I’ve talked quite a bit about heroic trauma in regards to superheroes, but (outside of one chapter of Animated Discussions) I’ve rarely discussed it in regards to anime.
In part this is because of structural differences between the media. Superheroes arise, generally speaking, from very long-running serial formats–comics that run, in one sense or another, for decades. Key to Elizabeth Sandifer’s original argument for the heroic trauma model is that “continuity” is impossible across such time scales and the associated changes in both authorship and audience, and that’s just not the case for anime and manga, which tend to shorter, more unitary runs. The logic that comic-book continuity thus resembles memories–unreliable, reconstructive, constantly recasting past events in light of present mood and concerns–more than recordings simply doesn’t apply.
Nonetheless, cross-influences between the two media mean they can share themes even when they don’t share the structures that gave rise to those themes, and so anime characters can experience heroic trauma, though it is not as integral to anime heroes as it is to superheroes. It is thus important, for discussing heroic trauma in anime, to distinguish between heroic trauma and traumatized heroes; that is, between heroes whose trauma is integral to their heroism, and those whose trauma is merely incidental. (There is, of course, the third category of heroes who have no trauma at all–Ash Ketchum comes immediately to mind.)
A good example of the latter group is Simon from Gurren Lagann: he suffers deep trauma from the death of his parents, but that has no connection with the Spiral Energy that empowers him, or the discovery of Lagann that begins his journey, and he appears to be pretty much over it by mid-series. For contrast, consider Edward Elric, whose powers–his ability to transmute without a circle, and the automail arm that serves as his primary weapon–derive directly from the traumatic experience of losing his mother and passing through the Gate of Truth, and he does not truly heal until the end of the series, at which point he loses both.
So far, Akira from Devilman Crybaby appears to demonstrate classic heroic trauma. He demonstrates a number of symptoms in Episode 2: amnesia around the event itself, his horrifying night and grotesque transformation at Sabbath; a sense of discontinuity between the person he was before the event and the person he is now; and intense, clearly painful flashbacks when confronted with reminders of the event. But this same event has empowered him, and the discontinuity he feels is real: he is physically and mentally transformed in the aftermath of the event.
At the same time, he is still himself: his physical capabilities are now superhuman, his libido and appetite drastically increased, and he feels unbound by social norms such as “don’t watch porn in the high school A/V room,” but he retains his defining trait, the essential compassion that brings him to tears when he learns of the suffering of others.
But now there’s a monster inside him, able to transform that compassion into violent rage against the causes of suffering. That’s not uncommon in survivors of trauma either–not the violence per se, but the barely restrained anger. He is filled with unresolved pain, the pain of having been left entirely alone to face things beyond his capacity. He is angry at the unfairness and the feeling of abandonment–note the brief flashes of his nightmare that appear to equate his transformation with his parents’ departure on a trip, whether abandoning him or headed to their deaths unclear and irrelevant–and afraid that it could happen again. He feels like a monster, because why else would he have been left alone?
What is now inside him is beyond the bounds of “normal” society; painful and dangerous and wrong. The wrongness of the event that caused his trauma is internalized, remade into a sense of his own wrongness; the event was grotesque, and now Akira feels grotesque himself. But then, heroes always are; by their very nature they transgress social boundaries, if only to guard those boundaries from what lies beyond. To fight monsters is to be monstrous.
The show acknowledges this. Akira is afraid of his own power, afraid that he will lose control of his feelings and destroy too much. Again, this is a direct response to the experience of trauma: he was overwhelmed by the event that gave him this power, so he fears the power will overwhelm him too. That’s the lesson trauma teaches: “Life can and will dish out more than you can take. There are things you cannot handle alone, and there will be times that you have to face them alone.”
To his credit, Akira is taking all that pain and fear and anger out into the world. He is focusing it through his essential compassion, taming the monster–Devilman rather than Devil. He is trying–and thus far succeeding–to be the good monster.
And as I observed above, “good monster” is just another word for “hero.”
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