Well look at that. An actual subject with some substance to it. Well potentially. As usual of course, I don’t have an actual answer here. However, this is a subject that I believe deserves some consideration. I know that this is a theme that has implications that reach well beyond the specific realm of anime, but as that’s my… I’m looking for a word like specialty but that doesn’t imply any actual knowledge of the material…. Let’s go with *thang*. What was I saying, oh yeah – let’s explore if character tropes be simultaneously exploitative and celebratory through anime for today!

you’re going to love this

At its core, endlessly repeated character tropes are essentially stereotyping. This is neither good nor bad in and of itself, and absolutely necessary to both quickly convey and assess information. Our brain is wired to make millions of assumptions in any given situation so that we can actually function. So, when we see a character that looks like a particular type, we immediately attribute a number of characteristics to it, which we then adjust if proven untrue. This instant context is the only way we can communicate more complicated thesis.

And this is where the tropes come in. If we see a trait always lumped together with other specific traits and physical characteristics, we start to expect it whenever any of the other markers are present.

I know it sounds like I’m explaining some pretty basic stuff here. It’s actually more for me then for you guys. I just want to lay out the basis here so that I can keep my thoughts more or less straight. I hope some of you are still awake.

So, here’s the actual meat of what I’m trying to get to. Once a trope has become prevalent enough to seep into the general consciousness as a stereotype, it usually takes on a number of connotations. A lot of tropes are simply quirky and generally neutral in nature but occasionally, some can be quite polarizing and have actual implications. Dumb blondes for instance. But can a single trope be both a celebration of what would be consider a strength of a particular archetype, as well as an exploitation of the character at the same time.

Anime confused girl
new anime confused girl for you!

For instance, we see a lot of selfless mothers in anime. A whole lot. To the point that an alarming percentage are dead.  The trope is that mothers are caring, responsible and loving people who sacrifice everything for their children. This is fiction guys, we all know that reality can be a little different. Except in my case – I love you mommy…. Phew, close one.

These tropes are unquestionably positive. They exist as a shorthand to show how wonderful the characters are. The simple presence of these nurturing archetypes brings comfort to both characters and audience. There’s an understated grace and strength that prevails at the mere idea of the mother character, without need for exposition or establishment. Of course, there are exceptions – the cruel abusive mother is also a trope but if it is not established early on that e are dealing with the *bad* type, most mothers fall into the former category.

Even more questionably responsible moms, in shows like let’s say Toradora or Madoka, still bring a sense of security and solace to the story. It’s who the main characters go to when they need help and guidance. It’s who makes everything ok. Clearly these tropes are a celebration of everything that makes mothers wonderful.

But they are also exploitative. Not necessarily in the traditional sense of the word but at the very least they are limiting.  In anime, a mother character exists for and is defined by her children. The plot rarely has much need for her beyond that. They can be given their own backgrounds and motivations, but these are usually simply a way to flesh out the character and have no bearing on the narrative.

anime sabagebu
I haven’t seen Sabagebu but the mom seems awesome!

Because these characters are caring, responsible and loving people, they are the types that will naturally set aside personal ambitions in favour of their kids. They will pour their time and thoughts in the service of others, and more particularly their kids. The plot doesn’t need to contrive them into being self-effacing supporting characters, it’s naturally built into their personalities, and even that doesn’t need to be established anymore as it’s all implied by the mere fact that they are “mothers”.

While the traits themselves are positive and great traits for any character to have, the plot often uses them to corner the characters into limited roles and often murder them. Am I the only one that’s a little concerned by how casually anime dispatches moms?

This is just one particular example of course. It can apply to boys being perseverant, or girls being modest or quiet, calm studious types being rational.

Like I said, the fact that stereotypes exist isn’t a bad thing at all. It allows us to craft stories without painstakingly establishing every character every single time, which would be unbearably tedious. Their very existence means that we can subvert them, often to entertaining ends.

However, the plot does also wield them against the very characters they are building. As in all things, balance if key.

Have you guys noticed any tropes that serve to both built up and tear down characters at the same time?


