Two years ago I watched one of the most well known anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion. I didn't like it. It was weird. Strangely though, one of my favorite aspects of the show was Shinji Ikari. The kid who couldn't do anything. Mocked in anime circles world wide, this kid was the only thing that grounded me to the original series.
Shinji is not your typical hero. He is definitely not the typical sh nen style hero. He is known as a coward. He is known for his complete indecisiveness and lack of motivation. He is not a hero by most peoples perspectives. However, I think he is much more like a real life hero, than a fictional and romanticized one. I do not believe Shinji is a coward, he is a compassionate hero.
When Shinji is first taken to NERV in all adaptations, he meets his Father who abandoned him, is asked to pilot a giant synthetic human, and then is faced with a beat up and barely able to stand girl and the first pilot Rei. A little overwhelming. Not to mention, he just witnessed the enemy he has to fight withstand humanities most powerful weapons, while destroying a couple major cities. And yet he still decides to pilot EVA Unit 01. He does it out of compassion for Rei. Everytime he gets in an EVA, he is risking his life. But he isn't doing it because he wants to. He does it because if he doesn't someone else will have to and in many cases, no one else can. Is that not a heroic quality?
To often we think of heroes as super people who do amazing things with total resolve and selflessness, but how many people do you know that have total resolve or are selfless all the time? I don't know any. A hero is a person with character who is motivated help someone with whatever means necessary (often spontaneous and drastic.) Someone who in a moment is selfless in sacrifice and resolved in a difficult task in order to protect someone else.
I am from a culture that values heroics. I am a military brat. Ask anyone who has been in a firefight or has been through the hell called war and they won't say they fight for their country; they don't fight for freedom. That may be a piece of it, but they fight for the people next to them. They fight for there families and those that they love. Shinji fights for Misato, Rei, and his friends from school. Shinji is selfless, he just doesn't know it.
Shinji is always afraid. This does not mean he is a coward. I believe from my own experience that this makes courageous. If a man were to have no fear, he could never be courageous.
"I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who is not afraid, but he who conquers that fear." - Nelson Mandela
Shinji is filled with fear, yet he conquers it. He stumbles along the way, but so do I. I relate to Shinji, because I have spent most of my life living in fear. Now, that I am going into full-time missions work in Japan, I am terrified. But in my heart,I know that the fear I feel is not worth missing out on this chance to do something I was meant to do, for people I love. I am not Shinji, but I understand in part where he is coming from. I also believe that he is a symbol of what a lot of people in Japan long to be.
Japan is beautiful. People are kind, but fear is every where. Society has so many pressures that we don't experience here. While living there, I met many people who honestly felt like Shinji does. They felt helpless, they were afraid, but they wanted to do and become something worth while. I believe this is why this concept of heroes is so important in Japan. People want to be rescued. However, a fake hero like Samurai Flamenco would never last. The Japanese want an authentic hero. A real leader. You can see these same ideas in anime like Eden of The East and Gurren Lagann. We have a similar thing in the US. Look at our best selling movies this year, most are of Super Heroes. (Though I tend to prefer The Hunger Games.) For some reason, we crave heroes. But in Japan, people want to be heroes. The only problem is real heroes aren't born, they are made. Because real heroes have character, and character comes for suffering.
For a heads up, I do like the Evangelion manga and the Rebuilds of Evangelion. I just didn't like the original series when I first watched it.