When Your Fav Anime Protagonist is Problematic – This Week in Anime

When Your Fav Anime Protagonist is Problematic - This Week in Anime

Heroes who do bad things aren’t new to anime, but when is a protagonist flawed and complex and when are they an irredeemable scumbag?

These series are streaming on Netflix (anime“>Evangelion), HIDIVE (anime“>Girlish Number), and Crunchyroll (everything else). anime“>Macross is available with subtitles on the Japanese Blu-ray release.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.


Nick, you’re probably wondering why I showed up to the column this week in full Joker makeup. You’re probably also wondering why I told you that when this is a purely text and anime screencap-based medium. Well, that’s because our topic tonight is a little, shall we say, twisted.


I assumed you were wearing clown makeup because we both somehow ended up talking about a horny baby again.

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We are both truly the clowns in this situation. And on the subject of truth, we arrived at this topic on the heels of the anime“>Mushoku Tensei discourse circus of the past week. While there are plenty of more relevant angles to tackle said controversy, they’re a bit outside the purview of our particular chucklehut. So instead, we thought we’d look more closely at a frequent defense lobbed at Rudeus—that he is supposed to be a bad person. A purposefully flawed protagonist? Have you heard of such a thing?

I can certainly think of plenty of isekai protagonists I greatly dislike, but the question of whether or not any of them are on purpose is an interesting one. The human experience is vast and varied, and while cynical marketing may push for making a likable, relatable main character, so sure, let’s play ball and see what exactly makes for a Good “Bad” protag.

Even just restricting ourselves to anime/manga, we have a treasure trove of scumbags and scallywags to examine. And that’s a good thing! Fiction can be used to explore and play in so many spaces, and contemporary fiction has robustly applied concepts like antiheroes and villain protagonists to all kinds of stories. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach. But, like any narrative choice or literary technique, the devil is in the details.

It’s a trick move that even veteran creators can struggle with, partly because of the established patterns of modern media. Audiences are, by and large, conditioned to identify with the lead of any given story by default. So, depicting a flawed or downright awful person without seeming like you’re asking the viewer to approve of those flaws takes a lot of finesse. If you do it right, you can craft a compelling and unique story that stands out in the media landscape. If you do it wrong, you get headlines like this:

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Yeah, and to be clear, the audience is NOT always right in these situations. That’s why Fight Club has such an infamous reputation as a litmus test, or why so many dudes idolize Walter White. It is, in fact, possible to construct a uniformly scathing critique of destructive masculinity and still have your main character’s face plastered up huge and scowling on every dorm room wall across the country. People’s blinders can be enormous. That said, not appearing to defend the objectively evil institution of slavery is about as close to a layup as an author can get. So.

Yeahhhhhhh. For as tricky as it might be to maintain a distinct authorial voice separate from the main character, that’s an unforced error.

So it’s pretty clear where we both stand regarding Rudeus, so let’s try looking at another unlikeable and controversial protag, but one who works within the context of their story. And if we’re talking anime, my perennial example is none other than Shinji.

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Ha, today’s isekai slave owners wish they could inspire a mere fraction of the discourse Shinji has. People have been yelling at that mentally unstable teenager for damn near three decades now.

I have no idea if this is still the case, but when I was getting into anime, it was completely normal for people to loathe Shinji. I mean, the “get in the f*cking robot” meme came from a place of genuine anger and frustration. And to a degree, that’s warranted. Shinji is a legitimately frustrating character who frequently recoils and cries about it when thrust into the hero’s seat. But that’s also what the show is about!
Yeah. From the ground up, EVA is meant to be a more emotionally raw exploration of what being the central figure in a battle for the fate of the Earth before you’re old enough to drive would actually feel like. Shinji has flaws (especially in anime“>End of Evangelion), and there are moments where he acts in dangerous, impulsive, selfish ways. Yet the series still invites you to sympathize with him because, hey, who among us wouldn’t crack under that kind of pressure?
He’s also such an authentically written character. I love this one moment early on when he knows precisely the right thing to say to hurt Misato’s feelings, so he says it. It’s exactly how a self-loathing teenager would lash out at the people trying to help him. And you can easily argue that this authenticity comes from Anno’s own experiences with depression. That’s the beauty of ugly art: it provides a space for people to work through their conflicts and flaws in a way that might speak to others suffering from the same.

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For the sake of our larger question, the series avoids feeling like it endorses everything Shinji does by providing opposing voices and personalities. There are characters as complex and messy as him who react angrily or hurt when he lashes out. So, while we are invited to sympathize with his pain, it never feels like it’s excusing the genuinely harmful ways he sometimes displaces that pain onto others.

