7 anime series that demolish toxic masculinity

Contributed by
Apr 6, 2017

The lone wolf, steeped in isolation and defined by their unwillingness (or even inability) to show any type of emotion other than rage has been the most prominent example of The Male Character in media for decades, and it hasn't been much different in anime, either. Characters who are expected to brood or lash out in anger. Characters who refuse to acknowledge any type of emotional connection. The angry hero who lacks empathy, but his lack of emotion only emphasizes his heroic nature.

However, there are actually quite a few shining examples in anime of male protagonists who are portrayed as the exact opposite of the grimdark, brooding hero. They're caregivers and they're teachers. They embrace their emotions (all of them) and learn not to lock people out. They open their homes and their hearts to the unlikeliest of people, and they're rewarded in return.

They're male anime characters who don't adhere to toxic masculinity, and here are the shows where you'll find them.

Poco's Udon World

Souta Tawara grew up in Kagawa, a town famous for its udon: thick, hand-made noodles served in a rich, tasty broth. Although his family runs one of the most popular udon restaurants around, Souta yearns for something more out of life than slinging noodles all day. He teaches himself how to design and build websites and lands a great job in Tokyo. Despite his father's wishes that he take over the restaurant, Souta moves to the big city. But then his father passes away suddenly and Souta's forced to return to his childhood home and clear it out. Souta explores the shuttered restaurant and is shocked to discover a little child sleeping in the middle of the kitchen.

And that's only the beginning. The child is actually a magical tanuki, a raccoon dog with the ability to disguise itself as a human. Unable to go to the police with his discovery (would they even believe him?) and curious about where this magical creature came from, Souta decides to care for the tanuki, whom he names Poco.

From the start, Souta seems in over his head when it comes to taking care of a child. Not only does he have to deal with the needs of a four-year-old, but Poco is a four-year-old with the frustrating habit of suddenly transforming back into a furry animal whenever he's under too much stress. Souta's desperate for help, and he calls on one of his childhood friends who is now a mother to a little girl a few years older than Poco. She's eager to help and welcomes him into her circle of 'mom-friends,' cementing Souta's role in Poco's life.

Souta and Poco's growing relationship is set against flashbacks of Souta's heated relationship with his own father, and as Souta learns more and more about being a caregiver, he gains some sympathy for his late father, who had to raise two kids alone. Experiencing fatherhood gives Souta the connection to his own father that he sorely lacked all those years they were living together.

Barakamon

Calligraphy master Seishuu Handa is in a slump to end all slumps. He's lost all motivation and inspiration, and he punched an art judge in the face after he dared to share a little bit of constructive criticism. Seishuu definitely needs a change of scenery, so he's sent from the bustling surroundings of Tokyo to a remote village on a small island. Hopefully, he'll be able to get some new sources of inspiration and a new environment will draw some new ideas out of a temperamental artist.

Seishuu never had much of a childhood. Since his artistic talent manifested early, he was always surrounded by adults who were enamored by him, and he grew up to be an isolated, quiet young man who has no idea how to deal with his emotions. The violent outburst he unleashed on the judge was the culmination of years of frustration with being scrutinized for every single mistake. So what do the village kids do when they meet him?

They get messy.

They use Seishuu's home as a clubhouse, leaving manga books and snack wrappers everywhere. They play with the ink he has to special-order from Tokyo. They're loud and they're distracting ... and they're exactly what Seishuu needs to get his groove back.

While he makes many friends among the adult villagers (plus a feral cat colony), he has a fantastic relationship with the kids, who are more than willing to give him the childhood he never had. They take him fishing and swimming and bug-hunting. They treat him as one of the gang, even if they have to call him "Sensei" to his face. And even though he finds their antics annoying, there's no question that he loves each and every one of them. One rambunctious little girl named Naru Kotoishi is especially adept at trying Seishuu's patience, yet they hang out together the most. Naru adores being with Sensei and loves playing with him, and Seishuu is inspired by her youthful vigor to create the best art he's ever done. Not bad for a girl who keeps a collection of cicada shells.

March Comes in Like a Lion

Rei Kiriyama is a shogi prodigy, entering the professional world of Japanese chess as a middle schooler. Now 17 years old, Rei continues to rise through the shogi ranks, and his environment, like Seishuu's in Barakamon, is primarily an adult one. Rei is often pitted against shogi players twice his age, and while his skills are up to par with adults, he still has a ton of growing up to do. Lion is primarily the story of Rei's coming of age and how positive and negative influences in his life are tugging him in many directions, all against a backdrop of intense shogi matches.

As a person, Rei is a work in progress. He's essentially a young man hanging onto life by the most tenuous of threads. He loses his parents and his younger sister in a car accident while he's away at a shogi tournament, which mangles his relationship to the game. But since he's damn good at shogi, Rei sees little choice but to continue on with his career. He thinks he has nothing else.

