Anime's Fiercest Frenemies

by Jacob Chapman,

Sometimes they're called rivals, and sometimes they're called foils, but I think there's no finer word than "frenemy" for one of the most enjoyable tropes in anime. Of course, the dynamic between allies who kind of hate each other (or foes who kind of like each other) isn't remotely exclusive to anime. Many long-running comic book series rely on these rivalries to carry entire runs, with famous differences of opinion between Superman and Batman or Iron Man and Captain America. Still, something about the concept makes me think of spiky-haired angry teens trading energy blasts and screams above all else. Whether the sparks flying between two frenemies make you want to pick a side or just wish they would kiss and make up (sometimes literally), something about two likable leads who just can't get along keeps us on the edge of our seats.

With so many rivals out there competing for our attention, what goes into making a contentious relationship captivating instead of just frustrating? To me, the secret lies in the much stuffier word for this dynamic: "the foil." This term comes from an old jeweler's display practice of putting metal foil underneath their gems to make them shine more brilliantly to a customer's eye. In storytelling, it refers to the way a minor character might exist only to make the main character shine brighter. For example, if a hero works hard to take care of his sick mother, she exists as the "foil" to his gem: she's there so the hero will look better for taking care of a sick loved one. (All the moreso if she gets kidnapped by the bad guys later in the story!) But what if the "foil" was just as important as the character they were supporting?

Frenemy relationships come from "squaring the foil," giving one character traits that both support and contrast another character, but without making either side less important than the other. Now if these foils are supposed to be enemies, it's pretty easy to just make them complete opposites in every way: the villain's extreme badness brings out the hero's extreme goodness, and so on. You can give them similarities (many anime villains love to pull the "we're not so different" card on the hero), but it's certainly not required to make the relationship striking. But if these two characters are supposed to be friends, you can't make them foils to one another without a heaping helping of friction. They each need something the other doesn't have so they can shine brighter in different situations, but those qualities will also force them apart despite the similarities that made them friends in the first place! The best anime rivalries come from "complete opposites" who are really the same on a deeper level. Just as individual people both hate and love themselves for what they can and can't control about their personalities, a good pair of frenemies love and hate each other for their similarities as much as their differences.

With that "same but different" dynamic in mind, I decided to break down just six of anime's most memorable frenemy duos: how they met, what makes them clash, what binds them together, and where their relationship ultimately stands when the dust settles. Naturally, spoiler warning for the various series listed below.

Naruto

Naruto Uzumaki vs. Sasuke Uchiha

How did they meet? They started out as classmates in Ninja Academy, and they couldn't stand each other from the get-go. Sasuke found Naruto's goofy behavior disruptive, and Naruto was jealous of Sasuke's popularity with the ladies. So of course they got put on the same team for a series of grueling ninja tests after graduation, along with Sakura, the girl Naruto liked who preferred Sasuke instead. As anyone who's had to do group projects in school can tell you, it was all downhill from there.

They're completely different! Apart from having a mighty fox spirit sealed in his belly and unusually high levels of chakra, Naruto is pretty bad at traditional ninja techniques, despite his grand dreams to become the next village leader (or Hokage). He's irreverent, tempermental, easily distracted, and it's frankly no wonder he gets bottom grades in his class. No one's really rooting for him to succeed either, since he's an orphan rumored to be the reincarnation of a beast that once tried to destroy their village. By contrast, Sasuke is the model student and darling of his class, popular with the boys, girls, and adults alike. He's a perfectionist who takes his studies very seriously, excelling at his art like no one else before him in pursuit of a much simpler but darker goal: revenge for the murder of his own family.

But they're the same! Wait, both of these boys have an "orphaned by village tragedy" past? Well, there's definitely gotta be some middle ground there, right? As it turns out, Naruto is just more honest about his feelings than Sasuke, but they're both looking for approval and a sense of belonging in the world. While Naruto is blamed for the destruction of his own village and wants to prove himself better than all the cruel rumors surrounding his past, Sasuke is mostly pitied for his past but secretly blames himself. The genocide of his clan was perpetrated by his own older brother, the one ninja in his family whose power seriously outclasses even Sasuke's. While Naruto may be jealous of the attention and support Sasuke gets for his talents, Sasuke can't see past the inferiority and betrayal he feels over the loss of just one person's attention and support: his brother Itachi. Naruto and Sasuke both have a lot of issues to overcome before they can become two very different types of leaders in their world, but they just can't help wasting time by fighting each other!

