Content Warning: Violence, gore, misogyny, male gaze, and discussion of toxic fandoms.
About once every three or four months I find myself asking, “Do I even like anime?” While anime and manga make up some of my formative media experiences and tie into the personal and professional achievements that I’m most proud of, I just can’t deal with them sometimes. There’s something in every dimension of these mediums that frustrates me: from the creators being overworked and underpaid in abusive industries rampant with sexual predators, to works filled with cliches and exploitative tropes solely for the sake of trying to move merchandise, to members of the anime fandom who paradoxically want the medium to be respected by non-fans but also needlessly gatekeep the communities they claim to represent.
There’s just so much about this space that aggravates me and it’s infuriating that there are so few people in this scene who are willing to address these problems. I think this is why No More Heroes, a 2007 game for the Nintendo Wii, resonates so deeply with me. Developed by Suda 51’s Grasshopper Manufacture, this game’s protagonist, Travis Touchdown, is a parody of undeservedly boisterous cishet fanboys who wrongly think that they are the only real anime and manga fans. Rather than whitewash these elements or act as a power fantasy for those who see themselves in Travis though, every element of No More Heroes drives home how sad Travis’ life is and leaves a player both marveling at this absurd human and hoping that he manages to work through his issues. In that way, No More Heroes is able to distill my biggest issues with the anime scene, mocks those who defend and perpetuate its shittiest elements, and makes me hopeful that things can improve by having Travis embody and then question his identity as a scummy anime nerd.
However, before getting into the meat of this piece, we need to get the game’s shortcomings out of the way. The game leans into the male gaze to the point of absurdity, and only a small number of women across the entire franchise aren’t framed and posed as sex objects. In particular, Sylvia Christel, the character the camera leers at most often, is a femme fatale who uses her sexuality to manipulate Travis, playing into puritanical conspiracies that women with sexual agency are only trying to take advantage of men. While No More Heroes is a game with an ultimately progressive message and plenty of thematic depth, if these skeezy elements obscure the better parts of the game, there’s no shame in avoiding this title.
That said, Travis Touchdown is a satire of an otaku. He’s introduced wearing a t-shirt branded with a hyper-sexualized moe anime, his motorcycle is actually a reference to a long running mecha manga, and his apartment is littered with anime merchandise. Said apartment is a unit in a longstay hotel without a kitchen and only big enough for a mini-fridge. That’s not a big deal for Travis, though, as he’s usually too broke to buy more food than what the fridge can hold, especially after he’s gone on a bender because he’s frustrated about being single. For as much as Travis proclaims that he’s a badass and the world’s greatest assassin, both the game and the player are acutely aware that Travis is pretty lame and would be pitiable if he weren’t such an asshole.
Every element of No More Heroes is meant to drive home how much of a bummer Travis’ life is. While it is true that the game’s barren open world is a result of the Wii’s limited hardware, it also plays into Travis’ melancholic loneliness as the player is forced to constantly drive through this listless town, reinforcing the story’s themes. The only people Travis can talk to are the various shop owners and quest givers, with his only friend being the movie rental store owner as the two are seemingly the only people in the community who watch Miike Takashi movies.
While the focus of No More Heroes is taking down various powerful assassins so that Travis can climb the United Assassin Association rankings, a player is only doing that half of the time. Progression is locked behind purchases made with in-game currency, which is most easily gained by doing jobs like mowing grass and picking up litter. So for every sick fight Travis wins, that moment was only possible because he spent an untold amount of time working various low-paying and emotionally unfulfilling jobs.
While some could look at these elements of No More Heroes and think that Travis is just a down-on-his-luck anime fan trying to get his life together, he’s only participating in these life-threatening events on the flimsy promise that the organizer of the deadly fights, Sylvia, will have sex with him. Travis outright begs Sylvia to sleep with him if he becomes the top ranked assassin and she disingenuously flirts back just enough in the early parts of the game to make him think there’s a chance it could happen — making it clear that Travis Touchdown is just kind of a loser. Her disinterest in Travis as a romantic or sexual partner is further reinforced by her going to concerts, taking trips to the beach, and doing other great date activities alone. The juxtaposition between Sylvia living a lavish lifestyle on Travis’ dime while he only gets work related calls from her encapsulates Sylvia seeing Travis as little more than a means to an end.
But while that might seem to play into tropes about awful women taking advantage of earnest men, it really can’t be emphasized enough that Travis sucks! And the game knows it! He’s misogynistic, utterly full of himself, and cares way too much about an anime that sexualizes children. Even if his bombastic attitude and exploits make him entertaining to watch, he’s not the kind of guy you’d want to have as a friend. If you’ve been in the anime/manga fandom for any amount of time, you know someone from the convention circuit or a forum who radiates Travis Touchdown energy, and expresses the kinds of opinions that make it hard to be a vocal anime fan.
That’s why it’s so rejuvenating to see Travis realize how much he dislikes his life and start to improve it.
As the hours tick by in a playthrough of No More Heroes, Travis meets — and usually kills — a variety of assassins with values and personalities that drastically differ from his own. Each one resonates with Travis, though, and he gradually becomes more introspective. After meeting the ninth ranked boss, Dr. Peace, Travis resolves not to end up as lonely as the older man, who only partakes in the fight because it allows him to have dinner with his estranged daughter. In the fight for the seventh ranking, Travis realizes how he comes off to other people after bisecting the utterly smarmy Destroyman, who is somehow an even bigger ass than Travis. Then, while fighting the bloodthirsty penultimate assassin Bad Girl, Travis starts to value his sense of empathy more when he discovers that the bat wielding sadist is even more vicious than he pretends to be.
