Pinning down a villain for this medium is hard.
Not even what villains are good or bad, as that’s largely a subjective question baring a few exceptions. But answer me this, “What does a Shonen villain even look like?” And yes I’m sure that much like a ticket collector at a horse racing stand your minds are flooding with many many names of your favorite antagonists from years gone by. Hold your bets if you please. I’d like to ask you to reevaluate your criteria along with the nature of the inquiry.
Who or what is the ultimate SHONEN villain? Not the one villain you found most entertaining, the most engaging, or the most emotionally impactful. In fact, such qualities like being emotionally impactful or engaging might even be counterproductive to the question. In part because of Japan’s “never give up keep moving forward” mantra along with a (usually) healthy dosage of moral skepticism stemming from having undergone western modernization first hand at the loss of their cultural standards, villains in anime, and most of all in Shonen, end up becoming redeemed in some way or another. Still today, “Yesterday’s enemy is tomorrow’s friend” continues to hold fast and true.
So what does “Unforgivable!” truly look like? What villain can best use the nature of the aesthetic to create visceral disgust and a chilling feeling of horror and dread? What is truly evil for Shonen?
So let us set the stage again, define evil and see what great names in Shonen infamy compare and rise to the top.
Across my travels, in many Shonen stories, I think rather rare to find a character both completely irredeemable and at the same time, not a hyperbolic caricature of what “evil” looks like. At the same time, however, to find this elusive villain we need to air closer to that hyperbolic evil. A villain is someone who makes their nonsensical fantasy reality after all. So the question becomes one of synthesis and principals. What is the most evil we can get, without breaking immersion and staying within the respective themes of the narrative?
As is the basis of all my work, Shonen has aesthetic rules that make it what it is. The first reaction might be to simply create a villain that violates each of them and says, “Friendship, Effort, Victory? HA! I hate ALL of it!” but I hardly think that is going to be believable or interesting. Such a knee jerk method of character creation is more relative to children’s television (and even My Little Pony is above that).
On the contrary, I think the exact opposite is true. I think the most Shonen villain would stick rigidly to as many of the principals as possible but then have a certain trait or do something that spits in the face of everything the Shonen Aesthetic is. In a manner similar to that I think that betrayal would play a key role in that process. To explain why I’d like to review the meaning of Evil as well as offer some meditations on Friendship, Effort, and Victory. After which we may take the time to apply these ideas to living examples.
What is Evil?
Yep, that’s pretty straight-forward. Why even comment on it? Nothing to see here, Calliope is gonna love this section when he gets around to editing it to a video. Moving right along.
“The same conviction which inspires confidence that nothing we have to fear is eternal or even of long duration also enables us to see that in the limited evils of this life nothing enhances our security so much as friendship.”-Epicurus
It wasn’t until HunterXHunter2011DRA wrote his Shonen Vs Marvel post that I was introduced to the realization that the order of each word also dictates their importance. Starting with friendship and ending with a victory. However, I think it’s also interesting to note that as they go they also dictate material importance in reverse order.
Friendship is the most idealistic of the three, hence why it makes the perfect basis. To quote Epicurus as I take great delight in doing, “Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship.” Epicurus believed friendship is one of the most important facets of life because through friends we can experience both greater joys and live their lives with them.
The most important aspects of being a friend are sharing your life with them and being invested in their growth. A true friend wants you to succeed not only for your own sake but for theirs as well and vice versa.
It reasons that an absolute monster would be invested in your growth not because he wants to share your life with you. But for his own entirely selfish reasons.
“It’s up to each individual whether or not they get disappointed. Anxiety and uncertainty are a part of everyone’s lives. What matters is that a person appreciates every outcome and grows from it. The more you grow the more you appreciate everything as another opportunity for growth.” -Coco, Toriko
Effort is where the rubber meets the road between the idealism of Friendship and the materialism of Victory. Similarly, it is also where I feel the most Shonen place the majority of their emphasis during the course of their narratives. It’s where a lot of the themes of the story get hammered out.
If a story leans too close purely being Friendship focused it runs the risk of being sappy, too light, lacking depth or development or, worst-case scenario, being boring with nothing happening. If a story leans too close to being Victory focused it runs the risk of being chauvinistically meritocratic, an overly depressing examination of talent and failure or, worst-case scenario, nihilistically neo-liberal.
Effort is that middle ground where it requires the commitment to believe in what you’re doing will pay off in results (Victory) but also an acknowledgment of where you understand the sentiments and nice words from Friends can only nudge you forward so much. At some point, you must move your own feet. If you believe your efforts won’t pay off then you won’t really try and will give up. But even if you do give your best there is no guarantee you’ll win either.