So, Friends or Enemies in the end? Since Naruto has approximately ninety million episodes across its two main series, these two face an uncountable number of ups and downs. Generally, things get a lot worse before they get better, as Naruto's past puts him at the center of a giant Shinobi war, and Sasuke becomes an international criminal in the process of his quest for vengeance. But when the fate of the whole world is at stake, the two discover they are actually the reincarnations of legendary brothers, destined to stop the global disaster together. At the end of the road, these two have been through too much turmoil not to consider themselves brothers-in-arms, but it's more of a "just visit around the holidays" situation than bosom buddies. I guess after you blow each other's arms off in a fight and come out of it laughing, you've reached a level of friendship that not many other people can understand.

Death Note

Light Yagami vs. "L"

How did they meet? High-school senior and valedictorian Light Yagami got a little too bored one day and decided to use a supernatural notebook to start killing criminals. Pasty gremlin detective of unknown age "L" decided to make it his mission to ensure this mystery killer's capture. In the spirit of keeping your friends close and enemies closer, L enrolled in Light's college once he was confident the pretty boy was his most likely suspect, and Light joined L's investigation task force to try and throw them off his scent. This eventually resulted in both killer and detective being handcuffed together for an almost homoerotically long period of time.

They're completely different! Light Yagami is handsome, charismatic, and lives according to an insanely stringent daily schedule, to say nothing of his severe moral code. In fact, the only part of his life that's vague are his lofty ambitions for greatness. He wants to revolutionize the "rotten" world around him so badly that he finds no pleasure in frivolous activities that don't "improve" the world by exterminating its bad apples. His rival L is almost hedonistic by comparison, seeing his future in simplistic terms like the next case, the next game, and the next slice of strawberry cake. He's able to plan ahead in pursuit of the victories he cares about, but unlike the megalomaniacal Light, L reverts to inconsolable couch potato form the second he loses interest in a lead. He's embarrassingly unkempt, with garbage social skills and a nihilistic apathy toward anything that doesn't tickle his gray matter. You could say this lack of ambition makes him inferior to Light, but his relaxed attitude also springs from a much greater level of self-awareness and patience. Still, both of these guys secretly care about only one thing...

But they're the same! Light and L are both absolute sociopaths, but in a different world, their brilliant minds, strong convictions, and complete inability to empathize with the people around them might have made them true allies. When L tells the task force that their cornered suspect is acting out of a childish desire not to lose the game above all else, he's not afraid to add that he knows this because he solves crimes for the exact same reason. Good and evil don't really matter to these two; they're just two lonely prodigies trying to validate their own egos by "winning" over everyone else. Behind all his puffery about "justice," Light is only interested in bending the world to his own standards, while L prefers to quietly lament the world's inability to understand his own standards. In their own words, Light sees himself as a god, while L sees himself as a monster. Light was raised in an upper-middle-class family with a wealth of opportunities, while L was salvaged from an orphanage as a reclusive weirdo, but they're essentially the same kid with two different lives that led them to arbitrary sides of good and evil.

So, Friends or Enemies in the end? While both Light and L eventually realize that they understand each other better than anyone else in the world ever will as fellow competitive genius psychos, the game must come first, and the game can only end when one of them dies. Light ultimately wins by using his power over people to his advantage, leaving L in a hopeless position where every step he must take will only lead to his death. Poor L learns that being right all along is worthless if you wind up playing the game alone, a lesson that Light probably should have taken to heart when facing L's successors...

