Ok so in direct opposition to how I handled strong women, where I bitched first and then presented good examples, with OP male leads I already talked about some of the ways you cam make them good in my last post. Now it’s time to rail on the shit ones. There will be scattered spoilers, you have been warned.
Before I really get going on this I need to do a brief preface. OP male leads, taken individually, are fine. Even if they are not well written, I can appreciate the appeal of appealing to a young fanbase and illustrating the male power fantasy. It’s a smart business decision and it can be fun to write, animate and watch. I don’t hate the OP male lead, not even the bad ones (well there are some exceptions), if for no other reason than seeing one in action can be fun every now and then. But the key is moderation. Sure OP leads can be fun from time to time but fuck do they get boring when they appear over and over. Which brings us to the last few years. Since the massive success of SAO there has been an onslaught of Kirito-clones, generic teenage swordsmen who steamroll all of their opponents. Sure the character type has existed long before SAO, but things have gotten worse since it’s success. Back in the day OP dudes were more varied, and weren’t released as steadily. Now every single season has at least one, usually two, sometimes even as many as three. Much like some of my other Raging Rants (you can read them here and here), the abundance of this character type is a major part of my issue with said character type. However, this case is a little different because I’m more pissed at how consistently this exact same type of character is pumped out in a short span of time. I mean OP teenager with sword is a pretty specific character type when compared to say busty women in anime, because at least there are a lot of different kinds of busty women. I have four gigantic problems with the new onslaught of Kirito-clones, how often they are being pumped out, their relation to women characters in their shows, how they limit storytelling, and how fucking cynical they feel.
Just off the top of my head SAO, SAO 2, Seirei Tsukai no Blade Dance, Seiken Tsukai no World Break (these are not related despite how cut and paste the two titles seem), Kuusen Madoushi Kouhosei no Kyoukan, Rakudai Kishi no Cavalry, Dan Machi and the Asterisk War all have a generic, dark-haired, OP swordsman for a lead (except Dan Machi where the lead has white hair but is otherwise the same as the other dudes). There’s also Jujin no Fafnir, Trinity Seven, Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, and arguably Walkure Romaze, all of which feature ludicrously OP male leads who aren’t swordsmen. All of the shows I just listed have been released after SAO (except SAO obviously), and I’m probably missing some since I skip many of these shows on pure principle. Now I’m not saying I hate all of them individually. I already praised the parts of Tatsuya’s construction in Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, and against my better judgement I actually kind of enjoy Seirei Tsukai no Blade Dance and some parts of Trinity Seven. But goddamn is that a lot of shows with the almost the exact same hero. Even if all of them were well written, and very few of them come close to well written, it would get tiring to watch all of these shows. But when you pile on that most of these dudes outright suck, it becomes insurmountably so. I can’t stand how homogeneous all of these guys are, especially consider how all of these shows are released in close proximity.
Maybe, theoretically, they might be ok if these shows only showed up once or twice a year. Once or twice a season however, is much too often. Like how can these shows be popular at all? Do the people who enjoy these types of dudes more than I do just not care that all of them seems the exact fucking same? Do the fucking copy pasted powers, appearances, character relationships and half-assed plots surrounding these guys not bore the audience to tears? Can anyone really need such a steady stream of male power fantasies to the point where these shows don’t bother them? I mean for fucks sake, I understand about appealing to a niche and making fans happy and why that’s a smart business decision. But to do so at such a consistent and rapid pace seems more like it runs the risk of over-saturation than anything else. Not even harem shows go this far, I mean most of the shows with these dudes are harem shows, but the harem shows that aren’t any of the ones I mentioned so far have a lot more variety all things considered. Just using major examples, there’s Zero no Tsukaima, a show set in a magical universe along the lines of Harry Potter but medieval, To Love Ru has a massive harem of humans and aliens of varying ages, many of which have all kinds of tech, abilities, or quirks to give their position some relevance, Date A Live has a bunch of spirits from another dimension with gorgeously designed outfits and rad superpowers, and Monster Musume fulfilled everyone’s wild dreams about dating monster-girls. How can anyone defend this shit if the fucking harem genre, which has been considered the trashcan of storytelling for fucking years, is bringing more originality, creativity and quality to the table? It’s frankly embarrassing, to see this many shitty characters and shows being pumped out full force with no end in sight, to see such blatant disregard for creativity and artistry and/or such blatant lack of talent enjoying such popularity. Sadly this is only the beginning of why these characters are shit, it gets much worse from here.
