Your Most Memorable Anime Villainby The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
This week we asked our team of critics for the most memorable villain they've ever encountered in anime. We specifically didn't ask for favorite - "most memorable" suggests a villain that may not have amused you, but perhaps left a lasting impact or surprised you with how they explored the dark side of human nature.
Our answers are only part of the picture, however - we need to hear from you! Head on in to our forums and tell us your most memorable anime villain.
Spoiler warning: this article contains important plot information for the following shows: From the New World, Death Note, Neon Genesis Evangelion, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Tenshi ni Narumon (yep no foolin'), Psycho-Pass, Escaflowne, Cowboy Bebop and Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Shinsekai Yori is a story about a group of kids growing up in a strange post-apocalyptic future, where technology has regressed to more or less medieval levels, but humans now have formidable psychic powers. Though the show's protagonists are all humans, we are also introduced to the queerats - strange, almost pig-like mole-men who work as servants to the humans, and also fight among themselves within their own warlike tribes. Early in the series, the show's human leads befriend a desperate queerat named Squealer, who enlists their psychic powers to save his colony from some vicious enemies.
Later on, Squealer returns to kill them all.
But Squealer isn't a memorable villain just because he unexpectedly betrays the protagonists; what makes Squealer memorable is that he was probably right to. In Shinsekai Yori, the conditions of the queerat underclass are only occasionally hinted at, because the characters we know are humans who barely spare a second thought for the queerats. As they're dealing with their own dramas, we slowly learn that the queerats have no psychic powers, that they are bred in such a way that their society is democratically hobbled, that they're actively controlled and even culled by the humans depending on their own needs. And so when Squealer strikes against his biological nature and raises his tribes beneath him and attempts to kill Shinsekai Yori's heroes, you almost want to cheer along.
Squealer is vicious in his actions, because he needs to be. The queerats can only be born to tyrannical, violent queens, which prevents them from having individual rights - and so Squealer makes a slave of his queen, imprisoning one so the rest may be treated as equals. The queerats have no psychic powers, and are easily destroyed by the powerful humans - and so Squealer fights through deception, using suicide bombers and surprise attacks and leaving not one human alive. Squealer strikes hard and viciously and leaves no survivors, because if even the slightest piece of mercy were afforded, every one of his race would likely die. As the humans lament the savagery of his actions, Squealer makes the calculations necessary to grant his people freedom or death.
Squealer ultimately fails in his ambitions, losing to a simple trick on the part of the humans. And the humans laugh at him in a mock trial, having stripped him of his clothes and stature. But even naked beneath their eyes, Squealer strikes an imposing, revolutionary figure. Shouting “I am human!” at the crowd, he fails with dignity, having given everything so that his people may live. Squealer lies and cheats and murders and tortures, and is undoubtedly Shinsekai Yori's villain. But he is the villain his people needed.
In the cases where a villain becomes the protagonist, the villain almost invariably becomes a sympathetic character, if not outright a good guy. That does not happen here, though. In fact, this is one of the extremely rare cases of a true hero/villain inversion, where the protagonist is actually still the villain, too. And make no mistake about it: Light Yagami is a villain to the core. While he might espouse justice and righteousness, any claim he has to being a good guy goes out the window in episode 2 when he unhesitatingly kills someone who threatens to catch him, and that is reinforced by numerous other instances throughout the series.
But that role reversal is only part of what makes Light such and interesting and memorable villain. Throughout the series – and especially in the first few episodes – we are witness to Light's descent into evil in a way that is rarely displayed in anime with such detail or vigor. We get to see him in action from the first shaky moments when he is briefly overwhelmed by the magnitude of his first killings all the way up to the point of becoming an inveterate, godlike murdering machine. We get to see how his thought processes and amorality develop to the point where he can accept almost anything without conscience, where he can regard his own intellect as placing him above the law and anyone else. It is all oh so slicky justified in his mind, and he never seems to recognize actions such as gloating over having sent Naomi Misora to her death for getting a little too close are the hallmarks of a depraved soul. And then we get to see him fall, unrepentant and unredeemed to the bitter end and wholly pathetic at the end.
I could cite many other reasons, too, but the other most impactful one is how beautiful he is in his arrogance. His declaration at the end of episode 1 that his is going to become the God of the new world he envisions making with the Death Note is one of those moments which can make you sit back and say “whoa!” over the sheer audacity of it. That is hardly the last time he impresses, either; he gives new meaning to the phrase “evil genius.”
