The Dead Mothers of Shounen

By: Alex R September 3, 20210 Comments
Trisha and her two young sons from Fullmetal Alchemist

Shounen is the single most popular genre in anime. Even the most casual fan can easily recognize its basic tropes. Male heroes are the genre staple, gaining powerful friends who join their grand adventures. There’s always the teacher or mentor figure that sees the hero’s true potential and a level-headed, cool rival who eventually becomes the hero’s symbolic contrast, plus the frequent training montages and power-ups during villain fights.

Another familiar trope so common in shounen anime that it has become a running joke is absent or dead parents. It’s a common coming-of-age formula that’s been used in countless shounen, such as Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Hunter x Hunter, and One Piece. In these types of series, the young protagonist begins his journey by surviving without parental guidance. Yet within this trope, the portrayal of mothers and fathers have stark differences – the most obvious being the lack of development for mother characters. To be a mother in a shounen series, especially of a male protagonist, is often a guaranteed death sentence. It also means a lack of characterization outside of her role as a caretaker. Even the highly acclaimed series I listed above are guilty of these tropes, and I can’t help but wonder why they continue to persist. 

Mothers in most coming-of-age stories are often presented as loving and virtuous. From what I have observed, shounen mothers tend to fall into one of two categories. First, a shounen mother can be depicted as a passive, ethical pillar of moral consciousness. In that role, she is recognized as the only innocence that exists in the hero’s universe – and what he enviably loses in order to grow up. Her death thus becomes a catalyst for the hero’s change. 

The second category is the mother’s status as the unknown. She is regarded as irrelevant to her son’s character development, and either almost or completely omitted from the narrative. Because the mother’s existence cannot serve as a direct development for the protagonist’s journey, she is often written out as an enigma to be never explored. She is solely used as a prop for reproductive purposes.

FMA's Trisha playing with her two sons at a picnic

FMA: Brotherhood’s Trisha Elric falls into the first category. The show presents Trisha, the mother of Edward and Alphonse, as the loss of innocence the main characters experience. Her death triggers the series’ main events, and leads the brothers to practice forbidden alchemy in hopes of resurrecting her. These events precipitate their entire journey of regaining Al’s body and Edward’s leg and arm. 

Ultimately, Trisha is structured to be the persona of hope and goodness. While it’s important in the context of the story that she gives Holemheim, Edward and Al’s father, the emotional reassurance to continue his lifelong mission, little is actually known about her as a person. She is dead prior to the beginning of the story, so what the audience can learn about her is already limited to flashbacks. Additionally, the majority of her flashbacks are centered on her role as a mother towards Ed and Al. The only time we see more of a psychological perspective is the episode where she comforts Holemheim in his emotionally weakened state. Her role as their light is imperative, but because she represents an ideal, she cannot be complex. 

The lacking exploration of mother characters emphasizes how women can only be identified by their relationships with men. Even when shounen present proactive female characters that eventually become mothers, once they take on that role they are often cast aside, almost dismissing any agency they had developed previously when single (such as Hinata and Sakura in Boruto, or Videl in Dragon Ball Super). 

The second type of mother, the absent or irrelevant mother, can be found in Hunter x Hunter. There is little, if any information, about Gon Freecss’ mother, and what exists is only hinted at in an episode where Gon’s father, Gin, leaves tape recordings about her. Gon immediately turns off the tape, claiming his only mother is his aunt (who, by the way, also embodies the archetype of the saintly mother) and he doesn’t need to know more. While we, the audience, understand his reasons, rejecting any knowledge about his birth mother demonstrates how little her existence matters to him as opposed to his father. Gon’s entire goal of becoming a Hunter is driven by his desire to meet his absent Hunter father. Gin’s existence holds huge significance even in absence; and despite Gon’s parents both abandoning him as an infant, it is Gin’s identity that frames Gon’s journey, never his mother.

Scruffy dad rights

A similar situation follows in One Piece, where Luffy’s mother is never even mentioned by name. While the show heavily emphasizes the importance of found families, lineage is equally part of the story, as Luffy’s family has powerful men that ultimately affect the universe’s world order. Luffy’s brothers, his father Dragon, and grandfather Garp all have their own agency and story arcs outside of being related to Luffy. There is a noticeable absence of women in Luffy’s family, as if their existence has no value in either to the plot nor to the characters they’re related to. 

Luffy’s voice actor, Tanaka Mayumi, asked Eiichiro Oda about Luffy’s mother, to which he replied, “Luffy’s adventure began after he left his mother’s arms. I want to tell this young man’s story, so [his] mom is not part of it.” While this isn’t a definite confirmation she won’t appear, as One Piece is a tumultuous universe with many intersecting plot lines, it’s disheartening to hear that the notion of a mother is the opposite of an adventure and thus cannot become “part” of the journey that her husband and children are granted. 

