Thought-Provoking Anime Villains You Might Not Have Heard Of
One of anime’s biggest claims to fame is probably the number of excellent villains associated with it. The best anime villains are noted for being not only fearsome and engaging, but thought-provoking in their philosophies and motivations, raising disturbing questions that haunt the viewers’ minds long after their stories end.
Some of these villains, like Light Yagami, Legato Bluesummers, and Makoto Shishio, will be instantly recognizable to even most casual anime fans. However, many other villains haven’t achieved the same level of widespread popularity. Those fans fortunate enough to know them, however, get left with plenty to think about and enjoy.
Clair Leonelli (Heat Guy J)
After his father dies under mysterious circumstances, Clair takes over his role as “Vampire,” the leader of the criminal underworld in Judoh, the postapocalyptic city in which Heat Guy J takes place. Unfortunately, years of abuse at his father’s hands have left him with serious anger issues, which he takes out on just about anyone who crosses him. He’ll throw hand grenades at his father’s grave and shove them into people’s mouths, attempt to blow up trucks, and set the sewer system on fire, among other things. Most of his activities are focused on making life miserable for detective Daisuke Aurora, whose line of work frequently requires him to put a stop to Clair’s evil schemes.
All of this may seem fairly standard for an anime villain, but Clair is much more than your typical mentally-unstable crime boss for two major reasons. For one thing, as outlandish as many of his behaviors are, the series makes it clear that he does not see them that way. The other characters may react negatively to his antics, but he still carries on as if they were perfectly normal. He comes across as more restrained and realistic than other mentally-troubled villains in many series, and therefore easier to take seriously.
The other reason why Clair is so interesting is that he isn’t defined entirely by his mental-health struggles. It’s true that his anger issues cause him problems and are a big aspect of why he’s a villain, but he has other personality traits as well, and his character arc does not revolve entirely around his mental illness. In fact, he’s even depicted as redeemable, to a certain extent: although he’ll probably never live a truly normal life or completely get rid of his anger problems, he does at least learn to become wiser about his targets and schemes, and later on in the series he even teams up with Daisuke to address a mutual enemy.
Furuichi Teraoka (Xam’d: Lost Memories)
Most anime villains are pretty easy to recognize as villains. Not this one. At the beginning of Xam’d: Lost Memories, Furuichi seems like a perfectly ordinary, sweet high-school student, who enjoys doing martial arts and hanging out with his two best friends, Akiyuki and Haru. Everything changes, however, when a terrorist sets off an explosion on their school bus, and their home of Sentan Island is dragged into a hellish war. To make matters worse, one of their friends, Akiyuki, is transformed into a monster known as a Xam’d, and then disappears. Furuichi, along with Haru, enlists in the army in order to help out with the war effort, but the stresses of their new situation–and his jealousy over Haru, who is in love with Akiyuki–eventually cause him to spiral into a deep depression and lash out at everyone he once cared about, with ultimately tragic consequences. His casual sexism–an unfortunate but understandable consequence of living in a patriarchal society–grows steadily more virulent over time; his desire to protect his friends, and Haru in particular, eventually turn into possessiveness and obsession. In the end, although he was not responsible for the war he faces, he ends up paying the price for it.
One of the things that Xam’d: Lost Memories does very well is play with the audience’s expectations in how the characters’ relationships unfold, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the relationship between Furuichi and his friends. Most anime go out of their way to present friendships, especially long-term friendships, as essentially indestructible and capable of withstanding any amount of hardship. By contrast, Furuichi’s relationship with his childhood friends is irretrievably damaged by the difficulties that they face, largely on account of issues, like Furuichi’s aforementioned crush on Haru, that might have never mattered if their lives had remained peaceful. Furuichi’s story thus serves as a particularly poignant illustration of how even fundamentally decent people can become villains in the right sort of circumstances. There may be no other character in Xam’d: Lost Memories more complex and dynamic than him, but there is also probably no other that’s as controversial. Most people who watch the series conclude that he is either deeply tragic or scum, with little to no in-between.
Noein (Noein: To Your Other Self)
Noein may be the most underrated of all the world-destroying bad guys. This horrifying humanoid abomination is hell-bent on destroying the entire universe so that there may be no more suffering. To accomplish this, he attempts to kidnap the heroine, Haruka, in order to use her powers to manipulate space and time to his own ends. Once Noein was an ordinary young man, but after he lost his lover in a car crash, the grief he felt, combined with his growing awareness of the suffering in the world, slowly drove him insane.
