The Art of the Helpless Antagonist

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.

monokuma confused

what the heck are you talking about?

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.

fav

Fav is not the most practical smartphone

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.

fav

wait…what does that mean? and how is it possible?

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.

Kyubey

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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23 Responses

  1. Kyubey is Satan’s spawn in an adorable package. That’s why we love him.

  2. AK says:

    A cute character model can go a long way towards making an antagonist likeable. I’m also thinking of the Zero bunny from Virtue’s Last Reward, if you’ve played that game. Very similar role to Monokuma.

  3. Dawnstorm says:

    I feel Fav is by far the weakest link, here. Monokuma (to this anime-only watcher) always felt like an interface of the place. The colour scheme, friendly-white and sinister-black, contains a deliberate irony. His cuteness is one of mockery – his design makes you feel like the people who made this place look down on the trapped kids. And with the hope-vs.-despair theme, this isn’t unlike really depressed people can look at your “naive” attempt to cheer them up. Monokuma is thematically consistent, IMO, and very effective in the role he has to fulfill.

    Fav? He has that white-black design, too, but I couldn’t really feel any thematic resonance in it, and with the final reveal it felt even less purposeful. In a sense, I feel, Fav is the point where the evil mascot turns into a cliché, with unreflected design elements copied and simplified. I might be missing stuff, here.

    Kyubey’s white is the white of purity. He’s completely devoted to his job; he’s the ultimate beaurocrat. Ask him the right questions, and he’ll give you the information you want; don’t ask and he’ll give you the information that suits his cause. That is: the colour-coding, the white, stays appropriate all through the show. There’s a rare purity in his devotion to what he considers the “greater good” (we never meet the once you sent him) that remains there. But it’s the sort of purity that rejects most of our core-values as corruption. You can’t argue with Kyubey, you can’t plead with him. There are things he doesn’t understand, and you get the idea that he only cares in so far as it effects his job. The sort of fledgling villain that’s capable to ask you to teach him about emotion so he can better deceive you, as if life’s a formalised competition. If others don’t know the rules that’s none of his concern.

    Kyubey is a lot like a heavenly messager. There’s a Clamp show, called Kobato. It’s a bit of a messy show, and I’m told the manga makes more sense, but there are parallells to Kyubey in the heavenly bunny messenger that comes down every now and then to pass on information encoded in flowers. It’s a cute thing, silent, and literally nothing but a messanger. But it’s also unyielding – there are strict rules, and the options you have are all there is. Unlike Kyubey, this heavenly bunny isn’t even a character. It only shows up to deliver messages, and disappears. Unmoved by pleas (and not in charge anyway), there’s the same sense of playing by the rules, I got from Kyubey. That’s who Kyubey reminded me most of. The heavenly bunny, though, was really not an antagonist. By the end of the show I was still not quite sure what’s been going on, and it’s been a while (longer than Madoka) since I saw it, so I’m not quite sure what the conflict actually was – I think the show didn’t have a personified antagoinist, and our protagonist seems to have been caught in something bigger as collateral damage, and there was a sense of this-and-no-more to the heavenly bunny’s messages.

    By giving Kyubey a similar function, but a more mundane faction, and more of a personality (which he mostly reveals when he’s being smug or surprised), you also sort of have to feel for him. He’s basically an expandable beaurocrat; it seems it’s cheaper to replace him (or store body-backups for a decentralised mind? Can he be in two places at once?) than to protect him.

  4. Scott says:

    One series I think you should check out is Bokurano, because there is another one of these characters in there that just reeks of pure hatred and despair.

    And great post, Irina. Kyubey is complex in how it acts and feels. Seeing him eat himself was scary as hell because of the way he was portrayed. Though I admit I don’t know the other two characters.

  5. Kyubey has always been a fascinating character. There was always something there that amde me think, “you’re so cute in every way, there has to be a downside.” Even when you start to really feel like Kyubey is the clear antagonist, at least in terms of the girls’ personal arcs, it’s still hard not to like him. It really does make him something special, I think.
    Danganronpa, I still haven’t seen though.

    • lealea477 says:

      You could argue that Kyubey has no character, which is what makes him sinister.
      He’s not really the antagonist, he technically doesn’t do anything wrong: He gives them what they want, and in exchange he gets what he wants (it’s the girls fault for expecting something big for free).
      It all comes down to whether you look at it from an emotional point of view or a logical one.
      They sold there souls, the devil collects his payment.

      • lealea477 says:

        But you could easily hake the argument that is is targeting girls who are valuable to his contracts.

      • Oh, I agree in terms of him not technically doing wrong in terms of making a trade. For me, he’s the antagonist because he intentionally doesn’t give full details unless asked. He’s a manipulator with the goal of harvesting what he needs, designed to play villain because its the magical girls that suffer (due to his manipulation) and they’re the heroes.

        • lealea477 says:

          There not really heroes.
          They harvest the sadness of other witches (grown up magical girls) to sustain the selfish wishes.
          All magical girls are inherently evil.
          Madoka is only good because of Homura (let’s not get into the web of madness).
          *positive energy/negative energy*

        • lealea477 says:

          sorry got my word backwards: magical girls fill witches with there sadness to keep themselves happy/pure.

      • Irina says:

        Oh I agree, as a narrative construct he’s the catalyst element for conflict which is why I think his plot role is the antagonist of this particular story. Not saying he’s a villain though.

    • Irina says:

      Kyubey is the best at this archetype by far

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