10 Most Helpful Anime for People Who Were Bullied
"We focus so much on our differences, and that is creating, I think, a lot of chaos and negativity and bullying in the world. And I think if everybody focused on what we all have in common - which is - we all want to be happy." - Ellen DeGeneres
Bullying, Anime, and Japan
Many anime fans can relate to anime protagonists who experience bullying, intimidation, social anxiety, and feeling like an outcast in high school. Many teens, young adults, and even older adults struggle with problems fitting in and relating to others.
Though bullying occurs everywhere, in Japan it is often condoned, because the will of the group and conformity to some very narrow-minded social norms is considered important, although this attitude may be shifting with new generations. This valuation of conformity over individual happiness is one reason that probably so many anime protagonists experience bullying. But for the purposes of this list, I didn't just want to do a list of high school real-life drama shows. Interestingly enough, some shows that either don't have a school setting or for which school is not the main focus of the show can be about bullying too.
I prefer to talk about bullying in stronger terms, such as "workplace/school harassment" or "peer abuse", in an attempt to get people to take it more seriously. Anime offers victims of bullying some solace through seeing the struggles of the protagonists, even if it is sometimes painful to watch if you have had a similar experience. Through character development, we see how to have a positive response to negative circumstances, and we can see how a change in attitude can result in a new way of dealing with one's problems. So here is my list of anime that I think could be beneficial for people struggling with bullying and post-bullying psychological issues such as depression, PTSD, social anxiety, etc.
"This valuation of conformity over individual happiness is one reason that probably so many anime protagonists experience bullying."
1. Revolutionary Girl Utena
" I feel it’s hard for me to deal with a place where there are so many people. Somehow, they all start to look the same, and that frightens me." - Anthy Himemiya
In Revolutionary Girl Utena, protagonist Utena Tenjou is a girl with a lot of spirit who defies cultural norms about gender. This is because, while she was rescued by a prince-like mysterious person in early childhood, what she wants is to become stronger and become prince-like herself, instead of merely being the beautiful damsel-in-distress the princes in classic fairy tales save and fall in love with. She wears boy's uniforms, participates in basketball and fencing, and stands up passionately for what she believes in, even if that puts her at odds with society or causes her to be shunned and misunderstood. Utena stands up for the rights of Anthy Himemiya, a girl who is treated like property by the byzantine rules governing the absurdly powerful student counsel at the school she goes to. She believes that right is right, no matter what the rules say, so she ends up in a crusade for what she believes to be justice.
In the real world, this can represent not only the struggles of gender-nonconforming or GLBT people, but also the feeling of being a wide-eyed idealist fighting for a cause you believe in while having conflict with a cynical reality. Utena is such an idealist, and that is why her struggles in the anime and manga are so compelling. It is isolating and frustrating to be in a world where no one appreciates or understands your beliefs, and when people even mock them openly, but through her fresbian relationship with Anthy, she learns how to persevere and win.
I like to think everyone has a little Utena in them, and that we have to cultivate our own inner fighting spirit to get through the most difficult times.
"She believes that right is right, no matter what the rules say, so she ends up in a crusade for what she believes to be justice."
2. Neon Genesis Evangelion
"Mankind’s greatest fear is Mankind itself."
- Gendo Ikari
Everyone's favorite big happy robot-fighting family show, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a controversial anime to say the least. But I like it because nearly every emotional struggle imaginable is expressed by one or several of the main characters, with relational struggles resulting in depression being a recurring theme. Shinji, Asuka, and Rei, represent a "flight", "fight", and "freeze" response, respectively. Each one deals with the same stressor (being a 14 year-old giant robot pilot, expected to save humanity) differently.
Shinji deals with not living up to the heroic ideal he's supposed to be living up to as the designated protagonist of a mech anime. The death of his mother and coldness of his father weigh on him, and every failure he makes as a pilot makes his self-esteem shrink even lower, causing him to run away or screw up even more. He's afraid of nearly everyone and everything, responding to most situations with either panic or indecision. Asuka, on the other hand, bullies others. She deals with the baggage of her mother's suicide, which caused her to push herself to be the perfect genius child she brags about being to Shinji. She torments Shinji because she despises weakness. When she has her own issues as a pilot, her self-esteem is utterly crushed, leaving her angry, but then catatonic and nearly suicidal herself. This is because her identity revolves around not only being an Eva pilot, but around doing that better than anyone else, so when she can't be the best, she lashes out at Rei and Shinji even more to make up for her own devastated self-esteem.
