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.
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.
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?
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…
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!