Friday’s Feature – I Want To Be The Very Best

I’m actually not writing a Pokemon post but I just felt that those words really summed up what I wanted to discuss this week. I want to look at the motivations of anime protagonists and this idea of being the best. Pokemon has this concept at its core but it doesn’t really look at the darker side of this theme so while the song beautifully encapsulates the theme, I’m going to look elsewhere for today’s discussion.

So many anime feature protagonists who are obsessed (and obsessed is definitely the correct word for it) with being the strongest, the smartest, the best. This obsession is seen in every action they take and really defines them as a character. And while it might seem really great that at least they have a clear goal, what we see more often is an inability to accept failure, to lose gracefully, and to work with and cooperate with others.

Not actually taking a swipe at ambition or being driven. Both are fairly necessary to self-improvement. More concerned with the extreme levels some anime characters take it to.

The two main examples I want to look at are Ichigo from Bleach and Light from Death Note. That said, there are thousands of examples of anime characters out there that would have fit the bill. Definitely going to hit some spoilers during the discussion.

Kurosaki Ichigo

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We meet Ichigo as a normal student (who can see spirits). While he has the usual male teenager attitude problems he really has no main goal or focus in his life that is apparent. He gets into fights over petty issues (knocking over a vase of flowers left for a dead girl) and he doesn’t really get on with his father, but otherwise there is really not a lot to Ichigo.

Then Rukia comes along, and after his family are endangered, Ichigo accepts power from Rukia to protect them. Even then, Ichigo has no real focus or drive. He outright refuses when Rukia tells him he has to work as a death god and defeat hollows. He tells her that other than keeping his family safe he doesn’t care.

She takes him to a park where a spirit is being attacked. She tells him not to save the spirit unless he is willing to save all spirits. Ichigo runs in and saves the spirit. While he still tells Rukia he hasn’t accepted the job, from that point on he pretty much never refuses.

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What we see over the rest of the first season is a transformation. Ichigo goes from reluctant hero to someone who is quite driven to prove his strength. Every hollow, soul reaper, or other individual who mocks him just fires him up more. After Rukia gets taken back to Soul Society, Ichigo’s obsession is complete. He has to be stronger. He has to save her. Even though his friends accompany him, he pretty much ignores them and focusses entirely on his goal.

In the process, Ichigo does get beaten. And each time he laments. No, this can’t be happening. No, I need to be stronger. No, I can’t stop here. While each time it is seen as somewhat inspirational, human will overcoming all obstacles, what it ignores is the lesson about understanding limitations or finding new solutions to problems. Ichigo has one solution. Charge in and swing your sword around. When that doesn’t work, swing it harder. More power.

By the time Ichigo goes to rescue Orihime from Hueco Mundo we see he has become an extremely isolated character. Again, his friends accompany him, and again we see how little regard he has for them. At least during the early stages of this campaign his friends force him to acknowledge their growth and strength but then they get sidelined once again. Even Orihime herself is told not to contribute to her own rescue.

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Ichigo is, by his own choice and actions, a lone wolf. More importantly, though he has goals outside of power (save the girl, stop this villain, return to this place, etc) these goals are regularly delayed in the pursuit of more individual power. Ichigo becomes obsessed with being the one who saves the day and genuinely does not rely on anyone else to accomplish anything. He takes the world on his shoulders and then plays the tragic hero card of being weighed down by all of these responsibilities.

Yagami Light

We also meet Light as an ordinary student. He also seems pretty directionless but is mostly just annoyed at a world he views as rotting. However, at this point in time, he has determined that he can’t do anything about it and so has basically given up.

Then the Death Note falls into his hands.

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From that very moment, Light realises exactly what he has and it is as though all of his ambitions come to life in one moment. He decides he wants to shape the world by removing all criminals. Unlike Ichigo, Light is extremely flexible in the approaches he will take in achieving his goals. For Light isn’t about being the strongest. He is definitely all about being the smartest.

