About Me

Newfoundland, Canada
I've been a big anime fan for about 10 years or so now. My five all-time favorite animes at this point are, in no particular order... Puella Magi Madoka Magica, El Hazard: The Magnificent World, Love Live!: School Idol Project, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. However, there are hundreds of anime shows that I like. The main purpose of this blog is to provide meta-commentary on anime, and the anime industry - to try to cast a critical, though appreciating, eye upon this entertainment genre that I believe has tremendous potential, but can also be easily wasted. I have always been a fan of animation in general - in the 80s, I grew up on western cartoons like He-Man, She-Ra, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. Through out the 90s, I was a hardcore comic book fan, for the most part. I'm also a big fan of Star Trek. Right now in my life, though, anime is my principal entertainment passion.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Importance of Touch-Point Characters.

Take a copy of this picture and show it to one hundred people entirely unfamiliar with anime.

Then tell them the name, and basic premise, of the anime show that this picture comes from.

Tell them nothing else about this anime show (such as that it's adapted from a seinen 4Koma manga).

Then ask them "Who do you think is the target audience for the show?".

Some may suspect that there's something funny going on here, and that the clever thing to do would be to give a counter-intuitive answer. ;)

Just about everybody else, though, will answer "This show is for teenage girls. In particular, teenage girls that love music and being in bands, which I'm sure many do".

I once got into a bit of trouble with some Anime Suki regulars for more or less pointing out how K-On! would be seen just this way by most North Americans (certainly those not familiar with anime). Here's a random sampling (paraphrased, and going by memory), of the sorts of replies I recieved:

"K-On!'s not for girls. It's an adaptation of a seinen 4Koma manga. Since it's seinen, it's target audience is obviously men between the ages of 18 and 30."

"That's right! It's for male otaku."

"What's so strange about a show with nothing but females in it being for guys? You don't think that guys want to watch a bunch of hot girls?"

In fairness, I don't doubt that many guys like watching a bunch of hot girls. But K-On! has little, if any, sexual content to speak of, and it's almost as far away from pornographic as an anime can get. And hence, I did find it very strange, and I still do to some extent, that a predominantly non-sexual show featuring nothing but female characters is meant for adult male viewers. Given the lack of sexual content, where's the touch-point?:

"Not everything needs a touch-point you know. What your questioning is reality for us, and it's reality for the anime fandom."

Well, maybe that reality should change then...

K-On! did quite well, there's no doubting that. But a significant chunk of K-On!'s success may have been driven by female fans of the show, actually. As was noted on this Anime Suki thread, K-On! was very popular with male and female anime fans alike.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was also in the top six for both genders, going by that thread.

'How can this be?!' some may ask.

'Isn't K-On! and the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya geared towards the male otaku audience?!' others may question as well.

These animes likely are aimed at that audience, but Kyoto Animation might have just lucked out. They have managed to adapt good touch-point characters for female audiences even if they hadn't intended to. I suspect that many female anime fans are able to identify with at least one member of the K-On band, and also that many female anime fans are able to identify with Haruhi Suzumiya and/or Yuki Nagato.

'What's a touch-point character?' some may ask.

A touch-point character is a character designed for the reader, viewer, or gamer to live vicariously through. It's the character (or at least a character) that the reader, viewer, or gamer can experience the writer's fictional world through. You experience the fictional world, either directly or indirectly, through the eyes and/or person of that character.

Quite often, but not always, the touch-point character is the main character of the fictional work.

Perhaps the best anime example of a touch-point character is Kyon, from the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Kyon is never "off-screen", and the entire fictional world is experienced through his eyes and narration. It's a testament to the strength of the characters of Haruhi Suzumiya and Yuki Nagato, then, that many female viewers are able to identify with them in spite of viewing them purely through the filter of Kyon's eyes and assessments. If you don't believe that many female viewers identify with these two characters, then I invite you do to a thorough search through the results of a "Haruhi Suzumiya" or "Yuki Nagato" search on Deviant Art. You'll come across countless pictures of people cosplaying as one or the other; the vast majority of these cosplayers being female of course. ;)

So, contrary to what many anime fans may think, touch-point characters are very nice to have. They may not be absolutely necessary, but they almost always help far more than they hurt.