Rei's adopted by Masachika Kouda, a friend of his late father and a high-ranking shogi player himself. Masachika, despite his good intentions, gives Rei an ongoing lesson in 'Awful Dad Skills 101.' He raises and trains Rei and ignores his own two children, daughter Kyouko and son Ayumu. Ayumu couldn't care less about shogi and is perfectly happy just playing video games, but Kyouko's devastated. She views Rei as her replacement, and when she loses one too many matches, her father flat-out dismisses her shogi skills and props Rei up as the one who will inherit his legacy. This profoundly messes Kyouko up, but rather than blame her father, she blames Rei and plants negative thoughts in his head before matches, trying to make him fail the way she did so many years ago.

Yep, Masachika Kouda is the worst dad.

Thankfully Rei has another family who accepts and loves him. The Kawamotos are a trio of sisters (plus their granddad) who have also known tragedy early. Their father abandoned them and their mother passed away from an illness, but they never lose sight of the love and support they give each other and to Rei. Rei is afraid to get too close to the Kawamotos, fearing that the tragedy he's seen in his own family and his adoptive family might rub off on them too. He's still too caught up in his own troubles to see that the Kawamotos have already seen the worst that life can throw at them and yet they persevere instead of breaking apart. The end of season shows Rei tentatively growing closer to the Kawamotos and their positive, supportive influence.

Natsume's Book of Friends

Takashi Natsume was orphaned at a young age, and since then has been passed along from distant relative to distant relative ... but he's never been able to settle down permanently because of his ability to see spirits, ghosts and other supernatural beings. He's found it hard to make friends because everyone thinks he's weird.

His grandmother, Reiko, was also able to interact with the supernatural and she experienced the same isolation as Takashi. She, however, was able to take control of the things that haunted her by forcing them to write their names in a book, thus making her their 'master.' Takashi inherits her Book of Friends as well as a world of trouble when supernatural creatures come knocking on his door to plead for their names back.

There's a Doctor Who quote that goes, "All that pain and misery and loneliness. And it just made it kind." Takashi's life has been one disappointment after another, a constant search for a permanent home. It would've been easy for Takashi to grow angry and frustrated but he never completely gives into his despair. He realizes that his gift can help these spirits in ways that no other human can. He understands the feeling of not belonging because he's experienced it every day since childhood. If a wayward spirit comes to him because they feel out of place, he's going to try to help them because he knows what that's like and he doesn't want anyone, human or demon, to suffer through what he had to.

Takashi's emphatic nature sets him apart from the other humans who can see spirits. Those humans usually take on jobs as exorcists or demon hunters, destroying the bothersome creatures rather than befriending them. However, Takashi has amassed a diverse group of friends, both of the human and demon variety, and while sometimes they might still balk at his bizarre behavior, they know that Takashi is one of the best friends anyone could ever have. His true super power is his willingness to care deeply about others.

The Morose

Hanae Ashiya's first day in high school is supposed to be perfect. He's going to a new school. He's going to make tons of new friends, and he's going to forget the misery of isolation that he experienced back in middle school. But on the way to school, he stumbles upon something that he at first mistakes for a dingy stuffed animal. But nope. That gigantic ball of fluff is alive and immediately attaches itself (both literally and emotionally) to Hanae.

Now, through his connection with this ball of fluff, Hanae is suddenly able to sense the supernatural. Which would be great, if Fluffy wasn't hell-bent on draining all of Hanae's spiritual energy and leaving him a sickly exhausted wreck. Enter the Morose Mononokean, an exorcist named Haruitsuki Abeno. Hanae requires his help to get rid of the thing that's stuck onto him, but of course, there's always a price.

Hanae's circumstances kind of mirror Takashi's in Book of Friends in that he's suddenly able to see the supernatural world and now must use his ability to help others, but since Hanae's counterpart is a cynical exorcist, the differences between their two schools of thought make for some great comedy as well as some interesting takes on empathy as well. While Haruitsuki is basically content with just saying the incantations and sending the spirits back to the underworld, Hanae always wants to push things a little further. If a spirit happens to be haunting a certain classroom, then Hanae would be the first to try to figure out why the spirit is there before doing the exorcism. If something refuses to leave a certain area, Hanae finds out that the creature can't leave until all of its offspring return to it. Cue Hanae scouring the high school for every single tiny spawn of said creature.

It's frustrating for Haruitsuki because all he wants is to do the job and get paid, but there's no question that there's value in Hanae's actions as well. After helping out a few creatures, Hanae is able to call in favors when he requires help. He wouldn't even have been drawn into the supernatural world if he hadn't chosen to care for Fluffy in the first place. His unselfish act literally opened up an entirely new point of view for him.

