Most of my life I’ve been a stealth nerd. I was a solitary punk kid, with patched jeans and a bad attitude. Most people would never have guessed that I owned more Dungeons and Dragons books than albums (or that I owned a Rurouni Kenshin t-shirt that I only wore on weekends). While most of my outward expressions of punk politics and fashion have slowly disappeared, I am still not read as a cliche nerd, so it typically comes as a surprise when I tell people about my interests.
All of this is to say, it’s summer and without school in the way I’ve been watching a lot of anime. I think for people who don’t have an interest in it, anime often gets reduced to a single genre, rather than what it is: a broad medium containing a wealth of different subgenres. I have pretty eclectic taste and watch everything from Magical Girl (like Sailor Moon) to hard sci-fi, from crime dramas, to giant mech anime. But I’ve always had the most love for a subgenre called shonen.
For those who don’t watch anime or read manga, shonen roughly translates to “boy comics” and encompasses stories targeted at boys age 8-18. Unlike its “female” counterpart shojo, these stories tend to include a far smaller range of themes and kinds of stories. The most common form of shonen is the “battle anime,” focusing on a young male protagonist and the camaraderie of a sports teams or fighting squads as they struggle to be the best.
I could spend all day discussing the gendered politics of anime and manga culture, the kinds of stories certain genders are allowed to take part in (as well as the ways in which these rules are broken), as well as the various examples of transphobia in anime (particularly in the 90s), but none of these topics are what have been on my mind as I watched.
Whenever you look at a fantasy, whether it is a novel, a videogame, an anime, (unless it was written by Bertold Brecht) there is some level of escapism involved (although that said, I would pay good money for a game written by the ghost of Brecht). Good writing creates characters which the audience can project themselves on to. At its core, most fiction is selling a fantasy on which to superimpose yourself.
So why is someone like me, a womxn assigned male at birth, so drawn to this boy’s club? It isn’t even that femme-centric battle anime don’t exist. Sailor Moon and other magical girl anime offer this same kind of action, but with young girls at the center. The difference is in theme. While both shonen and shojo battle anime offer a similar premise, the fantasy they are selling ultimately differs.
Oftentimes shojo focuses on the team dynamic, how strengthening teamwork and the bond between members is the ultimate route to victory. On the other hand shonen tends to focus on the protagonists ongoing desire to better themselves. The challenges are not to the strength of the group, but ultimately the skill, maturity, and discipline of the individual.
For me it’s a matter of nostalgia. I haven’t always been disabled. My condition is a degenerative one with my spine, and by extension my nervous system, degrading with each year. At seventeen my back pain first became severe. By eighteen I had developed a pronounced limp. At twenty-one I needed a cane to walk anything more than a short distance. One day I will be confined to a wheelchair. But years before that, I was fine. More than fine, I was a two-sport athlete. I worked out every day, before and after school, and now sometimes I struggle to sit up from bed on my own.
There is a vicarious joy in seeing these characters overcome immense physical barriers simply through self-improvement. More so because the typical shonen protagonist is an outcast. Whether they are a shy nerdy kid or, like Boku No Hero Academia’s Izuku Midoriya, Bleach’s Ichigo Kurosaki, or Yu Yu Hakusho’s Yusuke Urameshi, a non-superhuman character thrust into a superhuman world, all of these characters represent a potential that my disabled body doesn’t hold.
Oftentimes the discussion of representation in media centers on the lack of trans, disabled, and POC characters displayed in media. This is something I consider a lot when watching or reading. Particularly because characters with disabilities so often conform to either an image of helplessness, or the super-crip myth (characters so empowered by, or despite, their disability that they are superhuman, like Daredevil or Professor X), when we are represented at all.
Like many fantasy worlds, anime rarely carves out a space in its fiction for disabled characters. And I’ve always known this going in. But I don’t watch anime to see bodies like mine. I watch it to see characters struggle and succeed, to overcome impossible odds. I think there is so much rhetoric that to own our disabilities we must never feel shame, never want to be able bodied. But sometimes I watch shonen to indulge in the fantasy, for just a moment, of a body nothing like mine.
torrin a. greathouse (they/them or she/her) is a genderqueer, cripple-punk from Southern California. They are the Editor-in-Chief of Black Napkin Press. Their poetry is published/forthcoming in Duende, Apogee, Frontier, Lunch Ticket, & Assaracus. She is a 2016 Best New Poets, Bettering American Poetry, and Pushcart Prize nominee, and semifinalist for the Adroit Poetry Prize. torrin’s first chapbook, Therǝ is a Case That I Ɐm, is forthcoming from Damaged Goods Press in 2017.