I am officially sick and tired of writing introductions to posts at the end of the year, because they always come down to the unfortunate observation that, indeed, the past year was a) a certified shitshow and b) in this regard no better than the years that came before. One way in which the year was significantly worse, though, was the absolute dearth of interesting music. Usually, I take this “opportunity” for a year in review post Jel kindly “offers” us annually to blabber on about shoegaze and how much I hate the idol industry, but unfortunately, because this year in Japanese music may as well not have existed, that ship is not going to sail this year. Imagine it being stuck in the Suez Canal or something.
Instead, let’s go with something a bit more traditional this time around. If you’ve ever read my writing before, you know that besides music, I have another big pet topic I won’t shut up about — character writing. Whether it’s because I have a knack for psychology, or simply have no personality of my own, I love picking apart fictional brains to see how the cogs and wires fit together. So, that’s exactly what I’m going to be doing today. This is a homage to the sung and unsung heroes of the year. In other words, an overview of the most memorable and interesting characters I got to meet during these four seasons of anime and tokusatsu, and a woefully misguided attempt at justifying why they — as the kids say — “live in my head rent-free”.
Stacy (Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger)
One of the Super Sentai franchise’s most persistent strengths, especially in recent years, has been its staunch refusal to take any part of itself remotely seriously. In its best entries, the titular heroes tend to share a single brain cell, and are bested in terms of absolute foolishness only by the villains, who spend most of their time causing petty mischief rather than actual harm. In most cases, however, the writers will realize that every garden of Eden needs a snake, and will eventually introduce a single villain who is just straight up bad news. Whenever they step up to the plate, play time is officially over for our colour-coded swashbucklers, and action properly takes the forefront.
Initially, Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger appears no different when Stacy, the raven-haired bastard son of Mobile Commander Barashitara makes his initial appearance. Accompanied by a spaghetti western whistle, he appears to have all the makings of a classic tokusatsu adversary: he uses the heroes’ powers against them, counters their combining robot with a titanic machine of his own, and, with his soft spot for main character Kaito’s grandmother, even seems to have the “long-lost relative” box ticked. The pieces look to be in place for yet another yearlong rivalry, but things quickly take a turn for the unexpected. After a while, the Zenkaigers all but stop being intimidated once Stacy enters the battlefield. If anything, they welcome him like you’d welcome an anxious friend who mustered up the courage to show up to that party after all. Standoffish as Stacy may act, the heroes simply end up treating him the same way they treat any old monster-of-the-week: they refuse to take him seriously.
What this does to Stacy results in some of the most endearing television of the year. He begins to flip-flop between inciting entirely one-sided feuds with the Zenkaigers and being a reluctant ally to them, often getting dragged into their shenanigans, where his overly self-conscious insistence on being seen as a threat provides levity more than tension. Nevertheless, there is something deeply human about Stacy that sets him apart from just about any other goofball in the wacky world of Super Sentai. Above all, Stacy is motivated by jealousy, and for good reason. With his own father treating him like yet another disposable foot soldier, Stacy begins to crave the warmth of a family — something all of his supposed enemies have, but he lacks. Edgy rival characters usually love to boast about how the hero is weak because of their loyalty to their pathetic friends or whatever, but Stacy is different. Zenkaiger’s biggest plot twist is, as a result, not a plot twist at all: Stacy and Kaito aren’t brothers — but Stacy sure wishes they were.
Then again, this is still Super Sentai, and so of course they still need to do the “mysterious villain was actually your long lost family member all along!” twist somewhere down the road. Enter Hakaiser, a perpetually chipper cyborg soldier the bad guys drag out to essentially replace Stacy when they realize he’s not exactly the kind of challenge to the heroes they’d wanted him to be. When Hakaiser is revealed to be Kaito’s brainwashed father, Stacy starts a series of desperate and petty attempts to claim the cyborg as his “best friend”, which goes about as well as you’d expect. Eventually though, he makes the right choice and helps restore Hakaiser’s memories, even if it means Kaito yet again getting something he doesn’t have — a loving father. But at this point, is Stacy truly alone, or is he just fooling himself? With Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger soon making way for the next entry in the Super Sentai machine, there might be just enough episodes left for the titular heroes to drag Stacy kicking and screaming over to their side. Will he get his head out of his ass for long enough to finally accept where he truly belongs?
I mean, this is Super Sentai, people, I don’t know — what do you expect?
