If you’ve watched as much anime as me, you could be tricked into thinking that the only way you’re ever going to live out your real life anime fantasy is by somehow becoming an orphan. Or at least a woefully neglected high school student. It seems that anime is willing to use any old excuse to separate children from their parents… they’re travelling abroad and left their 13 year old unattended, they’re sick and the rest of the family is just going to leave the kid alone, they’re the Empress and Emperor of a different planet…. Sometimes they don’t even bother with the excuse, the parents just aren’t around and there are no signs in the house that they ever existed, but they’re still great parents…probably.

Despite notoriously high rent prices in Tokyo, anime has led me to believe that at least half of the high school age population live on their own in pretty decent apartments. Well that’s good to know.

So why does anime insist on starring minors but do away with their parents?

Penguindrum 20-4
does this really need a caption?

Well the minors part is pretty easy to figure out, they are appealing to a specific audience? One that either relates to teenagers or enjoys watching stories about them. That was for a long time the biggest TV watching demographic out there after all, and a lot of classic American TV shows also focus on this age group.

***There has been a shift in North America in recent years where younger audiences have moved more to online platforms so the biggest TV shows tend to be big budget escapism for working age adults or news for the retired folks. I’m not sure this has happened everywhere though***

So having kids as your main characters is fine but why not show them having a great family life. To be fair there are family centric anime which have wonderful parental figures, however these are rare enough that strong parent child relationships are noticed by audiences.

The parentless kid trope isn’t exactly unique to anime mind you. Even legends and fairy tales feature a disproportionate amount of actual orphans or young people that get separated from their parents for some reason. Witches curses, evil stepmothers, you know…the usual. There must be a reason writers go back to this convention time and again. They can’t just all dislike their parents.

I actually did try to track down a reason and I got a partial answer. More accurately I got an answer for why orphan characters tend to be so prevalent in fiction. Form everything I read, it boils down to giving your leading character built in conflict. An inherent obstacle to overcome combined with a tragic past to make them more likeable or somewhat admirable. Moreover, there’s a sense that an orphan character is someone who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere, since we all tend to feel that way at some point or another, it generates instant relatability.

some great anime orphans as well

Not to mention that by now it’s simply ingrained in the general anatomy of fiction. It’s such a well worn trope that it’s almost a default for some.

But what about characters that have essentially invisible parents. That’s the more prevalent element cliche in anime, I think. Characters that come from what we can only assume is a normal loving household with a completely functional family unit that we just never see. Even if we do see the characters home lives. Sometimes one or both parents make cameos but that’s about it. Yet the narrative doesn’t treat it as if the kid is neglected or abandoned in any way.

I’m sure my googling skills are at fault here but I couldn’t find why that particular convention came into being. So wild speculation it is. Here’s my thinking on this. First I figured that since the narrative doesn’t acknowledge it, I’m assuming it serves a structural or practical purpose rather than a dramatic one, as in the case of orphans above.

Going from that assumption, how do functionally (but not emotionally) absentee parents help in crafting a plot. Parents are essentially guardians/protectors and so they’re presence sets boundaries and removes obstacles and complications. Great for real life, bad for fiction. Your school aged character would probably be spending most of their time having quiet uneventful diners with their family and doing homework. Helping with chores, putting away groceries. They wouldn’t really have any important decisions to take and someone would be there to answer all their questions and quiet their fears. Unless you actually want to write a family based narrative, this is sort of counterproductive to the average plot.

join us next week…for the exact same thing!

If the parents are visibly around and the kids are still spending all their free time with their friends and getting into hilarious hi-jinks, then eventually the audience is going to start noticing that those are not very involved parents. Maybe there’s something wrong. That muddies your narrative. Some people are going to wonder why it doesn’t get addressed or at least get distracted by it.

