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?

Naruto

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.

Brains meet brawn.

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.

One of anime’s smartest protagonists.

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.

Posted on by
Contributing writer for The Artifice.
Edited by Dimitri Adoniou.

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40 Comments

  1. Gillette
    1

    Wait until you start watching harem anime.

  2. Shounen are made primarily for preteen-early teen demographic.

    At this stage in their life, adrenaline, acceptance, and identity are what they seek from their entertainment.

    Battle shounen appeal to all these things. An outcast protagonist with unique abilities and full of energy defeating powerful foes through sheer force of passion. In turn, earning the respect and friendship of his peers. It is the ultimate school boy fantasy.

  3. Merchant
    2

    It is all because Goku was a stupid one. Dragon Ball is the biggest influencer of shounen anime, so many of the demographic’s traits stem from it.

  4. Typically, male anime characters have mediocre looks and intelligence so that just about any and every demographic can picture them in the main character’s place. If the main character were smart or very attractive, many anime fans wouldn’t be able to relate to them.

  5. Aldrich
    0

    Most stupid anime characters for me are:
    -> Yanagi Sakoshita from Flame of Recca &
    -> Miaka Yuuki from Curious Play

    Which are yours?

  6. Yeah, this is the ultimate definition of “Too Dumb to Live”.

  7. If the main character is a cheerful “pure kid” it makes target demo relate easily and laugh at his jokes and stuff. The idea of “incompetent buffoon evolving into a badass” is also a common aspect of works targeting shonen demo. Having a comic relief go serious is one of most common tropes.

    The more “down to earth average intelligence guy” is also what is usually used for a stereotype of a “traditional young japanese male”(alongside black hair). Which yet again goes towards making them “relatable everyday-men”.

    There’s also the fact that most of mainstream works targetting shonen demo are inherently derivative from each other – ideas that are prevalent or work well get carried over into the works of other authors trying to achieve the same. Likewise, the story structure and narrative themes are common point too(ex: tournament arcs, the midpoint of story where writer tries to make things darker, family issues, etc). Shonen might be a demographic and not a genre by definition, but via the way market works, mainstream shonen did evolve into a sort of pseudo-genre with it’s own set of tropes. If you take most of mainstream shonen-demo works you will notice that a lot of things overlap.

  8. There’s s difference between stupid and naive.

  9. You can create intelligent and crafty protagonists that win through skill or technique or careful planning… But why do that when you can make a protagonist that is simply too dumb to know he’ll lose, and so keeps trying anyway and then wins just because he wills himself to hard enough?

  10. Protagonists entire purpose is growth, both in power and character.

    If they started off without a major flaw, it’d be boring. Idiocy is simply the easiest flaw to write.

    • “Protagonists entire purpose is growth, both in power and character.”

      Only until they defeat the current bad guy, then they have to start all over again. This is why I love One-Punch. Saitama is already the strongest. His opponents keep getting stronger, and yet, they are nowhere even CLOSE to his level.

  11. An initially dumb protagonist allows for more development later on and makes the character more relatable, since fighting shonens tend to be long runners it is fairly logical for them to have dumb MC’S

  12. Naruto is 1 of the worst anime characters. I even prepared reasons for why he is a bad character.
    1.He wears orange and hes a ninja (it doesnt mix no matter what)
    2.He uses only 2 moves consistently (kage bushin jutsu / rasengan) gets old ya know
    3.1 of the only ninja with Blonde hair and blue eyes.
    4.Hes not so great without kyuubi.
    5.He mest up gaaras killer ambition (best part of the show)
    6.Somewhat intellectual but has no combat prowess
    7.People think a fox is cool when fighting a racoon (naruto vs. gaara)
    8.He wouldnt survive long if the other shinobi werent around (ninjas dont need comapions just a katana)

  13. One of the reason for this is that we get attached to this type of personalities. Moreover, they sometimes make the viewers optimistic as the protagonists being stupid achieve many things which seems impossible!

  14. writing about an already perfect character is more difficult and less likely to have lasting success

  15. Most Japanese teenagers are supposed to insert themselves in those characters. If they were too smart, that might not be possible.

  16. I don’t think they are stupid, more just immature. Many if those you mentioned have often shown incredible adaptation and quick thinking. I’d say they’re actually quite intelligent, but only when they need to be.

  17. It somehow makes them more “relatable”.

    In some cases though, this is to provide room for character development.

  18. While I do agree, there are many seemingly hopeless protagonists I find disagreement with the primary demographic mentioned for shounen anime, as well as Naruto being a idiot is not a fair example. Shounen has a diverse audience of female viewers as well as male. Additionally, as someone who watched Naruto (the original series entirely) I didn’t find myself thinking “this character is unintelligent”.Another component to consider is: age of the character. Adult characters on sitcoms are usually middle-aged or high-school college age. Naruto in the first part of the entire franchise is approximately 12 years of age. While Boruto maybe a valid arugment because both his parents are alive, one must remember Naruto lacked a intimate rolemodel and had to learn everything on his own. He had no parents to help him practice or study. In my opinion, what “less intelligent” characters mean to convey is that you may not be great at something right away and that is okay. People may ridiucule you but they don’t determine your worth or your limit. Naruto shows that with his immense hardwork and dedication. I can’t speak for Luffy, as I have not watched or read One Piece. Your article was very interesting and i enjoyed reading it though.

