This post contains a pretty big spoiler for Naruto. I’m sure you all know everything there is to know about Naruto, but I’m putting a warning here just in case. Read at your own peril.
In the medium of Anime, there are many elements that make up a series that I consider to be essential to my enjoyment while watching it. Sometimes it may be an emotionally gripping narrative. Other times it may be an engaging cast of characters. And on the rare occasion it may just be due to some fantastic aesthetics and incredible looking animation.
But if there’s one thing that’s always guaranteed to get me emotionally invested in a series, it’s a compelling and interesting villain character.
It’s no secret that I love villains in Anime. Ever since I was a kid and first laid eyes on Frieza during the Namek Saga of Dragon Ball Z, I have been obsessed with antagonists. There’s just something about a selfish force that sets out to disrupt the order and tranquility of society that I love.
Villains are the primary reason why I enjoy battle Shounen and action series as much as I do. I always get a kick out of watching a single character push their opposing ideals onto the world they are a part of in order to bring about some kind of change that is desirable to them. It’s absolutely fascinating.
But what makes a villain interesting?
A good villain tends to be a proactive individual. They strive to achieve something. That something often falls outside of the laws or rules that hold the order of the universe together. For whatever reason, that villain wants to collapse the balance of their world to instill a change of some kind, a change that often falls in line with their own selfish desires. Unlike the protagonists of most of these kinds of shows who tend to just be waiting for some kind of change to happen so they can react to it in an attempt to prevent it and uphold the natural order, villains are actively trying to go about making a change to the world.
It all comes down to the motivation they have behind their desire to leave their mark on the world. What change do they want to make to the world? What kind of goals do they have? Do they even want to reshape the world in their image?
In my opinion, for a villain to be interesting they must have clear motivations and goals that justify their evil actions, and I can think of no better example than Obito Uchiha from Naruto.
Obito was once a kindhearted young boy who had lofty goals of becoming a renowned hero and the greatest ninja in the village of Konoha, but after a series of unfortunate events, he was believed to be dead, trapped under a pile of rubble, only to be saved by the villainous Madara Uchiha, who planned to use the young ninja for his own wicked plans.
After witnessing the love of his life, Rin, being murdered by his former best friend, Kakashi, not knowing the reasoning behind why, Obito feels betrayed by the world, viewing it as rotten and in need of saving and he vows to find a way to bring Rin back from the dead no matter who or what he has to sacrifice to do so.
So what does he do?
With the help of Madara, he creates an organisation of the worlds most powerful rogue ninja and uses them to declare all out war on the five grand nations that govern the world, all in an attempt to gather enough chakra energy to place the world into an everlasting illusion where the universe is reshaped into his image. A world where Rin is alive and where the world can enjoy an eternal era of peace.
Of course, Obito is being manipulated by Madara who wants to create this dream world for his own selfish desires that have nothing to do with world peace. But Obito is oblivious to this, and despite all of the atrocities he commits and all the people he kills to realise his goals, he genuinely believes that what he is doing is right and that it’s for the greater good. He believes himself to be righteous and those that stand in his way to be the evil ones.
Call it silly or misguided if you will, but it makes Obito and other villains like him interesting as characters. They aren’t plot devices who are evil for the sake of evil nor are they soulless monsters swimming in a sea of black morality. They’re actual characters with actual motivations that present them as human beings which makes them more relatable than some empty husk of pure evil.
That relatability, that underlying motivation, is the key component in making a villain interesting to me, and without it, I struggle to care about them at all. This then has a negative impact on my enjoyment of the show as a whole because without a compelling villain, it’s difficult for a Shounen action series to remain the exciting and gripping tale that it aims to be.
One of the reasons I didn’t really care for Akame Ga Kill was because of the way it portrayed its villain characters. Almost every single one of them is an irredeemable monster of pure malice and destruction who will blindly take the lives of innocents for seemingly no real reason at all beyond “because we can lol”.
And while Akame Ga Kill tries its best to humanise these characters later on, the show does an incredibly poor job at portraying them as people with any kind of reasonable motivation behind the cruel deeds that they do.
