Never give up! Never surrender!!!

If you’ve watched any amount of shonen anime (or really any popular action based media aimed at a younger audience) it’s a sentiment you must be very familiar with. Heck, determination might be the one universal trait of any action hero worthy of the name. That and abject coolness. It’s just so ubiquitous in anime, and presented in such an unflinching way, that it can occasionally come off as unintentionally silly or even creepy.

Kimi ni Todoki
sometimes accidentally creepy is nice

The thing is, in my experience, in anime determination is most often presented as the hero’s iron will to follow their moral code or path or whatever. No matter how much the odds are stacked against them, no matter how insurmountable the obstacles may be, our intrepid heroes will reach their predetermined goal in the way the had set out to do so. They will ask the guy or girl out no matter how often they say no! And that’s that!

That can mean that shows occasionally frame well-meaning and perfectly reasonable reluctance from supporting characters as shallow, cowardly or selfish. The dilemma here is that someone has to voice dissent in order to really point out just how dangerous and perilous the plan is so that we the audience will get all excited about it and be really impressed when it succeeds. But having the hero openly disregard everyone else’s concerns in favour of pursuing a clearly dicey endeavour is not always well….heroic… So the shows have to give protagonists excuses to still stick to their ideas.

because morally ambiguous heroes are though to write

It can also mean accidentally making main characters seem compulsive or randomly obsessed with certain concepts with fairly minimal motivation. Our hero is doing all this crazy stuff because they want to become the best, oh I dunno let’s say, dental assistant. They have this really clear image in their head what a dental assistant should be like so they try to follow that to a T in all their actions and decisions. And the audience just follows along because, uh-huh, that consistent with the internal logic of the character. They want to be a dental assistant and they think a dental assistant cares about everyone’s gums so it makes sense that they would attack this Yakuza organization that is targeting the textiles industry which in turn makes dental floss more expensive. I’m following along and invested.

Except, shows sometimes forget to tell us why our plucky hero ever wanted to be a dental assistant in the first place beyond something like it looked cool, or their favourite grandparent was one or something like that. As we follow along with the story it all seems to flow really well but when you try to explain it to someone else, suddenly the main character seems a bit insane!

Am I the only one that really wants to see that dental assistant shonen now?

I guess there is the Dragon Dentist

Don’t get me wrong, the determination trope is a stand by for a reason. It’s easy to understand and accept as both a driving force for the plot and a heroic character trait that still allows the character to act is some less than heroic ways. Still I am getting a bit bored of how frequently it’s used and how it’s almost always used in the same way.

One of the greatest subversion in Hunter x Hunter, in my opinion, is how it slowly started to reveal Gon’s classic hero determination trait as foolish and harmful to those around him. It took a character trait that we see so often in anime, and especially in that genre of anime, and slowly started treating it in a much more realistic fashion which was mind blowing to me. Yeah, that is what blind determination would look like after a while, and it’s not that great, is it…

gon gone mad
don’t look at me like that…

Being flexible and adaptable are in fact really great qualities and pretty much a requirement for making a great leader. They are also, somewhat incompatible (not entirely) with forceful determination. The ability to change one’s mind or to abandon goals that are no longer worth it, is important. And these are skills that need to be developed and thought. So it would be great to see more protagonists whit personalities based around those qualities instead.

Maybe we could have a hero that instantly changes their plans as soon as they’re met with the slightest resistance but is so adept at doing so by now that they can bounce back to a new better plan without the slightest problem. Or a hero that is constantly unsure what the right thing is and therefore has to do a lot of soul searching every time and is easy to influence. Wait did I just suggest “existential angst” the anime? Oh that sounds horrible! Never mind, we are not doing that!

I take it all back, it’s awesome that all our anime heroes are super duper determined to the point of compulsion. Also we need more dental assistant animes!

fairy tail dental assistant


27 thoughts

  1. Challenge accepted! For the protagonist that always has a Plan B, that’s probably Seiya from Shinchou Yuusha (that’s isekai though and not shonen…Senku and Light are better matches), while Usopp is pretty easy to influence, although it becomes a plot point at one point (or maybe 2 points…it’s been a while since I read One Piece…) that he’s actually really negative, as a counterpoint to Luffy.

    Being flexible is hard to portray and that’s what makes “chessmaster” type characters like L hard to write. It’s easier to write a straightforward idiot with a one-track mind for only their goals (and maybe food and/or fighting) because people have come to love that kind of character (and throw their money at them!) already. Being able to write resilient characters who lose faith in their main goals and then get new ones? That’s even harder! (That’s probably also why timeskips exist…so that you can skip the parts where characters do just that. For instance, you barely ever see characters actively job hunting
    in fields that don’t pertain to the main goals – opportunities always fall into characters’ laps when they’re job-related series.)

