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In more ways than one, anime pervaded my childhood.
In elementary school, it was “Pokémon” in the basement on Saturday nights. Enraptured as I peeled tangerines, I watched Ash Ketchum battle mythical creatures and gym bosses in his indefatigable quest to “catch ‘em all.” When middle school came around, I angled my iPad screen just so and snuck bits of “Future Diary” between worksheets on the Pythagorean Theorem. Four years later, on the night before the SAT, I sipped broodily on a mocha in a cafe, absorbed by a dramatic confrontation between Naruto and Sasuke in the pouring rain.
Each era of my life has corresponded to different shows, different obsessions. When rewatching a favorite, I can recall distinctly the landscapes and people, the anxiety and aspirations, that marked the period I first watched it in. Anime has become an accidental way of assembling a chronology of my past.
It’s no surprise that anime followed me to Harvard. The summer after my freshman year, I rewatched “Tokyo Ghoul” on the Korean subway, looking up intermittently from my phone as the crystalline blue of the Han River rushed thousands of feet beneath me. As a sophomore, I crammed “Hunter x Hunter” between readings of Derrida and Fanon, howling in my dorm at 4 a.m. because the two protagonists’ relationship reminded me so much of the one I have with my own twin.
I enjoyed the genre for more reasons than one. I watched because it was at once entertaining and ridiculous (it was often entertaining because it was ridiculous), and because there were seeds of unorthodox creativity and joy within that ridiculousness. I watched because it provided a complex amalgam of melancholy and humor that I found lacking in many of its Western counterparts. I watched because it was at times very childish and, moments later, startlingly wise.
Mostly, though, I kept coming back to anime because I was able to watch it with minimal guilt. Looking back, it’s clear I bought at least partially into the normative view of anime as a second-class form of entertainment. While films or artful shows demanded a sit-down ambiance and one’s undivided attention, anime episodes rarely exceeded 20 minutes. They could be crammed in before a meal, or post-shower, or between readings. When waiting in a winding queue or between subway stops, I killed time with an episode. Even with a busy schedule, I told myself I was only watching anime to fill dead time.
Like a good deal of the people around me, I had picked up the habit of using a vocabulary steeped in contractual and violent terms — “dead,” “kill,” “waste” — to describe the ways I related to and managed the bits of my time I found impractical, that failed to yield visible indicators of output or progress. I rationalized my penchant for anime accordingly.
Some may wave away any serious attempts to deconstruct our shared temporal semantics. But the truth is that the implications of the language we use to describe how we spend our time — the word “spend” itself implying a measurable currency — are patently clear. As a society, we fear unfilled time. And as we do with most things that evoke fear, we choose to regard it as something to subdue, rather than to exist in communion with or flow in.
Keeping with this logic, I should have felt occasionally miserable, or at least anxious, when watching anime. After I turned off my phone or closed my laptop, I had nothing to show for the twenty minutes (or forty minutes, or three hours) I had just “wasted” watching pixelated figures rush across the screen. Yet I often felt buoyant and content, sometimes even intellectually revitalized. I had wasted my time and had had damn fun doing it, and was ready to reapply myself to whatever task stood before me.
Of course, sometimes I did feel guilty. In middle school, my parents would drive us, five-strong, to Wisconsin for a weekend. If I woke up early, I followed my father to his favorite cafe in town, far more endearing than the Starbucks milling with tourists. Inside, vintage bicycles gleaming olive green and mauve hung from the burnished planks on the walls. I always had the same order: a chocolate-chip pumpkin muffin and a hibiscus tea. Then, while my father graded exams, I watched Kirito battle bosses to clear floors of Aincrad and Kaneki decimate ghouls. I slouched in our shared booth, nose to screen, peering over sheepishly at his pile of essays on the implications of international trade.
In the hours I had spent with my screen, I could have been reading or writing, or chasing projects, or having conversations with family or friends. Instead I had done, as I occasionally bemoaned to those who were sympathetic enough to listen, “nothing.”
In retrospect, however, it became clear that the moments spent “doing nothing” were vital, even formative. They allowed me to simply exist, to thoroughly indulge in an activity not because it was a stepping stone toward a greater or more marketable purpose, but rather for the sheer fact that it was fun. They helped me resist — and, eventually, critique — the urge to articulate an actionable reason for everything I did. Watching anime permitted me to take charge of my own interests and desires.
As I became aware of how watching anime helped me escape a perverse relationship to “empty” time, my understanding of other activities, like writing, also shifted. During vacations in high school, I recall sitting at cafes in Korea, doing nothing. After buying a drink, I would open a blank document and stare at the blinking cursor, its methodical line and non-line.
The cursor represented an exciting and at times terrifying potentiality: By writing, I could create something. I could build out an idea that reached people, that might even change them in some important or unimportant way.
The notion at once energized and disquieted me. I would sit in the cafe for hours, literally watching as the sky changed color. People flitted in and out. A couple fought. Friends shared a cappuccino, magenta lipstick staining the rim of the glass. A toddler trounced in, spilling four cups of free water, and his mother arrived minutes later to scoop him up. I observed them lazily from behind my laptop as she scowled at his drenched jeans.
Contrary to what it seemed, I was hard at work, absorbed in the exacting labor of observing the dynamism of ordinary life. Those days on vacation in the Korean capital doing “nothing” resulted in an at times illuminating but mostly frustrating stasis. There was so much I wanted to say and document, to celebrate and question, but my fingers wouldn’t move. I felt tired, even though I hadn’t done much of anything as I packed up my laptop and went home for the day.
Broadly speaking, I actually was doing work by watching anime: I was thinking and visualizing, passing judgment and making connections. The work, however, was markedly interior. Correspondingly, the resulting output of that work was reserved for myself, and its actualized value would take time to come to fruition, often in unforeseen ways: A scene I had watched months or even years back would help me start drafting a poem, or choose a color for my new phone, or lend obscure insight into a gnarly civic problem we were discussing in class.
If there is no tangible output from an arbitrary period of time we afford ourselves, we call this time “throwaway time.” As with so many things, we cannot resist the temptation of steeping this time in a language of morals: These are fundamentally insignificant moments, we tell ourselves, moments that can and should be discarded or forgotten about. Yet it was precisely the times I had once dismissed as useless that were often the most grounding and humane. They allowed me to decompress and imagine, to reposition and rest. They didn’t demand from me an output that was visible or otherwise legible to the broader world I inhabited; the time was valuable not because of what I produced, but because I had chosen what it was I wanted to do with it.
At Harvard, we speak of time in terms of mastery and fear. In an effort to optimize for maximal productivity, we choose to look past the exceedingly intuitive fact that humans don’t function like well-oiled machines. Of course, it’s hard to resist the urge to conduct one’s own life like an experiment from time to time — and exhilarating when, for a brief moment, that experimentation works. Inevitably, though, there comes a relapse. Despite our improved output, we find ourselves feeling empty or depleted, and begin questioning what the punishing diligence we demanded from ourselves was really for.
My love of anime has afforded me countless moments of leisure, humor, and joy. It is also, however, a rejection of our collective impulse to discard time that does not give us what we demand of it. The moments spent alone, laughing or crying about things no one else witnessed or understood; the unremarkable hours that, looking back, made the difference. When I talk about anime, I am talking about time.
—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.
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