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.

anime daddy issues
all the best cowboys have daddy issues

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…

meruem hxh
it’s genetic!

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.

I couldn’t find the artist.. 🙁

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.

Love Rini
just me?

20 thoughts

  1. I don’t think good anime makes it look like trauma can easily be shaken off. Rather that shaking it off makes one an exceptional person. The hero can also knock down concrete walls with their bare fists. Anime rarely offers us realistic role models.

    There is always mediocre to bad anime one can point to.

    Great anime shows us that healing is a long term process, often requiring help from yokai or the Kawamoto sisters or a friend who won’t give up. Goblin Slayer takes tight up to the last episode before the hero begins to recover from his childhood trauma.

    People have an innate ability to recover from trauma. Our neolithic and paleolithic ancestors faced trauma frequently. But we no longer have tribes and large extended families and even small villages full of people with an interest in helping us through. We tend to substitute therapy for such things. Or we just suffer in isolation.

    The recovery from trauma, the prevention of PTSD and the treatment of PTSD are their own branch of psychology.

    1. It sort of depends how you define a traumatic event. What type of neurochemical spike it creates I suppose.

  2. Maybe not an example of past trauma , but I did like how Re:Zero kind of handles Subaru’s trauma. Although his trauma is more or less ongoing due to the nature of the show and his power. Not sure if you watched Re:Zero or the new directors cut .

  3. In the case of action anime, I have to agree that tragedy is usually a stimulus for development and growth for the protagonists. Sometimes to the point that their hair turns completely white *cough* Kaneki *cough*. Anyways, while you glossed over slice of life anime with trauma, I feel that slice of life anime is where anime that touches on trauma is more meaningful. They really take care to look over how the characters suffered and how to go about trying to recover from their trauma. A really good example would be Fruit’s Basket. I’m not sure how far the anime has gone but I read the full manga series and I must say it was a hella good read. I’m sure a more popular anime that most people would know would be Your Lie in April though. Also, while not the best anime out there, there are also anime like Kotoura-san. (not sure whether welcome to NHK can be considered so I’m just gonna leave it in the brackets cuz I’m not sure abt this one)

    1. Replying to my own comment cause I clicked send before I was done. (also just thought of another anime 3-gatsu no lion)

      With regards to villains usually having tragic backstories and reasons why they turned out to be bad. I feel like most of the time in anime, it is to blur the lines between good and evil. I remember reading an article once about how Japanese don’t like clear cut good and evil but prefer there be more uncertainty. Not sure how credible or true that article was but I have to say in most anime it certainly feels that way. The enemies have their own motivations that go against the protagonists but sometimes, we can feel or understand where the enemy is coming from. Examples like Shogo Makishima and Meruem. Although depending on the person they may or may not feel the same as I do. ^^”

  4. Ah, now I remember the recent Stars Align. As great as the show was, it did feel like they were playing issue bingo at times. Every single club member has home issues. The issues themselves are treated with incredible sensitivity, but sheer mass of it made me wonder if it would end up a horror show, where the club will eventually go on a riot beating people to death with soft tennis rackets. We may never know.

    What I really hate, though, is if trauma gets the Your-Lie-in-April treatment. Ah, they’re just slacking off, so we have to be more pushy. I was also very frustrated with Orange: the show was really, really, really great at depicting a suicidal state of mind, but then there was this stupid power-of-friendship plot that I just couldn’t buy. Anime often is really good at showing trauma, but really bad at facing it – at the same time. It’s so frustrating.

    It’s also why I low-key dislike No Game No Life. It’s aptly titled, but the show doesn’t seem to realise how sad this is, instead taking it as an excuse for our protagonists to be awful to everyone but each other. A deeply unhealthy social-anxiety circle jerk that’s rewarded with victory highs? I’m still trying to figure out whether selfish jerk fantasies bother me more or less than insufferable white knight fantasies (á la Sword Art Online).

    When it comes to issue treatment, give me shows like Watamote, Welcome to the NHK, or Oregairu 2, which are either a long and painful journey of self-discovery, or a painfully familiar series of failure to achieve such. MMO Junky was pretty good, too.

