Safe, Sacred, Celebrated: How I Found Myself Through Anime
Being a first generation Asian-American, I was raised both by my parents and by a steady diet of anime.
I vividly remember coming home from my first ever day of school to Cardcaptor Sakura, and spending the entirety of elementary and middle school religiously watching Yu-Gi-Oh!, a show that could probably sum up the majority of my childhood in one word. I’m hard pressed to think of a time where I wasn’t watching one anime or another, even through high school and college when I felt more pressure to hide it. In many ways, anime has been one of my constant companions, punctuating and even defining particular stages of my life.
I’m comfortable going on record as the heretic who will vouch that anime has impacted my spiritual formation more drastically than any church or religious endeavor ever has. Towards high school and college, the anime I was watching continued to shape the ways I thought about the world. While some may start to develop their own moral and spiritual leanings in church on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights, I increasingly found myself wrestling through those questions as I waited for new episodes to be released each week on the simulcast.
As a queer person, the safe bubble of anime gave me a sacred space to process and cultivate my own developing identity as I came to terms with my queerness.
Through supernatural fantasy and compelling storylines, shows like Death Note forced me to consider ethical issues such as capital punishment, and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood provided object lessons on international relations and global politics as two orphaned alchemist brothers unravel a centuries-old conspiracy involving the creation of the enigmatic philosopher’s stones. Akame ga Kill! combined both themes into a hyperbolic but poignant stream of social commentary on political corruption and socioeconomic disparities, following a group of assassins targeting high ranking members of a corrupt imperialistic government with their supernaturally imbued artifacts.
On the surface, these shows may appear to deal with less serious topics–with superpowers and robotic mechs abounding–but their underlying thematic content interweaves critiques on modern societal issues in a way that sometimes even history cannot portray, especially for their younger demographics. As a result, it wasn’t from church sermons that I learned to value the sanctity of life, and it wasn’t from history classes that I really learned the destructiveness of racial discrimination.
Instead, when high school student Light Yagami suddenly finds himself in possession of a supernatural notebook that can kill anyone whose name is written in it in the show Death Note, I learned that giving any one entity the power to decide when someone is no longer worthy of life creates a God complex.
Code Geass pushed me to see what happens when a specific racial group is pushed to the fringes of society by a powerful majority with supremacist ideology, as the series occupies an alternate universe where the Holy Britannian Empire reigns as the largest of three remaining superpowers that has systematically conquered one third of the countries of the world, renaming them as numerical “Areas” and stripping them of their national identity.
Beyond these existential questions and perhaps less surprisingly then, anime was also one of the guiding forces that shaped my own personal identity formation as a queer Asian person (I mean, hey, what else happens when you normalize glamorous transformation sequences and gravity-defying hair of every color imaginable?). After all, throughout the 2000s, anime was one of the only places in media I could turn to and expect to see Asians in a variety of roles, typecasting being reserved for the white foreigners. Regardless of the fantastical color of their hair or the exaggerated size of their eyes, I could always assume that the characters I saw were Asian unless otherwise noted. Anime was one of my safe places where it was okay and celebrated to be different, to stand out.
Unlike the majority of churches or other religious groups after I came out, anime didn’t leave me there in my pit of spent emotions and cried tears. Where faith communities left me to fend for myself, anime sat with me through all the dark places that coming to terms with my queerness had brought me, and then offered me a hand.
As a queer person, this safe bubble of anime also gave me a sacred space to process and cultivate my own developing identity as I came to terms with my queerness late into high school, stretching into the first years of college. The shows I watched at different points along that journey gave me the metaphors and proxies I needed to be able to sort through who I was and who I was becoming.
Tokyo Ghoul follows the lives of several “ghouls,” a species parallel to humans that are only able to feed on humans and other ghouls, and are feared and hunted as a result. As I came out to myself, this gave me a dark story into which I could project myself and all the angst of realizing my life wasn’t necessarily going to turn out the way my parents thought it would (this is big in Asian culture, FYI) as well s the need to readjust my own expectations of how my family and the church would relate to me moving forward. The raw emotion behind the language of “being born this way” and “not choosing this” resonated with all the ideas and wonderings spinning through my head, and in many ways, the identity formation of the main character was a catalyst for my own.
