(Originally published at Ganriki, by Serdar Yegulalp. I felt his thoughts would be useful here.)
Of all the questions that inspire diverse and deeply subjective responses from anime fans, one of the most prominent has to be the question most every newcomer to anime asks, and finds the answers at least as confounding as the question itself: Where do I begin with this stuff? The evangelical fan, the fan who wants that many more fellow fans to share his obsession with, waits with bated breath for that moment to arise, and may well spend no small amount of energy trying to invite others in. But does introducing people to anime really make them into fans? Or do fans arise a good deal more spontaneously than we’d like to believe?
It’s a good question to ask. I have myself grappled with it long and hard, and for a long time stuck with the argument that for everyone out there not (yet) into anime, there’s an anime for them of some kind. For the Harry Potter fans, you maybe give them Fullmetal Alchemist or Soul Eater. For the CSI and Law & Order crowd, perhaps Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex or Psycho-Pass. Any number of lists like this already exist, or could be drawn up to connect present and future fandoms with present and future anime titles.
What I don’t think any of this does, though, is create new anime fans, in the sense of people who are into anime as a single, broad, overarching subject of interest. And from everything I’ve seen, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
One of the big myths of fandom, any fandom, is that the uninitiated can be made into fans if they are only exposed to the right material. For a long time I wanted to believe that people I knew who were generally uninterested in anime could be made curious about it by exposing them to some of its most creative, maverick, and generally excellent productions. I know better than to think this now, not merely because it’s untrue, but because it presumes things about fandom that aren’t true either.
People not motivated to seek out a given thing may nod and smile if you put a good example of it in front of them, but they generally don’t get primed to seek the rest of the subject out on their own. Case in point: Comic book movies haven’t caused a mainstream surge in interest in comic books, just in comic book movies, and that’s mostly because they represent some modestly novel wrinkle in how summer blockbuster entertainment can be assembled and deployed. The comics themselves are still not part of the picture for most people.
Likewise, if you, a fan, put a given show you love in front of someone else, a non-fan, and they react with polite indifference or nonchalance, it’s not because the other person is an idiot — and it’s also not because you lack for the right pitch to give them, or the right material to expose them to. It’s because the ways we acquire tastes and share them with like-minded others are not so straightforward as all that. It’s better to be an ambassador for the things you love than to be an evangelist for those things, but not always easy to tell the difference between the two behaviors.
From what I’ve seen, people have to really want to be a fan of something, especially when it’s a large and overarching category of things — anime, for instance. You’re better off respecting that for what it is than trying to turn it int something it’s not. And even many people who are fans of a given anime or three are not necessarily anime fans — meaning, their interest in those particular anime is dictated more by their interest in the things themselves, rather than any curiosity for anime as a whole, let alone for Japan itself.
This last insight — that anime fandom doesn’t always translate into curiosity about the culture that created it — was something I had to learn about and get over fairly early on. If someone else liked a given anime or three and that was it, that was fine. If Japan wasn’t a topic of interest for them generally, that was fine too. Demanding a better grade of fan (whatever might be meant by “better”) by insisting that they replicate my path into fandom wasn’t likely to do anything except alienate others.
Besides, the way to have a better kind of fan isn’t about having them duplicate the experiences (and, presumably, the responses to those experiences) that led you, or anyone else, into fandom. If anything, it lies in the opposite path: allowing a fandom to be that much more welcoming of, and interested in, people who have something new to bring to the table. When you open your ears and learn about what it is that brings people to something, it becomes easier to see that you have more in common than you have setting you apart.
What matters most, I think, is not the act of recruitment, but the act of friendship over something found mutually interesting. The now-defunct anime distributor Central Park Media once had the motto “World Peace Through Shared Popular Culture”, a sentiment I think is the right idea. It matters more that you are able to bond as people over something than as fans.
Case in point. Not long ago a friend of mine showed me an episode of Free!, which I had up to that point avoided. I sat with them and watched it mostly to be social. To my surprise, I liked it a lot, and I plan to talk more about it in the future, since I think the popularity (read: notoriety) of the show says a lot about the ways people try to claim ownership of their entertainment. On the other hand, DRAMAtical Murder (which they also showed me) didn’t have anything to offer me, though; it just isn’t my thing. Our friendship was in no way diminished by this revelation.
Putting the friendship first, and valuing that most, changes the way this whole process unfolds. If I’m good friends with a great many people, and they all share a taste for something that I don’t (Firefly, Irish reels, what have you), that’s no guarantee I’ll inherit their tastes on anything but the most superficial level. What’s more, friends tend to respect each others’ interests — if they don’t, they don’t tend to remain friends in the first place — and so the shared interests in any given friendship tend to equalize around the things everyone can enjoy without feeling obliged.
Let me put it this way: No fandom deserves to be represented by people who value being pushy over being receptive, and who value their own expectations over someone else’s actual responses. To that end, the best way to get people into anime probably doesn’t revolve around how to get people to watch your favorite show and love it too. It’s more about embodying how anime fans — or fans, period — can be some of the best friends a person could have.