Vivy and Diva (Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song)
Wielding brains, brawn and beauty in equal measure, Vivy: Fluorite Eye’s Song’s titular songstress android actually deserves two separate entries on this list — one for Vivy, the empathetic savior of mankind we follow throughout most of the series, and one for Diva, the smug superstar persona who takes over after Vivy’s breakdown following the climactic events of episode 6. Out of the two, Diva is the most immediately memorable. When she makes her initial appearance at the Zodiac Signs Festival, her cheerful use of catch phrases and obnoxious quirks clearly and immediately convey the sense that something’s gone seriously wrong with the Vivy we know and love. She’s happy, and given the circumstances, she’s not exactly supposed to be. Unfortunately for Diva, it soon becomes obvious to all that her presence is a liability; that in spite of her success — in spite of her being everything Vivy wanted to be — she should have all of that taken away from her. If Vivy and Matsumoto are to complete their historical mission, Diva will have to go — and indeed, following a final face-off with the unhinged Yugo Kakitani, Diva allows her own personality to be erased so Vivy can rise again and do what needs to be done.
A noble sacrifice always helps to cement a character’s legacy, but what ultimately makes Diva’s demise so heart-wrenching is the long-lasting effects it has on Vivy as well. When Diva disappears, so does Vivy’s ability to sing, rendering her incapable of fulfilling her one purpose in life. It helps drive home the point that Diva was not an alternate personality as much as a part of Vivy all along, a what-if scenario, a glimpse of what our protagonist could have been if she hadn’t been recruited by Matsumoto on that faithful day 100 years before the apocalypse. By dragging the aspect of her personality that — ironically — humanizes her out of Vivy and inflating it into a character of its own, writers Tappei Nagatsuki and Eiji Umehara manage to highlight the genuine repercussions of their creation’s decision to abandon her dreams for the greater good. As a result, Vivy transcends the traditional “sad android” archetype and explores questions and quandaries about duty, responsibility and the needs of the many versus the needs of the one.
And so, as good writing tends to do, Fluorite Eye’s Song implores us to look inward before casting judgement. So many of these stories ask their audience to be the judge on what constitutes the measure of a man, but this one is confident. Vivy is, unquestionably and unconditionally, human — but are you? Would you lay down your ambitions to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders? Can you kill a part of yourself that defines you, and dedicate yourself fully to others’ happiness? Can such a thing even be expected of you? And if such a thing were expected of you, what would that do to you? These are weighty and ambitious questions for an anime about a hot, time-travelling kung fu idol robot to ask, but somehow, Fluorite Eye’s Song gets away with it without being laughed out of the room. Call it yet another achievement on Vivy’s (and Diva’s) already quite sizeable resume.
Rika Kawai (Wonder Egg Priority)
Rika is on this list because she unapologetically just kind of sucks. She is callous, petty, quick to put the blame on others and above all, eager to toss around the kinds of remarks that would have certain corners of the Internet brand her as irredeemably “problematic”. Yet the more time I spent with Rika, the more I realized just how rare that really is. When teenage girls in anime are flawed in the ways Rika is, they are either outright villains or — to put it mildly — have been written that way because someone, somewhere gets turned on by their behaviour. Rika, however, is sincerely flawed, and her inclusion in the main cast an appeal to our humanity. It’s not often that an anime asks, nay, demands that we sympathize with a character who does not exist simply for the viewer’s sake, be that entertainment or acknowledgement of pre-existing beliefs. Wonder Egg Priority, for all its tragic flaws, pulls it off. Its characters are messy and contradictory in the way that humans often are, and not one of them is messier than this foul-mouthed, self-centred former idol.
Wonder Egg Priority covers a lot of themes, characters and ideas over the course of twelve episodes — and one special we’d all rather forget about — so unfortunately, Rika doesn’t get the time to grow she deserves, but what we do get does enough to humanize this troubled teen. A father she’s never known, a mother who’s irresponsible at best and abusive at worst and most importantly, a crushing feeling of guilt over the death of a friend who starved herself after Rika insulted her weight — Rika’s young life is burdened with tonnes upon tonnes of baggage, and the show does one heck of a job demanding you see her as human nevertheless. Rika’s trauma isn’t there so Wonder Egg Priority can show off how tragic and miserable it is; what it shows most of all is that this is the kind of shit you don’t just get over, not even if entering a dream world and fighting Hieronymus Bosch’s worst nightmares promises to bring back what you lost. Rika might hope that her friend can be resurrected, but she knows her own innocence will remain buried forever. In a sense, growing up itself is a kind of trauma.
