Facing Arab Adolescence With Anime

How one young man and his friends navigated Lebanon’s instability and toxic masculinity by learning adulthood from Japanese cartoons

Facing Arab Adolescence With Anime
Screen grab from Japanese anime television series called Hunter x Hunter (Nippon Animation studio)

Lebanon often seems like a beleaguered nation with one foot in Europe and the other in the Arab world. But, surprisingly, Japanese culture exerts much influence. We’ve fixated on the notion that Lebanon oscillates between Europhilia and Arabism, when it has always been a melting pot of East and West far outside of the standard dichotomy that often preoccupied local intellectuals. Anime, Japanese animation, was popular back in the day, offering an alternative to the ubiquitous toxic masculinity of American and Arab media of the time.

A case in point: I once showed my Lebanese mother an image of Superman to try and explain to her what comic books were. Pleased with herself, she nodded, thinking she understood, and, referring to the iconic anime character, she proudly proclaimed, “Ah, Grendizer!”

Considering the enduring popularity of American superheroes worldwide, it may be unfathomable that my mother knew the Japanese super robot but not the American superhero, yet Japanese cartoons have been a fixture of Arab television for decades, dubbed into Arabic by local talent and repackaged for mass consumption throughout the region. Mohakik Conan and Captain Majid are as iconic in Lebanon as the original Detective Conan and Captain Tsubasa are back in Japan. Dubbed anime is actually one of the few cultural artifacts in modern times that Arabs from all over the Middle East share.

You could say I grew up at the right time. Pokemon exploded in popularity in Lebanon in the early 2000s, when I was in elementary school, as a result of the anime’s Arabic dub that aired on local stations every day before we went off to school. Naturally, this coincided with the worldwide phenomenon that saw children obsess over the franchise and its multimedia offerings, even though the video games that started the franchise were never that popular in Lebanon — with gaming then still a niche in which mainly boys partook. More passionate about it than most, I was a fan of the games as much as the anime, and held a torch for Pokemon for years after its popularity died down, even when the other kids in school teased me about it. What is most telling, however, is that in the decade or so from that time until I was formally introduced to anime proper, I never once realized that Pokemon was Japanese.

There seemed to be something universal about the appeals of anime that drew us children to it, even though the cultural markers that allowed it to stand out as Japanese weren’t edited out of the Arabic dubs. Yes, names were often changed to similar-sounding Arabic ones and there was some censorship here and there, but in hindsight it should’ve been obvious. The slipshod mishmash of Western, Arab and Japanese elements should have revealed to us the origins of the work. But, following its civil war of 1975-1990, Lebanon was experiencing an unprecedented wave of globalization in the neoliberal mold that introduced us to exotic practices like sushi and karaoke; the unusual blend of East and West that had always existed in Lebanon in some form. Watching anime dubbed into Arabic didn’t seem strange because it was just another part of the cultural mosaic that defined the era.

Unfortunately, despite this exposure to other cultures, when it came to social life, Lebanese adults had remained unchanged, and continued to place undue value on opulence and promote a toxic version of masculinity that was then considered traditional. But things were slowly changing. Even though we children didn’t know it at the time, we were gradually being introduced by anime to a new mode of thinking that diverged from that of prior generations.

I would only be formally introduced to anime toward the end of middle school at the urging of my close friend at the time, who gushed over it endlessly even though none of the rest of us understood what he was talking about or why he would spend his time on Japanese cartoons, of all things. After all, cartoons were no longer “cool” at our age and, in an attempt to posture, all of us had started watching American and British sitcoms and dramas on TV, believing this made us appear mature and smart, unaware yet how much these shows aimed for the lowest common denominator among their audiences. We laughed along like monkeys when the studio audience told us to, and pretended to like it, too.

Inevitably, I became fed up with the mindless junk. Not even my rabid cinephilia and compulsive reading could fill the niche interest I had for genre fiction told in a literary style. When I finally relented and acquiesced to my friend’s recommendation, he handed me a USB drive with all 51 episodes of “Fullmetal Alchemist” and recommended I watch just an episode or two to get a feel for what he had by then been preaching about for years.

By this point, I just wanted him to stop begging me and everyone else who would listen. Expecting to watch a couple of episodes before I got bored and went back to barking like a seal over some stupid sex joke on a silly sitcom, I came back to school on Monday and handed him the USB, telling him I’d watched all of it. I was hooked and wasn’t proud to admit it. Anime was considered this weird pastime that only a geek would bother with, yet, having watched one, I could finally understand why my friend wanted others to share in his love for it. I’d only seen this level of speculative storytelling in novels, films and comic book series. It was unthinkable to me that cartoons, of all things, could match that quality — and, in plenty of instances, surpass it.

