A while ago I came across this little piece of fan art I absolutely love!
It’s great right. It may speak to some dark twisted nature deep in me, but Danganronpa, Magical Girl Raising Project and Madoka also happen to be 3 of my favorite franchises. I’m probably the only person in the world who puts Madoka in third place mind you. However, to me Kyubey is heads and shoulders above the other two cute mascot figurehead antagonists. I’ve never actually taken the time to figure out why before.
You know, there’s a delicate art to creating a villain. I think in many ways, it can be more difficult than crafting a hero. And this particular subset of villains is even trickier. First, the impact of the character comes in the deceit they bring except there’s no real betrayal.
The point is that these characters are straightforward and open in their intentions from the very beginning, it’s our fault (and the hero’s faults) for assuming certain things and not asking the right questions. This is where we loose Monokuma. He is so insistently “evil” from the second we meet him that there’s no chance for reveal. Without that shock, the character remains just a touch less memorable. It may be a cheap trick but even an ok twist makes people remember you better. And that still works when the twist isn’t a twist at all.
The second trait these guys share, and the reason they are even better able to fool the audience in the first place is a subversion of expectations on a design level. I was going to call it gap moe but then I was politely explained that gap moe is a gap between expectations and delivery that creates *cuteness*, this would be the opposite. It destroys the cuteness that is there. Gap antimoe? Antimoe is fun to say. Can you imagine what I’m like in a real conversation? It’s a wonder anyone talks to me more than once!
Back on track. Kyubey, Fav and even Monokuma are cute. They are designed to look like stuffed toys or little animals. All are fairly compact and can be carried around. All are designed with rounded innocent looking features and appear generally helpless on their own. This is an aesthetic we see in character design a lot and so it comes with some built in assumptions. When used on “animal” sidekick characters those assumptions are enhanced further.
This is where Kyubey really shines. Beyond his adorable, and I would figure highly marketable pokemon design, Kyubey is voiced and mostly animated impeccably to give the effect needed. Both Fav and Monokuma are in fact machines. They move in a slightly stiff and very deliberate way. It blocks us from bonding with them quite in the same way and lightly reminds us that they are *things*. When they are attacked, they get *damaged* or even broken. But there’s a sense of replaceable commodity.
Kyubey is alive. His movements are fluid, occasionally rushed at other times hesitant. He isn’t as precise, he has certain ticks. When Kyubey is in danger, he gets injured and it’s heart wrenching. Seeing the suffering little form visibly struggle to move forward. You can feel the pain. Even after learning his true nature, even after finding out there are several versions of him and he is also completely replaceable, my heart still ached when I saw him beat up and hurt. You can’t separate the implied pain in Kyubey so you still want to protect him.
It’s crazy. He is an unrepentant antagonist (there’s an argument about grey morality here but it muddies my present point so I will put it aside for later). The important bond the character has to form with the audience is best served by Kyubey’s design and presentation. It leaves fans in that constant dilemma of instinctively wanting to take care of something small, weak and harmless looking and wanting to destroy a proven treath.
However, to me the most interesting part of this particular archetype, is how to maintain the menace of these types of characters. Inherently, they serve as messengers of sorrow. They simply represent a dreadful situation but aren’t directly responsible for it. Moreover, they are in fact generally helpless. Monokuma Has some defenses at his disposal in the forms of weapons or traps throughout the school but that’s about it. If our heroes turn on them, they don’t stand much of a chance, as has been explicitly shown in each series. Yet it’s their presence that’s responsible for maintaining the tense atmosphere.
Actually it goes beyond that. Danganronpa is a dark comedy but the other two are mostly drama. In practice all three of these stories use their evil mascots in very similar ways. They are a source of conflict and menace, they are a representation of an unknown or abstract “evil” but their also used for levity and even comfort all the way through the the series. These characters are responsible for the bit of direct humor such grim stories can incorporate. They are often the voice of reason. Cruel and uncaring reason but reason nonetheless. They are also the main source of information for both the characters and the audience, as such we want them around. They’re the only ones who can tell us what’s really going on.
The characters have to be written band designed to be tested, hated, pitied, and liked. We have to want to simultaneously defeat and save them. To get away from them and seek them out. That’s a pretty tall order. And in my opinion, only Kyubey truly succeeds. Fav is never developed enough to form a true attachment. He remains a cute smartphone as far as I’m concerned with all the impact that has. Monokuma is not nuanced enough and becomes more of a caricature than anything else. Sadly he may be the weakest element in Danganronpa.
Kyubey keeps everything in perfect balance. I understood why Madoka kept sharing her bedroom with him even after everything, or rather I never questioned it. I perfectly agreed with Himora’s reasoning but flinched every time the little guy got cut. Kyubey is a feat of storyline crafting and perfect proof that your villain doesn’t need to be oppressively evil or overwhelmingly powerful to be a very effective antagonist.