong here.
It’s strange, because I legitimately had a lot of fun reading Love Hina as a teenager. But now I don’t think I could go through it again without cringing or feeling really awkward. Maybe, if I was extremely nostalgic, in the mood to get sappy, and could look past all the fan service, I would enjoy rereading a couple of volumes again. But honestly, even if I did feel like revisiting an anime I used to like, Love Hina probably wouldn’t be my top choice. I think I’d rather stick with something like Evangelion or FLCL.
But I can at least say, despite what it is, it’s pretty tame compared to other shows that came out in later years. (This isn’t an excuse for the series, btw. This much fan service of high school girls is still pretty messed up.) I think the most detailed bit of fan service was showing butts. Privates were always either conveniently covered or just not drawn (unless they censored it; who knows?). It may have been a little perverted at times, but all in all I remember it being cute and goofy enough to realize why all those anime girls recommended it to me in the first place. It was harmless enough. Somewhat harmless, anyway. When more and more anime started hitting store shelves around 2007, I began seeing more anime that seemed a lot worse. Like, a lot worse. One show even had a pair of panties included in the box set. (Just… why? Don’t answer that.) I at least used to love the story and humor in Love Hina enough. It seemed like it was more than just a harem series, it was a genuinely sweet, cheesy story with some fanservice. And geez, it even won some award for best US released manga in 2002 or 2003. Hell, it was even advertised in a Suncoast commercial, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? … Right?
Sigh. Does anyone else miss movie stores? I do.
Sorry, didn’t mean to go so off topic with Love Hina. But I kind of wanted to use that as a bridge to cross into an area of discomfort for being an anime fan. Whether it was something like Love Hina that had a lot of fan service or another show like Evangelion that barely had any fan service at all, non-anime fans found us pretty creepy when even the slightest mention of a sexual innuendo was heard or a naked body was seen.
I remember bringing manga to school every day to read in between classes or during downtime. There were a lot of instances of a classmate looking over my shoulder to see what I was reading, only to ask me if I was reading porn if the page happened to have something like an obviously exposed cleavage. It hurt when people kept pressing on that and making me feel bad. These books all had a T rating (for teens), none of it was actually porn. It’s not like I had a Playboy open. It’s not like there were all these anime girls completely naked with their legs spread open. It’s not like anyone was having sex. I mean, movies had fan service all the time! My dad is a big movie nut, and I don’t know how many times I walked into the room and there was some random nude shot of someone or an intense make out scene that led to two characters stripping and having fake movie sex. That wasn’t porn, so why the hell were us anime fans getting so much shit? It bothered the hell out of me.
No one wanted to know why we liked this stuff so much. It wasn’t about the sexy stuff. I mean, a lot of us enjoyed it back then, sure 😉 What teenager wouldn’t? But there was something so much more that brought us into this world. We loved getting into another nation’s culture through anime and manga, and I don’t know about anyone else, but I was really pissed all anyone could do was accuse us of reading a bunch of perverted comics.
Unfortunately, blindly defending flaws like this was something I would end up doing right until I realized I no longer liked anime. I was so mad that the adults in my life and non-anime fans in school would always either tease me or make fun of me for it, that I never really took their criticisms about anime seriously. They didn’t want to understand what I saw in it, so why should I listen to them? It’s strange, though, how I came to have the same critical thoughts about anime years later, and how I wished I considered them more when I was a teenager.
The first half of high school, despite being confusing as hell with the new experiences of being a teenager and finding my place, were made easier because I had something in the world of anime to connect to. Whether it was the art style, the stories, or the obscure humor, anime made me feel a little more at home. And while anime wasn’t particularly liked by a lot of people, I was lucky enough to find a group of friends that also welcomed it into their lives. They taught me more about the world of anime and introduced me to new shows, manga, and even RPGs. While many of these new things didn’t share the complexity Evangelion had, I enjoyed the different types of genres anime offered. Most of these friends would graduate as I entered the second half of high school, so I didn’t really have them around to talk anime with. However, I showed my closer friends some of the things I got into, and while they never got into it quite like I did, they enjoyed it enough, so I wasn’t exactly alone. I made a lot of good memories learning about the world of anime when it was still new to me. But the second half of high school showed I was perfectly capable of finding new shows, manga, and RPGs without the recommendations of other people, and it was at this point I felt like I was finding more of my own identity without the help of other people.