Have you noticed that leading characters usually all have some traits in common? Well at least stereotypical ones. This is even more obvious when you restrain them to particular genres. However, I’ve noticed (or imagined…) a little something when it comes to anime heroes. They’re kinda bizarro…
Well that was a nonsense sentence. Alright, let’s take a little trip down Irina’s line of useless thoughts together. First, a little mise en situation. (For the record, when I drop French like that, it’s not cause I’m fancy, it’s cause I don’t know how to translate it…)
Months ago, I was watching the second season of My Hero Academia and wrote a bit about it. One reader mentioned that they were unfond of MHA’s treatment of heroism. This led me to not only think of the notion of heroism and leading characters in the context of MHA but in the greater context of anime in general.
There is such a thing as a vanilla leading man. A sort of stock character that embodies most of the traits considered desirable to the core audience but with enough weaknesses to remain accessible and relatable. In my experience, both qualities and faults tend to get amplified when the protagonist in question happens to be part of an action shounen, since exaggeration is a narrative tool of the genre.
In any case, you can paint a broad strokes picture of an anime lead character just as you can do so for western media. A romcom lead or an action star all have a pretty well-defined set of attributes. I’m not saying you can’t deviate from the norm, but you also can’t deny that somewhere along the line, a mold got made.
You know what’s fun though, on the surface an anime superhero is the exact same as an American one, but the foundations are almost opposite. Of course, this is personal and limited observations. But I thought it was interesting.
For one thing, in the past 5 or so decades, western heroes have become rebels, even anti-heroes. We want our leading characters to have some bite to them. We seem to like smart a*sses, who have a comeback for everything. Goal oriented go getters who get the job done with a certain degree of ends justifies the means. Blasé and laissez faire James Deen types. Our heroes are good, depending on the abstract morals you ascribe to, but most of all, they’re *cool*. And attractive. And often tortured… But still kind of fun about it.
You know what I mean right? We all know who the most popular Marvel/DC heroes are. If you sit down and think about it, they’re really very similar. Sure, Batman is a bit more Tsundere but overall, we have a clear archetype here.
When you see a fighting anime from a distance, it would seem that the characters are pretty much the same. Although anime fans have a greater attachment to the underdog, we still follow subjectively good, attractive guys who never give up and never surrender. However, they’re born of a different impulse.
An anime hero represents an ideal rather than an exception. They may be misunderstood, or different from birth but they aren’t exactly rebels. Thumping your nose at tradition and rules isn’t an expected part of their personalities. In fact, their journey often involves them growing to embrace and work within the system rather than the other way around.
There’s also an inverse presentation. In local media (wel local to me mind you), I often see messages of self-acceptance. Heroes have to learn to love and understand themselves. Or at least believe in their own virtue or something. It’s a rather introverted experience. We see their stories through their own eyes as their personal journeys unfold.
In anime, outwards perception is given more weight. It’s not uncommon for heroes to have to prove themselves to others and society. And that’s not considered a bad goal. External validation is given a lot more importance. As such you are more likely to get a third-party perspective on the protagonist. You see them from the outside. At most they are your friend, but they are not *you*.
For me this is a great distinction and one that changes the narrative structure quite a bit. Since the hero isn’t necessarily the audience surrogate anymore, it means the narrative has to develop them independently. The story cannot simply rely on the audience to fill in the personalities and funnel in their own image.
Of course, adding the need for that extra development has drawbacks. Underdeveloped characters tend to be much more glaring and unsatisfying. Character development cuts into action or world building. But if you put in the work, you can end up with some truly spectacular characters.
And then, there’s the messaging. I’ve written before that I personally don’t care what the message of a piece of art is “supposed” to be. In the end, the message is what you as an audience takes from it. Nothing more and nothing less. To me, lately western heroes have a certain selfishness to them. It’s a cult of personality. They are special but of course, we can all be special. This is the time and place we live in. Anyone from anywhere can become an Instagram star.
I used the word selfish because I don’t know exactly how to say it. Individualistic may be better. Fact is, I don’t think the message is bad. The idea of celebrating oneself has a lot of positive aspects. A certain amount of self-assurance and vanity is needed to accomplish great things. However, that message is getting a little boring lately. I’ve heard it so much over the last few years, I’m ready for something new.
In anime, I’m seeing some grim fatalism sneak in. Those heroes are only as good as others let them be. Sometimes you fail no matter how hard you try. It’s not about the individual and as such, everyone is dispensable. But it also means that with time and effort you can build something greater than you ever imagined. The whole is way more than the sum of its parts. It’s ok if you’re not perfect, because it’s not all about you. There’s a comfort in that.
Like I said, I am probably reading into it. That’s what we do here, we read way too much into anime! But what do you think. Is there and inherent heroic ideal in anime that differs from its contemporaries?