And somehow this became a history of the Sports! anime genre…

I’m pretty sure that people who take classes in creative writing, i.e. people who are not me, are told that stories need conflict. That’s a fairly old fashion view that isn’t true in all cases and they probably also say that in the classes. Still it’s advice that does generally hold true. And often, that conflict will come in the form of a “bad guy”.

bad boys are…complicated

Now anime (and fiction in general) has many different types of bad guys and each of them tends to affect the narrative in unique ways. But sometimes the distinctions and roles of each can get a bit blurry and I think it can really bring down a series when a bad guy gets miscasts or misinterpreted.

As you may know, I watch a lot of Sports! anime. I mention it less these days but I still do. And one of the main features of modern Sports! animes is that they usually don’t have any villains. They have rivals. When the narrative pits one team against another in a tournament or something, it’s tough to simply villainize the other side since they are essentially characters that look, act and feel just like the heroes. They have the same motivations and for the most part, go about those motivations in the same ways as the protagonists. If those rivals are evil then the heroes are as well.

However, at the same time, Sports! animes are usually very dependent on personal drama to drive the story forward and create engagement from the audience. I may be wrong but I suspect no one is watching close to 200 episodes of Ace of Diamond only because they think the games are super exciting. There is actual real baseball to watch out there. Anime fans are invested in the lives of the characters and so those other teams can’t just remain simple antagonists they need to be actual complete people with dreams and problems and quirks of their own. They need to be rivals.

fairy tail rival
Rivalries can add a lot of fun

But this wasn’t always the case. There was a time where it was much more common to see actual villains in Sports anime. And these were actual bad guys. They would cheat and use nefarious means to gain the advantage. They could stoop to trying to physically injure key players before a match or ruin their private lives to prevent them from playing or distract them. There was no camaraderie between teams, no grudging respect.

But for this type of bad guy to work, and by extension this type of conflict, the structures of these shows were just a bit different. They were in fact very similar to classic fighting shonen with a bad guy of the week to take out that we would often never be heard from again and maybe an overarching evil team that the protagonists are working towards confronting. Like the national champions or something. In these shows the driving force wasn’t to win the match, it was to defeat the opponents.

But eventually this structure lost popularity. Arguably the simple evil villain lost popularity in general and now we always need complex bad guys with all sorts of Freudian excuses. I miss the simple evil. That’s neither here nor there.

here and there
have you guys seen Now and Then, Here and There? It’s great.

The point is that when the main conflict was in the form a clear bad guy that the audience didn’t like, the focus of the shows was in beating that bad guy. As such they were much more plot driven and less personal, which appealed to a specific audience. When that audience started to dwindle, the genre had to reinvent itself and one of the first things it did was retool the source of conflict.

There was an adjustment period and you do see that in the shift to more character driven story lines the villains started to become flat antagonists for a while. Opponents were no longer villains as it was pretty ridiculous having a these righteous teams entirely surrounded by teams of thugs doing barely legal things no one seemed too concerned about. So instead the other teams where just… the other team.

We didn’t learn much about them or even get to see them that much. We didn’t necessarily want them to lose or anything it’s just that we wanted “our” team to win. Flat antagonists are often not really characters exactly. They are more like plot devices and in this case they were obstacles to bring about conflict and not much more. This means that the weight and momentum of the narrative had to be carried entirely by the protagonists.

anme evil baseball
some protagonists can handle that

As far as genre bending experiments go this was fairly short lived and there aren’t tons of examples I can think of. The early Prince of Tennis series could fall into the category though. In practice what it meant for the series was that they became hyper focused on the protagonists and more often then not on only one or two main characters that were deeply developed, and the stories became more like character studies about these specific character’s lives and personal drama which just happened to include some sports in it.

In many ways these shows were similar to Free! Yes the story does involve a sport and it is important and often depicted but that’s not really the main takeaway. In fact it’s more like a setting. The main genre would usually become either drama or comedy. Another recent example would be Tsurune.

This wasn’t exactly the best formula for the sports genre mind you. In many instances, creators found it somewhat restrictive to constantly have to add in sports related story lines and scenes, especially if an author wasn’t a huge fan of the sport in question and there was a fear that it would alienate a wider audience. These sports dramas were starting to attract a new audience that had been long familiar with character driven personal dramas. You know, like the ones you see a lot in shoujo for instance…

but without the romance which is a pretty big part

But how to keep this new audience without losing the old one and without completely diluting all the sports out of sports anime. I believe that the answer to that was two fold.

