Do Characters’ Ages Really Matter?

Management: Just a mini-question today, since I found myself searching the archives for this and realized I’d never posted it in the first place. Organization!


Are shows starring adults meaningfully different from those starring teenagers? Are shows set in college meaningfully different from those set in middle or high school? I ask because I see this distinction made all the time, but generally it doesn’t seem meaningfully different outside of a setting/character-appearance sense.


They certainly ought to be! Adults, college-age people, and teenagers all have different central concerns, different degrees of experience, different manners of speaking – if characters are written so that they’re actually reflective of their experiences, shows about adults should naturally be fundamentally different from shows about teenagers. Plus, characters aside, there are many themes and narrative focuses that make the distinction particularly relevant. For example, Samurai Flamenco is very clearly a show about the disconnect between youthful ideals and adult realities – so yes, it wouldn’t really work as a show about teenagers. Cowboy Bebop is similar – its themes are echoes of those found in films like Seven Samurai, the story of the old soldier trying to find purpose in a world that has moved past him. That pretty much necessitates adult characters. And that of course works in the other direction, as well – Evangelion would be a very different show if Shinji weren’t a deeply insecure teenager, and FLCL is pretty much entirely about puberty and adolescence in general. Some of my favorites are master classes in this – Eccentric Family, for example, thoughtfully portrays the very different concerns of characters ranging from early adolescence through old age, all of which reflects on its themes of living well, family, and responsibility.

Granted, many shows don’t write characters that seem believably reflective of their experiences, and when you combine that with shows focused wholly on something like action or comedy (things that don’t necessarily reflect on the grounded circumstances of those characters’ lives), you can get situations where the characters’ age isn’t a meaningful distinction. But most of the time it really should be.

10 thoughts on “Do Characters’ Ages Really Matter?

  1. I’m finding that as I get older, almost 30, I care less and less about slice of life and the trials of kids and teenagers going through the daily anime-life routines. I want something more, but that stuff seems hard to come by.

  2. I have two counterexamples floating around in my head. One is Hourou Musuko, which I think is a nice bouncing point for a topic like this and might even be enough for a full post. (If you haven’t seen it, basically it’s about kids with troubles more characteristic of grown-ups than middle schoolers.)

    The other is Koe no Katachi(a manga), in which the MC, once again, goes through a lot of stuff which really isn’t characteristic pf people (or characters) his age. In many ways he is more mature than many college-level people, despite the story being set from sixth grade onwards, and his conflicts are very grown-up even though he is ‘just a kid’.
    If you ask me, the only real reason why characters’ ages matter is because most modern societies have very ageist tendencies, and authors want/need to communicate in our language, on our terms, following our stereotype-ridden perpective of the world. Nothing else.
    There is no reason why Amuro Ray cannot fill the weary-soldier role even if he’s just a kid.

    • Hourou Musuko is extremely high on my to-watch list – it’s one of the six or seven shows I still have left to see that pretty much everyone considers a classic, and might be next on my list after I finish Utena.

      Blaming all of this on ageism seems like an oversimplification. Take FLCL, for example – that show is clearly focused on exploring a very specific stage in most people’s adolescence, when they’re attempting to figure out their identity relative to the figures who have previously defined their lives while at the same time grappling with the fact that who they are is constantly in flux, both physically and emotionally. Those are meaningful, definable variables that give the story a very specific context – they may not be relevant to every person, but I don’t think that context is artificial.

      I also don’t mean to imply younger characters can’t fill what are typically considered older-character roles – just that a character’s personality and values should be indicative of their breadth of experiences. A child thrust into war can be a credible world-weary soldier, and an adult isolated from society and human experience can have an emotional maturity far out of step with what might be expected of an adult.

  3. I agree with all the points you’ve made, though I think it’s worth noting how anime can work around age more easily than live-action cinema. Since with anime we just see representations of people rather than actual people acting out a scene, it’s easier to get away with characters behaving in ways which might not seem normal for someone their age.

    Such as the Key adaptions (like Air or Clannad,) in which you have teenagers obsessing over toy dinosaurs and dango plushies and generally acting like younger children, but since they’re just cartoon girls with huge eyes it’s easier to swallow that they’re just “moe” teenagers with no sort of mental disabilities. Easier for me anyways; YMMV for this particular example.

    • I do agree with this to some extent (for me, I think this applies to characters that seem anime-hyperactive but otherwise normal), but you’re definitely right that YMMV. Maeda heroines pretty much always strike me as mentally disabled, which when contrasted against the relatively mentally well-equipped male protagonists makes for some very… strange… relationships.

  4. I should point out that you have, in fact, posted this before; in the Formative Experiences and Character Writing piece. I’m not sure whether this means your organization is better than you think it is, or worse.

  5. One thing that bothers me is when shows put its characters in university yet they acts more immature and childish than ones in high school, yet people used the notion of “they are actually in college!” as one of the reasons to watch it.

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