My Top 5 Anime Anti-Heroes

I loves me an anti hero… I think… Turns out there’s no real solid definition of an anti hero. It’s essentially a hero that exhibits non heroic traits but doesn’t fall into villainy. However as what makes a heroic or non heroic trait sort of changes from one culture and one era to the next, the exact same character could be considered a hero at one time then an anti hero then back again with no actual change to their character. Like all marvel super hero are sort of non conformist wise guys and that’s heroic now but would even the current Captain America would have been considered an anti-hero a couple of decades ago.

So this list is pretty much arbitrary and I’m feeling around for what would be considered non-heroic traits by comparing to majority of anime I’ve seen. Ok, now that I’ve spelled it out it does seem like a really useless list but.. I really like anti-heroes and I want to make a list of them…. And here it is!

Vegeta

5. Vegeta (Dragon Ball et al.)

Ok, so we’re starting off easy. Vegeta does get introduced into the series as an antagonist so it was normal for him to have some less admirable qualities. Such as being a super arrogant, full of himself, brutal jerk. The thing is, even after his face turn he doesn’t change those particular traits all that much. And that’s what makes him awesome.

The series really needed a character like Vegeta to balance out the blinding goodness and let’s call it innocence of main man Goku and I always thought the two were really fun together. Falling in love and having his own family may have softened the Saiyan prince a little but he keeps just enough of his edge to make him not quite your typical hero.

Alucard

4. Alucard (Hellsing)

In a way you could say that Hellsing has no heroes in it. I ran into a similar problem when thinking of including Berserk in this list somewhere. But Alucard is the closest thing to a hero and he’s an irredeemable bloodthirsty monster. Literally. It seems particularly pointless to list the less heroic traits of a centuries old vampire who survives on the blood of others and takes pure joy in murder and destruction, so instead let me try to find the few qualities that stop him from being an outright villain.

Alucard may have lost his respect for life but he does still have a very healthy sense of loyalty even when there’s very little to actually force him to stay true. He takes care of his own and sticks to his word. And since his allies happen to be the protagonists, it makes him one of our good guys… I guess…

Tanya the evil

3. Tanya the Evil

The great thing about Tanya is that she never wanted to be a hero. In fact she is more or less actively trying to be a villain. It purely incidental that she happens to continuously save people and protect her fellow men. It’s one thing to have less than pure attributes, it’s another to try and develop them on purpose! In many ways Tanya should be a villain but she just failed at it and ended up an anti-hero.

I always loved the sarcastic touches and dark humour of the Saga of Tanya the Evil, and the eponymous protagonist perfectly embodies both. The other characters on this list may think of themselves as misunderstood heroes on some level. Even Alucard has a tragic and noble backstory to fall back on. Not Tanya though. She never wanted any of the goody goody mumbo jumbo but what are you gonna do. Sometimes the world needs savin’….

Nine and Twelve

2. Nine and Twelve (Terror in Resonance)

Terror in Resonance is one of those shows I’m mad at for not being better. I only feel that way because it was good. In fact in some aspects it was very very good. To me, it was a show that was flirting with greatness but just failed to grasp it. This said, the parts that disappointed me are getting dimmer with time and I think back on it more fondly each time that I do.

But one thing I always considered a strength of the series was the representation of tortured protagonists Nine and Twelve. The characterization was similar to V (from Vendetta). These were sympathetic boys completely warped into villains by deeply unfair circumstances beyond their control. Traumatized from childhood until they lost the ability to deal with the world normally. And although the series did romanticize them a lot, to the point of almost turning them into actual heroes, it also managed to create sympathetic antagonists to balance things out and remind us that the actions of Nine and Twelve have repercussions on very real and innocent people.

In the end, Nine and Twelve were never evil. They weren’t the villains of the story. But by the time we got to know them, they were just too damaged to be true heroes.

Gon

1. Gon (Hunter x Hunter)

I might get some flack for this one. Hunter x Hunter is a very popular show and one of my very favourite, but I haven’t seen many people share my opinion on this. Gon is my favourite anime anti hero and I think one of the best written anti-heroes out there.

