Stupid Anime Characters
A common question in the anime community is: “Why are they so dumb?” often referring to a certain protagonist in an anime. There are numerous examples of less intelligent anime protagonists: Naruto, Goku, Ichigo, and Luffy to name but a few. Note that before this question can be answered, this question mostly pertains to why protagonists from shounen shows are typically portrayed as less intelligent as opposed to dumb characters in comedy shows. This distinction is key due to comedy shows often involving erroneous decisions or dumb characters to get a laugh out of a sympathetic or perhaps cruel audience depending on the gag in question. So stupidity for comedic effect aside, it is time to analyze stupidity for stupidity sake in shounen characters. Typically, when considering the perspectives on why Naruto or Luffy are portrayed as less intelligent one might come to the conclusion that the anime in question is promoting the idea that to be a hero you do not intelligence, or rather you do not need to be above average intelligence. Instead, typical shounen protagonists usually make up for the intelligence they lack with strength, bravery, determination, and other admirable positive qualities. The question to ask next is….why? What makes strength so much more important than intelligence? Why is Luffy so idolized and loved for his endless drive but no mention is being given about his stupidity?
The answer there might seem obvious, no one wants to praise an idiot, or perhaps the common justification of “everyone is flawed in some way”. The question then evolves into, what would it be like if Luffy was both smart and strong? What would the general reaction towards the character be then? An example of this kind of character would be Deku from My hero Academia, gifted with the strength of One for All, incredibly smart and analytical, Deku seems to be the complete package. Physically and mentally Deku not only strives to become the greatest hero but he demonstrates his capabilities to do so consistently. So how come there are not as many Deku’s in shounen anime? Clearly, characters who are both strong and smart are not only possible but they are also commercially successful (My Hero Academia has become quite the shounen staple), so why is Boruto as dumb as his father? The simple and hard to face answer is this: demographics.
The typical viewership of shounen anime in both Japan and North/South America are teenage males and adults males. Anime, much like any other entertainment industry, is built and sustained by viewerships. When analyzing why Goku from Dragon Ball is all brawn and no brains, viewership must be considered. The question has to be asked, “Why do teenage boys like shounen so much?” and while an in-depth discussion could be brought up about why this demographic is so male-dominated and the difference between males and females and what this difference does to general entertainment industry viewerships, this will not be discussed here. Instead, a simple answer will be provided based on simple psychology. A teenage boy typically admires characters like Goku, Naruto, and Luffy because they are relatable. A critical lens must be brought to the relationship between viewer and character because all viewerships are based in two elements: immersion and escapism.
A teenage boy relates to Goku on multiple levels because of Goku’s simplicity. Goku’s traits can be easily defined by his determination, bravery, kindness, positive attitude, and strength. There are other traits and subtleties that were not covered but for the sake of argument, those traits will suffice. The typical teenage boy sees this and feels a kinship because these traits are easy to emulate and the immersion between character and viewer is a simple process. The viewer does not need to change too much of themselves to become Goku. An irony is to be found in the immersion process; the viewer tends to emulate or immerse themselves in characters that require little or no internal/external changes to be required of themselves. The least amount of change is the optimal change. Which leads back to the central point of this topic.
Escapism and immersion are what teenage boys look for in anime, a window out of this mundane and boring reality where they can become the hero. When the anime is over the viewer can continue this escapism by simply emulating the character they have chosen to admire and/or idolize. The more simple a character the easier and longer lasting the emulation can be. Naruto is a fine example of why a stupid protagonist is so loved by viewers (the majority being teenage boys) when Naruto is first introduced he is a loser, a troublemaker, friendless, academically inept and has zero romantic options to pursue. A majority of teenage boys could relate to some if not all of these things. The barrier to become Naruto or to become more like Naruto is so small because no effort needs to be made on the part of the viewer to erase any distinction between themselves and the fictional role-model.
Imagine if all shounen characters were as smart as L from Death Note, the immersion gap between L and an average teenage boy is grossly exaggerated now. The statement “I want to become L” is not as easy as “I want to become Naruto” when it comes from the mouth of a teenage boy. Note that when discussing these characters I am excluding their fictional powers and discussing their personality and physical/mental capabilities. The boy who wants to become L now has to raise their intelligence by one hundred IQ points, a feat that is harder than simply being as stubborn as Naruto. Now imagine if every shounen character was as smart as L and as physically fit as Goku. It is difficult for the average teenage boy to place themselves in shoes that are as large as those. As a consequence of this too perfect shounen character, not only does the show become boring (the protagonist simply overcoming every obstacle with ease or the obstacles become harder in ridiculous ways) but the viewership may decline because the escapism is no longer as accessible as it once was.
The fact of the matter is this: Naruto will not pass his LSAT. Neither will Boruto. Simplistic characters mean an accessible reality and role model to escape to. The hard truth is that there are more Naruto’s in this world than L’s and that the majority of the population want it this way, and if more and more people want to escape in the shoes of someone who is intellectually inferior or on par with themselves what does that say for the future of intelligence as a whole? What does it say about a planet that everyone wants to escape from? The world could use heroes, but it certainly does not need more characters.
What do you think? Leave a comment.