A Comparison of the Portrayal of Bullying in Anime

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I’ve really come to hate the word bullying. It isn’t just that acts described as bullying are morally repugnant, it is more that the term gets thrown around to cover everything from excluding someone, minor pranks, staring at them, talking behind their back, openly harassing them, directly sabotaging their person, profession or possessions, to full on violence and acts that most definitely should be classified as criminal assault and never be given the cop out title of ‘bullying’. Bullying has become a catch all phrase to cover all those things we dislike about societal living where we realise that while humans do like to herd together we don’t really like to herd with everyone and while teaching tolerance and acceptance are lovely ideals the evidence strongly suggests they haven’t gone that far in reversing this culture. It has also become the excuse as people try to excuse these vicious and horrendous acts as misguided rather than malicious.

March Comes in Like a Lion Episode 31

But that’s all just my personal view on bullying and it is one of those major social issues that most societies need to take a long hard look at the causes and why on earth we allow people to get away with it and tolerate it as ‘a part of growing up’ or part of ‘workplace culture’. And that’s not really within my blog’s scope so instead I want to look at how bullying has been portrayed in anime.

This kind of got inspired by a recent episode of The Master of Ragnarok, of all things, as in this very ancient world our out of time protagonist has decided to develop a school system to educate his population and build skills for the next generation. Such an admirable goal and yet from opening we instantly have a situation where a slave girl is being excluded by the other girls in the class. The reason: the patriarch of the clan, our protagonist himself, took her to school on the first day and dared to pay attention to her. I mean, how dare he. Such an unforgivable act being taken to school by someone who cares about you.

The Master of Ragnarok Episode 8

This episode moved me to title the episode review Create School, Create School Bullying and I realised after writing the episode review how I genuinely believe that these days bullying is ingrained in pretty much every institution despite decades of anti-bullying policies and ‘education’. There are a huge number of societal factors at work that drive this but anyone who has been to a school or workplace knows full well that bullying, in one form or another is prevalent there.

Then I started thinking about how this episode portrayed bullying. Effie, the slave girl, has so far been portrayed as a victim. At no point has she been seen in any other light. We met her when Yuuto, our wonderfully kind protagonist, came across Effie and her mother in the market place being sold as slaves. While creating sweeping social reform like universal education is easily enough done off-screen in the space of an episode, apparently ending institutional slavery isn’t and so rather than address the issue of the people suffering, he buys them and gives them jobs at the palace. At least I assume that’s where the mother is working because we never see her again.

Instead we see Effie getting dragged into the harem even though she does not fit there. They dragged her to the hot springs which sounds nice but then she was subjected to watching all the other girls flaunt their superior relationship with their ‘father’ while she was isolated and fairly uncomfortable with the situation. While she’s invited to eat with them, it is only after she’s delivered the food and after Yuuto has personally requested it. Effie remains on the outside of this harem at every turn separated by a class divide that no amount of ‘kindness’ is going to bridge.

The Master of Ragnarok Episode 8

So by the time we see Effie feeling pretty miserable about being ignored at school we as an audience already have it in our heads that Effie is a victim. And while at first I thought she was being ignored because of her class, it turned out she was being ignored because of Yuuto’s attention and petty jealousy, which was just as bad really. By the time a third party intervened, Albertina, it was obvious that Effie was not going to take any action to resolve the situation, that the other students were happily observing a status quo they themselves had assisted in creating, and the teacher never even got screen time so who knows if they were even aware of the situation.

While it might seem cathartic that in this case Effie’s bullying issue is resolved, this representation of bullying is all kinds of problematic. It almost trivialises the problem. My main issue with it includes the fact that the victim is seen as utterly blameless but without agency. Effie did nothing to deserve being picked on, did not retaliate in any way or do anything to draw attention to herself.  She doesn’t even report the situation or mention being upset and it is only through Yuuto’s super sensitivity that anyone realises something is wrong.

But I also take issue with the very quick and easy resolution Albertina comes up with and how easily she reverses the situation. More importantly, solving one case of bullying through isolation by creating another doesn’t seem like much of an improvement. Maybe there will be some in the audience thinking ‘serve you right’ as the bully gets a taste of being ignored but switching the target from one character we like (or at least are supposed to) to another character isn’t really solving the problem so much as sweeping it under the rug. Then of course Effie does the sickly sweet thing and reaches out her hand to the former bully bringing her back into the group. Effie has just been victimised and hasn’t solved the problem on her own but has had someone else intervene on her behalf. There is no way she’s in a state to reach out to someone else.

Emotionally it just smacks of a desire for the show to finish off with this side show and move on. Which made me wonder why even address the issue at all – only that is all too easy to understand. Bullying is a universal and in Japan particularly it is something that is understood by pretty much anyone. If you ever want your isekai, military, harem story to ‘relate’ to your audience, throwing in a bullying subplot is one way to do it. Does it give this dire social issue the development it probably deserves? No. But it isn’t the main point of the story. So maybe this shallow dive approach is fine, only I just found it a little annoying.

