Thursday, August 6, 2020

Goku Vs. Everybody

I'm an older millenial, I guess. An 80s baby who spent the bulk of my childhood in the 90s and graduated High School and College in the aughts. High speed Internet and Cable TV showed up in my island nation in the late 90s and suddenly the cartoons only a few of my friends had heard of were watched by all and recapped vividly before school, on breaks, at lunch time and in class, much to the annoyance of our teachers. Toonami entered the scene almost simultaneously and all of a sudden the obscure Japanese cartoons I'd only heard whispers of from friends who were unsupervised in video stores were suddenly right there within reach. I'm speaking of course, of the first anime I can remember transfixing and transcending the culture: Dragon Ball Z.

It's not a secret that it was a hugely popular anime that ran in Japan in the early 90s, but pre-Information Super Highway the only way to get your hands on it and similar shows (Sailor Moon, Saint Seiya, etc) was on bootleg VHS tapes you either got from your weird uncle who was only a little bit older than you or from video rental stores. Back then we had a huge satellite dish that had a few of what I called Feeder channels that were mostly off-air until mid afternoon when it would show Sailor Moon, Mighty Max and every now and then what felt like the exact same episode of Dragon Ball Z over and over. I had no idea what it was then and soon forgot it existed. I cared more about Gargoyles, Sailor Moon and RoboCop than whatever I had witnessed, not realizing that in a few years it would grow beyond what anyone had imagined and dwarf almost everything else in popularity more than twenty years later.

This may come as a bit of a surprise to you, but I ran in fairly nerdy circles in high school. Often the only girl once our conversations really started to devolve into intense Nintendo vs. Playstation arguments, many of my high school days were haunted by the spectre of Goku vs. Everybody. By then it had started to air on Toonami and I too had experienced the agony of "Next Time on Dragon. Ball. Z." We unknowingly divided ourselves into two factions: those who had already seen what was available of the show and some OVAs and those who'd had no idea what our lives were about to become. For some of us, this taste of battle anime combined with new never before seen (in the US) episodes of Sailor Moon were about to kick off a life-long flirtation with anime and other aspects of Japanese culture and for the others it was yet another excuse to be an obnoxious know it all.

It's a ritual most of us older millenial nerds have gone through. You'll be hanging out with your friends, talking about the latest episode of some cartoon, or comic and the guy you only barely tolerate because you've been in all the same classes for three years and who has a crush on you that you've rebuffed since 8th grade pipes up to share the tidbit that popped into his brain and will consume the rest of your lunch period, "Goku can beat Superman." You'll exchange a look with your close friends and even though you don't really care about an actual outcome for some strange reason you engage. Maybe your ego is yearning to come out on top in an argument or maybe you're just bored. "No he can't."

And just like that, it's too late. You fell for it. The crowd will somehow swell with kids from lower grades and you'll take turns shouting each other down, reaching no conclusion but somehow each walking away thinking that the side you chose is obviously going to win in a fight. It was a fool's exercise, and somehow, more often than not we'd dive down that rabbit hole a few times a week, whether willingly or begrudgingly. The weird art girl a year younger who wouldn't take the hint that we didn't see her as a friend spent nearly a year telling us about this kid Tenchi who could beat Goku in a fight and then we never even pretended to take her seriously after the show finally aired on Cartoon Network.

It was when we were away from the crowds of the cafeteria that my friends in my Mandatory classes began to stoke my curiosity in the medium into a flame. The three of us occupied a row in math class and though we shuffled seats over the three years we would somehow always be drawn into a conversation that inevitably would disrupt the class. These two were my mentors, teaching me that there were darker anime that my parents would never allow into our home willingly. In my last year of high school they detailed Neon Genesis Evangelion and Berserk and whispered of Bible Black. As 16 and 17 year old boys they told jokes about the more twisted parts of those series that I would disavow today but back then kept me entertained and helped me decide that I never wanted to watch them. The Eclipse terrified me for years, keeping what would become one of my favorite stories just out of reach.

In my main friend group though, Cowboy Bebop was the connoisseur's choice. My two best friends were the most talented retellers and they told me what happened with a flair that fascinated my imagination. Though it aired in 1998 in Japan, Cowboy Bebop was a permanent fixture in Adult Swim's early lineup in my last year of high school and really for most of my young adult life. I had an early bedtime though and didn't get a TV in my room until we moved into my grandmother's house. Even then it was an ancient model that used to be in our kitchen and was as old as my brother. It had a dial that only went up to 13 and had begun to show its age. Luckily for me Cartoon Network was channel 10 on cable and if I was sneaky enough I could finally watch Cowboy Bebop. My friends had regaled me with an episode by episode breakdown and by the time they told me their version of Mushroom Samba I'd decided that I HAD to watch it.

In the old house I'd loved The Pretender the few times I'd gotten to stay up late with my father and watch it and would often sneak out to the front room and turn on the TV to the lowest volume I could still hear and hope none of my parents needed a glass of water. In my grandmother's house the TV warmed up slowly and sometimes the picture wasn't clear or the sound wouldn't kick in for 5-10 minutes. Sometimes I would turn up the sound to the max just to hear the whisper of the voices only for it to suddenly blare loud enough to wake the neighbors. I only managed to see a few episodes in high school and remember being disappointed that the characters didn't look the way they imagined I did from my friends' stories. The next year though, I spent the first semester of college absorbed in anime (Bebop, Evangelion, Rurouni Kenshin, Inuyasha and eventually Berserk) as both a way to try to make friends and as a refuge from my sudden feeling of drowning as I struggled to deal with my math classes.

When my struggles in school caused me to transfer universities, it was anime that connected me with the people that would become friends that lasted over a decade. In 2008, on the verge of my OPT and student visa expiring, it was anime that brought four of us around the poker table and the cheap mic in my bedroom to start a podcast we barely had no idea how to run. I moved home before we were able to record 10 episodes and missed out on episodes as I tried to find a place for myself away from Florida and save up for a PC. My love for anime disappeared but it was the only way to connect with my college friends so I kept coming back to the mic even when I lost enthusiasm.

The job I was overqualified for but stuck for four years at because I couldn't find anything better took away all of my enthusiasm and in 2012 and 2013 I found I didn't enjoy much, not Kpop, and definitely not anime. Finding my way back was a difficult journey and I could mostly only find the energy to be in the Just A Gintama Podcast, forcing my way through anime episodes that I wasn't really into and making up excuses to miss recordings. From time to time I would find myself trapped on a Twitter version of the outside of my high school cafeteria, arguing with people I would never come to see as friends about tropes in anime. In real life I moonlit at a fusion video game store and anime club where the kids there resurrected our high school argument with a new twist, "Naruto could beat Goku."

Even now, closer to middle age than I will ever be to 16 again, as much as you could never get me to watch Dragon Ball Z or any of its offshoots ever again, I'm still grateful to the show for the moment it gave us as kids in different grades and from different backgrounds to come together and share our frustrations and joys. At 30+ I have enough life experience to apply it in my critique, and am confident enough to let a show go that I no longer enjoy. Our podcast is somehow still around 12 years after starting and showing no signs of truly stopping. So Thanks Goku, I guess.


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