Kill La Kill

Ryuko Matoi vs. Satsuki Kiryuin

How did they meet? Satsuki was the proud student council president of the uniquely fascist Honnouji Academy when Ryuko transferred in to take revenge on the villainous mystery woman who murdered her father. Since Satsuki stood tall and arrogant above the rest of the student body, seemed to know Ryuko's dad, and demanded Ryuko submit to her authority, she stood out as the most likely culprit. Even when the conspiracy became far more tangled, and the real killer turned out to be someone else, the rebellious Ryuko couldn't abide Satsuki's iron-fisted control over the school in her pursuit of justice and freedom.

They're completely different! Ryuko is a messy loudmouth with a hair-trigger rejection of authority. She doesn't think she owes anyone anything, so she asks for nothing in return, preferring to wander from trouble to trouble in life all on her own. She also hates the idea of wearing her combat uniform Senketsu, since he turns into such a revealing outfit to power her up, but she's "not that kind of girl" and just wants the rest of the world to leave her alone. Satsuki scoffs at all of these "childish" attitudes, turning her usual cool demeanor into a royal blue rage when she has to deal with Ryuko. Satsuki strives to be extraordinary in all aspects of life, believing that all people must fight for the right to be respected under her reign of fabulous terror. She offers all "pigs in human clothing" the opportunity to better themselves by submitting to her superiority, appointing the truly impressive amongst her subjects to her own personal guard. She has no problems exploiting the full powers of her own combat uniform Junketsu, because she believes dignity is something to be taken from the world rather than given. "If I must bear my breasts to fulfill my ambitions, I will show neither shame nor hesitation. My actions are utterly pure!" It seems like these two twisted sisters will never find common ground, but wait!

But they're the same! Sisters!? Yes, these two were separated at birth thanks to their super-villainous parents, and even though their father reformed before his death, he still had to abandon one child to his wife's evil plot in order to raise the other. While Ryuko has a heap of daddy issues to work through, Satsuki is overloaded with mommy issues of her own, so both of them must learn to embrace the bizarre and imperfect makeshift families they've made along the way instead. Ryuko might have a complex over showing the world her body, but Satsuki's the one who refuses to open up about her feelings, and both of them are strong enough to inspire dozens of eager weirdos who want to love them for who they really are. Once Ryuko lets go of her angsty loner schtick and Satsuki puts her ego aside for the sake of others, they find there's no reason they couldn't have worked together all along, even if their personalities might always get on each other's nerves like any pair of siblings.

So, Friends or Enemies in the end? After all the insanity has died down, Satsuki and Ryuko have no reason not to pick up the pieces from where they left off as sisters. Ryuko has the Mankanshokus to take care of her, Satsuki has bonded more with her Elite Four comrades, and now that they've all become friends during the final battle, everyone can live together as one big happy family (and hopefully put some damn clothes on) at last!

Berserk

Guts vs. Griffith

How did they meet? After witnessing a teenage Guts take down a heavily armored brute five times his size during a castle siege, the capricious mercenary leader Griffith decides he wants him to be part of his merry band. Guts doesn't play well with others and tells Griffith that he can kiss his ass. Unfortunately, his bad temper makes Guts very easy to goad into a duel, and Griffith demands his allegiance when he wins the battle between them. Years later, Guts can't think of any group of mercs he'd rather fight with, but Griffith's mind has wandered to other ambitions.

They're completely different! Even in his younger days, Guts was less a man and more a pile of meat, gristle, and hair with a sword twice his height on his back. He doesn't just hate small talk, he seems to dislike being obligated to use words in any situation, preferring to growl and bite and crush his way out of uncomfortable situations. His childhood was nothing but a series of terrible traumas, but it taught him to be physically strong if nothing else, so he spends his days picking fights with man and beast alike, wondering when the day will come that he can finally be killed, leaving nothing behind. Griffith is eerily angelic by contrast, with an albino complexion and ladylike features that seem to entrance everyone he meets. Even the nobility see this common-born general as competition, since he could even take the throne if he charms the right princess, but his silver tongue and excellent leadership skills always get Griffith out of the many assassination attempts on his head. His childhood was remarkably trauma-free for growing up in Midland, but above all else he remembers the dreams he attached to a crimson trinket called a Behelit he once found as a kid. An old fortune teller told baby Griffith that this pendant fated him to become king someday, and this dream has consumed him since that day, allowing him to sacrifice countless lives in the hopes of taking the throne he was promised. So what happens when the world's most ruthless general acquires a pawn who just can't seem to die?

