This is how it was to be a preteen anime fan in 1999: you rush home every day after school and turn on Toonami. If your bus isn’t late, there will be whole episodes of Sailor Moon, Gundam Wing, and Pokémon. If you don’t have cable, you must rely on friends to explain the episode at lunch, hunched as close as the slabbed tables will let them. The anime reenactments have always sat with you better than the gossip about which classmate’s boyfriend is fake or who forgot to put on deodorant.
You like drama and romance, but it’s all so much better when it’s a girl like you—who hates homework and brushing her teeth and would rather sleep late—saving her friends and family from monsters disguised as parents or teachers. Someone who fights in a skirt and heeled boots, whose tiara is a sharpened discus. These are the things that seem important.
Did you hear what Stacey said about you during math class? someone will ask.
Stacey is a popular girl, who doesn’t like you after you both turn eleven, and suddenly there’s something to prove. Stacey proves with trendy clothes—chunky boots, flared jeans, babydoll t-shirts—and snide remarks.
“What kind of jeans are those?” she asks, eyeing the half-moon cuts on the bottom of your jeans.
You wondered, then, how she could be so confident, how she managed to have so many friends. Later, you’ll be surprised in high school when the popular crowd knows your name, has a genuine smile for you. You had been sure you were unnoticeable.
You wear what makes you feel comfortable and covered. Whatever’s clean.
You don’t do much proving. You’d rather prove whatever it is with leaving home to do field research or joining an underground rebellion, not worrying over clothes or identifying the taxonomic category of animals.
In Pallet Town, you’d be setting out to explore the wider world, identify and catch pokémon. As an adult, you recognize seventh-grade science’s usefulness, but at twelve, it was all very unimportant. Instead, you would rather face down an ecological terror group, watch Articuno—your Articuno, the one you trudged through an icy cave to find—burst forward in a flash of light, unfurl its wings. An avalanche at the ready. The terrorists call you a stupid kid, threaten to take your pokémon. Let them try, you think, challenge rippling in the air like a thundershock.
You’d even be okay proving by fighting in a miniskirt, though you didn’t much like your legs then. But learning you have a greater destiny and a past life as the guardian of a planet must transcend the body consciousness. Surely you wouldn’t be nearly paralyzed with fear if you could control fire, water, or time itself. If you could heal monsters, fight crime, and hide it all from your parents. Maybe there isn’t room for worries during the transformation.
You’d even take political differences fought out in giant robots, and so what if you’re a crier? The most successful pilot, the first to grapple with the bodies in his wake, is a crier. He smiles easily, forgives without being asked, and fights in the final battle, nearly bleeding out from a stab wound.
The pilots might be all men, but the women do the real work: organizing rebellions, advocating for peace, hiding allies. It can’t be easy to pilot a robot that is half explosives, but there’s no planning. You show up to fight, but only because someone infiltrated the enemy base, carried intel back, squeezed a message to you. Someone who did it all in a canvas uniform and boots, with a smile and steady hand.
You watch these shows until the homemade VHS tapes wear. Until your friend with cable and DSL connection that can download eight kilobytes a second, tells you there is anime at the mall.
This is what you do: save for weeks. Buy Animerica Magazine and pour over features on recently-translated anime. Ask for recommendations on the AOL message boards. Hunt down Suncoast and search the shelves. If you’re lucky, the volume you want will be there—then: dubbed or subbed? Each VHS has four episodes, sometimes fewer, and at $25, is an investment.
This is what you discover: not all anime is good. Translations are full of mistakes. Networks are terrified of same-sex relationships and think that by labeling two women as cousins, they can effectively make it all less weird.
Female characters are sketched out at best, fall in love with men who threaten to kill them. It’s the same story you find in books: a main male character, a female love interest or sidekick. Rarely is she the hero of her own story. But when she is, it’s magical—a mirror and sword tucked away in someone’s heart. A deck of cards that can cause floods, windstorms, or the sun to vanish.
An NR rating does not necessarily mean suitable for all audiences. People might be dismembered, gutted, a spill of roped organs. Sometimes, there’s sex. Not graphic, but enough for a twelve-year-old to be embarrassed, to be blindsided by this particular plot device (because that is what it is for, in this story), to try and explain to her friend she had no idea it was there.
The anime available at Blockbuster is a patchy, uneven collection. Your sister will be annoyed when she has to return your rentals and the clerks get excited, try to talk to her about whatever series you tried. You imagine these clerks are disappointed to learn it was a 12-year-old renting the anime and not your older sister.
This is what it does: allows you to escape. You have things to do. There are worlds beyond your suburb, places with space to try on new, truthful versions of you. Places where you can finally say I’m queer, not keep it tucked away, eclipsing part of yourself. Once you leave, once you find these places and the version of you that still has those VHSes, those stacks of Animerica Magazine, you won’t remember very much of what Stacey said to you. Instead, you remember those half-moon jeans years later, think you’d pack them before leaving Pallet Town. Instead, you remember heeled boots, a smile, a steady hand.
Emily Capettini is the author of Thistle, winner of Omnidawn’s Fabulist Fiction Chapbook Contest and assistant editor with Sundress Publications. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Originally from Batavia, IL, she now lives in Terre Haute, IN, where she is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Fiction at Indiana State University.