Look, I know the title to this post is hugely unoriginal, but I also think it’s apt. There is – whether you are aware of it or not – a certain loneliness that goes with being a long-term lover of anime. In part, that’s a consequence of anime as a genre form, and how other people react to it. In part, it’s a consequence of me as an individual, and how people react to me. Those two things come together to produce what, for me, is the loneliness of the long-term anime lover. For you, they might be different; or perhaps it hasn’t manifested itself. Yet. Or maybe it’s not – and never will be – a reality attached to your love for anime. So be it; we’re all different, afterall.
But why should anime, at least in part, be an exercise in loneliness? Afterall, anime is becoming decidedly mainstream and popular, and many recent anime features have packed out cinemas and been hugely successful – not just in Japan, but internationally as well. But the loneliness of the long-distance anime lover is not related to anime’s commercial success or otherwise – at least, not directly. There is an aspect of anime’s emergence from the fringes into the mainstream that is attached to the loneliness associated with being an anime lover – but more on that later. The point is, the fact that anime is now mainstream and lots of people are viewing (and blogging/vlogging about) anime doesn’t detract from the intrinsic loneliness of the activity. Hopefully, I’ll make myself clearer as this post meanders on, and you’ll understand what I mean.
I’m old. Seriously. I mean, I may not be ancient exactly – but I was an adult before there was an internet and email. And I was even more of an adult by the time social media and smart phones and all the intricate palaver of interconnectivity we now assume to be the norm was the norm. I grew up in a world where, if you wanted to communicate with someone, your options were: pick up the phone (the landline, that is; mobile phones didn’t exist ether); write a physical letter and post it; or make the effort to meet them in person. No Zoom or Facetime or Skype. No texting or messaging. However you did it, there was always a time lag associated with communication; it was just the way things were. Things moved slowly and you had to accommodate yourself to the inevitable delays in transmission.
But the fact that I’m so old also means that I grew up watching titles like Gigantor and Speed Racer and Marine Boy. A bit later on, it was Battle of the Planets. Generally speaking, these anime mimicked the “family viewing” formula that characterised mainstream television at the time, deploying relatively simply plots in which good and evil were clearly delineated and moral ambiguity was rarely present. They also epitomised the old-school hand-drawn techniques of the time, with all its strengths and weaknesses – especially when produced in the context of an ongoing series that had deadlines to meet. It was a very different world, and a very different entrée into anime from the one folks get today – or even from the one they got in the 90s and early Noughties.
The significance of this is that I am acutely conscious of the age gap between myself and most of the other people who are both viewing and going online about anime. Anime might be mainstream and popular, but it’s also a mainstream audience who are much younger than I am – and who therefore represent a mainstream that does not necessarily include me. Ever since I started blogging about anime and getting any kind of feedback/reaction, I have been aware that my interlocutors are substantially younger than I am.
And that’s okay. In fact, I really enjoy having conversations with people much younger than myself because they are, in many respects, so much more knowledgeable about anime and what is going on in the world of anime, than I am. Born and bred into the world of instant interconnectivity and online community, they have their finger much more on the pulse than I do. And that means they are a great source of information and enlightenment for me.
But age also inevitably sets up barriers and creates distances between myself and others. I grew up in a very different world with a very different relationship to technology and visual media. Which is fine because, for an old bloke, I happen to think I’m pretty tech savvy. I may be fooling myself on that point, but that’s neither here nor there. What is relevant is the difference in formative environment experienced by myself and most other people watching and blogging/vlogging about anime: it means a difference in perspective, a difference in understanding and approach. And that’s cool, too, and all part of the rich tapestry. But difference – especially generational difference – also means separateness and apartness. No amount of respectful conversation is going to overcome the gap in experiences and understanding which arises between people in different age groups. Especially when I grew up loving anime absent being able to share that enthusiasm with any of my peers.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t anime lovers my age out there; just that I haven’t met any yet. And that lack of an age-peer group creates a gap between myself and others, a gap that is expressive of the loneliness of being a long-distance anime lover. Because you’re conscious of the fact that while anime may be mainstream now, it wasn’t the case for a long time; and just as you inhabited the fringes back then because you loved anime, so you continue to inhabit the fringes now because the mainstream belongs to a whole new generation that doesn’t include you. I don’t despair or distress about that; it’s just part of the human condition. But that means it’s also a very real part of my experience of anime.
