What I've Learned from Animé/Manga 4: Putting Others First

>> Monday, October 25, 2010

If you hate animé/manga or don't know what I'm talking about, see the intro or the disclaimer here. This series is all about trying to figure out what is so appealing in animé/manga, given that they almost always have nonsensical premises and ridiculous storylines, yet they appeal to millions, including me. Why? Note, I'll use observer to refer to both an animé watcher or a manga reader.

As I was thinking about common traits in the animé/manga, it struck me that the motivations of the characters were so frequently related and all about unselfishness.

The motivations of characters (protagonists) are almost always selfless, putting their own needs behind the needs, safety and/or happiness of others. Selfless! What kind of moron lets everyone walk all over them, giving up everything for love of someone else? What kind of passive, stupid, pathetic . . . Except I don't find it that way at all, because it's not one character giving everything and having everyone else walk all over them. Everyone even vaguely on the good side either starts out thinking of other people first or they learn to. Pure selfishness is reserved for bad guys. Always. Perhaps it's a Japanese thing. Maybe it's an idealized love thing, that no one can love anyone without putting the other's needs first. Maybe those are just the animés/mangas I love.

Now, why is that distinctive? I mean, sure, lots of stories have noble or self-sacrificing people in them, but in western stories, it is frequently one person doing so, or a small cadre of people. People, even protagonists, are frequently motivated by greed or serving a disembodied purpose like patriotism or proving something. In animé/manga, the primary motivation (at least of the ones I've loved) is the protection, happiness, rescue, or freedom of other people. And not just the main character, but every one of the protagonist characters. Even those characters that are otherwise self-absorbed, will put themselves on the line without hesitation for the well-being of others.

Sometimes a character starts out seeming a doormat, but, over time, you realize that they engender protective feelings in those around them and that they'll stand up for others in a way that shows they have tremendous strength. Sometimes someone apparently self-absorbed or narcissistic turns out to be amazingly perceptive and unselfish underneath. Many times, these depths of strength or generosity are only apparent through the interactions with others.

It changes the dynamics. Love of others is part and parcel of the stories, the interplay, the interactions. Not just romantic love (though that's frequently there too), but friendships and family relationships, as if that were what life was all about rather than success or money or fame. It's about finding your place, where you belong, what's really important.

Maybe it's just me (I am the only one writing this), but it seems to me that kind of thinking is a lot healthier than books that are focused on teenage angst or petty rivalries, or revenge or hatred, or even the kind of love where no one is really committed to anyone else. It's not to say you can't find all these things, and more, in animé/manga, but, at least in the ones I read, it's not what it's all about.

More next time.

Examples for this topic:

Tamaki Suoh - Beautiful, brash and unabashedly self-absorbed, he is almost painfully devoted to the happiness of others. No sacrifice is too much, and he expends a great deal of effort keeping others from seeing any of his own unhappiness or vulnerabilities for their sake, not his. It sounds sappy and he's as over the top as any character I've ever seen. But I can't help loving him. He's a gem who's touched me as often as he made me laugh. (Ouran High School Host Club)

Kyo Usui - A demon who fell in love with a young girl when he saw her misused by his older brother, he spent ten years becoming the head of his clan so that he could wed her (only a clan head can) and devotes himself to her protection, which is a full-time job. When he believes consummating their relationship may put her at risk, he's even protects her from himself. (Black Bird)

Misao Harada - While attacked by the otherworldly demons and the like, pursued by a demon she knew as a child but barely remembers, she determines she doesn't want to be a helpless victim, but actively works to heal and protect the interests of Kyo, even at the risk of her own life, even if she's working against what Kyo wants to do (which drives Kyo crazy) if its in his best interest. (Black Bird)

Bart Garsus - motivated primarily self-preservation in the beginning, he is a shallow fellow to begin, but he finds new depths when he befriends a dying girl and devotes himself to protecting the other people he's grown to care about. Even when he is later "captured" by his own nation, he doesn't betray his friends under torture. In fact, as was a common theme, people routinely found new capabilities only when driven to new heights for the protection of others. (Vandread)


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