Eva, in an abstract sense, is a bildungsroman about Shinji growing up and learning to accept his place among other people in his life. He’s flawed because his ultimate arc is about confronting those flaws. And there are tons of similarly sad teen boys along what I call the “Shinji continuum,” which can stretch back to Amuro in the original anime“>Gundam and forward in time to less robot-afflicted stories like anime“>The Flowers of Evil and anime“>Goodnight Punpun.
Amuro is instructional for Shinji and EVA as a whole—a similarly immature personality thrust into circumstances beyond his ken who reacts to it in erratic, often dangerous ways. I’m making my way through the full anime“>Mobile Suit Gundam TV run rather than just the movies, and it’s wild how much of Amuro is present in Shinji’s DNA.

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Though on the subject of Shinji’s DNA…
Wow, would you look at the time? I think our readers have gotten the picture with Shinji. So, let’s think about the opposite example. What about a kid who gets the robot but isn’t happier or more likable for it? And by “get in the robot,” I mean “stab a lot of Vikings.”

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Thorfinn is an interesting beast. While he eventually turns into one of the most emotionally mature and noble characters in anime“>Vinland Saga, 90% of his screen time in season one is him being an angry, miserable murder machine who can’t even think of sparing an ounce of empathy.

It’s great! I mean, tragic! But great!

Though, it’s funny you mention Thorfinn because he ties into what I was getting at with Shinji’s over-moisturized hands. Thorfinn’s role through season one is to be a bastard, doing terrible things to innocent people—and facilitating far worse—for his revenge. While that is compelling, it also walks a narrative tightrope where you have to gauge how much the audience is willing to take before they stop wanting him to get better and start wanting him to stop.

It’s a tricky needle to thread, and there’s some cake having and eating, too. That’s not to say you can’t marry ultraviolence with introspection, but again, it takes a deft narrative hand. And again, the complexity of the characters surrounding Thorfinn greatly enriches anime“>Vinland Saga‘s thematic ambitions early on. Even if I hadn’t known about the series’ eventual long arc, there was sufficient depth in the challenges to Thorfinn’s worldview in that first season to string me along.

It’s a complicated and subjective issue, though I immediately thought of it here for how the anime puts its thumb on the scale. In episode 10, “Ragnarok,” they cut out a scene where Thorfinn witnesses Askeladd’s men raping a woman from the village they’ve just pillaged before he walks away looking disgruntled. Even the largely faithful adaptation team thought that was a step too far.

It’s also tricky to talk about “the audience” in these situations because everyone will have tolerance and breaking points. Just the violence in anime“>Vinland Saga will be enough to turn some people away. Being intentionally off-putting will mean that some proportion of the audience will be off-put. That’s where much of the friction in these conversations comes from, but that’s also normal. We don’t all get the same thing from every piece of art. And thank goodness for that.

True, but I think there’s something to figuring out where the line between “off-putting” and “outright disgusted” lies for any given person. For me, it comes down to precisely what a story is trying to say with moments like that. In Thorfinn’s case, it’s to demonstrate how much he’s stripped himself of his humanity for vengeance, digging a tunnel to a hell that he eventually spends the rest of the series trying to climb out of. Meanwhile, when Rudy does something awful, it’s usually treated like a joke.

I’m with you there. But another point I want to be careful about is the notion that a flawed/unlikeable/shitty protagonist must be redeemed or rehabilitated for their existence to be justified. Audiences on Rudy’s side might tend to think this is what people on the other side believe, and I want to emphasize this is not the case—at least not for me. I don’t think art should exist purely to deliver didactic moral truths. I saw more than plenty of that thinking in Catholic school. I want my art to be messy, ambiguous, and potentially problematic. I just want that in ways that interest me.

Sure, but you must do something with a loathsome character. If not redemption, then at least some commentary or an exploration of the emotions and influences that help shape who they are. If all you do is make your main character a chore to deal with (at best) while indulging in the same power fantasy of a more typical story, then you’re far more liable to alienate people. Do you want Kazuyas? Because that’s how you get Kazuyas.

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We’re on season 3 of anime“>Rent-A-Girlfriend somehow, so I guess somebody out there does want Kazuyas, as unfathomable as that is to me. In the right situation, though, there’s a case for awful people making a story more fun to follow. Another thing that got me thinking about this topic was catching up with anime“>BanG Dream! It’s MyGo!!!!! last week. The whole show is a melodrama about teen girls being awful to each other and digging deeper and more pathetic holes each time that happens. It’s so good.

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Granted, you also have the presumed assurance that it’ll all work out in the end (they have to sell albums and gacha pulls, after all), but the moment-to-moment messiness is where the series truly shines. And it makes the eventual resolutions feel all the more earned.

The promise of a satisfying resolution goes a long way. However, that’s honestly what makes RAG so frustrating. It sets itself up with the idea that Kazuya will try to better himself and become a more honest and empathetic partner, and then he proceeds to not do that for going on 30+ episodes now. It’s goddamn infuriating.

Oh yeah, gesturing at a redemption arc, but either not bothering or outright failing to do so has got to be the worst way to approach this kind of character. Because then you’re telling your audience that you’re aware of what you want or need to do; you’re just not a good enough writer to pull it off.

