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.

anime heroes
i all the orange a thing?

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.

speaking of 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.

you’d think Allen would make the perfect bitter anti hero…yet

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*.

this is 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.

or whatever type of star you want to be

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?

See the original here

37 thoughts

  1. There’s definitely a collectivist trait towards anime heroism. Often you have a counterpoint character to underline this. Think Vash the Stampede and Knives; or Naruto and Gaara. There’s quite deliberately a why-don’t-you-hate-them-after-how-they-treat-you line running through a lot of those shows. You almost always fight the system from withing, play them at their own game (see notably Assassination Classroom). Heroes often have some sort of “idiot optimism” that defies belief and often converts others. Even if reluctant, anime heroes usually do what they’re “meant” to do (the hero in Kekkaishi would rather make cakes, but he still goes into the families exorcism buisness, and only makes cakes on the side). When they’re reformers they still tend to play by the rules (see notably Shokugeki no Souma), and when they have a reformative effect it’s often just by setting an example and inspiring the people around them.

    I really do not like how heroism is treated in MHA: All Might, the hero image (not the character), comes across as a cross between a fascist propaganda tool and a corporate mascot. Apparently it’s cool to smile after you’ve beaten someone to a pulp, and smart kids should learn to punch really hard, too, and using their smarts to learn how to more effectively punch people, instead of figuring out ways how to punch as little people as possible and leaving the punching to people who are good at it from the get go. (If you like punching, go ahead and learn to punch people real hard, but don’t pretend you aspire to be a “symbol of peace”. I remember the cold war; that’s what people said about the Bomb: surely, if you can mutually destroy each other, no-one will strike first. Luckily they didn’t, but during my childhood, I imagined a Russian and American rocket colliding right over my head. I thought it would have been an ironic way to go.)

    That’s one thing To Love Ru got right: in that show, there’s a fictional mahou shoujo show, “Magical Kyouko”, who has pyrokinetic powers and solves all problems by burning stuff. She’s chased by an irate firefighter. A spot on parody of the ubiquitous violence fighting shows. MHA isn’t unique in that. But state-level organised heroism is suspect from the get go, and combined with the standard trope… That’s how you control people through fear. (Obviously it wasn’t a deal breaker, since I watched three seasons of it. It’ll stay at three seasons, but three seasons is pretty good for something that bothered me that much.)

  2. Another remarkable and thoughtful and thought provoking post. I think you may have put your finger on why I prefer anime to much of today’s American action adventure scifi type works. Lately, we have too much of the broody, (whiny) self-centered hero here. And notice, they are universally unhappy. Teen angst spread into middle age. Wow, get over yourself already. Edgar Cayce, when asked the purpose of life, answered “service”. Service to others, to society. Eastern heros get that – they sacrifice to do what is right to improve the life of the community, or even of all living things (I was about to limit it to humans but…) and with that said, when they aren’t busy saving the world they don’t lay around questioning or brooding – they go have a beer with their friends, or spend time with their significant other. American heros generally don’t even have a significant other, or if they do – its an ex they can’t get over or a wife some evil guy killed that they moan over forever while their loyal secretary moons over them and they can’t see it. I don’t have a lot of patience for all that, as you can tell. Life is good, go live it!

    1. That’s a really interesting point about Western heroes being unhappy or angsty. I’m curious, is that a recent trend? Because I remember seeing some old Batman & Superman movies from the 80s & 90s, and was surprised at how goofy & light-hearted they were. Maybe something changed in the national consciousness after 9/11, even more so after 2008? I’m unfortunately too young to tell if that’s a stretch.

  3. I feel like Western media misses out on the everyday joy in human interaction. The way media paints school, systems, and the ordinary is just depressing.
    I also feel like some anime is definitely a little bit too tradionalist and conformative… but I still feel that the best kind of individual expression is finding a way to work with other people. Other people help me discover me- and I’m sure that’s a pretty common experience. It’s just that people feel less like individuals whenever they recognize the undeniable influence of others on their identity…
    For some inexplicable reason.

  4. James Dean or Deen? lol

    “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.”

    Who do you have in mind, beside Naruto & Deku? I think 4/5 of the guys in your orange pic don’t really care about what society thinks of them.