The ideal Shonen protagonists embodies a uniquely dream-like contradiction. They are both selfish and yet entirely selfless. Always believing that if they give their best effort to help and connect with others, even villains. They will pay it back with gratitude filled in their heart. And yet they never give up on their own goals. They may only crave their goal, dream, or desire but they don’t see why a world cannot exist where everyone can’t get what they want. At least initially. That’s the Pathway to Bliss.
But again, Effort is where Idealism and Materialism meet within the Shonen Aesthetic. Part of life is realizing that humans are not perfect. Quite the opposite in fact, it’s not possible to have everyone simply get along, or to keep them from conflict, or even to ensure their goals aren’t entirely malicious.
It stands to reason then, that an absolute monster wouldn’t just deny your efforts or come along to steal them. Because if you defeat them they can’t deny you if they steal your efforts they still lack the experience that went into them and doesn’t understand the nuances of what went into creating it. No, it reasons that a monster would raise you themselves, invest in your growth as much as possible. Only to eventually steal your efforts when you’ve reached your zenith. Not only invalidating you by stealing victory but invalidating your entire history on the basis that it was a lie, to begin with.
Victory is about results. As such it creates the sharpest contrast in Shonen narratives. Losers are denied absolutely. Winners are affirmed absolutely. And the record shows it as well.
Above all, Shonen is about growth. As the narrative, like life, is driven by that growth many Shonen series functions effectively on think pieces on how to best perpetuate growth as much as possible and to what ends. Having your efforts affirmed or denied leads to end states usually. If you win you receive the message whatever you have done to get to this point has paid off and can simply continue onwards. Whereas losers must reevaluate their efforts to determine why the results did not favor them.
The beauty of this is, as per usual, in the simplicity of it. Unlike friendship which is a set-in-stone idea and effort which is mostly a set-in as well (i.e No one is going to seriously contend with the idea of friendship being bad and there are few reasons to say you should not work towards your goals.), Victory is simple but widely open to interpretation. So much so that certain series have entire chapters/episodes dedicated and titled “What is Victory?” As is the case in Medaka Box and Kuroko’s Basketball. Stemming from this simple origin point stories can change dramatically by not only defining what their win condition is but also if there is the best way to get there.
Especially if efficient and ethical don’t see eye to eye.
Evaluating The Usual Suspects:
The annoying thing about interpretation is that it is too easily warped by untrained perception. So before introducing the archetype which I think throws the tendencies of shonen into the sharpest relief for the most effect, let us go over some popular examples and put these ideas into praxis.
Oh and before anyone says anything. These are villains, VILLAINS. Meruem does not count.
The Misanthrope: Shinobu Sensui, Midora, Gyro, Doma, Hao Asakura, Litch, Geto (and like most of the Jujutsu Kaisen cast tbh)
(Respectively YYH, Toriko, HxH, Demon Slayer, Shaman King, Black Clover, JJK)
Misanthropy is a widely common topic in Shonen Jump. It makes enough sense since misanthropy does stand in contrast to many of Shonen Jump’s goals and ideas, although not very significantly or dramatically I would say. Many topics of Shonen Jump build around generativity and building trust. Misanthropy is by partial definition a distrust of humanity but most of the writers worth their salt (Aka. Not Demon Slayer Yaiba) understand to tackle the subject from a view that understands there are more reasons to not trust humanity than to trust them. Much of the meaty and tender writing moments of the Misanthrope archetype comes from the fact that misanthrope as a concept is born from a place of generativity to begin with.
Take for example most of the names listed about Sensui, Midora, Gyro, Hao, Litch and Geto. None of these characters started from a place of malice initially. In fact, many were agents of justice or starving orphans to start out before their faith in humans was broken. Many traumatic and formative events and lead to their anti-human sentiments with good reason. As such, the misanthrope arc of Shonen villans (and antagonists) is usually more restorative than not. With the character being moved, in some way, by the pure innocence of the protagonist.
Doma from Demon Slayer Yaiba doesn’t exactly fit this writing mold despite the fact he is a misanthrope in this category. However, I make no bones about the fact the Yaiba is a mediocre to bad series on the whole with the author barely caring about the development, characterization, or ethical validity of their characters. Still, Doma is just an amusing character all things considered. Placed on a pedestal from the start and surrounded by pathetic and miserable people he had to console eventually stunted any empathy and only gave him a warped sense of sympathy. Could have been a fascinating character if he was handled better (or at all).
Despite the fact that The Misanthrope is personal my favorite archetype in no small part for relatability, I don’t think they are the ideal villains for Shonen Jump. Antagonists perhaps but the misanthrope archetype is perhaps a bit too relatable and empathetic to throw the themes, ideals, and principals of Shonen Jump into sharp relief. Largely, debatably, because the misanthrope values the purity of Shonen more than even the protagonist or the mentor of the series.