  19. Heidi Muriel

    I understand that these characters may help teenage boys have someone they relate to – which I think is great – but I almost wonder if this type of character could also be harmful. Like if a boy sees himself in Goku, will he question his own intelligence? Like he can be strong and brave, but perhaps feels he also can’t be smart because he sees his favorite characters aren’t smart. A sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will.

  20. HookUpGeek
    0

    ahhahaha – Naruto – my guilty pleasure – what i have a bad mood i can watch it))))

  21. Usually dumb characters are written because they comedic foils , limit the ability of the character or becuase we have hindsight as the viewer like in horror films

  22. Better to have a character that many young people can connect to rather than a character that pushes them away from understanding the character’s motivations that may positively impact them.

  23. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    There is also a connection that can be made to the character of the fool that is present in much older literature – the role of a character to present the truth and highlight the absurdity of situations.

  24. I agree. I also think that because characters like Naruto are flawed, they are loved even more. He seems more realistic and, in a sense, likable because he isn’t perfect.

  25. There’s s difference between stupid and naive.

  26. Pandit ji
    0

    I like gin chan.. He is just simply awesome.. He is not stupid like.. Say luffy or naruto.. He is simply a lazy person who does not wants to do any work.. And wants to read comics all day.. With his pinky finger up his nose., of course there is a lot of comedy and gags but he is not stupid.. And he can fight i mean ,a real fighter who has no problem in breaking opponents bone or cutting them with his sword. Gintama banzai…

  27. Most people consider dumb protagonists a common anime trope but very few really understand the reason why they are dumb.

    I really loved the way you stated the obvious answer to a question that’s on tip of every anime fan . But I must admit most people including ore-sama (the great me) never imagined the reason to be this obvious.

    But lately I am starting to get annoyed by dumb protagonists (mainly LUFFY in ep 66) *wink*wink if you know what I mean

    But recently with rise of anime like M.H.A we can say the demographic is slightly shifting

    If we try looking closely there are few smart shounen anime characters like
    1. Izuku Midoriya – M.H.A
    2. Edward Elric – F.M.A
    3. Edogawa Conan – Detective conan
    4. Lelouch – Code Geass
    And upon closer inspection there are characters like
    5 .Almost all JOJOs – J.J.B.A
    6. Oreki Houtarou – Hyouka

    *** NOTE : the above given list is in no specific order but that is my way of trying to get people to watch some great shounen anime I personally enjoyed and you people are missing out on ( if you didn’t watch them)

    ***this is no means meant to hurt feelings of people, if any one is hurt because I missed the name of some one smart then I wish you would me the favor of correcting me

  28. It was interesting hearing your points on why protagonists being stupid. It really is much more relatable than an intelligent character and it also adds comic relief. Writers portray these characters as ones who have a lot of determination, rather than intelligence. A lot of people can also connect more with characters that are flawed, rather than those that are super intelligent. However, even animes with smart characters such as Midoriya and Conan are lovable, because they too have their own flaws.

  29. Andi

    Does this mean that anime with more intelligent protagonists are the ones that tend to be more widely marketed (in terms of demographic)?

  30. Great read, and agreed with your points. This can also be applied to literature, movies, and games.

  31. Naofumi
    0

    Why is Ichigo listed as a less intelligent anime hero? He kept his grades up in school and isn’t even close to being an idiotic bafoon. Ichigo’s intellect shouldn’t even be put in the same category as Luffy’s. Why is Yuske Urameshi not written? He doesn’t keep his grades up at all, Ichigo is one of the top students at his school. Orihime Inoue is the 3rd smartest student in her school so she’s actually pretty intelligent and is no different than Ochako Uraraka.

  32. What does that say for the future intelligence? Simply, escapism will be escapism however futuristic the human race becomes. I guess teenagers are loth to close the gap of intelligence between themselves and any character, fictional or real, simply because intelligence can’t be cultivated overnight and I have reasonable grounds to believe that a person in teenage years usually lacks the willpower/motivation to work that hard to be more intelligent. ( I know that because I don’t see intelligence around me!).

    The planet that everybody wants to escape from Sucks! ( See the popularity of Isekai anime, myself included).

  33. Saikon

    This list is very condescending to other characters who even have their own “stumbling blocks” in terms of stupidity, like the protagonists of ecchi, who always have the same personality: they are good-hearted idiots who always end up in situations where they touch the girls of their harem and that usually do not have direct importance because they are not strong enough nor mature enough to stay with one of their lovers or express correctly what they feel

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