The anime Seraph of the End reminded me that love doesn’t always look like rom-coms. Sometimes, it takes the form of putting together your own little band of thieves.
Similarly, Attack on Titan, about humans living in fear of giant humanoid monsters, created a padded room where I could vent the anger and frustration that came with having lost so much and so many throughout the process of coming out and coming into my own.
And unlike the majority of churches or other religious groups after I came out, anime didn’t leave me there in my pit of spent emotions and cried tears. Where faith communities left me to fend for myself, anime sat with me through all the dark places that coming to terms with my queerness had brought me, and then offered me a hand and led me back out into the light. Anime was the one who put her arm around me and whispered that I was okay and that there were indeed other ways of doing things, introducing me to along the way to shows which prove this belief.
Free! Iwatobi Swim Club–a slice-of-life anime centered around a group of four childhood friends who find themselves competing against each other when one of them mysteriously reappears swimming for a rival high school–deconstructed my internalized notions of toxic Western masculinity by painting a picture of healthy male integration, holding up male tenderness and free expressions of emotion as ideals and steps towards wholeness, rather than weaknesses to be suppressed or eliminated. Its portrayal of platonic male intimacy presented a captivating alternative to the destructive concepts of masculinity so often peddled by Western media.
The emotional rollercoaster of Seraph of the End hit closer to home, building on the themes highlighted in Free! while kneading in the idea of chosen family. Against a somewhat cliché backdrop of a war between humans and vampires, Yu and Mika are best friends (and frequently implied to be more) who find themselves struggling to reconcile their new identities with each other when Yu discovers Mika did not die four years prior but was turned into a vampire to save his life. This show tackled what it means to lose your loved ones and the trust issues and psychological safeguards that rise up in the process of rebuilding family. This represents the simultaneously beautiful and painful reality for queer people who have either distanced themselves from their own families and communities by choice after coming out, or who have been cut off by those communities.
Anime is an art form that gives us permission to feel, even when the things we’re feeling aren’t clean or beautiful or open-and-shut.
Seraph underlines how important and necessary it is to be able to find your tribe; to be able to find the people who will defend you fiercely even when it might not make sense and even when the majority might be against you, a common occurrence for many queer people raised in primarily evangelical Christian circles. Through this lens, Seraph reminded me that love doesn’t always look like rom-coms. Sometimes, it takes the form of putting together your own little band of thieves.
But no conversation on anime that I’m a part of could ever be complete without mentioning Yuri!!! On Ice, the new quintessential queer anime, revolving around the titular Japanese figure skater Yuri Katsuki who finds himself falling in love with current world champion Victor Nikiforov of Russia (who abruptly decides to leave competition to become his coach after falling for him first!). To this day, the eponymous theme song from the show still has the power to pull me out of anxiety spells. I could write and rave about it for days on end, and it’ll always hold a profound spiritual and personal significance for me. Yuri!!! is the show that finally drove it through my skull that, as a queer Asian, I could have the love story I always dreamed about and was worthy of. I’ve been a lifelong advocate of representation, but Yuri!!! finally transformed this from an idea I knew in my head to a truth I believed deep in my soul. Seeing a queer, bespectacled, twentysomething Asian who struggles with anxiety find himself and experience a love story that was celebrated and cheered on by all those around him: this gave me a restored hope for the future.
Anime has been one of the most constant and consistent threads running through the tapestry of my life and spirituality. This art form was my childhood and my coming out, my searching and my sorting, my defiance and deconstruction, and my reconstruction and renewal. And all this is because anime is an artform that gives us permission to feel, even when the things we’re feeling aren’t clean or beautiful or open-and-shut. Anime is okay with that. Anime invites us into the messiness of life and faith and spirituality. That’s the invitation she offered me, and it’s the invitation she offers you, too.
Jonah Venegas is a queer Asian Christian, poet, and blogger currently working on an M.A. to be a mental health therapist. He likes to talk and write about the intersections of faith, sexuality, mental health, how to change the world, and whatever anime might currently be occupying his headspace. He's also a fan of a good cup of green jasmine tea, androgynous outfits, and dry humor. Jonah currently blogs over at www.jonah-ven.com.