Why Troubled Youth Love Anime, and Why You Should Too (Part 2)
By Ryan Kelly, PhD
Last week, in Part One, I gave an overview of anime and it’s importance for today’s youth. Today, I go into more depth on the ties between anime and troubled youth.
The Formulaic Narrative
Look, I dig anime, six feet deep, but I can’t ignore the formulaic narrative that is repeatedly used among popular anime. As a note, most popular anime series are of the “Shonen” genre, which is typically geared towards teenage boys. Here is the formula.
A rejected teenage boy (who likely lost a parent) is disadvantaged relative to his environment
The boy develops a goal that everyone says is impossible to achieve
Some sort of wise and quirky sensei or stranger gets a glimpse of something special within the boy, like an exceptional skill, but doesn’t tell the boy because why give him hope or a sense of self-worth?
Training and/or an insightful adventure ensues
A conflict arises that affects the community
The boy rises to meet the challenge whilst people continue to rag on him
The boy gets to the brink of failure, prompting a flashback of past failures and rejection
The boy rages, refusing to be the failure everyone says he is, and then literally explodes with power to achieve victory
The boy has discovered a new personal strength and has saved the community who still rag on him, because why not?
Rinse and repeat until the boy achieves his goal and is acknowledged by his peers
I don’t mean to oversimplify anime narratives, but seriously a LOT of them follow this formula, and it’s actually OK. As repetitive as it is, this formula provides troubled youths with an inspiring story of resilience in the face of crippling adversity. It tells them that no matter how hopeless, weak, and rejected they may feel, there is something special within them – a powerful potential to be achieved– that will help them succeed and flourish. It suggests that no matter how daunting an obstacle may be (whether it be dealing with a bully or defeating a pseudo-god) or how much others doubt you, if you believe in yourself, remain strong and work hard, you can overcome it. Ultimately, it encourages them to have hope.
Everyone wants to be happy, and to garner love, respect, and power (e.g., control). This is especially true for those who are unhappy, or who feel like their psychological needs are not being met. Young children rely primarily on family for such approval and self-worth; however, an essential part of adolescence is becoming less dependent on family and more dependent on peers. As a mob, teenagers are a cruel bunch, and are even crueler to those who are unique and different. This can also be observed in the formulaic narrative found in anime. The family is often killed off, thrusting the protagonist to look towards their peers to meet their psychological needs; however, because the protagonist is so different and their peers are heartless toolbags, the protagonist must again look elsewhere. They must look inside themselves to find self-dependence and a sense of self-worth, and to learn how to adapt to their environment. As this happens, they begin to be acknowledged by their peers, and also tend to adopt a family of sorts. In this way, anime is an allegory for the strife of adolescence. Fortunately for viewers, there is always a happy ending (more or less… sometimes it’s brutal, actually, but rarely). So, if you’re an adolescent looking for something to relate to, or you’re someone who wants to better understand how troubled youngsters are feeling, Naruto, Attack on Titan and Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood are all available on Netflix, primed and ready for bingeing.
**As a note, many good animes tackle very mature themes (e.g., honor, murder, betrayal, which is arguable another reason they like it so much), as well as mature visuals (i.e., blood, gore, nudity). Always check the rating at the top left – often times a censored version is available, too**
Anime characters embody mental illness and victimization
This is true, and it’s really no surprise, as many anime writers themselves have struggled with mental illness and social ridicule. For example, the creator of Neo Genesis Evangelion, Hideaki Anno, suffered from depression and psychosis. In fact, he actually wrote the original ending during a psychotic break. If you ever want to see an abstract rendering of psychosis, watch the original two-part ending of NGE; it’s bananas-in-pajamas crazy, but also a unique depiction of mental illness. Another good example is the author of Attack on Titan, Hajime Isayama. Reportedly, he was frequently bullied as a child, and claims that those experiences are what originally lead him to anime and continue to shape his works.
