This Is Fine. is a weekly newsletter from VICE about the personal tactics people use to make the world feel less harrowing. In this edition, Katie Way learns to focus—and make time for herself—by watching anime. Sign up here to receive an essay about a dealing-with-life strategy via This Is Fine. every other Sunday evening.
I spent my formative years frying my attention span with video games, audiobooks, and Tumblr’s sweet, infinite scroll, so I have roughly the same ability to focus as the dog from UP. The fact that I’m always consuming, favoring breadth over depth, is actually fine—and possibly even advantageous—from a career perspective, because my entire post-grad work life has involved writing for the internet.
But even if my focal deficiencies don’t totally screw me at work, they became a major issue once I moved away to college and every moment I was out of class could, hypothetically, become play time. Socializing, I was fine. But alone, I found it worrisome that I struggled to get through an episode of The Great British Baking Show without also window-shopping on SSENSE for ugly sneakers I basically already own, texting a friend or three, and checking Twitter just in case anything huge happened in the last two to five minutes.
I know my short attention span is not a unique affliction—a lot of people have trouble focusing. But I find it particularly challenging to enjoy anything I consume alone, because I never give myself space to be alone. The allure of scrolling and refreshing makes me available for conversation even when I don’t really want to be. What am I, not going to respond to someone’s response to my story when I’m already on Instagram? What if they’re waiting? I spun my wheels in this way until discovering the best balm for my tattered attention span—the one form of entertainment so compelling that it actually holds my focus for a whole 21 to 45 minutes: watching anime.
I was only dimly aware of the genre before college, and had no easy window to the deep cultural appreciation it receives in Japan. Even as an Asian-American, I was steeped in the Western world’s bias against it. I was admittedly subscribed to the wack and racist idea that anime is a step too far into the realm of Weirdo Nerd Shit, the province of late-stage Hot Topic shoppers and that kind of white guy. Like a lot of the other good, goofy things I love, my interest in anime was borne of a combination of boredom and the desire to “do a bit.” I was scanning Netflix in my dorm room, killing time between the end of midterms and Thanksgiving break, a little less than five years ago. When I landed a show called Attack on Titan, I was like, Damn. Wouldn’t it be funny if I "got into anime?”
Attack on Titan taught me otherwise. It's a political coming-of-age story played out against the backdrop of humanity’s violent struggle for survival against a flesh-eating humanoid hoard. It has sick action, consistently unpredictable plot lines and in-depth fantasy world-building. Like all of my favorite anime series, Attack on Titan is dynamic in a way most television just…isn’t. That’s largely due to the gorgeous, painstaking animation, but it’s also because anime doesn’t shy from extending imaginative conceits or plot elements into weirdness. Since it’s usually tied to existing, successful source material—manga, which I don’t usually read, but if I did, I would do it with my chest—there’s no hand-wringing about whether a story is too “out there” to connect with a wide audience because that audience already exists. The weirdest thing on American television right now is, like, The Masked Singer.
As of that day, I was an immediate anime convert, finally engaged enough with a TV show that the thought of picking up my phone and scrolling through nothing barely crossed my mind—especially because I literally couldn’t look away from the subtitles. I paid enough attention to actually remember what I’d just watched for more than three seconds after I shut my laptop. That hadn’t happened in what felt like years. Over time, I’ve grown more familiar with the tropes within the medium, but from the get-go, I was hooked on the depth and originality. There I was, the billionth person on earth to try out anime, only just finding out that the deeply weird can also be deeply engrossing and compelling.
And while anime remains one of my dorkier interests, nerd culture is mainstream now, and most of it isn’t half as good; Many of America’s biggest franchises want what anime precisely already has. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is sexed up and dumbed down in a bid for appeal—no offense to sex and stupidity, but if they’re not happening in the service of a killer plot, keep 'em. Game of Thrones, of course, could never.
I finished Attack on Titan before I flew home for Thanksgiving, Googling “best anime” in the airport. Back in the house I grew up in, I watched Death Note while taking a bubble bath, my mom knocking on the door to tell me I better not get my computer wet. I’ve been working through various “best of” lists ever since. (If you’re looking to dip your toes in: I always recommend the first season of One Punch Man, but Mob Psycho 100, Mononoke, and Another are all binge-able enough for a skeptic-turned-fan. DM me!!)
After I left my first full-time job with no plan other than vague “freelancing,” anime became my perfect, total break when my days pooled into each other as I maxed out my phone’s preset social media allowance before I got out of bed. Anime was my sweet release from multitasking and monetizing everything I’m interested in into content: Even though I like it more than anyone I hang out with, I haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to in-depth fan knowledge . (To paraphrase the third Batman movie: I merely adopted anime. Some people’s identities were born there.)
Even now that I have a new job, with the clear separation between work and fun that a salaried gig affords, anime is a break from other kinds of labor—the kind that maintains friendships and relationships, but can also become exhausting. It’s so nice to spend time doing something most of my friends don’t respect because they mistakenly think it’s juvenile, pointless, freaky, and confusing. (So what? So is everything!) Do you know how good it feels to say, “Sorry, I can't double-check the text you were going to send to your non-boyfriend about grabbing a drink on Friday, I'm watching anime?” Or, “Oh no, you can go ahead and catch up on Big Little Lies without me, I'm actually watching anime right now?” Even, “Sure, I’ll definitely take a look at your cover letter…after I finish watching anime?” I love talking to my friends. I’m never going to be a “237 unread messages” person, and I’ve never even pretended to go on a social media cleanse. In its incremental way, taking time to watch anime forces me to respect my own boundaries.
The productivity-addled part of my brain occasionally wonders if it would it be better—would I be better—if my favorite self-soothing activity were something “constructive,” like cooking; or running; or writing an emotionally resonant, witty, cuttingly observational novel about modern life. Maybe. But even though I know watching anime probably isn't reading-level brain-building, it still reassures me that I can actually follow something closely enough that I don't have to circle back to a Wikipedia plot summary or rewind a trillion times in order to understand what's going on. And it doesn’t hurt that “what’s going on” is some of the most inventive, engaging TV I’ve ever seen, and, blessedly, barely have to talk about to anyone.
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