The Hood Rats Taught Themselves the Rasengan
A Meditation on Anime & the Hood
Julio Cesar Villegas
And to this day, that notion still persists— that one’s worth is bound to the confines of the streets that they exist among. If the cement upon the sidewalk is cracked, so must be our moral, social, and intellectual compasses. If the streetlights remain dim, barely distinguishable from the absolute night, so too must it be with our prospects and our hopes. It’s when the external allows itself to become internalized — whether facilitated through the constructs of a perceived social order, or through an inability to continue opposing them — that the dimmed bulbs of the streetlights shatter and we become cast into the already-familiar realm of uncertainty that has taken newer forms of residencies within us as the generations have come to pass. What I am talking about is the notion that if one is born within, spends their years living within, the hood, that it must be divine predestination for their being bound to those streets, an orchestration of the cosmic parameters which transcends any conceivable understanding. I’m not here to write about systems or speak in tongues of specialized jargon, I just want to cast a reflection on this notion of families and individuals hailing from the bounds of the hood, of socioeconomic strife, being perceived as the most incapable of understanding and flourishing within this society— when in reality we’ve been the ones most prepared to make such a process become manifest. And we’re going to discuss it in the lens of anime.
On some deadass shit, have you ever wondered why kids from the hood are so familiar with anime? I don’t ask this question facetiously, I don’t ask it for superficial measure, I ask it as one of those kids who grew up around and went to school with these very same individuals. Anime is not limited to any territory— it is not confined to any hood, to any suburb, to any race, to any class, to any country; it is simply art meant to be shared with the world, with whoever is willing to watch, with whoever is willing to listen. What makes it unique in essence, at least from my experiences and observations, is that it serves, alongside pop punk, as a cultural synapse, linking hood culture with suburban culture, suspending the visible and invisible differences between the spaces— if only temporarily. But the question is, more often than not, why does it seem that, disproportionately, you find kids from the hood, whether POC or white, or POC from suburban communities, more knowledgeable and engaged with the culture of anime than their suburban, or white suburban, counterparts?
Firstly, let’s dispel this notion that our perceived nihilism and rambunctiousness is a product of self, and not a product of feeling abandoned and neglected on a different set of levels. Let’s say that you grow up low-income, let’s say that you grow up in a broken home, let’s say that neither your family nor your community fully accepts you, let’s say that your skin color bastardizes you to the outside world, let’s say that your dreams are relentlessly ridiculed to the point of reclusion, let’s say that you experience depression before even entering middle school, let’s say that you’ve contemplated suicide far more times than a child should, and let’s say that you pray to not wake up the next morning, only for all of this to repeat once more. You question the presence of a God, you question the presence of saints, of prayers, but what keeps you rooted, in some sense, is that you know that you’re not the only one in this community who feels this way. No one has immediate control of the environment that they are born into and raised within; what we did have control over, however, was the distinct solace that we found within the world of anime. Before discussing any intellectual or social impact, we need to discuss the emotional foundation. With the presence of anime, our emotions found a root to latch onto and grow alongside with. Of course, it wasn’t the only outlet that there was in regards of feeling seen or related to, but it always felt as if there was a profound, almost spiritual sense of personal agency that ruminated within us when we watched an episode of any given anime by ourselves. In a sense, it was therapy; it was our own mode of release. It allowed us to vicariously explore our placement and situation within the world through the journeys of the characters before us upon the television screen, late into the night. With this outlet commenced the laying of an intellectual groundwork — whether or not we were cognizant of it — that has definitely become a unique facet of a hood’s culture.