Anime has something of a complicated relationship with women characters. On the one hand some of the most empowered and interesting strong women in fiction come from anime. And on the other there are a lot of objectified teenage girls. I’m not going to get into the complicated pros and cons of this odd relationship, I’m going to explain why these OP male leads following in Kirito’s footsteps encourage sexist storytelling and characters. The biggest problem with these OP dudes is how they are all about that male power fantasy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, however all of them seem to pandering to the exact same kind of power fantasy. There are of course many kinds of power fantasies, the same way there many different kinds of heroes. For example, my best friend is a big fan of Rock Lee, because he finds the idea of a nobody becoming a force to be reckoned with by sheer virtue of hard work very appealing, its a power fantasy he likes. By comparison my little brother prefers truly unstoppable characters like One Punch Man’s Saitama, because he finds that ridiculous power more fun. But with Kirito and his clones the fantasy is always the exact same, it’s about being an unstoppable badass and getting all the hot chicks you want without much effort. I personally don’t see the appeal of that fantasy, I can enjoy being unstoppable sometimes, but I’d rather earn the affection of a woman character after serious effort.
But that’s beside the point, the real issue is how this power fantasy treats women. Because it rarely treats them as people, as actual characters, instead it goes down a check list of different fetishes and gives each fetish an avatar with no real heart or soul poured into their construction. They have little to no character traits beyond a rough outline that sticks strictly to pre-established archetypes. I mean these stories treat the dudes the same way, but at least the men are self-inserts, the women are just trophies to obtain and add to the collection. And I don’t care that these shows are wish fulfillment for immature teenage boys, there’s fucking porn that treats women with more dignity and as such I refuse to accept that this is ok. Besides which, wouldn’t it make for a better fantasy if you, the OP main character, were winning over genuinely powerful and interesting women? Apparently the anime industry sort of thinks so, because as I detailed in my post about turning strong women into waifu bait, it is trying to create the illusion of the OP male lead winning over a harem of strong women. But it’s an illusion and thus far the authors farting out these generic and unimaginative stories and characters lack the skill to make the illusion convincing, let alone show the talent needed to make the genuine article. Ok so thus far, we have slew of generic copy-pasted OP dudes making harems of vapid, useless, generic women they collect like action figures or trading cards. Can it get worse? Oh yes it can.
The abundance of generic characters, coupled with the lack of attention detail in said characters, results in basic, broken and mostly boring stories. You will notice that most of the shows listed thus far all feature school-based battle tournaments as major parts of the show. For those that don’t the rest almost all are about special high schoolers fighting giant monsters. The only show on that list that doesn’t fall into these categories, ironically, is SAO, which if nothing else had a decent premise even if the show did a terrible job delivering on said premise (see my post on SAO for details). This is not to say that some of these tournaments and monster battles aren’t good. Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei’s tournament arc was a lot of fun for example. But it’s an issue of volume again, this time compounded by a lack of quality and imagination. I love a good tournament arc every now and then, but not all the fucking time. And even worse there a other shows out there with infinitely better tournament arcs like HunterxHunter, and these shows are just going to end up looking bad in comparison. But this goes beyond any specific premise or type of arc, that’s just a common side effect of a larger issue. These stories lack imagination and flair, they are so dedicated to appealing to paint-by-numbers formulas they have a hard time being interesting, or in some cases working at all. I mentioned in my review of Mahouka Koukou that it’s magic was simultaneously interesting and problematic, this was because the show did a terrible job of explaining how it worked, what the differences between modern and ancient magics were, and basically all the fundamentals of spellcasting. In spite of the interesting variety of magic on display, so little of it made any sense or had any explanation that it was easy to get distracted and bothered by the lack of detail. And detail is incredibly important when your show’s premise strains suspension of disbelief.