18 thoughts

  1. How many times do we see younger teens living without any supervision at all in anime? Boarding school is one thing. Unless you are an emancipated minor I just don’t see

    “Hi! I’m just into puberty an I’m an orphan totally without supervision and live alone in a house my late grandfather owned.”

    I find that a difficult idea to swallow.

      1. Without it they couldn’t get into such situations. And there is a fantasy element for teenage viewers who thing they want to be on their own.

  2. Oregairu is RIFE with this!

    Every character is a deconstruction of the usual trope they are in a romcom. Popular, perfect bishie Hayato is actually a guy with image issues who wants everybody to like him. Hachiman, the usual asshole MC, is called out for being a self-destructive asshole and actually vows to change. Yukinon, the ice queen, is actually friendless and not as popular you would think like in most other anime.

    It’s a great show for that reason.

  3. Honestly one that I don’t like admitting is the recent predatory lesbian troupe. It builds up the idea that a girl, who happens to also be into girls can actually be forward and take an active role in creating a relationship between them. Rather then the usual ‘are we actually lesbians?’, ‘wait we’re dating and have been for awhile?’ where neither girl really initiates anything but somehow it’s considered dating. The bad aspect is that these forward girl usually ‘target’ girls who only have recently become aware of their sexuality/are obviously invested in a different girl. Girls like this include Matsuri from Citrus, and Hotaru Mizushina from NTR.

    It’s a shame that they’re so tied together at this time, but hopefully in the future there might be more diversity. Or at least hopefully it will be less creepy/unsettling.

    1. I’m not sure how recent it is. I remember it quite clearly in the old Sailor Moon. But I agree with you, I’m also a little fed up of that particular trope

  4. Oh, I notice this all the time. People who do one thing worth doing can’t do another thing worth doing as well, and as a result, every stereotype you praise comes with a cost. Throw this through a fiction filter where most stories centre on a protagonist and define other characters in relation to him or her (a duo in the case of some genres, most obviously romance, but also can-you-catch-me thrillers), and you get a “limited universe”. Speaking of mothers for example, how many kids do you know in anime that regularly greet their mums’ friends? How often do you see mother’s gossip with neighbours, for example? There’s a line on writer’s boards that reads “if it’s not relevant to the story it shouldn’t be in there.” There’s checkov’s gun. In practise, this often turns out plot-centred, and you get reduced-universe syndrome: some things, such as parents talking to friends, is very rarely relevant to the plot, but if systematically left out it leads to a trend that reduces people to their social/plot roles. This is what I, on writer’s boards, have often called “reduced universe syndrome”. If you focus on plot you risk getting rid of the life of your story. A potential side-effect is that hidden ideological assumptions surface. You don’t necessarily agree with them; but they’re a consequence of what you unconsciously learn about stories. (This is also, I think, why comedies like Konosuba work so well. They help break free of this for a while.)

    I, for example, am rather picky with the “hero” trope. I’m not fond of how My Hero Academia handles this. There’s Deku, not having a quirk, but being a huge fan of All Might, his idol. However, he’s a huge hero geek, as well, with a notebook about every hero’s specialities and such. It’s a great set-up, but because he’s the underdog protagonist of a shounen fighter, he gains a quirk from his idol and follows in his footsteps. The role model here is punching people really hard and smiling, which is – oddly – a symbol of “peace” (knocked-out people do tend to be quite peaceful; they may wake up, though). So the smart, wimpy kid needs to learn to punch, too, and his tactical and strategic knowledge is basically a support ability for a fools-rush-in temper (that’s supposed to be admirable) and violence. Can you imagine Deku as a co-ordinator who always knows who’s where and who’s best suited for what job? That would have been an awesome show. But in the end all we get is the same old underdog formula, determination to develop a skill that doesn’t fit his talent (though does fit his temperament), and his real strength being underused (though at least not lying barren).

