As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, the past few years was largely a “falling out” with me and anime. I wasn’t into the latest and greatest series and I was slow to keep up relative to others. The biggest change, however, was that during that time I shifted toward the proverbial new kids on the block following the onset of 2010: the new American cartoon.
Times have changed in the world of Western Animation. Most of the folks who are currently in the industry right now are nostalgic for the old 80s cartoons but also have a lot more exposure to animation that was geared toward both children as well as adults, most of which is Japanese Anime. After years of exposure and some incremental steps toward the new standard in the 1990s, the name of the game today seems to be that American animation is just as often orientated toward adults as well as children. Not just in the adult-only explicit programming such as “Family Guy” and “Rick and Morty”, but “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”, “Adventure Time”, “Gravity Falls”, “Star vs. the Forces of Evil”, “Steven Universe”, “Regular Show”, the two “Avatar” series, and others.
As more and more of those programs became relevant, I ended up paying more attention to those for several years before I tried to shift back to anime/manga. I’m now up on several of the trending anime/mangas in recent history as well as familiar with several of these newer Western Animations. Yet now that I am in a position to evaluate both together, I found an interesting trend happening: I’m actually shifting more toward my “home soil”, or the American animation, and away from the Japanese anime. Revisiting the best that anime has to offer has, in turn, only made me appreciate the modern cartoon more.
I asked myself why that was the case. While modern American animation does take adults into account it often is still designed with children as the primary audience. Often it’s far sillier and more comedic than its anime counterparts. Action is at a minimum while more mundane activities occur on a routine basis in most. When I was younger, most of the appeal of anime was using animation to deal with more mature and adult themes and to express them artistically, but also due to the action and adventure elements that were censored or omitted far too often in American media. Often this led to more exciting and tension-raising plotlines. So why would I appreciate the still-often-sanitized storytelling to that of anime, especially since it does have the advantage of not being so filtered and often more thrilling than its American counterpart?
After considering this for a while, it finally hit me. Whether it be an aspect of the culture in Japan or simply a trend that animators and manga writers have subconsciously adopted (I opt for the latter, honestly), there is one almost universal weakness that anime/manga is victim to in its presentation and storytelling that American cartoons have thus far managed to avoid, with the result of being able to make proportionally more endearing and intriguing stories with much higher levels of filtering and youth-orientated content: personification of ideals.
What do I mean by “personification of ideals”?
Characters in anime/manga are very rarely just “characters”. Almost invariably, they fully commit themselves to an ideal. Almost always it’s an ideal that they themselves have espoused or even founded, though not always. They’re fiercely devoted to it and defend it vigorously, often espousing it through their actions or (far more often) in the form of long, important-sounding speeches to their opponents…who themselves are also committed to ideals and have long, important-sounding speeches of their own. However, whether they came up with the ideal themselves or its shared, the character is always the sole “true proponent” of that idea in their respective medium, and, as a result, they stand out from the rest of the cast and even the world as they’re the only one who pushes that ideal–often making it an essential part of their character and role in the story as a result as they are a unique individual in that regard. When that happens, the character no longer simply follows an ideal or pursues an ideal, but embodies it and becomes a representation of that ideal.
Anime/manga does this everywhere. You can see it most often in any anime/manga that is rife with “The Reason You Suck” speech tropes. Every main protagonist does it; every main antagonist does it. It’s a staple of the genre. And because of that, most storylines in anime/manga are never completely character-driven. They end up being ideal-driven in one capacity or another because that’s what motivates and constitutes the personality of most of the characters.
And, more often than not, it demeans and reduces a good story.
That’s not to say that a character embodying an ideal itself is a bad thing. Superheroes have done it for decades. Think of Batman. His ideal is that he ultimately believes in the justice system no matter how corrupt it becomes and that is why he never takes on the role of judge, jury, and executioner. And he can’t, no matter how vicious his villains get or how much they do. If he kills his enemies, it will no longer be about justice. It will be about revenge for what happened to his parents. It will be about his own satisfaction and pleasure. And once he does that, he’ll become the same as the Rogue’s Gallery. In that case, the ideal is key to not only the story but the character himself. And that’s also not to say all anime/manga follows this trend. There are animes/mangas that are far more character-driven, although most of them usually incorporate ideals into the mix as well.