    And then there are shows like Helpful Fox Senko san, whose subtext basically say what makes horrible work conditions tolerable is a pampering wife/mother (Senko actually refers to herself like that; no joke). It’s such a cute show. It’s also such a creepy show. It’s a very weird experience (and it’s not all that rare in anime).

    Action shows? There’s no issue that can’t be resolved with beating each other up. It’s a good way to make friends, too, don’t you know?

  5. I do agree the tragic childhood/missing parents is really overused in anime. Possibly more than in some other mediums. It is pretty much a trope or standard. In a way, I like it better than the western version which is teens/kids are so brilliant and their parents are total idiots. Grown ups are so stupid. riiiiiiiiiiiight. That only really flies if you are personally still 15 to 20. You’ll learn. But when it comes to anime, tropes are here for a reason – it’s like shorthand. One trama scene, okay, now we can point to that as the reason for everything (hero or villian) lets move on. Especially in action anime, neither writers nor consumers want to waste much time that could be used for action scenes. So as an anime watcher, to some extent I feel like I’ve agreed to this.

    Now as a real human, here’s what I’ve learned in life, and in reading ridiculous amounts of biographies, autobiographies, and true crime books. Lots of people have terrible childhoods, really, really terrible childhoods. Most of us dust off our butts, get up, and make a life. Often using the past as a great example of what we DON”T want in our adult life. Some people simply never recover and life sad lives as addicts of one sort or another. And a few people (IMHO here) use it as an excuse to be “bad” or “evil” to slap a fast label on it. There’s probably a few who never even considered trying to be better, or “good” than their upbringing. But the vast majority of people who survive terrible childhoods grow up, damaged but stronger and wiser, and live pretty normal lives, or sometimes extraordinaty (but not super heros as such) lives.

    Approximately 1% (we think) of the population are actually psychopaths. Interestingly, they don’t all become criminals – exactly – some of them put that focus and lack of emotion to use in regular business ventures. But those who do turn to crime, really make a career of it. They’re evil, or the nearest thing to it in this world. Not an excuse or anything else – it just is. to me, that’s one scary villian – because you can’t touch them with anything. Punishment is no deterrent. You sure can’t reform them or talk them out of it, because they think they are right and smarter and everyone else is a sucker.

    Now an anime where say siblings or twins had the same wretched childhood and one decides to be good, one to be bad.. that would be interesting. Probably been done. But I’d look at that as an interesting study in character and what makes some go one way, and others the other. And could one reform, or could the other be corrupted….

  6. What do you know I agree! (Mostly this time though)
    I am a bit sick of the hero who lost his family or sister and therefore tries to prevent death at any chance they get. I don’t think Trauma either makes you a villian or a hero.

    Trauma breaks a person down to their very core. A handfull of those who went trough can climb back up again, but most broken things don’t get actually stronger. Though there always are some for the majority I dont think it does.

    Trauma is being portayed as something to overcome and to rise above while first we need to be able to just “survive”. Trauma is almost gloiried as character building.

    I do relate with a tragic villian more than a tragic hero…but I think “this guy wants to destroy the universe because he lost his mother” and “this guy wants to destroy the universe because he turned of his emotion.. to preform better in his life ” are equally valid for me. I do need a reason why a charater acts how they act but it doesnt need to be trauma. A flaw (even like insanity or megalomania) as long as it’s established can build a good villian for me.

    Trauma I think is an easy way to depict that your hero or villian can actually be hurt..or no longer can be hurt respectively. Trauma means fraility that can be set up in a quick flashback and can be used whenever it suits the writers.
    While having a flaw (for example a hero with a drinking problem or who is overly into women) requires a set up to work, the trauma card can always be played at any time.
    From a flame that reminds them of a parent, to a phrase that was said on that “trauamtic” night.. there are so many inserts so it’s is something easily recyclable troughout episodes.