Adore Light if you like (and some do!), but never forget that the core of his apple is rotted through and through.
Jacob Hope ChapmanCompared to western animation, anime has long been known for its morally ambiguous approach to villainy. Even in its most heavily market-researched kids' programming, Japanese animation is more likely to have bad guys with noble intentions and room for redemption than its American counterparts, which makes the baddies' stories all the more sobering when they still can't be saved. This moral ambiguity is one of the biggest things that drew me to anime and kept me hooked, so many of my favorite anime villains are steeped in nuance and pathos.
But not this one. Sometimes you just need larger-than-life, rotten-to-the-core, termites-in-your-smile Pure Evil in your diet. And no one does Pure Evil quite like Dio Brando from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure. It's impressive for a character to be so gleefully wicked that a childhood of cruelty and abuse from a nasty old drunk doesn't even begin to excuse his turn to villainy. Once Dio gets the tiniest whiff of life on easy street from his new kindhearted adoptive family, he starts plotting a takeover of the Joestar estate, starting with a slow and sadistic humiliation of their eldest son Jonathan. He constructs elaborate lies about him, beats him bloody in a public dogfight, steals his girlfriend's first kiss, and even roasts his beloved puppy in an incinerator. Poor Jonathan is too shocked by all of this to realize that Dio is also slowly poisoning his father to steal his fortune! This twisted sibling was an unfathomable monster long before he actually lost his humanity, but that's when things get really interesting.
After turning himself into an immortal vampire, Dio went from Jonathan's nasty nemesis to an iconic and influential supervillain in Japan. So what does he want? He wants all power in the universe, all treasures of the earth, and all pleasures of the flesh under his command, but more than anything, he wants to see everyone bearing the Joestar name suffer. Jonathan could only stop his reign of terror by giving up not only his life, but his body to Dio, allowing the vampire to return decades later to take vengeance on Jonathan's descendants as an undead head cruelly stitched onto their own ancestor's remains. He's immortal, machiavellian, holds the power to stop time, and the number of minions at his command that Joseph and Jotaro Joestar must defeat to reach him and end their family curse is staggering. To make matters worse, his servants are more than just disposable goons for hire. Every one of Dio's followers heeds his bidding out of some powerful emotional compulsion, whether it be admiration, gratitude, fear, or brainwashing when all else fails. Nothing sums up Dio's authority and charisma quite like one of his follower's chilling last words: "Even evil men need a savior." Dio wasn't just a king to his fellow bad guys; he was a Messiah.
He's pure arrogance, pure hedonism, and pure entertainment. Dio is evil at its most fun.
It's hard when talking about "memorable" characters not to go back to the staples of my childhood: Pokémon, Digimon, Sailor Moon and the other shows that first introduced me to anime. All three of those series had interesting villains, but with Pokémon, they were the best part of the show—and one of the few parts that still holds up on grown-up re-watches. (Seriously, give those old "Indigo League" episodes a spin on Netflix.) This is partly because they aren't that great at being villains: they're lovable doofuses who make you laugh more than cower in fear. (Most of the truly scary moments in Pokémon are due to supernatural weirdness or Pokémon gone rogue, and Team Rocket usually joins the heroes in their crosshairs.) They're an old archetype in kids' cartoons, both American and Japanese: the fun, incompetent villain you almost wish would foil the heroes just this once. In fact, Team Rocket was heavily influenced by the Doronbow Gang from Yatterman (just look at the character designs), and a lot of the fun of reviewing Yatterman Night last year was how much the characters reminded me of their '90s descendants.
Like the Doronbows, it's easy to find Team Rocket sympathetic—or even relatable. They just want this one Pokémon, but keep failing to get it, and their cruel boss and smarmy rivals (the much more capable Butch and Cassidy) rub it in their faces. They're perpetually broke, and the show gives us their backstories that explain how they got into organized crime. My favorite of the gang—and probably most people's—is James, the flamboyant poor-little-rich-kid who wouldn't marry the person his parents wanted (one of his many moments that the show buries in gay subtext). Nobody on Pokémon, and especially in Team Rocket, is very smart, but James may be the dimmest bulb, constantly falling for transparent get-rich-quick schemes and other obvious traps. All that matters is that no one else can fall as fabulously as James. He steals every scene he's in with his over-the-top squees and oohs, enhanced by Eric Stuart's iconic dub performance that set the standard for a generation of anime dandies.
