This or That: Who is the Better Shonen Protagonist?

Hear Ye Hear Ye Princess Pinkie has returned with a New Anime Post

Salutations Dear Island Guests and Loyal Subjects, which I hope are one and the same. Shonen is probably the most accessible genre in anime. The desire to be more than our current selves, to grow more powerful and to be respected as a hero might dwell in all of us .. at least a bit. Yet Shonen Protagonists are often a tad .. bland.. made without a very dominant personality so we can place ourselves in their shoes and feel empowered. So what makes a good Shonen Protagonist in my eyes?! Today we find out by comparing a couple and picking my favourite.

Round 1: Gon Freecss and Izuku Midoriya

Let’s begin with two characters who represent the target demographic the best.  Gon and Midoriya are kids of an age that Shonen watchers would be.  They both love the colour green, they both have outfits I do not find very fashionable and they both work by enhancing their physical strength by having a story that is deeply connected to having a father figure playing an important role in their life. Both have high moral fiber and join an organisation that is there to protect human kind from all sorts of unspeakable evils.  Yet which of the two is the better character? To me there is no contest here at all, because I really do not like Deku as a main character at all.

Izuku Midoriya | Wallpaper de anime, Anime

 I totally get why he is the main character and I can see why people like him but I found him so boring I dropped Hero Academia for it. He’s almost literally Captain America.. a trope that has been there since the 40’s!  Steve Rogers is a wimpy boy, that dreams of/wants to be a soldier, like all his buddies. Even though he is not born with the physical capabilities a benefactor gives him a serum that turns him into a super soldier.  One of extremely high moral fiber that always does the right thing… even if it isn’t always the lawful thing.  Midoriya is the exact same character..except soldier has been replaced by the word hero.. and instead of serum , he got a hair.

I already made a post in which I wrote how bland Shonen main characters can be and Deku to me is the epitome of that. On the opposite site of the spectrum though is Gon. Who in many ways is similar but one who has actual layers. Starting with his Goal.. unlike other protagonists of the genre Gon has an objective goal, rather than a subjective one. What is “ a great hero?”  What is a Pirate King, What does it take to become Hokage?”  All these goals are final destinations, when (and not if)  the character reaches them, the manga/anime ends.  Gon’s story is different, he wants to find his dad. Given how often we see and hear of Gin we already know that will not be the end of the story. 

Hunter x Hunter (2011) – A closer look at Gon vs Neferpitou – blautoothdmand

 From the beginning we know his dad might be dead, maybe he is alive and the reunion will be touching, or maybe Gon will be angry with him.  He is written as a protagonist whose journey can go anywhere.  Gon also feels much more like a kid. He is fickle, naive and has a dark side.  He can be very empathic.. but he also has enough apathy to let Killua do the terrible things he some extent. Gon does what he does, for a very personal goal at times maybe even selfish, power and status is not a goal but a means to an end for him making him feel much more real. Midoriya chases in essence what everyone in that world chases.. or at least the cast chases, translated in this world Deku chases the American Dream, which is the most generic story, with a character that has no real flaws.. he is insecure sure that can be noted as a flaw .. but when it matters he always steps up, his flaws vanish . Gon is frustrated and angry, Gon has abandonment issues and these show up as nasty traits at times, which hinder the story or at least his growing curve in a significant matter. Therefore his base narrative as well as the road trough that narrative is so much more versatile and holds excitement… we truly don’t know how his journey will go. With Deku you can make very well educated guess, Gon keeps the audience surprised  which makes him one of THE best Shonen Protagonist period.  No contest here at all!

Son Goku Vs Monkey D Luffy

I would like to classify  Gon and Deku as more serious protagonists, despite the fact that Gon can be carefree, their journey has some gravitas. It’s not about enjoying themselves along the road. Enjoying yourself on your journey is a trope as well and what two characters better to portray that as Goku and Luffy.  The top two selling anime franchises of all time.  Goku and Luffy are both carefree, glutenous characters, who have access to several transformations and continue to get new ones as their journey goes along. They journey across their respective narrative worlds to face their worlds strongest fighters to prove their own worth.  They make plenty of friends along the way and show kindness to both friends and enemies. Unlike the previous bout this one is a lot closer for me to call and not just because I am watching Goku through nostalgia goggles.

