So, you’re a main character in a new anime. Fresh from the South Korean animation studios and swimming in an ocean of hype, you’re ready for it all: the fame, the fortune, the fan fiction. You step into the spotlight, ready for your star debut…and promptly get crushed beneath the big toe of the rampaging alien beastie that roared to life after the first commercial break. As it waddles unperturbed through downtown Tokyo taking bites out of the scenery, you lay there paralyzed with an existential crisis. You’re also paralyzed because everything below your rib cage is paste, but it’s mostly the existential crisis.
What went wrong? You’re the main character! This show runs on you! Well, the fact of the matter is, no anime lead is an island, and every successful main character has behind them a flustered secondary character making sure everything’s going according to plan. Without these secondary characters, your story’s not going to make it past the first episode’s ending credits, and certainly won’t last long enough to net you the sweet, sweet profit from all that questionable merchandise.
These secondary characters keep the day saved in a number of ways – whether through careful planning, cool heads, or simply working hard while the lead reaps all the credit, they’re the only thing standing between success and total oblivion.
9. Shuichiro Oishi (Prince of Tennis)
“Saving the day” in a sports anime is overstating things, you say?
|In the movie, the characters fought a tennis crime gang based out of an abandoned castle in England by using the power of tennis airbending. Fuck historical landmarks, the dignity of the sport was at stake.|
Around these parts, tennis is serious. Dead serious. Eye-gougingly, rib-crackingly, dinosaur-extinctionrifficly serious. Now, you might call Prince of Tennis‘ take on the sport “overdramatic”, or perhaps “fucking baffling.” However, you cannot deny the contributions of Seishun Gakuen’s vice-captain to keeping everyone on his team in fighting shape to do whatever vaguely tennis-shaped event they have planned for the day.
He doesn’t have the main character invincibility of Echizen, our eponymous Prince of Tennis, nor does he have the high-flying acrobatics of his doubles partner Kikumaru. But he’s the one stitching them together after they self-inflict grievous bodily harm in the middle of a match. Do you need a field surgeon to shove your eyeball back in so you can continue your match? Oishi’s here. Need someone to hide your debilitating arm injury from the rest of the team? Oishi’s got you. Need someone to take over as captain when the regular captain has to go in for reconstructive surgery to repair said debilitating arm injury? Oishi steps up to the plate. Which, admittedly, sounds fairly suspicious when you phrase it like that.
|In the game of tennis, you win or you die.|
Oishi’s motherly presence on the team is not only what keeps its bombastic personalities in harmony, but is also what keeps everyone in full possession and use of their limbs, and is make-or-break in winning their matches and climbing the tournament ladders. Just like any mother, he just wants to keep his family safe, sound, and happy, no matter how many fellow junior high kids they murder along the way to victory.
8. Rakushun (The Twelve Kingdoms)
You’re an ordinary high school student who’s been plucked from your ordinary high school life and slam-dunked into an alternate-universe China. Oh, awesome, this is the part where you get rescued from bandits and then pampered by a harem of available royal bachelors, right? Yeah, no. This is the part where you fight for your life for weeks against bloodthirsty monsters and wildlife, get pursued relentlessly by arch-demons, and nearly starve to death. Welcome to the Kingdoms! Enjoy your stay!
But, thankfully, your first streak of luck in this world comes up, and you collapse on the doorstep of a friendly giant rat.
|“No, not ‘Reepicheep’, ‘Rakushun’. You must’ve been more delirious than I thought.”|
Congratulations, Youko, you’ve made the acquaintance of Rakushun, your future friend, confidante, and Exposition Dude. Try giving him some of them apple-wood sticks; my rabbits love those.
Rakushun’s birth as a half-beast child to human parents made him the subject of ridicule and racism from day one. All doors to higher education and even employment are closed to him, and his sharp mind and keen intellect are wasted doing menial chores around the house -that is, until he saved a vagrant girl who showed up on his doorstep. He listens to her story and her pleas to be taken back to the mysterious legendary realm of “Japan”, and vows to accompany her to the kingdom of En. And not only does he keep to that promise, but that accompaniment and guidance also extends to listening to her woes, listening to her talk about this weird guy who came to pick her up in Japan who told her she was the ruler of some place called “Kei”, begging for the king of En to give her an audience, and helping plan a revolution to unseat the false Kei ruler and negotiate for foreign aid.
These selfless acts of kindness bring Youko back from the brink, and allow her to start growing into the queen she was meant to be. After he gets Youko on the throne and tires of being the kingdom’s unsung hero, Rakushun luckily recognizes the market in being a travelling therapist for wayward female anime leads, and goes on the road to continue to affect and guide the story as it continues.
|“Have you considered not being a self-centered jackass? It works wonders for your character growth.”|
7. Wakaba Shinohara (Revolutionary Girl Utena)
Of course, it doesn’t always take grand feats of bravery to keep the story on the rails – sometimes, it just takes having a friend that willingly jumps to your aid. Wakaba’s friendship with Utena is version 1.0 of Utena’s knight-princess relationship with Anthy, with none of the baggage of emotional manipulation and world-revolutionizing. (But roughly about as much lesbian subtext.)
|Actually, I guess Utena and Anthy still have the market on lesbianism cornered.|
Utena leaps to defend Wakaba’s honor in the first episode, unwittingly flinging herself into the battle for the Rose Bride and the plot proper. And don’t think Wakaba doesn’t return the favor in kind – when Utena is wallowing in self-pity after losing Anthy in a duel, Wakaba successfully pep-talks her out of her funk, and hurls verbal abuse (and cups of water) at individuals who try to beat Utena down further in her hour of need. Without Wakaba’s constant presence in Utena’s life, Utena not only would have never been able to win the game and “graduate” – she never would have been a part of it in the first place.