The Endless Path Seeker: Houken, Erin Yaeger, Kurapika, Medaka Kurokami and Anshin’in, Toguro
(Respectively: Kingdom, Attack on Titan, HxH, Medaka Box, YYH)
This is less of an archetype in and of itself and more of an idea taking to the extreme. Unlike Friendship and Victory, Effort is the one theme of Shonen that you can have too much of. You could only have too many friends if you fail to evaluate everyone and get regularly tricked, which seems more like a gimmick for an upcoming manga Not workable for most series. The same holds true with Victory. It is hard to “win too much” unless your name is Akashi goddamn Seijuro. While Akashi is a great antagonist for the history books the entire narrative of Kuroko is an in-depth exploration of Victory and its effects. This is too highly specific to be a class of character all by itself.
Life is not about working forever. Life is about enjoying life. Character’s like Houken, Kurapika, Eren Yaeger (I am an AoT anime-only FYI, could be wrong in the long run) lose sight of the finer things of life like friendship and fulfillment and even their own dreams in the long road to achieving them. Medaka and her foil Anshin’in are both akin to Akashi in that they achieved an unrealistic state where they cannot lose. Without putting in the Effort to achieve at victory they grew detached from the joy of winning. Where they differ from Akashi is that they overcompensated by doubling down on their Efforts. Instead of opening their hearts to others they decided to work even harder and on some level had to lie about their state of mine (or in the latters case, be constantly aware of it).
While Houken and Anshin’in both rank in my top villains of all time and both scare me on some level (a notably rare feat), this is more of a common issue that needs to be dealt with by many characters that have a wall that needs to be overcome. It’s closer to a plot point than anything and, while it’s a VERY good one, only really makes usage of one of the three themes and at most 1 or 2 of the aesthetic point.
While all of the above goes for Toguro as well I want to give him a particular shoutout. Toguro is one of the greatest villains period and I almost gave him his own section in the post. In particular because while Toguro ultimately does fall underneath this archetype, he also is very intimately tied to Yusuke’s personal hang-ups and as a person. This is, of course, a simple writing technique done with ToGODshi’s expertise and I don’t want to go on longer than need be since the Yu Yu Hakusho post in the works. But since he is so closely tied to Yusuke you won’t find another villain on the planet quite like him. I would, of course, be remiss if I did not mention him here though.
The Dark Messiah/Liberator: Shigaraki, Overhaul, Chrollo, Mahito, Kumagawa Misogi, Dio (to a minor extent)(Respectively: My Hero Academia, HxH, JJK, Medaka Box, Jojo)
Have you ever wondered what an “evil” Shonen protagonist looks like? Well perhaps not as much recently now that My Hero Academia has taken the world by superpowered storm but it was a significant question for me for quite a long time. Could you pull off Friend Effort and Victory for the sake of evil and how would that function? Empty Friendships, Meaningless Effort, and Hollow Victories? Well, it’s something like that. This archetype and it’s subsequent evolution below are effectively the working darkside of Shonen Jump.
As such I’ve named this first one appropriately after their most common function, being a Dark Messiah. One of the most important aspects of writing believable and compelling villains for the modern age is accurately capturing and portraying the nuanced human condition of the times. As such, it’s essential that a writer understands the topic of alienation as it is perhaps the most widespread issue in the postmodern age we inhabit. This is why despite the fact that I don’t think many of their stories are very good, I do consider being well versed in Kafka and NisiOisiN a boon.
What type of person would it take to stand at the frontline, accept the emotions of their (probably socially dysfunctional comrades), and lead them down the path while also improving their lives while still causing a stir enough to be called a “villain” by the heroes? Could someone alienate from society even be apt enough to do that? Well conversely, the Dark Messiah is able to reach his compatriots not in spite of their alienation but because of it.
It is the responsibility of all Shonen protagonists to bring others together by finding common ground and thus paving the way to comradery. Usually, this is a common interest or hobby for the Shonen hero, but for the Dark Messiah connection comes through their very alienation by getting the lost soul to understand that they have at least one thing in common. After which they usually offer them something else in their interest. Whether that be a chance to achieve their own dreams and desires, to reshape the world in a way more fitting for them, or even just a place to belong.
For the Leauge of Villains when they seem to be straying from their ideals of Stain or riddled with guilt Shigaraki offered them the chance to make things right, a world more fit for them, and more importantly trust. Chrollo builds the Phantom Troupe by taking his fellow residents of Meteor City and offering them a family. One with clear rules and bonds. And while it may have been down out of more selfish reasons on Chrollo’s parts it makes little difference to his family members. Perhaps the most memorable and developed character in this archetype may be Kumagawa Misogi who’s efforts to carve out a place to live for the Minus he calls “Empty Friends” go far above and beyond the call of many others in this category.
