Anime Adolescence

I didn’t used to like anime very much. I didn’t grow up with it. And, for the most part, whenever I tried to watch any, I was quickly bored.

Don’t get me wrong, in my twenties and later I made an effort to seek out some of the classics. AKIRA went from being a casual interest to one of my favorite films. Same with GHOST IN THE SHELL.

But beyond that….Just not my thing.

As many times as I would hear “anime is for adults,” I found the vast majority of the ones I tried to watch exceptionally childish. The best of them tended to feel like Disney films to me. I don’t particularly like Disney films.

I gave up.

Then, decades later, Netflix started to put more anime on their service. Anime is getting huge and Netflix is betting massive sums of money on its continuing worldwide popularity.

I tried again.

There were a few here and there that were alright: DEATH NOTE, TOKYO GHOUL and a couple others. I didn’t exactly love any of them. But they were fine.

And then Covid happened.

My life had already taken a turn which left me more time on my hands. But with Covid the amount of time at home every day got pretty ridiculous.

Like many people, I was soon consuming entire seasons of TV shows in a matter of days. I was always looking for more.

However, soon boredom set in as show after show started to feel the same. They were so similar in terms of premise, plot, characters, tone and even the way they looked, I needed something new. Anything new.

It didn’t have to be good, it just needed to be different.

Which is when I took a deeper dive into anime. I knew there were more interesting anime out there than the ones Netflix was showing. Darker, weirder, more adult things. Things which featured characters that weren’t drawn as bubble heads and spoke in overly-enthusiastic, cute voices.

I turned to more obscure streaming services like RETROCRUSH and HIDIVE and soon discovered decades of twisted anime classics. Things like WICKED CITY and A.D. POLICE FILES.

However, watching more anime made me confront something else. Something I already knew but didn’t really want to deal with.

A lot of anime are seriously f*cked up.

Elephant in the room time. Far too many anime sexualize underage school girls.

It’s just creepy.

And honestly, it’s still something I feel uneasy about when watching many anime. I wish that anime and, for that matter, a lot of Asian entertainment in general, wasn’t so focused on school kids.

Aren’t there other characters and stories out there?

But, rightly or wrongly, I have just accepted that these things as part of the world of anime.

It’s an acceptance, some would say justification, that has lead to this irony. Some of the best anime I have since discovered are about teenagers dealing with sex.

What makes these palatable to me, or at least what I tell myself to justify my liking of them, is that these stories are about teenage sexuality from a teenager’s point of view, not that of some drooling, leering adult. And that they they come across as sincere and honest.

Adolescence is filled with confusion about many things. Sexuality being just one of them. But a big one. And the anime I’m about to talk about reflect that.

I understand how many people might still be averse to these anime because they are uncomfortable with the sexuality involved. Or maybe it’s just because they just can’t get past the idea of anime being something other than a bunch of bubble-headed, screeching, characters in search of a magic sword or some such. I get that too.

All of which is a shame. Because there are some very good anime with very good characters and very solid stories out there. And many of them are about that ever-so-painful part of life, adolescence.

FLOWERS OF EVIL

The fact that the title is a reference to a poem by Baudelaire should give you a clue that this is not your normal anime. It was based on a best selling Manga series which ran from 2009 to 2014.

The anime came out it 2013 and only covers part of the story presented in the manga.

The story revolves around a quiet, unpopular, boy in middle-school and his attraction to two different girls. The first is beautiful, sweet, sensitive, and incredibly understanding. The second is smart, isolated, not nearly as pretty, and believes that the world is total sh*t.

The boy, Kasuga, eventually ends up in relationships with both of them.

It all starts off when Kasuga, on a whim, steals the beautiful girl’s sweaty gym clothes. An act even he doesn’t fully understand. He’s discovered by the other girl, Nakamura, who then blackmails him.

Nakamura tells Kasuga that he is a pervert and should embrace it or he will never be at peace. In addition, if he doesn’t do exactly what he tells her to at all times, she will reveal his deviant nature, including the stealing of the gym clothes, to the entire school.

It’s a pretty warped premise. And it is one that is not shied away from. But, importantly, there is no graphic sex in the anime. Not even close. It’s actually very tame on that count.

However, it does deal with Kasuga trying to make sense of his new-found sexuality while under the influence of Nakamura, a girl with a serious dark side. A girl that he finds himself drawn to as much as the sweet, ideal, girl he once so desired.

It’s complicated. As it should be.

