One big difference between anime and other cartoons is that anime reveals just how intricate life can be. Other cartoons draw characters and situations in stark black and white, good and evil. Anime begs to differ.
Life, most of the time, is not just about two choices. Most of the time, choices are obscure, gray areas where an option would be beneficial for one but harmful to another, “good” for one and “evil” for another.
It should follow then that people should not fall under just two categories either. Anime maintains that viewers must not fall into the trap of putting characters into boxes that can be labeled neatly and pushed to one side. Just look at the supposedly villains and anti-heroes of some shows. They are more often that not, reflections of how cruel, disheartening and oftentimes, frustrating life can be. Beliefs, love and choices are just some of the confusing aspects of life that they too must blunder through.
Different people have different beliefs. Individual experiences shape these beliefs, making them unique for each person. History, however, has given evidence of how fighting for ideologies that go against an established system can be brutal.
Shifting to anime, consider the villains of two major story arcs (Kyoto and Shimabara) of Rurouni Kenshin. Makoto Shishio was the “shadow assassin” and heir to the title Hitokiri Battousai (drawn-sword assassin) after Kenshin Himura gave it up. He managed to hide his identity better than Kenshin, making sure that all his victims would be dead to reveal anything about him.
When that war was over and they no longer had use for him, the government decided to eliminate Shishio simply because they were afraid of him and of what he knew. He was shot, his body was set on fire and left to burn. Shishio managed to survive the ordeal but he swore he would bring down the Meiji government. He went on to find ten of the best warriors in Japan and organized an army with the principle: the weak should perish at the hands of the strong.
His plans were thwarted by the original Hitokiri Battousai but some say that we was the real victor in the end because Japan went on to prove that his ideal was true even before the end of the Meiji era. Japan fought China for Taiwan and then Russia for Korea in a battle for supremacy proving that the strong must defeat the weak.
Belief in a different religion has also been a source of constant struggle for some. Shogo Amakusa loved and protected the people of Shimabara peninsula against persecution because of their religious belief. Putting faith in a Christian god in a Shinto country was not only dangerous, it was also a test of how far a person will go for his conviction. Rebellious, hardships and sacrifices are all part of a life governed by trust in a mystical entity.
Belief in a cause can also be passed on from generation to generation without end. Add to that, incidents of brutality and fanatics are born.
Take into account the anti-hero of Blue Seed, Kaede Kunikida. She believed that the world had become populated with evil, unworthy humans. She believed that the Earth was too beautiful for them so she allied herself with the Susano-o to wipe out all humans and prepare the Earth for a new generation of better people.
This is also what the Dragons of Earth of the series X believed in. They thought that the current populace must be destroyed because they were polluting the Earth. They wanted an ideal society that had no wars, disease and other evil things.
Now consider the anti-heroes of Fushing Yugi. Nakago, leader of the Seiryuu shichiseishi (star warrior), was just 11 when soldiers from Katou country attacked his tribe. His mother was raped and beaten right before his eyes while everyone else he knew was murdered. Traumatized, his powers flared and he killed five of the intruders.
He survived the incident but was taken to the Emperor and served as his “plaything”. His hatred brewed until he knew nothing else but an overwhelming desire to destroy the source of all his miseries. He became cold and manipulative. Yet near the end, he also showed a human side when his lover, Soi, was killed.
Suboshi and Amiboshi, two of Nakago’s allies, also witnessed the deaths of their parents. Yet, Amiboshi fell in love with the Suzaku no Miko (priestess of Suzaku) and even sacrificed his life for her. On the other hand, Suboshi became an all-out murderer when he felt the death of his twin and thought that it was at the hands of his sworn enemies. Suboshi, however, also willingly gave up his life for the girl that he loved.
Love is more often a source of sorrow than happiness. Just look at the number of sad love songs as compared to happy ones. It is alo one of the hardest emotions to define in life. What is love? When does love end and obsession begin? If love is blind then most of the people on Earth must be blind as well.
