The Aggressively Passive Protagonist

There’s a general trend I’ve been seeing with male anime protagonists from light novels, or more specifically anime adaptations of light novels. In many of these titles, the main characters tend towards having passivity as a defining trait, sometimes to the point of “aggressive passivity.” Not to be confused with someone who’s passive-aggressive, or even someone who’s mostly passive and occasionally active (like Shinji in the Evangelion TV series), the aggressively passive protagonist is someone whose passivity is almost a badge of honor, either in the form of a passive special ability, a self-image in which passivity practically defines them, or a reputation for passivity.

Let’s look at a brief list.

  • My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU: Hikigaya Hachiman persistently mentiones how the real world is harsh and unforgiving and how it’s best to kind of just coast through it with little ambition.
  • Mayo Chiki: Sakamichi Kintarou has the nickname of “Chicken Tarou,” indicating what a pushover he is, which he tries to fight.
  • A Certain Magical Index: Kamijou Touma, though not truly passive, operates on an extremely loose philosophy of “do the right thing, I guess.” In addition, his ability is a defensive one which neutralizes other superpowers.
  • Monogatari Series: Araragi Koyomi helps others out, but his abilities as a vampire mainly manifest in his ability to endure pain and injury, and even his method of active help comes across as essentially philosophically passive.
  • Ookami-san: Morino Ryoushi, Ookami’s partner, is someone who can only help fight from the shadows, as he fears direct confrontation.
  • Suzumiya Haruhi: Kyon, though he eventually enjoys it, starts off talking about how much he’d rather not be having strange and crazy adventures.

If you look, you’ll also find such characters in non-light novel anime. This is somewhat different from the classic milquetoast harem lead, whose averageness is taken as a way to make him the everyman and the avatar of the reader, because often-times with these aggressively passive characters a lot of time is spent talking about just how average they are and how being average/passive is the way to be.

I’m not sure why this is the case, but I suspect it may have something to do with the “herbivore men” concept that has taken hold in Japan. Herbivore men are defined as guys who shun the life of wealth, success, sex, and family, the classic symbols of masculinity, and embrace a more passive lifestyle which shirks society’s expectations. This trend gets tied to a number of things by those curious as to why it’s occurring, such as the poor Japanese economy driving down ambition towards employment, and it’s possible that the protagonists described above are a product of this environment, that the people reading (and perhaps even writing) these light novels and watching their anime adaptations also see the traditional path of Japanese men to be fraught with lies and deception.

Of course, in many of these cases, it’s not like the characters sit back and do nothing, but that passivity on some level becomes a part of their characters, either as something to be celebrated or something to be worked on. If anything, even the sampling of titles above speak towards a broad range of viewpoints as to what passivity is and whether or not it’s something to be embraced or to be worked on.

This trend is actually why I think Kirito in Sword Art Online has become such a popular hero for anime fans both male and female. It’s not that the aggressively passive hero is inherently bad, but that in this environment an aggressive protagonist stands out that much more. In SAO, Kirito is an extremely skilled fighter who helps the downtrodden, attracts women left and right, and has a powerful reputation among those inhabiting the world, while also being gentle, considerate, and devoted to those he loves. He becomes the exemplary light novel hero for those who’d rather not have a passive protagonist.

6 thoughts on “The Aggressively Passive Protagonist

  1. Rather than herbivore men, I think the passive protagonist you describe revolves around the concept of “riajuu.” Herbivore men is a much more complicated thing which probably does overlap with what I’m saying but it carries a certain connotation that probably goes beyond what you are defining.


  2. Much like how the success of Evangelion created a legion of Shinji clones over the next decade+, I think the early success of series like Haruhi – with it’s male main character who wasn’t a Shinji – could have started the trend that series like Bakemonogatari and Index later confirmed.

    Which probably means we’re stuck with this type of protagonist until a new type comes along and sells a boat full of DVD/Blu Rays.


  3. This trend is definitely very pronounced in anime, but I think it’s partially something common to many mediums – making protagonists the viewer is supposed to identify with an extremely unimpressive, nonthreatening version of that viewer, so the viewer is better able to stand in their shoes, and even maybe think they could “earn” the fantasy that character is playing out. You see this in American sitcoms or comedies, where milquetoast, slobbish, often overtly stupid male leads end up with beautiful women. You see it in young adult fiction, where stories like Twilight revolve around non-entity protagonists being pursued by idealized love interests. It’s a pretty universal trick of escapist media.


  4. It is an interesting trend, which as the other comments have pointed out does lead into a certain type of escapism–though of course not every viewer wants to see themselves in the blase everydude, I find this trope appears a lot in shows that are more focussed on the heroine of the series (if not a harem full of them). Index is a good example, but so is Hyouka where the male lead is literally making an effort to live a ‘grey’ lifestyle before he’s whisked into adventure by a bubbly, slightly odd if not outright magical and much more interestingly designed girl. I guess it kind of fits into the lingering Manic Pixie Dream Girl love affair, in a way, and has the everyman protagonist assist and sideline the vastly more interesting character(and usually love interest)’s plotline, whatever it may be.


  5. Pingback: The Lightness of Light Novels and the Magnified Hate of Light Novel Anime | OGIUE MANIAX

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