Rei, the "freeze" response, shuts down emotionally, looking to Asuka to be a "doll" or "robot", because she rarely engages socially with anyone. However, interestingly, she engages well with the minds of the alien-like Angels and understands the inner workings of the mind of her own Evangelion unit better than anyone else, forming a bond with it that allows her to be the better pilot, annoying Asuka (who also wants to be the best but doesn't have the sensitivity or awareness of its mind that Rei does, causing jealousy). Rei knows she is a clone, a disposable tool made to be used until she can be discarded at will by Nerv/Gendo. This is why she's shut off, cold, and distant emotionally; imagine how knowing something like that would take the wind out of your sails! But Rei never gives up, perhaps even secretly thinking that understanding the Angels can help them and humanity achieve compromise.
Not only do the teenagers have issues though. Misato is a character who struggles with sex, alcoholism, her past traumatic experience, and feeling like a failure to live up to Japanese standards of womanhood. Ritsuko teases her for her messiness and dependence on instant food, which are seen in the show as evidence of her failure to be a good woman, as per the ideal of the Japanese housewife/mom. She also sees herself as failed in being a mother figure to Shinji, because even though she always tries to help him, she always seems to have no effect or to make things worse.
She also sees herself as "soiled" and "impure" for having premarital diddly, something that is not seen as very taboo in the U.S. as much as it is in Japan. She also, as I said earlier, deals with the traumatic past of her father's death, her resulting scar a reminder of her survivor's guilt. Ritsuko is no perfect woman either, she is obsessed with Gendo even though he was once her mother's lover, and gradually becomes insanely jealous of Rei, and all of her backup clones, because she sees them as rivals for Gendo's love. Gendo blames himself for Yui's (his wife's) death, hates himself for having an affair with Ritsuko's mother, and made Rei as a way of trying to atone for his sins, and he pushes Shinji away by being distant because he's insecure and afraid of hurting him.
So, all of the characters in Neon Genesis Evangelion have a ton of emotional complexity that make them compelling. For a survivor of serious trauma, bullying, emotional abuse, or simply for people with low self-esteem and/or social anxiety, Evangelion, while not giving the audience the peace of mind that a sunnier show offers, gives them someone in the cast they can relate to and identify with. It may not be everyone's favorite show, but it certainly has complexity and depth that many other animes simply don't offer.
"He's afraid of nearly everyone and everything, responding to most situations with either panic or indecision."
"If shortening my lifespan by a year would kill these guys, I'd do it..." - Tomoko Kuroki
In this show, Tomoko is a misfit otaku girl who stays up all night playing "otome" or dating sim games, and has crippling dysfunctions and social anxieties in the world outside of gaming. She's obsessed with hot guys and wants to get a boyfriend, but she has very little confidence when talking to people. She asks her brother for help, but sometimes he's just annoyed by her. Through the series, she gradually gets better at adapting to the stresses of life with social anxiety, but the series is known for not having some kind of unrealistically happy ending where everything gets magically better, either, which I actually kind of like. The show is best for people who like dark humor. A lot of it is situational comedy, but with Tomoko making everything worse because of the condition of her own mind.
For real-world sufferers of social anxiety or related problems, it might help because, when you see Tomoko's exaggerated symptoms, it allows you to laugh at yourself and also to see that many things you exaggerate in your mind are inconsistent with reality. But, that being said, some things in this show (and others in the list) might be triggering or upsetting to people who have had very similar experiences. It's a very realistic show. But, for some reason, I liked watching it, because I could relate to the experiences, and also because it's refreshing to me to have a protagonist who is so realistic and human. (I talk about WataMote in this article.) Basically, I like WataMote because it's real-feeling. Even if she doesn't magically blossom overnight or get rescued by a cool boyfriend or sympathetic popular girl giving her a makeover, like would happen in so many cliche teen flicks, WataMote leaves the audience with hope that Tomoko is in a process of finding herself and becoming more mature. And that's really better for someone than any prom-night hair and makeup job.
