Yesterday we looked at how two different anime utilise a similar character dynamic, today we’re going to talk about a show which directly uses those dynamics as part of its text. Endro! is a show which relies heavily on RPG tropes for its premise, the end result of this is it eventually becomes a discussion on prescribed roles within these settings. How does it feel to be heroic in a world where the role of Hero is one which is defined and predestined? And how does it feel to be the villain?
Endro’s aproach to the systemic structure of RPGs is pretty blatant, becase it’s a mostly an affectionate parody of such. A lot of shows (it’s particularly common with Isekai stories) like to use RPGs as a sort of shorthand, there’s an inherent set of assumptions when you set your story in “vague RPG land” that let you sidestep a bunch of world building. Of course there are monsters and stats, of course classes and skills are a thing, there’s probably a demon lord hanging out somewhere for the cast to ignore while the main character revolutionises the setting by inventing roombas or whatever. It does a lot of work but it can be kind of lazy, and the emphasis in these stories is usually on something else, rather than actually engaging with the setup of the world (aside from where the entire premise is the protagonist figuring out some way to exploit the rules). Endro actually does something with the RPG setting by examining how people within the contexts of these worlds would actually engage with their roles.
Much of this is framed around the relationship between the Hero and the Demon Lord, the two central figures of a thousand year cycle of conflict. The Demon Lord revives, has a brief reign of terror until a Hero emerges and defeats them and the whole thing repeats an arbitrary length of time later. Endro opens on the culmination of the latest itteration of this cycle, the Hero’s party stands ready to defeat the Demon Lord once again, until a magical mishap sends the whole lot back in time with no memory of the incident, aside from the Demon Lord herself, who remembers everything and decides to alter history so that the Hero never takes up the mantle to stop her. Except maybe she doesn’t want to.
Mao’s first instinct upon finding herself in the past isn’t actually to sabotage the Hero, it’s to be free. Being shifted to this new context gives her the chance to be something else. Having been raised from birth to play the role of a villain and ultimately die at the hands of the Hero she’s never had the opportunity to consider another life. Unfortunately realityh eventually sets in and she’s forced to find work to survive, coincidentally, or perhaps as a result of destiny reasserting itself, she ends up as a teacher at the adventuring school where the future Hero and her friends are studying, events conspire to put Mao in a position where the most path forward is to once again slip into the role of the Demon Lord. She’s stuck between the chance to make a life of her own chosing and an opportunity to live up to what she was born to be, destiny wins out.
As for the future Hero herself, Yulia is obsessed with heroism, aware that the role of Hero is a codified thing that exists she’s driven by a desire to take up that legacy. But in truth she doesn’t really want to be the Hero, she just wants to be heroic. Yulia’s ideals are certainly in line with the role of Hero but that in and of itself results in a contradiction. What if being the Hero requires doing things that fall far short of heroism?
Over the course of the series Mao continues to antagonise the party from the shadows, attempting to take them out before they become a threat to her, but it becomes increasingly clear that her heart just isn’t in it. Her place in the world and her upbringing tell her that she has to take this chance, but her newfound role as a teacher tells her she has to protect her students, students she’s becoming increasingly close to as the series progresses. For their part the oblivious Hero’s party are imediately enamoured by their pint sized tutor, and go out of their way at times to help her settle in. Things are generally pretty good on both sides, everyone’s happy with how things are, although Yulia finds herself somewhat put out at the continuing lack of a Demon Lord forcing her to remain classless, the Hero isn’t needed until there’s a Demon Lord to slay after all, although she finds the Hero’s sword early on which grants her the status regardless. So everyone’s doing OK.
The Hero and the Demon Lord aren’t the only major roles at play though. There’s also the Princess. Her job is twofold; to be abducted by the Demon Lord and be saved by, and eventually married to, the Hero. Rona has internalised her role arguably more than the other two. She’s spent her childhood reading the tales of past heroes, fantisizing about their heroic deeds and waiting longingly for her own Hero to emerge, because that’s what she was born to do. She’s a bit thrown off when Yulia claims the sword and her Hero turns out to be a girl, but she presses on anyway, regardless of her own feelings because that’s what she’s there for. Her own feelings on the matter don’t really matter, she’s infatuated with the Hero because she has to be, not because of any feelings for Yulia (although she does eventually develop those same feelings for the person rather than the role of her own volition). As with the other two roles however, the Princess in a world without a Demon Lord and a Hero is somewhat superfluous, for any of them to fulfill the roles asigned to them there needs to be conflict. So she creates some.