I’m going to tell you, straight-up, that some of the most profound discourses and analyses that I have ever heard in my life have come from these motherfuckers in the lunchroom discussing Naruto and Dragon Ball Z. The level of intricacy, astuteness, adamancy, and overall intellectual finesse that they welded into their discussions were on an entirely different plane than from what you might assume if your only measure or definition of merit is solely based upon grades and reports. These motherfuckers in the lunchroom were far more than digits and letters: they singlehandedly broke the binary. Passion is relative to pain, relative to anger, and rooted in a desire to ameliorate a grievance, or a set of grievances— whether individual or collective, whether imposed or inherited. It’s almost as if you forget the opinions, limitations, and perceptions of the world around you once you and the homies give the Academy of Athens a modern-day run for its money with your own collections of hypotheses and empiricisms derived from the great works of Kishimoto, Toriyama, Oda, Takahashi, Togashi, and countless others. It was this passion stemming from this rooted, shared pain that revealed to me, and subsequently made me understand, that, if you manage to find a way of keeping the perceived (but also very much materialized) depravity of the external world at-bay for an alright-enough period of time, you’re going to witness the actual level of genius and capacity that the hood harbors. The unreciprocated, uncared-for emotions that accompany being a low-income person of color — in addition to being a first-generation child of immigrant parents, which was the case for most of us, and which only hyperescalated the pressures that we have to live up to and surpass — converted themselves into a level of assessment and deduction that could not, and cannot, be taught by any institution. For those of us who really fell in love with these worlds, this unintended by-product of debate and analysis, bolstered by our internalized hyperawareness of who we are, and who we were not, rose from a desire to feel and be understood, to feel and be taken as an equal; as someone that’s worth it. You’re going to understand that those cracks in the sidewalks were seeds learning to grow. Again, anime is not the only outlet that promotes this arena for discourse, deduction and development, for you can find these exact elements within the realms of sports, music, food, fashion, religion, politics, and all the crossroads in between. What makes it so fascinating is how this phenomenon centralized into our day-to-day lives, especially when you consider that, unlike sports, music, fashion, and the like, that our heroes and role models never actually existed. They were just a series of drawings imposed with voice recordings, but it was the sense of both escapism and realism that emanated from their stories that allowed us to feel a sense of agency with ourselves and our dreams in a manner so distinct that not even the heroes of the real world could come close to duplicating it. This was not just emotional grounding nor deductive development, this was the confidence and the ambition that we were never allowed to have. This was the confidence and ambition that were supposed to be predestined by a divine hand to arch towards the trajectory of the opposite polarity. The universe was capable of being disturbed after the hood kids realized that it was existing within them the whole time.
So it was with anime that I have seen and experienced emotional, intellectual, and social-oriented growth in a manner within socioeconomic disparity that has made it both an intended and unintended anomaly. It was intended in the sense of works like Naruto, the Dragon Ball series, One Piece, Sailor Moon, InuYasha, Yu Yu Hakusho, and a hearty number of others being created explicitly for the purpose of motivating and resonating with an alienated, misunderstood, and overlooked audience. As a slight aside to this point, before approaching the end of this overall reflection: my only profound critique of anime, at least in the context of the most-popular shows, is that there is very little emphasis and visibility of the growth of female characters, in comparison to their male, often-protagonist counterparts. You have Sailor Moon, you have Kagome from InuYasha, you have characters like Sakura and Hinata from the Naruto series, but even their own development is overshadowed and made relative to that of Naruto and Sasuke’s, and as much as the journeys of overcoming strife is universal, that relative absence of a sustained and strong female visibility can very much be disillusioning and very much seen: most of the debates and discussions that I’ve experience and been a part were composed, seven times out of ten, of all guys. Shit’s real, it’s 2018, this paradigm needs remolding. But to continue before we conclude, all of this was unintended in the sense that no one necessarily expected the stories, philosophies, and images of anime to become grounding staples of the hood, slowly entwining within the culture. It gave us an outlet for identity and being that was both simple and intricate, a solace and a freedom. For those of us who never saw our parents, for those of us whose parents were never really parents, for those of us who woke up starving and went to sleep starving, for those of us who saw no point in school because the education system saw no point in us, for those of us who wished to die, for those of us who were too scared to actually make it happen, though it might have been the only thing that we wanted most in this life, for those of us infuriated and desensitized with the world and streets that we were born into, to the point of being and infuriated and desensitized with ourselves, for those of us wishing for the cracks in the that sidewalk to finally seal up and for the minimal radiance of the streetlight to finally erase itself against the backdrop of the night, it was by finding ourselves in the palms of anime that we remembered that our worth was never bound by the confines of the streets that we existed among.
Julio Cesar Villegas: "Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, raised in Essex County, New Jersey, and author of Memories of an Old World, I am the writer that your abuelos warned you about. Puerto Rico se levanta."