Knowing this, Wonder Egg Priority makes sure to have Rika constantly repeat the same mistakes. Even though the repercussions of her prior behaviour have scarred her so badly she now self-harms to alleviate the anguish, she remains compelled to be cruel to be kind, because self-preservation with callous disregard for other people is the only thing she knows. It seems to be the only thing her mother, who is only able to keep herself together through indulgences at Rika’s expense, has taught her. Consequently, Rika’s defining moment in the series occurs when she casually asks Ai and the rest of the squad why they don’t just quit. It shows that, in the end, her determination to redeem herself isn’t as strong as her trauma’s insistence that it doesn’t matter. It’s an incredibly selfish thing to say — that essentially, giving poor Chiemi a new lease on life isn’t worth it because it sure as hell won’t solve any of Rika’s problems — but an incredibly human thing nevertheless. Bleak of a conclusion as it may be, Rika sucks simply because her life sucks. It hasn’t been an easy way into the situation she’s in, and it certainly won’t be an easy way out.
Chise Asukagawa (SSSS.Dynazenon)
I will always have a soft spot for those characters who just have to live in the worlds threatened by the unspeakable evils foretold in grandiose epics; who have to drag themselves through the banality of modern life while their friends get to be the ones to save the future. You know, the grunts. The civilians. The obligatory best friend of the main character who exists only to create the semblance of an implication that “this could be you!” The people who are not special, who are not the chosen ones, and who get this unfortunate fact rubbed in their faces like a rag drenched in chloroform whenever the real heroes do so much as breathe in their general direction. The… — well, you know the word. The one that transphobe came up with in those books people refuse to stop talking about. That one. Yeah. Anyway, if there were — get this — a mecha show that, like, instead of being about just a cool big robot, would actually also be about those people — the regular Joe Schmoes living in a world where cool big robots are a thing — a truly unprecedented idea that has never been done before — you could bet your proverbial backside I would include that show in my post about the best characters of the year, right?
Joking aside, the strength of SSSS.Dynazenon’s character writing lies in the fact that it provides only a glimpse into a pivotal moment in its characters’ lives. They don’t miraculously go from dysfunctional to self-actualized in the span of twelve episodes, not even by getting to pilot a giant robot, and not even by saving the world. Screenwriter Keiichi Hasegawa throws to the wind the idea that character arcs need to be neatly tied up with a little bow in order to be meaningful, that writing is a mathematical equation starting with a clearly defined tragic backstory, which is to be completely and satisfyingly resolved by the end of the narrative. People are, after all, more than the events they live through. Dynazenon makes this abundantly clear. It never explicitly tells us why Gauma’s relationship with the other Kaiju Eugenicists turned sour, why Yomogi is such a self-destructive people pleaser or why Koyomi ended up traumatized by Inamoto’s little ticker-tape parade. Every member of Dynazenon’s cast — yes, even the mummy — is a fully-fleshed out human being, who will continue their struggle through life after the credits roll — better than they used to be, but not at all perfect.
Perhaps most noticeably of all, though, Hasegawa never hands us on a silver platter why exactly Chise — Koyomi’s cousin, sidekick and biggest fan — became a shut-in in the first place. It’s heavily hinted at she got ostracized at school because of an ill-advised tattoo, but the show deliberately shies away from any major, dramatic reveals — almost as if it revels in setting viewers up to be disappointed. Similarly, there’s the nagging sensation one gets that throughout most of the show, Hasegawa doesn’t so much sow the seeds for Chise’s heel turn as he scatters them in every nook and cranny. There’s the mysterious kaiju seed she is revealed to be holding onto, the constant reminders that she suffers under being little more than the team’s cheerleader, and perhaps most interestingly, her apparent and utterly agonizing anxiety at the prospect of losing Koyomi, the only person willing to indulge her, to the alluring temptations of a “normal” life.
The only problem is — this heel turn never happens. Chise doesn’t turn against her friends, she never once even doubts them, because in the end, she knows that Koyomi will not abandon her and that no one who really matters will think less of her because she didn’t happen to get picked to pilot one fourth of a cool robot. Her relentless optimism and support for her friends are ultimately what reward her with Goldburn — the lynchpin holding Dynazenon’s most powerful form together in what has to be one of the most on-the-nose metaphors of the year — but it is the changes that Koyomi and co. go through which ultimately inspire Chise to start moving forward as well. It’s a powerful tale of absolution — if you can even call it that — through empathy, told in the background of more grandiose events, but of no lesser importance. I’m sure Chise will be back to cheer her friends on in the upcoming Gridman and Dynazenon crossover movie, and I’ll be there to give her my support.
