Jon Del Arroz on Passive Anime Protagonists

On his blog, author Jon Del Arroz has some interesting comments on the passive, weak male protagonists who often star in anime high school rom-coms. Excuse me while I quote him at length:

I had an interesting discussion with a friend last night as we were digging far too deeply into anime. Almost every anime show (especially those set in a high school environment, which is the majority of them), have male protagonists that are your classic gamma male archetype. They are socially awkward, especially around women. When encountered with women they go into a crazed frenzy, female worship, nosebleeds, slapstick failings. We’re supposed to root for them to get the girl in spite of their failures. And sometimes we do, but we can’t help but wince every time they enter the scene with their female counterparts, who are usually far more composed and cooler than they are.

The result is a different kind of emotion than we receive from a more heroic character. When an alpha or beta protagonist confronts problems, we get the feeling of the basic human instinct overcoming dilemmas, whether they be spiritual or physical, and it fills us with a sense that uplifts us emotionally to a place where we strive to be something better than ourselves, or at least our thoughts are provoked in a direction to where we discuss the merits of certain values. Whatever that may be, that is the true sense of pathos that gets evoked from a good story with such a protagonist.

But with the gamma, we are still in the wince mode, hoping that he can get through the situation unscathed. If he does, we don’t exactly feel fulfilled after watching or reading the work. I believe this is part of the reason so many animes or mangas give us a feeling of let down with the ending, making a cool concept imminently forgettable when they don’t need to be.

If you’re not familiar with some of the terminology he uses here … good. Suffice to say, “gamma” is a pseudo-technical term used in some Internet communities to refer to men who are geeky and emotionally fragile.

I think Del Arroz is a little off-base. There is a long-standing type of bawdy humor, and not just in Japan, featuring luckless men who try their best but somehow always end up in public with no pants. See Kim Possible for details. Del Arroz complains that this doesn’t evoke pathos, but it’s not meant to—you’re meant to feel perhaps a twinge of sympathy for the character, but mostly to laugh at him.

This does I believe lead to a certain problem in these kinds of stories, but it’s not quite what Del Arroz articulates: the great flaw in Japanese rom-coms and harem comedies is that, after getting established, they collapse into an endless round of sexual hi-jinks. They may start with a solid premise and some funny characters, but then they coast.

That this is really the key problem can be seen in that it also affects manga or anime that don’t star “gamma males.” Lots of shounen action series fall into the same rut, becoming an endless round of fight-powerup-repeat in the same way that harem comedies can fall into an endless round of boob-joke-panty-shot-repeat.

The way to overcome this problem is hinted by one of the commenters on Del Arroz’s essay:

Maybe a story of transformation from gamma to delta could be good?

“Delta” is the pseudo-technical term for a chivalrous gentleman. What the commenter is suggesting is that the plot should advance, and since the plot in a rom-com is character-centered, that means the character needs to grow. Harem comedies tend to be repetitious in part because, to maintain the round of humorous hi-jinks, they have to prevent the characters from growing in order to return everything to status quo at the end of each caper. Over time, that grows dull.

I mused out loud in the comment box of Del Arroz’s essay, and I wrote, in part:

As for anime and manga, they are vast mediums with many different types of stories. There are tales of he-men, such as Fist of the North Star or JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and there are tales of geeks, too. The high school rom-coms you’re talking about here grow partly out of the “magical girlfriend” and “harem comedy” genres, which require the passive, dorky male to make their particular type of humor work, because the boy is basically the “straight man” in a comedy duo: he has to be weak so his off-the wall female partner(s) can steamroll him.

Reverse harems do the same thing in reverse, with a dorky female surrounded by hawt bois, and the male characters in a reverse harem are usually rakish and aggressive. The result of this is that reverse harems are often more drama than comedy, because the male characters aren’t usually wacky like the females in a traditional harem. But there are exceptions: see Ouran High School Host Club, which is for girls who like their boys pretty, rich, and stupid. In that story, the boys act like the female nutballs in a typical harem while the female lead plays the passive straight man.

Also, I think it was about in the late ’90s you really started seeing the nurturing male type, usually paired with a tsundere girl. One precedent for that pair-up might be the Studio Pierrot magical girls, who usually had a male love interest who was kind of a boyfriend/big brother combo.

With the nurturing male/tsundere pair, she’s a hothead always flying off the handle, and he’s superhumanly patient with her. It entails some subtle role-reversal, and it’s funny, and it works. For the greatest example, see Toradora!, which I like to call the Casablanca of anime rom-coms because of its deft and masterful employment of every possible cliche.