Have you ever read a really awful fan-fiction of your favorite anime character, where the writer pictured them as all powerful? Or even where the writer has them as some ideal portrayal of themselves, and what they want to be? The magical girl can do this or that in my fanfic because I want to do it too – a self-insert essentially. Perhaps when we look back to the time when we read these fanfics, we didn’t really notice the lack of skill in writing and storytelling in them. The fanfic was written wholly for this character, and nothing else mattered. The character would become the master of the universe, but would ultimately fall to common and very predictable fictional tropes.
And soon enough, we would notice similarities in these kind of fanfic characters to ones in the shows we watch now. Characters that are capable of overpowering and overshadowing everyone else. Characters that we may grow to love, but at the same time wish that their presence wouldn’t dominate a show. Characters that sends everyone else in the show to the loser’s table, purely because the writer wanted the show solely to be about them. Or even characters created as a result of poor writing and storytelling due to the simple fact that the writer loved them so much that they wanted it to be all about them. If you read the several hundreds of anime forums out there, even the ones from 10+ years ago, there will be at least one post (with around a dozen pages worth of comments) with fans discussing/arguing who they consider to be ‘Mary Sues’.
Some nerdy history here. This term of Mary Sue originated in the 1970s from a Star Trek fanfiction, A Trekkie’s Tale, that described a 15-year-old lieutenant, Mary Sue, who makes it onto the bridge of the Enterprise in a very short space of time, and is immediately loved and adored by the crew. Then when the captain and senior crew all fall sick from an unknown disease, she commandeers the ship singlehandedly back to Federation space before falling ill and dying herself. Her triumphs end up winning huge accolades in Starfleet, and even a national holiday is created in her honor. Now I admit that I like to use the term Mary Sue a lot myself, since they help me describe characters in anime shows that can often annoy the heck out of me. Characters that are capable of doing absolutely everything, leaving considerably less room for others in the show to develop. And while I like to call out ones in shows I dislike, there are even some in shows I like, but still enjoy watching the show regardless.
Here in this post, I’ll be highlighting a few others that some might not see as fitting the role itself, and then talk about the term itself and why it’s become such a talking point in the anime fandom. And of course, you are more than welcome to suggest even more, or poke at me for being wrong or something.
Before we jump straight into us thinking that a ‘Mary Sue’ is all about being amazingly perfect, like some Mary Poppins or Commander Shepard, I want to put out the idea that these characters don’t really need to be popular or even likeable. Characters like Kirito or Tatsuya are portrayed as capable of doing anything and everything in order to get all the things they want, whether it be fame, fortune, love, or just recognition. Tatsuya’s sister, Miyuki, has already devoted her life to her older brother and is more than happy to die for him, while Kirito’s own experience in MMOs makes him vastly superior to all the other SAO gamers, winning him praise from every other player. But if we look closer at their character designs, they are in fact both extremely dull, leaving little room for us to get to know them better outside of their talents. Tatsuya alone proves this; he gains all this praise and attention and love, and yet he appears to show very little emotion. It’s almost as if the writers let all of their magic and their powers do the job for them. Our attention instead turns to what they can do and are capable of, instead of who they are.
A lot of us like to see flaws in characters and point them out; that’s what makes them the most entertaining and most engaging to watch. Male high-school kids get called out for being perverts, tsunderes get called out for being too emotional, best buddies at school become comic characters and the butt of jokes, and so on. I mean, someone like Deku in My Hero Academia is such a beloved character that fanfic writers may actively want him to be the victor no matter what the odds against him are. But he is a flawed character, and the original writer is keen to show us that, thereby making him someone we can relate with and cheer on. But when the idea of sheer perfection comes in a storyline, and a poorly-written one at that, it just gets…uninteresting.
There are characters like Deku who has mighty power and is someone we can genuinely cheer on, so the concept of ‘characters being perfect’ doesn’t always make them the worst character in the world. I’d like to pick out one example in particular, of a show I really enjoyed. Superhero shows all give us character with awesome powers, either magical, supernatural or technological. Tatsunoko’s remake of the Gatchaman franchise gave us something a little different, both in terms of visuals and storytelling. Like the original franchise, our heroes were chosen and plucked out of nowhere to do their duty, no matter who they were. In Gatchaman Crowds, we see that they can be anyone from an anti-social salaryman to a rich genius boy. Or they can just be a quirky high-school kid. Enter Hajime Ichinose.
She enters the show portrayed as ‘that’ girl in the class who is well-liked but is still seen as a bit of a weirdo. She loves collecting stationery, and behaves in a very childish but amicable way. It is only when she is chosen to become a Gatchaman when we see the big changes in her. By changing traditions, she initially gains the wrath of others in the squad, like her own senpai Sugane, who is far more serious and dutiful in his role as a Gatchaman, as well as the defacto leader Paiman. As the show goes on, we are given the impression that Hajime does not really take the role of Gatchaman very seriously, and by disobeying orders and choosing to do her own thing, she makes the other Gatchaman panic that she might do something very stupid. But this turns out to be the complete opposite.
I think Hajime is interesting in that it isn’t really the fact that she has great powers or magical abilities; she is just an average Gatchaman with average Gatchaman abilities. Instead she becomes someone that wins over the others thanks to the actions she does. While the others want to see the antagonists (the MESS) as something to fight, Hajime chooses to communicate with them, to see who they are and why they came. This action alone means no more MESS abductions, and makes the others question why they are fighting them in the first place. She also puts out the idea that the Gatchaman need not conceal their identity to the public – not to gain popularity, but to be transparent to the people they protect. And in the director’s cut of the show, we see that she is able to singlehandedly defeat the big bad of the show, the super powerful alien Berg Katze, by shoving their NOTE (the transformation device) into her own chest, in effect rendering him powerless. She eventually becomes someone the others look up to and admire, purely because she broke the mold, and was able to make the other Gatchaman members think for themselves, as opposed to being shackled by the role of anonymous superhero.
