Interesting Anime Protagonists [Ep. 1]

Edited by The Davoo

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In the many years that I’ve been hanging out in anime fan communities, it seems like one of the hardest things for new viewers to deal with is the overabundance of boring, generic main characters who often seem to be built around either working as stand-ins for the audience, or as wish fulfillment for teenage boys. I’ve seen countless message board recommendation threads asking for shows with interesting protagonists, or otherwise trying to list everyone’s favorites; so I thought it might be worthwhile to start up a series which celebrates some of the cool and interesting protagonists that are out there, and to discuss what makes them work so well.

One of the traits which has slowly come to annoy me over the years in anime protagonists is the need to constantly explain themselves. A lot of characters seem to be defined less by their personalities and actions, and more by some kind of hardline code of conduct that they’ve made for themselves, and which they feel the need to reiterate constantly. This tends to be especially true of light novel characters, who are usually the first-person narrators of their stories, and who tend to have some kind of very specific worldview which their actions are largely based around.

While I don’t think that it’s unusual for real people to have a personal set of ethical guidelines, or to make decisions based on their beliefs, I think it can be boring to present a character whose actions always follow a specifically defined pattern, as real people tend to be a lot more flexible and undefinable. It’s possible to make these kinds of characters interesting by showing them to be hypocritical in their actions and then criticizing them for it [Banquet of Kings, Fate/Zero], but it can also be pretty boring when this is done by having a character constantly do heroic things in spite of having a cynical attitude, because it tends to run into that chuunibyou effect of just being a normal person who thinks they’re different from everyone else when they really aren’t.

But while I could spend an entire video talking about characters who are interesting because of their hypocrisy–and I probably will at some point–today I want to talk about characters who I like because they don’t really have any personal guiding ethos–or, if they do, then they aren’t capable of putting it clearly into words.

My favorite running joke in One Punch Man is how Saitama is constantly cutting people off when they start talking too much about their backstories, ideals, and personal codes. He doesn’t care about why the bad guys are doing what they’re doing–he sees someone he has to punch, and he punches them. Likewise, he doesn’t care about the personal pathos of his fellow heroes, or about the highly systematized hierarchy which they’ve organized themselves into. He is a hero because it’s something that he enjoys doing, and because it’s something that has to be done. Cutting through all the bullshit surrounding the simple act of fighting bad guys is the prevailing joke of the series, and what makes Saitama so entertaining to watch.

Similarly, Monkey D. Luffy from One Piece has a tendency to voice his open disagreement with both his enemies and friends when they present their backstories and worldviews. He isn’t willing to simply accept others people’s ideas about themselves or the world around them, and he will blatantly ignore their personal desires in order to fulfill his own. Luffy doesn’t feel much need to explain or justify himself–he just does whatever he wants, and everyone else is along for the ride.

Matoi Ryuko from Kill la Kill is another character who doesn’t seem to care much about the reasons behind her actions aside from what gets her closer to the goal of avenging her father. Anyone who gets in her way is a nuisance, whether they’ve got a good reason for being there or not; and it takes a while for her to develop some self-awareness about the things that she values over the course of the series. Tenjou Utena from Revolutionary Girl Utena is a similar character, mostly acting as a mirror and foil to the far more opinionated supporting cast surrounding her, before eventually coming to realize her own ideals later into the series.

But as entertaining as these characters are, I’m even more fascinated with characters who probably wouldn’t be able to tell you why they do the things that they do even if you asked them. For instance, a huge part of Guts’ character arc in Berserk is becoming aware of the very idea of purpose after a lifetime of being forced to do whatever he could to survive and not really giving a shit about anything. Not long after realizing his desire for purpose, he ends up finding it in a quest for revenge; but over the course of that quest, he begins to discover more things that he cares about, and which he’s willing to fight for beyond himself.

A character with a similar personality, but a lot less luck in coming to understand himself, is Ichise from Texhnolyze. Ichise is presented almost as a symbol for the raw animalistic nature at the core of humanity, as he doesn’t seem to have any real ambitions or self-awareness beyond doing what he has to do to make it through life, and acting on his momentary basic desires. Many of the other characters, who all have their own goals and ideas about the world, tend to be fascinated with him, and to end up using him and tying him up in their own personal schemes. I don’t want to spoil how the series ends, but the way that things end up for each of the main character sends a pretty strong message about human nature, and what all of those desires and instincts ultimately amount to. As an aside, if you want to know what the main character from The Stranger would be like as an anime character, I think Ichise would make for a pretty decent comparison.

Another character who doesn’t really know how to explain herself, but for totally different reasons, is Shiina Tsubasa from Figure 17. Tsubasa is a shy, awkward little girl, who finds herself unable to deal with trying to communicate with others; and the series does an impressive job of conveying all of the things that she’s feeling without having her explain herself–because she simply wouldn’t have the words to do so. Instead of monologuing about how she doesn’t know how to talk to people, the series just presents long, awkward scenes of her failing to talk to people, and allows the audience to understand it on their own. This aspect of the series is mostly prevalent in the early episodes, before Tsubasa basically gets cloned, and the super-outgoing version of herself begins guiding her through life and giving her a chance to open up and start expressing herself; but the way that the series leads into her character growth is kind of genius, and is a way that I’d like to see child characters presented more often.

What I really love about the kinds of protagonists which I’ve just described is that they aren’t necessarily easy to connect with immediately–but in trying to connect with them, they tend to drag the viewer deeper into their world, and to make the viewer work to understand them. Most of the people that we meet in real life don’t introduce themselves by rattling off their backstory, and might not have a distinct code of ethics which they follow at all times. Getting to know someone is really more about observing their actions and getting into the rhythm of how they perform themselves; eventually coming to form your own idea about who they are.

While I think it’s pretty easy to get behind characters like Saitama, Guts, and Luffy because they have a tendency towards doing really cool and badass stuff on the regular, I think it can also be rewarding to try and get to know a character who maybe doesn’t seem all that relatable at first; but who might teach you something about yourself and how you and others communicate by learning about them. After all, I think that’s a huge part of what makes all of the characters in Neon Genesis Evangelion so effective. Each of them puts up their AT Field and tries to keep themselves away from one-another–but once you peel back their layers and see what they’re really like, you find a deeply flawed and human core that speaks to you more than any amount of kicking ass could ever do–and makes it so that when they do kick ass, it’s that much more gratifying–because it reminds you that even with all of your flaws, YOU could kick ass too; and you feel like celebrating the fact that your friends whom you’ve come to know and love are overcoming their personal demons.

Have you ever found yourself gradually connecting with a character whom you might not have fully understood at first; or simply loved watching a character precisely because they weren’t always acting on the basis of a specific self-image? Tell me about it in the comments, and be sure to share this video to anyone whom you think would appreciate it. If you want to help me to make the next video, then consider supporting my channel via patreon as well. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!

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