Is there a specific characteristic that sets great anime protagonists and heroes apart? While there are perhaps plenty of common traits they share, one that really just out is their ability to be themselves even when being yourself isn’t cool.
Naruto Uzumaki provides us a good example of this funny trait. The Naruto manga is nearing its end, and after a more than ten-year run, it’s hard to remember what the character of Naruto was like at the start. He was hated by his village because of the disaster the Nine-Tails brought upon Konohagakure. But more than that, Naruto was just weird. And although he’s matured so much, Naruto is still weird, far different than most of the hyper-serious, ninja-ninja-ninja-everything residents of the village.
Even as Naruto grows in power and develops his “ninja way,” he retains a sense of doing what’s right, no matter the sacrifice, a trait demonstrated in many ninjas of the past (including his own mentor), but not generally of the culture, which values the village as a whole above individuals. Naruto loves both and is unwilling to sacrifice either.
But you don’t have to just look at shonen series to see this characteristic, though. The same is true in shoujo. Just look at Blue Spring Ride, for instance, where Futaba learns very early on to be true to herself. And from that point forward, she’s unable to be anything but that. She loses her “friends,” risks another friendship by telling Yuri the truth of her love for Kou, and frequently unleashes her feelings and worry about Kou onto him. She’s herself, even though it would be far more convenient if he stayed as she was at the series beginning – a semi-popular girl who fits right in.
I wonder if the Japanese particularly like these characters because of expectations in the country. There’s certainly a less individualistic tone to the culture there compared to the west, and especially in the workplace, where standing out is usually something you don’t want to do. What if we plugged Naruto into a Japanese conglomerate, or did the same with Futaba, or Kyoko (Skip Beat!), or Ichigo (Bleach)? Havoc would ensure (and if this were an anime, the entire business would change), but one thing that wouldn’t alter is this – those characters would stay true to themselves. They wouldn’t choose the culture over their own convictions.
In the Bible, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are in that way analogous to these anime characters. Jews living and serving in Babylon, they refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s idols. While all others in the area were okay with adding the Babylonian gods to their own, these three young men refused. They would not be deterred and they would not be silent. Instead of avoiding trouble and doing the public show of idol worship while practicing their own religion in private, which is what most of the foreigners in Babylon must have done, they said they would not bow down to the idols and the culture. They would rather face death.
But what of us? Are we choosing culture?
Are we like these three young men, and also like Naruto and Futaba and others, refusing to be something else when the culture around us begs us to be, or do we just fit in? The fact is, when we act like the world and refuse to show our true colors there, our deepest values, like our faith, we’re bowing down to the culture.
For instance, if you curse and laugh at vulgar jokes, and even if you just participate in money-hungry practices at your workplace during the week, and then praise God on the weekend, you’re adding the world to your pantheon of gods. You’re choosing the culture. And that speak volumes about your heart and what it is you truly value.
I hope that you might take a moment to meditate on this – on how you act and what you do, and if it aligns with what you believe, particularly if you’re a follower of Christ. If the two don’t jive, and for most of us they won’t (not perfectly), it might be time to rearrange our priorities and move culture lower on the list, where maybe it belongs.