Kururun (Tropical-Rouge! Pretty Cure)
Sometimes a character sticks with you because of their endearing personality or their memorable lines. Sometimes, it’s because they’re just cooler or funnier than everyone else. Sometimes, it’s because they play a unique role in an otherwise trite narrative. And sometimes, a character sticks with you entirely by coincidence. Tropical-Rouge! Pretty Cure does not give you any reason whatsoever to remember its obligatory mascot, Kururun the sea fairy. His entire skillset consists of either sleeping in the background or enthusiastically yapping his own name. He does not speak, has no magic powers to speak of and can be outwitted by a dog that otherwise wouldn’t be able to recognize its tail as a part of its own body. Long story short, Kururun is fucking useless. He is a disgrace to the queens, royals and saviours of the world in whose glory he is somehow allowed to bask. He manages to be a complete and utter waste of space even when he spends most of his time in his private, extra-dimensional aquarium. His vapid, unchanging, pastel pink phizog makes Kyubey’s beady-eyed gaze look like the a smorgasbord of sincerity. He sucks. And that’s why I love him to bits.
You see, mascot characters always suck. I know this, you know this, everyone knows this. Heck, most people who come up with mascot characters for a living know they suck, which is why seeing a mascot character who doesn’t spit in the face of everything deemed conventionally kawaii nowadays is honestly kind of a rarity. Precure has such a long and proud history of obnoxious, squeaky fuzzballs, however, that caving to the haters and not playing the mascot as straight as an arrow would be just short of heresy. In other words, without a mascot, there can be no Precure, not even when, as is the case in Tropical-Rouge!, the traditional mascot duties fall on another character entirely. With disaster mermaid extraordinaire Laura La Mer dishing out the magical powers and exposition, what could possibly be left for poor Kururun to do? The answer is, of course, nothing whatsoever. Kururun simply exists because he has to, because a Precure series without a cuddly toy is like an English pub without lukewarm beer. He is both integral and completely pointless, and it’s this paradox that makes him so much fun. Kururun is a glorified cameo, and just like any cameo, pointing out he’s there in the first place is part of the fun. This little guy’s elevated the humble background walk-on part to an art form, and however meaningless his contributions might be, they will be sorely missed when he inevitably gets replaced by a critter ten times more talkative, but only half as memorable.
If you’re still reading at this point, you’ve probably suffered through so much positivity at this point you might become inclined to stop watching anime altogether — and we can’t have that. Therefore, as a little bonus, allow me to spit at least some bile onto this festive dinner and present to you this year’s Hall of Infamy, dedicated solely to the most insufferable characters of the year. For the sake of my sanity, I have limited myself to shows that are otherwise pretty tolerable, or else we’d still be here until our inevitable deaths and reincarnations into other worlds. Sorry, horny baby from Mushoku Tensei. I’m sure there are other people out there willing to give you the hate you deserve.
Vice (Kamen Rider Revice)
Imagine being so annoying they had to re-tool the very premise of the show you’re in after like eight goddamn episodes just to give you less screen time to waste on your infantile jokes and whatever the Japanese equivalent of a blaccent is. For shame.
Ren Yamai (Komi can’t Communicate)
I know I said every garden of Eden needs a snake just a couple of paragraphs ago, but putting an intensely creepy psychopath in Komi can’t Communicate isn’t so much introducing a snake to a garden as it is setting an entire ophidiarium loose on a five-year-old’s birthday party. Also, the snakes are homophobic.
Takt Asahina (Takt Op. Destiny)
2021 was a particularly egregious year for overly self-absorbed sad sack male protagonists — yes, I am talking about you, whatever your name is from Sonny Boy — but this guy takes the cake for being a rare male example of Kelly Sue DeConnick’s “sexy lamp”. Seriously, can anyone tell me what Conductors actually do aside from wave their arms around? Anyone?
Still here? Congratulations! You have officially survived my pretentious ramblings and may now safely return to whatever it was you were doing before you made the horrible mistake of coming here. Did I forget to include your favourite (or least favourite) character in the list? That probably means I didn’t watch the show they’re from, and you can scream about it at me in the comments. Unless said show is Mushoku Tensei. No, I don’t care that he gets better eventually. Go away and take your horny baby with you. Bye!