Lethargic Ramble: The “Kirito Problem”

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.

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Like Jesus-Kun

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.

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The good old days!

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.

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*thunder*

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.

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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.

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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.

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*whoosh*

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.

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*smack*

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.

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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.

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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.

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*click*

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”.

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I’m a creative genius, right?

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.

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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.

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Do you have any thoughts on the “Kirito Problem”? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

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28 thoughts on “Lethargic Ramble: The “Kirito Problem”

  1. Such a great post! At first I thought this was going to be a bash on Kirito; even though , I also find him a tad bit OP, I’ve recently come to understand the logic behind where it comes from (playing solo for 2 years, being a beta tester). But this post isn’t that at all! Kirito was great on his own despite the hate, But I agree it has created a string of other protagonists that may be “clones”. Some protagonists aren’t even as compelling as he can be. Great post Leth!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you! This is such an important post and you did an incredible job of explaining Kirito’s character. I disagree when people say he is a “perfect” protagonist. He may being powerful physically, but he has other flaws that make him not so perfect and add to his personality. He gets depressed quite easily, and is pretty self-sestructive, always throwing himself into battle without caring about the consequences. This, in my opinion, makes him more realistic and relatable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. While I can kind of understand the crux of the argument you’re going for here, I have a hard time understanding how you’ve framed it. Please correct me if I have it wrong, but the sequence of events that you laid out seems to be like this:

    1. Action anime heroes before SAO were typically inexperienced noobs who had to climb the ladder of strength.
    2. Kirito was a novel idea as a fully fledged powerful character.
    3. Lots of anime now have Kirito clones
    4. Underdogs are enjoyable now because of the Kirito problem.

    I’m over-simplifying for effect, but my aim is to show it’s not hard to find examples against this.

    To start, I feel like your intent in pointing out Kirito as a “breath of fresh air” lies in the fact that he could get right into doing awesome stuff without having to waste episodes on learning or training (the DBZ formula that Naruto and Bleach emulate). You don’t have to look too far before 2012 to see that kind of hero is not new. Hellsing’s Alucard and Black Butler’s Sebastian come to mind readily. If you want to say they aren’t technically protagonists, we can look at 1998 where Spike and Vash were great at everything they did from the get go, and still had a lot more personality than Kirito did. A closer example, thematically anyway, is Kenshin. He never loses fights (until really late in the story) but still manages compelling drama with other story elements.

    I can’t speak accurately about Kirito clones. I’ll take your word for it that shows like Aldnoah.Zero do the same thing because I haven’t seen it. But your part about how a reversal of this trend is reflected in characters like Gon really confused me. He’s enjoyable because of the Kirito problem? He predates Kirito by 13 years. Underdogs have been popular in action stories since a couple decades after Superman, and that’s because of Superman, not Kirito.

    Personally, I don’t see how a protagonist that isn’t challenged by his enemies is compelling in any era, frankly. A show like One Punch Man only works because that concept is ridiculous enough to lampoon. Someone who faces defeat and learns from it is instantly more believable.

    My comment might read kind of argumentative, but I hope you know I mean no disrespect. I’m just not sold on the idea that Kirito, as a character, revolutionized anything based on your points as I understood them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. First of all, thanks a lot for the comment, feedback and criticism. It’s much appreciated!

      I guess I’ll start off by admitting that I’m still relatively new when it comes to framing arguments like this, so it’s likely this post may come across as rather disjointed or flimsy in the way it presents its main point.

      Your simplified version of my point is more or less accurate, aside from the last part. I never meant that underdog characters ever weren’t interesting, merely that they became over saturated as the years went on to the point that many wanted the complete opposite. We wanted more Touma Kamijou’s, more Alucards and more Spike Spiegel’s, and with Kirito we were given the ultimate realisation of what made those characters special. But as the years have gone by, the idea of Kirito has become commonplace, so much that it’s almost replaced the underdog protagonist entirely. Thus, while underdog characters never stopped being interesting or enjoyable characters, when one shows up due it’s scarcity it’s a lot easier to have the old feeling of satisfaction when we see them work hard to achieve their goals. They’re not “interesting again”, but significantly “more interesting” due to the Kirito Problem.

      I’m not sure if I presented that well enough here or if you were saying that. Sorry if I misunderstood! 😛

      I do agree with your point about Kirito hardly being anything new, but I did address this in my post, using Touma Kamijou as an example. While I admittedly forgot about Spike entirely (I didn’t care much for Bebop and I haven’t seen it in over 10 years) Alucard and Kenshin actually fall in the same line as Touma does. Unlike Kirito and much like Touma, they have glaring flaws that hinder their strengths. Alucard’s ultimate power is restricted to what Integra allows him to do, and he even gets bested by one of Milennium’s members which takes him out of the fight entirely. Kenshin on the other hand has his pacifism, and as you yourself said he does lose fights eventually.

      But Kirito has nothing holding him back and is downright perfect with seemingly no restrictions or boundaries to what he can do. He does lose to Yuki, but only because he was holding back on purpose.

