Growing up is hard. Ideally, you get a good ten years or so of carefree joy and wonder, before you start realizing that the world is confusing and people are good, but they can also be bad, that everybody is different and people don’t always think that’s a good thing. At this point, you can usually expect to spend a couple years wallowing in the contractual teenage angst written into the agreement of being born, then move on living as a well-adjusted grown up with the understanding that while the real world isn’t all sunshine and cake, it’s really not that bad when you tally it all together.
That’s the ideal scenario.
Unfortunately, there are a number of less than ideal scenarios that come along far too often, in far too many people. I was one of them. I spent the better part of my high school life wallowing in depression. I was lonely, isolated, angry and confused-nobody else was like this, why was I?
And because I hid it well, I was always well behaved, etcetera, my parents never noticed and mostly left me to my own devices, which only made it worse because now I resented them for not noticing that I needed their guidance. All in all, it was a really dark couple of years, years that I look back on and can’t help but thinking–hey, I could have turned out really bad.
I’m not kidding, I was lost and angry and alone, desperate for some semblance of guidance and comfort, that’s a recipe for all kinds of bad things. But in all that drifting, I did find a port to latch onto–Manga.
Back then I was living in Swaziland, a tiny country in southern Africa that always nets the response. “Switzerland?” when I bring it up to someone. It’s mostly not a stereotypical African country, it’s pretty nice all things considered, but it’s small, roughly a million people. And like all small countries, we didn’t really get the best access to media-Swaziland didn’t get an actual movie theatre until we’d been living there a couple of years. So, while we got all the really big, popular shows, anime was far from readily available, with the exception of Dragon Ball Z, which I loved when I was little, but fell out of love with as I grew up and left with an understanding that our time together was special, but at an end.
Manga on the other hand, well that was easier to get a hold of, mostly because my mother had to go back and forth to London for various reasons, so she would pick up any books I requested while she was there. And during this time, I had just discovered the manga One Piece.
For those of you who don’t know, One Piece is the story of one Monkey D. Luffy, who assembles a pirate crew of ridiculous characters with the intent of sailing around the world and finding the titular treasure known as One Piece, an achievement which will mark him as king of the pirates. And along the way he and his crew beat up a lot of people, befriend slightly fewer people, and generally do cool stuff. It’s a deceptively simple premise, but this story is bonkers in a way that I still to this day cannot describe in a way I find satisfying.
Suffice it to say, I love One Piece. I’ve loved it since I first saw the 4Kids dub while I was living in London. Years later, I came across the manga and thought, “There’s more of this? In book form? There is a God!” At first, it was just an absurdly cool story for me to read (seriously guys, I cannot exaggerate how perfect One Piece is, it’s a genuine work of literary art.) but as I grew up and ended up in that dark place I mentioned up there, it became so much more than that.
Here I was, living in a world that seemed dark and hopeless, where people seemed apathetic to me and my suffering, and after a day of aching deep inside, I could retreat into a bright, colourful world where amazing, absurd things happen and I could follow a ragtag bunch of misfits who had no business knowing each other, but still loved each other like family, no matter their past issues.
One of the biggest themes in One Piece is the idea of following your dreams, that if you work long and hard enough, you can achieve anything, which is important to hear for any child, but perhaps especially when you feel like you’re inadequate and can’t succeed.
And when that child feels like there is something wrong with them, something that just makes them fundamentally different and “other?” Well that’s when the mangas other theme takes centre stage. The whole thing is about found family, about saying “hey, no matter how alone you are, how isolated, you can and will find people that will love you for who and what you are. There’s one line in one arc that has stuck with me since the moment I read it, that’s wormed its way into the very centre of my being and become responsible for so much of what I believe.
“Existing isn’t a crime.”
Those four words are a distillation of what any sad teenager that feels lost and alone and wrong needs to hear. That no matter who or what I was, I wasn’t wrong. That it was what I do that mattered and no matter what, just the fact of my existence wasn’t wrong. It’s not a sentiment I think I’d ever heard from anywhere else before; the simple idea of saying that you’re allowed to exist, that your existence isn’t a fundamental wrong, or something to feel guilty over. That you’re not a burden on the world for living in your circumstances. I cannot begin to tell you how much of a relief those words brought to me.
Finally, probably the biggest thing that one piece did for me was that it built my concept of friendship. After more than five years of not being able to connect with people my age, that was a muscle that had atrophied. So, reading about a crew of misfits so loyal to each other that they would literally go to war with the entire world for the sake of one crewmember was the closest I got to exercising it. Sure, that’s a pretty dramatic gesture, but One Piece taught me that for a friend who needs you, there’s no length too far. It taught me how to not let others take me for granted, and how to let go and allow people to see me at my full, most unabashed goofiness without feeling ashamed for it.
Basically, what I’m saying is, One Piece is awesome.
The second anime that really impacted me was called Shaman King.
This one is about a teenager named Yoh who is a shaman, someone with the ability to see spirits and use their powers. He wants to grow strong enough to compete in a tournament to decide the most powerful shaman in the world and be crowned the shaman king…at which point he will use the near godlike power that title bestows to sit around and be lazy all day.
I started reading Shaman King before One Piece, and I sincerely feel as though this manga is what ensured I ended up as kind as I am today. Because let me tell you, when you’re in the darkness as deep as I was, you either get really kind, or really cruel. And I can admit that for a while back then, I was probably on the way to becoming really cruel. But Shaman King gave me a hero who grew from just wanting to be lazy and slack off to still wanting that, but also wanting to make a world where everyone can do that too.
Part of the reason I love that show so much is that it taught me how unhealthy anger is, how much it weighs on you and poisons you. That is a big theme of the story-that no matter how screwed up your past is, no matter how you used to be, you can work to become someone better; whether you were a gangster; a lovelorn, psychopathic necromancer; a misanthropic psychic, you can move past your hurt and become someone new. All you need is the right people around to help support you.
That idea stays true throughout the story; most of the characters who start out as bad guys end up as allies by the end of the story arc. It constantly emphasized that no one was beyond reach, that the only thing keeping a person from growing and improving as a person is their own choice. The books explicitly state more than once that the reason Yoh is such a powerful shaman is that his capacity to look past peoples’ transgressions, even against himself and his friends, means he’s not weighed down by negativity that could hold him back. To the point that he actually meets the big bad of the whole story, whose goal is to rid the world of every non-shaman, and talks about their mutual goals over coffee.
Can you think of any other action-oriented story where the main character and the big villain just…meet and hang out? There was no threat, no implied malice on either side, they just sat down and had a civilized, reasonably friendly discussion over coffee. And by the end of the manga, the heroes actually convince him. The big bad wins, he gets the power to enact his master plan, there’s nothing else the heroes can do to stop him and…he gives their way a chance. He’s not fully won over, but he accepts that their way could be right, and he steps back to give them a chance to let them prove it. This all taught me that not only were other people still capable of finding their way back to the light when they were lost, but so was I; all I had to do was make the choice to try and be good.
Finally, much like One Piece, Shaman King had one line that has stuck with me since the moment I read it, and that line was:
“You’ve got to kill your ego.”
To my adolescent mind, that meant getting over the idea that you were more important than anyone else in any appreciable way. That phrase taught an angry, bitter kid that hey, other people have stuff going on too, you don’t get to go first just because you’re you. It kept me from thinking I had a right to turn my anger outwards just because it would feel better, or that my unhappiness was anyone else’s fault because they weren’t treating me special. A tough pill to swallow…
But I’m glad I did.