Anime series were essentially serialized movies, at a time when traditional TV was still episodic, censored and unambitious. It wasn’t long until I started catching up on all the classic anime and realized that much of the genre fiction I had adored growing up — “The Matrix,” “Kill Bill,” “Megas XLR” and “Samurai Jack” — was heavily inspired by what are called shonen and seinen anime. What separated shonen and seinen anime from the anime I had watched on Arab television as a child was that, instead of being children’s entertainment, shonen anime targeted an audience of adolescent boys, while seinen anime targeted adult men. This was the first time I had been exposed to animation targeted toward older audiences that wasn’t an American adult animated sitcom in the mold of “The Simpsons” or “South Park.” The notion that animation could tell mature stories for adult audiences with real artistic merit was a revelation. However, considering my age at the time, it was shonen, not seinen, that particularly resonated with me. In time, it would come to play a pivotal role in shaping my worldview and moral compass.

The 2000s and early 2010s were rough years for Lebanon. The political situation was unstable — the threat of another civil war, or war with Israel, constantly on everyone’s mind — and the rapid Americanization, Saudi Arabization and Iranization of the sectarian segments of the Lebanese populace left apolitical locals alienated, struggling to connect with new subcultures hostile to anyone that did not conform to their ideologies. That’s why, as I came of age, it was clear things were only going to get rougher from there on out.

Making matters worse was that life was not right at home. I couldn’t stand the prep school I was forced to attend — my humble origins made it impossible for me to fit into that kind of atmosphere. That’s not to mention that, in addition to their sheer incompetence, the staff and teachers would lash out repeatedly, taking their insecurities out on us with few repercussions from management, who turned a blind to behavior that would’ve resulted in dismissals and lawsuits had it taken place anywhere but in Lebanon. My father was forced to work in Jordan at a job I could tell, even at that age, that he didn’t enjoy, while my mother struggled to keep up with the demands of a Lebanese household while balancing a medical career. That left me without a father figure in a country obsessed with its own machismo, and without the emotional support needed in the cold, calculating environment that Beirut then was.

Not that I was the only one. It seemed all our fathers were absent in one sense or another, most working abroad to make ends meet, while our mothers — most of whom also held jobs — were left in Lebanon trying to keep it all together. We weren’t exactly easy to deal with ourselves, considering we faced problems that made no sense to generations that predated the internet. Even though the money made back then was far better than the paltry sums earned after the liquidity crisis that began in late 2019 — both at home and abroad — Lebanon was still in many ways far more expensive than most Western countries. A middle-class income did not stretch far enough for my family, nor many others. Considering the expectations Lebanese society placed on everyone to always look their best and lead as lavish a lifestyle as possible, we were put in an awkward position with the rise of social media that made the prospect of fitting in with the crowd daunting and expensive, to say the least.

Those around me seemed preoccupied with their status, desperately wasting time and (their parents’) money trying to rise up in the school’s pecking order, seemingly oblivious to the fact the country was at war only a couple of years prior and the possibility of another war was always a threat on the horizon. It’s not that my classmates only came from privilege. Many, like me, were middle-class, with some only attending because their parents taught or worked as staff at the school or nearby universities. Things at home for quite a few of them were as turbulent as they were for me, if not more so. Yet life seemed only to revolve around impressing other students with the latest recognizable brands plastered all over their clothes and accessories.

Anime characters were such a breath of fresh air by comparison. Only the antagonists in anime were concerned with such trivial matters. Right from the start, the anime protagonists, unlike their counterparts in Western cartoons and live-action shows, made it a point to snub their noses at any attempt to impose some form of pretension that tried to stamp out their individuality. Shonen heroes, in particular, made it their mission to stay true to their character and what they believed in, winning others over not by trying to change themselves to fit in, but through sheer charisma and goodwill.

However, unlike American YA media of the time, that uphill battle they faced in befriending others was never made light of or tempered, but portrayed instead in all its heartbreaking and heartwarming reality. Take, for example, Monkey D. Luffy, the protagonist of the legendary shonen franchise “One Piece,” who, inspired by his idol, the pirate Red-Haired Shanks, sets off on a journey to find the mythical treasure, the One Piece, and proclaims himself the King of the Pirates. In an effort to organize his own crew, the Straw Hat Pirates, Luffy must court potential allies and enemies alike, often risking his own life to do so. In turn, his crew becomes something more to him — “nakama,” or friends.

Watching Luffy develop his “nakama” over the course of his adventure in “One Piece” was as fulfilling as building a group of friends of your own, because it was made clear that the path these protagonists had chosen was a difficult one. Not only would they face obstacles along the way, but it would be messy and painful, and, in the end, they just couldn’t win everyone over.