Perceptions of Anime
As noted above, up until recent times, anime occupied the fringes of pop culture consciousness, at least insofar as the industrialised West is concerned. When I was growing up and getting my entrée to anime, there was no difference between anime and cartoons. Indeed, the anime I grew up watching were utilised by television networks for their children’s’ programming, precisely because the term anime and the wider implications associated with it were largely unknown outside Japan.
To be sure, things began to change once shows like The Simpsons began to hit our airwaves as examples of “adult-oriented” animation, and even kids’ shows got edgier with Ren and Stimpy and Beavis and Butthead. But anime took a long time to shake its association – in the West – with children’s television and the associated idea that they were “childish”. Even the success of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki through the 80s and beyond contributed to the idea that, at best, anime was a kind of Japanese version of Disney.
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnēamise (1987) was an early attempt to counter this image, but its influence was limited. It wasn’t until Akira (1988) became an underground cult hit; and, much later, Ninja Scroll (1993), Ghost In The Shell (1995), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995/6), and Cowboy Bebop (1998/9) all reached large Western audiences that the perceptions around anime began to change. These spawned Western imitations such as Aeon Flux (1991-5) – but the success of these projects ironically helped cement anime’s perception as a “niche” cultural artifact, albeit no longer for children but for socially isolated, sexually frustrated (and suspect) “nerds” and others on the fringe of the social mainstream.
That, of course, no longer applies – even if the stigma associated with those early perceptions still lingers. Today anime is mainstream and covers every genre category from slice-of-life comedy to out-there avant garde sci-fi. But having grown up with anime at a time when it was both “niche” and – by extension – suspect has meant relegation to the social fringes. The loneliness of the long-distance anime lover is the loneliness of all those who have loved a cultural artifact that, for a long time, was viewed either as “just for kids” or else as little more than an especially tacky species of soft porn.
Even today, I encounter people my age and otherwise who cannot believe that a “mature age” adult would bother with anime – either because they are “just cartoons” and are therefore “not real” like live-action TV/movies, or because of the persistent belief that anime is about facilitating secret fetishistic indulgences. Pointing out the recent success of the likes of Makoto Shinkai and Naoko Yamada, and the serious issues their films often address, doesn’t help: the underlying assumption appears to be that these are for “younger audiences”, and that there is thus something sad and/or creepy about an older person who enjoys their work.
In a very real way, perceptions of anime contribute to the loneliness of the long-distance anime lover precisely because those perceptions are dismissive or pejorative, and thus taint those who love anime as well as anime itself. But also because of the “generation gap” articulated in these perceptions – a gap on which I am decidedly on the wrong side.
Anime As An Exercise In Solitude
Watching anime because you love it is an intensely interior exercise. Of course, the same can be said of many visual media, whether its going to an art gallery to view an exhibition of paintings or catching a film at your local cinema. But there is a qualitative difference between looking at art and watching a film because you are interested in at or film and watching anime because you love it as an artform. It is precisely because you love it that you interiorise the experience to an extent that doesn’t apply with mere interest; even as you watch the images or absorb the dialogue and unfolding narrative, you are processing all the elements internally. Even if you discuss the anime you’ve seen afterwards, or blog/vlog about it, you must first undertake the interior process of meaning making before conversation of any form is possible.
And, yes, I recognise that’s true of any activity which a person loves as opposed to those in which they are merely interested. But, combined with the other elements detailed in this post, there is something about the interiority of viewing and consuming anime as a cultural artifact that – for me, at least – makes it a unique exercise in solitude.
Regardless of whether you’re watching your favourite anime series with friends, or you’re viewing an anime feature in a crowded cinema, the interiority of the process of experiencing anime means that, in a very real sense, you are always alone. I have written elsewhere that one of the reasons why I love anime is because, regardless of the genre of any given series or feature, I often find the characters and the inner world of thoughts and feelings revealed through those characters highly relatable. But, as a viewer, in order to find the external phenomenon of an anime series or feature relatable, I must delve inwards, into myself: the exteriority of anime as a viewed reality must connect to and touch the interiority of my own life experience and the thoughts and feelings to which that experience gives rise. And that means that, irrespective of the external environment in which I view anime, that viewing experience is always located in my internal reality as a human being.