Incidentally, the movie wholeheartedly agrees with this analysis, and elects to depict Wakaba’s driving influence in the plot by having her turn into a literal car.
|This is probably one of the movie’s most straightforward pieces of symbolism.|
6. Kyubey (Puella Magi Madoka Magica)
The point could be made that one should not get credit for helping in a situation that oneself gleefully and willingly made happen. A strong point could be made indeed, with lots of yelling and tears. Kyubey sees your argument, considers it, and dismisses it as irrelevant.
|Those tears of yours have piqued his interest, though! He’ll send you his card, call him sometime.|
Kyubey knows the score on how secondary characters push the plot along, and got himself in on some of that sweet action to further his own goals. By mushing his alien form into a cutesy mascot mold, he’s poised and ready to use that dead-eyed cuteness to keep his targets off-guard, and keep them tightly on-script. And it’s not for nothing, for he laid it out plainly himself: without his intervention, humans would probably still be living in caves. It’s hard to argue his point, for we now have things like running water, antibiotics, and countdown lists on the Internet about the best secondary anime characters.
He’s out to save the universe from heat death, has graciously guided humanity to be the dominant species on the planet, and all he asks for is a soul every so often. A single, solitary soul; you’d barely miss it from the billions of ones just lying around. Kyubey even hands out gifts to lucky applicants: a wish for anything, from being saved from an untimely death, to grand powers on a time-altering scale. It’s not necessarily his fault that the energy-gathering process requires the soul in question to be corrupted with sorrow into a bloodthirsty monster…though hey, that’s extra encouragement for more people to apply to fight them! He’s concerned with the state of the universe AND is a shrewd businessman; that’s what I call a well-rounded individual.
Not only would the day not be saved without his intervention, the day probably wouldn’t even exist in the first place. So here’s to Kyubey! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.
|Serves you right for not reading the fine print, kid.|
5. Kaede Kaburagi (Tiger & Bunny)
When you’re the ten-year-old daughter of one of the eponymous superheroes, you tend to expect a few things out of your role in the series, and most of those things involve being variously inconvenienced and imperiled. Indeed, in the early parts of the series, Kaede plays the part of the high-strung handful preteen to her single secret superhero father, and has to be saved as needed from falling rubble and landslides.
|“Wait. Dead mom, mysteriously absent father…shit, am I being set up for an origin story?” (The answer’s yes.)|
However, that all changes when she develops the powers of Rogue from X-Men, without that pesky death-touch setback. She then becomes the wrench in the plans of the series’ big bad, and makes his decades-long and city-wide campaign of manipulation and conspiracy come crashing down – all because that big bad decided to pin a murder on her father out of sheer spite. Not bad, considering she’s up against killer death robots, the government, and a brainwashed team of heroes with powers over the elements. Without Kaede stepping up to the plate to take them down, her father would have been cornered, convicted, and up against the firing squad – while the man behind the scenes continued to play with everyone like puppets.
|I brought down the Anime Illuminati before turning thirteen! What have you done with your life?|
4. Autor (Princess Tutu)
Kaede proves that it takes guts and insight to realize and utilize the gifts that you have. It takes even more guts and insight, though, to accept that you have jack shit to offer, and then try to help anyway.
Autor starts his role in the series as a smug know-it-all who claims to have the same reality-writing powers that the big bad, Drosselmeyer, is using to control the town. He lords this over Fakir, one of the lead characters…only to be completely outclassed within around five minutes. Fakir effortlessly wields his pen to start writing them out of the tragedy they’ve been cast into, while Autor is exposed to have never had the powers in the first place – all he has to his name are a lot of research, and a lot of bluster.
|“What I lack in physical ability and magical talent I make up for in desperate wishing.”|
Autor is hopelessly outclassed by the rest of the cast: three individuals with magic dancing that can do anything from soothing damaged souls to summoning legendary weaponry, a villain with very macabre tastes and the power to rewrite reality to his choosing, and another hero who’s inherited the very same power and is out to break the villain’s control. However, despite having about as much magical talent as a sweaty pair of legwarmers, Autor still swallows his pride, steps up, and makes sure the story ends the way it should. Not only does he set into motion the redemption of the series’ anti-villainess Rue, but his contribution to the finale involves keeping a gang of axe-wielding cultists at bay while Fakir frantically tries to out-write Drosselmeyer in a reality-warping throw-down. We can’t all be superheroes, but Autor tells us not to let that get in the way of saving the day.
|“Oh, sorry, while you were hunched over that desk sweating over a piece of paper, I was just out there SAVING US FROM THE MEN WITH REAL, ACTUAL AXES.”|
3. Sakae Jinnouchi (Summer Wars)
The problem: a super-virus has taken over the world’s single integrated computer network, throwing infrastructure into chaos and threatening to crash satellites into population centers. The other problem: government and aid officials alike are too busy sobbing uncontrollably under their desks because their tablets have lost signal, and are doing jack shit to resolve the issue. The biggest problem: our ineffectual main characters are too busy arguing amongst themselves to move the plot along.
