The relationship between parent and child can be one of the most varied, complicated, and interesting dynamics in media. So why is it that anime seems to have this weird habit of consistently presenting Exhibits A, B, and C for Worst Parenting Ever? It struck me today as I was glancing through my anime collection that every single one of them had parents that would keep most people in therapy for the rest of their lives. And sometimes, the parents that look the best of all are actually the ones doing the most CPS-worthy screw-ups.
Obviously, imperfect parenting is not exclusive to Japanese anime and manga; entire academic papers have been written on parenting tropes in Disney movies, and you can’t throw a stone on TV without hitting at least one Well Done Son Guy or rebellious teen rejecting her overbearing mother’s plans. But anime seems particularly weird in that even some of their best role-models of parenting seem dangerously negligent.
The Obvious Suspects
There are definitely more than a few “obvious” bad parents wandering around anime… when they can be bothered to be alive in the first place, that is! We have enough poor orphaned heroes to make up the entire crew of the Pirates of Penzance. But even more common than that are the parents who just upped sticks and left our poor hero behind, ready to waltz back into his or her life at the appropriate moment only to up-end everything and send the boy/girl off on some traumatic adventure.
For example, check out the first episode of Gundam Unicorn (mild spoilers). In the last five minutes of the show, it’s revealed that one of the supporting characters is actually the father of the hero Banagher, who had next to no memory of him other than some faint childhood images. Their reunion is shown as touching and dramatic, with only slight lipservice paid to the fact that not only did this man walk out of Banagher’s life, but he didn’t even walk that far away! They were in the same area, one was going to the school founded by the other, etc etc… they even talked earlier in the episode, and the father was basically a giant jerk to his confused son. Dad of the year! (Award shared with Hohenheim of the 2003 Full Metal Alchemist series)
Of course, one of the most famous bad parents in all anime – arguably in all geek culture – is Gendo Ikari, who managed to do one better than the Gundam Unicorn dad by continuing to treat his son like pond scum for the entirety of the series and, worse still, never improving. Granted, he was a jerk to everyone, but his rejection of Shinji is so pointed, and his grudging acceptance clearly based only on Shinji’s usefulness as an EVA pilot, that there’s no wonder he constantly tops geek lists as Worst Parent In the Universe.
On the other hand, judging by some of the parents, maybe their kids are better off by having them disappear on them; between Gendo Saotome marrying off Ranma every five minutes for food and Shou Tucker doing… THAT to his daughter, some anime parents are just not worth having around! That seems to go double for any adoptive parents: see Fuhrer King Bradley from FMA, Precia from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Duke Red from Metropolis, Mayuri from Bleach, etc, etc, etc…
Perfect Parents… PAH!
Despite all that, however, some of the more egregious errors in parenting come from the “good” parents, the ones that the anime holds up as good examples of what mothers and fathers should be. Many of them are guilty of the same mistakes as their “bad” counterparts, only this time they’re okay… somehow? For example, in Pretty Cure, it’s established that both Honoka’s parents are constantly leaving her with the grandmother and working overseas for months, almost years at a time. Which would be interesting as a concept and a source for drama, except that this is all presented in a happy, cheerful way, with the parents held up as ideal examples of all that is loving and kind, and Honoka without the slightest hint of resentment or feelings of abandonment. Because we all know that young children and pre-teens NEVER suffer from feelings of abandonment or isolation from their families!
Then we have the myriad parents in “mon,” shonen, and magical girl series… you know the ones, the parents that remain blissfully unaware of their kids’ constant brushes with death and dismemberment. I mean, you think Mrs. Tsukino would eventually notice that her daughter Usagi seems to disappear every time Sailor Moon is doing her thing… but rather than express concern or even indicate she’s noticed, she all but disappears over the course of the series as if she no longer has a part to play in Usagi’s life at all. Then we have the parents of the Pokemon cast who just shrug and send them out into the world by themselves to battle dangerous monsters. PARENTING!
But in my estimation, one of the worst “good” parents in anime has to be Lisa, the mother from Ponyo. But wait, I hear you say, wasn’t she an awesome mother? Yes, an awesome mother who:
- speeds and drives recklessly with her kid in the car, to the point where multiple characters comment on how dangerous her driving is
- drinks herself into a stupor due to husband-related disappointment and lies on her bed feeling sorry for herself
- responds to a creepy, obsessive child appearing on the night of a tsunami and insisting that she’s the human form of her son’s goldfish with a relaxed, “huh, cool,” rather than, I don’t know, call the authorities to find the child’s parents or questioning her strange magic story or, you know, DOING SOMETHING OTHER THAN MAKING HAM RAMEN
- abandons her son WITH said strange child overnight while a massive storm is going on and major flooding is occurring because she needs to get some blankets to the retirement home she works at. Did I mention her son is about FIVE?
What’s up with that?
What exactly is causing all this weird ambivalence over parenting in anime? I’m no sociologist, but I suspect it has its roots in two common themes.
One is that anime protagonists, as a rule, tend to skew a little younger than their western counterparts; as a related example, notice how most JRPGs have newbie heroes in their late teens or early twenties while most western RPGs focus on 30+, grizzled, experienced warriors or soldiers. So we have a large number of teenage protagonists… and teenagers are stereotypically some of the most ambivalent and hostile to their parents and parenting in general. As such, the negative attributes of anime parents – or their pseudo-”perfect” nature in some cases – may reflect the hostile feelings of the teenage characters, and in some cases, the teenage audience.
Another possible issue is simply the nature of the modern family in Japan. Consider that children are very often encouraged, if not guilted, into going straight from classes to club activities, cram school, extra classes in the evenings… it’s not uncommon for an average student to get home at eight or even ten at night. Consider also that, in many cases, the father (or, more rarely, the mother) is working as the infamous “salaryman” and thus expected to put in massive amounts of overtime, go to after-work functions, and generally be one of the last to leave the office. Stay-at-home parents also often become incredibly busy by joining associations or pursuing their own interests. While many of these families still remain warm, loving, and supportive, they do spend less time together, and this in turn can lead to a more independent and “separate” dynamic between children and parents. After all, the child is busy leading their own life (or sometimes the life set out for them by the parent), spending most of their time with classmates or teachers, and only seeing their parents briefly in the evenings when they’re both already tired from work; parents, in parallel, are not always intimately involved with the child’s day to day life and, aside from pushing them towards goals like better grades, may just stand back and leave them to it. That minor schism in real life families is blown up large in anime (like everything else!) and turned from a sometimes-problematic sometimes-okay fact of life to Shonen Dad A leaving his Generic Shonen Hero Son at the age of three to grow up without a father… but it’s okay, they still love each other, they just each followed their own paths.
Ignore the little flashback of the weeping three year old on the porch.
If you’re interested in seeing a few more specific examples of bad anime parenting in action, may I recommend the hilarious 10 Worst Parents in Anime at Topless Robot?
Any particularly bad parents in anime you’ve noticed? Or how about some of the good ones? (They’re out there, of course… somewhere!)