Dissatisfied with Yulia’s generally unconcerned aproach to heroism for its own sake, Rona sets into motion much of the mid series conflict by leaning on Mao (naturally unaware of who she really is) to place her in perilous situations in order to force Yulia to play the hero, an act which further strains Mao’s internal conflict between her two sides, here she is trying to be a good teacher and the Princess herself is entreating her to act as the “fake” Demon Lord. It’s not until a brief side trip with Fai, the group’s impossibly laid back fighter that she begins to see some value in Yulia’s approach to life, people care about her not because she’s the Hero, but because she’s a good person who’s commited to her friends, and maybe Rona is allowed to feel the same way. Feelings further cemented by Yulia’s rescuing her from a faked abduction by Mao simply because she’s a friend.
Meanwhile Mao herself is feeling increasningly dissatisfied with her lot in life. While she’s finding a place for herself in the outside world, the spectre of her alloted role continues to loom over her. A role which offers her no real future. For all that she has to hold on to the belief that as the Demon Lord she could triumph over the Hero and build a life for herself afterwards, she knows deep down that it’s impossible. The Hero defeats the Demon Lord, and so it goes, again and again. And yet here she is living a normal life freed from those shackles, claiming the reward she knew she could never have by shirking her responsibilities. if the whole world is built around this conflict does she really have any right to be so selfish? This doubt means she can never truly embrace her new circumstances, no matter how much she wishes she could.
This is eventually brought to a head by the sudden appearance of Meigo, the golem responsible for raising her within the Demon Lord’s castle. Meigo too is bound by her place in the world, her job is to watch over and teach the Demon Lord until they reach maturity, and are ready to be culled by the Hero. A task which she has fulfilled countless times before. Much as she wishes it could be otherwise, the cycle of destiny is inevitable, by raising these children to be villains a Hero must by necessity emerge to counter them. And now Mao stands as the culmination of that cycle, she’s not just the Demon Lord, she’s the final Demon Lord to bring an end to everything, the last vestige of the original Demon Lord’s power lies within her and her death will end Meigo’s horrific task, all it takes is watching as another of her charges dies with their dreams unfulfilled.
Unable to bring herself to destroy Mao’s new life as a teacher however, she feigns amnesia to avoid upseting the status quo, an act Mao is all too happy to go along with. It’s not until Rona recognises her from stories of previous Heroes and she’s in danger of being taken captive that Mao’s hand is finally forced. Acting to save the person who raised her, Mao does the only thing she can, she embraces her role, abducting Rona for real this time. Destiny asserts itself one final time, the Hero will slay the Demon Lord and bring everything to a conclusion.
Except by this point nobody wants this. They’re playing their roles because the world tells them they have to, but nobody will emerge from this situation happier; Mao has to die to save someone she loves, Meigo has to watch her final child die, Yulia has to be the one to kill someone she loves and Rona has to live with being the one who pushed her to do it.
So they don’t. Everyone just stops and abandons their roles. Because if being the Hero requires you to abandon heroism then maybe it’s just not worth it. Why fight for a predestined conclusion that serves only to make everyone worse off. Mao is valuable because she’s Mao, not because she’s the Demon Lord, Yulia is a hero, not the Hero, and Rona is an individual with the right to love people on her own terms rather than because some book told her she has to. The world might tell them they have to play these parts but they have their own agency and needs, and if destiny wants to get in the way of that then well, what do we say to destiny girls?
Endro is a show with a surprising amount to say on the mechanics of its world, where a lot of similar series would simply use those mechanics as set dressing. Sometimes it’s OK to break with tradition or rewrite the rules where the outcome is one that better serves the needs of the many. Opressive systems shouldn’t be perpetuated just because that’s how it is. RPG tropes might make good shorthand but sometimes the implications can be pretty rough, and it’s nice to see a series examining that more thoroughly in terms that aren’t just for the personal benefit of the protagonist.
Well this ended up being far longer than originally planned but I’m happy with how it turned out. So if one of today’s themes was the power of heroic archetypes in narrative tomorrow seems like a good day to talk about the ideal Hero himself.
Bonus Mao because she’s precious.