4. Kimi ni Todoke
"There's no knowing how others are feeling unless you ask them." - Sawako Kuronuma
A bit cloyingly sweet for my tastes, Kimi ni Todoke is about how the kindness of a popular boy brings to life a waifish girl often mistaken for a ghost. Sawako resembles in name and appearance the girl from The Ring, Sadako. So, while not exactly bullied in an intense way that much, she has a lot of trouble making friends, fitting in, and expressing herself. She never intends to be scary, but people end up treating her like she is. She's really a kind girl who does every chore at school that nobody else wants to, and only childhood-cherry-blossom-encounteree Cute Anime Dude recognizes that. I think Sawako is kind of unrealistically/boringly saintly (much like Tohru from Fruits Basket), and also a bit dumb to not realize that she could change her appearance a bit to avoid the interactions she doesn't like, but it's nevertheless cute, romantic, and enjoyable to watch (for me it has to be in small doses).
In terms of relating this to real-life problems, I think a lot of bullied and outcast students end up in Sawako's place, doing all kinds of things to try to help others in the, usually vain, hope that this will redeem them in the eyes of the bullies. Or if you think a God is keeping score, you're more likely to have this "be nicer to them" mentality of turning the other cheek. I went through this phase once but it doesn't work and I couldn't keep it up and for me, it was just another form of the torture, thinking that I'd caused all my bullying problems and needed to "make amends" when they were the ones who had hurt me. But we all want to see dear little Sawako succeed in school, because that confirms our belief in a just world. You can also learn about relationships and social interaction quite a bit from this show, because like many animes, the exaggeration of emotions for comedic or dramatic effect might help show people with low social skills what is necessary to develop theirs a bit more.
5. Spirited Away
"Lin: What's going on here?
Kamaji: Something you wouldn't recognize. It's called love."
While it doesn't take place in a school setting, Spirited Away the classic Studio Ghibli film can have a lot of meaning for children or even adults trying to fit in in new surroundings and tackling difficult circumstances. In the film, Chihiro is sad about having to move away to a new home. She's traveling to the new place with her parents by car when the parents get out and look around at this abandoned Shinto-y place. They find what looks like an amusement park kind of area, but there are no people there. They find food sitting out, however, and dig in, but Chihiro does not join them because she's afraid of the place. Turns out, the place is a bathhouse resort for pampering A-list Shinto spirits, and the witch who owns the place turned Chihiro's parents into pigs as a punishment for their gluttonous behavior. To have some hope of finding them and changing them back, Chihiro will have to take a job at the bathhouse and work very hard, so as to be seen as more valuable to said witch as an employee than as a toad or whatever. She has to change her name to Sen, and a veteran employee named Lin helps her learn the ropes (literally, there's ropes involved). Eventually of course, she earns her happy ending, but she has to undergo a lot of maturing and personal growth to do that.
I think that, the bathhouse experience is much like an exaggerated account of what people who really move to new schools in early childhood go through. Everyone new seems weird and alien to them. Everything around them has a new name, and they might even get a new nickname or a new identity. Making new friends is hard work, and as "the new girl" or guy, you're treated like crap and avoided by most people at first, almost like the way the spirit workers in the bathhouse at first didn't want Chihiro in there because of her scent. But much like Spirited Away, moving to a new town and adjusting to life there depends on two things: your own dedication to toughing it out through the initial awkwardness, and the kindness of people who befriend you and make their own efforts to welcome you in.