In my opinion, the best villains are usually who can coax to their side, at least a little. That might be because of deep, traumatic backstories and webs of complicated motivations, in morally-grey universes where the heroes have plenty of their own issues, too. (That's my other favorite type of villain.) It could also be because they're just not that great at being bad, but they are good at entertaining you and stealing your heart. That's Team Rocket for me, and that's why they've stuck with me as favorites. Pokémon is far from my favorite anime now, but Jessie, James and Meowth are still at the top of my list. Can we get a Team Rocket spin-off any time soon?
Gen Urobuchi writes great villains. More than anything else, that might be the defining strength of his writing – terrifying, memorable bad guys who succeed as both foils for the heroes and anchor points for the show's themes. And as in the rest of the Booch's oeuvre, a pattern soon develops. You could read the villains of his three biggest works into a trajectory of him humanizing the psychopath, aka people who've grown up without developing the capacity to care for others. The first one, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, puts this into Kyubey, the alien embodiment of utilitarian logic. The second, Fate/Zero, has Kotomine Kirei, a monstrous individual for whom the story nevertheless nurtures a certain amount of pity. But the psychopath's dilemma (meaning that they're people who, through no fault of their own, lack the part of their mind designed to keep them from hurting others) really comes to the forefront in Psycho-Pass, a show that's even named after the condition. Psycho-Pass's Shogo Makishima fits into the general pattern of the Butcher's baddies while also being the standout of his career. A bibliophilic revolutionary and smug schemer against the Sibyl System, Makishima has a fully articulated psychology that doesn't compromise his lack of empathy or excuse his terrible deeds. At the same time, he's recognizably human, operating according to drives that we as (presumably) fully functional humans can relate to. Shogo does what he does because he's lonely, angry, and feels righteously justified.
Makishima especially stands out since “psychopathy” is the laziest villain cliché in the world. What do you do when your story needs murder but you don't want to fully articulate the killer's psychology? Just make them psycho! Even otherwise fantastic villains like Death Note's Light Yagami and Monster's Johan Liebert fall into this. They just decide to go on unchecked murder sprees because they're jerks and hate everyone. In contrast, Makishima is scary because his arguments have a rational argument behind them. Society under the Sibyl System is messed up, and his provocation leads to people (most notably the heroine, Akane) realizing this. Makishima (and people like him) play an essential role in Psycho-Pass's depiction of society, and that's not a comfortable admission.
I think I know why, though – it's easier to imagine the capacity to commit horrific acts, to not feel bad when killing people and destroying lives in masse, as somehow exterior to humanity. That psychopaths are mindless others who invade society wearing human skins and not something that any otherwise functional human being could be. While Psycho-Pass ultimately rebukes Makishima, it makes us understand why it is he does what he does, and the essential role people like him already play within society. (Albeit in perhaps the goofiest science fiction way ever.) Over the course of an artistic career spent championing humanism in the face of utilitarian logic, Urobuchi admits to something powerful in Makishima – that the utilitarian impulse originates from within humanity, not exterior to it, and thus may not be entirely vanquishable. And this admission, while daunting, is a step towards seeing the problem for what it really is, and thus finding a way to really overcome it.
Sometimes the line between good and evil is subtle. That's not the case when it comes to Dilandau Albatou, the most outright evil antagonist in The Vision of Escaflowne. Dilandau doesn't just kill early and often, he relishes in it. He's a sadist, a pyromaniac, and a mentally unstable sociopath. His tactical failures are textbook—while his calculating intelligence ought to make him formidable, his short fuse propels him impulsively into battles where he suddenly has the disadvantage. Losing makes him even more terrifying. When Van unwittingly scars this narcissist's face, he earns the brunt of Dilandau's hatred for the rest of the show.
I first thought that a character like this, who wears his most viciously abhorrent side out in the open, couldn't possibly have any depth to him. I was wrong. Released in 1996, The Vision of Escaflowne came out in a decade when having a pretty, androgynous villain was practically a cliché. Think Eagle from Magic Knights Rayearth and Rosiel from Angel Sanctuary. Hidden in this sea of sameness, I never expected Dilandau's character to completely turn this trope on its head. As it turns out, Dilandau isn't an androgynous prettyboy at all, but protagonist Allen's long lost little sister, Celena, who has undergone some apparently extensive brainwashing. In so many shows of the time, an effeminate villain exists for visual appeal only, so it came as a shock to see that there was an extremely good reason for Dilandau to look the way he does.
