Behind Every Great Anime Protagonist Is A Great Supporting Cast

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Previously I’ve looked at reasons why being a villain would suck and I’ve certainly looked at various characters on my blog and why they shine, but with the exception of Natsume (see the supporter battle Irina and I worked on), I seldom discuss the supporting cast and their importance in making or breaking a series. Which is something I decided I needed to change because the more I think about it the more I come to realise that great characters don’t occur in isolation.

For every character I’ve connected with or instantly fell in love with and wanted more of, surrounding them is usually a plethora of well written, developed and interesting characters. Each one holding up their end of the story and playing the role they need to play in a way that allows the protagonist to shine.

Obi from Snow White With The Red Hair
Obi is a fantastic supporting cast member in Snow White With The Red Hair. See my top 5 favourite moments with him.

However, this also highlights my general problem with harem anime (whether standard harem, reverse harem, or not a harem but using more or less the same tropes). That is, generally (not always), while there might be good characters in the anime, they aren’t working to complement each other. The focus is on each of the girls (or guys) standing out from the others with a distinct visual and personality. Their job is to carve out their own niche audience and fan group rather than support a main character or even the cast as a whole. As a direct result, the supporting characters pull attention away from what frequently turns out to be a fairly dull protagonist and because of the shared screen time none of the supporting characters ever really feels fully realised (again, generalising).

Going through some of my favourite characters, or characters I am drawn to, I can see time and again, that a lot of what makes them so amazing comes from those surrounding them.

March Comes in Like a Lion (I promise this isn’t another love letter) has Rei at its centre with the Kawamoto sisters as almost dueteragonists. Particularly in the second season where Akari becomes a major focus for a large arc. All four of these characters are fantastically written and interesting characters and honestly I’d probably happily watch them just stay inside the Kawamoto house and interact at this point.

But, that wasn’t what drew me to the show and to Rei early on before the deep connections were formed and I learned more about these characters. Whether it was Nikaido as a self-proclaimed best friend, Shimada as a mentor character, Kyoko and Goto as potential antagonists, the members of the Science/Shogi club… every single character we encounter (even the one episode rival shogi players) felt like a fully realised character that helped to flesh out the world. More importantly they gave Rei a wide range of people to respond to and react to bringing out more of Rei’s personality and pain and allowing the audience to feel that he was also a fully realised character rather than just a one note ‘tragic young shogi player’.

Yuri on Ice Episode 6
Yuri and Victor

On a lighter note, Victor and Yuri from Yuri on Ice are amazing. No question I loved watching the two of them interact and grow closer together. I would happily watch more of just the two of them. But again, that wasn’t the immediate draw. What draws you in to Yuri on Ice are all the small touches throughout, including every supporting cast member we meet feeling like they have their own story to tell and just being fun.

Yuri on Ice Episode 7 - Yuri's family

Whether it is Yurio running from his fan club, JJ and his over-bearing confidence, Yuri’s family and their support, all of the characters bring something to the mix that helps to elevate the whole shoe and provide a context for Yuri and Victor’s relationship to grow within.

However, even something like Noragami, where I genuinely love Yato, it is again the support cast that manage to bring out his full charm. Hiyori and Yuki stand with him and each brings something relatable and interesting to the story, but the other gods, the regalia, Hiyori’s friends, those who call Yato, even the phantoms, each of them add something to the story and while we may not get a huge amount of time with them, or back story, they are a delight to meet and interact with.

Noragami

Where Noragami manages to go even further is in the portrayal of Nora who remains for most of season one an incredibly enigmatic figure but one who is sufficiently built up that when she takes a more active role in season two it doesn’t feel like she’s come from nowhere. It feels like a natural extension of where her story had been heading from the beginning and it is largely through her interactions with Yato that more of Yato’s past can be revealed to the audience.

