The all powerful protagonist has become an incredibly common and widely used trope in the medium of Anime in recent years. Time and time again studios keep pumping out shows where the main character is a super powerful, flawless body of absolute perfection who is capable of doing anything and everything the story demands them to do while also possessing a severe lack of defining characteristics to make them stand out.
If you were to take a glance at your typical seasonal chart, it’s clear that these days we tend to get at least one of these protagonists headlining at least two or three shows every season.
But it wasn’t always like this. In fact it was quite the opposite.
Back when I was a teenager and still attending high school, most of the popular Anime that was airing at the time had main characters that were the complete opposite of these all powerful protagonists. They had a tendency to be rather useless and pathetic compared to the rest of the cast or they had incredibly limited and restricted powers that they would need to work rigorously to master. Shows such as Naruto and Bleach were all about presenting these underdog protagonists who were gifted individuals destined for success, but who also needed to work hard to achieve their dreams.
And being the leads of such shows, they would win most of the time, even against seemingly impossible odds, but there would also be the rare occasion where they would be defeated in the most brutal of beatdowns, and when they did lose it stung. It would always leave a pit in my stomach to see such likable characters suffer a defeat. And eventually, through sheer effort and rigorous training, the protagonist would always manage to achieve new levels of strength we’d never thought was possible and proceed to redeem themselves in a satisfying rematch that felt both good and earned.
Of course, this wasn’t the only way to write a protagonist, and plenty of other shows were doing completely different things altogether, but the bulk of popular, action focused Anime would always tend to stick with these underdog characters.
However, this formula was not to last.
In the Summer 2012 Anime Season a little show called Sword Art Online began airing and its success was unlike anything the medium had seen in years. While one could easily dismiss the show as being fairly typical in today’s Anime climate, back in 2012 everything about Sword Art Online was unique from its premise to its romantic sub-plot and even its incredible rise in popularity that opened the gateway for a whole new generation of Anime fans.
Like it or not, it’s hard to deny that Sword Art Online was interesting. It stood out from everything else that was airing at the time and I, like many others, was instantly drawn to the show because of how much it stood out.
But there was one element of Sword Art Online that had me intrigued more than anything else: it’s protagonist, Kirito.
Nowadays, we all know Kirito as the poster child for bland, overpowered Anime protagonists, but when the character was originally introduced and his ridiculous level of competence was first made apparent, it was a pretty big shock for the majority of viewers.
Because at a time where Anime protagonists had the tendency to be inexperienced newbies with a long way to go towards greatness, Kirito was already an unstoppable badass and this was humongous breath of fresh air.
Of course Kirito wasn’t the first protagonist to embody this trope. A Certain Magical Index had a main character who shared many of the same traits as Kirito, from his ability to defeat seemingly unstoppable opponents in a single blow to being surrounded by attractive female characters who had romantic feelings for him. However, while Index and several other shows had arguably similar main characters, they were far from perfect in the same way that Kirito was and they often had some kind of restriction or limit enforced upon them to prevent them from being literally unstoppable in battle.
But Kirito had no such limits. Every time he was met with insurmountable odds, he was always able to overcome it with seemingly very little effort. I mean, come on, he defeated a group of enemies by standing still. Kirito was a whole other breed the likes of which we’d never seen before.
For many of us, Kirito’s consistent winning streak and limitless strength was a welcome change from the usual sniveling rookies we’d grown accustomed to seeing from the medium. Watching him beat down a powerful enemy right off the bat without a crushing defeat or a crybaby speech about becoming “the best” was something that made a lot of us scream: “Finally! A character who just gets it done!”. It’s certainly how I myself felt when I first watched Sword Art Online.
And this absolutely worked in the shows favour. While there were a large number of people who grew to dislike the show for the way it portrayed Kirito as a flawless protagonist who could do anything and everything, the show amassed a ridiculously large fanbase, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the days where Naruto and Bleach were at the height of their popularity. Sword Art Online was a commercial success. It still is today and is now regarded as one of the most popular and best-selling Anime franchises in the world.
It wasn’t long before many other creators decided to attempt to bank in on the successes of Sword Art Online, and a couple of years down the line, a lot of shows were trying to cultivate a large audience in the same way. Whether they planned to use its “trapped video game” premise or were attempting to weave in a romantic relationship somewhere within the story, so many shows were trying to be the next Sword Art Online no matter the cost, and many of them attempted this by emulating one of its most standout elements: Kirito.
From there onwards, all powerful protagonists began cropping up in more and more shows until they eventually became commonplace and stopped being something unique and interesting.
And the biggest issue with this over saturation is that while lifting the idea of Kirito straight from Sword Art Online, almost all of these shows completely forgot what made him work so well as a protagonist in the first place.
Despite the common criticisms about Kirito being a bland self-insert with no personality or defining qualities along with a level of strength that is far too inhuman to ever be taken seriously, I believe that as a character, Kirito actually holds up really well.
Because unlike the many overpowered characters we see in the medium today, Kirito’s strength is completely justifiable and is backed up by the shows internal logic on several occasions. Of course, it’s not a perfect explanation, and I can see how many viewers would still have problems with it, but the show does its best to justify why Kirito is such an unstoppable badass. He’s likely the highest level player in the game, which he achieved through solo grinding monsters day and night to ridiculous lengths, something many players often did in groups and on a less frequent basis. He also had his beta tester status, which allowed for him to get a gigantic head start in the games opening segments which also heavily contributed to his fast growth rate. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it, and it’s far beyond the efforts that many of these other series would do with their protagonists.
Furthermore, many of these all powerful protagonists are severely lacking in personality, from Tatsuya Shiba to Inaho Kaizuka they’re all blank slates that rarely display emotions of any kind with absolutely nothing to their character beyond being an unstoppable machine of unparalleled strength and badassery.
Kirito on the other hand, despite what people say, actually has a personality. He has goals that he strives to achieve. He has dreams that he attempts to make a reality. He has a group of friends that he cares about and socially engages with on a regular basis. He even has a girlfriend in the form of Asuna, whom he displays a far more relaxed and comfortable version of himself around while also showing his genuine romantic feelings towards her and actively protecting their relationship from harm on several occasions.
Kirito has his own ambitions and relationships despite his status as an all powerful protagonist. He is an actual character as opposed to a blank slate for the purpose of self-projection, something that his future incarnations failed to be.
The character of Kirito created a unique experience the likes of which the fandom had never seen from the medium before, but his character unfortunately caused all powerful protagonists to become commonplace resulting in the entire trope becoming overused and far less interesting than it ever was. A phenomenon which I often refer to as the “Kirito Problem”.
And now, many fans such as myself have grown to appreciate the inexperienced underdog character when the odd one shows up. Shows like Hunter x Hunter, World Trigger and My Hero Academia have become some of my favourites in recent years due to having characters that are the exact opposite of the those that have fallen victim to the Kirito Problem. It’s once again become an incredibly satisfying and refreshing experience to watch a character like Gon Freecss struggle to overcome the simplest of tasks or defeat an opponent you’d expect him to be able to go toe to toe with, and I can guarantee that while these shows are amazing on their own, the Kirito Problem actually enhances the overall experience of watching them.
Kirito was a turning point for the way Anime protagonists were commonly portrayed in the medium and just as we’d been clamoring for a character like him to show up for years due to the over saturation of Naruto-like characters, many of us are now excited to see those underdog characters whenever they turn up and facepalm when we are presented with yet another Kirito clone.
It’s unclear if the landscape of Anime protagonists will shift yet again in a similar way over the next generation of Anime series, but I for one am very interested to see how things change with the course of time.
Do you have any thoughts on the “Kirito Problem”? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!