So, I happen to watch anime that tends to have a very high ratio of female characters to male. Yes, these have a tendency to be harem anime adapted from light novels.
Now before you stop reading I should note that it's not that I even like harem anime. I don't really watch them for the kinds of reasons they get marketed. Chances are the only reason I will really watch it is because of the protagonist or for the setting of the show- both of which are actually the most criticized factors in these works. Why?
The reasons given for the most part for the former is that they are overpowered, have no personality, lack sexual maturity, and most importantly, that they are self-inserts which are simultaneously designed for the purpose of the intended audience projecting themselves onto the protagonist.
To make it short*, essentially this is what those criticisms are trying to say in detail from everything that I could infer:
- Overpowered = "The conflict isn't dangerous enough for me to care and I cannot get excited over someone that is capable of success without what I consider sufficient effort spent"
- Have no personality = "The character lacking in flaws makes me incapable of recognizing them as a person"
- Lack sexual maturity = "The only people who could relate to actually being that timid when in sexual situations are the kinds of losers that can't get girls"
- Self-insert = "The business model tells me enough that it doesn't matter what the character is, they are a self-insert, and they are meant for the audience to project onto them."
I only learned of the last one very recently and it's actually the one that bothers me the most, because it means that no matter what, because of the marketing involved in these kinds of works, all protagonists must be seen as the author's direct representative. Why does that bother me? Well mostly, because I don't actually like the authors of these works, chances are, I don't like the author of any work. Because everything they wrote in their work is what they wanted out of it, or was included for the purpose of appealing to the intended reader.
So, what even is a self-insert, anyway? Well, if your character doesn't look like you, doesn't act like you, doesn't live like you, doesn't think like you, and was intended to imitate the marketing trends, what is left to make them like you is only what you want. Ultimately what this ends up meaning is that when people complain about a self-insert, what they are essentially saying is: "Fuck you for writing about who you want." Parallel to this is: "Fuck you for giving this protagonist a good time."
Now here's the thing, the really important part, if the audience is convinced the protagonist isn't who the author wants, then chances are, they will stop using this criticism. There is a somewhat paradoxical nature to this idea of a self-insert protagonist meant for the intended audience to project themselves onto- the audience sucks at projecting onto self-inserts, particularly when they are much more competent than the audience, and because they are so used to trying to see themselves in a protagonist, they flip out at how the story isn't tailored to their requirements for empathy. However, as I've said, if they're convinced the protagonist isn't who the author wants, it doesn't matter if they actually are a self-insert or not, people won't see the character as one.
To demonstrate which is considered acceptable and which is subject to derision, I will be contrasting Natsuki Subaru and Bell Cranel.
Natsuki Subaru is:
- Insolent (refers to royal candidates on the level of pets, holds contempt for his so-called special one for not being a convenience, declares that he lewdly fantasizes over the two maids of his host's home to their faces, assumes he's hot shit in spite of lack of evidence)
- Ignorant (goes about acting like he's free to do whatever he wants, accuses knights of being nothing but born into a comfortable high-status job, feels disbelief at broken trust or lack of understanding even when there isn't much to suggest he would have earned it)
- Righteously minded (asks for little in return for his efforts, aims to save people because he feels that's how things should be, feels entitled to things going his way)
- Impotent (his only real strength is his ability to gather information with the aversion of life-threatening risk, for the most part he needs someone else to do the actual job for him because none of the skills he had from his former world are really of relevance)
We must keep in mind what setting Subaru is meant to be in, he is an everyday shut-in civilian protagonist transported into a fantasy world in which you can more or less assume everyone else of relevance is more respectable than he is, who nevertheless goes around shamelessly geeking it out and acting as though he is deserving of fair treatment and recognition from most people he meets. He still earns the favor of a half-elf royal candidate and one of the twin maids he got to know through work because they have an obligation to believe in him as a result of his efforts to help.
Bell Cranel is:
- Humble (goes to return a grimoire he unintentionally used to apologize even though doing so should undoubtedly put him into severe debt, is aware of his shortcomings and tries to avoid inconveniencing others but will comply when he comes to an understanding, will hold out for his friends and goddess to sacrificial extents if needed)
- Innocent (lacks sinful feelings and resentment, aims to help and understand the victimized in need, has the dream of becoming awesome for its own sake, behaves in a very childlike manner and wears his heart on the sleeve)
- Ambitious (is incredibly enthusiastic over new gains, feels guilty over having hopes without effort put into it, wants to be sufficiently competent to be worthy as an equal of the one he admires)
- Talented (his unrelenting will to become stronger causes his physical capabilities to improve more quickly than everyone else)
Unlike the former, Bell is a native to his world and more or less already knows how things work where he lives. You see him from near the beginning of his journey where he is reasonably capable of fending for himself, but is saved from an accident nearly getting him killed. He was rejected from most communities that he tried to request taking him in because his appearance suggested he was weak, but in everyday life he was largely unremarkable and going into the dungeon to hunt monsters is essentially his job as do many others. Unfortunately, he has a tendency to attract attention from unpleasant individuals as the story progresses and he believes he is still far from reaching his goal of being strong enough to be recognized by his savior.
