Today we’re trying something a little different. We have a dilemma in writing that’s quite common in anime, a medium known for making ultra powerful beefcakes that can crush planets in the blink of an eye.
By the way, mild Hellsing Spoilers. You’ve been warned.
When writing any kind of action piece, one must be wary of inventing the Invincible Hero. He/She is a powerful badass that has world-shattering capabilities but never seems to actually be interested in taking over the world. Enemies that come before them fall like vampires in the California sun: never standing a chance, and looking like fools in the process.
Anime is not immune to this: We have the likes of Alucard, an indestructible Vampire on the leash of the Hellsing Organization; We have Sebastian, who isn’t a hero, but who routinely saves Ciel with little to no effort. There’s old school heroes, like Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star, or Kenshin Himura from Rurouni Kenshin. This is so common that it spawned the parodic anime One Punch Man, where our hero, Saitama, comically disposes of enemies with one punch, becoming depressed that no one can give him a challenge anymore.
I enjoy watching these guys (and girls) wreck some havoc and take some names, but even I must step back and wonder if this trope is helping or hurting anime. Every fan must take a step back and admit that these uber-strong heroes can be detrimental if mishandled, and cause mind-numbing boredom.
Picture the last time you watched something that had you on the edge of your seat. Were you worried because Batman actually threw Superman halfway across the street? Maybe you gasped when Sherlock finally found himself caught in an impossible dilemma thanks to a very bad, very smart man? Both of these (even with one being more lame than the other) arise from conflict, the little gremlin that makes stories fun and make-believe lives miserable. It breaks down, in simplest form, to this: Problems arise, characters get knocked down, get up again, and vow to never be kept down again.
But this can get dull when you have a character who never loses, and runs the risk of being repetitive. You already know that the main character will win, making what should be an obstacle into another lamb to the slaughter. Kenshiro is never in any danger; fans never worry about Vash the Stampede losing a gunfight; the audience promptly falls asleep.
So how do writers get around this hurdle? The truth, painful as it is, is that this character cannot be the center of attention. The Murder Train character is best left as a side character, a supporting role for a lead who is vulnerable and capable of losing. Black Butler’s appeal may lie in its demonic servant, but its strength sits squarely with Ciel Phantomhive. After all, it’s far more fascinating to watch a child struggle with a demonic contract than following the ever bloody escapades of an undefeated dandy.
Further still, this tropes gleams rather well when subverted, or played for laughs. Seeing “the wall” come down, brick by brick can actually be entertaining when done in the correct fashion. Fans of Hellsing found that out the hard way when Herr General revealed his master plan. It’s arguable whether Alucard was a “hero”, but his copious amounts of screen time made him a main character, and made the Big Reveal that much more shocking. It turns out he wasn’t interested in destroying London, or even starting another war. No, instead, his goal was to reduce Alucard to a state where he could be killed, just to prove a point.
So can your hero be too powerful? The answer is yes: there is a point where a character can be too strong, too smart, too much of anything. But, like any other trope, it can be used to tell a good story. Anime’s Invincible Hero is a tool, not a sickness, that has to be wielded expertly. Whether it be parodic or ironic, I think there will always be room for the Murder Machine on the animated screen.