For most of my adult life, I’ve put on this guise of being an old, world-weary man who had it all figured out. Even when I was 24, I would look around at 18-year-old college students, and I would say, “Jesus. You’re all young. Wait until the stiletto heel of life comes around and pins you to the ground.”
Yes. I was an obnoxious 24-year-old.
Partially, it was a defense mechanism because I was ashamed that I hadn’t lived my dream life. I had failed out of one college due to an undiagnosed case of depression. I was back in school feeling slightly awkward because I was older than most people around me. They all seemed to have their lives together. So I wanted to pretend I did too. That I was old and wise and knew stuff.
To be fair, even 20 years later, I’m still trying to pretend that I have my shit together, and I know what I’m talking about.
After a while pretending to be old turned into actually being middle-aged. I never imagined that I would see 44, and now that I have, well, I’m not sure I’m that much wiser than I was before.
But my hip likes to remind me that I am older. I am definitely older.
One of the things I noticed around the time I hit my mid-30s is that I became unable to accurately judge the age of anyone younger than 22. They all formed this mass of 16 – 21 people. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some brilliant teenagers. These kids are already light-years ahead of me.
But they all look like kids.
(Alongside this, people my age actually look younger to me than people who were 45 when I was 18.)
But you might be asking, “Isn’t this an anime blog? When is he going to start talking about anime?” Well, I’m going to start right now.
When I first started watching anime in college in 1996, I wasn’t so far divorced from the teenagers I saw on the screen. I had the world ahead of me. I, too, could imagine that a strange goddess would somehow come to live with me in my apartment with her two sisters.
The idea of anime high school wasn’t so divorced from who I was at the time. I had just left high school. In a lot of ways, these stories were my stories.
When I started buying anime in the 2000s, I was still not so divorced from high school. Sure it had been 10 years, but I still lived in a world full of hope that my life would work out the way I always dreamed it would.
Life always has a way of happening. During that time, I met a great woman, got married, and I have a happy, if sedate, life. Now that I’ve been out of school longer than I ever was in it, I’ve started watching more anime. And I’ve come face-to-face with a difficult question: Am I too old for anime high school?
Youth and its importance in storytelling
If you ask a dozen people what one thing they are tired of in anime is, you are sure to get at least one person who answers, “anime high school.”
But I want to clarify that I’m not bagging on stories set in high school. It makes an excellent setting for a story. First and foremost, you have a cast of people who are in an awkward situation of trying to be social, trying to learn and trying to grow up all at the same time.
That’s not to mention that teens are still learning how to interact with each other and the world. They’re trying to determine who they are.
On top of not having anything figured out, teens have enough history to be shaped by it. They can have legitimately traumatic events happen to them, and because they can’t process it, those events become even more traumatic.
In the U.S., you only need to look at the filmography of John Hughes to see a career made of peddling this kind of high school coming of age story.
On top of that, high school is one of the few times in life when people will have more free time than they spend working or taking care of their family. Basically, they just have fewer responsibilities overall. From a plot perspective, this means you can have teens hanging out until all hours getting into wacky hijinks.
So we really shouldn’t be surprised when anime, light novel and manga writers tap into this age group. Especially when telling stories aimed at an older teen, early 20s audience.
The problem is, of course, that I am far past that age.
Anime High School at 44
A few weeks ago, I started watching My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU, and I was hooked. It’s sporadic for me to binge a series. Often, I’ll watch an episode or two and switch to a different show. For instance, I’m watching Showa Rakugo Shinju, Turn A Gundam and The Great Passage as my main shows.
On the side, I’m watching Back Arrow, Odd Taxi and Eighty-Six.
But with SNAFU, I couldn’t stop myself. I stayed up until 2 a.m. watching into the second season. Then I watched the rest of the second season and the third season in one day.
I was emotionally invested in these characters’ journeys in a way that I rarely am in fiction. There is a certain type of realistic wish-fulfillment tale that really appeals to me. Hikigaya is damaged in many ways, but he’s able to overcome that damage and find ways to apply his hidden talents. He also meets a woman who is really his equal but is gorgeous.
When I reached the ending, I felt a profound loss. I wanted to stay in their world for longer. I wanted to see Hikigaya’s and Yukino’s relationship progress. I wanted to know what the deal was with Yukino’s mom and sister.
I did think the harem forming around Hikigaya was annoying. I was glad to get away from that. But following his journey was really a delight.
After I finished, though, I found myself really torn. I was jonesing for another fix of that kind of anime high school story. While I found a bit of an imitation with Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, the story was over far too quickly. Now we may never actually see more of it.
In fact, I still want another fix, but I can’t find another show that is the same.
The problem is that the show is pure and utter fantasy. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a dangerous fantasy. It’s good for people to try to be better and to strive to be better.
But it is the kind of idle fantasy that an 18 or 23 year old would have spent a lazy afternoon indulging in. Maybe I, too, would find my secret talent and discover that I am special.
At 44, I know my truth is that I’m not particularly special. Yes. I have a job that I love, but no one will remember my name 30 years after I’m dead. I have a good relationship with my wife. I like my dogs, my cats and my rabbits.
I have a good life, but I wouldn’t say it’s an exciting life.
While the fantasy of anime high school is excellent, I am so divorced from that reality that it feels a little like eating a bag full of Cheetos Puffs and then feeling guilty after you did it.
Am I too old for Anime High School?
All of this has left me with this question: Am I too old for anime high school, or is this just the spell of good storytelling?
This isn’t the first time that I’ve been sucked into a fantasy world. The week before, I watched Bunny Girl Senpai in a couple of days. Before that, I have sped through the first two and a half seasons of Chuck binged two seasons of The Magicians and spent many late nights watching Fringe.
When I left those worlds, I still wanted more. The stories, characters and worlds captivated me, thrilled me and, yes, made me cry from time to time.
Real-life rarely matches the highs and lows that can be crammed into a structured story. Sure, there are moments of excitement, but they are surrounded by long stretches of tedium.
Fictional characters don’t stand in grocery lines at the end of a long day with their $1.99 Safeway sandwich. They don’t have their leg start aching when they’re trying to have fun.
Everything in a fictional character’s life serves the story. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be much of a story.
So I’m wrapping up this post in much the same position I started it. I’m not sure if I’m too old for anime high school. I can’t tell if what I miss is a good story about compelling characters that I loved. Or if I’m missing the wish-fulfillment that is part of seeing someone else live a dream life.
Either way, I am going to keep chasing the next fix.
And, as always, thanks for reading.