What makes Noein such an effective villain is the way he manages to be both terrifying and pathetic at the same time, in roughly equal measure. Although his scheme is devastating in its ramifications, his motive for carrying it out is ultimately somewhat petty: grieving may be hard, but it isn’t worth destroying the universe over. This discrepancy might have been annoyingly melodramatic, except that the series seems to be aware of it, and contrasts Noein with numerous other characters who are either implied or stated to have lost someone close to them as well. Whatever these other characters’ problems, they don’t sink to the depths of nihilistic despair that Noein does, and most fight against him when given the opportunity to do so.
Furthermore, since Noein exists far into the future of Haruka and her friends’ lives, there is no way to kill him by conventional means. All they can do is vow that they will never become like him, no matter how bad things get. However, Noein’s ominous last words at the end of the series, “You will all be back to this dimension again,” suggest that they will need to remain vigilant in order to avoid slipping into the despair that drove him to do evil in the first place.
Incidentally, Noein also bears a striking resemblance to Cyrus, the villain from the Pokemon Platinum video game, which came out not long after the Noein anime premiered in Japan 1. The characters share so many details of their life history and motives, in fact, that Cyrus could have been written specifically with Noein in mind.
Satyajit Shyamalan (Birdy the Mighty: Decode)
If Light Yagami and Legato Bluesummers had a baby, and left that baby to be raised by the aforementioned Noein, this is who he would grow up to be. This crafty young business executive is chasing down an alien super weapon known as the Ryunka, under the belief that he alone can control it. He intends to use the weapon to wipe out the entire human race except for him and anyone else he’s willing to accept as equally special, a group he describes as “the chosen.”
It’s noteworthy that, in a series full of alien terrorists and criminals with a wealth of special abilities between them, a perfectly ordinary human like Shyamalan manages to be the most terrifying villain of all. Even some of the aliens are bothered by his casual disregard for human life. The first season is peppered with scenes in which Gomez, a member of an alien terrorist organization, attempts to dissuade Shyamalan from investigating the Ryunka, and he even passes crucial information to Birdy, the series’ heroine, to aid in her mission to stop him.
As monstrous as he is, though, he’s not two-dimensional. For example, there is some evidence that he may have a softer or more benevolent side, most notably in a scene where he takes in a baby whose house had been destroyed in an explosion. He also shows some genuine concern and sympathy for Sayaka, the granddaughter of his business partner, although it doesn’t much help that she’s only sixteen and he’s at least ten years older than her. He shows that very evil villains do not have to be one-note stereotypes.
Shyamalan also adds a fascinating layer to the racism parable that underpins Birdy the Mighty: Decode. In this world, aliens are organized in a racial hierarchy, in which those that resemble animals–such as dogs, frogs, or bugs–seem to represent white people, and humans and human-looking aliens represent people of color. Aliens describe Earth in terms eerily similar to those used by white Westerners to talk about third- and fourth-world countries. In that context, Shyamalan, who is the human most of the aliens make contact with, functions as a sort of third-world dictator or tyrant king, manipulating the media and sacrificing his countrymen for his own gain.
Drosselmeyer (Princess Tutu)
Drosselmeyer, of Princess Tutu fame, is a storyteller who specializes in violent and tragic fairy tales. The problem is, his stories have a tendency to come true. Drosselmeyer is officially supposed to be dead before the main action of the plot even begins, but he still appears in spirit to whisper taunts and, occasionally, advice to Duck, the story’s heroine. He also has an heir, several generations removed from him, in the form of a boy named Fakir, whom Duck develops a relationship with as she attempts to give her story a happier ending.
The intriguing thing about Drosselmeyer is that he doesn’t seem to have much real evil intent. He’s simply following the advice given to every author at some point: namely, to put one’s characters through hardship in order to show the audience what they’re made of. His fascination with sad endings might seem morbid, but it’s in keeping with the zeitgeist of popular culture, in which, for instance, Shakespeare’s tragedies are far more popular and easily recognizable than his comedies, and the cosmic horror series Madoka Magica is popular in part because it subverts many of the innocent tropes associated with the magical girl genre. On some level, everyone who writes or tells stories can probably relate to him at least a little bit.
Drosselmeyer also stands out as the most mysterious character on this list. He’s an old man in every scene where he appears, and the series never reveals anything about his childhood or any of his formative life experiences, although Fakir’s existence implies that he must have had some kind of family life at some point. As such, the audience is left to speculate where his fascination with sad stories came from. Was he abandoned or abused as a child, or did someone close to him die? Alternatively, perhaps he led a perfectly normal life until his stories started coming true, which might have happened when he was already pretty old. It’s never explained.