Hunter x Hunter is a great show with some truly impressive character development. Everyone grows so much….except Gon. He is a purely static character that remains true to himself and is pretty much the same on the last episode as he was in the first. And that is someone with some seriously not heroic traits. Gon is extremely selfish, he can be rather unfair, occasionally he is brutal to a point that’s difficult to justify and his moral compass is guided mostly by his personal interests. He has no big qualms about allying with  questionable characters or doing some iffy things is it means getting to his ends. These are borderline villainous…

But the amazing thing is, even though these traits are there from the very first moment, it took me over 100 episodes to notice! Gon is kid who befriended and chose an unrepentant murderer as a companion because he looked like fun. He is a kid that decided to idolize an unfit father while refusing to ever forgive an absentee mother. Unlike Killua he was open to the idea of teaming up with Hisoka, never even tried to help his good friend Kurapika who was in obvious pain and regularly disregards the feelings and concerns of others with hand waving and an optimistic everything will be fine, just to do whatever he wants to. But he’s friendly and charming and such a happy optimistic kid that I didn’t even realize any of it until it was shouted so loudly it became impossible to ignore.And by then, I was so deeply invested in the character that the revelation was mind blowing. I just .stood there, slowly reevaluating everything I had ever held for truth… Brilliant!

It’s fine if you disagree but to me, Gon is and will probably always be the best anti hero ever. And that in itself is one of the elements that makes Hunter x Hunter remarkable for me.

I was right! This was a super fun list to put together. Do you have a favourite anti-hero? How about a character that you think is an anti-hero but no one else considers them as such? maybe the other way around, someone everyone calls an anti-hero but you don’t see it? Let me know, I love this stuff.

evil rini

Irina

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

18 Responses

  1. Alucard… the funnest thing about this is that I immediately thought of him in “Castlevania.” where he is much closer to hero than anti-hero.

    Every definition i could find of the “antihero” merely says it is a hero lacking some of the standard heroic traits we expect. Strength, courage, certainty, unbreakable moral code, determination, compassion, etc.

    The most important trait of the antihero (IMHO) is moral ambiguity. It is this murkiness that leaves you wondering.Sometimes the character turns out to be a genuine hero in the end and sometimes you are never sure. Comic book anti-heroes like Wolverine and Batman are pretty thin gruel They look and act scary but you always know which side they’ll end up on.

    I did a paper about the “Hero vs.Anti-hero” in college. I focused on the different incarnations of Faust from ancient times to the modern day. Faust is portrayed as a hero, an antihero or a villain depending on the current culture. You could consider Eve to be the first Faustian antihero who yielded to the Devil in pursuit of knowledge.

    I also focused on Hamlet, a different version of the anti-hero, one that is generated by uncertainty of what the “good” really is. You could also dub him the “pathetic hero,” He knows what right and wrong are in the broader sense but uncertainty about the specifics leads to paralysis and bad decisions.

    There is also the Machiavellian antihero who does “good” things by amoral means, e.g. the cop who breaks all the rules.

    The Noir genre is full of anti-heroes. In anime we also have “Requiem for the Phantom” and “Noir”in addition to what you mentioned.

    Most anime antiheroes only have a touch of it for flavor and really don’t delve very deep. Cowboy Bebop is often described as noir and Spike is described as an antihero bit it is really just a dash of flavoring and not the real thing.

    Great post! Maybe you can do one about the anti-villain?

  2. Merlin says:

    Anime has a way of bending heroism and villainy in interesting ways. This makes their antiheroes especially cool, as they aspire to either. They just doing what they choose to do, for reasons of their own, and they refuse to bend to anyone’s definitions.

    So, my personal favorite would probably be Hiei, from Yu-Yu Hakusho.

  3. ramon3ljamon says:

    Personally, I don’t even think I’ve ever thought about Gon through the prism of heroism.

    Despite all his charisma, Gon’s really just a strange kid — driven by a deep devotion towards his friends, yes, but also a fascination for what he deems fun, and a thrill-seeking need to test his own limits. And I feel like the story was eager to point out the more amoral aspects from a fairly early stage.

    After all, one of Killua’s first remarks was to call Gon weird, after blithely accepting Killua’s assassin backstory without questioning it or reacting negatively to it. Gon only expressed pure & unadulterated interest, something that greatly bemused Killua.

    Also, the counterfeit antique maker in the Yorkshin Arc quickly notices this tendency too, good judge of character that he is — concluding that Gon is the most “dangerous” kind of person: someone who doesn’t care for right or wrong, but simply for satisfying his deep curiosity.

