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Because You’re (not) Super Special – Average Heroes in Anime

June 17, 2012 By: Nopy Category: Anime

When I see average characters in anime that suddenly become heroes and gain praise and attention through no effort of their own, I am always reminded of two things: the ending song to Chaos;Head “Super Special” by Seira Kagami, and Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion. There always seems to be more “average” heroes in anime (characters that are indecisive, emotional, self-conscious, and don’t do anything) and fewer traditional or “real” heroes such as Spike from Cowboy Bebop and Kenshin from Rurouni Kenshin. Are average characters really preferred by anime fans, or are real heroes making a comeback?

While there are still real heroes in anime (i.e. Steins;Gate, Fate/Zero), there are many more examples of average characters. Did Madoka in Puella Magi Madoka Magica do anything except sulk and make a wish? Did Shu from Guilty Crown actually do anything except go with the flow? How did Haruyuki from Accel World net the hottest girl in school? All of these characters had everything just fall into place on their laps.

Madoka had nothing special about her, but after she signed a contract with Kyubey, she became the strongest magical girl in the universe and the world’s savior. Shu was just a regular teenager that had a genomic weapon pushed onto him, not to mention the leadership position of a rebel group. You can’t exactly say no to that. Haruyuki impressed Kuroyukihime with his high score and shiny new avatar. If girls were actually impressed by that, why doesn’t every guy with a high Xbox gamer score or lots of PS3 trophies have a girls fighting over him?

Chaos;Head was a horrible anime, but it answers an important question. Why was Takumi so popular? because he was super special. The main character in Chaos;Head, Takumi Nishijo, was utterly pathetic and boring, yet because he was special he ended up saving the world and getting a harem. Shinji Ikari, probably the most famous “average” hero, was just a regular teenager and the position of savior of the world fell onto his lap because he just happened to sync with Unit-01 better than anyone else. For most of the series, he just cried and whined.

So why are these characters so prevalent in anime? I think the answer to that can be solved by taking a good look at yourself. Despite what you might think, you’re probably just like me and everyone else: an average person with nothing special about them. Wouldn’t it be great if you were super special and could pilot an Eva, use di-swords, make a contract with Kyubey, acquire a genomic weapon, or go out with the hottest person in school? Anime is a world of fiction that allows people to imagine what it would be like to live out their fantasies.

I haven’t had a problem with average characters before and actually found them to be a nice break from work-horse main characters. Take Hiroyuki from To Heart, for example, who works his butt off to impress all the ladies, and compare him to Keitaro from Love Hina, who does nothing but still has good things happen. Whose shoes would you rather be in? While I liked average characters in the past, I think I’ve overdosed on them. I miss having heroes I could admire, ones that know what it means to work, struggle, and earn the right to be the main character. After all, do you really want to watch a story about someone who’s less interesting than you but has some suddenly obtained ability that automatically makes them special? Perhaps that explains the rising popularity of characters like Okabe from Steins;Gate and Kiritsugu from Fate/Zero.

Despite Okabe’s talk about Steins Gate and his Reading Steiner, it was really through his own suffering and determination that he was able to restore the world line. While Kiritsugu did obtain arguably the strongest servant, he rarely depended on her, instead using his own skills and wit to get through the Holy Grail War. With the general negativity towards characters like Shu from Guilty Crown and Haruyuki from Accel World, I think real heroes are set to make a comeback and it’s about time.

What do you guys think? Do you prefer the average guy, the battle-hardened fighter, or a mix of both?

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42 Comments to “Because You’re (not) Super Special – Average Heroes in Anime”

  1. No way…battle hardened fighters of course! I find them more attractive :P But I suppose these average characters have their charms as well. Especially if they find something or someone to fight for – that can be a pretty redeeming quality. Take Tomoya from Clannad for example. Or Simon from Gurren Lagann. Despite their overall results…they were always pretty average characters to begin with.

    • I would actually consider Tomoya to be a “real” hero since he only pretended to be a bum but was actually a hard worker. Simon on the other hand didn’t seem to do anything until Nia showed up. I preferred Kamina over him.

  2. Flawfinder says:

    It doesn’t matter what the character type is as long as I can relate to or understand them. And they have to feel genuine.

    I like Okabe and Shinji. I find Kiritsugu all action and little personality. And I despise Shu and Haru.

    • I think Shu and Haru are the most useless that anime characters get. Characters that are relatable certainly are more appealing though, it’s why I think average characters are so common. There are probably millions of people out there exactly like Shinji.

