Recently I was listing my favorite anime characters in a discussion with a friend. To my surprise none of these characters actually where main characters. Now I found this interesting and than thought of my favorite characters of western media. Nearly all of them were main characters. So why do I like side characters in anime more?
Is there something wrong with the anime protagonist? Why are side characters almost always better? Today I look into this thing.
The Anime Protagonist is oftenly unrelatable.
Breaking Bad is one of the best tv shows of all time and it is also one of the best examples on how I can relate to a main character. I cared for Walt, even in his darker moments I cared for Jessie even if the way he talks made me cringe real hard. What differentiates them from a plethora of anime characters is how their goals are so much more relatable. They want to do right by their family, try to survive… earn a quick buck. Anime doesn’t oftenly do that. Sure there is the slice of life genre where goals are often a bit low key , but that is oftenly over romanticised still. In the more common genres like Shonen we lose track even faster.
Luffy wants to be the Pirate King, which isn’t even a thing here! Like what the friggin fuzz is a pirate king? How can we relate to this wish? Goku wants to fight the strongest opponents…for funsies. I seriously doubt anyone of us desires to have their ass handed to them just so they can go stronger .. for the sake of getting stronger. LeLouch wishes to see the rule of Neo Britannia on Japan end and wishes to lead a group of rebels to victory and independence. Their biggest wish is often tied in to the McGuffin of the series and can be described in one or two words. What does Goku want? Growing Stronger. What does Lelouch want? Freedom, What does Honoka from Love Live want? Idolhood! Yet all their goals are extremely situational and tied in very much to their series. Their goals are not that interesting because they are also the point of their respective series. They are oftenly huge and not exaggerated and not something we ever could achieve, oftenly their goal doesn’t even exist in our world.
Now by themselves this would not really matter and it would still work, but since anime often have such a large cast, it becomes a problem. In One Piece, Sanji wants to see All Blue, to behold a spectacle of nature, Zoro wants to be the best in his speciality and Nami wants to do something no one has ever done before.. in making a completed map of the world. While still rather hard to realise in the real world,we understand their goals much more. Luffy’s goal becomes more of an engine to get the others to their goals. In Naruto .. the fox boy wishes to become the Hokage…which again is an engine to make plot happen rather than .. in our worlds perspective .. a real goal. Sakura and to a lesser extend Hinata want love, Sasuke wants revenge heck Shikamaru wants stuff to be less bothersome. Now I do feel revenge is not a great motivation as that on it’s own can be a bit unrelatable but the base emotion is something we can vibe with. Yet no one really of us would , (without a series) dream of being the political leader of a ninja village, to be the one who finds some special pirate treasure which makes you recognized as the pirate king or win a idol girl contest while in school. .. because those aren’t really a thing..
Anime Protagonist oftenly have flat character arcs.
Walter White started out as a soft , nervous good willing man who evolved.. or devolved depending on you look at it into a hardcore drug Kingpin, who played mind games and wasn’t afraid to murder. Throughout his series he evolved. Anime protagonists oftenly don’t do that. The best example of this is Goku. While he does learn things and he does grow.. he never really changes. Way back in the earliest series of Dragon Ball, Goku wishes to fight strong opponents and get stronger. Right now he still does. While he matured a bit… at times , he has not experienced significant change because his goals are the story engine.. it keeps on going. Enter Vegeta in the equation and let’s add some of his wishes to this. He wishes to surpass Goku and prove he is the true elite.
Now Goku’s goal will always proceed without to much hinder.. as it makes the plot possible. Vegeta’s goals.. clash with this. This creates a tension in a character like prince of all saiyans. He can’t reach his goals… so he has to react to it. His path is not a straight line from A to B. In the Buu Saga.. and even a bit in the Cell Saga already, he discovers he can’t surpass Goku.. or the potential of future saiyans.. he discovers the importance of family, having something to protect. His journey starts out as an A to B type of situation, but in the end we see him strive for C instead, and only after getting it return to try and reach B. Such characters gain more dimensions, Gohan not wanting to fighting but having to embrace he has to is another one of these types of situations.
