I was home for dinner on Sunday night. My Dad had his jazz music going in the kitchen where he was baking breaded fish and potatoes. My Mom was sitting with me in the living room asking about school and boys and activities (she’s not like a regular mom; she’s a cool mom). She asked if there were clubs at PC that I would consider joining if I had a little more time.
“Have you ever thought about trying out for Friars Club?”
“I mean, sure. They’re great people who do great things. But there is one club that’s first on my list if I ever get the time to join.”
“Which one, Matt?”
“The Anime Club!”
Well, there it is. Everything is out in the open now. My dirty little secret, the thing that I’ve been keeping locked up inside is that I’m all about anime.
The thing about animes is that, aside from being visually stunning, they incorporate valuable themes and lessons. These themes are conveyed through thematic, particularly difficult life situations often experienced by characters who are children. I grew up watching these children and marveling at their bravery, integrity, maturity and other-centeredness. Certainly Hercules, Aladdin, and Mulan were cool. But as role models they were relatively one dimensional and the lessons in their stories were predictable.
But animes… they’ve got far more going on. To give some examples, Akira contrasts the concepts of Power and God. Spirited Away is all about Friendship, Family and Courage. Princess Mononoke addresses the struggle between the immediate well being of people and the long-term goals of environmentalism (it’s also an eco-feminism piece). Neon Genesis Evangelion takes the viewer on an adventurous survey through the reality of competing wills and motivations, and critiques the purpose of community service.
Sometimes, unlike Disney but a lot like life, an anime doesn’t wrap up neatly and pleasantly. Being in college has had me referencing these themes and lessons I observed in my youth as they now become applicable to my life and relationships.
Howl’s Moving Castle is a story that has recently been on my mind. Based very loosely on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, this Anime is the story of a modest, demure girl named Sophie who works in a hat shop. A witch comes in at closing one evening and curses Sophie to appear as an old woman. Engulfed misery about her condition, Sophie goes to work as a cleaning lady for a disreputable young wizard named Howl who suffers a curse of his own; he has sold his soul to a shooting star in exchange for the power to stop a war. Quite a pair they make, Sophie bemoaning her unconventional looks and Howl crying dramatically when he accidently dyes his hair the wrong color.
The thing is that Sophie and Howl fall in love with each other.
Now, everyone has insecurities. I don’t consider myself uniquely insecure. All the same, I think that the question Sophie and Howl pose is fairly universal: how do you love someone, encourage them to be confident, tell them they are beautiful when you don’t believe it about yourself.
Well, this anime offers answers that question. Unlike an unfortunately idyllic “Made in the USA” romance that would have Ariel voicelessly being saved by a man she hardly knows, Howl and Sophie do something quite different. They save each other.
This begins with a somewhat whimsical “odd-couple” dynamic as they wreak harmless havoc in each other’s lives. But when they start fall in love, it happens that each is abundantly aware of the other’s inadequacies. Their love is a balance struck between supportive understanding and constructive challenges. It isn’t hyper-romantic. It’s real love.
Disney did us all a disservice. Even if you’re from the most privileged background, you’re not going to get the fairy-tale ending they set us up for. They gave us gender roles set us straight on the course for a marriage based on the quivering foundation of cinema magic.
But animes set you on a course for whatever might happen: death, love, mental illness, sexuality, unconventional family structures, old friends, faithlessness, Christ, etc. They gave me some tools that Disney chose not to. They’ve come in handy time and time again, and I’m pretty grateful.
I encourage you to try animes, or to dust off the ones you perhaps denied ever watching. After all, you never know when you’ll find a witch in your own hat shop.
 Disney International actually distributed Howl’s Moving Castle in the United States, but they did not have a hand in its conception.