Ash Feathers and the Anime Fan

Matt Brown (Editor in Chief) — May 4th,2009
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Culture is everywhere. It's how we cope with bad times, and celebrate the good. It's conceived and fashioned by humans for human consumption — our highest form of expression. We relate to other people through it, and with other people, we create it. Here in the US, the culture of anime fans is fairly healthy, if young, and comes together largely on the Internet and at conventions. Sometimes I wonder if this level of interaction is enough to sustain a love for anime into adulthood.

What if you're hard pressed to find someone local who shares your interest in this subculture? Maybe your attempts to spread the joy have yet to overcome the inertia of some societal taboo. Maybe your friends aren't interested in trying it out, or they think your indulgence in the activity borders on abuse. It's hard to know what other people think, let alone if they're right. What is fairly clear is that specialized interests breed isolation.

We have a basic need to share positive experiences with someone close (as in, physically close), and if that need isn't met, detachment follows. We look to the Internet and conventions to fill that contact void, but both are poor substitutes — one for lack of proximity to fellow fans, and the other for the infrequency of contact. The need to connect with others by common interest is present all of the time, but the desire to satisfy it disappears if apathy sets in; the mark of an otaku.

I live in Florida, a state that didn't start out as a cultural black hole, but in recent years has experienced a thorough assimilation into what we simply call, the South. Country music, patriotism, and lifted trucks are in, and almost everything else is confined in the larger population centers. Southern customs are rich, like the food, and charming at face value, but they exhibit a strong paranoia toward outsiders and anything from the outside. Now, I think the detachment that many anime fans face is by no means unique to the South — I mention it as an extreme example of a pot that isn't so melty. It's hard to relate to anyone about non-southern things, here.

When, over a period of years, I recast myself as an anime fan, I found that in many previously-familiar situations, I no longer knew how to act. Friends came into the hobby for a short while, only to leave for more ordinary pursuits like gadgets and cars. In a sense, I get why they left. Liking animation is still considered by most in this country as child's play, and there isn't exactly an abundance of seinen titles in circulation here. Kids tend to get a free pass when it comes to enjoying strange or unusual things, but adults face societal pressure to fall in line.

In Yoshitoshi Abe's "Haibane Renmei", the angel-like haibane's wings are like a progress indicator for her level of self-acceptance and honesty. If her fears take a stronger hold, the ash-gray wings develop black splotches, eventually binding her to that place. If, however, she masters her fear and sheds all her worries, she can leave the nest in flight, as a whole human being.

I find the ash feathers to be a fitting metaphor for the American anime fan. The fear to get past is the fear that our interests might cause us to be alienated by friends, or ordinary people in general (for some definition of ordinary). For me, developing an interest in anime was a lot like being spirited away. I took one step too many, and wasn't in the same world anymore. The new world was a lonely place, much like that faced by Sayuri, Makoto Shinkai's dream-bound heroine. There's no spirit-world prison for anime fans, though. It's shortsighted to assume that we can't develop or maintain lasting bonds just because anime is involved.

There is certainly a place for anime lovers in the world. Anime culture itself couldn't exist in isolation, though, so how could we? There would be no Gankutsuou or Infinite Ryvius without western classics, no Wings of Honneamise or Planetes without human spaceflight programs, and no magical girls without idols. Anime is diverse in its inspiration because it's a small part of a big world, and so are we.