Don't believe me?

Then let me give you a classic example of a new character created purely for the purposes to provide a certain demographic of viewers with a touch-point character:

No, it's not Batman that's the example here; it's Robin. ;)

Robin was created precisely so boys that liked Batman comics (or could potentially like Batman comics) would have a touch-point character. Batman himself could be a difficult character for boys to relate directly to, given significant age and wealth differences, as Batman is a rich man.

And did the creation and introduction of Robin help the Batman comics?

Well, I'll let Wiki answer here:
"Conceived as a vehicle to attract young readership, Robin garnered overwhelmingly positive critical reception, doubling the sales of the Batman related comic books." (emphasis mine)

So Robin was an overwhelming success for the Batman comic books, and later on for DC Comics as a whole.

Indeed, Robin continues to be one of DC comics' most marketable characters to this very day, as the very recent success of the Teen Titans cartoon TV series shows.

Touch-point characters matter. A good touch-point character like Robin can drastically improve a comic's readership, a TV show's viewership, or a game's sales. You add a good female touch-point character to a cast that already has a good male touch-point character, and you can expand your audience considerably.

The anime industry used to realize the great value of touch-point characters.

Here are three big examples of just that:

DBZ, Pokemon, and Sailor Moon all achieved great popularity and success, in part, through having good touch-point characters geared towrds a particular age and gender demographic.

DBZ always took special care to ensure that there was always at least one prominent adult male protagonist (Goku, Vegeta, Piccolo, etc...) and at least one prominent kid male protagonist (Gohan, Trunks, Goten, etc...) present in the show. Furthermore, Goku and Vegeta provided two very different styles of male protagonists (the good-hearted morally guided hero, and the badass anti-hero, respectively). This meant that a full range of male viewers would have a touch-point character for the anime, in the form of one character or another.

Pokemon was intended as a show for kids; boys in particular. And, sure enough, the main character is a boy, and one of the core characters is a girl (to attempt to bring in female fans).

Sailor Moon was intended as a show for girls. And, sure enough, the main character is female, and almost the entire case is female. The male characters that are there are clearly meant more to be dreamy guys (Tuxedo Kamen, bishi male villains) than to be characters that would easily appeal to males.

Now, is this to say that females can't like DBZ, that adults can't like Pokemon, and that guys can't like Sailor Moon?

Of course not.

I myself liked Sailor Moon a lot, and I'm a guy.

But the people behind DBZ, Pokemon, and Sailor Moon all knew who the target demographic was, and they targeted that demographic through age and gender appropriate touch-point characters.

And folks, this is the most natural and most proven way to appeal to a target demographic; through touch-point characters.

Don't believe me?

Well, consider the Top 10 grossing movies of all-time.

Three of them are Harry Potter movies. Harry Potter himself was intended as a touch-point character for boy readers. Yes, Harry Potter now enjoys a very large adult fanbase, but much of that is due to how many of the initial fans of the book franchise (which started 13 years ago in 1997, after all) have since grown up to be adults, and have simply carried their love of this book franchise with them into adulthood. Also, Harry Potter does have some prominent female characters that are intended to appeal to female viewers.

The Dark Knight is a Batman movie intended to appeal to teen guys and adult men who find Batman cool.

Pirates of the Carribean is similarly intended to have main male characters that seem cool to guys, and hence are worth living vicariously through. These main male characters are also very hot to many women, of course, but it would be a mistake to downplay their touch-point value to adult males.

Star Wars: Episode 1 has a major male character for every age bracket, thanks to Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and kid Anakin. It also has a major female character in Padme. Throw in Samuel L. Jackson playing a role, and just about every demographic base is covered.

Titanic is the classic "chick flick", and the female main character of Rose is a superb touch-point character for females of all ages. For most of the film, she's a 17 year old on the Titanic (young enough for all teen girls to identify with, but old enough for many young women in their 20s to identify with). But for part of the film she's an older woman reflecting back on her Titanic experience with Leonardo DiCaprio's dreamy male lead. ;)

Avatar I actually have not yet seen, and have only a vague familiarity with, so I can't comment on it.

However, this assessment of the Top 10 Box Office successes of all-time illustrates just how important good touch-point characters can be.