First and very strikingly, art styles and character models were tweaked to be…pretty. Cause people are simple. And to be honest with you guys, maybe that’s all they would have needed to do in the first place and not bother with all these narrative of tonal adjustments.

But the second thing they did was change the conflict once more. The game needed to be once again central to the plot. And to get a wide audience, one that is not necessarily that interested in the sport itself, to care about endless match episodes, authors needed to create that new found personal drama within the game itself somehow. And one of the most effective ways to do so was to create real rivals.

starts allign
I did use a picture of a Sports! anime in the end

If the audience cares about the opponents almost as much as the protagonists then that doubles their investment in the game. Everyone has a favourite player they are keeping an eye on and cheering for. Conclusions aren’t necessarily foregone. You can have your team lose a match without turning the audience off cause those other guys are pretty great too and worked really hard and there’s always next time. The others aren’t bad guys, they are often really good guys, sometimes they are our friends! They just happened to be on the other side of the court this time.

In time this meant that the number of characters developed and established in Sports anime stated to grow. Seasons would juggle dozens of different players from different teams all with their own thing going on. By necessity, the personal dramas became ensemble casts with diverging slice of life stories all brought together and brought to a dramatic conflict in a game.

I used Sports anime as a genre to try to illustrate the different types of antagonists we most frequently see in stories and how the use of one particular type rather than another can affect the entire narrative. But I do believe it basically applies to all genres.

Do you have a preferred type of bad guy? Have you noticed a type of villain evolution in another genre?

Rini 3 (5)

28 thoughts

  1. Really enjoying the different topics you cover here! Characters and character development are a key aspect of anime for me, so the ways characters interact and have conflicts are indeed fascinating to me. I quite recently viewed Yuri!!! On Ice and the way the characters improve on themselves through their rivalries is brilliant (also, that music)!

  2. I prefer the man vs self since it is one of the hardest things to be made in anime for an antagonist. Yeah, one’s self as the antagonist would be the hardest.. For man vs man, evil one-dimensional characters are to cliche. I guess a villain like Malty from The Rising of the Shield Hero would be fine. Wait, she is a one-dimensional character, but it’s fun to break her. I guess the best villain for me would be Makoto Shishio from Samurai X. His rebellion against the government is justified and although his beliefs are twisted, at least it makes him unique.

  3. I’m kind of in the middle when it comes to antagonists. I don’t like the cackling cartoon villains all the time, but every so often they sell it on the ham factor. But I feel like sometimes they go too far to make villains sympathetic or downplay their heinous acts. Like it’s not anime but I hated Kylo Ren’s whole redemption arc because I don’t think he deserved it. And I don’t think having pure evil villains is unrealistic. There are many examples in history of leaders who did awful things believing they were in the right, but just as many who only cared about money and power.

    1. You know we rarely see selfish, ill intentioned and uncaring characters that just happen to do good. Because it’s what serves them best for instance. That would be a cool archetype.
      Sure some people call that anti heroes but those usually ave some redeeming or appealing qualities.

  4. I think part of the reason I enjoy slice-of-life shows so much is because they often don’t involve any kind of ‘bad guy’ character. There might sometimes be an antagonist, but more often than not, this is someone who’s just misunderstood by the MC, bad at communicating, not especially social, etc. It’s probably why I love the likes of Usagi Drop, Mushishi, or Natsume Yuujinchou a lot, since these shows are (mostly) about the characters battling their own inner demons or the general circumstances of life, or characters/objects that act only according to their nature as opposed to for some kind of explicitly evil or unscrupulous goal.

    1. I also like stories without a bad guy. I’m thinking of Kase-san and Morning Glories that had no form of antagonist whatsoever and was just lovely.

  5. Oh, don’t get me started on creative writing seminars. There are good ones, but a lot of them confuse descriptive theories with prescription, you get a set of rules you’re supposed to break effectively once you understand them, but by then the damage is done. “Conflict” is the central analytic concept of plot. You can analyse “I went into the store and bought a sandwich,” in terms of conflict, if you want to. Not all writing is fruitfully analysed in terms of plot (Vigrina Woolf’s “Kew Gardens”, William Gibson’s “Thirteen Views of a Cardbord City”…). The best seminars focus on ways to exercise your creativity, not nonsense like “You need conflict.”

    As a child, I actually gravitated towards anime because their villains were more interesting. Your avarage American cartoon had this cackling villain who had inept comic-relief underlings whom he treated badly. Anime villains usually treated their own well (if they weren’t loners). Also, their underlings tended to be every bit as competent as the hero team.

    My favourite type of villain/antagonist is the wild-card loner, or bored genius type, though. The Orihara Izayas and Hisokas of anime. I adore them if they’re well written.