      I’m not saying Gon is enjoyable because of the Kirito Problem. Gon is enjoyable because he’s a fantastically written character. But the enjoyment of a character such as Gon is definitely enhanced by the rarity of such characters in today’s Anime climate. I’m well aware that Gon predates Kirito by over a decade, but many people, myself included, didn’t watch Hunter x Hunter until 2014 when the show was in its final stretch. Plus I’m strictly speaking Anime here, yeah there was the 1999 adaptation, but in 2011 Gon was a new face to a large chunk of Anime fans.

      I can’t really comment on the Superman thing since I my knowledge of comic books and their influence on narrative is scarce. But I’ll take your work for it!

      I actually view Saitama as much as a victim of this issue than anyone else. Despite the initial ridiculousness of One Punch Man, the show eventually just became the very thing it was making fun of. That’s more my own opinion however 😛

      Oh no, not at all! I appreciate the comment a lot. You gave me a lot to think about and generated some really interesting discussion. I apologise if my argument was poorly presented (or flat out wrong).

      I still think Kirito had a massive influence on the way shows handle their protagonists. It’s no coincidence that after the success of Sword Art Online we get so many Kirito clones these days. Aldnoah.Zero, The Asterisk War, Chivalry of a Failed Knight, Mahouka, No Game No Life, Black Bullet… The list goes on!

      Anyhow, thanks a lot for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts. I appreciate it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This does clear a few things up. Thank you very much for taking time to consider what I was trying to get across.

        You did address the question I was asking. I was confused with regards to timeline, but I can understand people’s exposure to characters doesn’t always line up with their chronological appearance. Your point is that a ladder climber is more appreciable after being exposed to a ‘great at everything’ character like Kirito? I can agree to that.

        I think establishing a time frame would have helped in avoiding the kind of confusion I faced. I couldn’t understand which mold Kirito was breaking because as you saw with my examples there were many characters that hardly ever fail (if that’s even the main quality of Kirito you were trying to highlight). You kind of established the era in question implicitly by using the examples you did (Naruto, One Peice, etc..), but I would have better understood if you pointed out the trend that produced those kinds of protagonists and how it moved away from characters like Spike and Vash.

        Technically I think characters like Naruto and Ichigo are at their core the same kind of hero. They have to fall on their face while climbing to a new height, but there is no limit to what they achieve and no obstacle they can’t beat. In any event those are different kinds of stories and we don’t really have to get into details since the difference between a Kirito and a Naruto are clear enough.

        I’m addicted to context though, so I appreciate writeups that take the time establish the background of what’s being discussed. Not everyone writes like that, and that’s okay. No need to apologize for your writing style, but if my comments helped you understand where some readers might get tripped up, I’m glad I could contribute.

        You otherwise did a great job of pointing out why Kirito stood apart from his clones and the things you enjoyed about his character in particular. I don’t hold the same opinion, but I can’t fault you for yours 😛

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Great! I’m glad I was able to clear things up for you!

          I really appreciate the feedback you’ve given in relation to applying context and I’ll be sure to better establish it better in future posts. I’m still finding my style and approach to my writing, so I’m willing to take any feedback on board and apply it where it seems necessary, so thanks a lot! 😀

          I’m also glad that although we don’t share the same opinion we can still understand each others, which is always a good thing 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post!

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I love Kirito (and Tatsuya from Irregular). Being strong doesn’t make them boring. Admittedly, if nothing ever challenges a character ever and if there are no emotional connections a strong character might make a show boring, but I don’t see it as an issue if someone wants an actually strong protagonist in a story. Its a nice change from the thousands of ladder climbing heroes out there and we don’t call them copies of each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m also a big fan of Kirito as a character. Heck, I even don’t mind Tatsuya too much, although around the halfway point it became clear that nothing was ever going to challenge him as a character which made me lose interest.

      I can definitely agree that this isn’t much of a problem if you’re looking for an all powerful protagonist in a story, but I feel that recently it’s become so widespread that it’s most of what we’re seeing these days. Even Shounen series are employing the same idea now, with shows like The Seven Deadly Sins.

      I’d love for there to be an equal balance, and the way things have been going lately, it seems like that’ll end up being the case eventually.

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Personally, I do still think Kirito is a bit of a blank slate, and that his overpowered-ness does make the show’s tension feel a bit artificial, but I also find it interesting to hear an alternate perspective.
    I especially found the context of Kirito being perceived as a fresh change of pace when the show came out fascinating, since I started to become an anime fan around the time SAO aired, but I wouldn’t actually watch it for about a year, and it would be about another year and a half until I’d watch Digibro’s videos on SAO, rewatch SAO, and dislike it.
    So, for me, I’ve only ever thought that anime critics saw Kirito as bland wish-fulfillment, and nothing more.

