To Be the Hero

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I’m a fan of characters who support. Whether it’s Dominic Sorel in Eureka Seven, who stands by the long-suffering Anemone or Aida Riko in Kuroko’s Basketball, who coaches and manages the Seirin High School Basketball Team, often times my favorite characters are those who care less for being the “hero,” and who try to make a difference in their own way. Generally speaking, I’m of the belief that there are many ways to make a difference, and that you don’t need to be the one chopping the monster’s head off, nor should we fault others for not aspiring to be that mighty warrior. Indeed, even more recent main characters like Kuroko Tetsuya in Kuroko’s Basketball and Onoda Sakamichi in Yowamushi Pedal are protagonists whose powers are primarily based on “support.”

However, I find that, as much as I enjoy that character type, they potentially are a source of complacency, and one might even argue that they teach people to settle for less. Case in point, while I think Riko does a lot for her team and is just a great character in general, she derives from an archetype that is basically a sideline cheerleader. They’ll either be the newbie who needs things to be explained, or the informative expert who does the explaining, but when the chips are down their purpose in the story is to stare longingly as the hero goes into action. There’s some sexism historically at work here, with female characters being created to serve the male leads, but I don’t want to make the issue purely about sex and gender, especially given all of the work that’s been done to play with and expose those tropes, like how Witch Craft Works essentially genderswaps the typical shoujo heroine and shoujo ideal love interest. I also don’t want to deny the ability for a “sideline cheerleader” to be an interesting character in their own right. Rather, it’s more about the idea that “everyone is the hero of their own story,” and how there are positives and negatives to it.

On the one hand, the notion that everyone is the main character in their own lives, be it reality or fiction, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy of confidence, where one imbues oneself with agency and ambition, and accomplishes their goals. At the same time, it might cause people to seek out “glory” without necessarily finding their own definition for the word, instead conforming to what their society (or what readers supposedly think) are parameters for success.

On the other hand, if one believes in supporting others, this might afford them a point of view that could go unnoticed otherwise. Glory for oneself is unimportant, because what really matters is doing what one can. However, this same mindset carries the risk of encouraging passivity to the point that people might inadvertently lose opportunities to better themselves. Perhaps it even becomes an excuse for why they remain in their rut.

Obviously these are in a way two extremes, and that there is a full spectrum between light and shadow, to borrow a phrase from Kuroko’s Basketball. Characters like Riko and Dominic essentially work in opposite directions towards a center, with Riko coming from the manager character and Dominic defying what it means to “rescue the girl.” There’s a lot of interplay and room for interpretation, and it opens up paths for artists, be they professional, amateur, and/or fan, to explore and defy what they’re told is “normal.” I just find myself thinking about how simply saying that I prefer support characters can carry a lot of implicit meaning.

The last thing I want to leave off with is a scene from Game of Thrones, when Tywin Lannister, the patriarch of the powerful House Lannister, asks his grandson what makes a good king. When the grandson replies correctly with “wisdom,” Tywin is ecstatic and explains that wisdom comes in part from knowing what you don’t know, and heeding your advisers who are experts in their fields. In this case, though the king is supposed to be the one with all of the glory, is it the case that being a king is perhaps the biggest support position of all?

“She’s So Developed!”

There’s something about a lot of anime and manga that I think lends them much of the praise and criticism they receive from people, fans or otherwise. I wouldn’t call it a unique or exclusive property of anime, but it’s something that I believe recurs more often when compared to other mediums. What I am talking about is the ability for a character to both be sexualized and objectified by its audience while still being able to move the audience with a well-developed personality.

Sheryl Nome. Arika Yumemiya. Kawashima Ami. Practically the entire female cast of Gundam 00. Every girl in Godannar. All these and more are designed on some level to explicitly titillate, but I would not call any of their characters excessively shallow or designed purely with fanservice in mind. Nor would I say that pure fanservice characters do not exist at all, but I feel like more often than not in anime and manga, blatant, in-your-face sexual attractiveness does not come at the expense of strong characterization or at the very least attempts at strong characterization. Much of the eroge and visual novel industry is built on this premise.

I do not see this happening as often in other mediums. Of course sex appeal still exists in them, but very rarely do they try to turn both dials up to max, rarely do they say, “Hey we want to basically tell the audience outright to fantasize indecently about this character while still showing the strength of their personality.” Hayden Panettiere (Claire Bennet) on Heroes is clearly meant to invoke a reaction from male viewers with her attractiveness, official assignment as “cheerleader,” her clothes, and pretty much everything about her, but there’s some attempt at keeping the character Claire’s “fanservice” somewhat implicit. The DC Comics character Power Girl, known for her super strength and her enormous chest, seems to go through constant subtle shifts in characterization as writers and artists seem unsure how to balance the development of her character with a design clearly meant to get guys’ mojos going. Fans of DC Comics run into a similar problem. In other cases, a character who is obviously sexually attractive while possessing good characterization will have their sexuality incorporated into their personality and character.

Meanwhile, many anime fans embrace this double threat. Others do not of course, and I think this causes some of the conflict as to whether or not a character is “good” or not. Does being explicitly sexual in design and presentation work with characterization, or against it? Or do they perhaps run parallel to each other? Wherever you fall, if you meet someone who thinks otherwise, there’s a chance that, because your approach to characters is so different, arguments will arise. This is probably where arguments about moe find most of their ammo, no matter which side fans are on.

As a final note, keep in mind I used female examples because that’s what gets me. Feel free to replace all examples with male equivalents if that’s your thing.