Tatsumi, one of the most openly villainous characters in a series noted for its moral ambiguity, is a jinrou–or werewolf–who serves as a butler and bodyguard for the Kirishiki family of vampires. After they move into Kanemasa, a mysterious old mansion on the outskirts of the town of Sotoba, Tatsumi immediately starts introducing himself to the unsuspecting townsfolk, hoping to convince them to let the vampires inside their homes so they can suck them dry. He’s also responsible for retrieving any vampires who rise from the dead and introducing them to life as a Shiki, or “corpse demon.” Once they’ve acclimatized to their new “lives,” he gives them orders about which humans to attack next. Despite his immense power, and the fact that he can go out in the daylight, he remains loyal to Sunako, the head of the Kirishiki family, and protects her from harm throughout the series.
Although Tatsumi looks like a standard meathead–and is indeed one of the most physically powerful characters in the series–his most dangerous weapon is his ability to manipulate others. He acts friendly, pleasant, and goofy to the townsfolk in Sotoba at first, but only until they let their guard down and invite him into their homes. Once they become Shiki and he has them in his clutches, he maintains control over them through threats and intimidation, breaking down their resistance to killing any way he can. For instance, when a wimpy social outcast named Masao becomes a Shiki, Tatsumi seems genuinely interested in him at first, telling him he’s special for becoming a Shiki and welcoming him to join their family. However, when Masao seems reluctant to drink blood, Tatsumi steamrolls right past his objections by threatening to drag him out into the sunlight or jam a stake through his heart. How much he enjoys mentally torturing the other characters remains difficult to discern, but the effect is the same in any case: under his tutelage, the Shiki very quickly learn to accept drinking the blood of humans until they die as something they must inevitably do.
His initial persona as a lovable goofball is so effective even some fans seem to have been taken in by it. In the meager fandom channels that exist, fans have said much about how he is cute, funny, or hot, and how silly his hair and clothes are, but relatively little about how he is, in fact, an extremely dangerous bad guy. The irony is that this is exactly the view that Tatsumi wants the characters in the series to have of him, and it’s why he’s able to do so much damage. Like most of Shiki, he looks weird and offbeat at first, only to turn deadly serious in the blink of an eye.
Genkaku Azuma (Deadman Wonderland)
Genkaku Azuma, one of several major bad guys in the world of Deadman Wonderland, is the leader of the Undertakers, a group of secret police who keep order amongst the Deadmen using brutal violence. He stands out as the deadliest non-superpowered character in the series, and he’s still way up there even taking the villains with superpowers into account. He believes that life is nothing but pain and misery, and therefore the only end to suffering is death. Once a gentle and peace-loving teenager, he gave up on life after enduring vicious abuse and losing his only friend at the time–a stray cat–in a massive earthquake. He’s been a murderer ever since.
Although he at first seems like nothing more than a gleeful sadist, Genkaku actually possesses tremendous depth and complexity. Depending on the situation, he can be over-the-top or subtle, sympathetic or monstrous. He can commit acts of unspeakable evil–such as murdering a pregnant woman and attempting to brainwash her mentally-ill widower into killing all his friends–and somewhere, a fan will still cry for him.
For example, the available evidence suggests that deep down, Genkaku does not enjoy living in Deadman Wonderland or being an Undertaker nearly as much as he first appears to. At one point, when he kidnaps some of the other prisoners who are trying to escape, he gleefully broadcasts to their friends that he plans to have them gang-raped, but does not go through with it even when he has the opportunity. Later, when some of the Deadmen finally succeed in cornering him, he expresses his confusion and resentment that they still cling to life after everything they’ve suffered and calls himself a saint for murdering people. He seems to be begging them to understand his point of view. By all indications, as effective as he is at performing his job, he doesn’t like it very much.
The most depressing thing about his story, though, is that it didn’t have to be this way. Unlike the other named Undertakers, who kill because it’s the only thing they’ve ever known, Genkaku became a murderer of his own free will. As awful as his abusers were, he did not have to kill them, and if he hadn’t done so, perhaps he could have grown up to be a very different sort of person. The audience is left to wonder “what if”–what if someone, even one person, had stood up for him or protected him when he most needed it? And what could he have done if he hadn’t gone evil? As capable and determined as he is, maybe he could have done tremendous good. For all these reasons he stands out as, very possibly, one of the most tragic anime villains ever conceived.
- “Cyrus.” Bulbapedia, Bulbagarden, 12 June 2019. Retrieved 4 September 2019 from https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Cyrus ↩
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