There’s something about a character with an inherently obvious weakness that makes them automatically interesting. Usually, this takes form in the way of physical disabilities that hinder them from being at their full potential, such as maybe being blind, deaf, or having a heart condition.
Other times, it could also be mental scarring that prevents them from acting properly around people. It’s too easy to use sickness and disability as an easy way for dramatic moments to occur, but the best disabled characters aren’t the ones who are just there to be pitied, but instead, to be admired as you would any other great person.
So, how is it that a disability, something that should negatively affect the character, become such a good tool for developing them instead?
The first thing we have to talk about is the inherent conflict that it gives the afflicted character. Most characters are usually up against external problems as conflicts, but a disability is an easy way to give a character meaningful drama. If you were a bad writer, you’d leave it at that and never even bring it up ever again. So many writers love to do this by giving people an illness to make them more sympathetic,and somehow that excuses any and all flaws they might have, and that’s just bad writing.
Badass moments from them are TWICE as badass because it’s coming from a person you know is giving their all and then some. Every conflict that a normal person encounters, they are already at a disadvantage in dealing with, and yet, they manage to confront it head on, including the problems that come up specific to their condition.
A recent well-written example I can use where the disability is a cause for major conflict, is My Hero Academia’s All Might.
All Might’s disability is that he cannot maintain his original muscular form he needs to be the symbol of peace that his country needs him to be. He can only maintain that body for 3 hours, and any more, he feels extreme pain, and further limits his time to maintain it in the future. This gives every conflict he has to deal with a great sense of urgency to it, because while he is strong, it is only until a certain point, and that makes for some very intense action scenes.
The Noumu fight at the tail-end of Season 1 executes this idea perfectly, and lets us see All Might giving his all, while still making us worry about him because at any time, he could revert to his weak form and not only lose his life, but also the image of invincibility he had maintained to keep the peace for over a decade.
He was not only risking his life in this fight, but with Deku’s presence, his legacy. His disability is the true threat in this situation, because had All Might not had that handicap, the Noumu fight would not nearly be as tense or riveting since we know All Might would definitely win. The disability also prevents the common problem of power escalation in shounen, because without the handicap, the only way for Noumu to be a worthy fight is by making him as strong as All Might, which ruins the point of how self-sacrifice is more important than any overwhelming power you have.
The second thing that a disability brings to the story is giving our characters vulnerability, making them more empathetic and relatable. For this point, I would like to bring up Nishimiya Shouko.
Shouko is deaf, and already there’s a lot of things she may find harder to do than others. Most prevalently, in the elementary school arc at the beginning of the movie, where her disability is taken advantage of. She is bullied not because she is deaf, but because she’s “weak” in the eyes of the bullies. The deafness only adds to the fire. Things such as talking trash about her right next to her, shouting into her hearing aids, and various other immature and mean things that make us feel sympathy for her, and anger at the bullies.
Obviously, bullying is bad, deaf or not deaf, but the important thing to realize is that her deafness was used against her, and there’s not a lot she can do about it. It’s an inherent vulnerability she has to deal with in addition to all the other ones most children already have. As with my first point, it’s also a great source of conflict for her as well, because she lacks a very important means of communicating with the world and people around her. So much so it leads her to despair by the second act of the movie, which I talk about more in-depth here.
The third point, is we get to see how other people treat them. It’s just human nature to instinctively feel pity at those who are disabled, and disabled people would like nothing more than the opposite. I haven’t seen a disabled person who liked being pitied, and preferred it if people treated them as they would treat somebody who was, for lack of a better word, “normal.”
For this point, I’d like to focus on Kyouko Machi from Interviews with Monster Girls.
First, the conflict: She’s a dullahan. That means she has to lug around her head, which can prove to be a chore for somebody who has to go to school and carry books and such. Second, the vulnerability: Lugging around her head means it is at constant risk of possibly falling, and if falling as a normal person wasn’t bad enough, imagine having your head bounce on concrete as your body tries to catch it!
Machi is a newcomer to the school, and in addition to being technically disabled, she is also a minority, being the only Dullahan in Japan, and one of the three in the entire world. This means most people,other than fellow demis (fellow supernatural students), don’t know to treat her. They never bring up the fact that she’s a head, and she is uncomfortable with this because she can always feel an undertone of awkwardness about her situation. She would welcome all the head puns they could throw at her, but people are simply too uncomfortable with that. While I don’t have personal experience with physical disabilites, I have done research on the topic for a few hours on google (A.K.A., watched a bunch of interviews), and most disabled people, such as those with the loss of limbs or some such, can be the most determined people I have ever seen. Treating them like you would a normal person, and even making light of their disability in a joking way, will actually make them like you more. You gotta hand it to them, they’re good at getting back on their feet.
I’m not apologizing for those puns.
My final point, is how these characters live with or even overcome their inherent disabilities. For this, I’ll be quickly going through all the characters I’ve mentioned one by one.
All Might’s resolve to be the Symbol of Peace, in spite of his weakened condition, gave him the ability to maintain the peace for several years before anyone even finding out about his condition. He may not have overcome his weakness, but he has learned to live with it in ways that don’t give away his actual true form, such as becoming a teacher. As a teacher, he now had the ability to teach those who will be the next generation of heroes, and a good cover for why he is inactive at times.
Shouko was never really upset at her deafness affecting her and more at how badly it had affected her friends and family. This leads her to despair in the movie, but she is snapped out of it by Ishida, and from then on, she realizes just how selfish she was being and tries her best to rectify the damage she has done. It’s an interesting subversion of that old trope where “Illness is why this person is the way they are”, and suddenly the characters all feel sympathy for her. In this case, it is actually the cause of conflict, and plenty characters call her out on this. In a weird way, it wasn’t the deafness that was holding Shouko back, but her other flaws and insecurities as a teenager.
Macchi is probably the most well-rounded of the three characters I’ve talked about here. She’s learned to live with her disability in creative ways, and it helps that the people around her are willing to find ways to make her life easier. Little things such as allowing her to use a backpack instead of the school-sanctioned purse, having her experience things she wouldn’t normally be able to such as swimming with her head in the water, and a whole host of other things. She’s also fairly competent, such as being able to write without even seeing because of her condition, and having her entire house memorized so that she can do chores without carrying her head around. It’s a realistic approach to the disabled in real life, who also find roundabout ways to stay in shape and be helpful.
In conclusion, disabled characters are so captivating simply because they struggle so much more than the average person. They have developed strengths borne from their weakness, and it’s simply interesting seeing them deal with the world in their own unique way that most normal people can’t, and it’s both humbling and inspiring!
I know I missed out on a lot of cool disabled characters here since I only wanted to talk about the broad points, but who is your favorite disabled character in anime? Leave your answer down in the comments below, I would love to discuss it!
Until then, see ya next time!