I was watching a Sports! anime the other day, like one does, and something really odd happened. Something that almost never happens. The main characters’ team was up against a team that was much less experienced and had a lot less funding but were working really hard. But we didn’t really know them. It was clear that I still had to root for the home team. However, that meant rooting against the underdog.
Now I know why that almost never happens. It was tough! Even with minimal development in an anime that isn’t that great at the emotional stuff, I immediately felt protective of this little team. I thought maybe they could tie. Or 2 out of three so that they could win at least one. Of course, that didn’t happen. It wouldn’t have made any sense for the new team to win. But still, a little part of me wanted them to.
That’s because anime, and really all fiction in general ever, has conditioned me to root for the underdog. It’s one of the oldest and most widespread tropes out there. And it’s a bit odd. We don’t really do that in real life. Unless we have a personal investment, we usually root for those favoured to win.
I know that one of the common theories is that this trope is so ubiquitous because the audience often sees themselves as underdogs. We all have doubts and insecurities and we want stories that will tell us that we’ll prevail regardless of that.
And this may be doubly true for anime fans who often self-represent as introverted nerds with bad social skills. Despite the fact that most of the ones I have had the pleasure to talk to were perfectly great people.
Still, taking that into consideration. Coupled with just how bad the public image of Otakus is in Japan were most of the anime is written. And it makes sense that the overwhelming majority of anime has us cheering for the little guy going up against insurmountable odds while surrounded by seemingly more talented people.
To the point where I have trouble rooting against the underdog even when the stronger guy earned their place, is a really great guy and is the protagonist.
However, my question is, did the audience really influence art into giving us stories we see ourselves in or the art create the audience. What I mean by that is that the rise of the underdog story is a very useful narrative. It inherently allows for more conflict and obstacles than having a hero already favoured to overcome everything easily. And like I said, it has been around for a long long looong , time. Even before we were writing stories down, we were telling each other about the kid out of nowhere who suddenly and completely unexpectedly overcame everything to become king or god or something.
For many generations now, pretty much everyone in the world has grown up on tales of the underdog hero. So it’s pretty natural that most of us will end up seeing ourselves as the underdogs. After all, that’s who the story is about.
It sort of creates an unbreakable cycle. Audiences identify with what they see in the media they consume. Media emanates what the audiences identify with. And I think, somewhere along the line, our sympathy for the underdog has created a sort of contempt for the prodigy.
Like if all you are told about a character is that they are rich, attractive and really good at everything they do, you kind of expect them to be the antagonist. And even when they’re really nice, you still think they’ll at least be a rival or something.
All that in itself is interesting enough. Well to me at least. But what really made me think about it, is that there’s a shift. We are starting to see more self-assured and talented protagonists. My beloved anime sports teams are getting experience and climbing up in the ranks so they have to go up against opponents that are objectively weaker. More and more, anime is deviating from the underdog trope or at least soften it.
This may be because anime has become generally accepted and the old idea that anime fans are all losers just doesn’t really resonate with everyone like it used to. A more diverse audience creates a greater variety of protagonists? Or is it that the anime industry itself is expanding so much that they feel like they should start cultivating a wider audience?
Maybe it’s a little of both. Maybe it’s neither. Still, it seems like we are moving to a point where we won’t necessarily feel compelled to root for anyone just because they are the underdog. And that feels kind of exciting to me.