But, as a general rule, it’s a trait of most anime/manga in one capacity or another. And by doing so, and doing so with all of the main characters in a storyline, it introduces a host of problems that end up oversimplifying the plot.
1. It turns the abstract untouchable into the physically breakable.
An ideal is a concept, a guiding principle, and something to measure yourself and your actions against at the end of the day. It’s a burden the character puts on their own conscience to let them know whether or not they did the right thing. By personifying ideals into characters, however, an ideal takes on a whole new paradigm of significance.
The conflict is no longer whether or not one’s ideal can be upheld in their course of action but rather that their course of action itself and, indeed more often, the character itself surviving or dying is the greatest part of the idealistic conflict. Suddenly, if the character loses, no matter what action they are taking or against what opponent, it is a defeat of the ideal as a whole. If they succeed, it is a victory of the ideal as a whole.
This is emphasized not only subconsciously but often explicitly in anime/manga. The reason behind all of those constant speeches to one another is often for the villain to point out how the hero is worthless because they are a representation of their ideals, while the counter argument by the hero is to validate their own existence by championing their ideals. It’s a recurring theme in anime/manga for a villain to actually go beyond personal threats and say they are going to explicitly “crush your dreams” or “break your ideals into dust” to their opponents before a life or death battle.
Think about that for a moment and how much sense, or lack thereof, it makes. Can you imagine Hans Gruber in “Die Hard” yelling at John McClaine over the radio that he’s going to destroy his ideas of law and justice before he kills him? Or Ethan Hunt making a speech about honesty and integrity to a treasonous spy in a “Mission: Impossible” movie before he blows them up? But moving on…
The biggest problem with this is that it trivializes the ideal. Now that the ideal is personified into a person, any old action can be considered a victory for an ideal even if it truly proves nothing.
Think of “One Piece”. While that anime/manga is more character-driven than many, it nevertheless maintains an ideal in its lead character. Luffy is frequently personified as the ideal of the “pirate spirit”, which is freedom for all to pursue what makes them happy, while the forces of the Navy and even rival pirates represent either oppression and subjugation or freedom at the expense of others. Many individuals the Straw Hats encounter throughout the series are inspired by Luffy’s ideal and decide to embody it too. But what invariably always happens? Those same people get crushed and smacked down by their oppressors with ease. It’s not until Luffy and the Straw Hats, who are also incredibly powerful and more powerful than the oppressors, step in that the day is won.
Does that really mean that the ideal of “freedom for all” won the day? The anime/manga tells the story as if it is, but really it was only a case of “the strongest guy happened to follow a nice ideal”. Does is necessarily follow that just because Luffy embodies an ideal that all of his victories and successes are due to that? Or are there more complex factors at work?
The other half of this is that it biases all resolutions to be made via action (fighting, war, battle, etc.). Because the characters personify ideals, the only way to prove or disprove the ideal is to defeat the character. That introduces two different problems. One, does this really appeal to a situation in which the ideal is not suited toward combat? Say I believe health care should be a universal right of all. Is the only way for me to prove that to physically beat up everyone who thinks it should be a private matter? Two, it repeats the same problem as above: it proves nothing. If you beat the tar out of me, does that conclude health care should not be a universal right of all?
2. It negates the human race as a whole.
There is no practice I have found more dangerous and that makes people turn cold, callous, and egocentric faster than reducing a large group of people into a single easily-identifiable and quantifiable block or entity. That, unfortunately, is exactly what happens when characters are turned into ideals. When a character becomes an ideal, logically they end up having a world view and embodying it. A fundamental part of that world view is how they view humanity as a whole. And there is nothing more pretentious or cliche in fiction than trying to reduce the complexity of humanity into something that can be accepted or dismissed with one philosophy.
It’s gone on for years but, in most cases, it’s a hallmark of an oversimplistic story. The big reason most eco-parables get slammed is because they’re over-sized Saturday Morning cartoons, characterizing the world of nature as being perfect, pristine, and magical while characterizing humans as ugly, lazy, stupid, and selfish to the point where they’re a caricature. A lot of fantasy and sci-fi movies have the concept of an “evil empire”; a large authoritarian government that’s just full of “bad people” who do nothing but oppress and wage war for the sake of their own benefit at the expense of others OR, in some cases, simply because they like conquest or being mean. In real life, abuse/care for the environment is a very complex issue that’s rarely cut and dry, but the bottom line is people usually don’t go around ruining the environment because they think it’s fun to cut down trees but because they’re stuck in that current way of life. Likewise, wars and conflicts aren’t usually just because one group of people in power decided they didn’t like people and they’d be evil but have a wide variety of social, economic, political, and regional factors.
