Empowered by Anime

For Asian-American kids, anime provides an outlet for imagination and acceptance.

By Crystal Duan

Featured Image by Grace Molteni

My palms were sweaty as Stephanie surveyed my DVD collection.

She was at my house for the first time, looking for something to watch, when she stopped. “What is this?” she asked. What caught her attention were tapes of “weird-looking cartoons”—my favorite shows.

The volumes nestled next to “High School Musical” and “Brother Bear” were shows that were apparently hard to culturally comprehend: “Yu Yu Hakusho” was about a Japanese boy who had surpassed death to become an “underworld detective.” “Digimon” was about anamorphic digital animals and their adventures with human companions, and “Sailor Moon” was about young teenage girls who were superheroes, responsible for saving the world.

This is the world of anime—a medium of animation style that originated in Japan mid-20th century and is typically based off Japanese comic books (known as manga). The term “anime” came to wide use in 1985, according to the 2016 book “Asian American Culture: From Anime to Tiger Moms” by Lan Dong.

Anime is familiar to anyone who grew up in the Asian-American community as the conduit for resolving our cultural identity crisis. We had no American media featuring any Asians beyond walking caricatures, such as Annyong on the TV series “Arrested Development” or Long Duk Dong in the movie “Sixteen Candles.” The entertainment industry has just not ever cared about showing onscreen narratives that Asian-American kids can relate to. So we turned to anime, a medium that seemed to make us feel understood.

When I and other Asian-American kids consumed anime, we felt at home. People who looked like us and acted like our parents occupied intricate universes that swept us away, while also making references to cultural tropes that rang true—and were missing from American-made entertainment. Parental piety. A conduct of propriety when gazing upon the opposite gender. Manners associated with eating meals. Humor about chopsticks or stale rice. In between the engrossing stories, this was familiarity.

Stephanie didn’t quite get it. My white classmate was one of the coolest girls in our seventh grade class, but the limits of her Asian knowledge didn’t extend past briefly dating one of our Korean exchange students. In a primarily white class in suburban Portland—my fellow Asian-Americans lived across town and attended the other middle school. I wished I could impress her with my knowledge of anime. This was my area of expertise.

I wanted to, but I felt I couldn’t tell her about how these shows had changed my life. About how one episode of “Cowboy Bebop” blasted my imagination into a galaxy further away than “Star Wars.” How I’d risk my mom’s scoldings just to sneak peeks of “Dragon Ball Z” during late night weekends when it aired. How I believed in the concept of empowerment more when I stepped into a world created by Asian producers.

Stephanie reached for something to watch. My face fell a little as she selected the newest season of “The O.C.,” barely throwing my favorite shows a second glance.


Ten years later, anime has begun to gain traction in the States. Japanese studios produce approximately 50 series annually, according to Asian American Culture: From Anime to Tiger Moms.” As international markets expand and more shows come to the U.S. with English subtitles or dubbing, there is now an entire generation of children who grew up watching anime and excitedly await the arrival of new shows like “Attack on Titan” and “Sword Art Online.” In recent years, Hot Topic started selling more Studio Ghibli gear. Anime such as “Inuyasha” and “Rurouni Kenshin” recently became available for streaming on Netflix and Hulu. The Try Guys, popular Internet celebrities by way of Buzzfeed, began showing up at cosplay conventions. In 2016, “Pokemon Go”—a spinoff of anime—became one of the world’s most popular mobile app games,

And the reboots are aplenty. “Cowboy Bebop” is getting a live-action remake. “Sailor Moon: Crystal” came out in 2015, marking the 20th anniversary of the original anime debut. And as of Jan. 7, “Cardcaptor Sakura,” another beloved shojo anime (the term for anime for young girls) got a new installment called the “Clear Card” series.

Anime originated in Japan before World War II, when animation was commissioned by the government as a means for propaganda promoting nationalistic support for Japanese troops.

The U.S. released its first anime from a Japanese distributor in 1963, “Astro Boy,” which aired on NBC from Mushi Production. It was originally called “Tetsuan Atom” in earlier renditions, according to “Astro Boy and Anime Come to the Americas: An Insider’s View of the Birth of a Pop Culture Phenomenon” by Fred Ladd and Harvey Deneroff. Ladd and Deneroff explain how anime’s first boom in U.S. popularity was in the 1980s when America’s “threshold for violence in children’s television was lowered.” Suddenly, “Speed Racer,” “Gigantor,” “Sailor Moon,” “Pokemon” and other shows gained traction in U.S. markets. The latter two proved to usher in the start of the new era of cult followings.

