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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?