Comparing Protagonists: Haruhi Suzumiya and Light Yagami
Haruhi Suzumiya from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Light Yagami from Death Note might not seem like they have much in common. They're different genders, have different personalities, and desire different things. But, both are similar in their willingness to use people and obliviousness to the feelings of others.
What got me thinking about this? Well, I was thinking about how I don't like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya despite it having a strong, interesting plot premise, because I don't like the main character at all. I find Haruhi annoying, shrill, and bratty. I think her plot-driving motivation is a major case of "first world problems" ie, her world is too boring, so she desires contact with some form of supernatural entity. I just couldn't really sympathize with her, especially because of the absurd and often immoral lengths she goes to to get what she wants.
But then I thought, if I hate Haruhi for going to lengths I find morally reprehensible - such as sexual harassment and blackmail, for what she wants, why am I more sympathetic to Light in Death Note, who actually kills people for what he wants? So I thought then that diving in and dissecting the similarities and differences between these two characters could make for an interesting discussion on character-building theory, specifically, in terms of how to write a sympathetic protagonist.
...if I hate Haruhi for going to lengths I find morally reprehensible - such as sexual harassment and blackmail - for what she wants, why am I more sympathetic to Light in Death Note, who actually kills people for what he wants?
In The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Haruhi is unsatisfied with life. What she wants is to make contact with supernatural entities. Specifically, she hopes to attract 'espers' (people with ESP), aliens, and time travelers. Main character Kyon most likely wants to get with Haruhi, but she's not interested in him, because she's not interested in any normal humans!
He tries to help her attract abnormal humans, by creating an after-school club, which she calls the SOS brigade. Because you know, if I had psychic powers or was an alien, or a time traveler, my top priority would definitely be to chill out pretending to be a high school student in Japan!
Anyway, it turns out Haruhi is basically a goddess, but doesn't know it. She is able to create the reality she wants with her mind. So time travelers, espers, and aliens become real. The problem is, everyone is afraid to tell Haruhi about her powers or the reality of those things that she has manifested. So, a premise that starts out ridiculous becomes stretched to the point of absurdity, making for great comedy.
In Death Note, college student Light Yagami finds the titular Death Note. It's a magical item from the world of the death gods, or shinigami. You can write anyone's name in the Death Note to kill them. You must also picture their face, so that the death gods know who to kill between different people with the same name. You can specify a time and manner of death, within certain realistic limitations. So it gives a human the power over death, and also gives them limited control over a person's actions prior to their death.
Light decides he's going to use this power to revolutionize the world. He hates criminals, and thinks too many of them get away with light sentences. In Japan, execution exists, but it's rarely used, it's mainly reserved for especially heinous cases, such as multiple murders, or murders that take place along with other crimes. But Light feels like more of them need to simply be executed. And criminals' names and faces are published on the news, so he starts executing prisoners.
The Death Note is unlike any conventional murder weapon, it cannot be easily traced to the person using it. However, Light is challenged by L, a mysterious master detective who shows up in Japan, certain that the mystery killer known by the media as "Kira" is there. L is sort of the series' Inspector Javert. Light has to deceive L, throwing off his detective work, in order to keep moving forward for his plans for a world revolution. Light envisions a world without criminals, and to him, the end justifies the means. Light and L face off in an exciting battle of wills, in a show that comments on the nature of power and corruption. It asks the question: who should have power over life and death?
At first, it may not seem like these two characters have anything in common at all.
- Level of schooling (Haruhi is a high school student, Light is a college student)
- Desire: Haruhi desires strangeness, Light wants to eradicate criminals.
They also seem like opposites in a weird way: Light has supernatural powers, is aware of that fact, and uses his powers to achieve his goals. Haruhi believes she has no special supernatural powers, cannot consciously access them, and therefore has to use mundane methods to achieve their goals. Their personalities are also very different. Haruhi is hot-headed, emotional, and impulsive. She experiences mood swings and desires change (for example, the fact that she changes her hair style frequently). Light is rational, cold, and calculating. He desires stability, and a less violent world.
Another major difference lies in the nature of their desires. Haruhi's desire is purely selfish: she wants her life to be less boring. This makes her similar to Ryuk the shinigami who put the Death Note in the world of the living in the first place, he did this out of a simple desire for amusement. Light, on the other hand, is less selfish. He wants a world where all criminals are brought to justice. His intent isn't to simply kill people for no reason, but to achieve a just society. In his ideal world, because violence would be punished with certain death, nobody would be violent at all, thus creating an ideal world. Haruhi doesn't care about creating a world that fits some Utopian vision, she is purely motivated by her own childish desires and impulses.
Surprisingly, these characters are similar in certain things. Both have big desires. Dreams about how they want the world to be. For those desires, everything else falls by the wayside. Including normal friendships and relationships. To both characters, other people are only viewed in terms of their value as tools.
Haruhi and Light have other characters who pursue them romantically in a way that’s obvious to the audience, while they appear oblivious to the other person’s feelings for them. They could be oblivious to the feelings of others, or they might act clueless in order to manipulate the person with a crush on them. The unrequited love interest characters always get wrapped up in the main characters’ schemes. Their love interests both think that being useful to the object of their desire will make that person want them.
Both have a vision for how they would like to change the world. Haruhi is not aware of her powers, but both have supernatural abilities that allow them to change the world. Rather than having to accept the world as it is, they can make it whatever they want.
They could be oblivious to the feelings of others, or they might act clueless in order to manipulate the person with a crush on them.
Haruhi Suzumiya and Light Yagami are characters who appear very different on the surface, but they have hidden similarities. They're both indifferent to the emotions of others. Usually this trait is found in villains in anime, but in Death Note and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, they're treated as sympathetic and are the protagonists.
Similarly manipulative characters in anime include:
- Gendo Ikari, from Neon Genesis Evangelion
- Ragyo Matoi, from Kill La Kill
- Kyubey, from Puella Madoka Magi Magica
But those characters mentioned above are portrayed less sympathetically. Rather than being main characters, they're obstacles and sources of suffering for the main characters. Maybe it's because those characters already have power, whereas Haruhi has no idea that she has god-level powers, and Light can't have a lot of 'fun' without L breathing down his neck. So they're made sympathetic by not wielding the major power the aforementioned characters wield. Because you root for people who are struggling more than people who already have power.
An exception is Sae from Peach Girl, who is manipulative and a liar. But she has no power. She's seen as very unsympathetic, and a bully. But, she does get her own manga, Sae's Story, which retells the events of Peach Girl from her perspective.
Manipulative characters with sociopathic tendencies are a dime a dozen, often a go-to for easy villain creation. It's easy for the audience to hate someone who cannot feel sympathy for people, or who sees people as tools to use for their ultimate design. But I think Haruhi and Light represent something very interesting, in making characters like that who are protagonists. By shining a light on their thought processes, their animes make them sympathetic to the audience. That is what's rare and different about these two anime series.