It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that the quality of an anime or manga series is determined as much by the villain as it is by the hero; and truth be told some of the best series i have ever come across have had some of the best villains, which got me thinking. What is a good villain? Or rather what constitutes a great villain in any given manga or anime.
Well, truth be told i am not particularly sure, this being a topic i will give greater thought to at a later date. While pondering on the subject though one random and rather idle day at work last week, i started thinking about villains as they had been portrayed in anime and manga so far, and what elements best stood out in the best series that i had encountered, which had best endeared me to them. I came to a very simple conclusion, which i will highlight at the end. But first these are the villains that anime and manga has strived to present to us for as long as i have been watching anime and reading manga.
They can be divided into two primary categories, namely:
As described above, it is my belief that the assignment ‘villain’ doesn’t necessary make a given character evil or really that bad.
N:B: The images inserted below represent just some of my favorite villains; they aren’t actually representations of the complaints they are neighboring.
I enjoy watching series with complicated plots, with winding twists and turns, stories that are as unpredictable as they are riveting. As such it might come as somewhat of a surprise that i would express abhorrence for complex villains in series. Okay maybe i do not abhor them but they have become somewhat of an irritation to me, and that’s because THEY ARE EVERYWHERE.
Here is the thing, i enjoy following the exploits of the odd complex villain once in a while but it feels like that is all there in anime and manga these days. I have heard the criticism, that anime and manga is filled with way too many straight forward characters, evil for the sake of being evil, with no particularly intriguing back story or objective. And while i would have joined in the chorus for anime dating back to the 90s, 80s and so on, such claims about anime today leave me chuckling and wondering; where exactly are these simplistic villains that they are speaking of? Because they aren’t in anything i have watched or read recently.
There is such a thing as too complicated; and today’s anime and manga stories have turned complex characterization into clichés. I have come across ridiculously silly and fluffy anime series that, halfway into the series, suddenly become so heavy, introducing dense and dark back stories to initially cheery characters, the result being somewhat discordant story, these new characterization simply failing to jell with the tone of the show.
+And the fact that so many of them do it pisses me off, three primary irritations arising:
-Distinctness- the over complication of villain characterization is turning what should have been intriguing villains into perfect copies of each other. I don’t know how but modern anime has managed to transform complexity into a trope, an irritating cliché making the rounds through some of my favorite series. Anytime a new villain rolls onto the scene, if you are anything like me you will roll your eyes at his supposed vileness, waiting for the moment we learn of his dark past, the parents that abandoned him, the uncle that sold him into slavery, a disingenuous description of how spending his childhood crawling through the mud turned him into a monster.
And they are almost always children, both as the victims and eventual monster than emerges. 99% of these complex characters are all exactly the same manifestation of the same sob story. I will use Bleach as the most common example of this, with all the villains almost always mirroring each other’s motives as well as the supposedly tragic pasts that molded them. I think i have groused enough about how almost every arrancar and Espada in the series needed a flash back of their sad lives before they perished.
-Insipid finales- Why do all these series with complex villains end the same way, with the villain on his knees, weeping as he reminisces on the tragic past that brought him to his current status. There is a consistent lack of unpredictability, because i can always see it coming, that ten minute lull in the action, when the hero finally closes the emotional gap with his foe, reaches out to the villain empathetically, the entire fiasco ending in a hug or something similarly mushy, all forgiven, or the hero forced to kill the villain but through a mist of tears, suddenly sympathetic to his plight. It irritates me to no end.
--Where i can sometimes ignore the lack of distinct yet complex villains and silly finales, nothing irritates me as much as the way these series seeming depend on a rather false sense of sadness to mask their lack of quality. A complex villain isn’t truly complex unless their back stories are not only fraught with difficulty but awe strikingly tragic. While that in itself doesn’t bother me, what does is the way these series attempt to force this dark atmosphere to emerge, like they are not simply trying to chronicle the tragic past of a character, but trying to beat you over the head with it, again and again until you really understand how sad it was.
Character A cannot simply find themselves homeless; they have to be literally dragged through the mud or find refuge in a pig sty before you can truly appreciate how bad A had it. It all starts to feel really…fake, sometimes bordering on silly. I get that adults can show considerable violence towards little kids. But in which world are 7 or 8 bulky males going to surround a fallen 7 year old before continuously stumping down upon and kicking them senseless like a pack of dogs? These series will go to silly levels to force you to feel a sadness that is more often than not absent.
I am one of those otaku that will get quickly irritated by overly weepy anime and manga stories and characters, mostly because they always fall into this category, feigning what seems to me to be a false sense of sadness, clearly trying to draw unearned emotional engagement from the audience. Again i go back to bleach, with so many (previously vile) villains going down confessing some dark secret, Ichigo mopping over them before having to put them out of their misery.