Cruel, twisted, and almost certainly insane, Dilandau is an unpredictable character that adds chaos to the Escaflowne universe both through his personality and later, his true identity. Twenty years later, he's still a villain that resonates, showing the way this anime still tells a good story even when the divide between good and evil is so clearly drawn.
Before I accept my award for Most Creative and Unique Response to this question, I'd like to take a second to point out that of course Gendo Ikari is one of the most memorable anime villains of all time, because he's basically the only villain:
I mean, look at this guy.
“I hate my dad” is a cliché, but Gendo is basically all bad dad behaviors wrapped up into the ultimate bad dad. All I really have to do is describe what Neon Genesis Evangelion is about.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is about a dad so crappy he builds an avatar of barely-controlled rage-filled strength that can only be tamed by the soul of his dead wife and can only be piloted by their son. The idea is to use this giant symbol of impotent anger at the concept of death to piledrive his way back into his wife's arms, sacrificing his son in the process. He has to literally force his son to do this, who hates himself so much he can't lift his head to frown. The only time Gendo encourages his child is to manipulate him into doing his bidding. He keeps a teenage clone of his dead wife around – she can't express any feelings he didn't explain to her and doesn't express anything unless he orders her to, and she STILL tells him he should be a better father to his son.
That's it. That description alone has enough layered, classically dad-driven psychological issues in there to make even the most experienced family therapist blow a gasket. You can unpack that description for a long time before you run out of reasons why Gendo is a horrible father, and that's before you start getting creative.
Gendo Ikari is the worst dad ever imagined, and so it logically follows that he is also the most memorable villain. It's just science. I don't make the rules.
There are plenty of ways for a bad guy to be memorable. He can be a total rat bastard, like Nakago from Fushigi Yugi, the kind of villain you love to hate. Or he can be a somehow lovable in his bizarreness, like Jinai from El Hazard. I considered both of these villains for this piece, but ultimately the kind of bad guy who really leaves me thinking about them long after the series is over is the one you never saw coming. While there are multiple examples of this type of villain, the one who made the biggest impression on me is from an odd little Studio Pierrot show from 1999: I'm Gonna Be An Angel, or Tenshi ni Narumon.
Tenshi ni Narumon, which sadly never got a full release in the US (though I did watch it in its entirety on VHS fansubs back in the bad ol' days), is on the surface a wacky magical girlfriend comedy about a lonely boy named Yuusuke and the naked angel named Noelle he meets in the woods. Before he knows what's happening, Noelle's family has moved in with him and he (and Noelle) have become the targets of a mad jester named Dispel, who controls a quiet, submissive girl named Silky as his puppet.
Or so we think.
In episode thirteen, the halfway point of the series, Dispel is busy ranting and raving about how he hasn't stopped Noelle from becoming an angel when Silky, who has just been quietly sitting by, suddenly announces that she's bored. And then she cuts Dispel's strings, revealing that she's been the one in charge all along and that she was only playing the servant while controlling Dispel the entire time. It's an astounding moment. Silky played her role so well that I really never saw it coming, and the quiet, almost nonchalant way that she says, “I'm bored,” is so understated that until Dispel falls and turns into a doll, it almost doesn't register. She's like a spoiled child, toying with peoples' lives for her own amusement, and the reveal that she's been the bad guy all along is not only one that changes your perception of the character, but one which shapes the entire second season of the show. Dispel was a wacky bad guy, playing right into the obvious goofiness of the previous twelve episodes. Silky is a sly villain, manipulating the viewers right along with the characters, a Drosselmeyer-like figure who has been writing the story all along. When she cuts the strings, it suddenly becomes clear that we haven't been watching Noelle's story – we've been watching hers.
This is what makes Silky such a memorable antagonist. She truly shapes the story, making overcoming her a fight against the narrative itself. With her unveiling as the chief villain, the story takes a turn for the dark, morphing from something cute to a tale with a serious threat and real urgency, and her truth makes us look at the other characters in a different light as well. Silky and Noelle share a heritage that makes Silky even more ominous as she fights against both her nature and Noelle (and their third part, Mikael), helping to tie in themes of family and loneliness that you really didn't see coming from the first half of the show. Noelle and Yuusuke may be the protagonists, but Silky is the one who drives the plot from behind the scenes, helping to make Tenshi ni Narumon a stronger, more memorable story than it otherwise would have been. That's not something you can say about a lot of heroes – to be able to have it be true of a villain makes her stand out as a bad guy I can't forget.
