Anime increasingly presents morally gray characters who walk the line between hero and villain. These villains felt they were doing the right thing.
Villainy often feels easy to define, but heroism can be trickier. Most people acknowledge that a villain is someone who harms others, often for their own gain, and often without empathy. But what makes a great hero, especially in modern fiction?
In recent years, anime has really delved into more gray areas. Many protagonists might see themselves as heroic but have blindspots anyone in the audience can see clearly. While some heroes are in the wrong from the very start, others go astray along the way, ultimately becoming something closer to antagonists.
10: Emi Thinks Maou Must Die, But The Audience Doesn’t Agree (The Devil Is A Part-Timer)
In any other context, Emi would be a clear-cut hero. In fact, she was the hero who defeated the Demon King, forcing him to retreat to an alternate world. In The Devil Is A Part-Timer, she follows her nemesis, the Demon King Maou, to modern Japan in an attempt to finish him off for good.
The thing is, Maou is actually the likable series protagonist, an unexpected underdog worth rooting for as he navigates a new world and the trials of working at a fast-food restaurant. Emi is the good guy on paper but loses her purpose when the story’s flipped on its head. Even she knows she can’t kill the Demon King under these strange new circumstances, and grows fond of him herself.
9: Lady Eboshi Vouches For Humanity, But Not The World (Princess Mononoke)
Lady Eboshi is a great character, as many Ghibli characters are. But much of her greatness is tied up in her moral ambiguity. The thing is, most people in the world can relate to Lady Eboshi. She’s the settler trying to tame the wild, a leader trying to protect her people from the dangers their living environment presents.
While it’s not fair to call Lady Eboshi a villain, she’s cast that way in contrast with San and the forests in Princess Mononoke. More than anything, Lady Eboshi is a cautionary tale, warning mankind to beware industrialization.
8: Koga Almost Slaughtered An Entire Village (Inuyasha)
If John Wick has taught us nothing else, the franchise has at least taught us this much: mess with a man’s dog and expect profound retribution. There aren’t many people who wouldn’t go berserk after a beloved animal comes to violent harm. Even so, Koga’s backstory is questionable.
As the leader of a yokai wolf tribe, wolves are Koga’s family, not his pets. While Koga is stealing a shard from another wolf-demon, he sets his wolves on the innocent villagers, indifferent to their slaughter. If not for Inuyasha, the devastation would have been truly horrific, and yet Koga is played off in the show as if he’s a friendly rival.
7: Scar Feels Justified, But He Kills Good People (Fullmetal Alchemist)
Scar certainly has his reasons to resent State Alchemists. As a refugee of the devastating Ishvalan War that decimated his homeland, he has only ever known State Alchemists as monstrous weapons of destruction. He watched characters like Kimblee set entire villages alight, laughing all the while, while fan-favorite characters like Roy Mustang and Riza Hawkeye were complicit in the genocide. Who could blame Scar for wanting to kill every last State Alchemist in the country?
And yet Scar’s characterization is a testament to Arakawa’s amazing writing skill. Because the audience sees the story primarily from the perspective of young alchemists, Scar initially seems like a villain. It’s all about perspective and growth. Fortunately, these characters are capable of that.
6: Thorfinn Realizes He Must Change His Ways (Vinland Saga)
Thorfinn eventually becomes a fantastic heroic character, but his journey to that point is an especially rough one. Though his father, Thors, raised his son in the hopes he could live a pacifistic life, those dreams are destroyed when Thors is slain by a band of Viking mercenaries right before his son’s eyes. Thereafter, Thorfinn becomes hellbent on vengeance.
He joins the same mercenary band that killed his father, hoping one day to defeat its leader, Askeladd. He spends his entire childhood killing hundreds of people without pause, only to feel the weight of those deaths after revenge fails to make him happy. Vinland Saga is a story of redemption, but season one is mostly a tragedy.
5: Lelouch Vi Britannia Is A Despot (Code Geass)
Lelouch Vi Britannia is among the most divisive of anime protagonists. While Lelouch sees his quest for vengeance against his tyrannical father as justified, the lengths he goes to in order to accomplish personal goals, often at the expense of other people, makes him a questionable hero at best, and a despot at worst.
Lelouch frequently abuses his Geass, his ability to force others to obey his commands. He kills his half-sister, starts a world war, and finally ends up mistakenly killing his own mother while attempting to avenge her. While Lelouch claims he’s liberating mankind, the lack of nuance in his characterization and the sheer number of basic tropes used to define him make him easy to condemn.
4: Eren Yeager Is Okay With Genocide (Attack On Titan)
Eren Yeager will remain one of anime’s most popular controversial protagonists for years to come. While Eren has never been an easy hero to love, fans are clearly divided about his choices and his fate now that Attack on Titan‘s manga has drawn to a close. Eren was plainspoken about his ambitions from the very get-go: he wanted to absolutely kill all the Titans. And while that goal has shifted as the truth of the Titans has become known, his zealotry hasn’t dimmed.
Isayama never cast Eren as a good person. Even as a child, he brutally murdered two men and felt no remorse afterward. This feels a lot like very dark foreshadowing, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Eren’s final decisions are arguably despicable.
3: Tenma’s Self-Righteousness Leads To Murder (Monster)
To be fair, accidental villainy is more or less the foundation of Monster. Upon making a fateful decision to save a child instead of the mayor, neurosurgeon Kenzo Tenma experiences a gut-crushing fall from grace. He loses his fiancée, his job, and his future. Who can blame Tenma when he expresses his fury and wishes death on those who ruined his life?
But most wishes don’t come true like this, and Tenma’s momentary thought becomes a reality when the boy he saved overhears his bitter wish and kills those who betrayed the surgeon.
2: Sasuke Can’t See The Forest For The Trees (Naruto)
Sasuke’s struggles and melodrama in Naruto are the stuff of anime legend, but it’s hard not to relish his characterization. Born in a clan dead-set on domination, raised in part by a brother who later decimated that clan to save Konoha village, Sasuke may have been doomed from the get-go. Even so, misinformation does wonders, and Sasuke believed for many years that his brother, Itachi, killed their people without reason.
While Sasuke’s decision to defect from Konoha makes some kind of sense, his decision to join the clearly evil Orochimaru is harder to get behind. Later, when he learns the truth, he still can’t grow up and decides instead that he wants to destroy Konoha, too.
1: Light Yagami Is A Serial Killer (Death Note)
Light Yagami’s god-complex is infamous among anime protagonists, and “protagonist” isn’t the right word. Morally as gray as they come, Light’s attempts to impart his own ruthless form of justice on the world by killing those he views as harmful to society is ham-fisted, to say the least.
With every name Light writes in the Death Note, his ego grows more unmanageable. However, what makes Light a memorable lead is the way his story arc makes perfect sense with his character, and he gets precisely the ending he deserves.