6. Princess Jellyfish
"It's sad, but in society there's a lot of people who judge others based on their appearance. Naturally, the enemies are those type of people, therefore... so put on your armor!" - Kuranosuke Koibuchi
Tsukimi is living in a house of single, celibate women who are all awkward, nerdy fangirls. Her obsession of choice is jellyfish, which she has admired for their beauty since childhood. Other girls in the house have their own otaku obsessions. Tsukimi normally goes to great lengths, to avoid pretty people, who she calls "the stylish". In the world of the house she lives in, there is a hard line in the sand separating otaku like her from "stylish". But all this changes when a "stylish" beautiful woman helps her rescue a jellyfish at a store that's going to die since it was put in the wrong tank. They walk home together and talk, but it isn't until she comes over to Tsukimi's place that it's revealed that she's not really a she! She's a boy named Kuranosuke, and he's the nephew of the prime minister! The building Tsukimi lives in has a strict no-men policy, enforced by the landlady's comedically exaggerated misandry. So, Tsukimi wants to welcome her transvestite friend into her life, but it presents difficulties with her close-knit otaku sisterhood.
Do outcasts bully people back? This show is a good illustration of how and why this can happen. All of these women probably dealt with being rejected and socially excluded before, and they socially exclude Tsukimi's friend at first because it's like a pre-emptive strike. But what they don't realize is that they're being just as intolerant as the people who probably bullied them originally. The show sets up this conflict that's interesting because it's about maturity more than winning. And it also asks, who are your real friends? Can you make friends with someone your existing friends don't get along with? A cute little anthropomorphized jellyfish is here with all the answers!
7. Kill La Kill
"It's going to take a hell of a lot more than you to stop me!" - Ryuko Matoi
In Kill La Kill, the show starts with a simple plot of a girl, Ryuko Matoi, seeking to find and fight the person responsible for her father's death, with only a few clues about who that person could be. However, she gets caught up in the bizarre world of Honnouji Academy, where the student counsel president Satsuki Kiryuin runs the school with an iron fist, and where there exists a ranking system based on restricting access to powerful articles of clothing called Goku Uniforms. Ryuko Matoi, a heroine who to me represents rebellion and anarchism, challenges the fascist power structure of the school as she also struggles to unravel secrets leading to her understanding her own past.
I include this because basically, Kill La Kill is a comedic hyper-exaggeration of what it feels like to be new in a school where the popular kids rule the roost and treat everyone else in the school like inferior subordinates. When you refuse to play along with the illusory caste system set up by the most popular kids in school, bullying behavior is used to dominate the students and reinforce this hierarchy. In Kill La Kill, real parallels are drawn between this and the true horrors of dictatorship and absolute monarchy. Satsuki is often seen drinking tea, which associated with ladylike characters in a lot of anime. But while the tea-sipping lady-girls in regular animes are rarely cast in a villanous light, Kill La Kill shows these women as anything but dainty flowers, revealing that authoritarianism is inherently dehumanizing and oppressive, even if it puts on a skirt. So while it might not be a typical school anime in any sense, I believe that many people who watch Kill La Kill will find it easy to relate to Ryuko Matoi's sense of justice, not just for herself and her father, but for all the students at Honnouji Academy.
8. Peach Girl
"My looks always cause me so many problems." - Momo Adachi
In Peach Girl, Momo is outcast for being tan and having bleached hair, but not by choice, because her favorite activity is swimming. People think she's slutty or a dumb bimbo or a tomboy just because of her appearance, so she battles a lot of self-image problems. Her "friend" Sae is a liar and backstabber, always trying to sabotage any hint of a budding relationship Momo might otherwise have with any boy just because she can. Momo also deals with a love triangle that emerges between herself and two boys, leaving the audience wondering which one she will choose in the end.
This show basically covers every teen romance problem you could think of. Momo pursues, gets rejected, fights with Sae, gets happiness for brief, fleeting moments, but then an iceberg usually comes along to sink that happiness. It's about bullying, because Momo and Sae are initially judged on appearance rather than character, and Sae uses this perception of her looks signifying sweetness and purity to her advantage to torment Momo. It's also about friendship, how to find true friends, ditch negative ones, and keep going even when it looks like everything is just set against you. Momo can sometimes be annoyingly boy-obsessed, but she has a real fighting attitude and never gives up.
