What is a himbo, exactly?
Urban Dictionary describes a himbo as “a very attractive male that [is] sometimes a bit dim, but super sweet and always respects women.” Certainly, it’s a more flattering term than “bimbo,” which is typically used as a misogynistic slur to shame women for being promiscuous, having sex, or just existing. While there have been inspired attempts at reclaiming “bimbo,” the term is still sort of social poison compared to the platonic ideal of a himbo. A stark contrast to the latter word’s extremely negative origins, being a “himbo” is usually regarded as a cute, cuddly trait in the mainstream.
That current understanding of himbos, however, is a mid-aughts phenomenon. While the word itself dates back to a 1988 Washington Post article, its more positive etymology arguably takes root in a 2012 GQ article by Lauren Bans entitled, “Bimbos With Balls! The Rise of the Himbo.” The article itself took a critical look at the trend of hunky airheads and pinpointed the trend across shows like New Girl and films like Magic Mike. In the ensuing years, “himbo” found its place in our contemporary lexicon, and more movies and shows started explicitly playing to it. Magic Mike walked so Ghostbusters‘ Kevin could run, basically.
But just because our current understanding of himbos is more recent doesn’t mean it can’t be a useful historical lens. Himbos have always walked among us, with classic movies from Conan The Destroyer to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure being supported by their nurturing arms. That’s true for anime, too – although it would take a few years before the medium served up some premium slabs of beefcake. Please note that for brevity’s sake (not to mention my sanity’s,) this article won’t go into the history of himbos in manga. The main reason is that Osamu Tezuka made too much manga, frankly, to comb through and determine whether or not he gave us a true Grade A himbo in his early career. Considering Tezuka’s notoriously prolific body of work, however, it’s a safe bet that a stray himbo lurks between some cluster of untranslated pages.
A strong contender for the earliest popular himbo in anime is Speed Racer‘s, erm, Speed Racer. Speed embodied so many of the tropes that make up the DNA of a certified himbo, and those tropes were what made him such an endearing character. So much of his charm lied in how he was essentially a cute idiot that liked to go fast – like Ricky Bobby, but a twink. He couldn’t figure out that Racer X was his brother, couldn’t function without his parents’ help, and would’ve probably died at every turn without Trixie. All he knew was going fast and gasping at everything that came ’round the bend. Coupled with a buff build and a heart of 24K gold, Speed set the pace for anime himbos to follow.
Throughout the ’70s, the boom of sentai and super robot shows started churning similar himbos out at an alarming pace. Speed Racer was a huge international hit, and it’s fair to say that popularity had a pretty big influence on the sorts of shows that would come after. Speed’s winning combination of cute, clueless righteousness went hand-in-hand with shows that starred special boys saving the world from certain destruction. Series like Devilman featured charming solo protagonists getting duped by evil at every turn, while team-up series like Gatchaman tended to have at least one well-meaning hunk a few fries short of a Happy Meal.
The most important anime himbo of the ’70s was no hero, though – not at first. Monkey Punch‘s Lupin III began life as a murderous, rapacious crook in his ’60s gag manga, but subsequent animated adaptations sanded off the lead’s rougher edges for a wider audience. By 1977’s Lupin III: Part Two, the thief was a goofier and objectively less evil character; by 1979’s The Castle of Cagliostro, he was practically a gentleman like his great-grandfather. Lupin’s signature stupidity and goofy kindness won him a massive following which has endured in the decades since, and as the series continued, more writers leaned into those parts of his characterization to make him into the himbo we know today. Even if Monkey Punch himself wasn’t a fan of the character’s changes, (“I wouldn’t have had him save the girl,” he notoriously said of Cagliostro, “I would’ve had him rape her!”) the creator couldn’t stop Lupin’s gradual himbo-fication.
The charming thief’s explosion in popularity in the late ’70s arguably gave rise to more characters cut from that same red cloth throughout the ’80s – most notably City Hunter‘s Ryo Saeba. Ryo, a bodyguard charged with protecting his friend’s sister, embodies many of the same traits as Lupin. Despite being a generally heroic character, the PI is perpetually lazy, a hopeless letch, and a bit of a goofball. However, he’s also well-meaning and loyal – not to mention gorgeous. The character’s charm lies in how he blurs the line between sweetheart and dirtbag, with his approachable, decidedly metrosexual appearance offset by his own stupidity.
