I’ve been on an “90s anime theme” kick recently, watching various live concert performances and animated intros/outros on YouTube. When you look through them, there’s a recurring tendency in shows of the time to have ending animations highlight the token female character as she existed in the 90s. What stands out to me in particular is that a lot of these girls are designed to be fairly pretty but not excessively beautiful, talented but not too talented.
Frequently, the 90s girl is the protagonist’s love interest, especially in series with heavily male-dominated casts, and in shounen works also works as either an everyman or expositional character to get the reader up to speed on the rules of the story. She’s the ideal support for him and his passionate pursuit of whatever goal or motivation he possesses, and it’s this sideline cheerleader that has more recently fallen by the wayside in favor of a new breed of heroine, who still might not be in the spotlight but possesses some sort of “other” talent. The example that immediately comes to mind is Akagi Haruko from Slam Dunk, who knows a bit about basketball and is the target of affection for the hero, in contrast to Aida Riko and Momoi Satsuki from Kuroko’s Basketball, who have support “powers” for their teams and whose roles as possible love interests are not as prominent (perhaps influenced by the greater fujoshi influence of Kuroko). None of them are stars of their stories, but I think there’s a clear difference between then and now.
If the main character’s love interest is supposed to be an ideal, I have to wonder why they’re so frequently designed to not be quite so ideal in the first place. This could be chalked up to “good characterization” in some cases, and a “boring” or “plain” female character to a potential viewer outside of Japan might be seen as a “yamato nadeshiko” type perfect woman in Japanese culture (e.g. Shinguji Sakura from Sakura Wars). However, I can’t help thinking that there’s something else, like a desire to promote the plain girl as the one young readers of shounen should be aiming for. Pining for the hottest girl around might somehow have been viewed as impractical or even wrongheaded, and that the childhood friend, the girl next door, would be the far better choice. Was anime and manga trying to teach its audience what kind of love would be the more realistic choice, or is it just that having these girls be fairly plain is simply about pushing the heroes further to the forefront?