By the 1990s, viewers were hooked, but perhaps most notably, some elements of the Westernization of anime began to fade. Japanese writing, or “kanji,” was displayed on promos, and although English-dubbed dialogue was still based on Western slang, source material for Japanese names in anime shows was more original. This was apparent when “Yu-Gi-Oh” and “Naruto” became popular, and the protagonists’ names stayed the same.

Decades later, films such as “Spirited Away,” produced by Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki, won multiple international awards in the 2000s. Anime had now proved its staying power in the awards sector.


For Julianne Chiaet, a Japanese-American journalist based in New York, affection for anime was a given in her household. She recalls going to Japan in the summer before starting second grade in 1999 and coming back armed with Pokemon cards.

“We played Pokemon the entire summer, and I came back to America at the start of the school year,” Chiaet, who is half-Japanese and half-white, says. “I 100 percent bought into the craze.”

Chiaet assumed, as with most activities in her Catholic-Italian neighborhood in New Jersey, that no one would have similar interests. But then Pokemon cards begin to appear. Suddenly, her limited edition Pokemon cards had more value—as did her identity.

“What’s special about that was I was on the same page as everyone else, which was a big deal, being one of the only Japanese-Jewish people,” she says. “You get along with people, and now you have a wavelength, and it helps where you can bridge that. I didn’t always have that.”

For me, seeing characters brought to life who had similar thought patterns to me was refreshing. In “Naruto,” hard work and discipline are prized. “Inuyasha” valued perseverance. Studio Ghibli’s “Castle In the Sky” said to fight for what you believed was right until the truth was exposed. Japanese voice acting itself is a work of art that lends visceral emotion to situations and ideas that can’t be expressed in English to the same effect. These lessons uplifted me, especially because I felt alone. My classmates made fun of me for being such a perfectionist about grades. They didn’t get why—or how—I used chopsticks to eat. And they especially thought it was nerdy that I wanted a girl franchise of heroes, in the days before “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.”

But then I would go home and watch “Sailor Moon.” The characters were also trying to keep up with schoolwork, parents, boys and the pressures of growing up while doing things that were worthy of respect. Seeing me in them made me feel better about my life.

Now, the U.S. is clearly trying to latch onto the anime craze and deviate from the Western cartoon archetypes of characters that make acerbic commentary “cool” (classics include “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “Bojack Horseman,” and “Bob’s Burgers”).

Some shows took Eastern inspiration and dubbed it with the English language and American mannerisms, like “The Boondocks,” a show about a black family settling into a white suburb. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and its follow-up “The Legend of Korra” are also noteworthy examples that have more Eastern influence—although “Korra” only ran for four seasons, from 2012 to 2014. It was an animated Nickelodeon show about kids with elemental powers who save the world, while building a complex fantasy world, which is a plot device anime leans heavily on.

Shows will often take 10 episodes or more to fully explain an idea that the characters are striving after or the nuances of a villain they are about to battle. A more nuanced plot development encourages viewers to be thoughtful in their viewing—and to keep watching.

I always found myself invariably attached to animes and their characters, so much that I feel a dull ache when one finally ends after hundreds of episodes. It’s validating to my younger self that anime now has more exposure. But at the same time geek culture is going mainstream, I can’t help but think about the times anime wasn’t cool.

Similar to Asian food, anime has been accepted, and to a certain extent, appropriated by the masses  Its rise to respect hasn’t been explicitly and properly credited to the isolated communities that have stood by it long before remnants of its culture was found at novelty stores. Hollywood’s whitewashing in its anime remakes is troubling  J.J. Abrams is rumored to remake the record-smashing 2016 Japanese hit “Your Name,” which has me very skeptical. There’s also the case for how badly American movies based on Japanese anime such as “The Last Airbender” and “Ghost in The Shell” were reviewed. Hollywood seems reluctant to credit the Eastern influences of the stories it is taking a liking to, whether by casting Asian actors or commissioning more in-depth research.

