A Certain Scientific Railgun is available to stream on Hulu and on Funimation’s website.
Stock characters are, generally, delightful.
You can bemoan them as a lack of creativity, sure. Doc Brown is the same character as Bunsen Honeydew is the same as Professors Farnsworth and E. Gadd, and they’re all just remakes of The Nutty Professor in the end. But all of them are a hoot and a half to watch on screen, so who cares? Most character archetypes stick around because they just work.
The exception – at least for me – tends to be our protagonists.
Certain media get a pass – video games in particular have to prepare for any act the person piloting that pixel-suit may perform. Not that it’s a total excuse – 13th Story has written about great ways to subtly characterize an otherwise-blank slate. But certain genres are unnecessarily lousy with the same stock heroes, over and over and over. Heck, look at Big Trouble in Little China, a plot all about Chinese immigrants in a Chinese-mysticism-fueled gang war with the word “China” in the title that still manages to star a 1980s American Action Hero™ in Kurt Russell.
And for all I love anime, it suffers a lot from lead characters being the flattest members of their casts.
It’s a huge part part of why everybody so loves a spin-off story. Luke Skywalker is the blank-canvas starry-eyed farmboy that built billions in franchising, sure. But some of the most beloved individual stories in Star Wars dig into characters that range from the morally-ambiguous to the downright enigmatic. They’re just more interesting to follow in a lot of ways.
It’s also a huge part of why I’ve stayed with A Certain Scientific Railgun for two seasons so far, and eagerly anticipate a third next month. For comparison, I bounced off its parent series, A Certain Magical Index, after its first story arc.
Viva la Supporting Cast
The main character in Railgun, one Misaka Mikoto, is something of a second-tier character in Index. She shows up initially almost as relief character, putting the protagonist of Index into a situation where his Chronic Hero Tendencies™ comically backfire. She’s brash, temperamental, and even a little boyish, which makes her a fun foil for a couple of scenes before not appearing for another two story arcs.
Presumably because she’s off hosting her own urban-adventure series.
And, as you might guess from that last description, Railgun works despite having a protagonist who doesn’t fit the typical archetypes. Heck, on a normal day, any one of the show’s other three leads would make more reasonable main character. Compared to a nose-to-the-grindstone worker, humble optimist, and powerless everywoman, Mikoto herself is more of a hero-by-proximity.
In a somewhat backwards way, that’s what makes A Certain Scientific Railgun work. Not only is Mikoto character-coded to be a Han Solo rather than a Luke Skywalker, so to speak, she’s also the only core character to not serve in the setting’s superpowered neighborhood watch. Instead, Mikoto ends up involved either as a result of her own short-sighted mistakes, or because she has nothing better to do that afternoon than butt into her friends’ after-school gig. And either way, man oh man does that hubris make for some tasty drama.
Except, that is, when somebody else jumps in for her.
Probably the most notable story arc of the Railgun series is Sisters, which preys on some of the nastier logic of an X-Men-equivalent setting. At a glance, Mikoto’s X-Gene (or the equivalent) gets used to create and deliberately kill human clones. Hard to fault eight-year-old her for signing off on that contract, but that doesn’t make her feel less guilty.
And it’s a great story. There’s tons of layers; espionage, ethics in engineering, the value of artificial life and free will, all that jazz. There’s even some unsubtle poking at the idea of “grinding” in RPG video games. Plus, it puts the protagonist squarely at the center of the story whereas she’s been a voluntary participant so far. Solid setup. And then, when it reaches its climax…
She hardly participates in the showdown with the villain at all.
Mikoto has plenty of reasons to fight the cocky sonofagun who’s been terrorizing her “sisters”. That same sonofagun has a very good reason to pick a fight with her. The two both have very visual superpowers that would be fun to see clash on-screen, and Mikoto’s nickname is the title of the series.
But the finale of the Sisters story still pulls in the hero of Index and hands the third-act confrontation to him instead. Meanwhile, the characters who have actually been involved in the plot so far… go power up a wind farm? Honestly, you could conceivably write Mikoto out of the mid-season finale of her own show, and it’s a tragedy.
The boring, out-of-universe explanation is a matter of publishing dates. The version of the Sisters arc in Index was published over four years before the version in Railgun, so unfortunately a very Mikoto-centered story was originally built with somebody else as its viewpoint character. And since stories from a second-person perspective can feel a bit detached, the writer just went ahead and let its own hero swoop in.
But given hindsight, that clearly didn’t make a satisfying result.
There’s a half-dozen places where the buck might stop with how A Certain Scientific Railgun got hamstrung by its parent series. It can’t contradict what’s established first in A Certain Magical Index. The very structure of Railgun focuses less on long-term story arcs, so it should arguably defer to Index by default. “Superpower vs Superpower” fights supposedly don’t create the same tension as “Superpower vs Anti-Superpower” showdowns.
But for me, it stops at self-awareness.
It’s all too common for protagonists to “just do the right thing”. Take out the local bandits. Return the relic to the village. Et cetera. But all these shoehorn a third party into an otherwise closed circle; the “hero” is only involved because no other capable and more-invested party steps up.
Mikoto, meanwhile, proves time and time again to be beyond capable. It’s the entire basis of her first appearance in the series, as is the idea that she doesn’t need her bacon saved. Even in the context of Index, it’s a little weird to argue that someone with literal superpowers shouldn’t take the swing at fighting their own Big Bad Evil Guy.
So what Sisters was poised to be, even in its original form, is a way to critique the hero’s mindset. Knock him down a peg. Show him that no, interjecting with unwarranted “help” can undercut other people’s agency, and that the world will continue to turn without him in its center. I’d argue that’s a drastically more interesting base for a story than “hero resolves totally borked-up situation”.
Not one that A Certain Magical Index is interested in pursuing, apparently.
Protagonist Syndrome is something worth thinking about in non-story contexts, too. It’s easy to fall into that trap on a low level: “oh, this is an opportunity for me to tell that one story”, or “I know a relevant fact to point out here”. Ideas that, on their face, seem innocuous or even helpful. But dig a step deeper, and the side-effect is that they can steer the spotlight toward yourself when someone else was trying to make their own point. Granted, I’ve got as much work to do on this sort of mindset as the next person. Being an active participant is different than being the main participant in a situation, and the balance can be hard to find.
And, for what it’s worth, A Certain Scientific Railgun tends to nail this in ways both intentional and otherwise. Silent Party, the arc directly after Sisters, has nothing inherently to do with Mikoto. So she hardly takes center stage at all, leaving most of the legwork and more visible action to others. Without saying as much, she only pursues the angles that specifically require her involvement, letting the rest of the cast have their day.
That’s a hard model to show and to follow. As much as we want Peter Parker to take a break, we only see things through his Spider-Eyes. If he doesn’t participate in everything, we don’t see everything, so we miss parts of the story. And the byproduct of that is a load-bearing hero, which we in turn idealize and perpetuate.
But personally, I’d be willing to follow more series that took a chance on “second-person” heroes. A Certain Scientific Railgun works well when Mikoto takes a backseat – partially because of the ensemble cast, and partially because there’s an implied growth from her initial prideful personality. There’s strength to be had in empowering others, after all.
And besides, if you go back and look, saving someone else’s day rarely holds up from a different angle.