And that was alright, too.

That is not to say it was just the rebel in us that connected with characters like the rambunctious outcast Naruto (protagonist of the eponymous series) and the smartass loner Ichigo (of the Bleach franchise) or that all we got out of it was encouragement to stand out. Shonen protagonists were a great counterpoint to the toxic masculinity of the time and, even though anime wasn’t as progressive as we would’ve liked, it exposed us to ideals of manhood unheard-of to a bunch of Middle Eastern boys who learned nothing about being men outside of watching older gentlemen in fine suits throw a tantrum over their honor and good name, then push their weight around with fists and guns.

Shonen protagonists were allowed to express themselves in ways we would have been outright shamed for if we tried them in Lebanon. Of course, teenage boys in anime wearing their hearts on their sleeves came with its fair share of problems, but their attunement to their emotions was never portrayed as weak or “feminine” in any way. There was no standard arc to get them to learn that they should be open with their feelings, because that was already how they led their lives. Instead, anime showed that tact and restraint were essential to this approach to social interaction, and that there was a right time for everything.

Not that these values were limited to the teenage protagonists. Even the most powerful male mentors or antagonists cried, and this was treated with the requisite empathy. No one was teased about crying, as men and boys are in Western media, nor were any jokes cracked about it at their expense. Insensitivity and callousness, on the other hand, were always presented in the wrong, and, whether hero, villain or antihero, story arcs were given to characters to learn how to acknowledge these social flaws that drove others away from them.

We watched great value placed on friendship, family and community; shonen heroes and their allies always did what was right to aid and protect them. Even though our culture pretended to uphold similar ideals, they were all too often enacted in a shallow and, to an extent, hypocritical way, where only our immediate families mattered, and we were always expected to look the other way unless forced into a situation where we needed to act or suffer the social consequences. In anime, by contrast, characters who mistreated others were always put in their place, at first pacifistically and, if the abuse continued, they would be cut off and ostracized, even if they were family members.

This last one was particularly pertinent to the Arab world, where we were expected to tolerate all kinds of subtle and even egregious abuse from family. The fact that main characters in shonen faced situations of abuse, as opposed to merely some minor guest star on a “special episode” of a sitcom facing abuse or family conflict, meant that the conflict wasn’t a one-off issue, dismissed after one episode, but rather an ongoing struggle to reconcile the conflicting feelings that arose in such predicaments. In our adolescent years, we’d all dealt with abuse, or had others suffer from it because of us, and it was cathartic to have a taboo topic dealt with without expecting us to absolve family just “because they’re family.”

Most importantly, shonen protagonists never initiated violence, as we were encouraged to by our peers; they only resorted to it to shield or save others if it had been inflicted upon them or when they were in danger. Even then, not everything was solved with a fist in shonen. Contrary to popular belief, their protagonists spent as much time trying to avoid fights as they did participating in them, and it was as common to see disputes settled with dialogue. Fighting in shonen never seemed to supplant the characters as it did in mainstream action films, acting as just another form of expression in the larger-than-life melodramas into which the protagonists were thrust.

Yet, somehow, despite shonen being tantamount to soap operas with fighting, the trials and tribulations these characters faced were far more relatable than anything the Disney Channel would mass-produce on its assembly line, because it was rooted in real problems experienced by kids our age all over the world. Coming from as competitive a background as our school, the traditional shonen quest to “be the best,” which in a way mirrored our obsession with academic excellence, never came at the expense of the characters’ integrity. If they ever lost their way, any victory was rendered meaningless until they committed to the straight and narrow path again. In the end, that was what was so appealing about anime. Instead of watching Z-list actors deliver these lessons on tired teen coms written by a privately-tutored Hollywood elite, we were treated to grandiloquent battles between gods and monsters as boys our ages tried to figure out their place in the world.

Somehow, it was all so epic while, for once, feeling real…

Compared to what the West was putting out as entertainment for teenagers, this was the kind of direction my friends and I needed, in the absence of suitable parental guidance and reasonable authority figures. Unlike the relationship the male students around us had with each other and their families, anime characters were close and caring in a way that Arab men just weren’t allowed to be. As a result, we became closer than we otherwise would’ve been, bonding over the love of anime we shared while learning how to act as the adults we one day wanted to be.

As we grew older, I watched these peers mature into fine men that I’m proud to have once called friends. Even though we’ve all long since gone our separate ways, I’ll always look back fondly on those endless recess discussions, debating which character was cooler and how we could be like them if we worked hard enough and put our all into it. I know that I’ll never live up to the lofty standard set for me by these shonen protagonists — but I haven’t stopped trying yet and never will.

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