  7. I totally agree with you on every point you made in this article.
    Tragic Villains i can like the most as while you don’t necessarily agree with the methods or goals but the reasoning to why they have become this way allows the viewers to feel more sympathetic to them and they can also have their own redeeming qualities as well like not killing innocents and they are really evil just by default and they could have a chance to being redeemed. Of course evil for the sake of it villains like Monokuma can be very entertaining.
    I can get pretty irked whenever mental illness,abuse or depression can be treated as a joke.
    For Example in Eureka7 one of the characters Renton keeps getting treated like a ragdog to the point its not even funny. And in Genshiken one of the characters everyime she gets embarrassed throws herself out the window to the point it doesn’t even become funny anymore either.
    I have noticed as well too that in anime parents are becoming more proactive in their childrens lives like in My Hero Acadeamia and Do You Love Your Mother and her 2 hit multi target attacks. And that tragedy for the sake of tragedy isn’t being used as heavily as it was.
    We have come a long way with mental health but still there is more ways to go to make it more socially acceptable and accessible to receive mental health services. Interesting read once again.

    1. Monokuma or rather Junko is difficult example. It’s like a whole slew of disorder tropes stitched together. Although that is the point of the satire after all

  8. When I grew up I was told that psychopaths are born while sociopaths are made. Both are monsters. They both do similar things but have different origin stories. You could tell them apart by their early childhoods. A sociopath can be saved if they accept help (That’s a nuanced monster.) but a psychopath is unreachable. Anime has a lot of sociopaths and few psychopaths.

    The DSM-5 doesn’t differentiate this way. There is only antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). The American Psychiatric Association seems determined to eliminate a lot of older terminology. I think it is all *playing with definitions to seem scientific.*

    So Asperger’s is no longer valid but there is “Autism Spectrum Disorder type 1” (which doesn’t really quite fit) to fill the void. Pluto isn’t a planet because some astronomers were scared of having too many planets. The brontosaurus didn’t exist, it was really an apatosaurus because we put the bones together wrong and wanted to give the reassembled bones a different name. Etc.

    Most of the villains that Batman fights are sociopaths with a tragic backstory.

    Nothing has any emotional significance and there is a complete absence of empathy, so a psychopath can be horribly cruel just for a bit of amusement. That is also why they are tough to catch with lie detector tests. They can play an emotion perfectly without feeling anything in particular, making then consummate actors and liars. Only the coldest of the kuudere type could be a psychopath.

    The sociopath has their empathy beaten out of them by fate, so as a young child they still had empathy. Usually, they have a reason for killing dozens of people other than wanting to see them scream. A sociopath (who accepted help) could be recovered with enough therapy and psych drugs.

    Either of the types is more likely to become a CEO or a politician than a serial murderer. Hitler was really a different trope, the ubermensch. Stalin was a sociopath.

    Psychopaths and sociopaths are both included in the “TV Tropes” sociopath trope but there are a bunch of sub-tropes that use the psychopath label.

    Inuyashiki has a psychopath for a villain. At least I think he is. Nobody has any value except for the very closest people to him. Torturing and murdering others just to get a tiny bit of feeling himself. I haven’t gotten far enough thru it yet to see if they give him a tragic backstory and turn him into a sociopath.

    1. I need to reed up more on antisocial disorders. Like most things they tend to be more common and mundane than we think but I suppose that wouldn’t make as exciting a story

  9. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to have anime that discusses serious trauma, but I wish that they wouldn’t use the “dead/missing parents” trope so much. It’s so overdone and I feel like it diminishes the struggles of those who have lost family members at an early age in real life. Also, you don’t need to give EVERY character a tragic backstory! After a while it just gets tedious and kills the pacing.

    I actually like sympathetic villains, because I don’t think anyone is 100% good or bad. But just because someone had a messed up childhood doesn’t mean that they get an excuse to be evil and heartless to people who had nothing to do with it. You can have a character who is sympathetic and maybe even charming, but still be an irredeemable dirtbag.

    You’re definitely right when you say society doesn’t know how to talk about mental illness. It’s still very stigmatized and there are a lot of false beliefs and misconceptions people have about it. It can also be difficult to write a character who suffers from mental illness realistically, because it’s such a personal experience and you really can’t understand it fully unless you’ve gone through it yourself. That said, I think anime actually does a better job at depicting trauma and mental illness than a lot of Western movies and TV. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I feel like whenever American movies are about mental illness they’re always Oscar-bait dramas that make the character out to be this amazing genius and don’t depict their actual issues accurately at all. Sorry, I’m probably not making any sense, I’ve been feeling sick this morning and I haven’t had any coffee yet!

    1. I don’t think I have watched enough western tv lately to juge how well or not they are doing in that regard. You may be right.

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