Revolutionary Girl Utena's Utena Tenjou is a young woman who aspires to become a gallant prince. Bold and courageous, she wins duel after duel to protect her princess, Anthy Himemiya, the Rose Bride. Despite going up against a plethora of cunning opponents, Utena's confidence only wavers in the face of the mastermind behind the duels, Akio Ohtori.
As acting chairman of Ohtori Academy, Akio initially seems like a kind older brother to Anthy. Charming and charismatic, he's an adult (complete with a fiancée) who at first demonstrates an innocent interest in Utena as Anthy's friend. Of course, an adult having an “innocent interest” in a 14-year-old already raises a few red flags. However, Akio's not only a predator; he's a “fallen angel” who's hell-bent on reclaiming the power he lost.
Villains who desire world domination or destruction for its own sake bore me. As far as I'm concerned, the best antagonists are the ones who view themselves as heroes. Akio is too self-centered to fight for a greater cause, but in another life, that was all he once did. As Prince Dios, Akio was literally the prince on the white horse who saved damsels in distress–i.e., exactly the person Utena wishes to be.
Being the world's hero took its toll on the brave prince. Everyone in the kingdom demanded that Dios save their princesses without sparing a thought for the prince's wellbeing—everyone but Anthy, his sister and a shunned witch. When Dios was dying of exhaustion, Anthy kidnapped him so he could rest, drawing the violent ire of angry villagers. Either Anthy used magic to separate the princely part of her brother from the rest of his self or Dios personally sealed away this facet of his personality. Whatever happened, Prince Dios and the power he held was locked away behind a magical gate. The man who remained became Akio the “fallen angel.”
Still, there's a fascinating dichotomy to the character. Even separated from Akio, Dios was the prince who comforted Utena as a child and gave her the rose signet ring that allowed her to become a duelist. Did he want Utena to save Anthy and to stop his other self? In addition to his lewd interest in Utena, Akio appears to have designs on his sister, despite blaming her for his plight. What Akio craves the most is the release of his lost power, which he believes the ultimate Duelist can unlock from behind a sealed gate. Utena, having won the most duels, becomes his primary target. He woos her and convinces her that her true role is to be his princess, not Anthy's prince, to test her commitment to being a prince and her ability to unlock the gate.
For a time, Utena falls for Akio completely, going so far as to become a passive princess. Toward the end of the series, Akio watches with delight as Anthy is skewered by a million magic swords, causing Utena to realize that her love for a princess as a prince is greater than her love for a prince as a princess. She sacrifices herself to save Anthy—even after Anthy literally stabbed her in the back—and takes all of the swords, which represent Akio's hatred, into herself, apparently dying. In the end, a much happier Anthy leaves the school to search for Utena, whom she insists is still alive and is simply free from Akio's world. Akio loses because both girls are now free of him. He has no power, and he has no control.
Considering his role as Cowboy Bebop's recurring antagonist, Vicious doesn't get a whole lot of screen time. He only appears in a handful of episodes, and he isn't especially talkative in any of the scenes he does appear in. Despite not having very many opportunities to make an impression, he still stands out to me as a memorable villain. I think that's mainly a result of the effect he has on the atmosphere of the show whenever he's on screen. The episodes that involve Vicious just feel different from the rest of Cowboy Bebop, and not just because his arrival is often linked to major plot developments in a heavily episodic show.
One thing that defines Cowboy Bebop as a series is the sense of “cool” that it exudes. The main characters approach danger with a casual sense of invincibility that makes them seem like they're just too damn charismatic to die. All of that gets stripped away when Vicious shows up. Faye suddenly looks like she's genuinely in over her head, Spike seems ready to throw his life away, and Jet appears like he's willing to let Spike do just that. Vicious immediately casts a shadow over the crew, and his connection to Spike's past causes him to bring out the worst in the protagonists each time he steps onto the stage. Villains that can convince the audience that they're a genuine threat to the heroes are something of a rarity, which make Vicious all the more imposing.
Part of that feeling of mortal danger is down to appearances. White hair and a black coat may have become a bit of a cliché amongst anime bad guys, but Vicious pulls the look off better than most. Maybe the creepy black bird that follows him around is the accessory that pulls the outfit together. The dialogue also plays a big role in selling the “shadow of death” personality, as Vicious has a talent for throwing Spike's gallows humor right back in his face. They may be archenemies, but Vicious still sees Spike as just one item on a list of obstacles to be removed. His casual violence is the perfect foil for the main characters’ casual invincibility, and that's what makes him an intimidating and memorable enemy.
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