Lelouch never truly wavers from his goal no matter how much friends or loved ones he loses. The goal established in episode 1 still is the goal in the final episode. He is more hurt and more scarred, but his journey has never changed from A to B .. at least not really. Main characters age, but not change. Even when they do their allies change faster. A good example of this is Hunter x Hunter. While Gon does grow, accepts responsibility and consequences of his actions basically everyone arounds him grows faster or more significantly. Killua is a great character that gets so much development he completely blows Gon out of the water. We see him change some of his core values, his status quo and his beliefs as he learns and discovers. The same can be said for characters like Kurapika and even Hisoka. In the case of Kurapika we see him reinvent his goal of vengeance to a certain extent. We see him adapt , in the case of Hisoka we see that a lot of things we thought we knew where not true, or a shift in his position in the world. So obviously these characters will have a more interesting narrative.
We know to much of the Anime Protagonist
Now let’s move away from your standard shonen a bit and expand our look a bit , because there are issues with main characters in other genres as well.. not that Love Live is Shonen..but still. One of the weirder things that make an anime protagonist less interesting stems from the original media, the manga. Now I am gonna make a cardinal sin here and compare anime to comics.. because both of these have something that makes characters way less interesting when they carry over in other media. Thought Bubbles. Bloom into You was a great anime but throughout the series we hear Yuu’s thoughts. We can tell exactly how she feels not because we can relate to her ..but because the voice in her head tells us what she feels. Touko and Sayaka do not get this same effect so we have to guess what they feel, based on the look in their eyes, the inflection in their voice and possibly their posture.
Sayaka creates a tension when she talks to Yuu because we do not know how she feels.. we guess. We get hints and have to puzzle the whole thing together. We can not take everything face value. While for Yuu we have to put zero effort into knowing her feelings. The standard shonen protagonist shouts out their feelings and your average magical girl protagonists again has thought bubbles again or keeps a journal which they use to recap the last episodes. We so rarely have to wonder what motivates an anime protagonist or what they are feeling it is as Kevin Sorbo is acting out their script! For those not in the know.. he once read the emotional descriptions of a scenes tone as part of his lines..and that somehow made it into an episode. But that is exactly how the overly narrated protagonist can feel like.
While this is more a flaw with anime in general than with its main person this post is not meant to say all anime protagonists is bad, because they aren’t… I just rather have Gohan over for Coffee than Goku. I’d rather interview Sakura than Naruto. The episodes of Crime Scene Investigation that are best are the ones where you have a chance to get who the killer is in the first or second act by simply finding links.. Oh that character’s mother died in an hospital.. the murder victim was an orderly.. perhaps they could not save his mother and he took vengeance. If we could hear the thoughts of all characters , we would know who the killer is right away… and the character itself becomes much less interesting. Like how a random bit of trivia on some paper is less stimulating than a riddle.
We need the protagonist
I could totally see Breaking Bad kill off Walt in the third season after which we suddenly strictly follow Jesse, or maybe see Gil take over, it would have made the story less but in a way Walt as a protagonist stood apart from the major events happening in this story. Gus and Tuco would still do their thing , Jesse would still do his. The world is in motion despite of the characters interaction. In plenty of anime this is not true. Without Zero, Neo Britannia would not be the same. Without Goku virtually non of Dragon Ball Z could have happened and Sword Art Online is basically just a collection of games Kirito plays, with the exception of the Rosario arc, which was one of the only SAO bits I actually liked. Without Honoka , Muse would have never been founded and it would not easily continue without her either as her enthusiasm drives everyone.
