When an anime’s synopsis begins with ‘Meet (X), a misunderstood delinquent’, we know instantly how things could pan out for them. They meet someone who changes them into an upstanding/fulfilled/respectable citizen, or they learn to love them (or the slightly tamer version of him). Either way, it’s still an extremely popular starting point for a lot of romance anime- it glorifies the ‘bad boy’ stereotype that a lot of people go for in a partner. Only, in these shows, the bad boy does change his ways to be with her. And the female delinquents are just as infamous, portrayed as damaged girls who need a friend or supporter. Let’s take a look at this classic trope, and the shows that made it famous.
Otherwise known as the ‘jerk with a heart of gold’, male delinquents are typically boyish, rebellious, and hard to control. But deep down they just need someone to understand them. It sounds cheesy, but this can actually be a great basis for a plot with lots of emotion. Haru from My Little Monster begins the story as a guy who got suspended from school after beating up a group of boys so badly they went to hospital on the first day of school. The twist is that he beat them up for picking on a weaker boy, and he feels so indignant about it that he has refused to attend any school weeks after his suspension was lifted. Along comes Shizuku, an emotionless and perfect student who has been given the duty of convincing him to come back to school and start afresh. Haru turns out to be a loveable idiot with a short temper but heart of pure gold, which Shizuku quickly warms to. This classic ‘bad boy’ ends up being helped by his love interest, who in turn is helped to loosen up and have fun by him.
For less of the romcom style and more of the intense drama, check out Clannad. Almost everyone has heard of this series for one reason or another. Male lead Tomoya is a delinquent (though he doesn’t really look like one) who skips classes and has no hope for his future. He meets a quirky, delicate and shy girl who gets him to show his more sensitive side, and throughout time, she basically becomes his reason to live. (Cue: heart-breaking, tear-inducing drama).
It’s rare for a show to have a female lead as a delinquent, but she does show up as a minor character in many anime. These girls are often ‘broken birds’, damaged girls from broken homes or rough backgrounds. Behind all their bravado lies someone who could be sweet, thoughtful and just as capable of being in love as anyone else. Clannad’s female delinquent is Tomoyo Sakagami, who is an infamous gangster who can beat up any of the guys in her neighbourhood. She’s well known for being powerful, but is trying to get away from that reputation and start anew. Reformation is the name of the game here. Kyoko Honda from the bestselling manga Fruits Basket became a gang member because of her strict, cold parents. She lived a lonely, violent life until a young new teacher at her school refuses to give up on her. They end up dating, falling in love and having a child (who is the series protagonist).
Of course, in some shows, there are people who are just jerks. They key to this character trope is that deep down they are good people. Sometimes, the character really is just mean.
The idea that falling in love can make someone want to change and become a better person isn’t uncommon. But people generally believe that- in real life- a bad boy/bad girl can never really change. The beauty of anime and manga is that they can and do change. The person who changes them becomes their salvation. This is probably why the trope is so enduring- it takes an idea that people are pretty cynical about and proves us wrong.