      • I am sorry but I am really confused how you can actually compare shu and haru. Haru is actually competent and is actually well defined if nothing else. shu is a whinny brat, who has a bunch of people shoved on him and abandons them constantly. shinji I actually can like/ understand though. because he atleast is well defined like haru.

        • They all lack any sort of drive or leadership. Haru has reserved himself to being a tool for Kuroyukihime and the same could be said about Shinji towards his father. Take away Kuroyukihime and Gendou, and what do you think would happen to these two characters?

  3. Isn’t it like a fulfillment fantasy? The average person can be super without giving that much effort. An idea in reality that only works in fantasy.
    Besides, I like rooting for the average guys. In fate/zero, Waver had a more impact on me than Kiritsugu. There is your average and real but I still lean over the average. XD
    TPAB recently posted..Black Rock Shooter GIFs: Mato and BRS Showdown

    • Waver really didn’t do anything for me. Its characters like Kiritsugu, Kirei, and Tokiomi that get my attention. I guess we lean in opposite directions.

  4. TsukuyomiMagi99 says:

    You really shouldn’t speak in absolutes, I found Chaos Head to be quite enjoyable along with the other 5pb titles. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I generally prefer a budding character one who starts out average but becomes stronger later on. It’s less boring than your average guy, and more interesting then your battle harden veteran. When you have seen how ridiculous the Marvel and DC universe are you get sick of heroes that are tough badasses from the beginning or the ones with titan like powers. Besides every battle harden veteran had to start from somewhere.

    • I’m going to have to stick to my comment about Chaos Head. I played part of the visual novel and it was awesome so I have nothing against 5pb, but the directing in the anime was some of the worst I’ve ever seen. If there’s ever a remake by the same people that did Steins;Gate, then I’d be very excited though.

      I like budding characters too, but more often than not, the growth process is poorly done or completely ignored. The worst is when an average character changes clothes (literally) between two episodes and is suddenly a suave lady killer with all the confidence in the world. If they do it right though, like with Okabe, then I’m happy.

  5. I’m sorry but I have to disagree with harihuki from accel world a bit. the show actually does a good job of giving kurohimie a plausible reason. she admired his skill yes. but that was because she also wanted to be good like him in games in general. after that it then developed into something due to the various emotions that came about.

    • I found the “development” to be weak if it even exists. The only praiseworthy action I can remember Haru taking is staying up all night in the hospital while Kuroyukihime was in a coma. Other than that, I have yet to see many redeeming qualities in him.

  6. I’m going to answer to your question that I prefer ordinary heroes.
    Actually Kiritsugu and Okabe are very good examples of what kind of heroes I really like. They’re pretty normal people but they do exceptionnal things because they choose to.

    On the other hand I wouldn’t mind those average heroes that much if they had a bit more personnality. Or at least a bit more interesting traits.
    Kuuki recently posted..Brain vs. Heart. Which is the one having the most impact on your enjoyment of anime?

    • I couldn’t have put it any better, it’s because of the exceptional things that people do that make them heroes, regardless of whether they have any special abilities or not.

  7. fadingwing says:

    I think someone who has a strong belief and strikes a blow for it should deserve our respect,doesn’t it?As for Shu and Shinji(expect for the 3rd gekijiouban Q!) if they can be a litter more decisive,I would like them more.

    • If Shu and Shinji were more decisive, I’d probably like them more too. Both characters were simpy toyed around by everyone else in their respective series.

  8. First let me start by saying that you raised an important question that all anime fans ask themselves at some point.

    But this is a delicate question. Some people identifies with character that are complete loser because they see them as reflecting certain aspect of themselves. Some identify with super heroes because they dream of being one. I for once hate weak characters because they don’t try hard to change themselves and cannot sympathize with super heroes because they are practically not humans. But one can’t deny that the most popular genre in manga and anime is the shounen – where weak characters become strong/competent over time. This is probably the best choice in my opinion. I like characters that start average, struggle a bit, and then become stronger/successful. Just like in real life
    Nadav recently posted..Anime Reviews Is Going On A Trip To Japan

    • I knew I would get some backlash, but I wanted to see what people thought. I’ve gone back and forth between both extremes and the middle so I can see why some people would like certain characters. Seeing yourself in their position is definitely one of the things that makes some characters so popular.

  9. Eh, I don’t mind both if the characters are done well. If we’re given a character who is a complete loser and suddenly becomes amazing by the end of the series, then I want to see them struggle throughout the story to achieve that! That requires a lot of character development, and a lot of shown or implied training. I think the thing I hate most about these “zero-to-hero” stories is that we’re not shown enough of the character actually training, so it looks like they’re just pulling new tricks/skills/abilities out of their ass in a crucial moment. And that’s just poor story telling.