My Hero Academia Support Cast

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it in terms of whether a great support cast can make or break a show and a protagonist. Look at My Hero Academia. I like Midoriya, I really do, but he isn’t a particularly memorable character on his own. It is the zany cast that surrounds him early on that fills the anime with so much energy and enthusiasm and allows Midoriya the chance to grow into his role as both protagonist and hero. There’s almost as much fan art around plenty of his classmates as there is of him (and of some characters I’d bet there’s even more).

When creating something it is important to remember that while the protagonist will probably be the character people remember, a great protagonist on their own doesn’t normally carry the story alone (unless they are Tom Hanks in Cast Away in which case I still give the award for best supporting cast member to the Volleyball). It is the support cast that create the space and opportunities for the protagonist to be who they need to be and draw out the best of the main character.

Cast Away - Tom Hanks and Wilson

So remember, behind every great protagonist is a great supporting cast. Or a really emotive volleyball.

Or, use one of my product affiliate links.
DARK SOULS III 1/6 SCALE LIGHT-UP STATUE: BONFIRE
DARK SOULS III 1/6 SCALE LIGHT-UP STATUE: BONFIRE

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22 thoughts on “Behind Every Great Anime Protagonist Is A Great Supporting Cast

  1. I think a major ingredient to a great anime is giving the supporting cast their time to shine. Shows like One Piece and, to a lesser extent, Fairy Tail and Naruto manage to do that. I’ve seen the supporting heroes in the latter two take out their fair share of bad guys. Heck, Naruto had to work with his entire team to take down the series shadow antagonist, Kaguya.

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  2. Your inclusion of a Yuri on ice!!! screencap is, for me, the best representation of this topic and that show in particular, as I found the support characters more entertaining. I suppose it is because in general, support casts provide the humour in the show for the lead to either bounce off or work with.

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    1. I love Yuri and Victor, but I’d be hard pressed to find a character in Yuri On Ice that I didn’t end up at least appreciating by the end even if I didn’t love them (I even ended up feeling bad for JJ and then celebrating with him when he kind of pulled himself up).

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      1. I was thinking more of the triplets in “Yuri” and characters like that – the ones who bring the levity and colour to the overall dynamic, and usually the grounding the lead protagonist needs. They’re the ones who often entertain me the most. 🙂

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    1. I feel a lot of support characters don’t really get a chance to be fleshed out. So while they might be fun enough, they don’t really stick as memorable after the story is over. There are certainly exceptions and stories that make the supporting cast really shine, but other stories can have them feeling just one note.

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  3. Wilson! Wilson!… On a more serious note, I can’t begin to tell you how many shows I’ve seen that could have been much better if the entire cast had decent growth. A powerful MC without a decent supporting cast weighs down the shows and makes it less enjoyable in my opinion. Where’s the interaction? What’s the best friend doing and why is he/she not helping, etc…. (this was my problem in 2017–I think it was 2017–with Classroom of the Elite)

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      1. If you’re looking for plotlines and awkward flashbacks that don’t go anywhere and only make you ask, “What happened to him?” without resolving go for it. Annoying character development, too. It’s enjoyable if you just watch and don’t expect anything or analyze it considering we were left with multiple cliffhangers.

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  4. That is so true. Unfortunately I can’t comment on these examples specifically, having only seen part of season 1 of MHA and 3Gatsu, but a strong supporting cast or ensemble cast is an oft-overlooked ingredient of good world-building, and often a much better way to enrich your setting than with endless infodumps. I also think a strong supporting cast is something that really resonates with audiences when it’s done well, even if only on a subconscious level (look at how many thousands of Harry Potter fanfics have been written about characters other than the main trio, for instance). Some of the best supporting or ensemble casts that I can remember seeing in anime are Euphonium, Saki, Silver Spoon, and Flying Witch. All four of those are successful in creating worlds that feel very broad and well-populated, and yet very intimate at the same time, if that makes sense.

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    1. I think you are right and that is part of the struggle I’m having with Alicization. Other than Eugeo, who is more of a deuteragonist anyway, I’m not feeling any of the support cast. They come and go but don’t really make a mark as actual characters.
      And yeah, there are a lot of Harry Potter fanfics that have nothing to do with Potter at this point.

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