If it were just against the police, the story would have ended pretty quickly with Light achieving his goals and ruling over the world as its new god. However, Light is matched against L, the mysterious, genius detective. Both of these characters strongly believe they are a force of justice and that they cannot be beaten.

What I find interesting about Light and L, is that through L’s analysis of Kira’s personality (the pseudonym given to Light on the internet after the criminal murders become common knowledge) the audience are told clearly the flaws of such driven ambition. He’s childish and a sore loser. Because of this, he will make mistakes.

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Much like Ichigo being unable to accept it when he loses a fight, Light cannot accept being challenged or talked down to. He has an arrogant personality, which he usually keeps in check, but when playing the role of the villain it is given free reign and the results are disturbing.

What we can also see from watching Light, is that once again pursuit of a single goal will leave you very isolated. While he does attempt to save his sister when she is kidnapped, he ultimately sacrifices his own father in pursuit of his goals. His only ‘friend’, L, is actually his rival that he keeps close only so that he can one day kill him. Misa, the owner of the second death note, is a convenient tool that he uses and he never once actually thinks of her as a girl-friend or even a friend, though he will certainly continue to maintain the illusion so that he can control her.

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The bottom line is because Light is obsessed with becoming the best, he has cut his ties to others. However, it is this approach that leads to his downfall. L fails to defeat Light, but his successors manage it because while they are seemingly working independently, their coordinated attacks corner Light very effectively. On the other hand, even though Light has compatriots, they do not act without his instruction and so he cannot get the same leverage from them.

So, while striving to be the very best might be an admirable goal (most Olympic athletes would probably agree that it is) it becomes clear that characters who lose themselves to that goal are fairly tragic figures. Finding a balance of striving to move forward while still maintaining human connections would probably be more advisable.

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Of course, we could always just ask Saitama from One Punch Man if becoming the best is actually worth it. I wonder what he would say.

What do you think of characters who want to be the best?

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24 thoughts on “Friday’s Feature – I Want To Be The Very Best

  1. Great post! Although I do like the obsessive drive protagonists have in working for their goals, I do agree that I’m not a big fan of lone-wolf types. I love the theme of “nakama” and working together. Of course, there is the so-called leader and the strongest in the team, but it’s more satisfying for both the characters and the viewer to see cooperation. I remember watching an episode in my favourite ONE PIECE anime (although I think it was a filler), where Zoro explained what he thinks teamwork means. For him, teamwork is not literally “working together” randomly, but doing what you’re good at so you can say to your nakama “I did everything I can, it’s your turn”. I love it.

    Saying all of these, however, I must admit that lone-wolf types attract me. (waggles eyebrows and winks) There are times that I’m entertained by them, but just like what you explained in this post, I feel bad when the protag disregards the efforts of his/her comrades. Anyway, once again great post. Keep it up. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for that. I don’t really mind whether they are a lone wolf or part of a team, I just think that some protagonists take it taht little bit too far. They are still fun to watch but I just think how annoying they would be if they were a real person.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree. I would probably get exasperated with this kind of people, although I must admit that I do have this lone-wolf tendencies myself. I guess in anime, they’re cool but when you deal with an actual person like this in real life, it’s going to be really irritating.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is excellent stuff! Admittedly I haven’t been in the Bleach loop for several years, but I can’t recall ever seeing such an in-depth discussion of Ichigo’s flaws; perhaps it’s telling that so many fans focus much more on their personal favourite side characters!
    One character I feel presents a strong counterpoint to Ichigo’s approach to gaining strength is Renji. As I think back on the series I recall that the majority of his goals are pretty much identical to Ichigo’s, and yet despite being equally as hot-headed he seems to have a much more sensible view of the world around him. Perhaps because he has been part of a coordinated military unit for so long he is much more likely to engage in team-up tactics, and it’s Ichigo’s pig-headed unwillingness to work together with Renji during battle that causes the two to butt heads so often. I guess the conclusion is that even a strength-obsessed hothead can achieve more if they are willing to compromise just a little of their foolish pride.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is an excellent point about Renji. I never really thought about comparing those two characters beyond the fact that Renji seems like a less successful version of Ichigo but you are right in that despite his impulsiveness he is still very grounded in the reality of what he can and cannot achieve and he is more willing to work with others. Thanks for that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I never really noticed those things about Ichigo but with every point you made I realised that it was completely true. Characters like Ichigo and Light are interesting because their intentions are noble but they go through moments that will betray that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Awesome post. I do notice the difference. Ichigo is a guy who is willing to go through life and death situations in order to save his friends even it means losing himself like becoming a Hollow. Light, in the other hand, almost does the same but in his cruel ways. He uses people to get the things he want like Misa. I think Light tries to be different than humans and believes he can be like a god.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, while Ichigo wants to be the best he definitely still looks out for his friends whereas it is doubtful that Light even has any (other than L but that’s more of a rivalry than a friendship).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting discussion on two characters who on the face of it seem very similar but, as you point out, actually have a lot in common. Thought provoking as always!

