How I Became an Unlikely Otaku

>> Tuesday, May 17, 2011

For the longest time, one of my all time most treasured show memories has been of a show I watched when I was in middle school, Star Blazers. It was science fictiony and fantasy-ish and made no logical sense at all. It was also effectively a soap opera. And I loved it, ate it up, all but wept when they changed the schedule so it came on after I was in school.

I can watch it now, rent it, but it isn't the same. My tastes are more jaundiced, I'm more cynical and less forgiving of things like bad animation and repetitive plots. And, since I now watch animé with my somewhat of an animé aficionado husband, I couldn't help but compare it unfavorably with others I've seen since. But I will always remember it fondly.

Once Star Blazers fell off my horizon (going back to my youth), I managed to avoid watching animé for years. And, throughout my school years and a decade or so of working as a rocket scientist I'd never read any manga (or anything else vaguely comic-book like). Those manga that made it to our US market (that I was exposed to) were not the kind to appeal to me, repetitive fighting using magic, cards, droids or swords.

And then I had a child of my own who, at the age of five, became enamored with Pokémon. I not only bought her all the shows on tape, but spent a fortune (I could ill afford) getting Pokémon cards that she gave blithely away to friends. And strangers. The show was cute without really capturing my interest. The movies were better than many of the cartoon movies being produced at the time, but hardly earth shattering. As my daughter got older, she became a hardcore fan of animé and manga (and it should be noted that getting her started on manga went a long way to getting her interested in reading - she now devours books of every sort). But I was still detached. My husband, though not interested in manga, was very interested in animé of several different types, mostly the shonen (or male-oriented types with robots and stuff).

(For those of you gasping at the notion of a five year old watching Pokémon, we're pretty progressive at my house. And Steph's always had a taste for the macabre. This was a pleasant change from the scary movies she often wanted to drag me to.)

I saw a few animé I didn't mind much that my daughter and/or my husband liked, but I was mostly untouched.

And then I discovered Fruits Basket (the animé). My daughter had rented it from Netflix. The story's nonsensical. The characters are over the top. And I was completely sucked in, wrung out, enamored. I laughed. I cried. I had to own them all (and I do. I bought a set for my daughter, but she kept hiding them in her pit of a room so I have a set for myself too).

Then I tried the manga, the first manga I had really read. It was a new world for me, in many ways. Manga don't read like a regular comic book and it takes some getting used to, but I managed it. I loved them, loved this odd little world that was invented with its quirky (sometimes contradictory) rules and the complex interactions of people, particularly the main character, a self-effacing over-apologetic, self-sacrificing not-desperately-bright girl who was also uncorruptible, stubborn as a mule, and completely true. Everybody was flawed and had strengths and was complex and multi-faceted. Everyone had depths and charm of a particular flavor. The rules and nonsense didn't matter. The characters had pulled me in completely.

Then I got caught by a short-lived manga by the same author (Tsubasa: Those with Wings) where my husband laughed out at me from the pages of the manga. (I actually spot my husband a lot of places in animé and manga, which either means I'm besotted, or he's very Japanese in his thinking. Maybe both.)

Then my daughter got me hooked on another shoujo manga (those aimed at teenage girls, go figure) on a ridiculous premise that shouldn't hold anyone's interest but a few minutes. But the people there, rich, multifaceted, true at the core, caught me again, the manga just as much. It kills me that all the Ouran High School Host Club manga is not all available in English yet, though the Japanese side has made it to a satisfactory close. And, yeah, I own them all, too, at least those available.

I got caught by another manga (Black Bird) a few months ago, bought them all (all eight) and have probably read them 20 times so far. And then my husband and I have watched 100% of an animé we both fell in love with, Vandread. We both cried on the same episode. Guess what I got for Christmas.

So, you're probably wondering, have been wondering for some time as I've gushed, what is my point?

I haven't seen a manga or an animé that hasn't been full of holes or didn't have a ridiculous plot and over the top characters. But I love them. Millions of people love them and eat them up like I do.

What I want to know (and am hoping to figure out in these blog posts) is why? Why can something that's so silly and/or warped in many ways be so compelling? I write novels, as noted over at Rockets and Dragons, and I want to know what makes this so compelling in case there are lessons there for my own writing. I don't want my plots to be nonsense (though I don't really want them too convoluted either). But I want my characters to be real.

But I want what I write to speak to a reader, the right kind of receptive reader, like the mangas speak to me.

And that's my point.

BTW, animés that I love enough to own: Fruits Basket, Read or Die, Howl's Moving Castle, Ouran High School Host Club, Vandread, Sorcerer Hunters, Kaze No Stigma, Maid-Sama, Vampire Knight, Skip Beat! and Special A.

I have a running tally of mangas I like/dislike on the sidebar that will be expanded as I go forward. Some have reviews already done currently on Rockets and Dragons that will eventually move over here and be augmented with more reviews on new series I encounter. I'm already behind since I don't include Skip Beat! or Tokyo Crazy Paradise or High School Debut and more.


  • Jeff King

    Great info... thx for a blast to the past.

  • Jade Pomme

    Hehe...Comrade! I love Shoujo manga/anime and came by it while trying to teach myself Japanese. But as an adult entering her 40s, it's hard to find people who have the same enthusiasm; more like people clucking their tongues and rolling their eyes (whatever). Yea...glad I found your blog.

    As a child/young adult, I watched the shounen/seinan anime from time to time but didn't really enjoy it as much. After finding Shoujo manga/anime, I've been totally hooked especially Y. Nakamura's work but tend to like strong female characters and character development. Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

  • Stephanie Barr

    The more of us forty-something otakus, the better.

    My Japanese study has fallen by the wayside as my life's been in upheaval, but I haven't given up. I'll go forward again.

    I hope you enjoy my posts and feel free to chime in even if you have a different view than mine. In fact, especially! I love a good discussion.

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