Hajime is a curious creature, and is still someone that overshadows nearly everyone else in the show. We are presented with so much information about herself, while nearly every other character design is secondary. Only Rui Ninomiya really gets the exposure they want (and deserve), and even then it’s not always as a result of their actions. Because Hajime is able to win the hearts of so many by going down the offbeat trail, she becomes the almighty darling of both Gatchaman Crowds seasons. Heck, even half of one episode is devoted to the others in the show saying how amazing she is and how much she has changed their lives for the better.
But Hajime is still a character I loved watching, and Crowds remains one of my favorite shows. She has no magical powers or is stronger than the strongest. And so I go back to the term ‘Mary Sue’. It has that negative connotation because of how the writer wants their favorite character to be, where the entire universe revolves around them. And in Crowds, while Hajime is the main lead, the secondary characters still get their airtime and become people we cheer on. While in a show like The Irregular at Magic High School, Tatsuya becomes the master of the universe, and the whole world in the show is effectively at his mercy. We even get to see in one episode how he obliterates an entire navy with one shot of his magic…and that’s just one example.
Maybe the term can just apply to those characters who have some divine prophecy aura about them, or are even just extra special. An anime character can become ‘extra special’ for many things, either by being a beacon to others in shows, like Hajime, or just by being someone entirely central to the show itself, like any lead character in an isekai show.
I’m often very reluctant to pick up those kind of shows. The stereotype of ‘loser gets another chance in life by becoming someone adored by many in a fantasy world’ is the hip new thing right now, and despite them dominating the new anime seasons, they just don’t appeal to me at all. One reason might be this ‘sudden switch/reincarnation to a new world’ plot point, and another might be the unnecessarily-long show titles, but a big one is the main lead character themselves. Don’t get me wrong; some isekai leads have been very cool to watch. I’ll take Tanya Degurechaff from Saga of Tanya the Evil as a big example.
An athiest salaryman who is murdered by a disgruntled employee gets a second shot in life as a teenage girl of an empire that is not dissimilar to the likes of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires of World War 1. She ends up climbing high in ranks to eventually become a major of a flying mage soldier unit, and becomes well-respected in the Imperial Army, despite being so young. Interesting how she doesn’t come into this world knowing of what will happen (like isekai shows centered around video game worlds); instead it’s more about Tanya’s climb in the ranks and her mission to find a cushy job so she doesn’t have to lift a finger again, and to prove to the all-powerful being who sent her to this world that there is no such thing as a god.
(Curiously, the show’s movie features an opponent character, Warrant Officer Mary Sioux, who wants revenge for her father’s death. I don’t know this was a direct poke at the term or not, but her own character design is interesting too, and makes a mark on the movie so that Tanya doesn’t dominate the setting like in the series.)
Saga of Tanya the Evil stands out in that despite what she likes to think, Tanya is no-one special or outstanding. Meanwhile, other isekai show main leads are overpowered to the level that they can become arrogant and annoying to watch. In No Game No Life, brother and sister Sora and Shiro are so skilled and knowledgeable in all kinds of games (both analog and video) that they become seemingly untouchable in the new world they are transported to. We already know from the very first episode that they will win every game they play in this new world, and so the fact they enjoy rubbing their success into everyone else’s faces can give us all sorts of opinions about the two of them. It isn’t that the two have dull character design, but instead it’s more like this character design is something that can annoy the heck out of viewers, and with them both dominating the show so much, that reflects on our enjoyment of the show. It doesn’t help that the show itself is polarizing, in terms of overuse of color and unnecessary fan service. I have a lot more to say about No Game No Life, but maybe for another time.
I guess another reason why isekai shows don’t really appeal to me is because all of them seem to blend into one now, and it’s pretty tough to find ones that stand out in particular, like Saga of Tanya the Evil and No Game No Life do. Right now, each anime season is swamped by isekai light novel adaptations, and soon enough this trend will be replaced with something else. For now though, isekai shows seem to be here to stay, and thus watching overpowered main leads might have to be something we have to put up with for the meantime.
There are many many other examples that we can point out. I mention those forum posts that are over 10 years old again; we are capable of arguing for hours and days and weeks on end on who is the best ‘Mary Sue’ (or worst, depending on how you see it). And I will also go back to how I think that it’s worth noting that not every seemingly-perfect character can be called a ‘Mary Sue’. A middle-school girl becoming a Puella Magi, only to then become the goddess of life, the universe and everything, like Madoka Kaname, wouldn’t count. As we watch the show and the movies, we realize that it is her own selflessness which becomes her greatest weakness. Her kindness ended up becoming something others are able to take advantage of. So just because she turns into the most powerful magical girl ever, that doesn’t mean she is a flawless character. Madoka Magica as a whole makes a point of finding massive flaws in all five main characters, and making them a central part of their downfall. The movie Rebellion, which has Homura Akemi as its main protagonist, shows us how powerless someone like Madoka can really be, and so it becomes Homura’s own actions that puts her beloved into a prison of her own making.
(I could go into a deep philosophical discussion about her reasons for doing so, but I abandoned the franchise long ago, for the sake of myself and the people around me – more on that here.)
I won’t be fighting my corner too fervently on who is a ‘Mary Sue’ and who is not; that would make me no better than the people in 10-year-old anime forums that would bicker for weeks. Do you carry on watching shows because your favorite character can do everything right? Or do you actively enjoy shows where things go terribly wrong? Our practically perfect characters will have their time in the spotlight, but arguing over who is the best ‘Mary Sue’ (or worst, depending on how you see it) in anime will still be something that will carry on for many years to come.