The seeding of headstrong, good-natured main characters in Shounen has not changed; however, in recent times, the characteristics of the classic Shounen protagonists have changed to match an emerging trend of having not one, but two or more characters who are the story’s protagonist in their own right.
Having multiple main characters is nothing new; however, the positioning of two central narratives as far as characters are concerned is unique to Shounen. Rather than commit fully to a single character, new-wave Shounen anime such as Black Clover, My Hero Academia, and, most recently, the new adaptation of the Tite Kubo BLEACH spin-off, Burn the Witch. How do Shounen anime interact with dual-protagonists and in what ways is the positioning of Burn the Witch protagonists Ninny Spangcole and Noel Niihashi a reflection of the mainstreaming of the dual-protagonist dynamic in Shounen anime? Let’s find out!
Red Ogre, Blue Ogre – We’re Different But the Same
Whenever there is a rivalry, a close friendship or partnership or even a romantic relationship in anime, there tends to be an assumption of opposing yet synergistic traits. Zooming in on Shounen anime specifically, there tends to be a polarization; a conflict in which the main character’s traits are directly contrasted by those of another character often positioned to be their rival in some capacity. Goku has Vegeta. Naruto has Sasuke. Ichigo has Uryu and of course, Ninny has Noel.
This new wave of Shounen has turned the old rivals-turned-friends trope into something a little different – a phenomenon we’ve dubbed “red ogre, blue ogre”. Their contrasting ways of seeing the world creates a lot of conflict between them; however, there is often an understanding on a much deeper level that they are much more similar than they are different.
The basic idea is that two characters are positioned as the main characters of a story and everything about them is at odds with the other; however, recent anime has had these characters presented as fated friends, enemies (or both), such as with Black Clover characters Asta and Yuno. The phenomenon gets its name from the oft-referenced “Ao-Oni to Aka-Oni” (red ogre and blue ogre) myth. While various elements from that story do not lend themselves to our use of its name to identify this phenomenon in Shounen anime, it still offers a quick snapshot into what we mean by “new-wave Shounen’s dual-protagonists”.
While their differences are what highlight their characterization, as well as the dynamic that emerges between them, as well as between them and their native universe, dual-protagonists offer Shounen anime a chance to explore what is often a vast and colourful world from the perspective of more than just a single character. There is also the idea of mutual understanding between the red and blue ogre, regardless of the other layers that define their relationship.
Our first main character of the Burn the Witch story is the idol Ninny Spangcole. On the surface, she is the aloof singer of Cecile Die Twice, a band with a large following; however, in Reverse London, Ninny Spangcole is a witch working for Wing Bind. Her personality is rude, abrasive and loud, but also stubborn to a fault. Her personality is possibly the extension of a latent cynicism about the world she inhabits exhibited by her attitude towards fairy tales. The first thing we ever hear Ninny say is that “fairy tales are bull****”, which is quite striking considering her position in areas that would be considered the realm of dreams – her status as a renowned singer and as a witch.
We are immediately positioned to understand Ninny Spangcole as the “red ogre” in the protagonist pairing in Burn the Witch, because red is associated with extraversion, passion, enthusiasm, defiance, wildness and determination, all of which are true of Ninny’s characterization. Blonde hair has consistently been considered “the mark of the yankee”, a visual characterization of delinquent anime characters – this is not lost on us because Ninny Spangcole feels like another character from an earlier Tite Kubō work: the hot-headed, rude, abrasive and loud BLEACH delinquent character Sarugaki Hiyori.
Burn the Witch’s second main character, Noel is stoic to a fault – we don’t see her smile once in Burn the Witch’s runtime, which says it all, really. Her approach to everything is calm and calculated, in fact, the only time we can be certain that Noel saw any kind of drop of colour on her emotional canvas is towards the end, when she tries to smite Balgo Parks’s mascot-elect dragon-doggo Osushi after he learned his owner’s disgusting habit of sexually harassing Noel by asking her to show him her panties. She is always calm, always collected, and does things by the book. In stark contrast to Ninny, Noel is not a famous star and even her character design reflects her introverted, almost gloomy personality. Kuudere characters like Noel are often granted internal contrasts as well – her stoic and deadpan handling of most situations lies in stark contrast to her relatable obsession with anime and Japanese culture – yes, Noel is a total weeb – as well as her fondness of cute animals as seen in her initial interactions with Osushi. Her reserved nature makes her water to Ninny’s fire and Burn the Witch’s resident blue ogre.
Burn the Witch is new-age Shounen in execution and in its writing; however, the fact that the series is intimately connected to the BLEACH universe solidifies its Shounen status in a different way. For one, dual-protagonists allow an author like Kubo to explore various ways of creating protagonists who can check different but very important boxes – the red ogre Ninny is our classic ambitious Shounen hothead, who wants to be greater and do greater, while the blue ogre Noel seems to be the calmer protagonist that is content with life as they have it, like Kurosaki Ichigo. Who are your favourite dual-protagonist pairings in anime? Drop a comment below and let us know what you think!