    Sports anime are interesting, because the conflict is formalised to the sport in question. You have your team sports, where each of your character is matched to a role (think Haikyuu), and then you have your individual sports where groups, usually by school, compete but everyone has the same role (think Saki or Bamboo Blade). In the former type, you need to practise how to work together, while the latter type of show you can have people face each other as practise.

    It’s interesting that in-team Rivals (with a capital “R” because they’re special in sports anime) work pretty much the same way in either type of show: you want to improve faster than the other one, or at least not fall behind. (It’s interesting how much character development Bamboo Blade got out of overpowered Tamaki, before they introduced her first rival in the second cour.) I find it interesting that they use the English word “rival” for that concept, since it’s very uniquely anime how they treat it as a sort of friendship (“We’re not tomodachi, we’re raibaru.”) The concept’s pretty common in shounen fighters, too. Oh, and even in romances with love triangles. There’s this sense that the competition connects you, but you need to consider your “rival” worthy. There’s such a thing as “unrequitted rivalry” and it’s often played for laughs. (“I, your rival, have arrived. Wait, why are you ignoring me?”)

    So in a sense, the usual narrative role of a rival isn’t the antagonist, it’s more the foil. Though antagonistic rivals do exist (especially in shounen fighters, where the rival is often on the other side of the conflict).

    It’s an interesting topic. I’ve pretty much improvised this post, and thinking about examples is hard. I often can’t think of any, and then I start to doubt myself.

    1. There’s a sort of respect implied in acknowledging a rival in anime. It’s a way to state that you do see them as a threat and I guess in a way as an equal? I often see that in the comedies and softly romantic shows I watch. Your line of Wait, why are you ignoring me? made me remember that.
      I actually started thinking about this concept when watching Gurren Lagann hand hoe Viral goes from flat out villain antagonist to rival. His name is even an anagram…

  6. It sounds like sports anime just, well, grew up. From a very simplistic view of the world to the world as we know it in all it’s complexity. Which is not a bad thing.

    I have to admit to every now and then missing the simple evil villian. Like the aliens are evil because they want to take over the earth, kill ’em all. The robots are evil in Terminator because they want to enslave humanity. Bang, kill ’em, no guilt. But the world isn’t that simple and maybe the aliens want earth because some other aliens just took away their planet or their sun blew up and they’re refugees and after all, the AI in Terminator just wants to save us from ourselves.

    The problem is now and then I just want to shoot things – LOL. Cue zombies I guess…

    1. I figure stories are limited. as in time. There’s only so much story you can tell. a simple villain that doesn’t require much fleshing out allows the story to focus on different elements. Mass Effect 2 is a game I really enjoyed because of the story, and part of it is die to the ultra plain unknowable evil that serves as the antagonist. The first game had a much more complex, layered and flawed tragic fallen hero bad guy. And naturally I liked that character a lot more, but by taking all the focus away from the baddies and making them just a plot element to fight against, it made room for some exploration of deep moral dilemmas within the protagonists and internal conflict that in the end created a better story for me.

  7. It’s very interesting that as our understanding of society and individual, ‘hero’ and ‘tragic’ changes over the course of history and through different cultures, this understanding manifests itself in fiction as well. An easy example would be the stark difference between American fictional superheroes vs Japanese anime heroes. There’s a shift towards the “personal backstory” when we’re consuming other types of media as well; biographies switched to what people do or like in their private life more than what they actually do, we feel the need to know how a certain person ended up doing a certain thing when we watch the news. In the end, we probably don’t have the same level of clarity when it comes to good and evil compared to previous generations. That may be the reason why when we see an ultimately evil character, it comes off as “2-dimensional” or “childish”.

    I find this topic very intriguing, more so when it’s based on sports anime since i’m also a fan of the genre. Thank you for writing, I enjoyed reading it! ♥

    1. I also think it’s fascinating to see how cultures evolve and think through their fiction and comedy. I can’t get enough of it.

  8. Shogo Makishima from Psycho Pass is my number one favorite villain in anime/gaming along with Sephiroth,Kefka,Arydyn,Vicious,Monokuma,The Colonel and Kyubei.
    Shogo Makishima on one hand he is totally right about how the sybil system was just totally corrupt and that it led to a ideological hivemind in Japan and also because of the ultimate irony that despite the comforts the sybil system has brought life expectancy has n ot only went down but the restrictive nature prevents a sense of fear or need for survival because since everyone’s psycho pass is out in the open you wouldn’t think that person would be out to harm you.
    Epsidoe 11 was by far one of the best in the entire series because just really solidfied that Shinya was really serious and that he wanted to show how people were so reliant on the sybil system instead of stopping him when he gave Akane a shotgun to stop him but relied on the dominator when it wasn’t working on him and he killed her friend right in front of her.
    He and Shinya are really similar to each other case in point in the Psycho Pass movie Shinya’s natural talent for bringing people together and charm is the same kind Shogo did to help create chaos in Japan and also how both could really be obessive with their goals even the color design of the characters black and white is polar opposites in terms of morality that they are.
    But Shogo Makishima was by far the best villain in the entire series and nobody could really top him.

