Have you ever been watching an anime when suddenly that one character appears on the screen who makes you clench your jaw in an act of endurance as you tolerate the unfortunate truth of their existence? “This series would be so much better if this character weren’t in it!” you cry in mental anguish.
This is the injustice that the local titan-slaying, jutsu-forming, yata!-shouting residents of Geeks Under Grace seek to explore in this article (guest starring MRNewman from Beneath the Tangles). As we look at some popular anime series, we’ll be figuring out how to make each of them just a little bit (or perhaps exponentially) better by removing boring, useless, or unwanted characters. Whether you agree or disagree with our assessments, be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Cooper D. Barham
Naruto has no shortage of sub-par female characters. Any illusion saying otherwise is held neither by the author nor the audience. Originally, I was going to put the cute, perky, empty character of Tenten on a pedestal and stone her with every frustration and crabby remark I could find within spitting distance. But, ultimately, I decided she didn’t deserve such treatment. I was going to put a lot of effort into dismantling a character whose greatest sin was that she’d simply been neglected by the author. Sure, she was weak and left much to be desired in terms of competitive spirit compared to her peers. Sure, she had a personality woven from the same material as soggy cardboard. Sure, she had a total of what felt like fifteen minutes of face-time in the entire series. But that’s mostly because she was forgettable, and thus forgotten.
You know who wasn’t forgotten, though?
As much as I think the merit of Tenten’s existence should be questioned, she has the distinct advantage of not being Sakura Haruno. Now, as a die-hard Naruto fan, allow me to first defend Sakura. The seed of her character was an honest and valiant attempt at creating a female character which would appeal to audiences of both genders, while maintaining allegiance to the fact that Naruto was originally published in Weekly Shonen Jump and thus had predetermined tropes and archetypes to entertain. Masashi Kishimoto has revealed in interviews his great disappointment that Sakura did not turn out the way he’d wanted—that he’d mostly lost control of her. Kishimoto is simply not proficient in his understanding of character arcs for the types of females he wanted to write. In this regard alone, Sakura is innocent.
Now, putting those extraneous details aside, let’s look at Sakura as Sakura, instead of as a character concept that the author couldn’t wrap his head around. Sakura is dramatic, impulsive, and has this century’s most award-winning basket of misplaced priorities. She is an emotional, porcelain doll who has made a slave of herself by falling into ten different shades of love with the singular most inadvisable bachelor in her entire village.
Eighty percent of Sakura’s personality is intrinsically defined by, or tied to, her profound infatuation with Sasuke Uchiha, the frozen-hearted edge-lord of Konoha (I actually really like Sasuke, but that’s a different article). This sense of affection, however childish or genuine it might be, leads Sakura into situations ranging from the silly, to the self-serving, to the outright inconsideration of her friends’ lives. To a man (…eh, boy…) who has never shown a modicum of respect or romantic interest in her, Sakura publicly declares she would abandon her friends and family to follow him, help him seek revenge (and thus murder somebody she doesn’t even know), and serve under the snake-motif demigod arch-villain of the series. Later in her life, she even hesitates to do Sasuke any harm, in spite of the fact he is actively trying to kill both her teacher and her.
Add to all of this that Sakura:
1. Attempts to emotionally manipulate Naruto’s affections for her, and then has the gall to get angry at him when he politely calls her bluff.
2. Has a disproportionately slow power crawl compared to the other members of her team, and thus isn’t even useful as a combat asset, save for a brief window in the middle of the series.
3. Has the most underwhelming backstory in the narrative, with the lowest stakes, save for her rival Ino who is almost an exact mirror of Sakura herself. (Except Ino is a marginally better overall character.)
4. Needs to play damsel-in-distress in almost every conflict where she’s present.
5. Has only one noteworthy victory under her belt, and it was attained only through literally making herself a puppet to be used by a more skilled and intelligent female character.
6. Has the audacity to do all of this and still fly under the banner of being one of the main characters of the series.
That last point is really the worst one. All of this would be tragic if Sakura were just a support character, but she’s part of the main cast, and that’s encroaching upon the realms of unforgivable from a storytelling perspective. I wish Sakura didn’t exist. I wish there were a better female character in her place who could more efficiently balance Team 7, who could mature intellectually, emotionally, and in physical prowess at the same rate as those around her. Even if she had the same personality as canon Sakura in the beginning, as long as she grew out of those habits and cognitive cesspools, I would find her acceptable. Otherwise, Sakura is just an emotional preteen who, like most emotional preteen girls, has a crush on a boy. Absurd as that might be for a ninja tasked with an entire village’s future security, that’s fine and understandable at the series’ beginning. Far less-so when she remains stuck her ways years later, after multiple life-or-death encounters which, by all accounts, should have put her priorities in line.