    It also helps to not make the character whine and complain to the point where it becomes annoying. I can understand a little whining, because I’d whine and complain too if I were in their situation, but that doesn’t necessarily make it fun to watch, you know? Case in point: Shu from Guilty Crown. One of the main reasons I dropped GC was because Shu annoyed me so much and hogged so much screen time that it was hard for me to enjoy GC anymore (and that’s not even getting into its insane, ass-pull plot points). He also suffers majorly from “special” syndrome like you described. I think he only had at most one or two days of training, but even before then he had like… duex ex machina powers. Mainly, I was just mad that Shu was shown to be so skilled compared to Gai and the others when they had way more training than he ever did.

    At this point I want to see more traditional heroes making a comeback too, but; like you said, I think it’s just because current anime is so oversaturated with “average” heroes that it does get a bit dull.
    Ari recently posted..Sengoku Collection Episode 10

    • Character development is defnitely something that a story must have if they’re going to make an average character turn into a hero. If they skip over the process, it just seems like the character magically became awesome.

      The things that Shu pulled out of thin air were ridiculous, which was why I started my sudfest posts when the series was airing. Even if they had kept his personality the same, if he could’ve gotten out of some situations through his own skills or brains, then I would’ve had more respect for him.

  10. I preferred characters who retained human-like emotions and also a battled-hardened fighter, a mix of both. I like characters who start as an average character, and turns into an awesome fighter midway into the series. That’s why I like Okabe and Kiritsugu so much, they are emotional; they laugh and cry, yet they managaed to accomplish things no ordinary humans can achieve. I don’t like characters who actually cried and whined throughout the whole series like Shinji Ikari, and I used to like them, but now I also liked less universe-breaking characters Son Goku. Somewhere in the middle is the best, somewhat human, yet somewhat superhuman.
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    • I guess I was talking more about the end result, but a lot of good characters started out as average. The ones that start average and end average or somehow become really good through no effort of their own annoy me more than characters that were always awesome (like Goku). Goku-like characters really don’t stand up to ones like Okabe or Kiritsugu though, at least not in my eyes.

  11. WatchJessieGo says:

    Oh man, I couldn’t agree with this post more. I have more of a tolerance for average female heroines, but it’s the average males – the self-proclaimed “normal high school student living a peaceful life” (until that peaceful life is interrupted by a large harem of attractive young women who for some reason are all over this kid) – that really irk me. I think the best example is the protagonist from Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko.

    Why can’t more protagonists be like Edward Elric? Now HE is a young man that works hard, has overcome tragedy, and is a hero in every sense of the word. Alphonse, too.

    • You just reminded me that I still need to finish FMA Brotherhood. It bothers me when ordinary characters suddenly get a harem too. Why couldn’t it have been his best friend, or the guy sitting next to him that got all the girls? There really is no reason why the girls like him.

  12. WatchJessieGo says:

    Just read the comments about Tomoya, and I have to agree, he’s the “ordinary” kind of character I like. He and the male protagonists of Air and Kanon – Yukito and Yuuichi – are, in my opinion, the right kind of ordinary (though, I don’t suppose Yukito qualifies as the kind of ordinary we’re talking about…).

    Regarding Madoka, I too was very annoyed at her, well, wimpiness. I only liked her once she decided to take charge and make a sacrifice. Even then, I still prefer the other Puella Magi.

    • Yukito had some interesting qualities. The Key/Visual Arts characters are definitely good examples of average guys that actually deserve the attention they get. I’m sure a lot of girls would fall for a guy willing to go to the same lengths that these characters did.

      The ironic thing about Puella Magi Madoka Magica is that Madoka herself was probably the least interesting magical girl.

  13. Good topic. I’ve heard it said that the trait of being indecisive, shy, and otherwise a normal person thrust into an abnormal situation and just accepting it, is more typical of Japanese protagonists than in Western culture that emphasizes goal-seeking and proactive individual endeavors. But I think it also boils down to another form of wish fulfillment – we can either admire a hero like Spike or Okabe for taking action and prevailing in what they set out to do, or we can feel sympathy for, or perhaps better relate to, heroes like Shinji or Keitaro who are “normal” just like us but have to cope with abnormal situations.

    And here’s another post on a similar topic if you’re interested:
    Yumeka recently posted..Fundamentals of Japanese – Part 6: Counting and Demonstrative Forms

    • The problem is that a lot of characters really don’t cope with the situation, they just go with the flow. I think a character would come off better if they were thrown into an abnormal situation and actually tried to do something to resolve it rather than sit around or do as they’re told.

