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Anime can invite you into worlds you didn't know before

Elena Aquila/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The cover of the VHS tape told me it was a cartoon, so I was game to immediately watch it. My brother and I — neither of us old enough for elementary school yet — sat down, and what played blew our minds.

Instead of cartoon figures and backgrounds, we were treated to scenes of the countryside.

This is some documentary or drama — the adults lied to me!

But it was rude to immediately leave the room or turn off the video, so under parental force, we kept watching.

I was at an age where if it wasn't a cartoon, I wasn't interested. But the visuals started to draw me in.

And when a van came into the shot, it was clearly an animated creation.

Wait, what is this?

A dad and two little girls came out from the van, and they absolutely were animated creations.

What. Is. This?

My Neighbor Totoro introduced me to anime — and started an ongoing love for the artform and its stories that explore what it means to be human.

The timing opened even more doors for me to see the world

My childhood was marked by the "end of history," as Francis Fukuyama described the era that marked the decline (and eventual end) of the Cold War.

Geopolitics were shifting, and my immediate exposure to those changes came in the school-provided housing for international students with families at the University of Georgia.

A display of the Cat Bus from the film <em>My Neighbor Totoro</em> in Nagakute, Japan.
Tomohiro Ohsumi / Getty Images
Getty Images
A display of the Cat Bus from the film My Neighbor Totoro in Nagakute, Japan.

My best friend's family was from South Korea. My brother's best friend and their family was from India. The family who often babysat us were from Iran. Our neighbors and friends were from Argentina, Ethiopia, Poland ... and Japan, the birthplace of anime.

The very gift of that VHS tape came from a Japanese tradition.

One of our friends wanted to mark Children's Day similar to how it would be done in his native country. It's a holiday that is similar to how Americans haveMother's Day or Father's Day, but it's meant to celebrate kids. He knew we were at a stage of development where if it wasn't cartoons, we wouldn't be interested in watching.

But we also wanted to appreciate amazing art and a lovely story.

We got sucked in as the two main girls, Satsuki and Mei, went on magical adventures. We laughed at the tricks from the creatures the movie called totoro. We enjoyed the architecture and landscape.

Neither anime nor Children's Day are mine to explain beyond the deep love and appreciation I have for it. My own family origins point to the Dominican Republic. But I was welcomed into an entirely different world than what my ancestors had known.

Animations aren't necessarily children's cartoons

This experience roused my interest in anime, and as I grew up, it became easier over time to find titles.

Cartoon Network launched the Toonami block and soon added Dragon Ball Z (meh) and Sailor Moon (yes!). It was the same time that Blockbuster had more titles available to rent.

A <em>Dragon Ball Z</em> mural in Chicago.
/ Raymond Boyd/Getty Images
Raymond Boyd/Getty Images
A Dragon Ball Z mural in Chicago.

We also started getting franchises about child soldiers (Gundam Wing) and movies where limbs and heads are severed on-screen (Mononoke-hime). We weren't used to cartoons with this much violence or big themes about the costs of war.

This time, Mom and Dad had their own What is this? moment.

As trade barriers were coming down and more of us were logging onto the Internet, we moved to a community in Georgia with a less-than-international vibe.

I was typically the only Hispanic student in my class. I don't recall having a teacher with a Latin American background in any of our schools. And my parents at the time subscribed to the school of thought that our family needed to assimilate to the dominant culture, to be more American than any other American.

Researching anime titles led me down rabbit holes that challenged those worldviews and exposed me to more.

I started asking What is this and why is this more and more.

I still get captivated by the visual and musical storytelling inherent in anime. But it's the fuller experiences that stick with me, even as an adult — the perspective of a child as a family welcomes a new baby (Mirai); the stories we tell about ourselves aren't always based on hard facts (Millennium Actress); how few people are straight-up villains the way Disney liked to do (Mononoke-hime — yes, go watch it).

Anime films still prompt me to ask — and invite me into worlds I didn't know before.

What are you really into? Fill out this form or leave us a voice note at 800-329-4273, and part of your submission may be featured online or on the radio.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nicole Hernandez
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