Subaru is the one that is accepted and Bell is the one subject to derision. This is because, more than anything, the problem is in conflict of interest.
Let's review the common factors for criticism, being overpowered, having no personality, lacking sexual maturity, and being a self-insert.
Subaru is consistently incompetent, is riddled with flaws(although he is still considered a good guy), and doesn't mind implying predatory behavior on his behalf.
Bell keeps becoming stronger at an extraordinary pace, is too nice to be even comprehensible, and tends to flee from sexually aggressive or unintended intimate contact.
Most people do not want to be Bell, covet Bell, respect Bell, or want Bell to be happy. Humans have great difficulty seeing themselves in Bell, and thus criticize him so much further, demanding answers for why any girl would favor him, why he gets to hold power, and ultimately in being unable to even really think about anything about the character himself, go on to use this as an excuse to lay on personal attacks toward the creator and the readers it was allegedly meant for. It is quite apparent that their frustration is directed particularly towards someone who has it too good, it is considered a significantly notable improvement for a character to have no particularly appealing quality, get glorified anyway, but end up without being able to savor the fruits of his effort.
Contrary to him is Subaru, who lacks a background besides having come from the world we are familiar with, and was designed to essentially parallel the feelings of coming to a fantasy world as a geek, hype for superpowers and being special included, and the simple fact that he was let down on this hype proved to be an incredibly striking feature to who are the fans today.
With the ease people have for empathy regarding him, and most of the criticism I have seen of his character being that he's kind of dumb and has a rather simplistic motive behind all his effort, while it is disliked for its lack of grandeur, it is not considered something difficult to relate with. He is far more of an acceptable protagonist than Bell is. And there was one last thing that stood out of what I had observed of the positives about this show, in the latest episode, it is clarified that Subaru is not as heroic as many had seem him as up to now, to which it was said that this is a message from the author that the audience is not supposed to agree with the main character.**
Together with the claim in the air about how the author of Re:Zero (the work Subaru appears in) hates the latest trends in light novels (basically young adult fiction for Japan) and made his book to go against the norm, this effectively convinces everyone that's heard of it that Subaru is not a self-insert, destroying the barrier of preconception from keeping people at bay, meaning the business model assumption is rendered null. However, ultimately, the only thing this has really told me is that Subaru is not what the author wants, not in isolation, anyway. For all I know, he actually still thinks like the author. I would not consider it particularly unlikely that the author is writing Subaru from experience or repressed desire and the motive of making themselves seem more important than they really are by emphasizing how much suffering the protagonist goes through. Most importantly, the audience that likes Re:Zero wants Subaru to be happy, at least, eventually.
So wait, didn't I just lay out fairly detailed reasoning and explanation just now? Shouldn't I already know what the problem is?
Well the problem is, I'm the person who vastly prefers Bell Cranel, to the point of which he is the primary purpose behind me watching the show he stars in, I don't even favor any of the female characters but a very minor one that has virtually no interaction with him. I covet, respect, and want him to be happy, because he is one of my favorite characters. (I don't want to be him, but that's part of why I'm not the intended audience.) I am almost certain he does not look, act, live, or think like the author, making him have no greater connection to the author than anything else in the work, which allows me to adore him in isolation. If he is what the author wants, so what? I have problems with human desires when I find them disgusting, not personal desire in itself.
However, there is a cross-cultural understanding of just how you should be telling a story and what the story should be about to be worthy of being considered good. A measure of quality that I do not follow. Because to me, all that really is, is a different way of pandering to the audience.
What exactly is the reason that form of creating something for the audience's consumption is superior to the other? We can't say it's popularity because that has been often proven wrong, much to the dismay of those who do follow the measure of quality that they believe should be used, practically as though they were religious zealots.
If one is to look at gold and steel, they are looked at as different materials that are better at doing different things, and the value of the former is more from its rarity than anything. This kind of pros and cons view of what a written work is aiming to be is largely absent from discussion. It is simply known that one means of appealing is better than the other.
I believe that the way self-inserts are treated, and the personal attacks on authors for when they are employed, show better than anything else the greed and entitlement that comes with expectations for literature. But all I can do when I cannot innately understand the superiority that warrants such emotions behind it is ask for the reasoning of others.
*I know it makes me look dumb in hindsight but I meant it, I could have gone on for way longer
**This is somewhat of a strange concept for me. Considering that a fictional work does not directly put you under social pressure, whether you agree or not with the main character shouldn't hold relevance, it's just a difference. I adore Shiota Nagisa, but even if the work tries to suggest that Nagisa's aversion to femininity due to being male is proper, that doesn't mean that I agree with him in that he should adhere to male gender roles because he is male and my opinion of him isn't as great as it could be as a result, even if I do respect his feelings on the matter. Plus, this is another case where it's apparent I can take how the author is writing things as how the author thinks of the world, even if Nagisa is incredibly unlikely to be a self-insert.