Goku x female reader - Deeper - Wattpad

On paper Luffy does seem like the character that is better equipped for the win. His character arc is more dynamic and he is a much better person than Goku. He also has a lot more personality than Goku does from the get go as well as the one that is more consistently written. Some aspects of Goku’s personality faded over time, which can be explained because we literally see him grow up from a naive kid to a more aloof man. Goku is often hated upon for being a bad father who only wants to fight. However it is that very aspect that draws me so much to later Dragon Ball and Z-Goku. Toriyama told his readers that there is a toxic element in Goku. I do like the idea of this self destructive toxicity.. Once again it offers excitement. How often can it be done before Goku truly bites something off too big for him to chew?!  Unfortunately Goku was ruined , to an extent..not by Toyataro but by the fans. 

Luffy could win this match simply for the fact that he basically is aromantic and will never be a character that I can see having a kid. That means Luffy’s journey can only be achieved by Luffy. Z-Goku was to an extend designed to pass on the torch to his son! However fan complaints ruined this, they needed to see more Goku.. NOT Gohan. This reduced Goku’s most interesting character trait, his toxic need for growth and bigger challenges, to a non issue. No matter how insane Goku’s decisions will become.. it will always be alright because fans won’t allow him to bear the consequences of his mistakes too much. It made the Buu-arc more convoluted as everyone but Goku had to be benched in the end… and it contributed in Toyotaro making Goku more helplessly naive rather than toxic.. which ruined the Moro Manga arc at the end.  

Luffy grin peace signs | Manga anime one piece, Anime best friends, One  piece manga

Luffy is designed better, his goal is strictly tied to him so he can never be replaced. He WILL have to be the one to overcome obstacles or his goals will not be met. The interesting element of Goku is that he does not want to BE the strongest, he wants to FIGHT the strongest, he doesn’t mind losing once or twice if it means he can continue to improve.  However that is also his detriment..his goal is the ultimate form of subjective..especially now that we have been introduced to the realm of the gods, surpassing the gods and all the other universes. Goku’s goal can only be obtained if the writer can’t imagine anyone stronger.. yet Toyotaro found the solution through the Dragon Balls, with Granola wishing to be the strongest in the universe… which means ANYONE can become the new strongest person in the universe.. his goal goes on forever and we will never see it conclude. Luffy has an end goal, Luffy will reach his finish..he is a character that can win. In a way.. Goku is pacman and Luffy is Mario. For the Audience it is much more satisfying to see Mario save the princess and take her home.. rather than see pacman establish a new high score before trying again.,, at least the majority of an audience.. That is what ultimately puts Luffy above Goku still.

Yusuke Urameshi Vs Kurosaki Ichigo

So we have had the bouts of the young naive kids,  the airheaded but insanely powerful adults, what is next?  The grouchy kid that gets dragged into this lifestyle thing against their will of course. The Delinquent type character. The characters I chose to pit against each other are Yusuke and Ichigo,,, can you figure out which one of the two I watched in Dub?! Other examples of this type of hero would be characters like Inuyasha or a great many of the Jojo’s. However Yusuke and Kurosaki both get visited by a girl from the spirit world, tether somewhere between life and death and face enemies in that theme. Both of them have an evil form they have to control so this seemed like a good fit. 

Evolution Of Ichigo Kurosaki By Order of Power Strength *Current up to  Manga chapter 640* ((CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS)) - Album on Imgur

What defines these characters is that oftenly they “lack” a bit of a goal.  They usually have a goal “by proxy” or at least a goal caused by another person. Both Ichigo and Yusuke get more “jobs” rather than a goal they strive for with all heart and soul. Which can at times feel a bit “forced”  The reason why they put up with this thing is oftenly explained through a macguffin, like Inuyasha’s necklace or in Yusuke’s case being employed as a spirit detective. This is where Ichigo takes a small lead over his rival, his story feels a bit more natural. Rukia is his coach for his new powers and as he learns she gets in trouble because of him.. he feels obligated to help her and from there his story flows naturally…until he defeats Aizen. Yusuke is a lot less likeable and a lot more resistant in the beginning, in fact he never really stops being an asshat until the very end of the show. That though gives mister Urameshi a trait that Ichigo somewhat lacks. Consistency.  He bounces around from having romantic moments with Rukia to having kids with Inoue and from delinquent to overpowered hero that does cool poses.

