07 October 2013

ID project: how 2013 made me love anime again

One of the inherent problems with being a fan, indeed one that every fan encounters at some point in their fandom, is disillusionment. After spending so much time and energy on the object of one’s passions, the idea of letdown is both foreboding, and unfortunately inevitable. Television shows have flat seasons, movies lose some of their luster on repeated viewings, interests begin to diverge- there are so many reasons why fans begin to find their fandom waning. Some point to the “low quality” of the fan in general- how if they truly cared, they would never feel this. Others might criticize the product, lamenting how it was better “before,” and how can the fan be blamed if their interest starts drying up.

This is natural, though more than a bit disheartening. After all, you have spent so much time and energy on your fandom- occasionally coming to see it as an extension of yourself and your identity- that losing that spark can feel downright catastrophic for some, almost akin to losing a family member or an old, good friend. This flip-side of fandom is one of the ever-present aspects of belonging to really any externalized community, but when emotions and expectations are involved, the pain can become very real. 

I was going through one of the periods a few years ago. I had lost a lot of interest- and faith- in not just anime fandom, but anime itself. Too many seasons passed by with precious little to catch my attention. The constant presences of shows that I had no interest in were dominating the convention circuit, while the shows of my “generation” were fading away. I could find little to hold my attention (though not for want of trying), and on those occasions where something new satisfied the otaku in me, I found my enthusiasm alone in a sea of personal pursuits and “mainstream” devotions. 

Anime has always been one of the major interests in my life. At one point I referred to it as one of the “big three” spheres of fannish engagement my personal identity revolved around (the others being music and gaming). It would have periods of rapid ascendancy in my daily life- 1998-2002 being the major period- only to lose steam after a year or so, and fall back beneath the rise of another sphere. This framework for my fandom was fairly constant as well- science fiction and fantasy fandoms, themselves of limited scope in my interests, have had periods of wax/wane, as have interests related to comics and internet participation. 

But as the last decade ended, I found that anime was fast on the path to joining both music and gaming in a mutual decline, where all three major facets of my life as a whole started breaking apart. While this might not sound pressing on paper, it was part of a massive collapse of the very things that made me who I am, and to lose all three simultaneously would have been disastrous. Imagine if everything you held dear suddenly lost all its meaning, and you were adrift in a proverbial sea of disinterest, with nothing to hold your attention or facilitate attachment- that was me. I would speak the words, and go through the motions of being an anime fan, but I hadn’t watched a show in years, or even had the inclination to. Were it not for my participation in the convention scene, anime would have faded away for good. As it was, the cons began to give me some hope for my otaku identity, and as I began to place more and more emphasis on research, lecturing, and education, it halted the slide before it was too late. 

There was just one problem- I still was holding on tight to the anime I knew from the 90s and early 00s, with little interest (read: ignorance) in what was being currently aired. Anime fandom might have stabilized, but anime as a medium was still in decline, kept afloat through interactions with fans and the power of the convention weekend. I was more engaged by the practices and events of the fan community than I was by the shows that ostensibly the community was based upon. This newfound stability, if one could even call it that, was tenuous at best, as I was essentially replacing one fandom for another, albeit related one, which itself would likely began to falter as time passed and my interests diverged yet again. 

What I needed wasn’t a fandom bandage, but something within anime to reinvigorate me, remind me why I started watching in the first place. I wanted to watch anime for fun, not because I needed to for a lecture, or because I had to be “up on things.” Anime had lost that fun-factor somewhere in the last decade, and I was watching an episode here and there because I felt I had to, not because I truly appreciated or enjoyed what I was watching. I needed a new “Outlaw Star,” or “Cowboy Bebop,” or even “Dragonball Z.” I needed to be reminded why I even started watching this in the first place. Anime needed to stop being a chore. (Which I discovered were my motivations during an attempt in 2011 to “bring anime back into my life.” It failed. Miserably.)

Two words changed that. Psycho Pass. 

Psycho Pass was my first real exposure to the works of Gen Urobuchi. “Shocking” as it might seem, I skipped Madoka when it first was released, mostly because it was at the height of my disillusionment period, where I was more invested in playing a role than expanding my foundations. Psycho Pass stood out for me, its darker narrative and relation to the works of Phillip K Dick definite pluses in a season where nothing else screamed at me for attention. It would be sharing my media stage with Persona 4, itself part of a second “renaissance” of games that were restoring my faith in a post-Warcraft world, and provided a solid complement to the game’s psychological themes and deep storytelling. Gradually, things began falling into place as I began watching the show.

It blew me away. I couldn’t wait for the subsequent episodes, and I would watch them over and over until the new ones aired. On Twitter, I began saying to friends “If you’re not watching Psycho-Pass, you’re doing it wrong.” I made sure to incorporate as many aspects of the show into panels and lectures as possible as I “fanned out” over the first show in years to grab my attention so quickly, and so solidly. 

Everything about the series worked to me. Much like Outlaw Star and Fullmetal Alchemist had done in the past, I loved the characters, music, stories, and setting. The dystopian reality in which the Sibyl system controls how people think might have been criticized by some as a pale imitation of Dick’s classics, but it stood out in a sea of moe schoolgirls and teenage fantasy. It was mature, compelling, and addictive- all traits that pulled in my 30 year old brain and made me think. 

I devoured Psycho Pass. It carried me through a mostly hollow Winter season, and provided a perfect setup for what was to come. For, while I didn’t know it yet, Spring of 2013 would provide for me the second validation to my anime fandom in less than a year, and firmly cement my interests and rejuvenate my flagging anime appreciation. 

That show was Attack on Titan, and I know I’m not alone in pointing to it as a standout series in a year of truly standout series. When the dust settles on 2013, Attack on Titan will be my favorite show of the year, indeed of many years, precisely for the same reasons I was seeking when I first started watching Psycho Pass. Attack on Titan was fun. Forget the implausibility of the show for a moment (and implausible it is). Anime is implausible most of the time. The best anime series often have the most bizarre moments of head-scratching and shrugging one can find. Gravity defying hair? Energy blasts from odd places? Angels and demons making love? None of that makes sense. But those are some of the best reasons to watch anime, because they make the shows fun. 
Attack on Titan was that show. From the opening moments, with a gigantic, humanoid THING staring over the wall at the people below, the series screamed “over-the-top.” Perilously depicting mankind as a species under siege- or imprisoned as the show often references- Attack on Titan was both related to the technocracy of Psycho Pass, and apart from those same dystopian elements. The world has ended, we persevere. We are not slaves to the machine, we are slaves to the monsters. The machine controls us, the monsters consume us. In a sort of “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” kind of way, one series warns of the perils of machines, the other warns of the perils of nature, and shows a humanity striving to survive. Both aspects of the same coin, both referencing our loss of self, identity, and autonomy. At their core, Attack on Titan and Psycho Pass were the same series, approaching the same decline, from opposing sides. 

Lightning striking twice in a year? Had you asked me back in 2010, I would have shrugged and laughed. Now I was eagerly anticipating the next releases of two shows that had reminded me how to have fun, and enjoy what I was watching. I felt refreshed, and my fandom identity had something new to latch onto. Disillusionment? Please, I have new shows to watch. 

Addendum: I feel the need to assert that there were other series aside from those two that made this year feel special. This has been a great year. And I have no doubt that the Autumn season will continue to be great. If you find yourself with some time on your hands, and want to try something new and fun, check out the following: Eccentric Family, Sasami-san @ ganbaranai, Yami Shibai, Gargantia on the Verderous Planet, and Gifu Doudou. While those shows did not have the same impact on me that Psycho Pass and Attack on Titan did, they still validated my love for anime. 

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