March Comes in Like a Lion Episode 27

I couldn’t help when watching this to compare it to Hina’s arc in March Comes in Like a Lion Season 2 from the beginning of the year. While watching that arc I felt it was such a great representation of bullying, and I still believe it is one of the best anime bullying arcs I’ve ever seen. There Hina is given agency as she actively takes steps to minimise the damage to first her friend and then herself. She eventually reaches out for help and while others certainly do play a part, Hina continues to have to stand on her own and fight (not physically).

March Comes in Like a Lion Episode 34

We also see a teacher who has been destroyed by the weight of so many instances of bullying where there are no simple solutions that she ultimately has a full emotional collapse, and then we get the comparison to two other teachers. One takes over the class but has experience and a level head and addresses the problem head on. Even then it doesn’t instantly mend the damage but his actions create a space where the students can start to turn things around and at least he holds people accountable for their actions. The other is Rei’s teacher who listens to Rei as he vents about Hina’s situation and outlines the complexities even while feeling frustrated that there is little that he can practically do for either Rei or Hina. I do slightly object to the fact that the female teacher is portrayed as emotionally fragile and breaks under the pressure becoming hysterical where the two male teachers are more level headed about it, though realistically with only three teachers in play it is just nice that there was a mix of approaches to the issue and each one felt real in its own way. As in the audience might remember the teacher who was like A, B or C.

March Comes in Like a Lion Episode 35

Bullying in March Comes in Like a Lion is treated with a great deal of respect and the ripples created by it in Hina’s life are observed as every character connected to her is impacted in some way by her situation. This arc is given an enormous amount of screen time and at times you could almost forget that this is Rei’s story as Hina and this situation takes centre stage, but it allows the situation to really be brought to life.

However, on reflection, I have to say that at least at the beginning Hina has the same issue Effie does. Hina is portrayed as the girl who did nothing wrong and just became the target. At all points throughout the arc Hina’s innocence and the unfairness of her situation are made clear to the audience. Where Hina becomes more palatable as a character is that she is given agency (even becoming the victim was a result of her standing up for another student) and that she doesn’t quietly accept it. She gets angry and she gets upset, even if she tries to hold those emotions in there are times when they explode.

March Comes in Like a Lion Episode 36

Honestly, I’d love to see more series deal with bullying giving it the time and attention it needed to actually make it feel meaningful. I’d love to see more like March Comes in Like a Lion. I would really love to see bullying tackled by adult characters and more insidious forms of bullying on display rather than the overt cases on display here. Though more than anything, I’d love for societies to actually do something about this problem. What are your thoughts on bullying in anime?

Thank-you for reading 100 Word Anime.
Join the discussion in the comments.
Karandi James

28 thoughts on “A Comparison of the Portrayal of Bullying in Anime

  1. A bully is a person who makes another person miserable so they can feel superior.

    It is tolerated because the victim is always the omega of the pack. Even if they aren’t the ones doing the bullying, the alpha, beta, gamma, delta, whatever aren’t directly affected. Even though they “know” it is wrong, the level of empathy that would cause one to actively intervene isn’t very common. Their non-involvement sets the pattern for the rest of the pack. “Oh well. Sucks to be you.”

    Omega+1, omega+2 and so on won’t get involved because they don’t want to be bullied ether.

    Bullying behavior comes from a primitive part of our brain. You see it in lion prides and wolf packs as well as all the social apes. It is how pecking order is established and enforced. People see it instinctively as a kind of “trial by fire” that everyone endures so it has always been accepted. In reality it happens mostly those at the bottom of the social scale and everyone else only gets a small taste.. Bullies know better than to pick on people with strong bodies, high status or lots of friends.

    The worst bullies are often the ones already near the bottom of the social structure. They know of no other way to feel better about themselves than to demonstrate their physical or psychological dominance over a victim.

    What it really comes down to is the victim reporting it to parents or other adults in charge. Schools don’t want to be bothered by such issues and the bully’s parents may crate a stink if they do. If the victim’s parents won’t go to war for their kid, the school will never move in a serious fashion. Half-hearted measures only make it worse on the victim. So, reporting the bullying is a judgement call, not the obvious thing to do.

    When I was a young boy I learned that if you could cause a little bit of damage to a bully, even if you ended up a bloody mess, that was enough to discourage bullies in the future. If your bully uses a weapon or runs in a gang or is a social VIP on campus, you’re screwed.

    The best tool to use against bullies is administrators and teachers who take it seriously to begin with. Intervening against a bully is never easy nor is it pretty. Everyone pays it some lip service but few want to pay it any effort.

    And here I am, writing a response to a post that is long enough to have been a blog post all its own.

  2. Yeah, bullying is common and even accepted in most Japanese classrooms. I remember an English teacher talking about how she saw students bully each other horribly, yet the teachers would barely even intervene. No one takes it seriously.

  3. Whenever something tackles bullying in the media I consume it’s usually portrayed in the extremes. If the media doesn’t tackle bullying, than it’s simply used as a tool to make the audience sympathize with the characters. While there is nothing wrong with that notion the fact is the bullies will typically be one dimensional, and so will the way the conflict plays out. So I experience more bullying portrayal like The Master of Ragnarok that lack understanding and less in the variety of March Comes In Like A Lion that tackles it with depth.

