Anime characters sure have though childhoods. Well the action ones at least. If you sit down and really think about action anime, it’s a sea of PTSD. You can’t be a proper hero without a bit of tragedy in your background. At the very least your parents can’t just be healthy. And don’t even get me started on those villains! There are *reasons* they turned out this way.
I think it’s no secret that we, as a species, haven’t quite gotten a proper handle on how to deal with mental health. We’ve gotten way better and we can help and even treat so many conditions now…if the person seeks help. Something that can be very difficult under those circumstances. But regardless of our medical advances, the general public still has a ways to go to understand and appreciate mental disorders. And this despite how prevalent they are.
Anime, like most forms of fiction, is one way through which we can explore such things. And we do! Anime characters be cray! But one of the most prevalent elements is trauma and it’s rarely presented as a condition.
Trauma is really quite frequent in anime. Slice of Life genres have a little less, however it’s an inherent part of action adventure anime and really most fiction. Of course it is. Trauma is a great source of conflict. Giving a powerful and generally successful protagonist a sad past makes them instantly more likable/relatable and the audience will cheer for them more. At least that’s the theory. Tragedies “humanize” characters. I know that’s true, I’ve seen it. When I think about it though, it’s not super rational. The tragedy is usually a chance occurrence. The character didn’t actually have anything to do with it and it’s not an inherent part of them. And the emotional and metal fallout of it is often glossed over in a few tearful scenes.
But you know what. That’s generally fine. It’s a big cliche to give a main character a tragic past but it’s also a classic for a reason. What has been annoying me more lately is giving all the villains Freudian excuses. They’re not really evil it’s just that this horrible thing happened to them or o.k. maybe they are evil but anyone would be under those circumstances…
Sure a tragic villain with a chance at redemption can be really compelling but not all villains have to be that way. It’s o.k. to have a villain that’s just plain selfish or lazy. One that is unstable despite a wonderful childhood. A villain that has no reason for being a villain can be a wonderful foil as well. The lack of some motivating trauma won’t necessarily make the character shallow. Not to mention that inscrutable evil can be very frightening.
I started noticing this tendency in American movies. Bad guys needed to be “nuanced” and supposedly that was achieved through bad pasts. I eventually read in an article somewhere that if you are putting out an action flick your antagonists still need to be sympathetic so that kids will buy their merch. And that some type of sad sap story was the easiest way to achieve that. The classic Freudian excuse. It’s thrown in so frequently I almost stopped noticing it.
I’ll give it to anime. Although it also has its share of tragic villains it just as often has just plain old jerky villains, deeply evil villains or practical pragmatic ones. In this way, it’s mostly avoided enforcing the trope that trauma makes people “bad”. I sound like a toddler when I put it that way but you know what I mean. There was a trend in fiction that a character forced to overcome horrible circumstances was either the hero or the villain. And because there was usually only one hero and a horde of baddies, the odds where for the latter.
This said, anime like most fiction, does often use trauma as some form a magical rite of passage. Events that would leave most normal people emotionally crippled for life get discussed a if they were minor inconveniences. Loss of parents or severe parental neglect, (something we know can easily have devastating repercussions on a person’s development) are so common place they don’t even count as a bummer anymore. And I think we may be loosing touch a little bit. Trauma isn’t a heroic trait. It’s a difficult condition.
Being an anime blog and avid anime watcher I am relating the issue back to anime cause it’s what I know best but really this a a common trend in all fiction and one of the oldest tropes out there.
Here’s the upshot though. It seems that at the very least anime is slowly growing out of it. The instances of tragedy upon tragedy heaped on every character backstory seem to be getting rarer and what’s more, I’m starting to see more mundane events start getting treated with the seriousness they would normally warrant if they were to happen to real people.
And that goes both ways. A fallout with a friend is something that will bother or even hurt a character, weigh in their minds for some time. But it won’t send them in a rep depression. However, having to take care of themselves because their parents are too busy is in fact a bit of a burden and does occasionally make people feel like they’re loosing out on something. I’m enjoying this normalizing of tragedy and not using trauma as a shortcut for character development. Personally I think it makes me understand characters better.