In more ways than one, anime permeated my childhood.
In elementary school, it was “Pokémon” in the basement on Saturday nights. Enchanted as I peeled tangerines, I watched Ash Ketchum battle mythical creatures and gym bosses in his tireless quest to “catch ’em all.” When college rolled around, I tilted my iPad screen just like that and slipped bits of “Future Diary” between the Pythagorean Theorem worksheets. Four years later, the night before the SAT, I was sipping mocha in a cafe, engrossed in a dramatic confrontation between Naruto and Sasuke in the pouring rain.
Each period of my life has corresponded to different shows, to different obsessions. Rewatching a favorite, I distinctly remember the landscapes and people, the anxiety and yearning that marked the time when I first watched it. Anime became an accidental way to piece together a timeline of my past.
It’s no surprise that anime followed me to Harvard. The summer after my freshman year, I saw “Tokyo Ghoul” again on the Korean subway, looking up intermittently from my phone as the crystal blue Han River rushed thousands of feet below me. In sophomore year, I crammed “Hunter x Hunter” between readings of Derrida and Fanon, screaming in my dorm at 4 a.m. because the two leads’ relationship reminded me so much of the one I had with my own twin.
I enjoyed the genre for more than one reason. I watched because it was both funny and ridiculous (it was often funny because it was ridiculous), and because there were seeds of unorthodox creativity and joy in that ridiculousness. I watched because it offered a complex amalgamation of melancholy and humor that I found lacking in many of its Western counterparts. I watched because it was very childish at times and, moments later, surprisingly wise.
Most of the time, though, I kept coming back to the anime because I could watch it with minimal guilt. Looking back, it’s clear that I at least partially bought into the normative view of anime as a second-class form of entertainment. While nifty movies or shows demanded a seated vibe and undivided attention, anime episodes rarely exceeded 20 minutes. They could be piled up before a meal, or after a shower, or between readings. While waiting in a winding queue or between subway stops, I killed time with an episode. Even with a busy schedule, I told myself that I only watch anime to fill in the downtime.
Like many people around me, I had grown accustomed to using a vocabulary steeped in contractual and violent terms – ‘death’, ‘killing’, ‘wasting’ – to describe the way I maintained and managed parts. of my time which I found impractical, which did not produce visible indicators of results or progress. I rationalized my fondness for anime as a result.
Some may dismiss any serious attempt 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 measurable currency – are demonstrably clear. As a society, we fear unfilled time. And as we do with most things that evoke fear, we choose to view it as something to be mastered, rather than existing in communion with or flowing away.
Keeping that logic, I should have felt miserable, or at least anxious, at times while watching anime. After turning off my phone or closing my laptop, I had nothing to show for the twenty minutes (or forty minutes, or three hours) I had just “wasted” watching pixelated characters rush across the screen. Yet I often felt buoyant and content, sometimes even intellectually revitalized. I had wasted my time and had a lot of fun doing it, and I was ready to reapply myself to the task before me.
Of course, sometimes I felt guilty. In college, my parents drove the five of us to Wisconsin for a weekend. If I got up early, I followed my father to his favorite café in town, much more endearing than the Starbucks teeming with tourists. Inside, vintage bicycles in sparkling olive green and mauve hung from the burnished planks of the walls. I always had the same order: a pumpkin and chocolate chip muffin and a hibiscus tea. Then, while my father was taking the exams, I watched Kirito fight the bosses to clear the floors of Aincrad and Kaneki decimate the ghouls. I slumped in our shared cabin, nose to screen, sheepishly gazing at his pile of essays on the implications of international trade.
During the hours I spent with my screen, I could have read or written, pursued projects or had conversations with my family or friends. Instead, I had done, as I sometimes lamented 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 fully engage in an activity not because it was a stepping stone to a bigger or more marketable goal, but rather for the simple fact that it was fun. They helped me resist—and eventually criticize—the urge to articulate a valid reason for everything I did. Watching anime has allowed me to take charge of my own interests and desires.
As I became aware of how watching cartoons helped me escape a perverse relationship with “empty” time, my understanding of other activities, such as writing, also changed. During high school vacation, I remember sitting in 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 no line.
The cursor represented an exciting and sometimes terrifying potential: By writing, I could create something. I could construct an idea that touched people, that might even change them in a big way or not.
The idea both stimulated and worried me. I would sit in the cafe for hours, literally watching the sky change color. People were coming and going. A couple fought. Friends shared a cappuccino, magenta lipstick staining the edge of the glass. A toddler walked in, knocking over four cups of free water, and his mother arrived minutes later to pick him up. I watched them lazily from behind my laptop as she looked at her soaked jeans.
Contrary to what it seemed, I was at work, engrossed in the demanding labor of observing the dynamism of ordinary life. These days of vacation in the Korean capital doing nothing have resulted in a sometimes illuminating but above all frustrating stasis. There was so much I wanted to say and document and celebrate and question, but my fingers weren’t moving. I felt tired, even though I hadn’t done much as I put my laptop away and headed home for the day.
Generally speaking, I worked while watching cartoons: thinking and visualizing, making judgments and making connections. The work, however, was distinctly interior. As a result, the result of this work was reserved for me, and its present value took time to materialize, often in unexpected ways: a scene I had watched months or even years before, helped me to begin to writing a poem, or choosing a color for my new phone, or giving obscure insight into a thorny civics issue we were discussing in class.
If there is no tangible result from an arbitrary period of time that we allow ourselves, we call this time “disposable time”. As with so many things, we cannot resist the temptation to drench this time in the language of morality: these are fundamentally insignificant times, we tell ourselves, times that can and should be brushed aside or forgotten. Yet it was precisely the moments I had once dismissed as unnecessary that were often the most grounded and human. They allowed me to decompress and imagine, reposition myself and rest. They did not require an exit from me that was visible or otherwise readable to the larger world I inhabited; time was precious not because of what I produced, but because I chose what I wanted to do with it.
At Harvard, we talk about time in terms of mastery and fear. In an effort to optimize for maximum productivity, we choose to look beyond the extremely intuitive fact that humans don’t operate like well-oiled machines. Of course, it’s hard to resist the urge to conduct your own life as an experiment once in a while – and exhilarating when, for a brief moment, that experiment works. Inevitably, however, there is a relapse. Despite our improved performance, we feel empty or exhausted and begin to wonder what the punitive diligence we demanded of ourselves was really for.
My love of anime has given me countless moments of fun, humor, and joy. It is also, however, a rejection of our collective impulse to reject time that does not give us what we ask of it. The times spent alone, laughing or crying about things no one else has seen or understood; the mundane hours which, with hindsight, made the difference. When I talk about anime, I’m talking about time.