Ask John: Are Male Anime Characters Getting Weaker?
A close examination of this year’s television anime seems to reveal an interesting and possibly revealing trend. While the number of action anime seems to be up this year, and the number of literally dark, dystopian anime including Symphogear, Zetman, BTOOOM, Zetsuen no Tempest, Code:Breaker, and Psycho-Pass is noticably increased, the number of assertive, confident and experienced male heroes seems to be noticably declining. At the same time, while female characters have always been popular, a particularly breed of dominant, capable female characters seems to be taking over anime.
Anime of the 1980s and 1990s, in particular, are especially memorable for their leading men: confident, capable, experienced heroes that controlled their own lives and destinies, like Kenshiro, Ryo Saeba, Captain Harlock, Shogo Yahagi, Jubei Kibagami, Fuusuke (the wind ninja of Ninku), Heero Yuy, Bolt Crank, Gutts, Spike Spiegel, and Vash the Stampede, to name a few. However, particularly this year’s anime illustrates a very different perspective on even the resurrection of the late 80’s and 1990’s style grim, dystopic anime. Older dark and violent action anime including Bio-Hunter, Ninja Ryukenden, Twilight of the Dark Master, Cyber City Odeo 808, Midnight Eye Goku, Jubei Ninpucho, Berserk, and Texhnolyze depicted aggressive, assertive adult male protagonists. This year’s similar anime, including Zetman, BTOOOM!, and Zetsuen no Tempest depict younger male protagonists who perceive themselves or begin their adventure as put-upon victims. In fact, even many of last year’s anime, including Kore wa Zombie Desu ka?, Ao no Exorcist, Deadman Wonderland, No. 6, Guilty Crown, and Mirai Nikki, likewise begin with male heroes that consider themselves victims rather than assertive actors. Among the contemporary anime that do depict capable, assertive, dominant male protagonists, there are Sword Art Online, Hagure Yuusha no Estetica, CODE:BREAKER, and children’s anime including Chousoku Henkei Gyrozetter, but the number of such shows is rather small. Contemporary titles including Campione, Kingdom, and Phi-brain likewise feature assertive boys, but with caveats. Campione’s Godou Kusanagi is only confident and dominant after Erica Blandelli’s encouragement. Shin in Kingdom is assertive but limited by his youth and status. Phi-brain’s Kaito Daimon is outgoing but not the master of his own future. Many of this year’s anime that star outgoing, confident, capable male characters are actually not new titles at all; they’re revivals of anime from several years ago: Hunter x Hunter, Lupin the Third: Mine Fujiko to Iu Onna, Saint Seiya Omega, and Zero no Tsukaima. Likewise, although not quite as old, this year’s Cross Fight B-Daman eS, Nisemonogatari, Dog Days’, and Hayate no Gotoku again depict assertive boys, but these are still revivals of previous titles.
A rather large number of contemporary anime subvert the male hero to a female control or simply transfer the traditionally male role onto female characters. 2012 anime including Jormungand, Medaka Box, Muv-luv Alternative: Total Eclipse, Oda Nobuna no Yabou, Inu x Boku SS, Psycho-Pass, and Tanken Driland all include powerful, confident and able-bodied male characters, but each show places these traditionally leading men in roles subserviant to female characters. Ironically, Upotte depicts schoolgirls who respect their teacher’s authority and consider themselves complaisant to his authority but frequently end up subverting that authority and reversing the dominance of power. Contemporary anime including High School DxD, Ixion Saga DT, and ROBOTICS;NOTES depict buffoonish or unmotivated boys that willingly subvert themselves to girl power rather than assert themselves. Accel World depicted a leading male character capable of standing up for himself but unwilling to do so without the support and encouragement of an older, stronger female character. And this year’s Moretsu Uchu Kaizoku and Senki Zesshou Symphogear, along with last year’s Fate/Zero that continued into this year depict scenarios and roles that would have been played by male characters in the 1980s and 1990s now dominated by female characters. Even the traditional Japanese adage “Boys be ambitious” gets undermined in this season’s first episode of Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo in which the phrase is officially translated into English as “Boys meet ambitions,” suggesting that boys now face, rather than possess, ambition.
Strong, dominant and powerful female characters have never been unusual in anime, but traditionally they’ve existed in parallel with emphatic, confident boys. However, anime seems to be seeing an increasing surrender of traditional masculine purpose. Certainly the increased emphasis on dominant female characters is a partial response to viewer interest. Male Japanese otaku enjoy watching cute girls. But I personally wonder to what extent this power position turnaround trend in current anime also reflects current Japanese social psychology. According to 2010 statistics from the CIA World Factbook, women very slightly outnumber men in today’s Japan, and more than 60% of all Japanese males under 30 years-old have never been married. The Japanese birth rate is also in continued decline, implying that Japanese women may have less desire for men to father children nowadays. These three statistics may reveal an unconscious attitude of complacency and marginalization of victimized and subservient male anime characters outnumbering male characters that are self-assured, experienced, and assertive. While anime is an escapist fantasy medium, it’s also a vicarious medium. In past generations, anime seemed to frequently depict male role models, self-determining men that viewers could respect. Especially in 2012, the majority of leading male anime characters seem to be timid, unmotivated, self-doubting people content to follow rather than lead (either themselves or others). I’m absolutely not trying to be sexist and assert that men should reclaim dominance over women. I’m only expressing my observation that in anime of past generations, the depiction of dauntless characters was much more evenly spread between male and female characters than it is now, when male characters are frequently depicted as either muscle to be ordered around by females or irresolute, vacillating characters that feel victimized by society and therefore recoil from social obligation or, at least, put minimal effort and conviction into their lives.