But they're the same! Like most anime rivals, Guts and Griffith weren't looking for friendship when they found each other, but unlike in most other anime, becoming friends would be the worst thing to happen to either of them. In finding true kinship with one another, Guts's ambitions were elevated while Griffith's were lowered, allowing both of them to consider a new future for the first time, one where they fought side-by-side as equals and died in relative comfort alongside the woman they both loved. Sadly, even though both men may have needed this kind of "normal life" to be truly happy, Guts and Griffith both reject this future out of their own personal fears. Guts didn't think he was "good enough" for a happy future, while Griffith was terrified of his lofty dream crumbling into something more mundane. Because the rest of their merry band saw both Guts and Griffith as untouchable commanders, and the woman they both relied on for support couldn't choose between them, this once-beautiful friendship turned ugly real fast...

So, Friends or Enemies in the end? While most of these entries waffle between friend and enemy at different points in their lives, Guts and Griffith go from the best of friends to the worst of enemies over the course of just one terrible night. Griffith's inability to compromise his dream shatters his spirit and leads him to make one fatal mistake, subjecting him to years of torture that reduces him to a mute invalid. Seeing Guts come to his rescue as a much stronger man than even Griffith was at his peak drives him to make a literal deal with the devil, becoming a king among demons instead of a king among men and inciting a demonic Eclipse that leaves Guts disfigured and alone. (Don't ask about what happened to all his friends and especially his girlfriend.) Berserk's story is still running to this day, but I don't think these two can really make up from a falling-out that bad.

TRIGUN

Vash the Stampede vs. Nicholas D. Wolfwood

How did they meet? Vash was just another outlaw in search of his long-lost evil twin brother when he spotted a vagrant priest dying of heat exhaustion from his seat on a desert bus. As soon as this clergyman boarded the bus, Vash could tell there was something very strange about him. No one else got his sense of humor or saw through his cheerful facade as perfectly as Wolfwood, and nobody could keep pace with his marksmanship when a fight broke out before either. They have completely different philosophies when it comes to defusing a situation, but they get along like brothers for the most part. If Vash didn't know any better, he'd say Wolfwood was in the desert that day just so they could meet, and Wolfwood is eager to encourage his suspicions of divine intervention. (Unfortunately, the divine being intervening was Vash's evil brother Knives, who was blackmailing Wolfwood to befriend Vash and steer him toward Knives's machiavellian traps.)

They're completely different! While Vash is mostly ashamed of his superhuman nature and wants only to be accepted by ordinary people, Wolfwood envies it, throwing away his identity and home at the orphanage for the chance at self-destructive powers that would greatly increase his strength at the cost of his lifespan. So just like their fake friendship that accidentally became real, one of the most obvious similarities between these two (their age) is actually a huge lie. Vash is a natural superhuman who looks like he's in his twenties despite being over 130. Wolfwood is an unnatural superhuman who looks like he's in his thirties despite being at most 17. Then of course, there's the biggest difference between them: pacifism vs. pragmatism. Vash uses his invulnerability and skill with a firearm to avoid taking life at any cost to himself, because every baddie deserves a second (or third or fourth) chance. Wolfwood uses those same powers to take out any perceived threats without hesitation, opting to simply drink away the regret if he happens to kill the wrong person. Since Vash is a centenarian who refuses to grow up and Wolfwood is a teenager who never had a childhood, it's hard to believe they have anything in common at all!

But they're the same! The first thing that draws Vash and Wolfwood together is their mutual habit of covering up hardship with humor. Before Wolfwood knows that he's being set up to betray Vash, and before Vash has any idea that Wolfwood is a double agent, they can both tell that the other has been through hell and back, so they opt to pick on each other for it instead of digging any deeper. (If they had, they might have been able to team up against Knives more effectively!) They also share nearly identical standards of right and wrong, even though their problem-solving methods are completely different. Protect the innocent, keep the peace, never take more than you need in return, and enjoy the simple pleasures of life while you can. Underneath this simple life, they're both pursuing long-term missions with heavy stakes, but at least they both know how to enjoy the journey there.

