Content warning: Mentions of sexual and physical violence.
Until three years ago, I actively avoided watching anime out of fear that I would get sucked into the curious world of this modern-day Japanese art. It turns out I was right: Since I started watching, I’ve devoured anime after anime, from more widespread titles like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood to covert ones like Noragami. I find myself immersed in the season-long story arcs and in the fluid animation so often that I’ve begun to wonder more about the history of the medium. Anime is staggerly popular: In 2020, Netflix reported that anime titles landed in the top 10 list of most-watched content in nearly 100 countries that year. In Montreal, the anime community has grown in size, sparking convention events such as Otakuthon and inspiring McGillian students to establish their own anime club, the McGill Students’ Anime Association. This surge in popularity is relatively recent, however—and it didn’t come out of nowhere.
For one, forms of media that cross multiple platforms tend to reach a greater audience, since they allow fans to engage in the fandom in multiple ways. Anime has always been closely tied to other genres, explained East Asian studies Professor Edmond Ernest Dit Alban, who specializes in Japanese culture and queer representation in anime.
“If you look at its history, it has always been a sort of hybrid between something and something else,” said Dit Alban. “Anime is so central because it was close to manga, it was close to radio, and then it becomes close to videogames. And after videogames, it becomes close to the internet and to online platforms.”
Anime drew in obsessives as far back as the 1980s in Japan, through the formation of conventions and clubs, where like-minded fanatics discussed and bonded over the medium. Eventually, a subculture emerged out of their shared interests in anime and computer games. Its young fans were labeled “otakus” by author Nakamori Akio in 1983, who ironically detested the original anime and manga fans. Although the creation of a subculture normalized attending conventions and discussing anime as an interest, the term also accrued negative connotations. Otaku was one description used to brand the serial killer and child rapist Tsutomu Miyazaki, who sexually abused and took the lives of four young children in 1988. Miyazaki’s notorious collection of manga and anime, as well as his attendance at otaku gatherings, triggered a negative perception of those who associated themselves with the subculture at the time.
The definition of otaku has also been criticized for only describing a narrow subset of anime fans. Indeed, academic studies on the subculture seem to normalize a new interpretation of manhood: The initially outcast “nerd.” According to Dit Alban, the subculture is built upon a homogeneous identity that is unrepresentative of the entire fandom.
“‘Otaku,’ basically for me, is masculinity studies,” Dit Alban said. “Otaku studies are usually written by male otaku, so I guess that it's kind of an expression of what [anime] meant to them at that time [….] The real problem with otaku is that when we go into these definitions, there's an obvious thing missing: Everyone else but the straight, cis guys.”
Though the anime community may have started in a specific subset of the Japanese population, it has propagated across various cultures, spreading beyond native Japanese speakers. From the 1980s onward, it was primarily pirated and translated versions of the shows that spread through Western countries, initially passing discreetly among a small viewership. The following grew in size and heterogenized throughout the decades, perhaps due to anime’s futuristic appeal.
Despite this, the increasing diversity of anime fandoms has not necessarily led to an increase in representation on screen. The majority of anime characters are heterosexual and Japanese or white, a reflection of the backgrounds of those producing and working on the shows. In comparison with media produced in Canada or the U.S., for instance, anime has limited representations of race, cultural background, gender, and sexual orientation.
However, some shows have managed to include representation of marginalized groups, such as the 1998 classic Cowboy Bebop, which features people of colour and 2SLGBTQIA+ characters. Nonetheless, some of these portrayals have problematic characteristics and are merely symbolic in representation. Dit Alban, themselves a member of the queer community, explained that in Japan, “the problem is that most of the representation of queerness is made usually by straight cis people who are not necessarily allies.”
Considering the lack of diversity among both the creators and the characters of anime, clearly anime must have connected with so many different people around the world through other means. One way that anime has obtained this international viewership is by breaking language barriers, offering “subs” and “dubs” of the original dialogue. Subs, which are translated subtitles, and dubs, which replace the Japanese dialogue with one recorded in another language, have allowed anime to be widely distributed. For example, Shania Wan, a U3 Science student at McGill, was able to connect with anime in her native tongue throughout her childhood.
“In Mauritius, where I was born, anime was pretty popular even among young children because it was broadcast on TV, and it was in French, so everyone could understand it,” Wan reminisced. “So even if people do not understand Japanese, it is a very accessible form of content. And you could tell that Japanese animation is very different from Western or European animation. I was watching Tokyo Mew Mew when I was a kid and I loved it.”
For others, anime’s appeal lies in its complex backstories, thoughtful narratives, and insight into the flawed human mind. Anime is more than the intense fight scenes that span a few episodes in “shounen” classics––many include narratives that speak to a wide range of themes, from heartbreak to genocide. Bassem Sandeela, the vice-president internal of McGill Students’ Anime Club, explained the lessons he took away from the anime Monster, which tells the story of Dr. Kenzou Tenma, a neurosurgeon who questions the ethics of human existence and faces severe consequences for his choices.
“[Monster] is one of the most powerful explorations of morality and humanity that I've ever seen,” Sandeela said. “It covers the idea of what it means to be stripped of your humanity and what it means to be human, and just the way it explores [...] is so thought-provoking. I think my main takeaway [...] is that to become a monster is to lose your humanity, is to embrace nihilism.”
An anime that I never suspected would exert a such tight grip on me was the two-season, emotionally charged 2015 series Assassination Classroom. The narrative follows Koro-sensei , a superhuman being that challenges a classroom of students to assassinate him by the end of the year, or else he’ll follow through with a threat to blow up the moon. It is the combination of the gripping character arcs and the immaculately-written ending that made it an anime that I continue to think about regularly.
Like other means of fiction, anime serves a different purpose for each individual, and there’s something to watch for everyone amongst the vast and concurrently growing list of shows. For those reading this who have not watched anime before, perhaps it is time to visit Crunchyroll and indulge yourself in the beautifully crafted artwork and stories of the genre.
I committed to writing a feature about anime in the hopes that I would learn something novel about the history of this intriguing form of media—and maybe find some recommendations to put on my to-watch list if nothing else. Dit Alban brought up the title Sarazanmai by Ikuhara Kunihiko in our conversations—an anime that I had never heard of. The anime portrays three students who are transformed into kappa monsters so that they can defeat kappa zombies—townspeople who have turned into giant monsters because of their hidden desires. Balancing both themes on the human need for intimacy and a conglomerate of well-placed innuendos, the anime is an obvious nod to the queer community. Dit Alban ranks it among the best animes offering representation, explaining that Sarazanmai dives into the social taboos and the desires of the population.
“[Kunihiko]’s not queer himself, clearly,” Dit Alban said. “But what's interesting about him is that he's always using queerness in a productive way to represent social struggles. And I guess that he's probably one of the only ones in Japan who's getting it—that queerness is not just about representing pseudo-LGBTQ+ people on the screen, [but] it's also about having a discourse about society and its structure.”
Afterwards, I knew I had to do some research into Sarazanmai, so I started by watching a few highlight clips. In front of my computer screen, I sat with my mouth agape, stunned by the audacity of this anime’s cheeky, unabashed anal sex jokes, hidden under the disguise of an adorable art style. After doing so much research into the genre’s rise in popularity, watching Sarazanmai reminded me that anime doesn’t just have a past, but a future—one that might explore the confines of the artform and push the boundaries of storytelling.
Illustrations by Ruobing Chen, Creative Director