So you’ve just settled into the current anime that you’ve chosen to watch. You have a fair understanding of who the main character is, who they’re supporting friends and mentors are, what the general outline of the plot is, who stands in the way of the main character, and how the abilities/superpowers/tech all work. Suddenly, out of nowhere, something serves as a devastating threat to the main character. You’re not worried about the fate of the main character because he’s the main character; it’s not about whether they live or die, but how they get past this obstacle. But not this time. For whatever reason, the main character fails; they’re either dead or gone somehow. Now you find yourself asking: who’s the main character now?
The concept of the false protagonist or “decoy” protagonist is something that serves to shake things up from the typical story that people get used to as they’re exposed to more stories of certain genres, such as action, adventure, fanstasy, science-fiction, and so on. With the main character being eliminated, it serves as a great way in demonstrating that what’s going to happen from that point onward can’t be predicted by the audience. Everyone now is vulnerable, and can’t be protected by “plot armor”. Some examples of false protagonists die very early on, while others actually have a small role of sorts before being eliminated. Whether immediate or not, here are the Top 10 Anime Decoy/False Protagonists.
10. Waku, Bokurano
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: Apr 2007 - Sep 2007
15 kids are enjoying their time together at summer camp when they happen to stumble upon a mysterious place nearby owned by a person who calls himself Kokopelli. Kokopelli claims that he is working on a game where a giant robot protects the Earth from multiple alien invaisons, and is able to convince almost all of the kids to sign a contract to serve as testers for this game. However, as the kids soon discover the hard way, Kokopelli left out some key information…
One of the kids, Waku, presents himself right from the beginning as the typical “kid hero”: he’s hot-blooded, a talented soccer player, and confident to say the least. As a result, as the series begins, the emphasis is placed on him, almost as if he will serve as the leader. However, the opposite ends up happening: Waku ends up being the first of the kids to die after piloting Zearth, setting the real tone of the series quite early.
9. Rin, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Oct 2014 - Dec 2014
The Holy Grail is a magical item that grants any wish of whoever wields it. In order to obtain this item, however, one must win the Holy Grail War. This “war” consists of a battle royale among 7 magi known as Masters using spirits known as Servants to fight against one another. With such a powerful item at stake, each of the magi will do whatever it takes to win…
When this short anime series first begins, we are led to believe that Rin Toosaka is the main character. However, we learn pretty quick how that can be argumentative at best, as the accidental inclusion of Emiya Shirou, a classmate of Rin’s, into the Holy Grail War results in them teaming up in order to defeat the rest of the opponents. This “false protagonist” example is unique, as it serves as one where the initial protagonist doesn’t actually die to set up the main protagonist.
8. Shinya Kougami, Psycho Pass
- Episodes: 22
- Aired: Oct 2012 - Mar 2013
In the year 2113, the Sibyl System possesses the responsibility of keeping criminals in line with the law. Measuring an individual’s state of mind, personality, and likelihood of committing a crime, a Psycho-Pass is thus issued based on said information. However, if that individual ever exceeds that level, then they will be hunted, arrested, and even killed by Inspectors and Enforcers if it’s deemed necessary to do so…
When the promotional videos and the opening of the series begins, we the viewers are led to believe that Shinya Kougami is the main protagonist, as he is prominently features while Akane Tsunemori is hardly seen. However, as the series progresses, Akane ends up playing a larger and larger role, and while Shinya is still a main character to some degree, he is not the central protagonist of the series as it was made out to be in the intro. Another example of a series where the false protagonist doesn’t have to die for the real protagonist to pick up from where they left off.
7. Gerd Frentzen, Blassreiter
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: Apr 2008 - Sep 2008
In an alternate version of Germany, the country is under attack from beings born from corpses known as Demoniacs, creatures that somehow have the ability to merge with technology, such as cars or motorcycles. Human beings have also somehow developed Demoniac powers, with some of them trying to save humanity while others try to destroy it. With each side growing in power, who can win is unclear…
Gerd Frentzen was a famed motorcycle racer who ended up being paralyzed from the waist down due to a Demoniac attack. At first he hunts down Amalgrams and is hailed as a hero; however, due to events in his personal life he eventually succumbs to his powers and is eventually eliminated. His legacy due to his willpower lives on, and it was thanks to his willpower one last time that he was able to allow himself to be killed in the first place. But his death takes place a number of episodes into the series, serving as a bit of a shock as opposed to early on in the series.
6. Alois Trancy and Claude Faustus, Black Butler II
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Jul 2010 – Sep 2010
Alois Trancy, the young heir to the Trancy earldom, has a tragic past. Kidnapped and forced to become a slave at a young age, Alois was rescued from this fate only to have his father pass away soon after. However, certain individuals doubt the legitimacy of Alois’ claim and have questions about Claude Faustus, Alois’ butler who possesses paranormal abilities as well as a special connection with Alois. It’ll be up to both Alois and Claude to unravel the lies and survive the tests on their special bond.
Another anime with misleading marketing. Black Butler II was advertised with Alois and Claude serving as the new duo of the series. However, they end up serving as false protagonists due to the original protagonists from the original Black Butler returning. Ciel Phantomhive and Sebastian Michaelis both show up in the very 1st episode and take over from there. Very impressive indeed, as few expected that to happen.