While anime is not afraid to let important characters die, rarely do they kill of golden goose. Which the same thing can be said for Western Media but compared to anime , these characters feel more killable. Would Yuu not show any interest in Touko at all, Bloom into you could not happen, so in essence Bloom Into You .. is Yuu. As a result Yuu HAS to develop some feelings , she HAS to overcome. It removes suspense once more because without progression there is no story. Some protagonists suffer from this worse than others.
Kirito from Sword Art Online is one my my least like protagonists ever and that is all in the way he is written. Kirito in almost every season.. for some reason just “gets” stuff. The plot has to get moving. The Dual wield skill just appears, in Gun Gale he figures out the plot out of the thing air and he gets a sword again for no reason, a particular model for no reason and so on. He needs the swords to beat the bad guy in a cool way, he needs the sword to still feel like Kirito , he needs to figure out the plot then and there to save Sinon. We need him to do the stuff that he does.. and as such it can feel unearned and insincere. Achievements main protagonists reach are often in service of the main story, while side characters achievements feel like a side story.. so while I would contribute Asuna’s accomplishments to her as a character.. Kirito’s I’d count as the plot of Sword Art…
Great but Never Number 1
Except for Kirito I like all the main characters I mentioned but because of all the reason above I never would name them as my favorite. I favor L over Light, Matt over Tai, Kai over Tyson, Megumin over Kazuma and Rem over Subaru and obviously Kamina over Simon. While plenty of them are well written and truly satisfying to look at, the way anime depicts their main characters differs from how western media does it. It uses fantasy in another way and because it creates such unique worlds their main characters are always the least interesting thing about them.
Western Media is like muscle cars.. we all want it to be red and have a big engine with plenty of V thingies. We care about how hard it goes Vroom. Walter White is the Engine of Breaking Bad. In fact all Protagonists are the engine of their respective series..which are now cars! Anime however is like a concept car. It has such a weird body that we know little about what kind of engine should be in there.. so as long as the car moves.. the engine is fine. We are more interested in the fact that they added glowing wheels, augmented reality windows or bubble doors. Midoriya just has to punch stuff and eat other peoples hair to make the plot go vroom, but by adding their Bakugous and Todorokis this car will show some unique features. There is nothing wrong with buying a car for it’s cute interior.. I sure would if I could drive!
Do you generally prefer anime protagonists or do you favor secondary characters like me? Why do you feel that way? Let me know in the comments and remember I love you all!
Stay smiling and keep positive!
13 thoughts on “The Problems with the Anime Protagonist”
I think one other thing to consider is that a lot of anime will have the main character be the most “generic” personality wise. They exist as semi-blank slate characters so that it’s easier for the audience to see themselves in the character’s shoes. Like with your example of SAO, Kirito doesn’t really have any strong personality traits beyond wanting to help his friends and being a badass. Whereas I think someone like Asuna is much more nuanced and compelling because we see her personality, her flaws and insecurities, and the things that drive her a lot more. (Even if her character was handled poorly in nearly every arc after the first one… but that’s a topic for another day lol)
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Also, your thoughts on Hunter x Hunter really make me want to do a character analysis on Gon. I think he’s a fascinating deconstruction of the standard “shonen hero” archetype and doesn’t get his fair shake! Lol
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Gon has his moments I do think he is one of the more facinating shonen protagonists but he is outclassed in my opinion by people who have bigger arcs.
Kirito is very much a blank slate and I guess in a way Naruto is as well, I would say Goku still has a fairy developped personality of his own but like the others.. he doesn’t partciularly grow. Gon grows a LOT .. like he learns about his goals and the way his powers work and the person he does want to be… which is why I love the series, but I feel like just about everyone else in the series does it even better.
As if Gon was a way to fix the protagonist… but they applied it to everything… so the problem still exists?
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As far as Kirito is a blank insert so you can put your face on it.. that probably is true. but I actually cut that piece out of my text as I went on to long already. I somewhere made this analogy where you could choose to have someone completely different over for tea or a clone of yourself… saying that having myself over would probably bore me to tears.
I do not think having an empty persona makes them less interesting persé ..however if you force the character to interact with others after and have relations with those characters they just fade in the background.
