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Old 05-09-2004, 04:21 AM   #1   [permalink]
Spike 558
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Anime protagonists (an essay)

Here's an article I typed up for the homepage of my local anime society.
But before I post it up, I thought I might run by you guys and see what you all think.
I am open to any criticism as long as it's helpful and not in a hostile manner (even though I am well aware that this article may ruffle a few feathers).

And if you think I am thinking too much into anime, I retort by saying I am always fascinated by finding out how the world around me works
Hey, I'm going to be here for a while yet so I may as well get used to it

Heroes. All stories need them and we, the audience, need them just as much. People like to connect with a protagonist that they can identify with and aspire to. The audience like to see protagonists go and do things that they will never do - like seeing the world, punching out lots of bad guys and averting a potential catastrophe for international acclaim.
But even if these are set rules in the world of fiction, it is interesting to note that the world of anime doesn't really abide to them. Thus, even of we of English-speaking cultures are aware of what we want within a story, it is certainly interesting to see these concepts being turned upside down in the world of anime. Although modern society expects it's heroes to pure on all levels, the world of anime instead infuses it's protagonists with more humane qualities. And it is these qualities that reach the audience at a more human level.
So, for the purposes of this article, we shall look at four well-known figures in the world of anime and see what makes them unique:

Keiichi Morisato
In the series Oh My Goddess, Keiichi is a hapless college student who tries to order takeaway over the telephone. Instead, he manages to summon the goddess Belldandy who grants him a wish. Thinking this is some sort of joke, Keiichi wishes that Belldandy becomes his girlfriend.
There are numerous titles in the romance genre of anime and Oh My Goddess is one of most well-known. However, what makes this romance unique is that Keiichi is an unusual choice for the male lead. Whereas typical romance stories would normally have a male lead with lots of muscles and/or a large rate of charisma and debonair charm (James Bond being one example of the latter), Keiichi instead, has his feet rooted firmly in reality.
Keiichi represents the atypical male in their late teens/early twenties: he is making his way through university, he is trying to manage with living on his own and he is unlucky with his interactions with the opposite sex. And it is in the latter that the true nature of Keiichi's character is revealed: These failures of interaction, along with the fact that he is constantly dumped with a large workload from his senior classmates, provides the essence of Keiichi: he is wimp.
Nevertheless, what makes Keiichi a rather well-liked character is his strengths: He is generous, he has determination and he has a heart of gold. And in the long run, these strengths are certainly of greater importance than his flaws. These strengths perfectly compliment those of Belldandy and solidifies one of the running themes in Oh My Goddess: That being in possession of a kind heart is an act that shall be ultimately rewarded. Sure it would seem that anyone can find romance in the perception of the world that is Oh My Goddess, but Keiichi wins because he has the very human quality of having a kind heart. It's therefore unsurprising in that he has a substantial amount of fans within the feminine demo-graph of anime audiences.

Shinji Ikari
Hailing from the sensational TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion, Shinji exists in a world that has slowly recovered from 'Third Impact' a disaster of global proportions. But when a new danger arrives in the form of beings known as 'Angels', Shinji is summoned by his father to NERV - a subsidiary of the UN. It is there that he is roped into piloting a giant mecha known as 'Eva' in order to combat this new threat to humanity.
Mecha anime is a genre whose popularity has hardly waned over time. There are plenty of mecha series available as there are audiences whom are willing to watch them. However, there is an observation among fans that the mecha of any show are so simple to operate that anyone can pilot them.
And it is in Neon Genesis Evangelion that this theory is blown out of the water.
Had this series been done by via an American perception, Shinji would've been a more unnatural character in that he would've been either a smart-arse, a chick-magnet or a genius. But, the Shinji in Evangelion experiences some very human emotions: Loneliness, Despair, Depression and general unhappiness. He embodies everything that can be classified as human frailty and anyone can relate to the difficulties he faces throughout the series. This is certainly an ambitious move for any story and may prove to be shocking for any viewers, let alone anime audiences.
Ultimately, Shinji is a character that needed reassurance. But he is not alone: The other three key characters of Evangelion, namely Misato, Rei and Asuka, are all in requirement of the same need. Thus, the series resolved with these four characters expressing their fears and eventually come to the conclusion that they have self-worth beyond what others think of them.
In retrospect, Evangelion is more about the need acceptance rather than giant mecha smacking the crap out of each other. Shinji relies on praise, Asuka wants to special, Rei requires the sense of necessity and Misato needs something lacking in her life fulfilled. All those needs are ultimately satisfied with the Eva Units. But once the Eva's lose their sense of purpose, it is therefore up to these four troubled souls to find a sense of self-worth on their own.
However, having so much human emotion contained within Evangelion, it is therefore unsurprising that many audiences have felt rather uncomfortable watching the series itself. Indeed, Shinji's emotions immediately inspire remarks of him being whinny, pathetic or a wimp. If anything, comments like these usually reveal that seeing one's emotions reflected back at them isn't an easy experience. Thus, the conclusion of the series is indeed reviled by a fair number of Evangelion fans.
In conclusion, Shinji Ikari isn't a perfect protagonist: he instead represents the important human emotion of the necessity to be loved. But, at the same time, he is also one who eventually triumphs over his problems to achieve a greater sense of well-being - and if that isn't material for role-model potential, I don't know what is.

