Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve done a treasure tropes post. These are posts in which I pick an anime or manga trope to examine. Today, I decided to look at the Kichiku.
You may not have heard the term Kichiku before, but I bet you know the trope. The expression is meant to describe a character archetype, a bit like all those deres, but it just never got as popular for some reason. Maybe people didn’t find it as fun to say. Or maybe it’s because the archetype itself is common but not necessarily popular.
I wonder how long I can keep stretching this out before I actually describe what a Kichiku is…
This is the sadistic, jerky, sometimes downright abusive guy who is cast as a romantic lead. TV Tropes tell me that this character is always male although there might be a female equivalent with a different name. The distinction between a Kichiku and your garden variety Tsundere is that this character isn’t being mean as an involuntary reaction to their feelings of affection towards someone. They are completely in control of their actions the entire time and their neither shy nor uncomfortable.
In the case of the Kichiku, hurting the other person is the point. They enjoy it. And you’re not likely to see their sweeter true self at any point, because the jerk is the true self. And today, I want to talk about this trope a bit.
It’s a character type that’s fairly common in romance anime both heterosexual and BL but generally tends to appear in media aimed at female audiences.
Those of you who know me probably won’t be surprised to learn that I am not a fan of this archetype. It’s a bit odd. I generally like trolls and jerks in anime. I tend to enjoy characters that are not good people way more than the average viewer. But when the other characters, and presumably the author, start trying to convince me that they are actually noble or romantic and somehow justified in their behaviour, that’s when I start getting really annoyed by them. Especially as there is rarely any proof of their nobility or pure heart in the story itself. Maybe he’s just a creep, Ana…
Basically, if it’s a story about an abusive, unhealthy relationship with an abusive character. I’m here for it, it can be interesting. But once I start feeling like the story is trying to convince me that this is a desirable sexy relationship and there’s nothing wrong with this behaviour, I check out. It’s not my thing! And unfortunately, that’s usually what the Kichiku are. The unpleasant (to me) personality is a feature, not a bug.
From what I have read throughout the years, this archetype tends to not do too well in European and American markets but is very popular in Japan and most of Asia.
This news wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. I can easily chalk it up to cultural differences and force of habit. If you grow up with characters like this consistently presented as desirable romantic interests, you just sort of accept it. I understand that. But this archetype has become significantly less popular in the west and therefore a lot of us don’t often see it, at least not as a protagonist.
What’s interesting though, is a shift I have been noticing in the past few years, that goes against my personal prediction for the trope.
You see, I had a period when I wanted to learn Japanese. I still do but I’m lazy. For the record, I can stumble my way through a very basic conversation, order at a restaurant and ask where the bathroom is. I can get away with reading simple hiragana and katakana text, but I know like 4 kanji and I regularly need to ask people to repeat themselves or talk more slowly in spoken conversations. I’m still fairly happy with this accomplishment as the bulk of my efforts in learning Japanese has been to play untranslated Otome. What can I say, we each need to get motivated in our own ways.
And it’s through this experience that I got to know the Kichiku really well. This was quite a few years ago but I remember there was one of these guys in pretty much every single game, and they were often presented as one of the juicer and more detailed routes. When you play a lot of these games, you start to get a feeling for which character the authors of the games thought would be most popular and Kichikus often top the list.
I really hated them. It’s one thing when you see them in anime or manga, it’s another when they are directly traumatizing your game self. I can safely say, I just don’t get this one. Sorry folks.
When I saw just how prevalent the archetype was in otomes, I did a bit of research and found that this was a tried and true romantic trope in Japan that had been around for a long time and enjoyed consistent popularity. That’s also when I read that this popularity did not seem to translate well and that these characters either tended to be disliked by western audiences or just changed in localization to make them more popular with regional markets.
At the time, I came up with many of the same conclusions as I listed above. Basically, different strokes for different folks. And I predicted that with time, as culture cross-influenced, the Kichiku trope would lose popularity in Asia as well. My reasoning was that volatile and somewhat abusive male romantic leads had been popular in European and American fiction for a long time as well but eventually just fell out of favour. That’s not what the public was interested in anymore. And that the same evolution would take place in Asia. Pretty straightforward thinking.
But that’s not exactly what happened.
If you look at mainstream media, you would think that I was right, I am a genius at predicting media trends. Go me! Everyone made fun of 50 shades and called it super creepy. Audiences, in general, spoke up about how abusive lovers were not romantic in the least and meanwhile, the most popular Korean and Japanese romances featured strong female leads with meek and attentive love interests who were attractive because they were kind and respectful. Goku anyone? (My Dress-Up Darling)
However, if you scratch a little bit under the surface, there’s a different story going on. Sure we made fun of 50 shades, but it was a cultural phenomenon. And it ushered in a new age of fanfiction, bringing the spotlight back on amateur writers crafting their own take on popular universes with more intensity than ever before. And there are so many fanfiction authors in America and Europe. Heck, more than a few of our blogging contemporaries moved on from posting in favour of exclusively writing anime fanfiction on other platforms. It’s a pretty huge community. And in Western fanfiction, abusive men cast as romantic leads are everywhere. It’s one of the most common tropes there is. So common in fact that things like stalking or flying into fits of jealousy aren’t even considered worth mentioning anymore. That’s just the default.
And it would be easy to dismiss this as some type of immature view of romance. We could say that most fanfiction authors are very young and to a young mind, those very intense emotions and reactions can look like passion… I’m not sure I buy that.
Teenagers are a lot smarter than old folks give them credit for. I know it’s a thing, we turn 30 and we suddenly lose the ability to learn new technology, condescend to everyone by starting every sentence with back in my day or just wait until you… and assume everyone younger is dumb while everyone older is senile. It’s a right of passage. Every generation does it. But ‘cmon, teenagers aren’t dumb. At least not all of them. And not to harp too much on the 50 Shades thing but Twilight, which it was based on, was super popular with younger readers but 50 Shades, from everything I have heard the more abusive of the two, had a much older audience. It’s pretty short-sighted to pretend that adults aren’t into this trope as well.
I don’t know enough about Asian fanfiction to comment on it. I do read a lot of doujin but I tend to only read original works, so these are really a lot more like independently published fiction. And often, these are professional authors that make a living from doujin rather than people writing as a hobby. A lot of doujin have gotten adapted into anime as well. So, it’s not exactly the same idea. To me, fanfiction is a way to gauge what trends are popular among readers rather than among writers.
As such, I don’t know if the Kichiku archetype is still super popular with the younger audiences there or if a move to a gentler leading man is what’s happening. Moreover, I tend to just skip and ignore any story that seems to be hinting at abusive behaviour so it’s pretty far off my radar. Maybe the trends have inversed with the trope gaining popularity here and losing some in Japan. Or maybe it’s now getting popular everywhere. I’ll have to pay better attention to it in the next few years.
But one thing is for sure, we can’t dismiss the Kichiku trope just yet. It’s going to be here for a while longer. Unfortunately for me.