There's a trend in anime today to have one or more of the main characters themselves be fans of one thing or another, or be full-blown otaku. Some of that is audience identification: who doesn't want the protagonist of something to be "like them"? But as anime fandom becomes more self-selecting, it's troubling to see anime creators reinforce that problem by supplying us with that many more protagonists who are ... well, anime fans.

Anime has a long tradition of having "enthusiast protagonists" — main characters who are really, really interested in some extremely specific thing. This by itself isn't the problem, because then I'd have to turn thumbs down on delightful shows like Princess Jellyfish or Genshiken, both of which are actually about such tendencies. It's one thing for a show to be about the enthusiasm; it's another thing entirely for the enthusiasm to just be used as a proxy to wink at and nudge its audience.

A couple of examples. Yowapeda-mushi serves nicely as one recent (2013) incarnation of this trope: anime fan becomes biking fan (without really expecting to). The main character's anime fandom is mostly there to be dangled at the audience; he might as well have been interested in tropical fish. Konata of Lucky Star also comes to mind: she's an otaku mainly because of the target audience for the show itself. Granted, the show mines a good deal of humor out of this, but again it's a detail that is mostly there for audience identification, and not because the show has anything particularly smart to say about her as a representative of a type.

Not all anime is like this now, but it's become a persistent enough component of the whole picture that I fear the tail is beginning to wag the dog. It's not that we have shows with anime fans as protagonists, being marketed to anime fans. It's that we have this happening with material where the fact that the protagonist is an anime fan has little, or nothing, to do with anything else going on.

It's not something that's been in anime for a long time, either. Go back ten years. Few, if any, shows from that period (and just about none from before that) featured fans themselves as protagonists. There was far less of a sense that shows had to wear their otaku-catering impulses on their sleeves. Go back further than a decade, and the tendency all but vanishes.

Why is this accelerating? My guess is that because anime has become that much more a niche product, appealing all the more to an ever-narrower and more self-selecting group (at least in Japan), it makes sense to assemble the product in such a way that it reaches out all the more directly to its intended audience.

But I don't feel like I'm being catered to when I see such material, because that's not what ever drew me in to begin with.

I don't identify with a character because they like what I like. That's too easy. There are plenty of characters out there who love everything I love, and I still wouldn't want to follow them for more than five minutes. I identify with a character because of how they see the world, and what they are trying to do in it. A show that connects those things with their interests is always that much more interesting to me than one where those traits merely exist because I'm supposed to see something of myself in them, automatically. I don't find myself feeling for the harried Dr. Tenma from Monster because we have anything in common. We couldn't be more dissimilar, on every level. I feel for him in spite of all that, because his plight as a fugitive and a seeker of rogue justice are all things I can connect with. They require a bit of work on my part, but the effort pays me back in spades.

Not long ago I read a discussion about the long-running and irritating tendency in Western animation — e.g., SuperFriends — to take the "grownup" characters and pair them up with one or two "kid" characters, allegedly as a way for kids to identify that much more with the goings-on. The folks in the discussion didn't feel those kid characters were ever anything but annoying, and I agreed. If I felt close to anyone in such a show, it was the protagonists, not the injected kid sidekicks. I didn't identify with the older characters because of their age or their occupation, but because of their attitude and aspirations. I didn't want to be their buddies; I wanted to be them, period. (I cannot lay claim to originating this observation, but you can see why it struck a chord with me.)

I'm not arguing in favor of ditching otaku protagonists entirely, because there's lots of enjoyable and even insightful story material to be derived from that. (Bakuman comes to mind.) What I'm saying is that shouldn't be done out of cowardice, as a way to force a degree of appeal for something which should be appealing on its own terms.

If otakudom is a coherent part of the story a character inhabits, then such an approach makes sense. Again: Princess Jellyfish, Genshiken, perhaps also Welcome to the NHK!. All of those were about, in varying degrees, what it meant to be a fan of something and how that affected the rest of your life. (Oreimo also comes to mind, although to me it teeters on the edge a bit between that and pandering.) The guys (and gals) in Genshiken, I feel for not just because they are fans, but because of how fandom manifests as a motive force in their lives. It has a different appeal than something like Monster, but hardly an inferior one, because it works properly on its own terms.

But too much of the time the fact of fandom is just thrown in there as a way to make a character into ... well, a fan. And a fan for an audience of fans, to boot.

Image: Steins;Gate © 2011 5pb./Nitroplus Steins;Gate Partners. (Click to purchase; purchases support this site)



About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.