  2. A shonen show about dental assistants would be interesting in the posts respect, because the standard shounen thing to aspire to is to be a dentist. That’s an interesting dynamic, right there. A show about dental assistants would by necessity include dentists (though you might include them the way Peanuts includes grown ups, which could be interesting in its own way).

    One of the things about “giving up” that’s interesting is that there are layers; you can take a step back for a better view without giving up your goal. I’ve been thinking about this with respect to the latest Fire Force arc, where Shinra’s hero complex wasn’t portrayed as a bad goal, but was still portrayed as something that limits his ability to take other people’s motivations into account.

    As a kid, I tended not to like heroes with a singular unrelenting goal. I always thought of them as a nuisance and/or holier-than-thou idiots. As a result, I’ve often rooted for villain sidekicks or lovable rogue characters (who tended to be drifters) or comic relief characters.

    1. I don’t mind singular goals to be honest, I just find the archetype to be almost omnipresent and I like variety.

  3. I think having a determined character is an easy way to further the plot so it is often used as a writing crutch.Because Luffy is so determined to find One Piece you can throw all sorts of things in their way and make them experience a lot.. but in the end your plot will always revert back to your main synopsis in a fairly natural way.

    If we make a story about a girl wanting to be a dentist assistant.. but she changes her mind because she might not be raffled into dentist school and would have to skip a she goes to acting school instead.. planning to be a movie actress..but she isn’t pretty enough so becomes a soap opera star instead I am not sure if you can put any focus to your story. Sure at one point you can swerve back to her trying to date a dentist assistant to live the job out trough her love.. but when she then settles for the Rem to that Amelia, you still would not have a story just a chain of events.

    I think character should have a second goal maybe even a third one which they are less passionate about. Maybe the dentist girl..wants to date a boy with perfect gums..but then actually Tsundere falls in love with a guy with bad gums. That one you make the characters less flat.. yet still keep a story following a three line synopsis ?

    Also did you begin your post with a Galaxy Quest quote?!

    1. I wasn’t thinking about a girl! Twist! I’M not sure all stories need a rigid goal (classic Hero’s journey structure). There are a lot of wonderful tales that end up in places completely different from where they were planning to go. It’s about the journey not the destination and all that.
      I did! though I’m not sure if GQ is the actual origin of the quote.

      1. I agree that not all stories need a rigid goal I am simply saying it can be a writing crutch! I am more likely to select stories myself where I can go “thats the plot” and morel likely to try out more open once by suggestion.

        For example I don’t think I would have up Kyousogiga based on the plot, but I did on heresay. So I think each writer might need to start with a rigid story to coax them into reading your things. I might be wrong but I feel people pick up these open stories because they love the author..or because of the people talking about it.. they dont buy it for the back of the box info..sort of speak.
        So thats why I think there are so much more rigid stories.. to get the ball rolling you (or your studio) needs one of those. People branch out from structure to more open things.. I feel it isn’t often the other way around. So to sell an open story I’d say one or two rigid have to exist (one to urge them into it.. one as an alternate option if it doesnt work?) Beginning writes may be overwhelmed by open stories as well I think they need to grow so earlier on they might e better of relying on the crutch.

        I love you for using the Galaxy Quest quote though.. it sounds very generic but I dont think I heard it anywhere else.. which is kinda briljant but I love that movie!

        As for the dentist assistant not being a my ideal world everyone would be a girl but I do imagine a butch girl

        1. Interesting. You might be right. I was thinking of that Slice of Life for example is a very popular genre that is famously aimless. Biographies are a non anime example. But I could be wrong.

          1. Not sure if Biographies count.. I do think they do not follow a narrative structure in terms of story..but it has a fairly rigid synopsis ‘This follows the story or Irina the Awesome, from ages 8 till 45.. please read part to for the later years” Like how Naruto never stops wanting to be Hokage.. the biography would never stop to follow the awesome.

            Slice of Life I agree on.. with a similar
            “BUT”.. I think most slice of life writers start their first show based on their own experiences.. which again is a rigid line to follow when writing (not in structure) ..gonna discredit myself but Nico Tanigawa the writer of Watamote is very social secluded himself and in Western’s more famous Slice of Life The Simpsons Matt Groening bases it on his family.. at least in the early seasons.

            Also I am not sure how many people begin their anime journey with Slice of Life. I very rarely get it recommended only if people know I have seen anime they suggest Slice of Life Stuff? I might be wrong here but I feel most people need a “Shonen Jump, or a cute Shoujo, to drift into slice of life?”

            We need a science squad to investigate stuff like this.. now you got me fascinated by the idea . Maybe I just know the wrong people and it’s my little town mentality?!

  4. I hadn’t given this too much thought before… which is probably why I like this type of anime, and probably also why I relate with it so much. 😅

    I have been watching Little Witch Academia and have been loving it.