    Like

      1. sure, it wasnt a critique of the article. just something that annoys me in general.

        ive never really thought too hard on ichigo, but id say light’s more someone that already believes he’s the best and wants to assert that dominance across the world. though, to be fair, an obsession with being the best is a fairly broad descriptor, so i dont think it’s technically wrong to say that

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting article! I actually never really thought of Ichigo as the type that wanted to be the best nor did I find him selfish. I’m not the biggest fan of Bleach, though I have watched/read the majority of it. Ichigo always felt like one of those rare characters that just wants to save the person. I never thought that he wanted strength for his own sake (that’s every other shonen character, especially DBZ’s Goku). Then again, maybe I didn’t look too deeply into Bleach or its characters.

    Meanwhile, I do agree that Light is on the extreme end of being selfish and cocky. It’s what I love about him, but I think it’s different from other shonen characters yet again. He wants to be the best because he has issues not accepting himself as a god or absolute winner. He has a complex that is far beyond the aspirations of One Piece’s Luffy or Naruto’s titular character. Light wants to win, or rather, he needs to be to feel complete.

    I love that Saitama no longer wants to be at the pinnacle once he’s there. This is why I see most shonen stories leaving the ultimate prize (Hokage, Pirate King) for the end or unattainable, as opposed to anywhere along the way. Saitama does seek something else too, and that is friendship from his hero peers. It’s not asking to be the best, but I do think that goal-oriented heroes make for good leads.

    Otherwise, wanting to be the best is indeed common for shonen leads. It’s supposed to be as effort, power, and friendship are the main themes of Shonen Jump. While it is overdone, I actually enjoy those types of stories. Anyway, great insightful article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ichigo does start out wanting to help his family and then his friends and then Rukia. But during his journey to save Rukia the focus definitely switches. While saving her is a goal, he could accomplish that so much better by working with others but instead he makes it a personal challenge to be strong enough to do it and after that arc it is all about Ichigo.
      That leads into its own discussion about whether gaining power was what changed Ichigo or whether he gained the power because that was his essential personality all along.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Ah, no, I’m not saying your point is wrong. In fact, I’m validating it, saying that my point is probably wrong, seeing that I didn’t watch Bleach closely enough so I probably misinterpreted things that fans would understand more about Ichigo’s character.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Yeah, I just felt that my previous comment sounded like I was correcting you and I didn’t mean it like that (I was just explaining how I saw him). It’s the problem with text based communication, the tone is sometimes lost.

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Your analysis is spot on, and I think reasons why I prefer shows where there’s teams (like sports anime) or where there’s members together like Akatsuki no Yona, instead of the “only this person can save the day” which is straight out lies.
    I love these posts of yours, it shows how intelligent and observing you’re, and I feel like I learn from you a lot ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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