    Either way, I think there’s an interesting dichotomy to be found when people discuss heroes, in any medium. Most people want either:
    1. A hero who overcomes insurmountable odds and overcomes their conflicts without fail, all the while making it look easy. A hero who represents what we want to be.
    or 2. A hero who must strive and struggle to become a better person to overcome their conflicts, who makes it seem near impossible. A hero who represents what we are.
    Now, of course, there’s a pretty massive gradient between these two extremes, (not every protagonist is Kirito or Shinji Ikari) but I think people tend to gravitate towards these two ends. Personally, I gravitate more towards the latter, but that’s just me.

    Regardless, this was quite the insightful post, and I’m glad I can see better why others would like a protagonist I dislike.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s fair. While I don’t necessarily agree that Kirito is a blank slate, I can definitely see why people see him as such. Even to someone like me who views him as a well grounded character can definitely see traces of his character that point towards being a self-insert.

      I do however agree that at a certain point his overpowered nature did make things feel a little artificial, although at the time that was actually what made his character so appealing since a lot of people just wanted to see a character do awesome things to not-so-awesome people. Of course, in retrospect, this is a little unfortunate and I do wish the shows conflicts felt more “threatening” (although I still believe there’s a lot of less tangible things at risk, such as Kirito’s relationship with Asuna among other things).

      I’m glad you were able to find my perspective interesting and that it allowed you to see another critical side to how Kirito is viewed as a character.

      That being said I tend to have some pretty weird and contrarian views on a lot of things in this medium that I’m well aware are baffling to a lot of people.

      And for what it’s worth, I also prefer the latter. Shinji Ikari is one of my favourite Anime protagonists because of how much his situation relates to my own past experiences. But I don’t have a problem with the odd change here and there.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post and that it allowed you a look into the other side of the spectrum. Thanks a lot for reading and for your comment!

      Like

  6. I remember the hype around SAO when it was originally airing because it was so…new and fresh, but I have to agree that the whole ‘OP main character with a harem of girls by his side’ idea got pretty old, pretty fast. The only show I’ve seen do it particularly well recently is Chivalry of a Failed Knight (Rakudai Kishi no Cavalry).

    It’s a shame that so many other shows have decided to copy this without even realising that the original creator himself has said that Kirito is poorly written, especially in the first few volumes, since he was an inexperienced writer at the time the light novels were originally written.

    Nice touch with the #OneTrueTatsuya image, by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you there, it was a really great thing at first but it’s become far too much in recent years.

      Chivalry of a Failed Knight was actually a very interesting take on the overpowered protagonist, since it actually combined the trope with the underdog protagonist trope making for a character who was actually BOTH in a lot of ways. I’m actually considering writing about the show specifically because of that.

      And thanks, I always found the Tatsuya = Jesus-Kun jokes funny haha.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. My favourites?

          One Piece would be Zoro or Sanji. I like both of them, especially together because of the chemistry they have as friends and rivals.

          Hunter x Hunter my favourite by far is Killua. I even wrote a post about Killua in the past!

          How about you?

          Like

  7. This is an interesting one for me, because I’ve never really considered the underdog vs. over-powered point in the same way.
    I am in general a fan of underdogs, but haven’t really paid attention to the character type being over saturated in any way. For me, it’s the character itself that sells me on them, so I’ve not paid attention to the amount of underdogs out there, just whether I like them or not.
    In terms of SAO, I only watched it for the first time last year. For me, Kirito wasn’t so much a breath of fresh air, largely because I want affected by the underdog over saturation. In the same way, I grew up with some powerful anime characters too (such as those in Fist of the North Star, Ninja Scroll and even Project A-Ko to a degree), so being a bad ass from the start wasn’t anything new for me, it all just comes down to whether the character or series as a whole interests me.
    On that point though, I can’t really comment as to whether Kirito is perfect or not, because I gave up on SAO quite quickly. I just couldn’t help but compare it to.Hack/SIGN (which I’d seen years before), and I just found SAO far less interesting. As a result, I didn’t get far enough to see how he develops.
    But yeah, I guess my point is that whether the Kirito problem exists at all (at least in terms of affecting you) may be a matter of personal perception. If, like me, you never paid attention to whether character types were over used, you may not have even spotted it happening at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your own perspective is also rather interesting to me. It seems that this issue plays out very differently depending on ones own circumstances growing up and what they consumed in their early years.

      As you said, you grew up with the likes of Ninja Scroll and Hokuto no Ken, which definitely made Kirito seem less of a new idea and more of an “I’ve seen this before” kind of character.

      I still believe that despite the potentially different circumstances surrounding each viewer (as is this case with yourself and I) the issue is definitely still a thing. With Kirito and SAO reaching Attack on Titan levels of mainstream popularity, there’s been a definite trend in recent years of recent shows trying to do similar things. Examples would be The Asterisk War, Lord Marskman and Vanadis, Mahouka, even Chivalry of a Failed Knight (although that one is more of a combination of the underdog and overpowered protagonist).

      I’m glad you found this post interesting. Thanks a lot for sharing your own perspective and thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I must admit, I’ve not seen any of the shows that you’ve mentioned at the end as examples there.
        I can certainly agree that the issue exists, it’s more that it won’t affect all people in the same way. Still, it’s fun to see how different people perceive different things like that.

        Liked by 1 person

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