Popular review sites such as The Hollywood Reporter or Vulture do not have a critic specifically devoted to tracking anime. It remains a niche interest for now, but not one that is so unknown that an effort could not be made to make it more mainstream. After all, many American restaurants now boast prolific reviews of the Asian-inspired food they serve. Who’s to say Asian TV—anime—cannot enjoy the same intellectual analysis and respect as food?


Angelica Wang, a program coordinator at Seattle-based nonprofit Pacific NorthWest Economic Region, didn’t start watching anime until her teenage years, but she was aware of the subculture from growing up alongside Asian-Americans.

Wang is fascinated by how anime can span “across many different genres and combine elements of everyday life, fantasy, sci-fi, a hero’s journey or mythical legends.”

“I think the themes appeal to such wide, diverse audiences,” Wang, who majored in Asian global studies and Japanese at the University of Washington, says. “There’s something for everybody. And the life lessons are similar to how Disney/Pixar movies are so touching. In my experience, people who liked anime didn’t fit in and found a lot of encouragement from the life lessons they offer because the main characters were also such underdogs.”

Houa Moua, a University of Minnesota student, also says that anime had a huge effect on her and inspired her to become a writer. She often would imagine herself as a character in the anime “Digimon,” playing out scenarios in her head even for years after the series ended.

“I imagined myself as a character in Digimon [from age 9] until I was like 12,” Moua says. “What I loved about it and why I connected with it so much was that it was a kid’s show yet dealt with such complex emotions like depression. I was a lonely kid, and it was a way of coping with my own life.”

“I think anime was a venue for people to be creative and dream bigger,” Wang adds. “To be unique and forget all the haters.”

American fans should see anime as an opportunity to learn. The Japanese have different ways of eating, musing, expressing themselves and dating—all of which could be a way to expand our cultural locus of influence. As anime’s popularity continues to broaden, I only hope that producers offer ways for viewers to appreciate the culture for which it originates—and more opportunities for Asian-American kids to see themselves as influencers, empowered by anime.

Crystal Duan is a West Coast-raised, Midwest-bred writer based in Los Angeles. She has a weakness for Pad Se Ew, hot cheetos and philosophical memes. You can find her on Twitter @duancrys probably posting about politics or her shameless love of Nickelback.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.


New to Anime? Here are six “classics” to get you started:

Naruto: This anime tells the story of adolescent ninja Naruto Uzumaki who searches for recognition from his peers and his village. He goes on adventures with his friends—Sasuke Uchiha, Sakura Haruno and Kakashi Hatake—who are his “team” and ultimately dreams of becoming the “Hokage,” the leader of his ninja village.

Sailor Moon: Usagi Tsukino, a young schoolgirl, finds out she is the reincarnation of an ancient warrior with magic powers from a kingdom on the moon, and now she must take on the mantle of her previous life and keep the world safe with the help of her Sailor Scout friends, one short-skirted roundhouse kick at a time.

Dragon Ball Z: A young man named Goku learns to defend the Earth against villains such as intergalactic space fighters and nearly indestructible androids. In the sequel to the original “Dragon Ball” anime that followed Goku from his childhood into adulthood. “Z” focuses on the maturation of Goku’s relationships to his sons and enemies alike.

Bleach: Ichigo Kurosaki is an ordinary Japanese citizen who sees ghosts. After a family tragedy he becomes a “Soul Reaper,” dedicating his life to protecting humans and helping tortured spirits find peace.

Inuyasha: Modern day girl Kagome Higurashi falls down a well in her family shrine and is transported to medieval Japan where she finds out she’s a reincarnation of an ancient priestess, and the world she’s stumbled into is where demons and humans coexist. She meets Inuyasha, who is half-demon, half-human and trying to find a sacred jewel that Higurashi accidentally shatters. Now they must recover the shards before the powerful demon Naraku finds them.

Cowboy Bebop: It’s 2071, and a bounty hunter crew is traveling on their spaceship—called Bebop—hunting space pirates and struggling to make a living. Protagonist Spike Spiegel is as tortured as he is handsome, but that doesn’t mean his companions—Faye Valentine, Jet Black, Ed and Ein—will let him off easy.