In essence Travis begins to grow as a character the same way real people do, by getting out of his comfort zone, meeting new people, and applying their perspectives to his own life. Where No More Heroes really shines, though, is in how the frequent blocks to Travis personal growth align with the many systems that prevent the broader anime industry and community from improving.
For instance, whenever Travis thinks about stopping his work as an assassin, his borderline codependent relationship with Sylvia stops him from leaving. She has a vested interest in Travis remaining easy to manipulate and makes a lot of money off of him, not unlike how politically and financially motivated people have an interest in keeping the relatively niche anime fandom as isolated as possible. This community isn’t as preyed upon as the furry community or the punk rock scene of a few decades ago (CW: descriptions of violence), but there are a lot of alt-right grifters who want anime fans to feel persecuted and unaccepted so they can profit off of that anger. Once someone enters a cycle of someone or thing validating their most harmful behaviors, it can be really difficult to break that loop and find a healthier lifestyle.
Similarly, a megacorporation benefits from Travis’ antics and manipulates him into continuing his assassinations. In No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, the vacant community of the first game, Santa Destroy, is now a sprawling cityscape because Travis’ actions allowed a pizza magnate to buy and develop most of it. The anime and manga industries now rely on the sale of branded merchandise to meet financial expectations, depending on people like Travis and encouraging their gatekeeping behavior so long as that person keeps buying every figurine and poster tied to an IP while insisting that you have to do so if you want to be a real fan.
People’s expectations of Travis also keep him in the assassination game in a way that alludes to individuals who can’t break away from the toxic elements of the anime fandom. Travis quickly makes a name for himself in the early parts of the game and garners some admiration from characters like Shinbou, who doesn’t know enough about the world yet to realize how big a tool Travis is. So now Travis is a prominent member of a small community that both expects and encourages him to behave in a way that he knows isn’t healthy for him and has little outside of that space to fall back on. There are absolutely people who want to leave channer spaces and other platforms where so-called anime fans congregate, but can’t bring themselves to do so as they worry that they’ll end up friendless and even more alone.
To be completely clear, No More Heroes never makes Travis sympathetic as he’s figuring out his issues. This isn’t a sob story about a misunderstood recluse learning to be better and that treats the people he wrongs as stepping stones on his personal journey. Travis is the butt of nearly every joke in the game and constantly has the piss taken out of him. After all, most victories in the game are followed by scenes where a video store clerk calls Travis out for not rewinding the pornogrophy he rented from their store or telling him that he returned the wrong tape. As a player, you just look at this guy and find yourself chuckling at how much effort he’s putting into being what he thinks is cool and wondering when he’ll finally get over himself. It’s unusual for a game to have a protagonist who’s supposed to suck, but that’s exactly what makes No More Heroes such a great condemnation of the usually cishet folks who try to gatekeep more casual and marginalized anime fans out of the community.
Travis Touchdown isn’t a great dude and no one should aspire to be like him. No More Heroes knows this, and the entire game as well as its sequels are about him trying to be less of a chud while acting cool but mostly just making an ass of himself. That’s the franchise in a nutshell and, as odd as it is to say, Travis embodying everything that’s wrong with the community that I’m a part of is what makes him one of my favorite video game protagonists. Seeing these games call Travis out on his poor behavior cleanses my anime-tinted soul and his desire to better himself makes me hopeful for the future of this fandom.
After all, if this wannabe badass otaku can realize that he isn’t happy with his current lifestyle and tries to change, maybe the worst members of the anime fandom can as well. This is why the ending of No More Heroes hits me so hard. Travis and his half-brother Henry both realize they’ve been manipulated throughout the entire game and resolve to make a clean break from their situations with one final clash of their beam katanas. The resounding message in this scene being that anyone who finds themselves in a bad routine or situation can leave or reshape their life if they really want to, and that’s beautiful.
Of course, one of the primary goals of satire is to make people realize that a work is satire, and unfortunately a lot of people don’t realize that No More Heroes is making fun of Travis and the people who inspire him. Furthermore, the increasingly popular reading that Travis is a self-insert character for auteur game director Suda 51 also muddles the franchise’s metaphor a bit. This reading of the series is totally valid, and arguably the surface-level reading of No More Heroes: Travis Strikes Again where Travis is now obsessed with indie games, but this franchise having so many different possible readings only makes it more compelling as a whole.
In spite of its issues, I regard the No More Heroes series fondly. In particular, the ending of Travis Strikes Back hits a chord with me. Here, Travis meets with the creator of the games he was sucked into over the course of the story, and the person who created some of the games that influenced him as a child. While at first he says that he has a lot of criticisms of Dr. Juvenile’s work and wishes that his experiences with them were different, he goes on to profess how much appreciation he has for her work and the creativity she put into every one of her games.
Ultimately, my complaints about anime, manga, the games influenced by them, and the broader anime fandom align with this sentiment. For as much as the industry, medium trends, and a portion of the fanbase frustrates me, I still love a lot of these works and just wish these barriers didn’t prevent me from loving them more or unconditionally recommending them to other people. Travis doesn’t want to fundamentally alter who he is, he just wants to be better in the same way I want this industry and fandom to be a better version of itself. Just like Travis wouldn’t be himself without his Johnny Knoxville hair and trying-too-hard leather jacket, the anime sphere wouldn’t be itself if it wasn’t weird, but it could stand to be more inclusive, less gatekeeper-y, and better to the people making and consuming this media. This space can also grow, no matter how difficult that process might seem. Just like Travis.