But when characters are ideals personified, and have their own world view, they oversimplify things too much. Villains can all be summed up as having one opinion: “the human race requires judgment”. Almost always they’ve decided that mankind as a whole is weak or stupid or selfish or evil and that they have a Final Solution to either conquer them or save the world by changing them fundamentally. Yet the heroes are usually no better; simply having a different philosophy about humanity as a whole such as all humans should live free or be kind to everyone.
The irony is that both situations have the same viewpoint of humanity, as does anime/manga in general. Mankind is ultimately either sheep to slaughter or to guard from wolves, but they are sheep. Now this isn’t a problem just confined to anime/manga. Obviously, whenever you have characters fighting a major conflict one-on-one in which their success or failure determines the fate of large numbers of others, that effect takes place. But when you make it an ideal personified, it bleeds over into every interaction that the characters have. Every talk, chat, or brief aside they have with someone who is not a central character ends up being colored by that viewpoint. And since both viewpoints of hero and villain have to be identified, the audience is rapidly pushed to think of all of mankind as sinners or saints, or simply objects to be used.
A good example is in superhero series like “My Hero Academia” and “One Punch Man”. In both of those series, the mere existence of superheroes and supervillains is such a dominant issue in society that all other aspects of society, such as distribution of wealth, social equality (at least, social equality not based on super powers), freedoms of expression and thought, resource disputes, etc. are now secondary to the existence of super-powered individuals. They have to be, because each of the heroes and villains represents an ideal and they’re the main characters. So what does that reduce the role of humanity down to? A flock of sheep. The villains want to fleece them; the heroes want to protect them. They act as a unified mass that makes general responses to superheroes, but that’s all. Where is the diversity? Where is the conflict? Do some nations have more lax views on supers to encourage them to move there? Do supers have a role in the military with one nation pitting their best against another? Is one considered a hero in one country and a monster in all others? Do any supers believe in non-violence, only using their power to prevent natural disasters? Do some governments want them registered and others do not? Do supers ever intervene in ethnic conflicts? How would they without exacerbating the situation by taking a side? Do locals in one area versus another harbor a grudge against a past hero for collateral damage? Have they encouraged any bad blood within certain groups due to past profiling?
The worst part of this is when villains and their thoughts are emphasized, all of the times people act in accordance with their ideas are highlighted. As a result, humanity does appear to embody the negative characteristics they espouse. That encourages the audience to actually share that viewpoint, or, at minimum, start thinking of people in terms of them as a whole in the negative sense rather than the positive one. Humans in “Dragonball” never do anything but get killed and wished back. Humans in “One Piece” never do anything except get manipulated by the powers that be. Humans in “Magi” are just there to be recruited by whatever cause. Humans in “Attack on Titan” are panicky, impulsive, and ruled by fear (although that one is actually trying to make a point with that). How would an avid reader of manga/anime eventually grow to see mankind with this kind of constant limited viewpoints?
3. Characters misapply the role of ideals.
As I said at the beginning, an ideal is something that should have the primary usage of guiding a character to making certain decisions. It should serve to challenge them and provide a point of conflict from an internal perspective rather than be something to fight over like a trophy in a tournament. An ideal is not some banner you attach to yourself before going out into battle; it’s something that should tell you whether or not the battle is worth fighting at all.
Characters in anime/manga use ideals as an excuse to espouse pretentious philosophy that often comes from a narrow or even unrealistic world view, and they pontificate on it so much that some of the most ridiculous things ever eventually become plausible. To this day I still remember a character in one of the Gundam series, in what was supposed to be his biggest moment, yelling: “I still have to prove I’m weaker than you!” What does that even mean? Yet that’s what happens when you devote so much time to personifying characters as ideals and then making physical battles more like philosophical debates. (As a general rule, anime/manga talks so much that eventually it can make anything sound profound.)