Lina Inverse
The central character in the Slayers series, Lina is the anti-hero. Residing within a RPG-type fantasy world, she is armed with a vast array of incredibly destructive spells but her interests are more based on self-interests. That said, she is more keen on food and seeking out more power than saving the world or vanquishing some nefarious evil. Yet, the things she does, like halting a hideous demon for example, are more by accident than design.
Slayers is a rather well-known title and it's popularity comes down to two factors: Firstly, it reinvents the fantasy entire setup that RPG's have all been replicating and it really places such over-used situations within the hilarious perception of satire. And in that sense Lina Inverse, as mentioned above, has been made into the anti-hero. She's not too fussed over saving the world because she's more interested in her own pursuits, she has a quick temper and she has an incredibly destructive streak about her. She lives the life she wants to lead and she doesn't have a care in the world about responsibility.
Secondly, Lina comes from a series where all the feminine characters have admirable qualities: They are independent, strong and intelligent. Furthermore, they take action in a chaotic situation and they don't waste time chasing after the male portion of the cast. And it works for all the key women in the cast. Characters such as Amelia, Naga, Martina and Filia (along with several other minor characters) may each have their own different views and their own goals, but they each replicate the strengths from Lina. It is therefore, with little wonder, that a large number of the Slayers fans are teenaged girls.
Unlike Keiichi Morisato and Shinji Ikari, who are two protagonists with realistic qualities, Lina Inverse is a good example of an embodiment of escapist theory: The things she does is the type of things that no one else in the real world would ever dare consider doing. Because, in the general scheme of things, Lina is pretty much no better than a common criminal: She is a greedy, self-centred smart-arse who robs anyone she comes across and creates various property damage without a second thought. Thus, because of her anti-heroics, Lina's popularity is ensued. What she does is wrong - therefore making it, in the eyes of the audience, correct (regardless of what the other characters of Slayers think)
Unfortunately, because Lina is such a charismatic lead, this places her in a position where she is often regarded as the benchmark character in the entire series. Thus when it comes to anime fans discussing the characters they like or dislike, the people who like Slayers tend to be more passionate with their opinions than fans of any other series.

Spike Spiegel
In the world of Cowboy Bebop, Spike is a bounty hunter who travels from one end of the Solar System to the other whilst being on the look-out for criminals to bring in just so he can obtain enough money to buy dinner.
If Lina Inverse abides to the escapist theory, than Spike takes it to the extreme. He is the ultimate epitome of what the audience expects a hero to do: He punches out lots of bad guys, he continually maintains a cool attitude, he always manages to save the day (whether by accident or design) and he still looks cool when doing all of it!
Unlike the other characters mentioned above, Spike is the one most based around an American perception of heroics (for reasons stated above). However at the same time, his achievements ultimately amount to nothing: Sure, he saves the day time and time again but it ultimately does nothing to change the problems within his own life. Thus at the end of each episode Cowboy Bebop, Spike is still the broke, starving, lazy bum (with a dodgy haircut) he was at the beginning. It certainly is a shock to the system to see a familiar ideal placed within a bleak context of reality. Further conflicts of perception are created when Spike's incredible rate of charisma can't really hide the fact that he is pretty much fits the bill of what anyone would call a loser.
Most importantly of all, audiences expect their heroes to be invincible and to accomplish a greater good no matter what the odds. But even if Spike fulfils all the requirements expected of a hero, he ultimately isn't one. Therefore when Cowboy Bebop reaches it's inevitable conclusion, it is unsurprising that the end has inspired much debate and outrage amongst fans.
In summary, whilst Spike Spiegel may the type of person that anyone would aspire to or would like to be, nothing can change the fact that he faces problems that anyone else would face. And no amount of charm and charisma can change it.
In conclusion, the protagonists of anime are certainly nothing like the typical definitions of protagonists that normal audiences would be familiar with. On one hand they can have interesting things happen to them but at the same time, they retain a sense of humanity not seen anywhere else. And on the other hand, they can have their very human failings disguised under a shroud of charisma.
It is this reinvention of heroic definition that maintains my interest in anime and keeps me coming back.
If one of my cartoons has brought joy and laughter to just one person, if I have been able to make just one person simply smile and forget their troubles for only a moment, then that cartoon, clearly, was not worth drawing
- The Complete Far Side
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Old 05-09-2004, 08:39 AM   #2   [permalink]
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Devil's advocate time:

Well you've got some nice synopsis of some of the more popular formulas but citing one example does not make a pattern. You also imply that anime is offering something different from western audience - how are these protagonists different from the major formulas of hollywood and television? Plus the last statement in your opening paragraph is not exactly accurate - how are these themes unique? They are used time and time again in many forms.

Shinji can be seen in many forms on american TV but not often as nobody likes a pussy - but the same can go for anime, of the formulas you mentioned the 'Shinji' formula is the most unpolular.

As for the 'oh my goddes' formula - well thats Ben Stiller in any trashy romantic comedy etc etc, the only real difference between east and west is that in the west the 'desparate guy with no girlfriend' is usuall older and has had one in the past but is ultimately the same general theme.

Spike - well 'ultra cool' is all over the west so no real 'anime exclusive thing' here.
I am the devil and I am just like you.

Last edited by MrBS; 05-09-2004 at 08:40 AM.
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Old 05-09-2004, 12:08 PM   #3   [permalink]
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If I posted this essay on the website in my link (FNO) it would be torn apart like a sheep among wolves for the reasons that MrBS mentioned.
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