The Faceless Protagonist: The Fine Line Mysterious Girlfriend X is Walking

The idea of having a faceless protagonist is nothing new in anime. In fact, it isn’t even new to entertainment, written literature or otherwise. As an example, many fairy tales from the late 1700’s and  early 1800’s that survive to this day had protagonists, if you can call them that, that went nameless, or had common European names that essentially made them nameless. Many of those tales focused on some sort of coming of age story, and many were sexual in nature.  Today, anime often expresses this same imagery (though rarely the same themes) through a similar process. To be blunt, and in case it wasn’t already clear, the “often” I referenced refers to hentai.

Unlike classic shows that are now over a decade old in which characters, both male and female, can be referenced without explanation, I dare you to find a sane man, women or ,god forbid, a child who could name a hentai character from a series more than a month after its completion. It would be an exercise in futility. People don’t watch shows like that for themes or plot, but instead they crave a certain type of action.

Cut to Mysterious Girlfriend X. Akira is, without question or debate, the prototypical faceless protagonist. Intriguingly, Mysterious Girlfriend X forgoes the usual “getting to know you/adolescent shyness phase” so common in anime, and other mediums, in favor of moving into the relationship phase. This is where the fine line from the post title comes into the picture. Present, are the two essential ingredients to having a hentai series. A faceless protagonist, and a girl to which the aforementioned protagonist has better access to than others.

As of now, MGX is more about youthful curiosity  done in a semi respectable way, given the scenario, than it is about sex. Yet, the faceless protagonist remains (what was his name again?). Again, and as always, the question is why? Either the two episodes that have aired thus far have been a prelude to a perverted freak-fest, or there is some sort of satisfaction or lesson the viewer should gain by watching. This lesson in and of itself is nothing groundbreaking. Relationships are more about sex, waiting makes it better, hunger is the best spice, etc. We’ve heard these truisms a thousand times before. Now while those lessons are important, they are, ultimately, not what people want to read or watch in modern times.

Thus, we’ve seen that MGX has thus far been content in thinking that the viewer will be satisfied in picturing himself as that white knight on his high horse. However, as MGX’s drool begins to crust, can the show come up with new and imaginative ways to be unique, in that it will use a faceless protagonist without succumbing to its viewer’s desires. Or, will the story, or this adaptation’s writers, lose its edge, and take the easy way out. As of now, its tough to say. While I doubt this thing is going to become Ladies X Butlers, Kare Kano it is not.

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8 thoughts on “The Faceless Protagonist: The Fine Line Mysterious Girlfriend X is Walking

  1. A pretty good way to describe MGX mangaka Ueshiba’s work: think the down-to-earth farce of Rumiko Takahashi, crossed with the surreal viscera of Junji Ito.

    That is, it’s not porn, at least as much as your typical seinen manga is porn. Most of the title pages of chapters in the manga show girls in compromising positions, but to be fair, so does Azumanga Daioh. The whole thing’s really a surreal high school romance (with psychosomatic spit!) that throws out the cliches and the blandness that typify these kinds of shows and replaces them with real emotional honesty. There’s wish fulfillment, yeah, but to me it feels significantly more genuine than “oh my gosh the student council president has a thing for me even though I’m a lowlife oh my gosh!”

    Then again, look at Ueshiba’s other work (i.e. Yume Tsukai) and it becomes clear that he’s a pretty twisted individual. His stuff might not be too artsy to be labelled as outwardly pornographic, but he does tap into a lot of fetishes and tropes and things that would be legitimately disturbing if they weren’t handled so creatively and fearlessly. So Mysterious Girlfriend X isn’t toothless. It’s turned people off for a reason! But at least so far, it’s handling the balance between the innocent and the profane in a way that I honestly haven’t seen an anime attempt in years.

    Even if you were to classify Mysterious Girlfriend X as hentai (which I would disagree with, but still) would that disqualify it from being a legitimate work? Forest is a Japanese visual novel that contains multiple scenes of occasionally shocking pornography, but not only would I classify it as an excellent work of popular literature but would also venture to say that not a single character in the game is what you might label a “faceless protagonist.”