For an ideal to truly be an ideal and work well, it should do one of two things: (1) represent a goal that the character is shooting for or (2) be something that challenges the character to live up to it. And in both cases, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the character can (or even should) live up to that ideal. That’s where the role of growth and change comes in (which we’ll get too later). If the character does decide to live up to it, it can’t always be something that comes easy. Most characters in anime/manga that embody an ideal simply wear it as a name tag. In most of their conflicts, their ideal isn’t directly called into question; it’s simply there to make them look more on the side of moral good or moral evil, which is a tragic waste.
Let’s do a comparison. While it trips up on it numerous times, “Fate/Zero” is nevertheless one of the few animes that is (in part) genuinely character-driven and handles the role of an ideal as a guiding principle fairly well. In that anime, Rider lives by the ideal to always shoot for the impossible. To never give up and to always press forward without hesitating, no matter the obstacle. That’s why he has the title of King of Conquerors. Eventually, he’s faced with a foe that he knows he has no chance of defeating. With a single gesture, he destroys all of the hundreds of thousands of legions he commands in his whole army, and he knows there’s absolutely no way to win. He had dreams of possibly coming back to life again and once more trying to conquer the world, but now he realizes if he keeps going all of that will be ruined and all he will gain is his own death. In the end, he decides to charge his opponent anyway, because he wanted to live up to his ideal to the end and demonstrate it for his young master: to always face the impossible head on with the mindset of victory. In the end, he does indeed die, but there’s still the sense that achieved victory because he never abandoned his ideal even when it would destroy him, and, in the end, he inspired his young master and allowed his ideals to live on in him.
Now consider “Fate/Stay Night Unlimited Blade Works”, which is far more typical. At one point, Shirou, who believes in constant self-sacrifice with the goal of saving everyone, gets into a battle with Archer, who is the physical representation of all of his own ideals eventually ending up in failure and wants to kill him so that this failure will never manifest. For two whole episodes this is rammed in through constant dialogue and battling to the death, that nothing Shirou does will ever matter and that far from saving everyone he’ll end up saving no one. Finally, after two episodes of this, Shirou manages to win…and that’s it. What did that prove? Was it a triumph of Shirou’s ideals? Not really. It’s true that Shirou keeps getting up because he refuses to abandon his ideals, but that’s not really embodying them, and considering the fact Archer was going to kill him either way he’d have to keep getting up to survive at all. At no point does it ever become clear Shirou made “the right choice”, either in the grand scheme of things or even for his own beliefs. His ideals themselves weren’t what triumphed so much as him, but, as mentioned above, that’s considered a “win” for ideals simply because he personifies them even if it proved nothing. The end result is a pretentious waste of two episodes.
4. Character homogeneity pervades everything.
It’s been widely said that anime/manga is far too reliant on tropes. Every series is going to have a tsundere. Every series is going to have a kuudere. Every series is going to have a wimpy little pervert. Every series is going to have a cute-but-psycho character. In short, tropes abound. And they do have their purpose. The primary reason for relying on a trope is that it allows you to quickly establish a character without the need for the ever-dreaded exposition. Yet when characters represent ideals, it takes a whole new dimension.
The “Goku-Like” anime protagonist is everywhere now in one form or another. Anime heroes often have one or more of the following traits: quirky, somewhat dim-witted yet clever in their skill set, fun-loving, big appetites, child-like among their peers yet fiery, fierce, and determined to their foes. All things that personify someone who stands outside of the norm and, therefore, possesses a unique outlook/ideal. Likewise, if you have a cool or confident character, they possess a world view that embraces power and authority. If you have someone who’s wild to a manic degree, they believe in selfishness and chaos. Smug and arrogant characters invariably believe a group of elite should rule over the masses.
To reiterate, all of these characters have a “world view”. Each one of them at some point, whether as part of their daily lives or in a time of crisis, will believe that there is a way “the world ought to be” and live according to that. Yet when you personify that same ideal, you remove all character complexity. You go from being a character to a pure trope. You enforce an almost Objectivist standard on your characters, in which A is always A.