Lastly, there is Dio Brando and Mahito, who do fit into this category but slightly differently. Jojo is a much more basic series than most, thematic and character development have never particularly been Araki’s priority. However, Dio Brando is one of the earliest examples of this in part because of his background and desire to liberate himself. But he is also more classic comic book evil than pragmatic evil so he commands people with brain insects made of his flesh… classy… point for self-sufficiency.
Mahito is similar to Dio in that his baseline is simply living his best life is his baseline and he focuses on that more than showing his alienation (well in Mahito’s case he is a literal living embodiment of misanthropy so it’s more metaphorical than anything). However, for those who really pay attention to Mahito’s ramblings, he is quite clairvoyant, lucid, and generative. He is quick to give people he’s slightly fond of well-articulated advice and those that listen get marked improvements in their thoughts and attitudes towards life.
The Black Idealist: All for One, Azumi Nakiri, Ryofui, Masamune Kido, Black, also Kumagawa… actually
(Respectively My Hero Academia, Food Wars, Kingdom, World Trigger, Barrage)
And in much the same way that every Shonen hero needs a powerful and wisen Mentor, so too does a Dark Messiah. The natural evolution of that archetype is something I call the Black Idealist, so too named after perhaps the most condensed and straightforward embodiment of this archetype I’ve seen, Black of Barrage.
The primary difference between these characters and Dark Messiah is (again similar to the protagonist and teacher) mostly in their scale. At this stage in their life, they know their path and focus on completing it and/or spreading it far and wide. They are dangerously efficient and often have a form of collectivized strength from which they can affect the world on a scale more global than the Messiah.
All for One’s collectivization Quirk is perhaps this archetype given physical embodiment. In particular, however, Ryofui and Azumi Nakiri’s liberal capitalist ideals are also excellent in demonstrating how this can be an ultimately negative change for the future as this type of character is the most likely to abandon the humanity on the whole throwing both the good and the bad out with the bathwater even though their ideals are doomed to fail.
If you wanted to call this the Ultimate Shonen Villain then I will admit I would have a hard time refuting my own points. I particularly love these two villain types because they are poetic to the aesthetic in many ways. But if you will I would argue that there is still one more archetype that surpasses them as villains. These two archetypes combined, ultimately (well tastefully written) just come down to a matter of ideals, priorities and ethics. It’s less using the aesthetic and themes of Shonen in a corrupted or evil way and more a question of alignment.
If you are simply no longer seated at the same table and your savior chooses a different group can they be called any less of a hero? Practically maybe but such black and white thinking is unShonen and reductive.
The Ultimate Villain
Most of these villains above are less irredeemable and generally fall into tragic, extremist, or have a different ethical code that is just slightly less inclusive than literally every breathing human on the face of the Earth (not hyperbole, wish it was). This is of course, not comprehensive in the slightest and only functions as an example model for people to understand and apply my reasoning. Even all of this is entire up for discussion after the fact and I’m open to opinions on this one.
However, on the whole, I find that most of these characters adhere to the Shonen Aesthetic closely as it becomes the source of their development. They see the value of friendship even if it is largely for personal gain. They respect the effort. And simply put no one wants to lose or the inability to deal with loss is core to their mindset. This leads me to believe certain notions.
Would not the most despicable villain do things to disrespect all of these? Would they not simply take what they desire and have no interest in giving back? Would they not pretend to be a friend interested in their growth only for their own ends? Would they not disrespect people’s efforts by taking those fruits for their own goals instead of contributing to the spirit of generativity? And this would be their only source of victory that they achieve regularly. Their only pleasure is ruining other people’s lives. At this point, I imagine the more keen of you can imagen who’s coming. So without further adieu, I would like to name the Ultimate Shonen Villian archetype as being The Predator.
So to named because this character places effort and stalk in raising the protagonist to be consumed later. To them, Friendship, Effort, and Victory only exist insofar as they get their SWNNNG for the afternoon and then to keep on moving. They are appropriate the apex of consumption, moving from target to target snuffing out lights as it suits them. And when they’ve finished they dangerous psychopaths are unlikely to even remember the person names. A true friend wants to share in your life, however, these predators only want to share in your death.
So step up Hisoka Morrow of Hunter x Hunter! Akagane of Hell Warden! Gevaudan of Ne0;lation! Reis of Heart Gear! Shinichi Amachi of Act-Age! The Blue Nitro if Toriko! And every villain written by Tomohiro Yagi! I would like to present you with the award of being the biggest bastards in history and for understanding how the twist the Shonen Aesthetic in the perfect way to make my stomach churl!
I thank you all for being fantastic villains and don’t change a single thing! Except everything, immediately.