Role Playing an Empty Shell

You’d probably have wished yourself into the shoes of a protagonist of some anime before- a recess of your imagination where you suddenly know how to speak fluent Japanese, are swarmed by attractive Japanese girls, and part of a reality so much better than the one that life will so cruelly drag you back into. Some anime have a charm that’s quite unique to it’s medium, something that causes it’s demographic to develop a penchant for fantasy and escapism unlike what any movie, TV show, or book can do. This probably has something to do with the absurd testosterone and adrenaline pumps that comprise the genre of action in anime, and perhaps also the timeless appeal of being chased by girls more attractive than whatever reality can offer. Otherworldly 20 minute rides of fantasy don’t take a psychologist to understand their allure.

Anybody would prefer this to reality any day.

I don’t think this is all that it is. If it was, a million other works of literature and cinema would similarly send us on a whirlwind trip of imagination that anime so brazenly offers. They don’t. Here’s why I think some anime, mostly harem, make us imagine so much more than so much.

The following list consists of two things that I think some anime leverage, so quite obviously, it won’t apply to most anime. Even some Harem anime, don’t come close to using any the things mentioned. That being said, it’s still interesting to ruminate on why we can be so immersed in these.

The Empty Shell Protagonist

It’s always useful to have a relatable character around, and it’s useful to have that relatable character be your protagonist. This is especially true for any piece of fiction that takes place in a universe far-removed from our own. To use a non-anime example, the character of Luke Skywalker is made almost immediately relatable with the audience in order dispel some of the estrangement that the audience might have with the foreign environment of a galaxy far far away. The same goes for a large proportion of anime. The audience doesn’t need to feel alienated in the outlandish scenarios, as their confusion is shared in some degree by the protagonist. As the ever-yielding soul of Shinji Ikari will testify, this isn’t always the case, but not every anime is evangelion.

Not every anime has this guy. (Perhaps, thankfully)

What makes Aikawa Ayamu different from Luke Skywalker, is that not only are some protagonists of anime relatable, they’re so astoundingly un-astounding, so extraordinarily ordinary, you’re not just convinced that they’re an average person, you’re convinced that they’re the average you. It’s almost customary for the protagonist of a harem anime to assume the role of an average high school male, with nothing out of the way to being different. They might sometimes have a few quirks to their personality, but most of the time, this isn’t anything that would qualify as anything other than trivial. They’re grades and athleticism are often described as average, and even their heights never drift too far from the Japanese average of 170.7cm. Some of these go so far as to remind us of how normal the lives of the protagonists were before they were sucked into their predicament (Nyaruko, Kore wa Zombie Desu Ka).

Average Male Height in Japan

Average Male Height in Japan… God that’s taller than me!

They’re empty shells in the sense that it’s remarkably easy for the viewer to adopt the stead of the protagonist. With all the traits working in synchronisation, you’re not intimidated into thinking that the choices that the protagonist makes over the course of the show are much different from the ones that you’d have personally picked. The fantasy of being adored by a set of multi-national girls in armored robot suits becomes all the more palpable when you “see” that the choices that you’d have potentially made would have led them to your side. In contrast, a character that seems prodigious, or at the very least, tremendously different, might make you think that the rapport, charisma, or achievements that the protagonist gains, is unattainable. Consequently putting you off imagining about a fantasy you’re too inferior to realize in reality.

Just an “average” guy…

You might not think this is the case. After all, you and the next guy are quite different from each other, even if you fantasize about the same thing. If your personalities are so different from each other, such a degree of empathy with the same protagonist should be impossible. It’s counter intuitive that a myriad of personalities can adopt the same role so easily, but at the same time, you probably have seen yourself in some anime character’s shoes at some point. What I think is going on, is that the personality of the protagonist is so general and so applicable to so many, that it’s something of a forer effect. The thing that makes Horoscopes seem so accurate, is the same thing that’s at work here. Those things that distinguishes us from each other in terms of personality, hard questions pertaining to ethics, and temperament, aren’t given enough screen time for allow us to distance ourselves from the protagonist.

The Effortless Plunge

So you’ve got your average high-school kid to assume the role of, but your average high-school kid doesn’t get involved in the type of situations that the protagonist does. Usually the predicament that the protagonist finds himself in, would require an exceptionally adroit, or at least different, sort of character to realistically get involved in. This, however, would by definition go against the idea of an empty shell protagonist, and would be harder to relate to. The solution is quite simple: an effortless, sudden, and unexpected plunge into the world of the anime. It could be in the form of a portal opened into Flonyard, or a classmate enquiring into the existence of aliens, time travelers or espers. Those tend not to happen too often, but you don’t need anybody special to get involved in them.

One moment you’re chasing a dog, the next…

The effortless plunge has the additional benefit of being, well, effortless. It seems that in getting involved with the supernatural, doesn’t require any effort whatsoever. All you need to do is be lucky enough to get murdered by a particular serial killer, and you get to live with a mute necromancer. You can afford to be lazy. You don’t have to imagine yourself getting up and changing your entire lifestyle, the plot is convenient enough for anyone to pick up and escape into. There doesn’t need to be any process of gradual self-improvement, or a choice implicated by hard decisions and complicated by hard work. It’s a plunge, a dive, a plummet into the unknown, it’s the red pill your impulse makes you swallow, it’s the step-ladder that appears from nowhere with the promise of escape. You don’t even need to make that quick impulse decision for that nosedive, sometimes it’s forced on you by your circumstance, removing any chance of your usually-reluctant personality to say no.

And with that you get to live with a Lovecraftian deity.

Try this: Imagine yourself on your daily commute from work/school. It’s been a hard day, but you get to retreat back to the sanctuary of home for the next few hours. You are, unfortunately, however, guaranteed the repetition of your 9 to 5 for  the rest of your education/job. You dread the monotony, as would anybody else in your situation. And everybody else is in your situation- the lack of identity kills you. At any point, you can break this perpetual ennui, you can drop out of school and hope things turn out for the best, you can quit your job and spend your last few thousands travelling the world. But wouldn’t it be better for you to imagine, hope and pray that one day, your very own portal to Flonyard would open? Quitting school, and jumping into the portal carry similar risks, the difference is that quitting school is a decision that you make, one that requires effort to undertake, getting a random summon from a dog-girl princess requires none.

It’s exactly this sort of scenario that makes escapism work.

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