    After his capture by the Phantom Troupe, Gon emotionally berates them for being such heartless murderers, yet feeling such intense grief over Uvogin’s death. How dare they not extend the same feelings to those they had casually killed? However, in Greed Island Gon was the one who let Scissorhands go, even though Biscuit had told him he was a ruthless killer — morality didn’t come to his mind there, but sheer gratitude, simply for being his practice partner.

    And it’s really no surprise Nobunaga saw in him a worthy successor to Uvogin: when Gon’s turn came to feel intense grief over the death of a loved one, the story pulled no punches as roles were reversed — Pitou being portrayed as the compassionate protector, Gon as the monstrous aggressor, showing callous disregard for innocent Komugi’s life, caring for nothing but his need for revenge.

    As Biscuit feared early on, Gon’s very nature ended being his undoing. And Killua could only watch in agony, as the same pure heart that once rescued him from his family’s oppressive hold, had led his dear friend to a state he could barely bring himself to recognize.

    • Irina says:

      Like I said the definition of anti hero is pretty flexible. What you describe is exactly what I was talking about.

      • ramon3ljamon says:

        Sorry if I came across as negative, I was trying to illustrate the “red flags” that I felt the story set early on about Gon’s non-heroic nature, further complementing your point about the character being static. I didn’t address the “anti-hero” label, but while we’re on the topic, you’re right that the conventional definition is flexible.

        Too flexible, perhaps: “a central character in a story, film, or drama who lacks conventional heroic attributes.” If so, would it be fair to say that most of us are anti-heroes in our own stories? I do think a narrower definition would be preferable generally, to avoid wading in shallow waters.

        But the question is how to define the term, here are a few potential ways.
        — A character whose motives are unquestionably heroic, but whose personal failings prevent their fulfillment.
        — A character whose motives are unquestionably heroic, but whose methods to fulfill those motives aren’t necessarily.
        — A character whose motives aren’t necessarily heroic, but of which the consequence of their fulfillment is unquestionably good.
        — A character whose motives aren’t necessarily heroic, and of which the consequence of their fulfillment isn’t unquestionably good.

        I don’t think the first one holds water by itself, if the problem comes down to issues like, say, lacking confidence or resilience. Some degree of self-actualization needs to be involved. Plus, it typically serves as the starting point of a character who eventually grows into a standard hero. As for the fourth one, I think it casts the net way too far: again, this is where people driven largely by self-interest fall, whether they be regular humans or maniacal villains.

        The second & third definitions however I can get behind — ergo, doing the right thing for the wrong reason, or doing the wrong thing for the right reason. I would posit that the conflict between those two contrasting aspects, one unquestionably heroic & one extremely questionable, is what makes an anti-hero tick. Maybe.

        Tangent over. My brain isn’t geared towards categorization as yours seems to be, so I can’t say I enjoyed this exercise.

  4. wingking78 says:

    Thinking about anti-heroes I liked, these are the first who come to mind for me:

    Mireille and Kirika (Noir). Hired assassins and very good at their jobs, but also fundamentally decent people outside their line of work.

    Emiya Kiritsugu (Fate/Zero). A fascinating character to study, as a good person with heroic ideals at heart, who embraced a ruthless utilitarian philosophy of not hesitating to kill even innocent people if it meant “saving” even more people in the long run.

    Nicholas Wolfwood (Trigun) and Saito Hajime (Rurouni Kenshin): Listed together because they both play similar (and necessary) roles, as the pragmatic allies of a sometimes overly-idealistic main hero who don’t mind doing the dirty work behind his back. And they’re both great characters in their own rights.

    Sousuke Sagara (Full Metal Panic): Kind of a fun character, one who’s fully committed to his mission to protect Kaname and doesn’t really care about anything else, including whatever collateral damage he causes in the course of ensuring her safety.

  5. David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

    I have from the start argued that Tanya is a hero in the sense of Greek tragedy, where a flawed (and sometimes, but not always noble) character pits him/herself against Fate for the sake of his/her own survival. Sometimes advancement, even, but usually just survival. True to so many Greek tragedies, Tanya finds him/herself tormented by gods and circumstances, but just keeps fighting because the only other choice is to die. Again.

    Still, I can see why you’d categorize her as an anti-hero, and I’m glad to see you argue her case so succinctly and well. She deserves so much more recognition and love!