Consider an American cartoon that is far more about character: “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”. The main six characters of the show all embody a different virtue (loyalty, kindness, generosity, laughter, honesty, and friendship), and they embody it so well that they are considered to be the physical manifestations/incarnations of those virtues. And yet, none of them always live up to that ideal perfectly. They often slip up against their own virtue when it gets painful or difficult to embody it. Furthermore, their “virtues” often have a negative side to them as well. Case in point, Applejack embodies honesty, which means she’s always truthful and dependable. It also means she’s often tactless, mean, rude, pushy, and aggressive. Fluttershy embodies kindness, which means she’s always gentle and compassionate to everyone. It also means she lets herself be treated as a doormat and doesn’t exercise tough love at the right times; helping individuals do things that they need to do themselves to gain maturity. They all have moments where they’re the best individual in the series, and they all have moments where they’re the worst individual in the series.
None of those individual moments dictate all of who they are. Whether they acted good or bad, in all of those moments they were their characters. Some of the things they’ve done are things they wish they hadn’t done and others aren’t, but ultimately the Applejack who lives up to her commitments and the Applejack who thoughtlessly offends all the contestant in a contest she judges are one and the same. The Fluttershy who is so kind-hearted she manages to charm a spirit of disharmony and the Fluttershy who verbally abused her own friends in an attempt to stop “being a dormat” are one and the same. The same can be said for all the others because, just like real people, they have moments where they’re strong and moments where they’re weak; moments where they did the right thing no matter how hard it was and moments where they took the dark path when they knew full well what the light one was.
When a character is an ideal with a world view, they aren’t allowed that. They can only ever be their trope. They may have an episode or two where they get shaken up emotionally but, in the end, they are who they are. Whether he’s enjoying time with his family and friends or they lie dead before him, Goku is always Goku. Whether he’s enjoying life on the high seas or lying beaten and dying from poison, Luffy is always Luffy. Whether he’s an innocent boy wandering the world or a powerful Magi trying to warn mankind, Aladdin is always Aladdin. And all of this is because they embody an ideal. Even if they’re good, noble, and righteous, they’re ultimately one-dimensional. Static. Base.
5. It stagnates the characters.
That brings us into the final, and most detrimental, implication of having characters as ideals: by definition, characters can no longer grow.
This aspect is ultimately what makes American cartoons superior to many Japanese anime counterparts. When a story is character-driven rather than ideal-driven, characters can grow. They’re challenged. They’re forced out of their comfort zone. They’re pressured to change at times and other times drive themselves to change. They mature. They become better (or, sometimes, worse) people for the experience. This is something everyone does in their lives. None of us are who we were as children, after all, and that’s why we connect with these individuals so much more easily. People choose good and choose bad, choose right and choose wrong, and all for a multitude of reasons or emotions at the time. That’s what makes people complex and so intriguing. Making characters out of ideals ruins all that.
How most Japanese anime equates growth as a result of character is only a pale facsimile of this. Characters have their ideals challenged, yes, but because the characters themselves are ideals it’s a challenge more to who the character is. As a result, the challenge is not something designed to drive the character to change or force them into a new situation in which to apply their ideal as it is simply a test of will power: how strongly they believe in their ideal and how far they’re willing to go with it. What is seen as character growth or development is often merely learning new techniques and skills or finding a new way to apply their ideal.
Consider “My Hero Academia”. Look at Izuku Midoriya. He’s been though all sorts of challenges throughout the series so far and all sorts of things that have pushed him beyond his previous limits. There’s no doubt he’s far stronger and more competent that he was when the story started. However, has Midoriya really changed at all? The answer is no. He started off the story idealistically believing in justice and heroism, and for everything he’s been through he still believes in justice and heroism. No matter what situation he ends up in or what new conflict, or how much his opponents go against him, he’s still mostly the same wide-eyed kid from the first manga. He’s gained more power and a better grip on his abilities, and perhaps a bit more self-confidence in his natural talents, but that’s it. If something has challenged his view, his response has been to commit himself even more to it.