On the other hand, if the parents are speaking up and asking their kid to do their part at home, or making all the decisions for them and the kid is just ignoring it and doing their own thing, then that’s a disobedient kid. This passes in Europe and America. We have an appreciation for spirited youths and playful scamps. We tend to like a bit of a rebel. There are characters like Tom Sawyer or Denis the Menace that have been quite successful after all.

But my guess (and it really is a guess), is that considering the respect owed to seniors and especially parents in Japanese society, such rebellious characters would be seen differently. It would add a borderline villainous aspect to their personality. It’s one thing to show a Yankee being rude to his classmates and casually sexist, it’s another showing him actually talk back to his mom!

The way I see it, if the parents just don’t happen to be there, then our main characters can get into all the plot required trouble they want without anyone being a bad guy. The audience can pretend the kids didn’t know any better and the parents just plain didn’t know. It’s all good.

Like I said, this is mostly guess work. I can’t really back it up beyond educated guess. Do you know why so many characters have absentee parents? Is there a reason I didn’t name an author would make their leading character an orphan?

Sherlock Rini
let’s figure it out!

34 thoughts

  1. It’s actually a pretty common thing in fantasy books as well. I mean how can kids go around adventuring if their parents are there around right??

    Also the Avatar with the pipe is soooooo adorable;

    1. In fantasy they are often actual orphans as it also singles out characters as special! Thank you! I like her pipe too

  2. To be perfectly honest, as a writer, it sometimes is easier depending on what kind of story you want to tell to just not bring up the parents. I’ve heard the same thing before from other members of the writing community, and I even saw it in the comments–if you want to focus on relationships between characters, or on conflicting values, then it might be worth characterizing parents. But if you’re don’t, and it’s a story all about negotiating large-scale moral choices during wartime or something in a setting where parents still should appear or be at least mentioned, then characterizing parents automatically means discussing their impact on the character who is their child. That discussion risks taking away from the “point” of a story, but neglecting that discussion makes the presence f the parents pointless.

    Extra characters tend to get cut out of drafts for this reason or become posthumous, unless they have specific and important roles to play. In a series like Soul Eater, for instance, we get to see Maka’s father because she has a conflicted relationship with him that defines some of her decisions, but not her mother, who she was raised by and has a decent relationship with. Spirit is his own character, but Maka’s mother is a plot tool for inherited powers we never even meet.

    Whether or not this applies to anime as much, I know it applies to a lot of books. In combination with all the reasons you listed, it’s a wonder anime society has any parental guidance at all beyond tragic flashbacks and dramatic last words.

    1. I actually haven’t seen the invisible parent trope as much in other media. Parents are often reduced to a mention or cameo and not developped in any way but they do exist in my experience. I can see why one would not focus much on then though

  3. “There has been a shift in North America in recent years where younger audiences have moved more to online platforms so the biggest TV shows tend to be big budget escapism for working age adults or news for the retired folks. I’m not sure this has happened everywhere though”

    Definitely not so much in Japan. Kids are still pretty unlikely to have computers at home (they browse the internet via cellphone mostly), and while platforms like Netflix are there, it’s been my experience that most people don’t know a thing about them. As far as anime goes, the vast majority of kids/teens seem to watch on TV or buy the (horrendously overpriced) DVDs.

  4. On the other hand, it makes both great and terrible anime parents stand out a lot more given they are so few and far between.
    I always wondered what Serena’s mother was thinking when her middle school daughter, who she knew was a clumsy ditz, would disappear for hours at a time or even over night. Given how irate she got over Serena failing an exam you would have to wonder why Serena didn’t get grounded more often after being out saving the world as Sailor Moon.

    1. Oh good point there. I always thought her mom must be a bit of a ditz too. She got it from somewhere

      1. Very true.And other than Rei the other Sailor Scouts all seemed to be more or less without a family. I think they mention Mercury’s mother but Venus and Jupiter just kind of exist.