When Kirito met Asuna at the beginning of Gungale and he was so cold and oblivious I really got angry, the fact that Asuna would except that behaviour and allow him to just calll her “a friend” was kinda weird. Yet still I thought for her that was something interesting to overcome.. for him it was just meeeh It’s Kirito.
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I feel like we weren’t meant to fully relate to shonen Jump protags and instead relate to the people who look up to them instead. That’s the thought I’ve been having recently. They are that beacon of “I wish I could do that” which pushes the characters further.
Of course, I feel like there are plenty of holes in that theory revolving that I need to consider to do before writing that post some time in the future.
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You might be onto something there, but why would they give them such weird goals.. For example had they given Naruto the goal of “I want to protect my village from all evils and get strong enough to do so” I feel like I would be happier to do what Naruto could! Now I can protect my friends from evil. “Being Hokage” or being “Pirate King” in neither case actually has to do with being the strongest persé.
I could theorise that the main character is made more bland but very iconic so they can sell you a Naruto figure.. but than in addition also sell you one of Sasuke because he is more interesting.
It’s also not like they are bad either, but just never my favorite. Ever.. Which is weird because if we look to how how the west handles Power Rangers for example and everyone wants to be the white/red/green ranger.. the “leader” by all standards.
Everone wants to be He-man or Optimus Prime or at least loves those characters the best. In anime it to my feeling it is so much more decentralised… even in comparable genres.
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I’ve noticed many of these things as well and thank you for pointing these out. Some of the protagonist that I’ve watched almost have similar characteristics indeed that they are almost like a cliche already. That is why I love side characters more because they are more diverse, at least, in my perspective.
On top of that, I usually lose my interest when the MC becomes overrated. I kind of like the exclusivity (feelings) with the side characters because they go usually unnoticed. Haha!
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Yeah MC’s win that final fight of the arc so either they gain a out of no where bump in power midway that fight or they are completely OP during the arc.
Ichigo got so many special powers tossed his way, not only was he a soul reaper with incredibable inate reiatsu , he was also a vizard, he also got his beserker mode, he is the only one to go beyond his bankai, he got fullbrng powers and got another set of soul reaper powers. Later he gets a lot of thow away fights
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I would argue that slice of life protagonists almost always are interesting and show significant character growth and change. However, I think you are right about the action shonen genre using the main protagonist to drive the plot, leaving more interesting arcs to side characters. I got a big kick out of your great analogy about cars. I don’t want to be a transformer, but I really really really want Bumblebee.
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In “Bloom into You” and “Wandering Son” if found the adult mentors very interesting. I’d love to see an arc or even an entire series based on them.
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I did like Sayaka and the mentor, but a part of their charm is their motivations are a bit more their own, if we saw her watching her girlfriends sport match while in her head we heard that she hoped her lover would be more open about it , I think she would lose a bit of that charm.
I love how we initially started with subtle dialogue , gestures and trough conversation instead of inner thought exposition we find out more, which is why I often dont like slice of life-ish protagonists less than their side characters
There is this scene where both Sayaka and Yuu think about their relationship with Touko, while Yuu tells how conflicted she feels in her head we see Sayaka unable to read her book and she stares a bit forward
So while I would love to see more stories I would like them to keep their thougts hidden. I loved how they were treated ans shown
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You brought up interesting points here. I wouldn’t say all anime protags are like this, but much like what Scott said in his comment, you definitely see this in Shonen Jump works let alone shonen anime in general. The main character is usually a generic slate while the side characters are usually one or two note personalities. Hikaru no Go was an exception because Hikaru starts out as a total newbie in go and is bratty, but he becomes more proficient of a player as well as being more mature. There were good side characters like Akira, Isumi, Waya, Mitani, etc. Okay, I do sound biased towards that anime since I felt it broke a lot of SJ tropes and traditions that are still prevalent, but it was a good exception.
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