Thus it is that, because I love anime, and because I am able to relate the characters in anime to my own lived experience, watching anime is always driving me inwards, into myself and away from other people. Not in any divisive fashion; just as an exercise in solitude. Watching and engaging with and relating to anime is an activity in which the presence of others is entirely unnecessary. Even when that experience ultimately manifests itself in the public forum of a blog post, the fact is that this public activity is preceded by the private activity of my own encounter with anime. The latter is always the pre-condition for the former. Unlike teams sports, for example, in which the presence of others is a mandatory requirement without which the activity itself cannot proceed, anime only requires you, the viewer. Of course, there can be multiple viewers; but the presence of this multitude is not compulsory. The only mandatory component is you, because only you can engage and be engaged by anime on those terms relevant to yourself.
Thus, anime, if you love it, will always be an exercise in solitude. No matter how much you discuss it with others, no matter how much you blog/vlog about it, only you will ultimately understand what it is that anime means to you, why you love it, and why you watch it. In that regard at least, anime is an expression of the terrible isolation implicit in being human, precisely because none of us can live in another person’s skin.
My Nature As A Person
I am an introvert. By which I don’t mean that I need a bit of time out from the world every now and then in order to refresh my batteries before charging back into the thick of social interaction. When I say I am an introvert, I mean I am someone who has spent most of their life living inside their own head – and that, as a result, I need a lot of time to myself. I can handle other people. But in really small doses.
And, yeah, I get it. There is – possibly – a higher than average proportion of introverts among the anime watching and loving population. It’s a stereotype, I know; but like all stereotypes, it has a foundation in truth. But I’m not an introvert because I watch and love anime, and I don’t watch and love anime because I am an introvert. I’m an introvert because, well, that’s who I am; and I watch and love anime for reasons that I’ve explained elsewhere.
But I’m not an introvert because I’m anti-social or hostile to other people or even socially awkward (in a general sense). Yes, I hate working a room, dislike “events” and crowds, and can’t stand engaging in “small talk”. But I do have (a small number of very close) friends. And my idea of a good time is catching up with those friends every now and then (or when COVID allows) over coffee or a meal or at a (not-too-crowded) bar for a drink (or several).
But – none of my friends are into anime. None of them. We are friends for reasons other than my love of anime. So if there’s an anime-con in town, or a new feature at the cinema, or some such – then I take me, myself, and I (thanks for the proverbial title, Joan!). But, to be honest with you, even if some of my friends were even mildly (or avidly) interested in anime, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I would hang out with them in relation to anime stuff. I’m not saying it wouldn’t happen – it’s just that the interiority of anime is so central to me that I would probably go back for a second look to check it out on my own.
Because that’s what I do and that’s what I am. Solitude is important and necessary to me. It’s how I process my experience of the world. But that doesn’t mean that I am insensitive to one of the necessary corollaries of that solitude: aloneness. I am aware of the fact that I am on my own for most of the time. And, yeah, sometimes that gets lonely. But that doesn’t mean I’m suddenly going to sprout social butterfly wings and start flitting about from one party to the next. I just understand who I am and what I need in order to be; and I am aware, too, of what stems from that. And sometimes – sometimes – that is loneliness.
I don’t blame anime for that, any more than I blame my nature as a human being. Indeed, I don’t see it as a case where blame as such is even necessary. It just is what it is. And, hell, I actually like myself into the bargain. This isn’t a sob story; it’s just a statement of fact. For all the reasons listed above, being a long-term anime watcher and lover carries with it a certain weight of loneliness; and my nature as a human being is a significant contributor to that.
So there it is: the loneliness of the long-distance anime lover. I don’t know whether any of this relates to you. Maybe a little. Maybe a lot. Maybe not at all. However the case may be, I’m not about to stop watching and loving anime. Or telling you about it. But since the loneliness of the long-distance anime lover is – for me – as much a part of the reality of anime as anime itself, I thought I’d share this bit of it with you as well. If it makes sense, even partially, then I think it’s been worth it.
Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2022. All rights reserved.