  6. Mari says:

    Yes! I’m so glad you mentioned Gon, he’s one of my favorite shonen protagonists. I did a write up all about Gon a while back and I think he’s got a lot more depth than most people give him credit for.

    I don’t think I could narrow my favorites to just a top 5, but to name a couple off the top of my head… Homura from Madoka Magica. Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell. Everyone in Cowboy Bebop. I feel like the definition of an antihero is kinda vague and changes all the time, but I think all of those characters fit the bill of being charismatic protagonist who lack traditionally heroic qualities.

    • Irina says:

      Homura? See I see her as purely heroic, a bit of a screw up… I’ve only seen the first series though, I think the character goes through a lot in the OVAs and Movies. It’s a real interesting choice though. I like it!

  7. Dawnstorm says:

    Actually, Gon was one of the first people that came to mind when reading the header. One of the reasons I stuck with Hunter X Hunter for so long was that they portrayed Gon with all the character traits your usual shounen protagonist has, yet somehow seems aware that that makes him basically a psychopath. I binged a lot of epiosdoes, so I can’t quite remember when I caught on, but it was definitely pretty early (first three episodes, I’d guess).

    Anti-heroes are pretty common in comedies, aren’t they? Pretty good tradition from Slayers to Konosuba. (Is this where I mention Ixion Saga DT?)

    I can’t particularly think of favourites, because I generally don’t gravitate towards heroes in the first place, so that’s pretty much equivalent to asking me for my favourite character, but with the caveat that not all qualify (because of technicalities like story roles). It’s rarer for me to like heroes.

    Interestingly, I’m not faring well with your list, apart from the top spot. I haven’t seen (much of) the 5 – 3. I sort of, kind of liked what I’ve seen of Hellsing, and Alucard was definitely cool, but that’s mostly where it ended for me. I haven’t seen the important episodes, though (aired on TV and when an interesting episode came up I had to be elsewhere). I don’t like Dragon Ball, and I couldn’t watch Tanya the Evil, beause some of the light effects and flight camera made me queasy. I didn’t like Terror in Resonance; I didn’t dislike Terror in Resonance. It neither terrified nor resonated, so whenever someone brings up the show I think, oh yeah, that exists. I barely remember the protagonists. Gon is great, though.

    • Irina says:

      You now what, good enough for me! I sort o forgot about comedies altogether. Maybe it’s because I figure those are characters that aren’t really cast as heroic in the first place. Then again neither is Tanya really… Yeah – it’s a very random list but Gon is great!

  8. Pinkie says:

    It’s funny how the traits you loved in Gon are traits I mostly dislike him for.
    I can see your point but I am not sure if I can see him as an anti hero. Basicly Goku has done all the same things as gone as well.

    Goku risked the universe by allowing Zeno to host the Tournament of Power and losing universes would be deleted. He willingly allowed this tournament to go on.
    He did nothing when Gohan was being tormented by Cell, leading to Android 16’s Death and he refused to acknowledge Gohan’s feeling of not wanting to battle.

    Goku befriended Piccolo who was the son of an evil demon king who planned to kill Goku out of revenge. He befriended Vegeta who came to enslave their planet. He spared Frieza and gave him his life back, allowing him to dominate planets far away in the galaxy as long as it wasn’t one of their planets.

    Goku also teamed up with Frieza.. and for the most part he was an absentee father himself that Idolizes someone just until he outgrows them often leaving them behind afterwards.

    I do think they are very similar to each other in many other way too but I am not sure if I would call it an anti hero. I’d sooner give that title to Sebastian Michealis or maybe Second Greed in FMA.
    So I do agree with everything you say about Gon I am just not sure if it’s the right word. Kinda.. but not reallly like he is Anti Hero Type 2.. while the rest is Anti Hero Type 1. I’d rather call Gon and Goku False Heroes.. yes I think that term would work nicely

    • Irina says:

      I wouldn’t say I loved these traits in Gon at all. I loved how the narrative folded and warped around them to created an essentially depraved universe while gas lighting the audience. I think it’s a mix of good narrative, very smartly used dialogue and fantastic pacing which I find admirable in story crafting.
      I actually thought about Sebastian but since the baser traits are part of the joke and sort of the point I think I put him in the anti villain category in my head. I’m with you on Greed though again narratively he serves the purpose of an antagonist for the most part so I’m not sure where he stands. But I like Greed so anti-hero it is.

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