Is It Now "Cool" To Be An Anime Fan?
by Justin Sevakis,
Recently Kim Kardashian came clean about liking anime (even calling out DARLING in the FRANXX). Michael B. Jordan also confessed to being an anime fan. Does this mean that anime is now "cool" in the US? That's really weird. I grew up a freak for liking anime. Really don't know how I feel about this.
Being a famous actor or celebrity has never excluded people from the anime nerd club. In addition to the recent ones you named, Robin Williams was a known anime nerd. Samuel L. Jackson famously quipped that he not only liked "normal" anime, but hentai as well. Singer Hayley Williams once took to the stage in Blood: The Last Vampire cosplay. Kanye West, Zac Efron, James Kyson Lee, Christian Bale, Tobey Maguire, Will Smith, Daniel Radcliffe, Andrew W.K., RZA, Megan Fox, Avril Lavine, Robert Pattinson, Hulk Hogan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ronda Rousey, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Brown and Snoop Dogg have all, at one time or another, admitted to being fans of anime.
And that's just the "talent." Behind the camera, recent Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, and probably many more directors I'm forgetting have cited anime as influences. Simpsons and Futurama creator Matt Groening has been spotted at Anime Expo. Hip, up-and-coming electronica musicians like K?D and The Midnight regularly traffic in vintage anime stills and gifs. In fact, I've seen so many 80s cyberpunk OVAs screencapped by Synthwave artists that I've lost count. I've even seen them screencap Dear Brother, of all things!
Are all of these people the gigantic otaku that many of us are? Doubtlessly some of them are. Others are probably more casual fans, into a handful of semi-mainstream shows and curious for more. I wouldn't be surprised if a handful of them just name-checked anime as part of a publicity strategy (since mentioning nerd culture tends to generate a lot of clicks on celebrity news sites), but I know for a fact that many more are genuine fans. And while Kardashian and Jordan got a lot of attention, these admissions have been going on for years. But as celebrity culture becomes more social media oriented, we're learning a lot more of these mundane details of celebrity lives than ever before. Like, the fact that Megan Fox was a big Gundam Wing fan.
There are two factors at work here. The first is a very clear cultural difference between showbiz people and the rest of America that I didn't fully appreciate until I moved to Los Angeles, myself: people who work in the arts are almost expected to be into stuff that's off-the-beaten-path. Liking, and being influenced by non-mainstream art is seen as a badge of pride. When I moved here from New York City, telling people I worked in anime got a completely different response than I was used to. I almost never got the confusion or snickering I had come to expect. In fact, usually I got, "oh, that's cool! I really loved Ghost in the Shell/Naruto/Death Note!" followed by asking for my favorites and recommendations.
I mean, it's still an awkward conversation, but at least I'm not being judged! Anime has always been more visible in California than in other places. Chalk that up to the state's large Japanese population, and its popularity in other Asian communities (which are also incredibly numerous here). Just by being here, and being part of a scene that involves a ton of actors, musicians, directors and other artists (and wanna-bes of all of the above), people share and explore more.
The other factor is that the Western world has changed a LOT since I became an anime fan. In addition to the obvious cultural touchstones like Pokémon, Spirited Away, Toonami and all the other things that brought anime into a more mainstream light, there are a lot of less obvious things that made anime far more approachable to a broader audience than it once was.
Emoji, now ubiquitous, were originally a creation for Japan's NTT Docomo mobile internet service. Although they've since been broadened and internationalized (and now include burritos, thank god), the iconography is very clearly manga/anime-based: there's a smiley face with a sweat bead, most of the smiling faces have inverted U-shaped eyes, and a sleeping emoji with a snot bubble. None of those things used to mean anything to Americans. Learning that stylistic shorthand was part of the learning curve that new fans had to deal with, and were a barrier to entry for a surprising number of people. Now literally everybody knows what they mean.
Adult-oriented (and non-porn) American cartoons have also become commonplace. When The Simpsons first came out, people were shocked that they'd use mild curse words like "hell" and "damn." When South Park first came out the levels of R-rated humor really freaked people out. But in the years since we've had Archer, Bob's Burgers, BoJack Horseman, Family Guy, Futurama, and loads more, all of which are clearly mainstream shows aimed at teen and adult audiences. Even Pixar films, which are aimed at families, are often enjoyed by adults and make people sob uncontrollably. "Animation that's not for kids" is no longer a weird concept. Neither are cartoons with sad things happening in them.
Internet culture, including memes, have embraced anime jokes and art since their earliest days. As these conversations, memes and shitposts filtered into the mainstream, they're absolutely piquing people's curiosity. I've had several people tell me that they needed to watch more anime just to understand more jokes online. That seems a little like the cart driving the horse to me, but it is definitely having an effect. And for all of its antisocial horrors, the internet has also brought an increasing amount of cultural globalization, acceptance of subtitles, and open-mindedness to new forms of storytelling that has been causing huge tectonic shifts in the broader entertainment industry.
All of that brings us to a world where, while not exactly mainstream, anime lurks just under the surface of a bizarrely large area of popular culture. Does that make it "cool?" That's always in the eye of the beholder. But I do know that it's much harder to bully a high school kid for liking the same things as the star of the biggest superhero movie of the year.
If I could go back in time and tell teenaged Justin that someday anime, electronic music and obscure 8-bit video games would be cool, maybe he wouldn't have been such a damned grouch all the time.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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