If you’ve ever seen a Star Wars movie (just say yes), you’ve probably heard George Lucas proclaim he made deliberate use of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth theory when he wrote his script. Over the past several decades, the idea that most great myths and epics follow a similar structure has grown to nauseating levels of popularity. The “hero’s journey” is now consciously followed in everything from Hollywood movies to Playstation RPGs to Harry Potter novels. You can also apply it to anime series, as I’ll do here for the excellent summer ’06 anime Ouran High School Host Club.
But what exactly is the hero’s journey? How does does it work for anime that run for hundreds of episodes? And does it make any sense at all to utilize principles of Western myth when discussing Eastern pop culture? In this post I’ll use examples from Ouran to illustrate the initial stages of the hero’s journey.
The Hero’s Journey
Campbell published his ideas in a 1949 book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, but the concept of the “hero’s journey” didn’t really enter popular culture until Star Wars came along. The hero’s journey consists of the story steps or stages that Joseph Campbell identified as universal in most classical myths and legends and beyond — everything from the Iliad to Dante’s Inferno to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The hero’s journey consists of the 12 different stages that follow a hero’s journey from the Ordinary World when the story begins, to the hero’s separation from society in order to perform an important task, and her* reintegration into society.
Important: Stories do not necessarily contain every step of the hero’s journey. Steps can be performed in a different order or skipped entirely. Otherwise, every story would be the same and series like FLCL would never get made. Just because there’s a structure doesn’t mean we can or should slavishly adhere to it 100% of the time.
Campbell’s book is somewhat academic and overly specific in places, which is why other writers rushed in to popularize and smooth out the general concept. Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey is one of the more well-known books for writers about the hero’s journey, so I intend to mostly follow its outline here. (If that book sounds familiar, it’s because I also referred to it in my heroes post a couple months back.) If you’re a fiction writer, you probably own a copy of Vogler’s book already, in which case turn to page 18 and follow along.
1) Ordinary world
The ordinary world is where the hero begins her journey. It may be a home, a school, or just a state of mind. The ordinary world usually contains a flaw — some challenge or annoyance that the hero faces in her daily life, or something she’s not quite succeeding at. In a fish out of water story, we show the fish in the water first. It sets up a great contrast when we move to the “Special World” of the story later on. In Fullmetal Alchemist, the Ordinary World is the comfortable, safe cottage the brothers live in with their beloved mother. The incipient problem? Their mother is dying of an illness. In Cowboy Bebop, the Ordinary World is the spaceship in which Spike and Jet live — no kids, no women, and no strings attached. The problem? Spike and Jet are so low on money they can’t even afford beef for supper.
Ouran High School Host Club: A dowdy, grumpy, and geeky Haruhi shuffles into the third music room looking for a place to study and an escape from all those rich, frivolous students….
2) Call to adventure
The call to adventure is what grabs the hero by the collar, shakes her, and shouts, “Wake up! There’s something more out there!” It presents the hero with a “problem, challenge, or adventure” that won’t allow the hero to remain in her Ordinary World anymore. The “CTA” makes clear what’s at stake. In Otome wa Boku ni Koishiteru, the Call occurs when Mizuho reads his grandmother’s last request to attend an all-girl’s high school. In D.N.Angel, the Call happens when Daisuke first shapechanges into the angelic alter-ego Dark.
Ouran High School Host Club: Haruhi breaks the vase, incurring a debt she will struggle to repay…
3) Refusal of the call
Do heroes like leaving their safe, comfortable Ordinary World? No way! The Refusal of the Call happens because most heroes want to stay home. The Special World is too dangerous, too unknown, too scary. Of course, Willing Heroes may skip this step entirely — they’re rarin’ to go. Other heroes will have to be motivated by events in the plot to accept the Call. But if the Refusal were successful, we wouldn’t have a story. In Fullmetal Alchemist, Ed doesn’t accept Roy Mustang’s offer to take the State Alchemy exam right off the bat. He has to be convinced first. In Otome wa Boku ni Koishiteru, Mizuho naturally refuses at first to attend a girl’s school.
Ouran High School Host Club: “You’re going to be our dog until graduation,” Kyouya says with cool and sinister smile. Haruhi is shocked and reluctant, but she eventually agrees to join the club in order to repay her debt…
It’s very common to introduce a mentor character at this point in the story. The Mentor can be a source of reassurance to the hero, offering advice, help, and sometimes even magical equipment to speed her on her way. The mentor/student relationship is “one of the most common themes in mythology”, but the mentor can only do so much. The hero must face danger alone. Stories can have multiple characters that act as a mentor, or no mentor at all. In Fullmetal Alchemist, Roy Mustang provides both the Call to Adventure and helpful advice (“Get on that train! Now!”). In Otome wa Boku ni Koishiteru, Mariya provides Mizuho with makeup and wardrobe advice to better imitate a girl.
Ouran High School Host Club: The Hosts prepare Haruhi for her new role with gifts of a new uniform, haircut, and contact lenses. Tamaki offers advice on comportment….
5) First threshold
The hero commits to the adventure. Crossing the threshold occurs when the hero agrees to enter the Special World. This step is very often an actual journey, but it could be as simple as the hero agreeing to confront the problem raised in the Call to Adventure. This concludes Act I of the story. In Fullmetal Alchemist, the brothers Ed and Al take a train to Central in order to take the State Alchemy exam. In Otome wa Boku ni Koishiteru, Mizuho travels to the all-girl’s school and meets with the headmistress to enroll.
Ouran High School Host Club: Haruhi commits to being a Host and dons her new seifuku for the first time…
6) Tests, allies, and enemies
Now past the threshold and firmly in Act II of the story, the hero begins to learn the rules of the Special World. She meets a number of new characters, both allies and enemies, and faces new challenges that test her abilities, reveal her personality, and illustrate the rules of the Special World. Vogler points out that scenes in a bar, cantina or other “watering-hole” are very common at this stage, as they’re natural mixing places where it’s common to encounter new people from all walks of life. The hero may be on a journey, as in Fullmetal Alchemist where the Elric brothers travel throughout Amestris, alternately solving problems and raising a ruckus wherever they go. Because anime series are episodic, the Tests, Allies and Enemies stage usually occupies most of the episodes.
Tests: Haruhi appears in the third music room in her new role. Will she succeed at charming her first customers?
An enemy will spice things up
With allies like these, the Special World doesn’t seem so bad…
As you probably noticed, I’ve only covered 6 of the 12 steps of the hero’s journey. Next time I’ll cover the second half using a different anime, from the Approach to the Inmost Cave to the Return with the Elixir. I’ll also discuss whether it makes sense to apply a Western concept like Campbell’s monomyth to Eastern pop culture, and some alternate ways of analyzing stories.
* Note on language
I will occasionally use the feminine pronoun (she/her/hers) for convenience, but a hero can be a man or a woman. In case you did not know that.
Vogel, Christopher (1992). The writer’s journey: Mythic structure for storytelling & screenwriters. Michael Wiese Productions: Studio City, CA.