Trope Overload: Anime and the Hero’s Journey

If you’ve ever studied literature or film, you’ve probably heard of “The Hero’s Journey”. Originally coined by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, it as an archetypal story structure that can be found in everything from Star Wars to The Epic of Gilgamesh. Studying ancient myths from around the world and Jungian psychology, Campbell tried to create a “monomyth” that explains how these common tropes reflect thoughts and experiences we all share. Of course, not every story will have all of these elements exactly, but you’d be surprised to see how many – especially anime – have at least some of them!

Couple quick notes: Campbell’s monomyth is very straight-white-dude centric and outdated by today’s standards, so I’ll be using a more modern version. I believe that anyone can be a hero, no matter who they are!

Stage 1: Ordinary World

Running to school with toast in your mouth isn’t required to kick off a Hero’s Journey, but it sure does happen a lot in anime (K-On)

First, we meet the hero living their normal life, introducing us to the status quo in the story and helping us identify with the main character before the plot kicks in. Our hero feels unfulfilled, wanting love, money, fame, adventure, or just a cheeseburger from White Castle. This stage represents the conscious mind, or the thoughts we carry with us in our day-to-day lives.

Stage 2: Call to Adventure!

Just a boy and his fishing rod (Hunter x Hunter)

Something happens that disrupts the balance of this world, which forces the protagonist to abandon their normal life and go on an epic adventure to face their destiny. This contrasts the ordinary world with the fear of the unknown, and forces the hero to face their fears in order to accomplish something meaningful. But they’re not always down at first, which leads to…

Stage 3: Refusal of the Call

Cocona refuses Papika’s call to adventure, but it doesn’t last long (Flip Flappers)

Sometimes, the hero will refuse their destiny, either because they doubt their own abilities or they’re afraid of leaving the comfort and safety of their own world behind. Fighting supernatural god monsters is pretty dangerous, especially in anime where the main character is usually like 14! But if it stopped there, there would be no more story, so the hero is forced to follow their calling eventually. And some heroes skip this step entirely, either because they eagerly jump at the call or have no choice to begin with.

Stage 4: Meeting The Mentor

All Might: #1 hero and world-class ham (My Hero Academia)

The hero receives aid from a supernatural force, typically an older character who acts as a mentor figure. They give the protagonist the skills, training, and confidence to cross the first threshold and finally begin their adventure. Often, the mentor is someone who had their own adventures when they were younger, and wants to pass on what they’ve learned to the new generation. Mentors are a source of great power and wisdom, but sometimes they have a sinister side (like Mephistopheles in Faust or his anime equivalent, Kyubey from Madoka Magica).

Stage 5: Crossing the Threshold

No going back now (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood)

This is where the hero finally accepts the call and leaves the ordinary world behind. Sometimes, this comes in the form of a Threshold Guardian – a character who is not necessarily antagonistic but still tests the hero’s resolve. But just as often, it can just mean the hero leaving their hometown and going on a journey. This symbolizes the desire to go out of your comfort zone and enter a new, more dangerous/unpredictable stage of life to gain wisdom.

Stage 6: Road of Trials

Tanjiro and Nezuko face many demons in their road of trials (Demon Slayer)

Now that the hero is out of their comfort zone, it is time for the real adventure to begin! They enter a fantastical, dreamlike world where the “rules” are different from the ordinary world, and must learn how to navigate and survive this new reality. Taking a Jungian read on things, Campbell identifies this stage with our unconscious thoughts and desires. This stage usually takes up the bulk of the story, and has many different arcs full of tests, allies, and enemies.

Stage 7: Approach to the Inmost Cave

Trapped inside the entry plug, Shinji confronts his inner demons (Neon Genesis Evangelion)

The hero prepares to face their biggest challenge yet. The “cave” can be a physical place like the Big Bad’s fortress, but it can also be an inner conflict that the hero has not dealt with until now. The fear and anxiety they faced before comes back, and sometimes the story will take a breather so the characters can take some time to reflect and prepare for the hard journey ahead.

Stage 8: The Ordeal

Mob is having a rough time of it, but luckily Reigen’s got his back (Mob Psycho 100)

This is the hero’s darkest hour, when they are seemingly defeated and killed. Sometimes this means they literally die and come back to life, but usually it’s a symbolic death where the hero must face their deepest insecurities and come out stronger in the end. They destroy their “ego”, or their selfish desires and fears, and become a more noble person. A lot of character development happens at this stage, which makes for some fantastic emotional beats when done right. Also known as the “Belly of the Whale” after the famous Bible story.

Stage 9: Apotheosis

Aang and Zuko may have faced their greatest fears and mastered firebending, but they still have to defeat the Fire Nation to save the world (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

A Greek term meaning “becoming divine”, this is where the protagonist overcomes their trials and psychological hangups, gaining the wisdom and strength to truly become a hero. Sometimes this comes in the form of a literal power-up (like a cool sword or new magic spell), but Campbell uses this stage to refer to spiritual enlightenment, like when the Buddha realizes the true nature of reality after meditating under a tree for many days.

Stage 10: The Road Back

Kumiko puts on a brave face while practicing for her final concert (Sound! Euphonium)

The hero may have come a long way, but their journey isn’t over yet! This is where they must deal with the consequences of the previous parts of the story, using all the skills and wisdom they’ve acquired so far. The stage is set for their final test – the climactic battle, the dramatic love confession, or the national championship game. But before this, the hero must make one last choice between their personal desires and a higher cause – for their loved ones, and, often, the fate of the world.

Stage 11: Resurrection

Excalibuuuuur! (Fate/Stay Night)

The true climax of the story. Everything that has happened before culminates in one more test for the hero, to see if they have truly learned from their experiences in the inmost cave. Now, they must fight not just for their own lives, but to save and protect their loved ones and the ordinary world they left behind. Often, the protagonist will have a final “resurrection” – surviving a near death experience or getting a last minute power boost – which they can turn the tides on the forces of evil. 

Stage 12: Return with the Elixir

A rare smiling Homura (Madoka Magica)

Most modern stories wrap things up quickly after the climax, but ancient writers believed the return home was just as important as the Hero’s Journey itself! The hero returns to the ordinary world they started from, but their journey has helped them grow into a new and better person. They return with the “reward” from their journey, which can be literal but is often symbolic of their new outlook on life. Even though they may go back to the same place they started from, nothing will ever be the same again.

Final Thoughts

The Hero’s Journey has changed a lot over the years, and the trope is not without its critics. But I think what makes it so fascinating is not just that it’s so applicable to stories from around the world, but that Joseph Campbell saw it as a way to better your own life and the lives of those around you. Throughout his book, he states that although life is full of challenges, fears, and traumas, we have the power to face it all head on and become the heroes we love so much.

We are living through an incredibly traumatic time in our history. It’s easy to feel hopeless right now, but I think we all have a lot more potential than we realize. Often times, it’s dark times like these that help us reflect on ourselves and what we think is really important in life. Of course, we shouldn’t minimize our suffering or pretend it’s not happening. But each of us has something we can do to help ourselves and others: making art, supporting causes we believe in, helping out our families and community, or just doing some much needed self care. We all have a role to play in this crazy world, and we all can be heroes – even if it’s just for one day.

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