In every anime, you can find at least one main character that could easily be diagnosed with a mental illness, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), a mood or anxiety disorder, or Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). I will review a handful of characters from popular anime series that fall into common mental health categories, along with a few examples of how they meet the criterion, and will follow up with a discussion on why this is so significant. As a very important note, although diagnoses are inherently made by identifying problems, many mental health conditions are accompanied by unique strengths, too. These strengths are important to note, because they are often what make these individuals exceptional and allow them to develop extraordinary resiliency.
ADHD is one the most common childhood brain disorders, and generally refers to marked impairments in regulating attention and energy. People with ADHD often have poor executive skills (e.g., disorganized) and difficulty with self-inhibition and regulation. However, they have also been shown to demonstrate notable strengths, such as greater athletic ability, creativity, sense of humor, social engagement and empathy. Two examples of anime characters with ADHD include Naruto Uzumaki and Monkey D. Luffy.
Naruto is a young boy studying to be a ninja, and he easily fits the bill. Because of his inattention, he hates studying, bombs his tests, gets in trouble for not listening, and often forgets instructions. He is notoriously disorganized and messy, is usually running late and is often losing things. Because of his hyperactivity, he impulsively says or does things that he immediately regrets, gets in trouble for being rambunctious, finds himself in dangerous situations and is usually bothersome to those around him. However, Naruto never gives up. He excels at things that require trial and error learning, and has more energy and stamina then his peers. Because of this, he excels in hands-on tasks, can practice harder and longer, and can push himself past normal limits. Although he is not good at traditional problem-solving, he is often thinking outside of the box and being creative. Furthermore, although he tends to lack social grace, he is extremely outgoing and has unlimited empathy for even the worst of enemies.
Luffy is a young, ambitious pirate, and is very similar to Naruto in many ways. Because of his deficits, he often finds himself making bad decisions, rarely gives much thought to what he says or does, and is easily frustrated with anything that involves reading or being patient. He is rarely prepared for fights (that he starts), as he neglects to analyze the situation or inhibit himself. He also has a quick temper. However, for similar reasons as Naruto, Luffy excels. He takes advantage of his high energy and ability to hyper-focus in order to train more efficiently and motivate himself and his crew. Because of his goofy, carefree attitude, in addition to having great qualities as a friend, Luffy surrounds himself with solid companions who care for him, though they do get frustrated with him from time to time.
Mood and Anxiety Disorders
Not including lifetime prevalence, roughly 5-12% of children and adolescents are diagnosed with a mood and/or anxiety disorder. Although these disorders are distinct, they are usually “comorbid” with one-another (i.e., co-occuring). People with these disorders generally engage in irrational, negative thinking, ruminate about worrying or depressing life events, isolate themselves and have greater difficulty adjusting to their environment. They also may somatize (i.e., express psychological distress physically), especially young children, or have irregular eating and sleeping habits. However, they have also been shown to demonstrate notable strengths, such as exceptional creative abilities (e.g., music, art) and greater self-awareness. Furthermore, when managed, those with anxiety are often more motivated to succeed. Two examples of anime characters who struggle with mood and anxiety problems include Tatsuhiro Satou and Shinji Ikari.
Satou is a 22-year-old “hikikomori”, which is essentially the Japanese word for agoraphobic. His anxiety confines him to his room, where he frets about every little thing and struggles with some paranoia. His condition is bleak, and because of this, he is very depressed and engages in suicidal ideation. However, despite his hopelessness, his story is about breaking the confines of his condition and pursuing social engagement. As a note, this anime can either be therapeutic or contribute to negative thinking, but in any case, it is a fair depiction of what it is to be clinically anxious and depressed.
Shinji is a young boy who has been called upon his distant father to pilot a “mecha suit” – a weaponized robotic suit – despite suffering from clinical depression and anxiety. Sometimes he is isolating himself and ruminating on his loss of the will to live, while other times he is proud of being an exceptional pilot and having skills that others do not possess. He is often seeking approval from his father and peers, seemingly as a way to make up for his sense of self-worthlessness. As a note, what makes this anime great is that it’s been directly tied as a projection of the author’s own mental state.