There’s nothing purely black or white in this anime. What there is, is a teenage boy who feels out of place in the world and confused by his own feelings.

Life is hard for all of us. But FLOWERS OF EVIL reminded me how just being a teenager can be one of the toughest, most embarrassing, most confusing things of all.

DOMESTIC GIRLFRIEND

A teenage guy has his first one night stand. Then it’s over and done. He just continues to fantasize about a young teacher in his school that he is obsessed with.

And then his father tells him he’s getting remarried. And the woman that he’s getting married to will be moving in with them with her two kids.

However, the two kids aren’t just any kids. They are the girl the boy had a one night stand with and the young teacher he keeps sexually fantasizing about.

The two of them are about to become his step-sisters.

It’s all very funny, in an incredibly awkward and painful sort of way.

It could have so easily ended up a bad soap opera or a joke-filled, shallow comedy. But somehow, it didn’t. Somehow it actually makes you care for the main characters and empathize with them. All three of them.

The one who had the one night stand has fallen hard for the boy and can’t seem to get over it. The older girl knows she will create a massive scandal if she encourages the boy’s sexual advances but may not be able to help herself. The teenage boy… Well, he’s just a mess, obviously.

The biggest shocker of DOMESTIC GIRLFRIEND isn’t the graphic sex. There is none. It’s that it all turns out to be kind of sweet. Nice even.

How weird is that?

NEON GENESIS EVANGELION

I thought I’d bring it back full circle. There is nothing obscure, underground or too unsettling in NEON GENESIS EVANGELION. It is one of the biggest, most popular, most profitable franchises in anime history. In fact, it is credited with reviving a near-dead anime genre back in the 90s.

It is nowhere near as warped and bleak as FLOWERS OF EVIL. It is also not nearly as obvious about sex and physical attraction as DOMESTIC GIRLFRIEND.

But, it still belongs on this list.

At its core, NEON GENESIS EVANGELION is the story of a fourteen-year-old boy dealing with rejection and trying to make sense of his feelings, including sexual feelings, as he is forced into early adulthood.

Which is strange. Because the first time I watched it, the first time many people watched it, I thought it was a show about giant mech/robot things, called Evas, saving the world from aliens trying to destroy mankind.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, the basic story is about the Evas and aliens throughout 24 of the 26 original episodes. It leads you to expect a conventional ending featuring odds-defying stunts and an epic battle.

That’s not what you get. At all.

Instead what you get for the final two episodes is the fourteen-year-old main character just brooding and wondering why life is so difficult and confusing.

He asks himself big questions like “who am I?” and “what is my place in the world?” It all starts to feel a little like a group therapy session with his peers applauding him as he makes important discoveries about himself.

Audiences hated it.

Not everyone, of course. But a significant amount of the public, and critics at the time, panned it. Some even speculated that the film’s producers had run out of money and had no choice but to wrap things up as quickly and cheaply as possible.

To make matters even more confusing, there was a feature film version of the franchise called THE END OF EVANGELION which was released shortly afterward. It featured a different ending to the story featuring a big battle. And then it got weird and trippy and psychological.

But back to my main point, the original ending makes perfect sense.

That ending makes things that didn’t seem all that important at the time seem far more significant. Thing about “harmonic integration with the unit” and the main characters being matched exclusively to one Eva to pilot with one very important exception. Things about the way the computer systems are programmed…

All the Earth-saving, big battle heroics as just an extension of the main character’s struggle to be an average teenager. Events which, no matter how epic, are not disconnected in any way from his individual emotional and psychological battles.

The main character deals with rejection from his aloof and distant father. He deals with feelings of worthlessness and being defined by how others see him. He deals with feelings of lust and sexual desire that he doesn’t fully understand yet.

All of it is key to the story. What might have seemed like it was just periphery character development is actually vital to understanding what the series is actually about.

In that context, the ending makes perfect sense. In fact, you could argue that it’s a large part of what makes NEON GENESIS EVANGELION a step above other scifi or mech anime.

It has depth. It has complexity. But, most of all, it has characters that matter.

I enjoyed all three of these anime series and found each of them more than just a way to kill time. They were engaging and rewarding. In some ways, each of them has stuck with me.

I still wish there were more anime that weren’t centered on teens. But, in the meantime, there are some great stories out there about how difficult that time of life can be.

Some feature mechs and aliens. Some feature dirty gym clothes. But the best of them are honest, sincere and often painful. Much like adolescence itself.