Space Brothers

Young brothers Mutta and Hibito Nanba experience something extraordinary one late summer night. They both spot a UFO, and they make a promise to become astronauts together so that they can figure out where that UFO came from. The UFO angle falls by the wayside once the brothers grew up and as adults only younger brother Hibito manages to enter the Japanese Space Agency (known as JAXA). Mutta gets caught up in the corporate world and watches on the sidelines as his little brother is chosen to join NASA. Hibito then reminds him of their promise as kids and Mutta decides to take that challenge on, putting his name in at JAXA.

In a lot of stories, it's the older brother who paves the way for his younger siblings to follow in his footsteps. Space Brothers flips those expectations by having the older brother following the younger brother, and that's not the only extraordinary trope reversal in the series. Mutta, the older brother, is the goof-off who needs to push himself harder to keep up with Hibito, and because Mutta's the second Nanba brother in the program, he gets treated like the younger one, the lesser one. Plus, contrary to his quieter sibling, Mutta's the loudmouth who says what he thinks and wears his heart on his sleeve. His emotions are always on display, something he sometimes considers a weakness but that actually impresses the trainers at NASA. In some ways, Mutta is more American than his brother and that openness serves him well during training.

What also sets Space Brothers apart are the women whom the Nanba brothers consider mentors. Their mother's personality is far from the expected, demure, older Japanese housewife. She's a firecracker who speaks her mind (it's obvious that Mutta takes after her) and pushes her sons to challenge themselves in every endeavor. She even puts Mutta's name into the astronaut program while he's still on the fence about it. Another mentor is astronomer Sharon Kaneko, who quizzes the brothers on astronomy and astrophysics when they were younger. It's pretty clear that the brothers are more well-rounded and become better astronauts because of the support they received from both their mother and Sharon.

Fullmetal Alchemist

You know Fullmetal Alchemist. You love Fullmetal Alchemist. It's one of the most beloved anime series of all time, and it's no wonder that this show also takes a stand against toxic masculinity. After all, it's the arrogant desperation of two young brothers with an absent father that gets the ball rolling. Edward and Alphonse Elric have only ever known their mother, and so when she falls ill and dies, it's only natural that the two boys wish to get her back. In FMA, magic is rooted in science, and from the brothers' standpoint, it should be dang easy to resurrect the dead. The monstrosity they bring back, however, is definitely not their mother, and the sacrifices the boys make (Edward loses an arm and leg, Alphonse his entire physical body) teach them early on where arrogance and isolation get you. The brothers' search for the Philosopher's Stone (the only artifact powerful enough to transcend the laws of alchemy and perhaps restore their shattered bodies) is a catalyst for the introduction of a ton of different characters, male and female, who all fly in the face of the norm.

Take Alex Armstrong, whose manliness is evident in his dang name. He's built like an old-timey circus strongman with an impressive handlebar mustache to boot, and he's the first in line to evangelize about the benefits of bodybuilding. His bod is extraordinarily sculpted and perfect, and yet he defers to his older sister, Olivier Mira Armstrong, as the de facto head of the family. In their family, strength is valued above all things, and Olivier is tough. Like, really tough. She's incredibly smart as well, and Alex adores his older sister and considers her his biggest role model and inspiration. It's incredible to watch. Alex Armstrong, the Strong Arm Alchemist, wants to be more like his sister.

There are all kinds of fathers in FMA, and the narrative considers the attentive, openly loving father as the ultimate male character. Maes Hughes, a military officer, is a doting dad who absolutely adores his little girl. He'll show pics of little Elicia to everyone, but his love for his family doesn't get in the way of his career as a badass intelligence officer. In fact, his motivation for being in the military is so that he can protect his family and give Elicia a brighter future. In contrast, the Elric brothers' absent father is a source of constant anger for Edward. He blames their father for everything that went wrong in their lives. He's furious that their father wasn't there when their mother died, but Edward doesn't want vengeance. He's already learned the consequences of allowing your rage to take over your life and doesn't want to go down that dark path again.

The Elric Brothers also have a number of great female mentors in their young lives. They are, after all, raised by a single mother, and then after her death, they’re taken in by an amazing female alchemist named Izumi Curtis. Then there’s prosthetics engineer Pinako Rockbell and her apprentice/granddaughter Winry. They designed and installed metal appendages for Edward after he loses his arm and leg after the failed attempt to resurrect his mother. The narrative doesn't portray these female characters as less skilled than the male characters, and it's clear that the Elric brothers are better off because they've had these women in their lives.

Male characters bucking the trend of toxic masculinity aren't quite the norm yet in anime. There's still a plethora of brooding heroes who don't want to connect with others and are considered cool because of it. However, with more and more fans expecting more depth in anime protagonists, it's clear that multi-layered male characters must become commonplace in the future. It's not just good feminism -- it's good storytelling.