  5. Many years ago I read an article (can’t find it anymore, sorry!), that called absentee parents in fiction “The Cat in the Hat Problem.” Basically the point of it was, how do you set things up so that the kids are both willing and able to have an adventure with the Cat in the Hat? And the answer is that you have to get the parents (especially Mom) out of the house first, because Mom would shut down the Cat in the Hat’s kind of mischief in a hot second if she was around. Having absent parents gives the children the freedom to fully participate in the story that the author wants to tell, especially if it’s some kind of action/adventure or sci-fi/fantasy story.

    That said, Japanese kids IRL are still much more independent than American kids are. Not they’re totally unsupervised like in so much anime, but it’s still not a big deal in Japan for them to walk or bike or catch a train to school on their own, or go outside to hang out with their friends unsupervised. It’s the same stuff American kids were doing just two generations ago, even if a lot of modern American parents would break out in hives just thinking about giving their kids that much freedom.

    1. Well that’s how I grew up as well. What I find funny is when there’s no actual sign the parents even live there. I dunno an extra coat or something. Maybe this is more a sign of me being a slob…

  6. Hmm…I honestly never really noticed this, but after reading this post I’m actually thinking about animes that featured parents in one form or another 🤔
    One of the series that springs to mind: and the only anime comedy that I really enjoyed is Urusei Yatsura. Both the parents of the main character are not only alive, but also play a pretty active role in the show. Then there is Erased, where the mother plays a very central and highly important part of the story.
    And then there is Neon Genesis Envangelion, where Shinji’s strained relationship with his father is also pretty important to the story.
    But you are right…it’s rare. And I have no idea why, so sorry…my mind draws a blank😅😊

    1. Some anime parent characters (good or bad) who really stood out to me:
      Yasuko from Toradora
      Kohei Inuzuka from Sweetness & Lightning
      Precia Testarossa (in the “horrible parent” category) from Lyrical Nanoha, and Nanoha herself later on in the series
      Momo’s mother Ikuko from the movie A Letter to Momo
      Shoya and Shoko’s respective moms in A Silent Voice
      Almost every significant parent character Hiromu Arakawa’s ever written, from Maes Hughes (yay!) and Shou Tucker (boo!) in FMA to Aki and Hachiken’s respective parents in Silver Spoon

      1. I don’t know all of these unfortunately but definitely agree about the mothers in A Silent Voice, they were awesome and also a very integral part of the film😊

  7. That is something I’ve noticed as well. It’s like the children have at least one dead parent or absent parents in general. I guess anime and Disney have a few things in common in that aspect (I’ll ignore the low-hanging fruit of Kimba the White Lion having a murdered father). I think it would be more interesting if you had a normal family in a story in different genres. It’s become so cliche for me that I put complete families for a majority of my characters in the Revezia series and the Hollanduscosm since you can still have drama with the characters and how they relate to their loved ones.

      1. To be fair, the way Caesar (the dad) gets murdered is completely different than Hamlet or TLK since he gets shot by hunters and the mom Snowene dies by drowning in the ocean. But Caesar’s spirit does show up in the night sky to console Kimba when he thinks he can’t save the kingdom though… 😛

        1. I haven’t seen kimba in years but you mentioned the lion king was very similar and since that one is an actual retelling of hamlet I sort of assumed. In that context dead parents are sort of a requirement…

          1. I actually didn’t know you saw Kimba back then. That’s cool though. I didn’t watch it until only a few years ago after really researching that plagiarism controversy. The most obvious similarities are the characters (especially Claw and Scar) and scenes, but there are similar plot points, too. They just added some Hamlet references in passing. I still wish Disney would own up to it. Hahaha! Yeah, dead parents can be some prerequisite to so many stories.

            1. I think tlk is pretty obviously following the hamlet script. It’s more than just a few references in passing. But Kimba may have been the first lion themed retelling though. That would make sense

            2. Well, they do get closer to the Hamlet script albeit with major liberties like not having the concept of the cycle of vengeance (then again, a lot of American movies fail in that regard). Kimba did come first with the manga coming out in 1950 and the anime released in 1965. I hate to repeat this point, but if TLK came before Kimba, then everyone would riot. Okay, I need to calm down before I repeat some touchier subjects from my huge rant about that movie I wrote a couple of months ago on my Ospreyshire blog. Sorry about that. I don’t want my fandom of that old-school anime tarnish this conversation about dead parents in anime even if it still fits that trope.