RIP we still don’t know when

In both cases of the shounen mother archetype, they follow similar patterns to the Hero’s Journey, a type of narrative archetype used to describe a certain kind of coming-of-age story. The Mother is the protective nurturing figure, but she also exists as a correspondence of life and death itself. She births the hero (as the womb), but she dies for him (as the tomb). Death can apply both literally and metaphorically to the mother character, but ultimately, she is inconsequential to the larger purpose of the story.

There are occasions where there are adjacent examples to the shounen mother archetype. Kurosaki Masaki from Bleach and Uzumaki Kushina from Naruto have fully developed personalities and make huge impacts to their narrative universe. Sawada Nana from Katekyo Hitman Reborn! and Midoriya Inko from My Hero Academia are examples of an even rarer exception, as both are alive and raising their sons without some tragedy occurring. Yet even these exceptions follow some pattern of typical shounen mothers. Both Masaki and Kushina are dead prior to the beginning of the series, and Nana and Inko are only a minor influence over their sons’ personal growth.

However, this storytelling structure isn’t something we’re required to follow. Recent seinen hit Made In Abyss has a unique spin on how it handles its mother characters: Riko is the female lead that dreams of becoming a great delver like her mother, Lyza. She is described as a legendary White Whistler, the highest rank a delver can achieve. In addition to her status, we are given background on who she is, what she’s done, her personality, and ultimately, why she ended up leaving her daughter to explore deeper into the abyss. 

Similar to Hoenheim, Gin, and Dragon, Lyza pursues her personal goals over her parental duty. However, Lyza has a distinct moment of self-reflection about becoming a mother and what she’d potentially lose by taking on that role. It’s a type of nuanced discussion that is rarely explored from women characters when becoming mothers, and Lyza openly acknowledges how her attachment to her daughter conflicts with personal identity. It’s a layer of complexity that is often given to anime fathers about their internal struggles. Made in Abyss allows Lyza to have an identity outside of her relationship with her daughter while simultaneously showing her empathetic nature as a mother. She’s an imperfect mother and imperfect person; but to us, she’s extremely human. 

Don’t get me wrong – I love shounen manga and anime, and I never want to imply that mother characters have to be “badass” in order to be varied and interesting. If being kind, wholesome, and selfless happens to encompass her personality, it should be justified as who she is. However, it’s frustrating that a majority of shounen mothers tend to fall within these limited, restrictive archetypes. Fathers are allowed to be messy, to be good, to be bad, to grow or to change. Holemheim, Gin, and Dragon are all distinct characters with varying personalities and, while fathers by title, have roles outside fatherhood. They are allowed to be imperfect, but they are likeable because the audience is encouraged to understand their motivations for straying from their parental duties. We permit them to have an existence before their fatherhood, during, and even when they abandon it.

A shounen mother has no such freedom. Her role as the mother is intrinsic to her person; who she is and what she does must align to her family’s narrative purpose. It often feels that her characterization can only exist as the emotional center of her family’s values. It can also be interpreted as a by-product of how in shounen, women characters are expected to handle the emotional labour of male characters, while rarely being allowed to explore their own. It’s almost as if womanhood is inextricable from motherhood. 

Intentional or not, this type of narrative framing is reflective of patriarchal gender roles regarding women, and how it’s assumed a woman’s eventual purpose in life is to one day become a wife and mother. Even though we live in the modern day era where these notions are being constantly challenged, it is still expected women will have to prioritize their family above all else. Single parent households in America and Japan are on the rise, and while we claim that mothers are our heroes, why then in shounen, do they rarely fulfill that role? Why are shounen mothers fated to be the tragic figure defined by roles, never by personhood?

Of course, shounen is targeted at young boys, so the emphasis and dynamism of father and son relationships isn’t surprising. However, it is imperative to show boys that women, in particular mothers, can also be the heroes in the stories they consume alongside fathers. Being a mother shouldn’t diminish a woman’s individuality and agency. It is simply another title added to her character, and she should be allowed to create her own form of motherhood through her identity. Rendering her to death or completely neglecting her existence is lazy and implies women are expendable after fulfilling their procreative purpose. 

Presenting diverse shounen mother characters can open up new narratives of mother archetypes. I believe by breaking those narrative barriers, we can make representation not just be a progressive stance, but rather something it can organically integrate through storytelling. Lyza from Made in Abyss is an encouraging example, proving it’s possible to explore the nuance of mother characters, and demonstrates the potential of narrative intrigue they can have if given more opportunities in anime and manga. It’s my eventual hope that diversity of mother characters wouldn’t have to be implemented with conscious thought, but it just exists as the norm in shounen. 

Because as funny as the dead mom joke is, it’s kinda getting old. 

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