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?
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.
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.
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?