If you’ve watched any amount of anime, there is no doubt at one time or another you have come across the misanthropic protagonist. Most recently we’ve had our streams graced by the ever charming Naofumi who actually started out as quite a nice and optimistic guy but after betrayal and injustice lost his ability to trust pretty much anyone.
While they aren’t as prolific as the ‘nice guy/girl’ protagonist or the ‘wanna-be the best’ protagonist, they are a breed of protagonists that crop up from time to time, though they are often met with mixed reception.
And it is no wonder. Having a character who openly hates or looks down upon the other characters is a reasonably hard sell when not done for the sake of comedy, to set up a situation where the protagonist can be reached out to by others and grow, or where the protagonist is just the villain of the piece. As much as people might find the average edgy misanthrope character amusing for a few episodes, or even find them endearing as a supporting cast member, to try to carry the plot and the audience’s affection for an entire season is quite the ask.
However, when done well, this type of character has a few advantages right from the beginning. Firstly, they tap into the cynicism that seems to be the current trend of the day. That isn’t to say that people who like misanthropic protagonists are actually all cynics who hate the world and want global warming to raise the ocean levels and drown all puppies (though there might be some of those in the target audience). It is more that there is a growing feeling of discontent across populations in the world that things aren’t going well and a general feeling of wanting to do something but feeling ultimately powerless. The misanthropic character appeals by pointing out the worst humanity has to offer, usually in a mocking manner, and for a moment the audience is given some kind of release to the mounting negativity.
The second reason this type of protagonist works is because they aren’t fighting for recognition amongst a thousand other faces. While I said in the beginning they crop up from time to time, they are still very much in the minority when looking at protagonists in anime.
It isn’t really hard to know why when you consider that they generally promote social disharmony, point out the follies of those in charge, and generally go about solving things in fairly socially destructive manners. You can kind of understand why Japanese anime doesn’t exactly promote these types of protagonist as the everyday hero.
For instance, when we turn our attention to Naofumi in Shield Hero, even though he continues to do a lot of good in the world he has been summoned to he charges a steep price for his services with the common people so that they won’t try to take advantage of him and he openly disrespects the nobility and regards the royal family with open hostility. For all that his involvement with Raphtalia and Filo has softened his initial hating the world and everyone in it stance, Naofumi is still very much an angry person who just doesn’t like others.
Where the misanthrope is more normally seen is in the reluctant love interest or support character and generally speaking the nice guy/girl protagonist ultimately heals whatever dramatic back story lead to their social discord and they ultimately learn to make friends again, or whatever. This is the more normal character arc for a misanthropic character and one that serves a valuable purpose but isn’t exactly compelling.
But, while there are advantages to this particular character archetype, it isn’t without its risk. Too negative and you risk depressing or alienating your audience. Too anti-social and you create a situation where your protagonist is literally sitting in their room without interacting with others. Or every interaction is barbed, strained and painful. There’s definitely a balance that needs to be had with this type of character. They need to express misanthropic ideology while at the same time they need to be fairly socially nuanced. So today, I want to look at just two examples.
The first, and most obvious example of a misanthropic protagonist, is Hikigaya Hachiman from My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong As I Expected. Now, his misanthropic tendencies are clearly on display from his opening monologue. The audience sees him as a keen observer of others, someone who analyses the situation around himself and draws conclusions that have sufficiently wrapped themselves is rationalisations to hold a glimmer of truth. It is a truth that most audience members can find themselves to relating to, on some occasions. And that is the mastery of Hachiman as a character.
He isn’t the person who an audience member might always agree with. He takes things to extremes. His self-destructive tendencies are counter productive even to is own goals of basically slipping through school without drawing undue attention. And yet, every now and then he says something that makes the audience sit up and take notice. He’s someone who has perfectly phrased a sentiment or a fear that has dwelled inside that member of the audience and how it has been given voice.
The other reason Hikigaya Hachiman works so well as a character is that he is not stagnant. He makes steps toward becoming more social and open and then another scar is added as life happens and he retreats. This pattern continues again and again and we see Hachiman wall himself off, terminating the inroads that other characters have made. While it would be nice to believe that in the source material maybe Hachiman gets to his happy ending, ultimately the anime leaves him hanging perpetually in a limbo of his own making, and to be honest with a title like ‘My Youth Romantic Comedy is Wrong As I Expected’ I kind of suspect that there is no happily ever after to be found for this protagonist. But I’ll be okay if when I finally get to reading the light novels to find that I am wrong.
But while I have spent the last three paragraphs talking up Hachiman as a character, I am now going to point out the obvious. He isn’t universally loved by the audience. While many people connect with this apathetic and cynical bundle of adolescent edginess, other find him grating, defeatist, and needlessly negative. I wish I remembered which blog I read one particular post on that essentially tore Hachiman’s character apart from the ground up because it really did summarise the opposing viewpoint on the character quite well.