    I also love Naruto and recently started rewatching My Hero Academia lately.

    You’re right…. it really doesn’t make sense at times. Also, this kind of behavior can be exhausting, selfish and dangerous at times. I think I enjoy these animes so much because I relate with these kinds of characters a lot, they inspire me, and they also provide some sort of ‘what would you do in this situation’ scenario. Often the scenario is so extreme or set in a fantastical setting, it is easier to be objective, or just to enjoy it for pure entertainment’s sake.

    I agree with you that being flexible and adaptive are incredibly wonderful abilities. But sometimes it is too easy to lose your dreams or your sense of self by the time you reach the end. I don’t think it has to be all or nothing, but I love these animes for being that out-there and bull headed.
    If only because it reminds me that sometimes it’s OK to be that way- to keep pushing no matter how ‘out there’ or unattainable it seems.

    This is still kind of the same genre, but another anime I just watched (yay!!!!) was “A Place Further Than the Universe.”
    The main character often has doubts and rethinks her decisions in the beginning. You’re right though… it doesn’t stay that way, and soon she is determined to accomplish a feat no matter what.

    I am.talking alot now.. but I llve what you wrote! It is giving me time for self analysis. And I finally realized why I am so obsessed with certain anime. 🥰

  5. The folks who watch anime – especially shounen – are often people who need simple principles to follow. They aren’t able to digest the full moral complexity of the world. You tell youngsters to never give up because we want them to have the best chance of achieving their dreams, realizing full well that most of them will have to change their dreams – perhaps multiple times – and most of them will never get what they want.

    And while you may not become the best, (most won’t even become one of the best in anything) not giving up is still a way to become the best you can be. Even if that just means moving from the bottom 10% to the bottom 20%. For a handicapped person that can be a mighty victory.

    In a sense they look at everything in terms of a sporting event. It would be inconceivable that you’d decide in the 3rd quarter of a football game that it wasn’t fun any more and wander off the field to get a burger. It would violate everything a young boy has ever been told and lead to peer group shame. I remember as a youngster I was told by adults to keep trying and never give up at whatever sport I was trying to engage in. It was remarkably stupid advice but it was the only advice I ever got.

    So as a kid, you want to see this advice mirrored in your anime. And even if you are NEVER going to be anything but a 98 lb. weakling, you can get your *success by proxy* through the shounen “zero to hero.”

    There are times when “never give up” is the best course of action. But existential threats that must be overcome no matter the cost are pretty rare.

    First you have to determine with some certainty what your best skill set is and what objective within that skill set is achievable. Then you have to see if you really care enough to do it. That level of intensity in one area usually means you have to forsake everything else. Lack of enthusiasm eventually turns a glorious quest into drudgery. Shounen skips all that in exchange for moral and thematic simplicity – which is what teenage otakus want.

    1. Oh I agree. But I still think there is a room for one show out of a million that gives the message that compromise, diplomacy and finding ways to change your approach to best suit a situation are also good skills to have that an be extremely useful in achieving your goals.

  6. This is something I have always thought but have never actually but into words. It does seem like a lot of mainstream shounen have this problem of shallow motivation. Great article, Irina!

  7. Isn’t Existential Angst the anime something like Neon Genesis Evangelion?

    I usually think of the supposed audience in question here. Young kids and teenagers. Do you want to tell kids that they can’t do the impossible? I don’t think so.

    That being said, the discussion of limits is very good thing to. I wish the not as brave side characters would get proven right a few more times then usual or in just a few. Everyone has something to contribute!

    1. Oh wow, NGE is existential angst the anime. Well that’s a bit of a bummer.
      I see where you’re coming from. But I think telling kids that sometimes they need to compromise or that adapting to situations is a good skill to develop is not bad either.
      A lot of toxic internet culture is kids never giving up, there’s probably a bit of room for one anime that tells them to listen to other people from time to time.

  8. Hell…now you’ve made me want to see a dental assistant anime. Also the next time I’m going to the dentist, I will not be able to not think of a dental assistant anime. In fact, you have made me so determined now, that I’m going to start a petition for it. Who’s with me? Huh? Who’s with me….okay..don’t mind me, it’s the heat that’s probably getting to me here 😂
    Seriously though, this was a fun post to read as always! 😊

  9. I just know that the dental anime would include a tonne of weird tonguey-mouthey fanservice… so I think I’ll have to pass on that one!

    I feel the same way about shows like this, but I understand why it’s so prevalent. Shounen, being aimed primarily at a younger audience, want to teach kids the importance of perseverance and pursuing one’s ambitions. Childhood is pretty much the only time in your life where anything truly *is* possible, given the right level of determination. It’s only when we become adults that knowing when to quit becomes an important, if depressing, life lesson.

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