    1. Whis one is the porn star?

      Well the narrative drives them to fit into social structures for the most part. Although Goku may be a bit slow he does in fact care about his place and role in society, at least it’s the feeling I got and he actively seeks out a team. Luffy’s whole thing is to be recognized as the pirate king for a lot of the narrative. I don’t know bleach as well. As for other shounen, Tsuna is a stickler for social and familial responsibility, HxH has a built in Hunter social structure Gon tries to fit into (get certified for) and Fairy Tail is guild driven.

      1. Deen is, unfortunately!

        In that case, aren’t the X-Men, Avengers or Justice League similar structures? Driven by a meta-narrative for the latter two, perhaps — but on the other hand, only so many characters you can work on with stand-alone films (and only so much money you can make).

        Goku maybe to some degree cares about his place & role in society, but does he do so more than Ironman or Superman or others? And as Scott points out his careless disregard towards society is off-the-charts — who the hell risks the safety of the world for a dick-measuring contest? I don’t remember Western heroes acting so irresponsibly, no matter how self-absorbed.

        I don’t know if I’d consider Gon a hero per se. Anyway, he exhibits similar traits to Goku; except Hunter x Hunter’s world isn’t as kind & simple as Dragon Ball’s so his reckless, selfish streak is made all the more obvious.

        I believe Luffy’s drive is primarily intrinsic — he refuses shortcuts towards his goal when offered, because he above all desires to become a Pirate King he himself can approve of. And in Luffy’s eyes, to be Pirate King is to be the freest man on the seas — as Merlin says, a (selfish) yearning we typically associate with the West!

        As for Ichigo from Bleach, he fits your Western stereotype pretty well — he’s a blase kid with cool quips & a dark side. Similarly to Luffy or Gon, he has no noble ambitions of being a great hero helping society. Unfortunately various assholes are interested in him or his friends so he’s forced to get involved in these conflicts.

        I’m admittedly not very familiar with Western hero movies, but I feel like the distinction you draw in your post is not that clear cut. In fact I feel like Western heroes have a greater sense of duty towards society at large.

        Honestly never heard of Reborn, did you enjoy it?

        1. Like I said I may have imagined it. A lot of my readers did a better of explaining it in the comments mind you.
          I did like reborn a lot although I couldn’t exactly explain why.

          1. You have so many polite, interesting & knowledge commenters. Hard to believe this is the Internet.

            Anyway, thanks for the discussion. Et oui, c’est assez difficile de traduire “mise en situation!” First, a little background…” “First some immersion…” Yeah neither are precise enough.

            Have a nice day!

            1. Oh super! Ça va être tellement plus facile a expliquer dans une langue que je comprends un peu au moins.
              Donc l’idée que j’essayais d’exprimer était en lien avec le traitement générale de la fiction plutôt que les motivations individuelles des personnage. C’est la structure du réçit qui présente une situation plus homogène comme une résultat désirable ou non.
              Dans vos examples, il est en effet question de situation d’équipe, ce qui est similaire mais tout de même il y parfois des simple distinctions vers l’individuel. Par exemple, des tous les personnage dans X men, le plus populaire est Wolverine qui n’aime pas socialiser, a tendance à s’isoler et agit seul si possible. Donc l’idée générale reste que l’unique, l’exceptionnel et l’individuel, prime.
              Dans mon texte, j’utilise le mot hero pour indiquer le personnage principal et non sa moralité ou ses principes. De plus comme j’ai mentionné, le mot égoïste n’est pas le bon, c’est plus individualisme ou libéralisme.
              En somme, l’idée était qu’il y a une certaine tendance vers une approche personnelle dans les sociétés de l’ouest qui est plus communautaire dans l’est et ceci se reflète dans les divertissements. Biensûr, cette idée est loin d’être révolutionnaire ou même originale mais j’ai trouvé sympa de pouvoire en retrouvé une trace dans quelque chose qui m’est si intime. Est-ce sensé?

            2. Oui, voire meme tres sense. Votre point m’est beaucoup plus clair, j’apprecie enormement votre reponse — et tiens a complimenter votre excellent francais!