However, the touch-point approach is not the current predominant approach of anime.

The current predominant approach of anime can be summed up this way:

The best way to appeal to a certain demographic is by presenting the opposite gender (of that demographic) looking cute and/or sexy, and acting in accordance with that appearance.

And, in fairness, this approach will appeal to a certain number of fans, and people in general. However, I would argue that anime has already maxed out the fanbase that it can get through this approach alone.

If anime wants to grow; if it wants to have anime series' become as popular in North America as what DBZ, Pokemon, and Sailor Moon were; then it needs to get back to the tried, tested and true touch-point approach.

Basically, anime needs a bit of a paradigm shift in its thinking. And by "anime's thinking", I mean the thinking of anime creators, producers, licensers, and fans alike.

Many of us anime fans need to start thinking outside of the "appeal to gender X by showing nothing but the opposite gender looking cute/sexy" box too.

Moe is very popular in anime fandom, but it's also received a bit of a backlash. Moe has many haters just as assuredly as it has many fans. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that I myself am a big fan of moe.

I don't think that the reason for the backlash against moe is people disliking 'cute girl' character designs, or girls with some moe attributes.

I think that the true antipathy that moe haters feel for moe is summed up by how moe represents a great divergence from the touch-point approach, and by how moe sometimes presents pure fetish fuel characters.

You see, there's a nuanced difference between a character created to appeal to the same gender, and a character created purely to appeal to the opposite gender. Case in point:

Sailor Mars is strong, confident, generally competent in battle, and has a fiery and determined temperament. She's meant to seem cool, particularly to female viewers.

Mikuru is meek, mild, moe, and shy. She's intended to come across as frail and vulnerable, hence causing the male viewer to gain an overwhelming sense of wanting to protect the poor girl.

Just as guys generally don't like identifying with many of the harem anime male leads that can come across as indecisive doormat losers, gals generally don't like identifying with really soft and shy and easily overwhelmed characters like Mikuru Asahina. This is why poor pitiable Mikuru is not all that popular with North American fans of the Haruhi anime. She's too obviously fetish fuel. She's too obviously intended to excite the opposite gender, as opposed to appeal to her own.

Moe is not the issue, in and of itself. It's whether or not a character's characterization is meant to make the character appealing to the same gender, or whether that character's characterization is meant to make the character pure fetish fuel for otakus.

Now, there's nothing wrong with a female character being intended to be appealing to male viewers, but how that female character will be received by female viewers should be factored in as well.

If all of your female characters are pure fetish fuel (and your anime isn't a yaoi), then you've just lost any chance whatsoever of appealing to a significant female audience.

This may be hard for male fans to grasp.

But ask yourself this, would you want all male anime characters to be like, and look like, these guys?:

Imagine anime where all the male characters are dreamy guys, bishounens, or shotas.

Does this sound like a dream scenario to you, my male readers? ;)

If not, then why do you think female anime viewers would want every female character to be pure fetish fuel either?

Anyway, my main point, once more, is simply this: Anime needs a bit of a paradigm shift.

Bishis are fine, moe is fine, shotas are fine, all of that is fine.

But in addition to that, it's good to have genuine touch-point characters.

If you're trying to sell a show to guys ages 18 to 30 then it might be a good idea for that show to have a major character that's actually a guy in the 18 to 30 age range, and is intended to be an appealing touch-point character for guys.

If you're trying to sell a show to girls ages 13 to 20 then it might be a good idea for that show to have a major character that's actually a teenage girl, and is intended to be an appealing touch-piont character for teenage girls.

And the same applies for all age and gender demographic combinations.

Appealing to gender X through using attractive gender Y characters does work, but it's not the only (or even the most proven) method.

The touch-point method is the most proven method, and it's the one that I think anime needs to recalibrate its thinking towards. You can use that method and still have sexy women, moe girls, bishi guys, and shota boys. But using that method will make the fetish fuel less noticable, and using that method will also offer a sort of direct appeal that your Average Joe, Jane, Makoto, and Kasumi gets more easily than the fetish fuel approach.

I'll probably be touching a bit more on this topic in future blog entries.

But for now, I conclude my take on this topic, and I look forward to any and all responses to it. :)


  1. Very interesting points and I think you're very right about the differences between the Anime approach to characters and the Hollywood / Western approach.

