Tragic Origins: Protagonists in Anime

I think one of the many aspects of anime that drew me to the medium the most is the fact that despite being cartoons the content and stories can be at times quite mature. In this article I want to discuss one facet of anime, specifically the frequent use of tragic origin tales with protaganists.  While this could totally go the route of a Joseph Campbell book, I will not try to explain in too much depth the reasoning behind this tragic motif. Instead I simply want to highlight some of the characters I’ve come across who have such tragedy in their early life, discuss the event(s) that came into play, and perhaps describe briefly how this affects them in the story.

Corpse Princess (aka Shikabane Hime)

Corpse Princess is a story about monstrous poltergeists who form from humans with deep regret. Instead of simply becoming ghosts as western culture understands them these individuals become monsters that slay humans. A sect of monks have tried to fight these creatures and in doing so discovered a technique to turn certain shikabane into shikabane hime. Shikabane hime are girls who are able to combat ordinary shikabane. Corpse Princess focuses on one such shikabane hime named Makina who has a particularly tragic history.

As a young girl, based on looks perhaps in middle school, Makina’s family was attacked by several shikabane. During this attack she herself hid, saw her family killed, only to then be discovered and essentially tortured to death.

Makina in the show stands out from the other shikabana hime primarily because her motivation is not salvation. Instead she is driven by revenge and only thinks about killing those who killed her and her family.

Naruto

While Naruto has been glossed over and glazed over, often due to both the early hype and the negative backlash, it truly is a series defined by two young boys’ painful life experiences.  This is what really makes the pairing of Naruto and Sasuke as both friends and enemies work on so many levels.

Naruto of course never knew his parents, but even more than that he was isolated at a young age by the burden he had to carry. Sasuke on the otherhand seemed to have the ideal childhood until his brother murdered his family and his whole village.  Further in the story you learn that it’s much more complex, but still no less tragic for Sasuke.

Sasuke’s motivations are solely based on his pain, so he is obviously affected by his tragedy on a daily basis. Naruto still endures pain throughout the series, but he has certainly learned to not only cope with his own burden but to also help heal others.

Berserk

If you’ve watched the anime of Berserk and reached the last episode then you know that Berserk is already one of the dreariest series out there. Well if you’ve only watched the anime then you’ve just seen a portion, admittedly large, of the iceberg that is the tortured world of Berserk.

Guts, who is the main protagonist, early on in life had a less than perfect family life. Still his real scars developed when he was traveling with a band of mercenaries, including one member in particular that was the closest thing to a father he ever had. While travelling with the mercenaries Guts was sodomized. This incident, and aggression from his surrogate father, led to Guts first kills ever.

Despite Guts battle hardened appearance later on in the series, both in the manga and in the anime, he is clearly affected by these incidents. That’s why I feel Guts really grew fond of Griffin, because till then he had few people he could trust, and even fewer who would give him the time of day.

Hellsing

This series, much like Berserk, is another where if you’d just watched the anime, in this case the first version not Ultimate, then you would’ve never known about Seras uber-tragic past.

Seras as a young child endured a similar tragedy to Makina’s (Corpse Princess), where she witnessed the murder of her father and mother. While she was spared from death, she was forced to watch the further desecration of her parents corpses.

Surprisingly enough she doesn’t seem overtly scarred; however, especially in the manga and Hellsing: Ultimate one might wonder if this doesn’t help fuel her vampiric rage. She certainly became a police officer though to follow in her father’s footsteps, and I feel her sense of justice is tied to this career choice as well.


Do you know of shows that feature main characters with a scarred past or a tragic history? Feel free to discuss those shows and the ones already listed below in our comments section.

Coming up – Tragic Origins: Antagonists in Anime

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2 comments

  1. I just want to say that tragic hero origins is not exclusive to anime and is almost in any sort of story telling across the globe, so I will try to start a small discussion on maybe the distinction and difference in Japanese anime compared to other forms of media.One distinct feature that I can think of in Japanese anime that I have not seen in other media (but I hardly watch or read other media so bare with me) is that usually the protagonist will be very cheerful and goofy despite having a horrifying past. You can see it in Naruto with the way he acts compared to the flashbacks of his childhood. Vash the Stampede is a good example of this too, he has tragic history with his brother who sabotaged the space ship and killed all the crew members and yet Vash acts like the dumbest guy on the planet before and after we are told about the event itself.In comparison with these two characters I mentioned, in the Unite States we have Batman. As a child, he sees his parents killed right in front of him by some petty theft which then turns him into a cold hearted man seeking revenge on all criminals. Batman has comedic bits of course and as Bruce Wayne he plays like nothing ever went wrong in his life while he is in public, but not to the extent that Vash the stampede takes his act.There are plenty of anime with hero's who have tragic history but how much their past effects their character is all up to the writer.

  2. First of all J.M. thanks for your comment! I certainly agree that using a tragic figure is not entirely connected to anime; however, after watching Corpse Princess I really started thinking about the subject. Perhaps this is why I decided to make it an anime post, although having now seen Sucker Punch I immediately have a non-anime example to use as well.Secondly I never realized it till you mentioned it yourself but the 'hapless, yet conflicted main character' does seem to dominate the anime landscape more than western media. Continuing with your examples I know Abel from Trinity Blood also fits this mode as well as Kenshin, so you're correct there are plenty of cases where the main character seems to bury, or perhaps even over compensate, his inner demons with an outer facade of goofiness.Perhaps for Japan perhaps more than the U.S. the ability to hide one's emotions is rewarded, while in the U.S. I think instead of masking our emotions we instead prefer our characters use them to find strength? Of course considering the delicate balance between Kenshin's and Vash's nice side and dark side I feel that anime are actually used to tell the viewers not to divide oneself so strongly, between love and hate, and instead to embrace the complexities of life, the love with the pain, and to hold all emotions together. Kenshin would go berserk if he only embraced his violence and hate, and while he may win, as his enemies suggest, he would not be the man that anime fans admire. Essentially for an American comparison we prefer our Luke's to our Darth Vaders.Lastly you are certainly right that the writers dictate how the past effects the future. Given more time I'd love to at some point take the issue further and elaborate on why the authors make the choices they make, how these decisions affect the tone of the story, and what messages and morales are conveyed based on the author's choice(s) of dealing with the character's past?


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