Sometimes, you run into a single moment that resonates so strongly, you just keep returning to it.
Recently, 21stcenturydigitalboy introduced an challenge, of sorts, or something that is perhaps better said to be something between an idea and a challenge. On its face, its fairly simple – write about an anime or manga that you related to, or that you continue to relate to. But then came a stckier part: if you’re going to even attempt to do so, you have to be honest; none of the usual half-truths that so pervade the internet. You actually have to man or woman up and be willing to fully engage or remain silent. So I’m going to do so, even though I know it will be hard, since its sometimes good to actually reach out and remember to touch the rest of humanity, and doing something like this has the potential to do so; of course, this isn’t to say that it isn’t also partially a selfish act, but… even if it is, I would hope that maybe it would at least tap someone on the shoulder and say, “You are not alone.” like the manga Aquarium did with me when I was younger.
I’ll be perfectly honest: I was a fairly miserable teenager by the time I reached my junior year of high school. It was a combination of your garden variety adolescent problems, along with some less common variants. In middle school, I had been marked aside as one of the weirdos, a situation that wasn’t helped by the fact that some of my friends at the time were truly fucked up – I had a friend who stalked a teacher when we were twelve year olds, and who had some pretty big issues relating to sexuality that I simply could not deal with at the time. Said friend also shattered my ability to trust people by stealing my diary and handing it over to the school guidance counselor, a move which I still find fairly stunning to this day. When high school came around, it initially came as a breath of fresh air for me, as I went to a much larger school and was able to truly walk away from the people who had been so poisonous to me as a middle schooler. But, hey, let’s be honest – you can change the scenery, but you can’t change the person. And you certainly can’t change underlying issues through only a shift in setting.
I actually did fairly well during my first two years of high school; I joined JROTC and loved it a lot, and I also found a group of friends who were… well, ok, I was still one of the “weirdos”, but this time around it wasn’t a totally psychotic bunch, and the problems and issues my friends had were much more a product of age as opposed to inherent character flaws or psychological problems. There was also the nice fact that amongst them my love for anime was not an isolating factor – they weren’t into it themselves, but they didn’t think it was totally bizarre.
But the wheels more or less came off the bus during my junior year, as my friends fell into increasingly bad behaviors (drugs, alcohol, and a frightening amount of abortions), and I found myself deserted by another group of friends I had for the same old reason – I was “weird”. I also began to chafe at the fact that I had been going to school with the same general group of people since I was not six years old, not five years old, but three years old – and this even though I’d gone to public school my entire life! I was expected to behave the way my twelve year old self had at age sixteen, and I was beginning to feel trapped – I wanted out.
However, perhaps what was the linchpin in the whole thing was the fact that I had a pedestal complex, if you will, concerning a friend of mine… and they ditched me because their friends thought I was “weird”.
I was a teenager who had only recently been able to work out some gender issues, had a very difficult time trusting people, and was honestly having some fairly intense psychodrama regarding sexuality as it related to me. I was also trying to be the barrier between a very close friend of mine and the gutter. So I never talked to anyone about my own self, my own worries, my own problems. I put on a very, very stoic front. And guess what? I was completely suicidal, and I was basically at the point where the only things keeping me alive were the fact that I knew I couldn’t kill myself because of what it would do to my friends and family, and also because I was just carving myself to pieces with whatever sharp object I could find (since I know that this is a pretty loaded thing to confess to, since many people believe it is something done merely out of a desire for attention, I would like to point out that I managed to keep anyone from figuring this out despite being on a swim team ten months a year).
So… where does Aquarium fit into this?
Aquarium is actually an anthology. The story that I related to was the title story itself, which was about a girl named Naoka, who is a new high school student who didn’t manage to get into her first choice high school. There were a few similarities between myself at the time and Naoka – I felt a pervasive sense of loneliness much like she did, although for different reasons. Naoka also had some self-destructive tendencies, willfully cutting herself off from a former friend who ended up in the first choice high school because it was too painful for Naoka to even talk to her. Essentially, though, there was the same central issue – feeling that no one understands, and then getting irritated when it feels like someone who is trying to is just doing so for ulterior motives, as Naoka becomes angry with a young man who tries to cheer her up as she visits the aquarium.
But that moment I spoke of? The one which resonated so strongly I keep going back to it?
Naoka tries to kill herself.
In that moment, the world suddenly opened up – you are not alone. There are other people who feel this way. It doesn’t have to stay this way.
It’s kind of funny – 21stcenturydigitalboy’s post for the ‘Diary of an Anime Lived’ series he started off ends up cutting to the same issue as I have here, although I must admit I myself feel kind of silly since for him the show that gave him that same moment of realization was Neon Genesis Evangelion, which, while I didn’t really like myself (I honestly think I would’ve liked it better had I watched it as an adolescent simply due to relevancy… which isn’t meant in any way to diminish it; a show need not be enjoyed by adults to qualify as good), seems more respectable to have drawn such a thing from than Aquarium does. At the same time, though, even if Naoka’s reasons for feeling alone seem potentially silly – she didn’t get to go to her top choice high school, which was her top choice because it was the guy she liked’s top choice! so now she’s at her second choice school and hasn’t made an effort to make friends! – it doesn’t make them any less real to her.
I re-read Aquarium before typing this up. I have taken it with me every year I have come to college, putting it on my bookshelf within easy reach. I re-read it periodically, and I still appreciate its significance to my sixteen year old self. It certainly didn’t suddenly solve all of my problems, but it gave me hope, however small, because it made me finally realize that other people felt like I did.