    But I think there are some animes that do the touch-point method really well, at least for the target audience. School Rumble for example has a strong male lead in Harima who is well-liked by both guys and girls. Gurren Lagann had Kamina who was not the main character but he seems to be the most memorable of the whole franchise (the merchandising is a different area^^;). I also think that Mikuru is a moe character for a specific audience but her cuteness doesn't drive girls away - I even saw lots of great cosplayers of her. She's nobody to really relate to but in the context of the series her character really makes sense.

    A lot of Shonen shows also already use this approach, Naruto, One Piece or also Full Metal Alchemist are all shows where the main character(s) are easy to relate to (however on very different levels in comparison).

    Even harem shows like Love Hina sometimes are constructed to make the male lead easy to relate to and he is more than an easily replaceable character - that's probably more a problem for visual novel animes.

    There are even American TV series that tried to make the audience care for the main character of the opposite sex, e.g. Buffy or Alias. Also shows like Charmed are more or less an American version of a Bishojo series^^;.

    If you want to reach the largest audience, the touch-point characters are very important. However if a story is great enough, then it even works without gender specific classical touch-point characters.

    It's true that most animes today are too strange to be compatible for a western audience but the biggest problem is the missing tolerance for animation for adults. When I take a look at "The Girl Who Leapt through time" or "Summer Wars", I think that these are normal movies that are simply animated and are better made than nearly everything Hollywood puts into the cinemas. However the mainstream press doesn't care at all (however this is more from a German perspective). Both movies even have "Touch-point" characters^^;.

    P.S. Sorry for my grammar, I learned most of my English watching American movies and TV shows^^;.

  2. Darn, looks like someone beat me to the comment box this time. Of course, I'm not really sure how much I'll actually have to say about this issue anyway. >>;;

    Honestly, I've never had any real problems with Pokémon. I've followed the series (both games and anime) off and on throughout the 10+ years since the first time I saw it. Being only a couple years older than the typical beginning trainer when I first saw it probably didn't hurt much, but I can't say for certain whether or not it was because of any character in particular. If it was, it'd actually be due to Team Rocket rather than the protagonists, but I assure you that isn't because I harbored some secret desire to be a criminal. They even influenced my purchase when I finally got one of the games, seeing as Meowth was only available in Blue. ^^;;

    I should really stop there, otherwise I'll probably fill up three comments with nothing but my experiences with the Pokémon series, and I highly doubt anyone would actually want to read through that. ;)

    As for Mikuru, and I know I'm going to be at odds with at least one person over this, her problem isn't that she's a fanservice character, per se, it's the fact that, unless a story actually requires time travel in some way, that's really -all- she is. In other words, if she doesn't appeal to you the first time you see her, you simply aren't going to like her. I think that might be a larger problem than her simply not being a "touch-point" character. ^^;;

    Anyway, I think you did a good job explaining the overall situation here, but there's one thing I'd really like to have cleared up: Does this mean that you have to be able to picture yourself in the character's shoes, actively (or inactively, in someone like Kyon's case) doing what they do, or would simply relating to their situation and/or base personality be enough? I'm having a bit of a hard time telling. ^^;;

    Oh, and one last thing before I finish... I really don't think anyone would mind more Byakuya- or Sesshoumaru-like characters. I certainly can't see the harm, as they offer quite a bit of awesome with that bishi. Of course, I might be biased due to the fact that I've always liked the "aloof older brother" role, which they both more or less fill. =P

  3. Fair enough. It does seem that a lot of anime I watch tends to have poorly balanced casts as in "Hey the cast will like him/her, just multiply them in slight variations!"

    Fetish fuel haha. That's a good way to put it. Fine in small doses, but don't build your show around them.

    It often turns out that characters I'm interested in the most are characters I'd be interested in real life. Your garden variety male loser harem lead; I'd avoid them like the plague etc. :D

    So yea, we need more characters that can be looked up to, or make you want to have a cup of coffee with. Not just characters that serve as fetish fuel for bad fanfiction or ones you want to stab.

    And yea, damn anime companies should stop pissing on their fans. Expecting the hardcore ones to relate to the spineless losers is pretty insulting. :p