    All the aspects MHA praises in our underdog hero are actually admirable: the desire to protect, the determination to succeed, natural compassion… But here, I feel, the role of “hero” is a narrative straightjacket; not so much for Deku, but for the imagination: what do people really want? The glory of a front line fighter? The satisfaction of being useful? You don’t even ask the questions, because the type comes a moral macro you just have to call up. Type: hero. Sub-type: underdog. There you go. You gotta catch th- …become the strongest hero.

    My favourite take on the hero trope comes from Rolling Girls. There’s this typical, ditzy anime girl who admires this great power-ranger-like heroine. By the end of episode 2, that heroine (along with the “villain”) is in a hospital, and she has learned that – gasp – the heroine was her big sister all along. (Everyone else knew. I mean, it’s just green body suit. But she’s a ditz.) So she decides to step in her footsteps. So along with three friends she takes to her vespa to fulfill her sister’s pending requests. The Rolling Girls don’t manage to solve a single one of them, but heroine is so enthusiastic and earnest and tries so hard that she inspires or shames the people around her to come together and solve their own problems. It’s the perfect combination on don’t rely on others, and you’re not alone. It’s wonderful. I love the show to bits.

    So all is right, no? Well, sadly it’s not. You see, the goodnatured ditz is such a godawful stereotype in CGDCT shows that I recognised her from one look in the preview and almost didn’t check out the show (boy, do I love pleasant surprises). The problems I have with this type are de-emphasised in Rolling Girls, but they’re definitely there, and they’re – ironically – also part of why I like the hero trope in this show. Much as I love this show, there’s a sense at the back of my mind that if you want a group to lovably fail but still inspire, it’s gotta be the CGDCT filter. See my problem?

    Praise one thing, and it goes at the expanse of another. No show, no matter how much we love it, is perfect. (Before you ask, I’m fine with making an exception for Natsume.) It’s a balancing act – the focal optimum of a show is when you manage to see only what you love, while being perfectly capable of ignoring what you don’t. Such is life, one day at a time. You can love what you love, but don’t kid yourself your darlings are perfect.

    1. You know this is the first time I have read your take on MHA and it’s really interesting. Thank you for sharing. It makes perfect sense. Since I have a very bad habit of ignoring main characters, I hadn’t paid much attention to it but what ou say makes perfect sense.

  5. My experience with most mothers in anime is that they are already dead or are on a long trip overseas. Or the kid has been schlepped off to a school to be ignored. Absent. Ditto fathers. It is a way to make 14 year olds act like adults with complete freedom.

    That is an abusive parent, IMHO. There is no amount of money that could coax me into a job overseas where I left my children at home to fend for themselves. I doubt it is even legal in the US. Protective services would scoop those kids up in a heartbeat.

    There is are a couple of interesting depictions of a mother in “Otona Joshi no Anime Time”. Check out Maho and Noriko. Those women are a bit more 3 dimensional.

    Anime is all about tropes and formula. Mother’s get in the way so they are eliminated or gone. Or they get a minor supporting role like in MHA. Speaking of MHA…


        1. well I needed to finish school. I have a few friends that have had similar situations but I now it’s rather uncommon in North America

  6. Hmm, this is interesting to think about!

    Mothers are a character archetype more than they are standalone characters, and that’s almost by design. If a character’s role dictates that they look after and nurture another character’s growth, it almost necessarily leaves little room for them. Mothers themselves buy into this, with some proudly claiming that their life is their children. Individuality is sacrificed as much as their time and energy.

    Anime being by and large focused on coming of age stories tend to highlight the child, so mothers push themselves into supporting roles. As you pointed out, this is most easily and quickly done with a trope.

    You can probably guess the trope I think matches a similar category, can’t you? It’s the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. She’s designed to be beautiful, compelling, and irresistible, and if you identify with the protagonist you see her that way too. But unless the trope is subverted her job is limited to inspiring the protagonist with no motivation of her own.

    1. I also have certain issues with the nice girl. This is a girl who’s personality gets sacrifices in favour of agreeability. It’s very difficult to create any sort of well rounded character while sticking to this archetype.
      MPDG is a great one too. I see less of them lately, or rather the ones I see get subverted into Tsundere archetypes…

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