            3. That’s true. They can certainly take certain twists and turns given the subject matter. I’ve certainly been clear with my issues with that Disney movie and it’s not just because of Tezuka’s creation. Hahaha! Besides that, the whole dead parents angle can be a cliche or a form of cheap sympathy heat for the main characters who are orphaned. Okay, some other anime I enjoy are definitely guilty of this like Grave of the Fireflies which takes it to a far more tragic level and the mom dying ISN’T the saddest part of the movie.

  8. If we think about how many kid-centric shows are targeted towards younger demographics, I think we can factor in the idea that parents aren’t around in animated series, simply because kids, especially younger kids, don’t really know what their parents are doing. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. Did any of us really know what the parents were doing when Tommy Pickles and his crew were off on adventures on ‘Rugrats’? Spare me your tumblr theory blogs.

    To be more anime-focused and Japan-focused, how often do we hear about the Japanese salaryman, catching the last train home, and the first train to the office? This may not be the most exciting answer, either…but these poor Japanese families in anime may very well be overworked, and these kids are getting into all these misadventures and hi-jinks thanks to a serious lack of adult supervision. That might also be why we don’t see very many slice-of-life shows for men and women in their late 20s and 30s. That’d be about as exciting as the family shows you mentioned.

    Essentially, Japanese society should find more babysitters. Oooh! A babysitting anime might be an idea!

  9. You’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head, at least in my experience, though one additional reason I’d like to add is that mum and dad are going to take up space in your plot. They need introducing, they need scenes with the main characters and, preferably, they should have their own character traits, all of which takes focus away from the actual plot (unless you’re doing something that revolts around the family). Sometimes you just have to sacrifice the stuff on the periphery of your story for the sake of the plot.

    1. True when you only have so many episodes at your disposal you have to pick and choose. Great point!

  10. Its the Bambi trope. Orphans get to make decisions, and live with the consequences. Disney movies have used this trope many times. Anime liked the Bambi trope so it turns up pretty often. Sometimes they go halfway with one parent dead and the other working all the time. There’s good shows which use this: Bleach, Toradora, Neighbors Club, Psychoelectric Girl, Ouran High School Host Club. This allows conversations with parents in the plot.

    There are also shows where the protagonist has both parents but they’re so self-involved you rarely see them or only see one of the two in the story. In Its Your Fault I’m Not Popular has an ironic scene with a father discovering his daughter after she discovers porn games and falls asleep in front of her computer.
    In SNAFU, the hero gets mocked by his mother and sister. In Ouran the father gets upset to find a crew of rich boys in his apartment to visit his little girl on her shopping day. In Nyaruko-San the mother is a game consultant-designer for Sega or PS and part time demon slayer, who taught her son how to fight with dinner forks. We see her a few times, but the forks are a recurring joke.

    In Toradora, the mother turns up several times, and the son cooks her meals and cleans the apartment while she is either working and sleeping. She cares, but she’s drunk most of the time because she’s a hostess. She’s in no shape to make decisions about her son’s life, so he gets a parent while still taking care of himself. That’s part of the brilliance of that story, too.

    In Neighbors club the mother has died of cancer, and the father is a corporate supermarket seasoning buyer who travels the world and tracks down spices for supermarket chains to start carrying, including the contracts and delivery. He’s busy out of the country, but cares enough to ensure money is sent home to keep his kids housed, fed, and in school run by a friend from college and knew their mother. That becomes an important plot point in the humor of that show.

    So there are parents in some anime. They usually make brief appearances. But the hero child still has to have the freedom to make decisions, so there can be plot.

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