5. Touru and Natsuki, Ga-Rei-Zero
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Oct 2008 – Dec 2008
The Japanese Ministry of Defense has a division known as the Paranormal Disaster Countermeasure Headquarters. This division is made up of a Special Forces group tasked with getting rid of the paranormal protecting the people from supernatural and paranormal events. This can lead to a lot of weird experiences to say the least…
Yet another example of promotional material leading one astray. In this case, the “demon-hunting squad” of Touru and Natsuki shown in the promos end up being killed in the very first episode trying to save the survivors from demons attacking a highway in the greater Tokyo highway. Their deaths serve as a reminder to just how dangerous dealing with the paranormal is as well as what the risks are in joining such a division.
4. Paulie, One Piece
- Episodes: 768 (as of now)
- Aired: Oct 1999 – currently airing
During the Water 7 Arc, the Straw Hats, in their search for a new crewmember who can serve as their shipwright, meet Paulie. Introduced as the main character of this arc, Paulie is the best shipwright on the island of Water 7, home to the best carpenters in the world. He has a unique fighting style utilizing rigging ropes as well as a personality quirk of constantly being in debt. However, we eventually switch gears as Franky, introduced as the arc’s enemy, ends up having a tragic past, his own unique fighting style due to being a cyborg, and being a better shipwright than Paulie. As a result, it is Franky, not Paulie, who ends up joining the Straw Hats in their quest to save Robin as well as becoming a part of their crew, making Paulie a “false candidate” of sorts.
3. Madoka, Puella Magi Madoka Magica
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Jan 2011 - Apr 2011
Madoka Kaname and Sayaka Miki are just your 2 average middle school girls until they encounter Kyuubey, a cat-like magical familiar, and Homura Akemi, a new transfer student.
Kyuubey offers to grant one of their wishes in exchange for them becoming a “magical girl” with the ability to fulfill their dreams. Despite Homura’s warnings (as she is a “magical girl” herself”), a deal is struck, only for things to not appear as they seem…
This series plays around with this trope much more than most. Madoka is the title character, yet she mainly serves as an observer and has no major effect on the plot until the very end. Sayaka seems to serve as the protagonist (having the personality for it) until she begins to turn towards evil. Near the end, Homura steps in as the “true hero” due to how low Sayaka has succumbed, only for Madoka to end things once and for all. So who actually deserves to be considered the main protagonist? The world may never know.
2. Eren, Attack on Titan
- Episodes: 25
- Aired: Apr 2013 - Sep 2013
Hundreds of years ago, mankind was almost eliminated due to creatures known as Titans hunting them down and eating them. The last of humanity was able to isolate themselves from the Titans behind enormous walls for over 100 years. Unfortunately, that streak ended when a Titan managed to finally break through and wreak havoc, resulting in the death of Eren Yeager’s mother. Witnessing this loss firsthand, Eren, his adopted sister Mikasa Ackerman, and his friend Armin Arlert have joined the Survey Corps in order to resume humanity’s fight against the Titans and eliminate them once and for all
At the beginning of the series, Eren serves as the main character as he and his friends train in the army to fight the Titans. However, in their first ever battle, Eren ends up sacrificing his life in order to save his friend Armin by rescuing him from the mouth of a Titan, only to be eaten in Armin’s place. At that point, it seems that Eren was a false protagonist, as the next several episodes focus on Eren’s friends as they cope with the loss of Eren and their comrades. In a sudden twist, however, Eren ends up surviving being eaten by a Titan after it is revealed that Eren is a Titan Shifter; he himself can transform into a Titan himself as well as regenerate any of his limbs if he loses them due to a special injection his father gave him. Even with Eren’s return, the perspective seems to have shifted from what it was at the beginning, as the focus turns to the ensemble of characters as opposed to only being on one main character. As a result, Eren stands out as a false protagonist not only because of his return from death (the common way a false protagonist is eliminated), but also in a way where he isn’t the main character anymore and the point of view is on the entire cast as opposed to him.
1. Kamina, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
- Episodes: 27
- Aired: Apr 2007 - Sep 2007
Probably the go-to example of the false protagonist in recent memory. Both Kamina and Simon serve as main characters, but it was always assumed that Kamina was the main one of the two since he was the oldest and had the personality to suit it more. Simon was younger, a lot more timid, and didn’t have nearly as much aspiration as Kamina did. All that changed when Kamina died in Episode 8, and the series ends up continuing with Simon as the main character as he grows stronger and matures as a character, especially based off of Kamina’s lessons as well as his final words to Simon.
Whether it’s by death, misleading in advertising, a casual shift throughout the plot, or some other method, a protagonist you feel is the main one can be a false or decoy protagonist without you knowing it if done correctly. It can also serve to make the story more interesting if you find yourself bored being exposed to the same type of story over and over. Hopefully there will be more to come in the future. As of now, however, here are the Top 10 Anime Decoy/False Protagonists. What are your guys’ thoughts? Do you agree with the #1 choice? Is there someone missing that you feel should have been included? Let us know in the comments!