Though technically no longer a separate diagnosis, AS is a high-functioning form of autism that generally refers to marked impairments in social interaction and communication, as well as repetitive behaviors, pervasive interests and/or sensory issues. People with AS, or “aspies”, often have difficulty understanding and interacting with those around them, grasping conceptual ideas like emotions, and adjusting to their environment. However, they have also been shown to demonstrate very notable strengths. Some of these strengths include greater cognitive abilities, extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge and experience in their “special interest area” (e.g., art, history, computers), unique splinter skills (e.g., art, composing music), and generally some of the coolest kids you’ll ever have the pleasure to know. Two great examples of anime characters with AS include Sai Yamanaka and “L”.
Sai is a young ninja assassin that befriends Naruto in the Shippuden series. He is often a form of comic relief because he hasn’t the faintest idea of how to interpret social nuance, cues, or nonverbal language. Like many aspies, he attempts to engage socially, but often comes off awkward or abrasive. When he is not drawing or fighting, he is seen reading books to try and learn how to engage with his peers and understanding social interactions. Sai’s special interest area is painting, and like many aspies, he excels in his own area. He even infuses his painting into his fighting style, and is able to bring his works to life. Although Sai has great difficulty making friends because of his weaknesses, his ability to look for other solutions and use his strengths to buffer his weaknesses make him a valued member of the Naruto team.
“L” is a world-renowned detective who takes on investigating a supernatural serial killer. For the vast majority of his life, and for a large part of the anime, he is painfully isolated. Like many aspies, this appears to be because his chronic failures to form relationships have disheartened him to even try. In addition to difficulties similar to Sai, “L” has very odd and seemingly uncoordinated movements, as well as very particular eating habits. He also appears to suffer from a serious sleep disorder, which is not so uncommon among aspies. But “L” is a genius. His ability to think logically is off the charts, which is what makes him such a great detective. Furthermore, like many aspies, he bravely decides once again to attempt to form relationships, despite a lifetime of failures.
Victims of Bullying
How about for this one, you make me a list of all the Shonen protagonists that have NOT experienced bullying on some level. I guarantee you, though, not even Taylor Swift could write a name on the blank space that you’ll call your “list”.
Update: The author apologizes for his recent fixation on awkwardly force-fitting Taylor Swift lyrics into his articles, but please know that it will happen again. Don’t say we didn’t, say we didn’t warn ya.
These are just a few examples of anime characters that struggle with mental health conditions, but assuming you’re still with me: what is the significance of anime characters embodying mental illness or victimization? The answer is that it helps troubled youths (1) identify with a positive character that shares their strengths and weaknesses, (2) learn about resilience as it directly relates to their own obstacles in life, and (3) vicariously experience the successes achieved by the characters. It also helps parents and peers of troubled youths to better understand what they are going through, and even provides education and resources regarding their condition. Lastly, it helps troubled youths and their loved ones identify the problem that may have otherwise been misunderstood. Here is a great article by a girl who recognized her depression and sought help thanks to anime: http://www.buzzfeed.com/jeanlucbouchard/how-an-anime-series-helped-me-recognize-my-depression#.ah7j3R9nD
Anime has a lot to offer, and can quite possibly serve as a therapeutic form of entertainment to troubled youths, thanks to the art style, formulaic narratives and relatable characters who embody mental illness and victimization. For others, anime can be very enjoyable in itself (though admittedly you may have to wade through some TERRIBLE anime to get to that goods), while also implicitly spreading awareness and education about those who have unique, often difficult sets of strengths and weaknesses. If you are a parent of a troubled youth and have questions or concerns regarding anything discussed, please feel free to write a message in the comment section below.
Now, if I might end on a Taylor Swift quote: “So he calls me up and he’s like, ‘I still love you,’ and I’m like, ‘I just… I mean this is exhausting, you know, like: We are never getting back together. Like, ever.”
This originally was posted on ShrinkTank.com and has been replicated with permission.