So, Friends or Enemies in the end? Despite pointing guns at each other's heads an alarming number of times, Vash and Wolfwood never really want to be enemies, even when their circumstances frequently tempt them to take each other out. In the end, they just have too much mutual respect for one another to let their ideals get in the way, so they end up absorbing a little of each other's beliefs. Wolfwood dies by choosing not to kill his childhood friend in the manga (or mentor in the anime), and Vash's anguish over the loss of his friend leads to his first and only direct kill.

Code Geass

Lelouch Lamperouge vs. Suzaku Kururugi

How did they meet? As the dozenth or so kid in line to succeed his father's throne, Lelouch was pretty low on the prince ladder before being banished for insubordination, aka outrage over his mother's death, when he was still just a child. When he ended up living in Japanese prime minister Kururugi's mansion, little Lelouch didn't take to the PM's son Suzaku at first, but Suzaku's winning smile and gentle personality (okay he actually bullied the crap out of the young noble) eventually won Lelouch over. They've been close friends ever since, but Lelouch's newfound plans for revolution might just change that.

They're completely different! Lelouch may be patient, soft-spoken, and considerate on the surface, but man oh man, can he ever hold a grudge. Despite his lithe and genteel mannerisms, Lelouch's inflexibility is one of his biggest weaknesses. Once he latches onto an idea, he becomes obsessed, poring over all the details of his new mission with a level of tunnel vision that even his friends find distressing. Once you've made an enemy of Lelouch, your fate is sealed, even if it takes him years to figure out how he's going to destroy your entire life from the inside out. Suzaku is jocular and jockish by contrast, reacting on emotion and principle to the hardships in his life, but he's surprisingly more flexible than Lelouch once you get through his bullheaded reactionary instincts and offer to talk things out. He's willing to open up and make friends with people from many different walks of life, and even when he becomes the pawn of wicked tyrants in his desire for peace, his optimism and candor is more inviting than Lelouch's incensed calls to violence. Lelouch, former prince of Britannia, wants autonomy for Japan through violence, while his best friend Suzaku, son of the deceased prime minister, wants peace through submission.

But they're the same! Lofty ideals aside, both Lelouch and Suzaku's beliefs mostly seem to stem from daddy issues, leading them both to become enormous hypocrites with similar problems to their own detested dads. Lelouch's father exploited and then discarded him time and time again, so Lelouch spites his authority by supporting a rebellion force in Japan, promoting a philosophy of equality by adopting the name "Zero." Of course, this ignores the fact that Lelouch had to exploit and discard countless innocent people from his position of princely privilege to even get this far, and he doesn't seem to have much interest in the harder work of re-establishing Japan's autonomy once he's chased Brittannia out through revolution. He just wants to prove his dad wrong about him and attain some kind of justice for his mother and sister. Suzaku doesn't have to prove anything to his dad because he shot him in the face years ago, finalizing Japan's absorption into the Britannia Empire. Still, his every "peaceful" action seems to be an effort to beat down his father's defiant ghost. He willfully ignores the subjugation his people face as "Elevens" under Britannian rule, because at least it's better than being exterminated as "Japanese." He sees his acceptance into the Britannian army as a sign of progress between cultures, while many others see it as a betrayal. Long story short? Lelouch and Suzaku are both selfish children trying to impose their "protection" on a world too big for them to really handle, but at least we can understand why they're so screwed up.

So, Friends or Enemies in the end? After dozens of episodes of squabbling, both Lelouch and Suzaku are only able to retain their friendship through withered, bitter compromise. Lelouch puts himself in a position where he is forced to become his father, and Suzaku is forced to become Zero. Sacrificing themselves both for the good of the country's future, Suzaku follows Lelouch's orders to impale him on live TV. At least they'll always have those childhood camping trips!

Whew! So much pathos! So who are your favorite frenemy pairings in anime? Share your most memorable rivalries with us in the forums!


discuss this in the forum (47 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history

Feature homepage / archives

Loading next article...