CLAMP is a master at evoking the power of love. Zagato of Magic Knights Rayearth fought the knights with all his resources, power and will. Why? Love. He knew that the knights Emeraude summoned were fated to kill her. So he protected her even at the cost of his life.
Emeraude, on the other hand, lost her mind when her beloved Zagato was killed. She then tried to eliminate the saviors that she herself had called. But when she failed, she was still happy because finally the forbidden love that she and Zagato had for each other could finally be realized in the next life.
Sailormoon also has its own characters to contribute. Professor Tomoe, for one, just wanted his daughter a second chance at life so he offered his life and soul for that. When the evil Hotaru using the child’s voice begged him to give her the cup that she said she needed, he willingly gave it to her just to ease her pain. Nephrite, an evil general from the first season of the series, fell in love with an ordinary girl. He fought his kind and sacrificed his life just for her.
Going back to Rurouni Kenshin, Yumi sacrificed her life for her beloved Shishio-sama because she thought that it was the only thing she could do to help him.
Naria and Helia of Vision of Escaflowne also made the ultimate sacrifice for their Folken-sama. Gendo Ikari of Neon Genesis Evangelion was willing to play God and sacrifice the whole world just to be with his wife again.
Sometimes fate, that nebulous concept that seems to take pleasure in torturing everyone, takes control of lives by making people think that there is only one choice. This makes for a lot of misunderstandings, most of the time between friends and families.
Soujiro Seta of Rurouni Kenshin was abused by the family that adopted him. He was a bastard son of the head of the household and they made sure that he knew how low they thought of him. Constantly beaten, he found a way of lessening the blows by hiding behind a smiling face.
When he met Shishio, he was amazed by the power the older man possessed. When he killed his family in a fit of pure rage and terror, he cried in the rain afterwards. Many years after, he acknowledged that killing them was not what he had wanted to do. He had only wanted to feel a little love or maybe just a little approval but he had not been given the chance.
Enishi Yukishiro, main antagonist of the Revenge arc of Rurouni Kenshin, believed that his elder sister was being forced to live with the Hitokiri Battousai against her will. His mind couldn’t and wouldn’t accept that she had fallen in love with the man who had killed her fiancé.
Related: Rurouni Kenshin: Reflection (Seisou-hen)
When he saw her die by Kenshin’s hands, not knowing that she was actually protecting Kenshin, he swore vengeance for the one person in his life that he had ever loved. That was his choice as much as Tomoe, his sister, had chosen to sacrifice her life for the very same man she had initially sworn to kill.
Folken Lakur de Fanel of Escaflowne is another character who made the choice that pitted him against the one person he cherished, the very same person whom he had wanted to protect in the first place.
However, in the end, his vision of a world where his “sweet and innocent” brother could live in peace was shattered by the one person he had followed blindly. Until the very end, he still wished for his vision to come true just so his brother could be happy.
Another case in point, this time with two characters from Yu Yu Hakusho: Toguro and Sensui. Toguro believed that one must be stronger that everyone else to survive because, in his past, he witnessed some of his friends slashed to pieces by yōkai (demons) right in his house. He gave up his humanity for this belief and even killed his one-time partner just to prove his point.
Sensui, on the other hand, was a former reikai tantei (spirit world detective) who became disillusioned when the very people he was protecting turned out to be corrupt. He saw humans torturing innocent yōkai so he gave up being a detective and also turned his back on humanity. The rest of his life was spent in creating a vortex between the human world and the demon world so that the demons would obliterate all the filthy humans.
Even anime geared towards children are not hesitant to show this fact of life. In the series Flint the Time Detective, the main antagonist made life difficult for the heroes because deep inside, he was lonely. He wanted to make everyone feel his loneliness but in the end, he realized that just by making friends, his loneliness abated.
Analyzing all these characters, are all the atrocious actions of these villains justified by their tragic pasts and bad choices?
All people are ultimately responsible for their own actions. Some change for the better, some for the worse. Some just don’t change at all. Most of them die by, and for, their beliefs. But now, they seem more human, more that just bad characters tormenting the good guys. They are not really evil… just misunderstood.