By using a misanthropic protagonist, the writer’s have tapped in to one audience and touched a nerve, managing to make them connect and relate to a character who exhibits many negative traits. However, they have equally managed to put off other members of the potential audience who just find it an exercise in futility to listen to a character who ultimately isn’t going to overcome the chip on his shoulder and save the world from all the wrongs (okay, that was a little bit more condescending a line than I intended, so sorry about that). However, maybe the issue isn’t that Hachiman is negative in his view on people and his solutions are destructive. Maybe the problem is that Hachiman didn’t go far enough.
And that leads us nicely into the final example I’d like to discuss, Yagami Light from Death Note, the original anime series and not the movie. Now, Yagami Light is as misanthropic as they come and he is that way long before he ever finds the Death Note. He looks down upon those around him and feels the whole world is rotting. The only thing he lacks is the power to act upon his desires and then the Death Note literally falls into his hands.
As a character, Yagami Light is intriguing, and yet he is never put on a path of redemption. He hates the world and decides that the only way to save it is to become its god and essentially create a new world in his own chosen image. Admittedly, misanthropy may be the least of Light’s issues when you consider he’s also a mass murdering psycho with delusions of potential divinity. His arrogance is almost limitless as is his ultimate ambition.
Yet Light is a character who regularly comes in on people’s favourite male character lists and is generally fairly beloved by the fan-base. Some of the heftiest criticisms of the Netflix movie was its depiction of Light and the fact that fans were very unhappy with how the teen was altered.
Unlike Hachiman, Light does not doubt his course of action. He has almost no moments of hesitation. He doesn’t open up to others tentatively and hope that maybe this time it will end differently. Light’s walls are absolute and people fall into the category of criminal, victim, obstacle, or potentially useful and he uses them as such. That said, Light ultimately frames himself as someone fighting for, or even creating, justice. He believes that truly and his actions for the most part are not those of a villainous character but the actions of a protagonist seeking to change the world, though many will disagree with his course of action.
Though perhaps that is why he is brilliant. He is not a character who is wavering and second guessing himself, but a pure embodiment of the rage and anger almost everyone feels at some point in this unfair world. Where others are powerless, Light lashes out at the injustices that everyone can see, though in the process he creates a new form of injustice and a new kind of terror. And ultimately his end is in-glamorous and his goal unrealised.
So the question becomes has Light gone too far or did Hachiman not go far enough? What appeals about these characters and what turns audience members away? How did you feel about the arrival of Naofumi as yet another protagonist full of hate for the world? And more importantly, what do you think about misanthropic protagonists in anime? Be sure to leave me a comment below and let’s get the conversation going.
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32 thoughts on “The Double-Edge Sword of a Misanthropic Protagonist”
Light is one of my all-time favorite anime characters. I’m not “pro-Kira” or anything, but I think Light has a bit more nuance as a character than simply a misanthropist. Mainly, I’d point to the arc where Light loses his memories of being Kira, and without that knowledge, his personality seems to shift to caring so much about people, he refuses to sacrifice or endanger them even for the greater good. For what it’s worth, the author did claim that Light cares a lot about humanity, so evidently did become Kira out of a warped sense of responsibility rather than purely a power trip. It makes Death Note a tragedy, because you know Light had the potential to be such a force for good if he hadn’t found the Death Note. That isn’t to say Light’s a “good guy” or something, I actually found it really entertaining and magnifying to watch him at his most capable and villainous. But I think the other thing about Death Note is that most of the main cast are pretty bad people – at least, you get the sense that L, Near, and Mello are also bad guys, so for me, Death Note was less about who I ethically agreed with and more about which characters I enjoyed watching the most.
The cast were certainly enjoyable to watch.
It is interesting you bring up his memory loss, because you are right in that he does become fairly caring about humanity. That never sat great with me because it was so different to the Light we briefly meet before he gets the Death Note. It was like he became a totally different person. I know we didn’t get to see him for very long but he was bored with his life, uninterested in people, and general felt the world was rotting and that was his view before he picked up the death note. He kept up appearances but had no real desire to do anything. The Light we meet when he loses his memories is almost a totally different character again.
I’m on the second series of My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU and actually I find Hikigaya an easy character to warm to – his social struggles are sufficiently well defined to make perfect sense of the way he lives his life. I’m also watching Clannad at the moment, and find the main character much more difficult to warm to. Although he is on the face of it a more sympathetic character than Hikigaya, he has outbursts of meanness towards the girls at times that make it difficult to understand why they would want to have much to do with him. But it seems to be a complex series so far, so I expect it will all make sense in the end! Thanks for another excellent article Karandi.
I did find the cast of Clannad in general harder to warm to. They all have good moments but it isn’t enough.
