So this has always bothered me. A lot of anime, manga, and Japanese video game characters are fourteen or fifteen years old. Makes sense, that’s the primary target audience. That in itself isn’t what bothers me — what bothers me is the huge, huge difference there usually is between the portrayal of the fourteen-year olds and the fifteen-year olds. At fourteen, characters are depicted as innocent, naive, and both childish and childlike. In some cases, I find their behavior applicable to people as young as eight, which is kind of ridiculous. At fifteen, characters become much more mature; they are tougher, hardened to some extent, and a little more serious. Usually, I can very easily imagine those characters being seventeen or eighteen, or sometimes even in their early twenties. Does such a dramatic shift really happen between the two ages?
Look at Kingdom Hearts. In the first game, Sora and Kairi are fourteen. Riku is fifteen. Sora and Kairi are innocent, completely good-hearted, and faithful to “the light.” Riku is insecure and jealous and “opens himself to darkness.” It’s true that it’s in Riku’s personality that his insecurities should leave him vulerable to negative influence, but why specify that he’s fifteen while his friends are fourteen? Why is that one year difference so significant? In Eureka seveN, Renton is fourteen. He is naive, immature, and is easily confused by things I wouldn’t expect a fourteen-year old to be confused by. In Bleach, Ichigo is fifteen. He is still naive to some extent, but more mature, quicker to act, slower to whine about things. The art depicting all of these characters is also very indicative — Sora, Kairi, and Renton are all drawn with much more child-like proportions (seriously, Sora looks like he’s maybe ten in the above picture). Their faces are round, their eyes are large, their limbs look fragile. Meanwhile, Riku has rather some rather muscular arms and Ichigo is very angular. Puberty is supposed to be an awkward time of gradual transition — things shouldn’t change so much in just a year. I don’t remember changing so much in a year.
The fourteen-year olds bother me a lot more than the fifteen-year olds because they often seem much younger than they claim to be. Renton acts like he’s ten. So does Sora. In both cases, the target audience is the actual age of the characters (and older) rather than the acting age of the characters, so why are they aged down so much? Why does Renton throw so many temper tantrums? Why does Sora have such an untainted, innocent quality to him? I have difficulty imagining any real fourteen-year old boy acting as either of them do. Fourteen is a rebellious age — you go out and do things rather than throw fits, and you are more open to knowingly doing “bad things” rather than maintaining a wholehearted “goodness.” There is little fluctuation in either of those characters’ personalities to indicate that they have even a few of the traditional qualities of teenagers. (Okay, I’m probably being a bit harsh on Renton, but Sora, at least, doesn’t really change.) It isn’t like Eureka seveN or Kingdom Hearts would change dramatically if their protagonists were declared ten-year olds instead of fourteen-year olds.
The fifteen-year olds are usually not so farfetched as fifteen-year olds (except when it comes to having power; fifteen year old pilots always beat the middle-aged pilots!). Then again, Sora is aged to fifteen in Kingdom Hearts II with minimal change in personality, but that’s just him.
In Sailor Moon, most of the inner senshi are fourteen when they’re introduced. Haruka and Michiru are technically sixteen at their introduction, but as they’re only one grade ahead of the others, it’s close enough? The maturity differences between the former group and the latter pair is striking and commented on several times in the series itself. A vast majority of the pilots in Gundam series are fifteen or older. Amuro Ray, Garrod Ran (Gundam X), all five of the Wing boys, and Setsuna F. Seiei (Gundam 00) are fifteen. Kira Yamato and Athrun Zala are both sixteen in Gundam SEED; I couldn’t find Domon Kasshu’s age (G Gundam), but he was probably seventeen or eighteen — Wikipedia mentions that Sai Saici was the youngest pilot in that series at age sixteen. Judau Ashta (Gundam ZZ) is apparently fourteen; I haven’t seen the series myself, but I wonder if the character is like the various fourteen-year olds described above. (If so, I wonder if that’s one of the reasons ZZ has a bad rap.)
Sailor Moon’s target audience is younger than Gundam’s, so it would make sense that the characters act younger, but Usagi could have just as easily been branded as a fifteen-year old. Similarly, more Gundam pilots could have been stated as fourteen and still act mature. The plus or minus one year would change nothing in the story — they are still teenage magical girls fighting aliens and teenage boys piloting giant robots. Why is the difference between fourteen and fifteen? Why not thirteen and fourteen? Fifteen and sixteen? Everyone between ten and fourteen acts “fourteen” (and by that, I mean ten); everyone between fifteen and their early twenties acts “fifteen.” In Card Captor Sakura, Sakura is ten — Usagi, fourteen, acts about the same maturity level. Setsuna’s fellow Gundam meisters in 00 are aged 23 (Lockon), 18 (Tieria), and 18 (Allelujah) — they all display about the same maturity level.
There are at least a few examples of characters who don’t fit in with what I’ve said; the only one I can think of right now is Yusuke Urameshi from Yu Yu Hakusho, who is apparently fourteen but acts older. Are there enough other examples to overturn my observations?