    The only one I can think of from the top of my head at the moment that tackled bullying really well is a movie (and also a stage play) called Bang Bang You’re Dead. You get the see the consequences bullying has on individuals, and how being surrounded by other victims of bullying can lead a person to taking horrific action for payback. What I like about it the most is that the conclusion is not a quick fix resolution. Understanding bullying doesn’t have a easy fix to it at all. It’s a complex issue, and all you hope for is the message you’re delivery in a good depiction of bullying sticks with the viewers.

    1. I agree that generally the purpose of a bully in a story is to make us sympathise with a character so the show is less interested in taking the time to look at bullying as an issue and more just wants to set up an obstacle for the character and circumstances that make the audience feel sorry for them. That said, when a story really does take on this issue, it can be kind of amazing to watch unfold.

    1. That is probably the hardest part to swallow about Haruhi Suzumiya. As much as the show passes a lot of it off as harmless, she’s definitely a bully and sometimes it is very hard to keep watching how she interacts with the other characters.

      1. Yeah, it’s a tough one. Frankly, I like her energy, high spirits, and imagination, don’t like her dominance games. She’d be unbearable if she knew she could control the world, but she is totally clueless about that even though the rest of us know it. She gets Asahine the worst, but Asahine is also the most cartoonish of the others, plus we see a well-adjusted adult Asahine. She gets on Kyon, but Kyon can revenge himself in his narration. I think they just managed to hit the right balance innocence and bullying, and the show is unwatchable for those whose perceptions don’t see that as balanced.

  4. I was bullied at school for two long years and in my first job after leaving school so I know first hand how awful an experience it is.

    However in anime I feel they exaggerate it too much, as if to overdo the fact this person is a bully and we’re supposed to hate them and cheer when the victim finally snaps and metes out their revenge. It’s mostly supernatural shows that do this but for such a serious subject it renders it unrealistic.

    Are we to believe that some Japanese people really are that heartless and cruel they have no compunction in driving someone to the brink of a breakdown or worse yet shrug it off because their own ego is so black and tainted?

    So, I agree that it is a subject that needs to be addressed properly in anime,. but with sensitivity and intelligence.

    1. There are a lot of exaggerated and extreme versions of bullying in anime. And while these do represent a small number of bullying instances (usually the ones that end up on the news) it hardly depicts the normal bullying one encounters.

    2. “Are we to believe that some Japanese people really are that heartless and cruel they have no compunction in driving someone to the brink of a breakdown or worse yet shrug it off because their own ego is so black and tainted? ”

      Having personally experienced that kind of behavior in real life in the US, I see no reason to assume Japan would be any different. I ended up in weight lifting and Tae Kwon Do to deal with it myself because the school was all like “Boys will be boys!” about it and my parents were all like “Did you hit him back?”

  5. Interesting thoughts! I’ve definitely seen bullying in anime done well and done poorly, but I like how you’re questioning it from angles I’ve never even considered before. On the range of behavior covered by the word “bullying” I generally agree with you that it can be awfully broad, but I tend to define bullying more by the intent than by the action itself. If it’s a repeated pattern of targeted actions intended to dominate, to control, and/or to make the victim feel less than equal to the perpetrator, then that to me is bullying, regardless of whether we’re talking about mild teasing or full-on physical assault (though if it crosses the line into a criminal act, it should certainly be dealt with as such).

    I do have a question, though.

    You said, “However, on reflection, I have to say that at least at the beginning Hina has the same issue Effie does. Hina is portrayed as the girl who did nothing wrong and just became the target.” I’m not sure why this is an issue…people don’t normally ask to become the targets of bullies. Sometimes they say or do something that turns peers against them, but often it seems like it just begins because the bully sees an easy mark – someone they perceive as weak or vulnerable who they can exploit (and sadly, those sometimes are the nicest people, since nice=weak to some). But for conversation’s sake, if we accept your comment at face value, then what do you feel like is the “right” way to show the origins of a bullying story?

    1. People aren’t perfect. They get angry, they say things without thinking, they have their own prejudices, likes and dislikes. While I have no issue with the occasional character just being super sweet and super nice, when they are the character almost always seen as the victim of bullying it kind of takes away from the fact that it is never a one way street even if the motivation isn’t logical or fair.
      Much like with most other representations in anime, this one is fine, provided it isn’t the only representation ever shown.

  6. Dang it. That was powerful, Karandi. Bullying is such a touchy subject and you did it justice here. It seems like master of Ragnarok is playing with themes that the writer doesn’t have the chops to fully explore or comment on. Then again, March Comes in like a Lion makes a lot of series look bad in it’s wake.

    1. I don’t think I really wanted to criticise Ragnarok for not delving more into this topic. More just they didn’t need to bring it in at all and they have more than enough other ideas that should be being developed. But if they had to bring this idea in, then yes, I would have liked a bit more from it because the superficial glance over the topic didn’t really do it justice.
      The point though is well made that very few anime have the number of episodes or the character depth to do what March Comes in Like a Lion did with the concept.

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