As I mentioned on twitter: Mei from Say “I Love You” is my favourite misanthropic character because she has reasons to be that way, and reasons to change.
Thanks for that. She is a great character and one who doesn’t get talked about often enough.
Heats up Earth to raise ocean level to… kill puppies.
Sounds like Rube Goldberg meets Cruella Deville.
Now that is a cross-over I would like to see. I mean Cruella Deville is one of the most iconic and over the top villains of my child-hood and nobody can really dislike a well made Rube Goldberg machine. Though, let’s hope killing puppies isn’t the objective.
Sorry, I can’t agree that Light is a misanthrope. He may have used people and starting sacrificing the innocent once he lost his initial focus (and let’s face it, if we had a death note that could anonymously rid the world of criminals we’d use it too), but that doesn’t mean he hated people.
He became a megalomaniac but he still cared and used the notebook to save his family and Misa, so I see him as a victim of absolute power corrupting him than a truly evil person. 🙂
Fair enough. I can’t really see him as the victim given his attitude prior to receiving the book and the quicks steps he took to assuming humans are disposable.
Still, he is quite the complex character so lots of people have their own interpretation of him.
Hachiman as a misanthrope…
Eh, I’ve always felt his character was defined by a longing for intimacy. His pessimism was just an expression of his frustration and justification to alienate himself from other people. He didn’t hate people as much as he hated the projected image that prevented “genuine” connection. He was interesting because his desire was contradicted by the efforts he took based on his worldview…
So it’s kinda hard for me to say he’s a misanthrope when he envies people so much.
Also an interesting take on the character. I see him longing for intimacy but disliking those around him to the point that it doesn’t make him want to reach out. He wants a connection but can’t dismiss his preconceived notions that people use others and that any forged connection is actually inherently false.
I always viewed Light as a man who never would have acted on his impulses if he hadn’t been given the exact thing he needed to do it. In a sense, he was as much a victim of the Death Note as everyone else because it removed “the safety” that was keeping his impulses in check, and in the end, it consumes him.
In terms of the idea of the misanthrope, when it’s done well it can lead to some of the best characters in anime, but too often it drifts into “edgy for edginess sake”. It’s probably the hardest character to write in my eyes, which is why it is rarely done ever well.
It is very hard to write an interesting misanthrope who actually connects with the audience. Far too easy to just hate everyone without any nuance.
I always thought of Light as a humanist. He cares too much about people…
That is an interesting take on him. I feel even before he gets the notebook he is looking down on people and their actions. Still, it gives him a stronger motive if I think about him from your perspective.
I always saw him as a slightly OCD guy who thinks he knows what’s best for everyone and is going to make sure they do what’s right even if he has to force them..You know…for their own good.
Those people are the scariest
A belief that they are right is always a really scary trait for a villain, mostly because it means there will be no reasoning or bargaining with them. Add in some intelligence and a supernatural means of carrying out his scheme and Light becomes one of the most terrifying of all anime villains just because he was so nearly unstoppable if not for his own ego.
Light didn’t go far enough lol. I was expecting more of a revolution feeling like Lelouch from Code Geass. So much potential, yet so much time wasted battling L.
I know. If he had just ignored L he never would have been figured out at all.
Of thsoe two, i’m only familair with Light, so i’ll stick to him in terms of comments. I liked Light because you could see that he had good intentions at the start. For me, it was his fall from grace to eventual end that was so intriguing. Without a stellar cast to play off though, I don;t think he would have worked as well. WIth any character tpye you need a suitable foil for them to work, and L was that for Light. It’s like how Frasier worked as a spin-off but Joey didn’t, I think.
The support cast are definitely needed to make this sort of character work. While a misanthropic character can be interesting, they need someone to play off or against to really sell them and in Light’s case he had the excellent L and that is definitely a factor that helps him out in terms of how much people like him as a character.
Exactly. If he’d had a less interesting co-lead, it could ahve dragged a lot.
I feel like the person that tore through Hikigaya from an alternate point of view might have been me.
Can you throw the link up so people can find the post?
Sure, here. http://mechanicalanimereviews.com/2018/09/28/my-teen-romantic-comedy-is-wrong-as-i-expected-and-apparently-so-was-this-anime-for-me/
Sorry about this.
Also, is it odd that I’m not the largest fan of Light either and I spent my time watching death note to see him get his come uppance?
Oh, I definitely enjoyed waiting for Light to get his and watching each set back and the frustration it caused Light was fantastic. I actually just commented on another blog that while I love Light as a character, if he was a real person I’d really hate him for how arrogant he is. Still, as a character he is incredibly fascinating (or at least I think so).
And thanks for the link. That was definitely the post I was thinking of and I think it does offer that other perspective I was talking about where Hachiman just rubs the audience the wrong way and that more or less ruins the entire point of the anime. Thanks for adding the link so people can see the other side of it.