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What's With All the Overpowered Characters in Anime?

by Kim Morrissy,

Eric asked:

Why is there a recent trend in making the protagonists of anime—especially isekai—so overpowered? In shows like One-Punch Man, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, and Isekai Cheat Skill, the heroes are so far ahead of their opponents in power level that they pose no challenge and can vanquish whatever comes their way without breaking a sweat. How did this become a trend? I know many isekai are meant to be indulgent power fantasies, but it seems like breaking a very basic writing rule to make the main characters face so few challenges. In video games, players get bored when there's not enough of a challenge; why should it be different in anime?

The “overpowered protagonist” is hardly a new trend in fiction, but usually, when people talk about this trope in anime, it's about Narō web novel anime adaptations, so that's what I'll discuss here. Around seven years ago, it became increasingly more common to see anime adapted from light novels originally self-published on the Shōsetsuka ni Narō website. The simplest explanation behind the “overpowered protagonist” trope is that hobbyists, rather than professional writers authored the novels. It's only natural that some stories don't follow the conventional playbook in terms of what we consider “good writing.”

From my experiences with the Narō subculture, I can say that there can be a genuine appeal to knowing the general progression of a story from its first page. For some readers, a lack of dramatic tension is the draw. You'll never feel stressed or anxious about what will happen as you turn the pages, and you can still enjoy the catharsis of seeing villains get their butts handed to them. Even if the specific trope of an overpowered protagonist isn't your thing, I think that most people have something they consider comfort food entertainment.

However, that alone doesn't explain why this trend has inspired so many anime adaptations. The deeper answer is more cynical. Business connections are paramount when it comes to creating anime; if you don't already have the industry clout, it's tough to get your IP adapted. The result is that the production committee for any given anime title is usually drawn from a small pool of several dozen companies. Those companies have a disproportionate amount of power in determining which IPs get the anime treatment. Light novel publishers such as Kadokawa are among the biggest investors in anime.

Honestly speaking, web novels with overpowered protagonists have a niche appeal. Some series like That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime and Overlord do manage to become breakout hits, but in terms of raw sales numbers, the print versions of web novels aren't overwhelmingly popular in Japan. This is without even considering what the book market looks like beyond the domain of light novels. I don't say this to imply that web novel anime adaptations take away slots from other, more deserving IPs (the business of getting anime made just isn't that simple), but to observe that “getting an anime” is not the same thing as “being widely popular.”

Having said all of this, web novel anime adaptations typically do enjoy a fair amount of popularity on streaming platforms, so they're not NOT a worthwhile investment from a production committee perspective. High fantasy anime, in general, tends to be popular on overseas streaming platforms like Crunchyroll. Love them or hate them, they have enough of an audience to justify the trend.

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Disclosure: Kadokawa World Entertainment (KWE), a wholly owned subsidiary of Kadokawa Corporation, is the majority owner of Anime News Network, LLC. One or more of the companies mentioned in this article are part of the Kadokawa Group of Companies.

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