You’re a ninety-year-old grandmother with a phonebook, and you singlehandedly get Japan back on its feet in a single afternoon.
Even after cooling tempers home-side and giving orders to medical personnel and government officials alike, Sakae still manages to give the virus’ programmer a stern talking-to – at the end of her naginata.
|You broke the internet. Consider your impending death a mercy, as armies of nerds are howling for your blood.|
This one civilian’s organization and coolheaded drive did what a squabbling family and an entire country of highly-trained professionals couldn’t – so much so, unfortunately, that the virus she was successfully thwarting took notice. Her death at the virus’ hands finally makes her family get over their differences and step up to the plate to stop it once and for all. When you’re so good that the story’s villain sees fit to murder you before you can derail its plans, you’ve earned yourself a place on this list.
|“STOP SHRIEKING HYSTERICALLY THAT YOUR SMARTPHONE DOESN’T WORK. HUMANITY HAS LIVED FOR MILLENIA WITHOUT CANDY CRUSH AND YOU CAN TOO.”|
2. Claire Stanfield (Baccano!)
It can be tricky to pinpoint what makes an “essential secondary character” in a series where everyone is the main. In the jigsaw puzzle that is Baccano!, who stands out amongst the others as someone who’s not quite the main-above-mains in the overarching storyline, but saves the day and keeps the plot on the rails in a way that no one else quite could?
|ON THE RAILS. IT’S A TRAIN PUN.|
Let’s set the scene once more: a luxury bullet train is screaming up the Eastern seaboard of the U.S., and has been taken over by two rival mafia gangs. They’re out to kill each other dead, innocents caught in the crossfire be damned. Then there’s the third group of combatants, a gang of thieves who hopped on board with the hopes of an easy heist. Then there’s the free-agent immortal that’s out to kill his fellow passengers for his own motives. Then there’s that stowaway who boarded without buying a ticket. (And that’s just terrible.) Lives are in danger, the engineer is dead. Who can save them now?
Well, perhaps a sociopathic monster on a vengeful rush wasn’t everyone’s first choice, but you can’t deny results. After being caught in the gang crossfire while just doing his job as the friendly conductor, Claire realizes that circumstances make him the most moral individual involved; despite his status as one of the world’s most deadly assassins. And what else can you do when the heroic call comes? So, he takes matters into his own hands and gets revenge on every goddamn troublemaker on the train…up close and gruesomely personal. All the characters with more screentime can do is stay out of his way.
Without Claire’s intervention, the all-out war on the Flying Pussyfoot would have ended even more tragically; proving that you can save the day and get the girl while reeking of the blood and entrails of your enemies.
|“But I can shower or something if you’re not into that stuff.”|
1. Armin Arlert (Attack on Titan)
So, you’re born into a post-apocalyptic hellscape where humanity is on its last legs, and is hiding inside a glorified fence from giant slobbering monsters with a rumbly in their tumblies for tasty human meat. Then they decide to break in and drive you and a scant few survivors deeper into the corner, where you’re forced into the military to even get three square meals a day. The odds are already pretty stacked against you.
Now, consider the fact that you’re a fifteen-year-old boy with a frail constitution and a tendency to be too smart for your own good. Society sees your noodle arms and calls you nothing but Titan bait. Then society hears you talk about your desire to explore and re-take the land that’s been stolen from humanity, and punches you in the face.
|BOOKS ARE SCARY AND OCEANS ARE FILLED WITH WITCHES LET’S PUNCH THE LEARNING OUT OF YOU|
Living in a world that values physical strength over absolutely everything else, Armin is constantly dismissed and underestimated by nearly everyone he meets. Which is pretty ironic, as he’s consistently been the catalyst for success and the ward against agonizing failure from the events of episode one on. His friendship was the key to Eren unlocking his Titan powers, his ability to think on his feet saves his comrades and the inhabitants of the city four times within the Trost arc alone, and his insight and planning was key in discovering and capturing the Female Titan – all of this without raising his swords once, and that’s just covering his contributions to the first thirty chapters.
Fact of the matter is, without Armin’s constant intervention in the plot, humanity would have one wall left, the entire 104th Corps would be dead, and Eren and Mikasa wouldn’t have made it past episode one – much less continued their own day-saving in the episodes and chapters after. That kind of impact lands Armin at number one on this list, and that’s a number that any of the cast members would wholeheartedly agree with.
|“I may not be able to pick up heavy things, but the entire cast owes their life to me four times over and the commander of the Survey Corps comes to me for advice.”|
Did I miss one of your supporting anime favorites? Do you want to tell me how wrong I am for some of my picks? Leave a comment and lay it on me!