9. Welcome to NHK
"If you can't face reality, you can't change yourself." - Kaoru Yamazaki
Welcome to NHK is one of those odd animes that's about adults. Satou, the protagonist, is a NEET (Not Engaged in Employment, Education, or Training) ever since he stopped showing up to class. He seems very depressed, when he meets a girl named Misaki Nakahara who is determined to help him break out of his fear of interacting with people and leaving his apartment, and a guy named Kaoru Yamazaki, who wants him to help him with video game developing. The problem is, Satou doesn't really have that many skills when it comes to programming, and as a script writer, he ends up procrastinating and playing games as "research" more than actually writing. He struggles with his anxiety and depression in a way that is sometimes funny and sometimes sad to the viewer.
Satou suffers from paranoid delusions that everything around him is a conspiracy, including his own life. He has to battle pessimism and extreme trust issues in order to become a functional adult. Even people trying to help him sometimes get pushed away by his relapses. But, friends always stick by friends through thick and thin, so by relying on them, he slowly makes himself better. Like WataMote, this one doesn't make everything magically better by the end of the series, because psychological illnesses are not just something you get over instantly, but also similarly to WataMote, there are signs by the end that the protagonist is making real progress. This series is a good reminder for me that not even being an adult on paper makes you grown-up mentally, this takes time and effort. It's also showing how even if your life is a little screwed up, your friends can always help out if you let them in.
10. Sailor Moon
"I'd rather choose to fall in love and be hurt. Sometimes there's sadness in our lives, it's that sad feeling that keeps us going." Usagi Tsukino
Note: I'll be only talking about the original 90's anime here. This is because I think that Sailor Moon Crystal does not adequately reflect the kinds of things I'm talking about here, as many of the character introductions and important interactions are cut up, as that series rushes through the major plot events of the story pretty quickly.
You might think that being a reincarnated princess with superpowers, a talking cat, and sparkly bling, who can save the day in a miniskirt would be fun, but Sailor Moon shows just how much it's also a challenge. At its core, Sailor Moon is about friendship. Not just in the dorky, idealistic way it's known for, the main character, Usagi Tsukino, makes friends with people because she can see the good in them when everyone else doesn't. All the major Sailor Scout characters have issues fitting in at school at one time, and Usagi is the one who helps them by becoming friends with them. She may be klutzy, she may be dumb, and she may cry a lot, but she has a big heart. The real reason she's the team leader is because of this, because she is empathetic even enough to get through to the good side of some of the villains, helping them change.
I think Usagi/Sailor Moon is a good role model for young girls because of this empathy she possesses for others. She sees the good in everyone, as a true optimist. She wants to work hard to be the best fighter she can be, but she also wants to bring out the best in her friends too, making sure that everything is a team effort. Sailor Moon is maybe a bit optimistic/idealistic as a series, but it does show that sometimes friendship is a struggle, and it shows how encouraging others and working together helps with that struggle. It's also about seeing what makes people the same, rather than focusing on what makes us different (like the quote at the top of the page says, people focus too often on differences). Usagi doesn't give up on others, even if they let her down or make mistakes. She's not a perfect heroine, but nobody is perfect, and her kind heart makes up for her failings in other things. It's hard not to love Usagi, and I think we could use more people like her in the real world.
Remember, anime can help us forget the pain of being bullied, and it can give us protagonist role models to look up to, and it can even help us find answers or meaning through watching protagonists who are going through similar struggles. But it is not, and should never be seen as, a substitute for dealing with the situation by telling someone and speaking up for yourself. You have to get the situation under control, don't be afraid that going to an authority figure will make you seem weak or make you a "snitch".
In both the child and adult worlds, fear of looking weak or being a "snitch" is nothing but a trick bad people use to keep other people under their control, so refuse to submit to their games. Don't fall for their lies. They'll say anything to stop you from telling but you have to ignore that and tell, or it won't get better and they won't get in trouble or be made to stop. This can apply to many kinds of abuse and harassment. Never be afraid to leave, to stand up for yourself, to stand up for others, or to get an adult/superior to step in. Only by learning how to live courageously can we help ourselves and others. You don't have to be a victim. And you don't have to be a passive bystander, either.