    • I’m not really familiar with Ueshiba’s other work, but as you have said, and from what I have seen from the first to episodes of MGX is that there is certainly a lot of imagery that is far from tame, even if done in a legitimate way.

      As for you comment about how hentai could be a legitimate work. I would agree on principle. However, I think this falls under the differing if-then lines of logic. On one hand, not all hentai or sexually based work is shallow or uses what I have termed the “faceless protagonist”. However, those series that do use faceless protagonists are more than likely a shallow work. MGX thus far being a notable exception.

      • I would have to agree with you that there is a fine line between an “everyman” and a “vessel” character. I suppose from the first two episodes that it is too early to tell if Akira is one or the other. That said, I agree with you that some effort has been put into developing his character, but as I referenced in my post, this early effort does not necessarily mean it will continue over the course of the series. I haven’t read the MGX manga, so I wouldn’t know, but there are a lot of shows, in anime or otherwise, where the original purpose of a series changed dramatically over its run.

        To your other point, in which you referenced works that used good writing in conjunction with vessel characters, I agree that this isn’t impossible. However, I don’t think it is common in anime, as most anime has horrible writing.

  2. I’m not sure I agree with you about Tsubaki being a “faceless protagonist”. (I find his name easy to remember because “tsuba” is spit :P, also it’s mentioned in show that his name means camellia.) Maybe it’s because I generally avoid hentai shows like the plague so I’m not noticing the telltale signs of the trope, but to me he just seems like a protag with a fairly conventional personality (i.e. timid and harmless). I thought the first two episodes introduced us to him and his quirks as much as Togabe’s, except she was just more extreme.

    • I try not to make a habit of watching a lot of hentai themed shows anymore as they’re mind numbing. Still, from what I remember, a lot of the protagonists are timid, and, in the real world, would never get access to the women in their respective shows. Faceless protagonists allows some people who watch these shows, with these personalities, to imagine themselves in the protagonist’s lfe. This is why a lot of eroge don’t show the main characters faces. Otherwise, its like the character is wooing the girl(S) in the game, and not the person playing it.

      • Now that I think about it, I’d hardly say that the “faceless protagonist” is limited to eroge or hentai. Contemporary anime is full of bland male leads who exist solely to play counterpart to quirky female characters. The kind of stuff produced by J.C. Staff on a regular basis strikes me as the worst offender, but it’s hardly exclusive to just them. I think you could argue, for example, that Shuu from Guilty Crown is faceless. Amata from Aquarion EVOL is faceless as well. Often these characters are more complex than immediately apparent, and occasionally the author pulls a hat trick and creates a legitimately excellent character in that mold (see Araragi in Bakemonogatari,) Akira in MGX, actually, strikes me as an example where enough sympathy was invested in his character that he comes off as an everyman rather than as a vessel for the viewer. That generally is not the case with most anime in this mold.

        I’d actually look to visual novels to see interesting takes on self-identification. There are a lot of them that take the easy way out, and provide a “vessel” protagonist and a love interest in the same way that, say, Twilight does. But then you have games like Ever17, where the fact that you cannot see the main character’s face is a major part of the plot. Or the Muv Luv series, which takes your typical obnoxious harem lead, throws him into a war-torn hell and charts his growth into maturity. Or Cross Channel, which puts you into the shoes of a madman and forces you to go along for the ride. These are exceptions to the rule, but I think it’s telling that these games are the ones that rise to classic status while the rest sink into obscurity. People respond to good writing, even in mediums you might not expect.

  3. I would have to agree with you that there is a fine line between an “everyman” and a “vessel” character. I suppose from the first two episodes that it is too early to tell if Akira is one or the other. That said, I agree with you that some effort has been put into developing his character, but as I referenced in my post, this early effort does not necessarily mean it will continue over the course of the series. I haven’t read the MGX manga, so I wouldn’t know, but there are a lot of shows, in anime or otherwise, where the original purpose of a series changed dramatically over its run.

    To your other point, in which you referenced works that used good writing in conjunction with vessel characters, I agree that this isn’t impossible. However, I don’t think it is common in anime, as most anime has horrible writing.

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