Anime has taught me a lot about myself. Arguably some things I may not have wanted to know. My appreciation of certain genres above others shows me what I tend to resonate with and when asking myself why – it has revealed my own biases and pet peeves. Maybe it’s just me but this seems way more fun and way cheaper than therapy!
One of the slightly worrying side effects of this personal anime journey through the soul has been my questionable character preferences. I have long had a preference for morally grey (occasionally dark grey) characters. I prefer complex to righteous. That’s not the bad part though.
I do know that the two aren’t mutually exclusive but I also know that when writing a narrative that has to fit neatly in a set number of episodes, a lot of writers will simplify things by making characters either flatly “good, flatly “evil” or a slightly compromised version of either. That’s why in general, I tend to enjoy supporting characters who don’t really need to fit neatly in either categories because I find they have more flexibility.
However, I’ve also noticed something rather odd in the last year or so. For reasons I cannot quite explain, I’ve started to really enjoy “pettiness”. Childish and unreasonable characters who use to annoy me are now making their way into my favourites lists. They still need to be consistent (i.e. not just suddenly start overacting out of the blue) but it’s o.k. if they are unfair.
I’m not entirely sure when this shift happened but I think I may know why. We can argue a long time about classic anime versus modern and whether storytelling has evolved or devolved. I don’t actually know the answers to these questions, but I do know my particular experience with anime. And one of the changes I personally have noticed in anime and tend to appreciate, is that protagonists have slowly become less “perfect” or at least less “heroic”.
I have always loved Shinji (from Neon Genesis Evangelion – still wrong). I am one of the very very few people who liked the character as he is. I like Shinji because he’s whiny, ineffective and often weak. I like Shinji because he may be well intentioned but he’s too self-centred for proper empathy and ends up hurting the people around him then feeling sorry for himself. I like Shinji because up until that time, I had never seen a hero quite like that. A hero that was in many ways not suited to the role at all.
To me, a protagonist like that could grow with the story because he had a lot of growing to do. He was a deeply flawed character. One that could occasionally be unlikable to a lot of people. Not someone you necessarily wanted to be like or look up to but one that you could relate with on the parts of yourself you may be less proud of. It’s a gambit that had mixed results. A lot of fans hated it and still malign the character to this day. I thought it was a genuinely bold bit of character creation that made me think about the character and the nature of the story in much more detail than I would have had he been a generic hero type.
For a long time, Shinji was an exception. In my watching experience. Characters had quirks, they had personality traits that weren’t necessarily lovable but that were soften. They were scoundrels not would occasionally cheat to get their way, but they also had a heart of gold. Besides, it would work out in their favour, so it ended up looking cool. Maybe they were not that bright, but it was offset by how strong or beautiful they were. In the end, they would end up being someone you’d like to know or even someone you’d like to be. Even if a protagonist didn’t speak to you personally, you could understand why someone else would like to emulate them. Their faults were the type that could be easily accepted.
It’s a little like the “clumsy girl” trope in western media, especially romantic comedies. You need to give your beautiful female lead some type of flaw to make her relatable, but it can’t be anything that would make her any less desirable so, she trips sometimes. It’s cute. As a bonus it makes her seem a little more helpless which is another trope that supposedly makes female characters more desirable.
The laziest application is when a writer gives their protagonist some huge flaw that supposedly has been an important issue in their lives, and then just forgets about it when it’s inconvenient to the plot. I have to admit, there are some characters I love that fall into that category.
There’s nothing wrong with these types of characters. The ones that are fake flawed. However, Shinji aside, it meant that growing up I essentially saw variations of the same 2 or 3 protagonists in anime. Certainly, some iterations were much better than others, but they were all generally following a handful of templates. Strong, efficient, smart but with deep emotional trauma. Angelically kind almost too good for this world. Spunky underdog with everything to learn and prove, seemingly made entirely out of determination. Maybe you could add in the generic audience insert character that was just too underdeveloped to really fit anywhere.
But no one was petty. No one was just childish because they were childish. No one was a know it all who didn’t actually have the brains to back it up. No one was a mess of self-loathing who couldn’t pull it together even when everyone’s lives depended on it. No one, except Shinji.
Now Shinji may have over-corrected the perfect protagonist trend. I can understand why some fans would find him annoying for 26 episodes in a row. I would argue he had some pretty well-established reasons for his issues and that the original anime ending did a great job at wrapping up his character arc…but you’re not here for that…
In recent years, I see a certain evolution in secondary character traits for protagonists that I am enjoying. Beyond the classic anti-hero there are protagonists that are openly selfish, nitpicky in a way that’s more annoying than comical or justified. Protagonists that make little mistakes, unnecessary to the plot but that show us that they are far from perfect. If you don’t stick with Hunter x Hunter up to the chimera ant arc, you may not realize just how terrifying Gon is for instance, when you do, his character takes on a completely different persona and you can never look at him the same way. One of the more brilliant narrative subversions in the series.
The fact is, sometimes the people that accomplish great things are not so great themselves. Sometimes people that are great, never manage to pull through. By adding in these types of characters to our archetypes, it opens up so many possibilities for our stories. I love that about anime.
This is why, I love petty.