              Je ne connais malheureusement pas assez la culture cinematique occidentale pour proprement debattre votre point. Mais par pure curiosite, ou placeriez-vous Death Note ou Code Geass dans votre these? Ils me semblent assez proches du cote occidental que vous definissez, par contre cela pourrait expliquer leur plus grosse (je crois sans etre certain) popularite dans l’Ouest!

              Et je vous en prie, tutoyez-moi: je suis bien trop jeune pour votre politesse!

            3. Dans ce cas tu me retourne la faveur.
              Je n’ai malheureusement toujours pas vu Code Geass mais voyons. Donc Death Note est un roman policier donc la comparaison devrait se faire avec les procédural du genre CSI. Une fois de plus je pense tout de même que les personnages principaux sont tous réalisés dans un context social bien plus large, allant au delà de la situation immédiate mais il reste que les deux genre sont loins d’être équivalent. Le plus près serais peut être Poirot? Loins d’être contemporain. Peut-être Peter Hoeg mais la culture Scandinave a également ses propres distinctions.
              Donc, je devrais me pencher sur la question . Qu’en penses-tu toi?

  5. Very well said and a most interesting read!

    I recall something from a book series I’ve been reading. It’s called “Wearing the Cape,” it’s about superheroes (I enjoy it immensely), and one of the books takes the heroes to Japan. There’s a bit of cultural discussion there. I forget exactly how they put it (if only my memory for what I read was as great as it is for what I watch), but it was something about American culture being more individualistic and Japanese culture being more collective, and there are benefits and drawbacks to each approach. One of the Japanese heroes says that duty is to them what freedom is to us, a defining characteristic of their people and their nation.

  6. I’ve definitely noticed the more selfish aspects of American superheroes even the ones who are more traditional like most of the Mavel and DC breakfast clubs out there. It’s interesting with you bringing up the concept of fatalism, but that ideology is certainly more common in Japanese let alone other Asian cultures. This also ties into a more collective thinking as opposed to the individualistic mindset like in the West (especially America). It forces these anime heroes to work with others to improve the situation as best as they could. This even extends to tokusatsu. Why do you think there are so many team based series like Super Sentai (the archetype for Power Rangers) and Metal Hero? Even the Kamen Rider series involves multiple allies from time to time.

    1. You bring up a good point. Although I can definitely think of some lone wolf animes as well, the entire concept of one lone hero against the entire world might be more european than eastern. Possibly even than American in fact

      1. Thanks. There are certainly lone wolf anime protagonists as well, but I don’t see them as much as in American media especially with the anti-heroes around. That can really add to the individualistic aspects of our culture.

  7. I think the more individualistic nature of things comes more from the differences in culture between the East (or Japan, specifically, at least) and West. The West (ESPECIALLY America) is a lot more individualistic by nature. Which is why the traditional superhero archetype (brought about by Superman, himself) sort of fell out of favor (something I think was for the worst, honestly. Superman works best when he’s a selfless paragon, not broody and insecure). By contrast, Japan is more of a collectivist society. So their emphasis on cooperation and being part of a greater whole plays *heavily* into all of their heroes. I actually intended to write something about this disparity myself at some point. Great post!

    1. I think so as well. Our heroes and our entertainment is a reflection or our values and culture. I hope that as these become more international we get a blend of visions as well

  8. Holy crap, you’re so right about the selfish nature of current American super heros. Even goody goodies like Superman and Batman have been corrupted to think about themselves and be all moopy recently.

    Then again the original Japanese version of Goku wasn’t that much of a hero either, but he caused huge messed that could have been solved easily because he wanted a good fight. He recently put entire universes at stake because if this. More All Might and Aizawa please.

    1. Goku is interesting. I’m not entirely sure he’s meant to be a hero at all. He’s an appalling father….

      1. I don’t think so either, but he does get caught up in a lot of situations that make him seem like one. Might be an interesting character study.

        And when some one who had slaughtered entire Planets like Vegeta is a better dad and husband then Goku, something is wrong

  9. You raise some interesting points. I’ve never before really considered the difference in approach.

      1. Obviously not, else your commentary would lack this validity. But it all makes sense when you consider how different the referenced cultures are.

  10. If you watch harem anime, the main leads tend to blur together a LOT after awhile. Hell line a bunch of them up together and they are all almost designed the same.

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