If I were to remove a character from an anime, it would be Near from Death Note… and, honestly, Mello, too. Just, the whole second half of Death Note, really. In my opinion, the second half of the series doesn’t hold a candle to the first half, and Near is not a worthy enough adversary to have bested Light. I always felt that the ending was simply too hard to believe—and this is a show about a kid with a magic death book. To think that, after years of careful planning, Light is undone by one simple trick and, on top of that, Near’s assistant is able to copy an entire Death Note in one night in handwriting that is a 100% match for Light’s is way too far-fetched for my tastes. Near is also nowhere near L’s skill level, yet the audience is supposed to accept that he succeeds where L fails? Add to that the simple fact that Near’s character is nowhere near as developed as L’s (at least, not in my opinion), and the entire second half of Death Note feels like a flimsy conclusion.
Part of what makes the whole Light vs. L battle so interesting is the fact that these two enemies are living under the same roof, working together to catch a criminal when they both already know who the real criminal is. Theirs is an ongoing battle of the wits to see who will slip up first. In the midst of all of this, something akin to friendship develops between them. It is emotional, it is tense, and no matter who is destined to end up winning, the viewer knows it’s going to hurt, because they are given reason to like—or at least be invested in—both characters. I believe the ending would have been stronger if L beat Light or Light came to rule the world under his corrupt and iron fist.
This is why I’m partial to the plot of the Japanese live action adaptations. L writes his own name in the Death Note in order to grant himself immunity for the next 23 days—plenty of time to beat Light. This is a much more believable and emotionally-investing ending to the series. Light and L are clearly equals, and that’s where the fight should have ended—either with one besting the other or with them cancelling each other out.
For now, my answer would have to be Shuu Tsukiyama from Tokyo Ghoul. I feel his plot significance factor is low and his cringe factor is high. His extravagant mannerisms are bearable, but his obsession with protagonist Ken Kaneki? Not so much. As I’ve not caught up on the manga, I can’t say for sure that Tsukiyama has no important role to play in the plot, and, sure, he has some small role in the first two anime seasons. Mainly, his antics show Kaneki the true danger of being overly trusting, and he plays a part in both fighting Aogiri Tree and spying on them for Yoshimura. Another character such as Yomo, Irimi, or even Koma could have easily taken any or all of those roles, however–and would have done so without the disturbing obsession of eating Kaneki alive, salivating over handkerchiefs tainted with his blood. But no—instead, we have Tsukiyama, who while useful, does everything with horrible motivation and extreme, disturbing flair. I certainly wouldn’t have cringed quite so often throughout Tokyo Ghoul if Tsukiyama wasn’t in it.
When he’s not writing for Beneath the Tangles, Matthew Newman is an environmental engineer (professionally licensed in Maryland). He’s also a husband, beard aficionado, dad of four beautiful children, blogger, and all around geeky guy from Baltimore County. When he’s not chasing his kids or working, he’s probably asleep.
Imagine Neon Genesis Evangelion without the central character, Shinji. In this version of the story, Shinji is either never born or dies at birth. Either option means Gendo Ikari becomes more secluded, more warped, and more driven to protect the world at all costs. Rei continues to fall, die, and be remade. With Shinji out of the picture, Gendo is more driven to use Rei, push Rei, and toss Rei aside. She would most likely pilot Eva 01 and be replaced each time she dies. Gendo would rebuild her, over and over again, to ensure that the connection between Rei and Eva 01 is present. Without Shinji to provide that connection, Gendo would certainly use the clone he created specifically for the task at hand.
Imagine a series about this intrigue, as the people around Gendo become more and more frightened by his madness and willingness to throw aside innocent lives for his goal. In the middle of all this, enter Asuka—erratic, forceful, the total opposite of Rei. The two being pitted against each other would be fascinating to watch without Shinji being shoehorned into the middle of their conflict. Rei would seem indifferent to most things, which would drive Asuka crazy—as would Rei’s abilities, which would most likely continue to surpass Asuka’s.
Imagine an Evangelion AU that is just comprised of female leads and Gendo. Shinji isn’t necessarily a dull character—don’t get me wrong—but he’s nowhere near as interesting as an alternative version of the story where a more psychotic, untamed Gendo is cloning like crazy and his only opposition is an emotionally unchecked Asuka.
Next month, we will be diving into the musical side of our favorite medium, as we explore the “Most Overlooked Anime Soundtracks.” Until then, God bless, and take care.