Character growth is important and Ichigo is a character that grows a lot more than Yusuke.. however I do think Ichigo is also a prime example of it being done in excess.  While Ichigo does start off as a better person than Yusuke already , he loses a lot of the elements that define him in the beginning, ending up as some generic cool looking hero.  The biggest problem with Ichigo is that he really doesn’t fight all that much.  The first part of the series is fine.. but around the Espada Arc it kind of follows a certain format.  Ichigo’s old powers get overwhelmed, he goes to train somewhere  to gain a new power. Hell breaks lose everywhere around him  and his friends do all the fighting and as soon as they begin to lose Ichigo shows up late.. but looking all cool and more powerful, obliterating the current enemy.
Then mid fight we travel to an alternate universe for a few weeks,  return to see him finish off this enemy before he is overwhelmed by the next enemy or encounters a new problem.. he goes back to training.. and shows up late for his next fight. Looking all cool and stuff one again not really having a challenge. As a result Ichigo kind of becomes a gimmick in his own show.  After every other fight he goes to power up and learn stuff again.. vanishes , then poofs back looking all cool.

boton ✨ (jizmund) - Profile | Pinterest

Yusuke kind of does the opposite. He gets his finger gun attack and then for almost half of the series he doesn’t really learn a new technique.. he just can fire it a bit more often. Only when the Dark Tournament Saga begins does he learn a new technique.. except it’s kind of the same technique still. A blue beam power attack.. this one is a bit wider though. That’s dozens of episodes in though!  Then two story arcs beyond that he gets a third power and that’s really it. Oh yeah he also gets a platypus bunny duck thing that only does something once, but I can’t help but feel Yusuke really does not grow that much at all…. yet I am not sure if I mind. Change is great but it has to feel natural. The way Yusuke gets roped into being a spirit detective would make it so that he probably would never go fond of the job. He treats his girlfriend pretty terrible and Botan as well, but he is never really given a very good reason to change. Yes they treat him better than  he treats them but with Keiko that has been ongoing since before the series began change has to be natural and I think Yuske is an interesting case study of it not always being needed.

The last Archetype

Fairy Tail - Natsu dragon slayer roar - YouTube

I thought I would place Natsu versus Sawada Tsunayoshi here as both “fire” based people who can float in the air and do big fire attacks as well as some punches… but they are very different archetypes. Tsuna is more akin to Gon and Midoriya. He would beat Deku but lose to Gon. Natsu is the fourth archetype. The shouty anger issues shone the protagonist. Characters like Naruto and Asta would find their way on this list as well as Edward Elric, though he can also fit in the previous category. This is my least favourite archetype because it oftenly invalidates itself as time passes. The “Wild” characters start out as the Scrappy Doo of anime but are then quickly polished out into something else.  I get this is probably a cultural archetype for Japan where loudness equals rude and undisciplined and seeing them grow into respectable people is part of the journey.. but to me at times it feels like we do not meet the real protagonist until halfway into the series. 

I think Tsuna is how this trope is done correctly. Naked Tsuna who is the super mode of the first part of the series doesn’t always show up so we get to know the real Tsuna already before he turns into this obnoxiously present trope. Until he is ready to learn discipline.. but we got to know him already. But he is such a different take on it that I don’t think he classifies. So how about I let you guys decide? Who is your favourite, high spirited, loud and almost feral anime protagonist? Let me know in the comments! Do note that I think that none of the shows I mentioned are bad. Some are just not for me. I am kind of picky with what I want to see in my main character. What makes for a main character you like?! Type a comment while I go imagine my own ideal Shonen protagonist in my mid day nap! Because remember folks!  Friendship is Magic, but dreams are even more wonderful! Oyasumi.

The Problems with the Anime Protagonist

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.

Apparantly you need a red coat with pauldrons to be a pirate king!

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..

Why do all these titles come with weird clothes?!

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. 

Good luck Geets!

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. 

Look at how happy he is that I think he is cooler than Gon!

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.

See this is the most interesting thing in my entire post! Desu Nee?!

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…   

Aww, he seems bummed I don’t like him…he will somehow grow a skill for that I guess

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. 

Yay I can show Kamina off again!

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!

See I like how white the chairs are before I worry about the engine!

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!