Leave the door unlocked, but savor the stay: Returning to anime on my terms

The first time I heard about anime was in high school. While wading through social formalities and finding a niche to carve for myself, shows like One Piece and Dragon Ball Z would slip into conversation as if they were common knowledge. 

Despite being uninitiated, there were small things that became facts: 

  • Subs are better than dubs. 
  • You can try to get into One Piece, but you’ll never catch up.
  • Even if you’re not involved, having friends yell phrases in broken Japanese at you will earn unwanted attention from down the hall. 

Anime was still shadowbanned from pop culture, but to relate to these people, I would dip my toes into the popular fandoms. I did the research on what was trending – focusing on hot, rising shows — while making sure to stay away from anything bright and squeaky or overly sexualized. 

My first anime had to be strictly cool. 

I settled on two shows — Attack on Titan and One Punch Man. Attack on Titan for its action and emotional content, and One Punch Man for its lighthearted and personable tone.

I found the sketchy streaming websites to watch for free — the ones where the 360p subbed versions have barely legible subtitles. I looked up memes, read forum posts, and enveloped myself in the show’s culture to make sure I wasn’t missing out on anything. I wanted to wring out the same rich experience my new friends boasted about.

With Attack on Titan, I barely made it through two-thirds of the first season. With One Punch Man, I stopped two episodes in. Fuck having to read grainy subtitles, fuck the overly dramatic voice acting, and fuck the massive knockers that made me have to lock the door in fear of my parents walking in. 

Despite my best efforts to enjoy myself, watching anime felt like homework. I spent more time focused on catching every word that popped up on the bottom of the screen while ignoring the action itself. 

I tried to latch onto the characters, but there was nothing to relate to. My big Italian-American family had not yet been eaten by titans. A chunky band kid, I even tried the Saitama workout (and subsequently failed). 

I gave up. 

I chalked it up to a cultural difference that my upbringing left me incompatible with. As a literature lover, I must have just found a genre and medium that I could extract nothing from. That left me frustrated, but I came to peace with the fact that it wasn’t my cup of tea. I’ll just read the SparkNotes and laugh awkwardly when the topics come up like a normal person, thank you very much.

But the culture around anime through the lens of a spectator has changed. While it retained the classic tropes, themes, and stylings that made it popular (and even expanded on them), anime had assimilated into the mainstream through the shameless pride of its fans. 

People from all walks of life are now Chika Dancing on TikTok. Spongebob was revisited in an epic anime battle-style vision. The audiences from blogs and conventions blossomed and grew. It was a public acknowledgement, and I was reminded that anime was here to stay. It was no longer relegated to the nerdy table in the corner of the cafeteria.

I decided to give anime another shot due to editing content for my dear friend’s blog — a friend who is exteriorly opposite of the traditional anime-lover stereotype in his affinity for fine wine with cheese and crackers. With my background in writing, I would listen to him discuss with friends and edit his reviews. Anime was dragging me back, asking me to dive in again.

Because I had failed before, I took a new approach finding a suitable show to watch. Outlining my interests in art styles, settings, themes, music, and more, I set up the criteria a show had to have before I considered it. 

I landed on Shinichiro Wantabe’s 2005 series, Samurai Champloo. It checked all the boxes with its setting in Edo Japan, its Nujabes-laden soundtrack, and early 2000s art style that reminded me of the Daft Punk music videos I loved growing up. Unlike my hunt for precarious, grainy videos in high school, it was conveniently on Hulu, like the other shows I watched. 

Akin to installing Tinder for the fifth time, I was hoping my second experience with anime would be different.

Even with a fan favorite like Samurai Champloo, my excursion back into anime was conflicting. While watching the first episode, the frantic animation and early-2000s stylings snuck its way into my heart. I got goosebumps as hip-hop instrumentals butted up against animated rain and battle scenes. I was drawn by the tension of Jin being guided to a duel with Mugen, unsure of whether his prowess will finally be trumped. 

At the same time, themes like tying two characters together by their desire to kill one another was foreign to me. It became difficult to resonate with because it was unlike any plot hook I had seen before. 

I began to groan during the episode’s climax when Fuu runs through town to save our heroes from public execution with her enlarged breasts galloping in the air. That is, until the self-aware thirst trap pulls two fireworks out of her kimono and uses them to save the day. The realization was brilliant and addressed my spite of the overly sexualized animation with a hysterical twist. 

Even when there were unfamiliar aspects and themes that lacked draw, I found footholds to stand on. This allowed me to soak up what I enjoy personally, as well as the aspects that make Samurai Champloo a classic series. And hell, I even shrugged off my high school teachings and watched it dubbed, which let me enjoy the work as a whole much easier. Down with sub supremacy! 

I will absolutely watch more of Watanabe’s work. Cowboy Bebop is next on my list with its jazz and sci-fi-infused themes. But (maybe unfortunately) that’s about where my appreciation of anime ends. 

Outside of Watanabe’s catalog and the occasional movie, there’s nothing for me to hold onto in anime. However, rather than limit myself from watching more, this experience encourages me to dig further and be more intentional with my viewership in the event I dive back in.

I’m convinced that for any audience that doesn’t have a familiarity with anime, there is a niche to carve for yourself — especially with the growing age and diversity of the media form. Whether your interest be sports, history, memes, or heart-wrenching dramas, the sheer depth means there’s a hook for everyone. You just need the time to set criteria for yourself and dig in — perhaps with the help of goodhearted friends who have more experience. 

I wouldn’t consider myself a fan; I’m more of a visitor. In fact, if and when I try again, I’m not sure my trip will be more than a small venture out of town to check something off the bucket list. And while that’s not the deep-dive I always wished I had the desire to crave, maybe that’s not a bad thing. Because in spite of that all, I enjoyed my stay.

Nick Moran
Nick Moran
Nick Moran is a writer and reporter based out of West Michigan. He's a journalist by day and a nerd by night, writing about anything from games to music to news for Local Spins and the Grand Haven Tribune. Catch him rocking out to 70's Japanese city pop or suffering over a game of League of Legends.