This is an idea that’s been rattling around in my head for a while. Spurred into life thanks to a not so recent discussion from Karandi of 100 Word anime talking about smart characters in anime, with some assistance from my recent watching of season 2 of Dr. Stone.
While we all love to see smart people doing smart things in anime, there’s something just as charming and appealing about the smooth brained antithesis of characters like Senku that makes us love them just as much.
It seems like a subject that’s easily forgotten when discussing shonen anime, mostly because there are no shortage of stupid, dim-witted or oafish characters to pick from in any given show. More often than not, being characters whose presence doesn’t often extent further than comic relief.
Be that as it may, there’s still something attractive and heartwarming about the big dumb guy or girl. Something that makes you love them, almost more than you do the cerebral juggernaut that they sometimes playing second banana to. Even when the main character is the dumb one, they often get overshadowed by the mentor, friend or rival who shows a cool, competence intelligence that makes them more of a fan favourite.
Back when I wrote about the difficultly inherent in writing intelligent characters, and how it oftentimes mean the author had to do a crap ton of research and effort to make the elaborate plans of the smart hero make sense. Faking intelligence is difficult, because fans poking holes in the logic of their plans undermines the nature of them being smart in the first place.
It’s why I sometimes find it frustrating when writers seem to confuse intelligence and planning with clairvoyance. Like being an intelligent individual somehow makes you able to perfectly predict the exact actions of your opponent… but this is ground I covered before.
There’s none of that problem with dumb characters. If anything, these kinds of characters write themselves. They’re all about never giving up, enjoying the thrill of the fight and having total belief in their their friends. And as well worn as these tropes are, there’s something so inherently satisfying about them. Using Dr. Stone as the example while I’m already thinking about it, Senku has a best friend who is as dumb as Senku is smart in the form of Taiju.
As he is reintroduced in the second season of the anime, it’s been a while since we saw Taiju. As he kind of vanished after the first handful of episodes of the first season. When it comes back in the second, he is so delighted to hear Senku’s voice again that he simply screams his name over and over. His faith in and love for his friend distilled to something of a primal howl. As much as Senku is an exciting, dynamic character, there’s just something about the straightforwardness of Taiju that incites a reaction from me that Senku himself never could.
And yet we don’t really find ourselves highlighting these kinds of characters all that often at all. Maybe it’s because anime is inodated with dumb characters and they’re generally pretty interchangeable. Although the ones with a little more depth are the ones that fall more into the idiot savant category. Morons in all respect except one, usually combat.
The likes of Son Goku, Naruto and Gon are all actually geniuses in certain respects. But dumb in all others. It makes them easily likeable in that we can all relate to feeling stupid compared to our peers, but also in that they too often find a thrill in the action that we’re thrilled to be watching them perform. In short, it’s easier to connect to them than to a super genius whose inner machinations are beyond our understanding.
Being simple to write doesn’t mean they’re free from the same old examples of lazy writing that intelligent characters can suffer from as well. Their stupidity can become a crutch for the writers to dig them deeper intro trouble, which ends up making you dislike the character for their lack of intelligence. The most prominent recent example in my mind has been how Goku has been written in Dragon Ball Super.
In the original Dragon Ball manga, Goku was always dumb,. But that came from naiveté and a lack of education. Something that came back strongly in Super as Goku’s stupidity become a more prominent aspect of this character, and not for the better.
It comes down to how the writer makes use of that stupidity within the context of the story and whether it becomes a hinderance or not. Like when Goku travelled through time without a sealing charm, or like when he decided to give Moro a Senzu Bean or when he let Hit win their match in the universe 6 tournament. When your dumb character is actively making the situation worse through their dumbness, it’s just frustrating more than endearing.
I think it comes down this; you need your characters to make poor choices in order for your story to be exciting and dramatic. They need to fall afoul of their character defects or the weaknesses to make the story more interesting. When the character’s boneheaded choices just come from them being too dumb to know any better, it feels like poor writing for poor characterisation to me.
It’s be one thing for the character to be manipulated into failure due to their lack of intelligence, but when they just grab defeat from the jaws of victory for seemingly no reason, it ends up turning me against them more than anything.
To me, I love it when a character being a dumbass is actually one of their biggest strengths instead of being one of their weaknesses. Almost like their stupidity is their superpower. It makes them so much more compelling and entertaining as a character. Like Arthur from Fire Force, whose delusion is directly proportional to how strong he is. Literally: the dumber he is acting, the more powerful he becomes.
Another is Todo from Jujutsu Kaisen, while a genius in the ways of combat, he otherwise choses to revel in acting like a total fool. To the point where he deludes himself into thinking Itadori has been his childhood friend for years just because they have same taste in women. He acts like an utter buffoon, and as a result has become a fan favourite as a result.
The thing is, there’s much less pressure on a dumb character to impress you in comparison to a smart one. If anything, they’re constantly shooting upwards, and any time they do impress you, it’s like a bonus. Which isn’t really fair on these kinds of characters to be honest.
They all generally display an unwavering confidence, derive some kind of pleasure from being pushed in a right and show utter, unrelenting belief in their friends. While these kinds of character generally don’t display high intelligence to impress you, they often possess so many other positive qualities that we oftentimes overlook them. Which I say is a disservice.
I love dumbass, stupid, moron characters. They entertain us, they thrill us, they make us laugh and they make us cry. But most importantly, they give us some great screen captures for our blogs.