Which is my entire deal with anime“>Mushoku Tensei. It’s about Rudy getting better insofar as he becomes a more confident, capable member of society, but it never addresses the people he hurts or victimizes and never treats his worst actions for what they are, which is doubly frustrating because I’ve seen that accomplished with fantastic results right in the same isekai sandbox.

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In the isekai sphere, Subaru is a wonderful counterexample for Rudy. And anime“>Re:Zero doesn’t always nail what it’s trying to do and say with Subaru, but by earnestly grappling with its protagonist’s flaws, it soars miles ahead and beyond most of its peers. Moreover, it feels like a real story, with villainous foils that meaningfully mirror the hero and everything.

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For sure, the show can be a little too indulgent with Subaru at times, but its narrative essentially commands him to face his worst impulses and overcome them, which is why it’s so satisfying when he does. It takes a long time, and I know more than a few people who never finished the first season because they couldn’t invest in him, but by the end of that season, he really does feel like a changed man.

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Unfortunately, there’s no exact science to making a guy who sucks but doesn’t suck so much that you immediately want to throw your remote at the TV. It’s vibes. Can I defend why I hold such animus towards anime“>Mushoku Tensei yet hold the similarly pervert-infested Monogatari series in such high regard? Well, yes. Monogatari is much better written and has a constantly expanding cast of increasingly complex characters who eventually help steer the trajectory of the series away from Araragi’s worst impulses, and which, in the end, directly confronts Araragi’s central failings. But I can’t defend why I like Araragi more than Rudy. And no, Nick, I don’t expect you to come to my aid here. Just leave me to the dogs.

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I may have lost the vast majority of my patience with Monogatari over the years, but I can appreciate that Araragi gets owned way more often, which at least makes him funnier.
He should still be in jail, tho.

I can’t argue with that. Though I wholeheartedly believe to be a true Monogatari fan, you have to, on some level, want to crush Araragi like a bug.

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Seriously, having your asshole main character get taken down a peg can do wonders. It’s how anime“>Macross can carry on a four-decade streak of cocky flyboy heroes: As soon as they start getting too big for their britches, every force in the universe takes action to swirlie them.

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That tack can also work well in sports series, where often brash protagonists finally show depth once the competition humbles them. But sometimes, it’s also fun to root for the heel doing the humbling. That was one of the neat things about anime“>Hanebado!, a show that proved divisive primarily because its heroine was a badminton psychopath. However, that’s also why I liked it.

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I don’t know why anyone was surprised. It’s got “Bad” right in the title.

But leaning fully into the heel angle is also a great strategy. People love wrestling heels specifically because they’re over-the-top and transgressive. Intentionally pissing people off is an art form unto itself, and when pulled off well, it’s electric.

anime“>Hanebado! was seriously so good at that. Overall, it treated Ayano like a person and sports heroine with something to prove, but the matches where she became a dead-eyed birdie-smacking Terminator were the highlights.

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Though it’s funny that we’ve gone through a murderer’s row of crummy dudes before so much as mentioning a lousy lady. I’m sure there are no larger cultural or societal implications to be drawn from that.

Certainly, it’s not as if we have yet to completely pierce through the veil of society-wide misogyny that holds women and, thus, female characters to a different standard that doesn’t allow for authentic human faults to be tolerated, let alone explored with any semblance of depth, fun, or meaning. It’s not as if shows like anime“>Hanebado! or anime“>Girlish Number got a ton of flak for having heroines who were unapologetically mean and selfish.

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Sure would be awkward if, say, one of the shows we’ve talked about that’s spent a ton of time trying to make us sympathize with a highly toxic man because he was bullied and sexually humiliated, then had a whole episode where he bullies and sexually humiliates a pair of haughty girls with the implication that they deserved it and “learned a lesson” from it. That would kind of suck ass!

I had not looked at the full synopsis of that episode until this moment, and now I wish I had stayed ignorant.

It’s a very “fun” bit of dissonance and a pretty good example of this particular double standard.

I suppose, too, I’d be more forgiving of anime“>Mushoku Tensei‘s wanton hedonism, blatant wish-fulfillment, and scumlord protagonist if we didn’t have that double standard and if that kind of male gratification and ego-stroking weren’t the norm. That’s my actual problem. People treat this show and Rudy like these precious bastions of transgressiveness when they couldn’t be more aligned with what society allows and frequently celebrates. I prefer protagonists whose imperfections dig at the sore spots that society would much rather try to silence or ignore. Absent that, they at least have to suck in a much funnier way.

That’s as good a stance as we’ll get on the matter. A character doesn’t have to be perfect, likable, or redeemable, but their personality has to say something about their role in the story. If it says something really shitty, I don’t see much value in that. You do not, in fact, gotta hand it to him—but you can absolutely throw hands instead.

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anime/2023-08-24/.201535″>Source By animenewsnetwork.com

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