One of the antagonists, Seryu continuously spouts some nonsense about “justice” which many would associate as being similar to Obito’s cause, but the fact that she laughs maniacally as she mows down crowds of innocent people in a blood crazed frenzy suggests otherwise. She’s evil. She knows she’s evil. There is no “justice”. There’s only malice, and it’s shallow.
The same can be said for the rest of the villains. The Prime Minister is a tyrant who just kills and tortures people because he feels like it and the rest of the Jaegers each have their own shallow reasons for doing what they do, none of which feels like a real motivation or explanation for the atrocities they commit throughout the series. Many argue that the villains of Akame Ga Kill are simply fighting to protect their nation, but the series never presents the villains in any kind of positive light nor does it attempt to present that as being the case, making them all seem morally black.
And having such characters with black morals just isn’t appealing or interesting. It’s shallow and it makes them feel like nothing more than obstacle for the protagonists to overcome than an actual fully realised character that the audience can relate to.
World Trigger is an example of a series that focuses on a similar group of villains during one of its story arcs: the Aftokrator Invasion Force. But unlike Akame Ga Kill, it manages to portray them as interesting individuals because they’re shown in a sympathetic light and have an actual motivation beyond “because the plot said so.”
The country of Aftokrator is on the verge of collapse due to the god that acts as its energy source being on the verge of death. As a result, in a desperate attempt to save their people, the leaders of Aftokrator send a strike force to the human world to find a replacement for their dying god before their country falls to ruin and the citizens die. And by “find a replacement” I really mean kidnapping humans with high trion energy signatures and taking them back to Aftokrator to be used as potential candidates.
This of course results in an all out war between the nation of Aftokrator and the Border Defense Organisation who strive to defend the human world from such interdimensional attacks, and although the Aftokrator group are framed as villains due to their antagonistic values, they believe that what they’re doing is right. They’re simply going to war to defend their country and believe that any price is worth it, even innocent human lives. Why should the people of Aftokrator care about humans when their own world is in danger of collapsing? It’s a battle of resources, not just mindless slaughter.
But it’s not merely the motivations of a villain that makes them interesting. As I’ve briefly touched on throughout this post, it’s also their portrayal as actual people.
If a villain is purely evil for the sake of evil, it’s difficult to view them as an actual character. Someone like Frieza, despite being completely awesome for reasons that transcend this entire argument, is difficult to see as anything more than an obstacle for Goku because he’s just totally evil. He likes to kill people because. He likes to destroy entire planets because. He desires immortality because he wants to keep doing these bad things. And while I do still love Frieza because he’s freaking Frieza, he’s a fairly shallow villain because he doesn’t feel like a character that has any bearing on the world beyond what we see in the series.
A character like Hisoka from Hunter x Hunter has such a dynamic and interesting personality beyond simply being “bad” that I can easily imagine what he would be doing when he’s not occupying the screen. There are entire story arcs where he is completely absent, and I can easily imagine just what he’d be doing during that time because his character and personality are so well established when he interacts with the rest of the cast.
He’s a bad guy. He’s a very bad guy. But he’s not just “bad”. He has his own quirks that compose his overall personality to make him feel like an actual human being rather than a creepy rival character to the protagonist. Unlike Frieza who I can’t imagine being anything else than an obstacle for Goku to overcome, I can imagine Hisoka as being anything but an obstacle to Gon.
The series even goes out of its way on several occasions to show us just that by giving Hisoka several scenes all to himself that follow him on his own little misadventures, which makes for some excellent character building. We get to see him in his own element and in a world beyond the battlefield where he winds down and acts like any normal person would. He even casually flirts with another character in one particular scene in a way that just feels so natural and real. Hell, he even uses emojis in his text messages with other characters!
I’m not saying that morally black villains are all bad or that these are the golden rules that are guaranteed to make a villain 100% interesting. However, barring the rare exception, I always find that a villain with genuine motivations that feel both relatable and sympathetic are always far more interesting as both antagonists and characters in general. At least, that’s how I feel.
Thanks for reading this lengthy post. I hope you enjoyed it. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!