The most important aspect of any narrative driven production is said production’s characters. I don’t think I’m saying anything too controversial in that statement. This is an idea I’ve stated in the past and had varying degrees of success towards expressing why I personally feel that. After all your characters are the thing anyone will be paying the most attention to, as they’re what’s pushing the narrative forward a vast majority of the time. With that said, it shouldn’t be a foreign idea to anyone that those most important parts of a production are very easy to get attached to when they’re created well. They’re the reason not only that the main conflict in Steins;Gate is extremely powerful, but are practically what drives it’s popularity to be as big as it is. Characters matter, regardless of the genre. Today we’re going to look into why we as an audience care about these characters and why we put so much emphasis on them in the anime community.
Approaching the extremely subjective topic at hand is unbelievably difficult (I’ve rewritten this paragraph with completely different contents too many times to count at this point). After all, there’s no doubt that there is a reason people love characters as much as we do, but as I kept getting more and more frustrated with what I was putting down and the number of different ways I tried to begin to approach this topic kept getting larger, it eventually hit me. Rather than asking myself why I loved a my favourite characters, I decided to ask myself instead why characters from productions I recently watched just flopped for me. Of course, a human-esque feeling to characters is where everything should start, and when a character doesn’t even feel human it falls apart extremely quickly, but I didn’t feel like “human” was enough.
After all, humans are innately boring. If all I wanted were humans, I’d be infinitely more fascinated by people I interacted with whenever I left my home by default. What was the difference between Sayaka Miki in Madoka Magica and Fear Cubrick from garbage– I mean C³? Why did I care about one but not the other? I’m going to stop the tangent here and cut to the chase — the production gave me a reason care about Sayaka Miki without shoving it down my throat. What this means for me could be completely different to what this means for anyone else. For me, it was the moment she fell into despair and what pushed her over the line that made me begin to care about her the most. Looking back at everything she had been through and knowing that this was a breaking point rather than one single thing that did it for her made me care about her more than any of her fellow cast. On the other hand, some people hate Sayaka for the same exact reasons. So while the short and sweet of the question “Why do we care about fictional characters?” may be “The production (not to be confused with narrative) made us care about them.”, that isn’t a very fun exploration of the topic.
A production that I feel did this borderline flawlessly with not only it’s leads but it’s supporting cast as well was the 2016 hit film Kimi no Na wa (No, I’m not going to spoil anything, calm down). There’s a reason it hit not only #4 on the list of all time highest grossing films in Japan, but caught the #1 spot on MyAnimeList’s top anime page, #1 on AniList’s top ranking movies page (#3 on the top ranking anime page), and has broken so many records worldwide that it’s no longer a surprise to me whenever I see the film has reached a new top ranking. As a drama it relies heavily on it’s characters, only uses as many as it needs with a grand total of eleven, and as a good story it makes every single member of it’s audience only care more as the film moves forward. Instead of coming up with a new conflict, it presents and obvious one and consistently adds depth to it. It makes you care about the characters by implications rather than by force. While it drags you in with an interesting premise, it’s characters quickly steal the show by making you care; making you want them to succeed, making you want them to be okay, making you want everything to work out and feeling anguish when it doesn’t. While every show may have it’s own way of presenting this need to have an audience care about a cast of characters, I don’t think I’ve seen anything do it as flawlessly (in my eyes) as Kimi no Na wa.
Despite the vague descriptions I gave, those key points could apply to any drama in which anyone reading this has a deep connection with it’s characters. From Clannad to AnoHana, and the endless list I’m sure a majority of my audience knows exists, each one couldn’t force the caring of a character. The anime community has come up with terms like “best girl” and the debates around which character is any given show’s best girl because of this unevenness in how we care about each character and what constitutes our caring in the first place. That and our personal tastes in what makes girls attractive, especially when it comes to anime, are all different. While this obviously isn’t unique to our medium, as hit shows like Game of Thrones do it and people caring about those characters is far from a foreign idea. Celebrity crushes are a popular concept (and I’d argue celebrities are characters in their own right to a degree) and which celebrities worth having crushes over are no doubt arguments to be held to some degree.
This medium isn’t special in it’s ability to do this, but I do believe this medium is special in that it does it so consistently in comparison to popular media. Whether or not this is us searching for connections on our own or the shows we watch actively handing them to us in the way I mentioned earlier, I feel like there’s several reason anime drags people in. The ability this medium has to make us care about characters in a more effective way than regular television or Netflix originals shows something. But, why is it so much more prominent in this medium?
Aside from a consistent delivery in productions that make us care about the characters, undoubtedly the reason characters matter so much to us is because we make ourselves feel as if we should care. Shows make us care about a character, so we start to develop a habit of looking for character traits that appeal to us, and since we’re looking so intently that productions are made with this emphasis on well written characters in mind. This is in no way purely something that the western community is responsible, but something that’s a byproduct of the niche medium of anime in general. Due to the fact that shows like Clannad and AnoHana performed well, shows with a similar character development are seen as valuable. As an audience, we begin telling ourselves that characters matter more so than in any medium. Anime is the only thing I’ve seen a casual audience so heavily critique in the west. We have astronomical standards for this medium, and maybe even for others due to our experiences in this medium, so naturally the best characters rise to the top. Terms like “best girl” don’t only show unevenness in the community’s vast sea of opinions, but in a way it shows how much emphasis we put on characters from a lack of any sort of term from any other community; even those who watch movies incredibly avidly or are common binge watchers of streamable content like on Netflix, Hulu, and the likes.
It’s an unending cycle that this community has put itself into; one that isn’t necessarily bad but rather endlessly interesting. Of course, this is just me guessing, but the cycle is not only what develops the mindset of someone who watches anime amongst this community in comparison to someone who has never touched the community, but is why shows that have characters we care about are so commonly created. Sword Art Online II isn’t a drama by any means, but we still care about the characters (or at least are trying to be pushed to care). It’s something I’m still not entirely sure about my feelings on as I write this post, or why it even happens, but it was something I wanted to bring up as something worth thinking about. Perhaps in due time, I’ll come back to this topic after a bit more observation and an answer on why this might be happening.
There’s a part of me deep inside screaming at the top of it’s lungs with distaste right now, but it’ll run out of breath soon enough; I finished the post at the end of the day. Nonetheless, thank you so much for reading today’s post! I’m curious to see what others think about this topic so feel free to leave a comment (I read them all, I swear) sharing your thoughts. As always, if you’d like to see what I’m up to when I’m not writing for this blog, feel free to follow me on Twitter. I’ll see you all next week!
The featured image for this post was drawn by pixiv artist fal.