      That article is similar, but a bit different. I like characters that struggle and overcome obstacles, it’s the ones that don’t struggle and obstacles just disappear for them that I don’t like.

  14. I feel the pain of your question, especially when you refer to Chaos;Head and Accel World. Both protagonists are simply out-of-place in their position and I suppose its some kind of self-reward (given by the author) for the people watching that may think “I can end up in such a situation as well”.
    Some sort of protagonist you can relate to (unlike real heroes like Hakuoro of Utawarerumono)

    Honestly speaking, I still prefer real heroes over those “unrealistic” situation they create with average main characters. It just irritate me to see such self-promotion like the “I’m a NEET detective” line from Alice…
    feal87 recently posted..Hyouka – What is Fuyumi Irisu trying to do with Houtarou?!

    • The belief that you can end up in the same situations without doing any work is indeed a strong one. The NEET detective concept from Heaven’s Memo Pad just seemed ridiculous to me. As much as I thought Alice was adorable and wanted to watch it, I just couldn’t stand the premise.

  15. Well, I don’t dislike average characters in general, but I hate these very whiny average main characters like Haruyuki or Shu.
    Being average, desperate and not very good at anything isn’t the problem for me, it’s the attitude of these wimps that annoys me.
    I like to see characters with some more courage, even if they have a weakness. Average characters I like are Okabe or Issei from Highschool DxD.

    Ok, Okabe was actually too cool for an average character XD

    Overall I prefer to see main characters with some skills, they don’t have to be perfect, but I want to have the feeling that he or she is someone you look up to for some reason. In the past anime had cooler and more manly characters, too bad that this character model almost ceases to exist.
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    • Their attitude is a major problem. I would be fine with an average character that at least had a good attitude and tried to overcome their problems. A good example is Kenichi from History’s Strongest Disciple. When I see writers give the main character an escape route without any effort, it defeats the purpose of having an obstacle in the first place.

  16. I think average hero are prevalent in anime because it is meant to cater the average person in us. It also gives inspiration to its viewers, that we can be from zero to somebody.
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    • I won’t argue with the appeal of going from zero to hero, it’s the process that bothers me. A lot of series skip the in-between (the struggles, pain, and effort) and just go straight to the end result.

  17. Let’s see. I like a bit of both. Sometimes it’s great to see someone as normal as Shu can do something different with his life, but that doesn’t necessarily make me a fan of these characters. Just that there’s a message or something that spells anyone can do anything if they choose to. As for heroes like Okabe and Kiritsugu….They simply have the charisma, the appeal.
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    • I’m fine with the message that anyone can do anything if they choose to, but I find that real heroes convey that better than average characters. Real heroes actually make decisions and put in the effort to carry them out, things just magically happen to average characters whether they like it or not.

  18. I would want to see a “battle-hardened youth who now has to live in a house full of women who happen to be otaku” =P

    I think whenever an average person happens to stumble upon something bigger than themselves and ended up having the power to tilt the balance is the time when they stop being average. Like how Korezon’s Ayumu will put it “chosen by gaia” (or if you want destiny).

    Hmmm I guess I like seeing average people as heroes in animes. We get to see their development and how they grow more than the battle hardened ones.

    • lol, I think that has already (sorta) been done. Sousuke from Full Metal Panic was a pretty battle-hardened warrior that got thrown into a regular life. The women around him weren’t otaku though. If an average person grows and develops, then I don’t consider then average heroes, they’re more of the real heroes I was talking about. It’s the ones that don’t grow that I’m annoyed with.

  19. I definitely think you are hitting the nail on the head in saying that the average character tends to be average simply because that’s what most of us are. And yes, I have grown a bit tired of it myself, but sometimes I prefer to see that development of a character who is getting better and better with each episode versus one that is already at the top. Though, it really depends on how well its done. I love my share of “real heroes” too, and I find that they already seem to be making a comeback. Just look to North America and all the superhero films that are being released! And there was Tiger & Bunny last year and Zetman last season, along wiht your other examples of Steins;Gate and Fate/Zero.

    • Well if the average hero grows into a real hero through the course of the series, then I would probably be fine with it. The ones that stay the same all the way to the end really lose my interest. They’re essentially turning me towards the more experienced heroes in order to balance them out in my anime watching.

  20. Trismegistus says:

    So I’m not alone? There are other people out there that dislike this “Average” man as Hero thing, as much as i do. Now I must know is there anybody else that hates the Superhuman in all but name portrayal common to Badass Normal characters.

    • *raises hand*
      If they explain how a normal person becomes “superman” and actually show the process then I’d be fine with it, but suddenly making the leap with no explanation whatsoever just seems like the easy way out.


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