Rachael has been interested in many aspects of Japanese culture for a long time and hopes other people can learn her sense of appreciation.
What a desperate, pathetic fool I was. Time after time, my "friends" had shown me their true colors. Yet, I still wanted to believe they were sorry for causing me pain.
— Jodee Blanco, "Please Stop Laughing at Me... One Woman's Inspirational Story", p. 128.
Bullying, Anime, and Japan
Many anime fans can relate to anime protagonists who experience bullying, intimidation, social anxiety, and feeling like an outcast in 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, at least partially, by society. The will of the group and conformity to rigid, 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 so many anime protagonists experience bullying. But for this list, I didn't just want to list off 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. And bullying occurs everywhere, it is not confined to schools.
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 the struggles of the protagonists. But it is sometimes painful to watch if you have had a similar experience. Through certain characters' lives, we see how to have a positive response to negative circumstances. They can show us 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.
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. She rejects the female role of the beautiful damsel in distress that 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 strange, mysterious rules governing the student counsel at her school. 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.
This can represent not only the struggles of gender-nonconforming or LGBT+ people, but also the feeling of being a wide-eyed idealist, fighting for a cause you believe in, up against a brutal status quo. Utena is such an idealist, so her struggles are compelling. It is isolating and frustrating to be in a world where no one appreciates or understands your beliefs, when people even mock them openly. But through her relationship with Anthy, she learns how to persevere and win.
I like to think everyone has a little Utena in them. That we have to cultivate our own inner fighting spirit to get through the most difficult times.
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. But nearly every emotional struggle imaginable is expressed by one or several of the main characters. Interpersonal difficulties and struggles cause heartache and depression for the main characters repeatedly. 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 feels he's supposed to live up to. The death of his mother and coldness of his father weigh on him. His every failure 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 try to be a perfect genius child. She torments Shinji because she despises weakness. When she has her own issues as a pilot, her self-esteem is crushed, leaving her angry, but then catatonic and nearly suicidal. This is because her identity revolves around not only being an Eva pilot, but also being better than anyone else. So when she can't be the best, she lashes out at Rei and Shinji, to make up for her own devastated self-esteem.
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Rei, the "freeze" response, shuts down emotionally. Asuka calls her a "doll" or "robot", and she rarely engages socially. 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. She has a unique bond with it that allows her to be the better pilot. This annoys Asuka, who wants to be the best pilot, but doesn't have the sensitivity or awareness of her Eva's mind that Rei does. Rei knows she is a clone, a disposable tool made to be used and eventually discarded by Nerv and Gendo. This is why she's shut off, cold, and distant emotionally. I mean, 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 a compromise.
Not only 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 having failed in being a mother figure to Shinji. Even though she tries to help him, she often either has no effect or makes 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 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, though he was once her mother's lover. She gradually becomes 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. He 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, and for people with low self-esteem or social anxiety, Evangelion, while not giving the audience peace of mind, gives them characters they can relate to and identify with. It certainly has complexity and depth that many animes don't.
"If shortening my lifespan by a year would kill these guys, I'd do it..."
- Tomoko Kuroki
Tomoko is a misfit otaku girl, who stays up all night playing "otome" or dating sim games, and has crippling dysfunctions and anxieties in the real world. She's obsessed with hot guys, and wants to get a boyfriend, but she has very little confidence in talking to people. She asks her brother for help, but he's often annoyed by her. Through the series, she gradually gets better, adapting to the stresses of life with social anxiety. But the series doesn't offer some kind of unrealistically happy ending where everything gets magically better. Which I actually like. The show is best for people who like dark humor. A lot of it is situational comedy, 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. When you see Tomoko's exaggerated symptoms, it allows you to laugh at yourself and see that many things you exaggerate in your mind are inconsistent with reality. But, 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. I could relate to the experiences on screen. It was also refreshing to me to have a protagonist who is so realistic and human. WataMote feels real. Tomoko doesn't magically blossom overnight, or get rescued by a cool boyfriend. A sympathetic popular girl doesn't give her a magical makeover, as would happen in 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.
I talk about WataMote more in this article.
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, she has a lot of trouble making friends and expressing herself. She is constantly misunderstood. 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 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, not realizing 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 to real-life problems, a lot of bullied and outcast students end up in Sawako's place. "People pleaser" type kids do all kinds of things to try to help others in the, usually vain. They hope that this will get bullies to think highly of them, and stop the bullying. 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, I couldn't keep it up and it was just another torture. It was plain awful to think that I'd caused all my bullying problems, and needed to "make amends". They were the ones who had hurt me. I did nothing to deserve it, but it took me a long time to realize that.
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 from this show. It has the typical anime exaggeration of emotions for comedic and dramatic effect, but it also has moments of sweet, sincere, and subtle emotional reactions.
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, 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 abandoned theme park, but there are no people. They find food sitting out, however, and dig in, but Chihiro does not join them because she gets a sudden sense of dread.
Turns out, the place is a bathhouse resort for pampering A-list Shinto spirits. The witch who owns the place turns Chihiro's parents into pigs as a punishment for their gluttonous behavior. To find them and change them back, Chihiro will have to take a job at the bathhouse. She'll need to work very hard, so as to be seen as valuable to said witch as an employee. 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.
This bathhouse experience is much like an exaggerated account of what it's like in real life to have to move to new school. Everyone new seems weird and alien at first. Everything has a new name, and you 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.
This is 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 lives in a house of celibate otaku women who are all socially awkward. Her own obsession is jellyfish. She has admired their beauty since childhood. Other girls in the house have different obsessions. Tsukimi normally goes to great lengths to avoid pretty people, who she calls "the stylish". In the house she lives in, there is a hard line in the sand separating otaku like her from "stylish".
But this changes when a "stylish" beautiful woman helps Tsukimi 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 extreme 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. But they socially exclude Tsukimi's friend at first, as a pre-emptive strike. What they don't realize is that they're being just as intolerant as the people who probably bullied them. The show sets up this conflict that's interesting because it's about maturity, more than winning. 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
Kill la Kill starts with a simple plot. Ryuko Matoi, a high school girl, wants to find and fight the person responsible for her father's death. But, she only has 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. The school has a ranking system based on restricting access to powerful articles of clothing, called Goku Uniforms. Ryuko Matoi, a heroine representing rebellion and anarchism, challenges the fascist, extremely hierarchical power structure of the school, as she also struggles to unravel secrets about her own past.
I include this because 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 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, there are parallels 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 villainous light, Kill La Kill shows these women as anything but dainty flowers. This could be sending the message that authoritarianism is inherently dehumanizing and oppressive, even if it puts on a skirt. While it might not be a typical school anime in any sense, many people who watch Kill La Kill will find it easy to relate to Ryuko Matoi. She's driven by a strong sense of justice, not just for herself and her father, but for all the other students at Honnouji Academy.