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.
27 thoughts on “The Art of the Helpless Antagonist”
It’s been awhile again, and I just craved reading your reviews.
I have never seen any of these except for Danganropa (which I didn’t care for).
I really want to check out the other two you mentioned though.
I like how in Japanese anime, the heroes and villains are less likely to be 2D in personality- not always the case, but it is nice to see.
This is going off of a rabbit trail (as I am so wonderful at doing), but this article reminded me of some of the styles of Harajuku and this one Youtube video I watched about “the Dark Side of Harajuku”
It covers some darker themes in it, but it lightly touches on the play between darkness and cuteness and why this may be appealing. It doesn’t dig as deep as it could, but I think the goal was to do a brief intro on the subject.
I read this wonderful article once on the history of Kawaii as well…. lemmee see if I still have the link saved….
やった！ “From Hello Kitty to Cod Roe Kewpie: A Postwar Cultural History of Cuteness in Japan”
I have read a lot of articles since then on Japanese culture and かわいい, but so far this one is the one I keep going back to. It touches briefly on the history of kawaii (not as in depth as it could… I read somewhere else, that かわいい originated way before the 1970s.
It is still an amazing read and one that made me a little more aware of how marketing, fashion, art and music all affects one another as well as our society at large.
I hope that you give the article a read! Hehehe- in all your spare time, right?
Once again, thanks for providing some interesting concepts to munch on and making me feel like I was still munching on anime, despite the fact that I haven’t watched any in a month now. :`(
I love your posts!
Loved the article Irina. This trope is actually fascinating. It actually reminds me of my religious upbringing funnily enough. My folks would always tell me demons would actually be the cutest things you have ever seen.
It also allows for a new dynamic between the villain and the hero. It’s not about beating the villain physically anymore but morally or intellectually. It’s much more interesting.
Moreover I think it brings a pretty scary point about cuteness with how easily it bends people’s perception of things. You brought up that Madoka kept cuddling Kyube even after the reveal. How inhumane corporations can have the fluffiest mascot, how we forgive people more if they’re good looking or look fragile. Moe is the face of evil ya’ll
It really is an interesting archetype. I have no religious background but I’m always fascinated haring about it and for some reason the idea of adorable demons sounds really logical(?). Of course they’d be cute
Monokuma’s my fave out of these three monochromatic menaces, but wow, that is a really nice piece of art.
My brain did in an ouchie when I got reccomended the sams article from a year ago! I ended up reading both.
Not sure Monokuma is helpless , he has claws but I can see the appeal. He feels very right for Junko as well.. I dont think Monokuma ever had the chance go be subtle..even outside Hopes Peak you can kinda see he is two faced.
I do not know why but Kyubey always kinda ticked me off .. I never really liked the fella! I might find it a bit cold but can’t put my finger on it. In the Danganrompa games I felt connect to Monokuma.. and The mono kids.. Kyubey while adorable felt kind of peacocky to me.
It might be a bit to perfect.. or to distant.
The way monakma teases people with silly shorts , personalises executions , there is a certain thing of engagement in it. There is s twisted form of a bond. While both kind of want you to despair, Monokuma takes a more active role in getting you there.
In his way..even if a toy.. he cares. So in turn I find him more adorable xD
Kyubey displays cat traits, while monokuma is more in the dog side of the spectrum, fav being more..”a bird” and I am a dog person.
Yeah, Monokuma does have some defences at his disposal. I don’t remember if he had the claws in the first game but he always had weapons. Monokuma was the exposition device of Danganronpa, actually Kyubei was as well however Monokuma is heavily anthropomorphised. He’s almost like a bear shaped person. I think that makes him more directly relatable. Kyubei is more like a pet, very little humanity to be seen and he remains very enigmatic. There’s no desires and motivations that can be recognized as human so I figure that makes him much less like someone you know or might meet. I sort of prefer animals to people I guess. Yeah that sounds about right…
Maybe that is it indeed. I still would take Monokuma home rather than Kyubei!
I kinda expected you to prefer animals over people! I just thought you would be more of a bird kind of person.
I’m actually a big furry doofus sort of person. Bears and wolves and huge shaggy dogs. Hyenas are actually my favourite animal.
So first I imagined you as a gothic loli baby metal member calling a crow your baby, but now I feel like you are more like Harley Quinn xD the plot tickens!
I pretty much agree with your article. It might be worth noting that, among the three, Fav is the only one who’s actually antagonistic to our main characters out of his own motivation. Both Monokuma and Kyubey fulfill the function that they’re given. I think of Monokuma as a game show host and of Kyubey as a government official.
Kyubey really is a stroke of genius; by far the most memorable character in Madoka. (A stroke the current Madoka spin-off can’t quite replicate.)
I don’t know, Fav is programmed, I always figured he was just fulfilling his function as an app. But he’s the least memorable of the three so I have to admit, the details are getting fuzzy
As far as I remember, the game wasn’t supposed to be a death game, but Fav turned it into one on his own, after encountering Cranberry. I might misremember. I think Fav would have been in trouble if the Faeries caught on to him.
Hmm it’s possible. I figured Cranberry programed him. I was under the impression tat fav is not sentient but I could be wrong
Hm, I never considered this. It’s possible. Snow White’s power activated on him, though.
What a wild coincidence – I just started watching MGRP yesterday and then I saw your post. Serendipitous! 😛
Great minds watch the same anime.
I want to be a helpless antagonist when I grow up.
And you just might be
I wonder what Danganronpa V4 is going to be about since Kodaka stated that he is still going to be working with them just like how Uchoski is still going to be involved in the Nonary games visual novel series since they are now part of indie studio along with the composer of the series and artists from Danganronpa. Plus Kodaka and Uchoski does want to move past the killing game theme and bring something new to work on.
I really don’t think Monokuma could ever be truly killed at all so long as there is despair in the world he’s always going to find ways to make everyone miserable and that joke about the suffering of others.
Since Monokuma is a prop I agree, he can’t be killed.
The most dangerous enemy is the one within your own camp.
It’s a difficult balance to write
I love Danganronpa. Monokuma is one of my faves. His sass and malevolence and overall joy at executing people are so fantastic. I’ve never seen Madoka or Magical Girl though, but you make them sound really interesting. Will add them to my watchlist. 🙂
Kyubei is the best – I stand by it