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Goku to Luffy: How Have the Heroes of Anime Evolved?

A few thoughts about the face of heroics has changed over the years.

After musing about Gon from HUNTER X HUNTER just recently, I figured it was time to push the discussion forward a little and finally put down some thoughts I'm having. I've been thinking about the major heroes of the manga/anime pantheon, and how everybody from Speed Racer to Gigantor to Yusuke Urameshi might fit together into a more defined scheme. Bare with me here...

See, I’ve made it a point to go back and sample as many older series as I’ve got time and space to here and, over the course of it, it’s been hard not to see a general narrative evolution that gradually takes us from Astro Boy to Toriko. Lest we reach too far, we’ll keep this conversation focused to series that are driven by one strong personality, as opposed to the more concept and team-based franchises like GATCHAMAN, VOLTRON and GUNDAM, et al.

Anyway, I started thinking in this direction when I realized that FIST OF THE NORTH STAR was Toei’s premium franchise just prior to DRAGON BALL. Sure, I’d been aware of FIST forever, but I hadn’t processed just how popular it was in its time until I recognized it in that context. To be fair, it’s easy to be short-sighted about this... given the fact that DBZ’s success went on to eclipse FIST’s so totally.

But there’s the question, though - - what was it about Goku that resonated with so many more audiences than Kenshiro?

Well, when you look at most of the major action heroes who preceded these two, they generally seem to pick one theater mask - - either Comedy or Tragedy - - for the better part of their adventures. Indeed, if you break these fellas down into discrete ingredients, the viewers really had to choose how they wanted their specific adventure sub-genres seasoned.

Do you like globetrotting, hyper-masculine crime yarns? If you want some cheeky humor to it, then you’ve got Lupin the Third. But if you don’t want funny business in your gunplay, then you can go with Golgo 13 instead. Likewise, if you like pirates in space opera, then you can either go with the serious Captain Harlock or the jokey Cobra.

(There also seems to be a marked slide, starting with the strictly episodic adventures of GALAXY EXPRESS 999 and BLACK JACK, and moving toward the relentlessly serialized epics of BLEACH and FAIRY TAIL today - - it's less to my point here, but still worth noting).

Yes, I'm painting with broad strokes here but, for my money, the breakthrough Togashi made with DRAGON BALL was to finally fuse the two hot and cold personalities together. Clearly, Goku and Kenshiro are both of the same type - - martial arts masters powered by chi. They might've even conformed to the dualistic paradigm proposed above... were it not for how Goku grabbed the third option by being both silly and kick ass.

When you re-watch FIST today, it's the seriousness of the plot that strikes you first. It's so dour, it feels like it just has to be the slow-burning set-up for a deadpan joke. Contrast that with DBZ: a self-admitted parody of superheroics that gets to have its cake and eat it, too. Goku's such a goofball most of the time, the show uses him to poke fun at the absurdity of all the situations he gets in. However, when it's time to get down to business, you can pump your fist for him more firmly than you would for any self-serious hero. Essentially, he's stronger for not being afraid to look stupid.

It’s all about formula, and by my best bet, ONE PIECE took this breakthrough and ran with it even further. Luffy is not only a kickass Pollyanna, his adventures (often jarringly) cover every conceivable end of the Comedy-to-Drama spectrum. It's as if Oda just wanted to cover all stories he'd want to do under one umbrella, instead of doing individual projects with different tones, and I'd wager that the lack of barriers is one true source for the franchise's success.

Anyway, there's too much to cover here to have any hope of making a conclusive point. Instead, I'd just like to prompt you more learned otakus to chip in. Am I getting at something here? Or do you have your own theory about the top anime heroes have evolved? Voice your opinion in that talkback below!

About the Author

Tom Pinchuk’s a writer and personality with a large number of comics, videos and features like this to his credit. Visit his website - - tompinchuk.com - - and follow his Twitter: @tompinchuk
Lurkeroon Nov. 1, 2013 at 3:49 p.m.

DBZ was a nice blend of comedy and tragedy. That is a very good analysis

zaldaron Nov. 1, 2013 at 7:17 p.m.

Man...Tom you should like expand on this and write a paper...this really does seem like you are on to something here. I wonder if other art has done that to. TV shows in the states certainly have seemed to go to the more dour recently but I can't think of one that has done both dour and funny at the same time well.

When it works the changes in tone in anime (that at times you haven't liked) can be very interesting...at others as you have said it can mean the show doesn't no what it wants to do with itself.

Kino88on Nov. 1, 2013 at 8:44 p.m.

For me, an example of comedy and drama that did not work so well was the first FMA anime release, though I still have to check out Brotherhood. I agree totally with you about One Piece, because that show has no roof whatsoever to hit when it comes to creative concepts' only MADNESS, yet despite all the genre and tonal juggling Oda dose with his work, I guess you could say Luffy and company along with the whole pirate theme is just enough to retain some kind of solid frame work, you see for me the reason One Piece is more engaging in it's silly happenings then something like FMA, is because Luffy's universe is more like an unfolding acid trip take on treasure Island, were'as Edward while certainly a goof ball is at the center of a world that is not only more grounded and logical by comparison, but is also permeated by some seriously heavy and tragic themes, further more unlike One Piece this dark tone is strongly established right from the start.

so I guess my feeling is that tone can be tossed all over the place in an action hero anime, MADNESS is fine so long as it is also consistently MAD, otherwise it's just messy, may be that's why Kill La Kill works so well.

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