By comparison, consider “Steven Universe”. Look at the character of Steven. A lot of people don’t like how he was in the first 26 or so episodes because he was, largely, a nonsensical child who lacked responsibility, seriousness, or maturity. However, there were some important aspects to his character. He inherently believed in the goodness of the people he met, he saw the Crystal Gems as true heroes to be idolized, and he saw his mother, Rose Quartz, as the ultimate ideal to aspire to–perfect in every way and loved and admired by all as great hero. Yet as the series progressed, that view was challenged. Characters he once thought of as being great were exposed as having done things that were genuinely selfish, thoughtless, and even cruel. The characters that he once saw as the heroes who had all the answers turned out to be very “mortal” individuals struggling through their own problems and, at times, were stricken helpless by their own feelings and personal problems. He slowly began to realize that not everyone is “good” and that everyone is capable of doing things that are genuinely spiteful and hurtful, and that the image that people had of his mother was largely just that: an image, not anything that reflected reality. Bit by bit, the good values he had were proven to be fake or based on illusions as he saw the way the world really is.
However, as a result of these challenges to his viewpoints and values, Steven learned how to embrace responsibility and maturity, growing more genuinely empathetic and independent, and he managed to do so without compromising who he is. Although he no longer holds this as a total absolute, Steven not only clung to his ideal that people are basically good and you can bring out the best in them rather than responding to their worst, but he expanded this view outside of his sphere of influence and stuck with it even when it challenged him. He doesn’t just see other people as heroes; he tries to get them to see themselves as heroes. While he feels at times betrayed and abandoned by his mother, forced to suffer for her mistakes, he realizes that what she represented to everyone is something that’s worth fighting for, and as a result he is slowly embracing that role and personifying in reality who everyone always thought Rose Quartz was. At this point in the series, Steven has gone from being a playful child to a fine young man, but while he abandoned much of his childishness he stayed true to the core of what his beliefs were and adopted them as a mature lifestyle.
Going back to characters-as-ideal, even worse, as I said at the start, is that not only do characters as ideals get discouraged from growing; they can’t grow. Because the character represents an ideal, the only way to get them to grow is to, in essence, change or amend the ideal. By doing so, the original ideal is invalidated. The hero loses their reason for being and, therefore, discounts the main idea of the entire series. If the hero represents an ideal, that ideal has to remain intact through the entire story or it loses its theme.
The supreme irony? In this case, villains are allowed to change because their own “faulty” ideals can be defeated and, therefore, changed. It’s small wonder, therefore, that villains are the ones in anime/manga who seem to grow and are the more appealing characters. Consider the “Dragonball” series. At this point, many members of the fandom consider Vegeta to be a better character than its protagonist Goku. Why? Vegeta’s transition from villain to hero came with a change in the ideal he represented. Initially he represented a warrior’s pride but also its ego and elitism, a selfish desire to be the best at the expense of all others. As he came to embrace the idea of family and appreciated fighting for the sake of bettering oneself, however, he gradually became a better character and grew as a result. He’s learned the value of friendship, that there is a time and place for humility, and that some things are more important than his own pride. By comparison, Goku is Goku. To him, there is nothing but the challenge of beating who he was yesterday, and his only reason for existence is to find people stronger than him to challenge him. And as the years have gone by, this constant, never-changing trait has become more of his character and gradually begun to make him more of an Anti-Hero.
In conclusion, again I would like to maintain that not all anime/manga does this. There are a number that focus on the individual roles of characters and their relationships, and that make those the key parts of a story. And there’s some that actually balk at the trend. I mentioned earlier about “Attack on Titan”, but that’s one that actually goes against it. Everyone in that story is constantly governed by ideals and world views, but note that it’s when characters make what the story terms a “selfish” decision that’s based off of their character and not an ideal that things actually change for the better. But the preponderance and tendency to always make characters represent an ideal is one of the major deficiencies of anime/manga storytelling as a whole. It weakens both them as a character as well as their environment and the plotline itself. And it’s for this reason that even the far more childish and juvenile plotlines of American animation tend to have more compelling and intriguing stories. For American cartoons, I can get excited for an upcoming episode with a new plot that’s not terribly exciting simply because I like the idea of seeing the characters in a new situation. By comparison? Anime/manga’s only new situation is a new physical threat or villain to the protagonists, which has been done countless times and you already how it’s going to end before it even starts. For now, anime/manga still has the monopoly on the “middle ground” levels of animation: ones that aren’t appropriate or suitable for children but aren’t so crude, disgusting, or violent that they shouldn’t be watched by anyone other than adults. Yet as the appeal of that age group continues to tempt various networks and online networks to cater to it, Japan better keep an eye on it or the market for anime/manga might stagnate or even dry up.