“Gohan! Don’t you dare give up!” “You can do it! Believe in yourself! One last time, show me the power we made together!”
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As Earth faced its darkest hour, as the villain Cell prepared to unleash his last attack on Earth, Goku encouraged his son Gohan, their only hope, with those words.
Anime has a lot of stores about willpower. Through believing in oneself and working hard, pretty much anything can be achieved. We’ve seen this in countless tales: the struggle of the Elric brothers, the battles of various Gundam pilots, and of course: Dragon Ball Z. Despite being done so many times over, we don’t seem to tire of watching stories of valiant heroes struggling against all odds to face down their fears and defeat their opponents through their sheer force of will. The question remains though: why do we enjoy these stories so much? Why are these types of stories so prevalent in anime? Why has this concept lasted so long?
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All stories come from people, and every person helps to make up a society. Society helps shape the way that people think, and the way they compose the stories they tell. This is the crux of understanding why Eastern hero stories tend to be fundamentally different from Western hero stories.
In the West, our hero stories tend to center on a single hero, gifted with great power, who faces great horrors on his journey to self-realization. It’s not often easy, and the hero might have some friends or allies along the way, but overall the story centers on the one chosen hero. We see this a lot in the Western tradition, from Odysseus and Hercules to Spider-Man and Batman. Our heroes represent ideals: they’re far too powerful for us to actually try to be, but their presence inspires us to become better.
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Eastern cultures have a decidedly different view on the hero story: Asian cultures tend to place a lot of focus on family and community as the source of self-identity, rather than the individual being the source of their own identity. Through the influence of the family and culture, the self is realized. Thus, Eastern hero stories tend to use the influence of what we’d consider side characters to further the development of the main character. The strong work ethic of Eastern cultures is also a large factor in the way that these stories develop. From folktales like The Boy Who Drew Cats to modern epics like the Dragon Ball series or even shows like Durarara, Asian hero stories have a greater focus on the effect of hard work and the value of community in the life of the hero.
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Both of these types of heroes serve to reinforce societal standards. In the West, it’s the idea that you can become anything if you aspire hard enough and put effort into it; in the East it’s the idea that hard work and a strong foundation in ones’ culture unlock the path to discovering ones’ true self and unlocking the potential to do great things.
The problem with both views, however, is that willpower can only take you so far.
If sheer force of will were enough to change nations and people, the world would be in a very different place. World peace would surely have been achieved by now, and then immediately abolished by a slew of startups who wanted to rule the world. People would find a way to have perfect relationships, technology would be nearly synonymous with magic, and overall there would be a veneer of orderly chaos over the world as will and will balanced each other out as conflicts arose.
Obviously, our world doesn’t look like that. Which begs the question: if these stories represent ideals that we can’t ever attain to, why do we love them? Why do they resonate so deeply within us and cause us to try and make ourselves better because of them?
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Humans express themselves through the stories they tell; we are a reflection of God, expressing ourselves through our creations as He expresses aspects of Himself through His Creation. Thus, the stories we tell speak volumes about the way we perceive the world and how we want to approach it. The epic clash between good and evil, the heartfelt struggle of a lone hero against insurmountable odds, these fantastic tales help us to give a semblance of hope to the everyday ups and downs we all experience. Stories help us to come to grips with issues large and small, and give us a safe space in which to explore and understand these fundamental parts of the human experience
The epic gives us a place to embrace the mundane in new ways. As sinful creatures living in a sinful world, we instinctively understand on some level that we are burdened by sin (Rom 8:22) and that we need to be saved. Sin is not merely a weight, however; sin blinds us to the truth. Our longing for self-peace eventually drives the unsaved heart inward, and we try to find solace in the work that we do. Trying to quiet our inner demons we look inward, hoping to find the strength to work out some type of personal salvation.
A fool’s hope. A lost cause. There can be no salvation for us. An unsaved man cannot find his salvation any more than a blind man can perform surgery. Like the blind man, each attempt to do so only results in more and more pain. Ideals cannot be an end in and of themselves because they are inherently unattainable. Yet ideals are important because they point us to greater heights of personal growth, encouraging us to try harder and to do better.
And what greater ideal is there to live for than Christ?