A typical high school slice of life romcom doesn’t need a lot of setting details because we are already familiar with said setting. But once you start introducing magic, monsters and the like we need some kind of explanation, even if the explanation is just, well this show takes places in a game/fantasy world. But half the time these shows don’t, they are set in a normal everyday modern, or slightly future, Earth but now some kids have super powers. A great example of these problems is in Asterisk War, I recommend checking a video series call the Asterisk Wars Sucks by Digibro on Youtube, it’s amazing. Anyway in the Asterisk War the kids have superpowers, but there’s no explanation as to why everyone has mostly the same powers, why the people who have special powers have special powers (beyond them being special), how exactly the superpowers work, and how it is that some super power kids are naturally so much stronger than others. What’s the fucking point of making a superpower teenager tournament battle series when the foundation it’s built on, the superpowers, are so ill-defined and poorly explained that they aren’t interesting? How can any creator using this rough, generic kind of premise expect to make genuinely interesting and inventive works of fiction if the core of their creation is so lacking in heart and craftsmanship? These narratives of the shows listed above are basically fucking dead before they’ve even gotten started, even the one or two shows I enjoyed had bland and uninteresting stories, that they survived my judgement at all is hard for me to fully grasp. But enough about me, the point is that in addition to bland and boring characters these shows have laughably incomplete settings and the combination of the two contribute to their bland, flaccid narratives and the frankly incompetent delivery of said narratives. Which brings me to the final, and most damning, sin these shows all suffer from, fucking cynicism.
Cynicism is not something I inherently hate. I myself indulge in cynicism more than a bit, and that’s fine. However, I take issue with cynicism when it’s injected into the creation of, and by extension sale of, art. I go to anime to get away from the cynicism that is so prevalent in the real world, not to see more of the same. I should stress that I don’t dislike characters who are cynical within the world of the story or cynicism that is relevant to the in-universe world and lore. That shit can be interesting as hell. But when our real-world cynicism bleeds into the creation of anime I get frustrated. Art and craftsmanship is important, and sure I get that not all anime are going to be made for the sake of the art, their will always be more cynical shows being made to make money with as little risk as possible. But there’s a difference between creators that actually try to make interesting worlds, narratives and characters, while imitating popular shows and those that don’t even fucking bother. In my last post I explained at length why Layfon Alseif of Chrome Shelled Regios was such a good OP male lead. And ironically enough he appeals to the same kind of power fantasy that Kirito and all his clones do, in a show where the superpowers aren’t well explained and the setting had some issues.
So why was Layfon so good if Chrome Shelled Regios suffers from some of them same problems I have with the new slurry of OP male lead shows? The long answer was in that post, but the short answer is that Layfon and world he inhabits were made with care, with attention to detail. All the women Layfon could end up with are people, with goals, desires and feelings independent of Layfon, who have backstories, relationships and character traits that have nothing to do with Layfon. Because the setting, for all it’s problems, has at least enough thought put into the lore and how people would survive in the world to make a cohesive story. These new Kirito clones, and their attendant shows, don’t have that, they don’t have any of that most of the time. Because the people making them aren’t trying to create a cohesive work of art, they are giving us shells that look like other works of art but are full of nothing save blatant pandering to teenage boys, in the hope the dvds will sell well. The dudes are self inserts, they aren’t really characters even, they are shells of characters that wear appealing traits. The women look pretty but they too are hollow shells. The settings and stories have all the originality and cohesion of plagiarized essays. This is why I hate cynicism in art, because it apes the style of genuine art but delivers material that treats the audience as idiots (and to be fair some are) and showcases a total disregard for its own medium. Anime is full of weird and some times off-putting stuff, stuff that scares a lot of more “normal” people away from it. But I have to say the only times I felt ever been well and truly embarrassed by my love for anime, is when I see these miserable, cynical cash grabs making it big while shows that deserve attention for their artistry get left by the wayside. Fuck cynically produced anime, fuck Kirito and all his clones, and most importantly fuck any creator who shows so little regard for his own medium of choice that he would make these shows and stories willingly.
Thank you for reading, I hope you all enjoyed it, and I hope to see you in the next one.