+Now i can appreciate what some of these creators are going for in trying to craft such overly complex characters (and sometimes it really can get too convoluted), yet most are dogged by the same problems:
-Believability-The idea of complex villains is to create a negative character that does terrible things but which the audience can none the less relate to on some level. The problem with most anime and manga i have across is it does a poor job of brining the message across. 90% of the series that attempt to convert me to the villain’s point of view leave me somewhat amused; many of you must have come across these sorts of shows, that leave you asking ,’ Really? You expect me to believe that someone would commit genocide because of that?”
Few other things irritate me as much as a series failing to successfully explain to me why a villain is who he is or does what he does.
And this is usually where they start beating you over the head with their message, clearly unable to justify how rough the villain had it, which seemingly forces them to portray his or her past in increasingly darker tones. This goes back to the point i made above, where a three second assault with an open hand transforms into three minutes of the villain receiving brutal abuse from seemingly possessed adults during his childhood.
I don’t like watching a series or reading a manga and walking away frustrated; that’s what these sorts of series with complex characters do for me.
-Morality- Now sometimes even when the series does such a great job of breaking the complex villain down, it fails to matter. The point of flash backs and back stories is to progress the story or morph it in one way or another; understanding that the reason Frieza destroyed entire galaxies worth of planets was because of some ill that was done to him, some cruel act meted out of his parents, doesn’t change the fact that he committed a heinous crime, and the story will progress towards his inevitable demise, no matter how pitiful his plight might be.
There has to be a purpose to complicating a villain, a payoff of sorts that will allow the story to progress in a different direction. Learning that Itachi in Naruto had committed genocide on the word of his superiors actually made all the difference to the story. Had they done the same for Frieza (strange we didn’t get a lengthy back story) he would have still ended up fighting Goku on an exploding planet.
+Don’t get me wrong i am not advocating against complex villains in anime and manga. I have come across anime and manga with complex villains and characters that have been done quite well, with well narrated back stories, with just enough intertwining plots to become riveting, making few attempts to shove their messages down your throat, but simply presenting the story and allowing you to interpret it as you might wish. Series like Full metal alchemist managed to pull complex villains like Father off (actually making him and Wrath quite pitiful) without seeming like they were flailing their hands through out the series in confusion.
My argument is that most series fail to execute complex characters appropriately, turning what was an interesting plot into an overused tool. This reminds me of the argument many made against the Man of Steel movie, most of these complaints actually aimed at Christopher Nolan, that everything super hero movie is taking an unnecessarily dark turn in the motif of the Dark Knight (which isn’t something i mind actually).
Now i call them evil villains because they are just that, evil; well, they bad or at least antagonists in the story. Maybe its just me but i feel like that has become a scarce element in many manga and anime series, villains that are actually…villainous. I call what has been happening in anime and manga in the last several yeas the Magneto complex.
Magneto is a character from the X-men universe, a mutant activist of sorts promoting mutant kind the best way he can. Again maybe its me but i have never really seen Magneto as a villain, maybe not an anti hero but a guy that is doing what he can for his race the best way he knows how to. And it feels like every villain i come across is nothing more than a whiny Magneto facsimile.
In fact i would say that there aren’t many actual villains left in anime. Because every villain these days has good intentions, every villain is a lost soul that needs to be saved; every demon or warlock has a good heart hidden beneath his fangs, every thug an innocuous intention gone wrong.
Basically all villains of this day and age are anti heroes taking things too far. What happened to villains that were actually…bad? I am talking about good old dark Vs. light stories that so many people are quick to disparage but which can manifest as much quality in story telling as the most complex of plots.
It is more than possible to craft a cast of villainous ‘evil and vile as they come’ characters within a great story and intriguing plot. I am not advocating for the sorts of aimless villains we used to see during the earlier days of anime, evil for the sake of it all, with not particular reasoning behind seeking the earth’s destruction.
I just want villains that are villains, that will not be talked down, that do not need some dark and tragic past to explain why they do what they do, that present the sort of threat that will not be eradicated through a little therapy. Most people have very negative impressions of basic good Vs. evil stories in anime and manga, never realizing how exhilarating they can be.
Just look at Last Air bender; most people zero in on the intricate plotting of morally conflicted characters and the decisions they have to make in trying to describe Avatar as a complex anime series with a deep story, not realizing that last air bender is as basic a Good Vs. Evil story as they can get; you have an evil fire lord reeking havoc on the land and a young avatar that must stop him. A story as straight forward as that, with a villain that was as evil as they can get proves that you can create riveting stories in anime and manga without resorting to creating convoluted back stories for an increasingly complicated villain.
+I don’t know if i got my point across but i will conclude as such; i am as big a fan of complicated stories with complex villains as any other otaku out there. But its become too much, with every anime and manga choosing to follow this same path instead of branching out into something different. As awesome as Johan (Monster) might be to appreciate, sometimes a little Vegeta goes a long way in making things a little more exciting.