Ryo was a watershed moment for the himbo in anime – City Hunter exploded in popularity as the ’80s anime industry morphed into the hobbyist space we know it as today. With the advent of more adult series on both TV and in the OVA scene, anime companies embraced an older audience who refused to let go of cartoons. This is largely thanks to enthusiast publications like Animage growing out and cultivating an audience of adults who grew up during the first big boom of television anime. Animage is important here, as its popular character polls give a good indication of just well-received Ryo was. In 1988, he was the second-most popular male character of that year; from 1989 to 1991, he topped the charts.
That four-year stretch would balloon into something of a himbo renaissance. It’s fair to say Ryo’s proven popularity acted much in the same way Speed and Lupin’s did, in that it unofficially dictated the sorts of characters who struck big. The hot, lovable dumbo became more of a staple in popular anime, from Goku’s clueless heroism in Dragon Ball Z to Ryoga’s perpetual misdirection in Ranma 1/2. Characters like these paved the ways for popular ’90s himbo heartthrobs, who began to populate the industry across every conceivable genre. Gourry Gabriev, Justy Tyler, and Kazuma Kuwabara are three unique characters from three extremely different shows, and yet, it’s easy to see the DNA of every himbo that came before them through their behavior and in their appearance. As those characters continued to prove popular, the himbo archetype began to saturate the industry and round out character rosters into the aughts.
These past twenty years have seen anime grow into even more of a focus-tested, metrics-proved industry than it was in the ’80s and ’90s. Consequently, the himbo has become less of a novel presence and more of a marketing necessity. In fact, mid-aughts smashes like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and Ouran High School Host Club deliberately shoved as many character tropes in as possible to make a sort-of meta-commentary on what kinds of characters get popular. But because those sentient, self-reflexive tropes got popular in their own right, there wasn’t much of a collective “come to God” moment in regards to their roles.
Trigger, though, is a sort-of last bastion for genuine, authentic himboism. Their particular brand of himbo has roots in Gurren Lagann‘s Kamina, whose fiery, can-do attitude (and early death) won fans’ hearts in the mid-aughts. Of course, this was a Gainax production, but many of the creative leads would go on to form Trigger in 2011 and carry on in the tradition of their former studio. Since then, Kamina’s personality can be seen in several Trigger characters – most notably, Promare‘s loud and boisterous Galo. Galo has become something of a himbo darling since 2019, and it makes sense – the Trigger Himbo is a unique blend of the Speed Racer and Goku varieties. He’s a hulking, powerful fighter driven by nothing but his desire to be the best and protect his friends, but he’s also functionally useless without his crew. Galo is, in many ways, that platonic ideal of a himbo I mentioned earlier: strong and sweet, driven and dumb
The past decade has seen himbos reach a critical mass. Series like Yuri!!! on Ice and Free! come with pre-fab himbos, readymade to slot into character polls and sell figurines. The himbo has become codified and commodified by modern anime, much in the same way moe tropes did in the early aughts. While there are exceptions, anime became even more driven by merchandise sales and reader polls, and thus the types of characters consequently also became more driven by them. If this sounds conspiratorial, keep in mind that reader polls and sales in Japan have long since dictated directions for anime and manga. A famous example is Dragon Ball Z, a large portion of which was dictated by notoriously fickle editor Yū Kondō. Kondō, an experienced shojo editor, has historically been attributed as the driving force behind plot elements such as the Saiyans, interplanetary travel, and Goku having a son. He was famed for being attentive to female Weekly Jump fans, and allegedly paid close attention to what they wanted to see from the magazine during his tenure. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why Jump protagonists of that era are still widely loved among female fans today – and why so many proto-himbos take root in that era and at that publication.
But… why himbos? It’s one thing to point to a trope, and another to trace its history, but something else entirely to understand why people love it. The answer, to me, is that the himbo is a safe fantasy. In a culture where men are taught innumerous ways to hurt women, there’s something comforting about the idea of a guy who embodies perceived masculine strengths but is too fatally stupid and hopelessly sweet to do serious harm to women. Characters like Ryo and Lupin may be letches, but their lechery is always on a short leash – the women in their lives always have the upper hand. Meanwhile, your Gokus and your Speed Racers are downright cuddly, and it’s hard to imagine them hurting anyone for the wrong reason.
Women are trained to be afraid of men, which makes the fantasy of a man not worth being scared of all the more appealing.
Even if he is a bit of dummy.
Bella Blondeau is a staff blogger for Nutaku Games. Previously, she served as TheGamer’s Features Editor from 2019 to 2021, and her work can be found at CGM and Screen Queens. She also hosts Rocketto Punchi, an anime podcast which is rarely about anime, available on iTunes and Spotify. You can follow her on Twitter @vivarockbella!