As an aesthetic, anime is not in my wheelhouse. I am enamored with efficient and concise storytelling, development that doesn’t over-explain, but trusts its viewers to put two and two together and doesn’t feel the need to devote 40% of its time recapping itself. So, me watching anime is by design an exercise of patience I did not know I possessed. I’m the same guy who praises the fact that Breaking Bad told an incredible and self-contained story in a mere 60 episodes, so when it takes me 4 hours of Naruto to watch one fight scene on a bridge, you can sense my frustration.
The summer of 2014 changed everything. Except it didn’t. Already coming off of the very public trial of George Zimmerman and being prepped for the trial of Michael Dunn, two men that fatally shot and killed young and unarmed Black boys claiming self-defense, the shooting death of Michael lit the spark that would burn from city to city. Protests became more visible and more frequent. And with protests come closet racists waiting for their moment to shine. With every new Black person killed for nothing came a legion of folks on everybody’s Facebook fan page giving their very honed and expert definition of what a thug was. Suddenly, the most self-professed Godly folks were telling us what the death penalty should be or who deserved death for existing. I was finding myself in daily arguments with people I had known for over a decade, defending the lives of people who no longer were alive to defend themselves.
I would look across the table and watch people arguing for a system that needed no defense (because obviously, if people can kill Black people with no cause or impunity and escape punishment, then that system is still “working” and unthreatened). Imagine going to a casino and witnessing the dealer cheating, which causes you to lose hundreds of dollars. You walk outside mad, feeling helpless and defeated as you vocally let people know how the casino cheated you. Then a civilian, with no attachment to the casino, comes up to you and begins arguing on behalf of the casino. Can you imagine how frustrating that would be? Well, now replace hundreds of dollars with an ostracized population that continues to needlessly lose their lives that looks just like you. That might bring you to a breaking point quicker than you can imagine.
I began watching Naruto for two reasons: out of convenience because the first seasons were on Netflix, and I needed to fill the hours. I needed to break with the trolls and debates and All Lives Matter folks and what’s appropriation and solidarity for White women and why are they changing Captain America to Black and… and… and… and all that had dominated my life for the previous year. I was tired of logging on to social media just so White guys I knew when I was 17 years old could tell me what my experience actually was as if I hadn’t bled in this skin for over 30 years. I was tired of having arguments with people about race who had no investment in it, which is like explaining physics to folks who never had the agency to perfect basic math, and it tired me out.
I didn’t need another TV show or comic book or things that were already part of my routine. I needed something “other” for me. Something that took me out of the rut of repeating returns on my daily quest to not choke someone out because they felt I was a cool enough guy, but under the “right” circumstances, I would deserve to die too because of White fragility. That’s when I went left and decided to take my talents to the Hidden Leaf Village.
It is hard, also, to run a website like Black Nerd Problems that loves anime like it does and not want to dip your toe in. It has long made me wonder about the allure of anime, especially for my fellow nerds of color. I can’t speak for them all, but what I found, what I didn’t expect, was basically magic. The very brief list of animes that I have been drawn to have a defining characteristic: The conflicts and dangers of the world they inhabit are so big and vast that the heroes that rise to the challenges must be big and vast in their ability as well. They feel limitless and ambitious and unstoppable. They feel hard to kill. Like I said, I needed something different injected into my routine.
Before I began writing this, we had not heard the Grand Jury decision on officer Tim Loehmann, the cop that shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio last year. But we knew the decision before it was announced. The defense used the usual tactics: Tamir looked bigger and older than he actually was, he looked dangerous and threatening, the officer feared for his own safety. Like the gasp in an anime when someone says something surprising, you’ve heard this all before. Many, many times. But at least in the anime, characters might possess these Hulk-like powers that Mike Brown suddenly had that made him such a threat. At least in an anime, a Black boy might have a substitution jutsu that leaves a bullets ripping through a log instead of his own torso.
At this point, I would probably try to draw some parallel of Tamir or Jordan or Renisha or Mike or Eric or Tanisha or Tony or Walter or … in an analogy of what they could’ve been, but that’s not particularly fair to the slain. In anime or fiction period, we watch young and ambitious characters know very early on what their goals and motivations are. Eren Jaeger wants nothing more than to kill Titans as a teenager. Naruto Uzumaki is determined to become Hokage and this becomes his life mission at 14 years old. Do we have any idea what Tamir wanted to do with his life? We know Sandra Bland was starting a new job, but was that going to be the extent of her future? I’m what you would call a pretty stable, privileged, and well to do family man in his mid-30s and what I do as a career now is not what I plan to retire on.
I’m twice as old as Mike Brown lived to be and when I’m not mad about that, I’m feeling guilty about it. I feel guilty that I once walked in the street and survived. I feel guilty I once exited my car because a cop told me to and only went home with sore ribs when I was later slammed against my own car. My dive into anime has let me escape into a place where Eric Garner’s loss of oxygen triggered something in him that gave him amazing strength and threw his assailants, the police officers, off of him and saved his life. Or where Renisha (who was not a criminal) had Michiko Malandro’s ability and the reflexes to dodge the shotgun blast that killed her. I’ll never convince myself that place actually exists, but I need to be able to visit. I need to be able to check out of a reality that is realer for people that look like me than it is for most.
This post could’ve been about how the Uchiha Clan in Naruto is depicted sounds a lot like how Black folks were treated after the Reconstruction Era. Or how Mugen in Japanese means “without limits” or “limitless” and the irony of Darrien Hunt cosplaying Mugen when he was killed, for how that speaks to the moments we try to bring our magic into the real world. And sometimes, while watching anime, it is exactly that. But it isn’t always. It shouldn’t have to be. None of this, should be.
Sometimes, I’ll watch a couple hours of a new anime and wonder what the hell I just did with my evening. And then others leaving me completely enthralled with some imaginative mythology I would’ve never thought of. But it’s a few hours spent not thinking about what Black girl or boy, (transgender) woman or man got killed for no reason, today. Often, that’s enough.