    (Side fact did you know that in one of the episdoes in season 1 it was actually based off a real life double homicide in Japan where a music producer from Nitroplus and an elderly woman were beaten to death and nobody did anything to stop but just watch the guy did what he did. Really reflective of todays society isn’t it?)

    The newer villains of Psycho Pass aren’t really that good
    Kamui was like a hitman target where it wasn’t anything personal while Shogo it really was personal for Shinya and Akane and Bitfrost well its really just corrupt execs being corrupt execs.
    Also i think its also best to count Mika as a villain since she wanted to spite Akane so much she indirectly caused her grandmother to brutally die and how much she wanted her hue to go up to lose her job and be locked up at best or executed at worst. (I have a nickname for her Cyberpunk Karen since she’s pretty much what happens when you give a Karen from wal-mart a position of power) Plus the incompentency and allowing so many civiilains to die in episode 4 and just do nothing and her egotisical behavior i actually be really happy if they did killed her off and put more focus on resolving Yayoi’s character arc from season 1 and have Shion be in the spotlight more. Plus unpopular opinon the red haired enforcer i can’t like since he’s backgroundless and hardly has anything to do but just carry out orders.

    Sometimes i think even the villains of an anime should win depending on the goals.

    1. I also can’t be the only to see Haruhi as a villain instead of a heroic character because well in the 2 seasons of i’ve watched Haruhi she really didn’t get any character development but in the light novels she got alot more and those haven’t even been adapted yet and the series isn’t even finished because the creator admited because he is just being lazy to do so.
      I mean the false rape threats,groping and blackmail/kidnapping she’s particular a villain already.

      1. Haruhi is a bit of a special case narrative speaking I think. Since she doesn’t fulfill an actual character role in the structure.

    2. Makishima is certainly one of the most popular antagonists out there. If not the most popular one. He’s name comes up a lot in best villain llists

  9. One of the many things I particularly like about anime as a storytelling medium is its tendency to make friends out of enemies/rivals after the protagonist comes out on top. Rather than have the cackling evil villain who simply wants to ruin things for everyone because reasons (though there’s still plenty of that in anime!), we have an opportunity to see the “bad” guy in a different light as he turns himself and his wily ways around to become a close companion of the main characters– maybe even have his own redemption arc. Although the antagonist’s change of heart in some cases can be too abrupt IMO– and there’s definitely better and worse ways to pull it off– it adds a lot more ‘humanity’ to the characters, I think. Life is ambiguous; there are very few people on this planet who are inherently “good” or “evil.” The best antagonists of any story, I think, are the ones who embody this fact; that said, the traditional, objectively-malicious antagonist has his place in storytelling, too– particularly in stories that are self-aware of their villain’s campy nature.

    …And if you *are* interested in some free creative writing courses, check out Brandon Sanderson’s lectures on YouTube. I personally don’t like giving/receiving writing advice in academic format, but Sanderson is the one author/prof in this creative field whom I feel has come closest to giving shape to the abstract. His advice is rational, easy to follow, and professionally-established, given he’s one of the most popular modern SF/F writers right now. I recommend him to most people who come to me for writing advice, as my advice tends to be confusing at best, lol.

    1. I’m pretty creatively challenged but I’ll definitely check out those courses. It sounds very interesting even if it does end up wasted on me. Besides, now that I work from home, I appreciate any lectures I can get my hands on.

      1. I don’t think it will be wasted on you– you’ve clearly got a good head on your shoulders!

        In the creative writing field, there are some teachers who can teach, but not write, and some writers who can write, but not teach; but Brandon’s one of the rare few who can do both. Most if not all of his stuff is very beginner-friendly, even if you have no intention of becoming a professional in the field yourself.

  10. “I’m pretty sure that people who take classes in creative writing, i.e. people who are not me “: Well…sorry you could have fooled me😊
    Interesting post! While I’m gearing up to watch a sportsanime myself in the upcoming days (and no I’m not going to say which one), I can’t really say much about villains/rivals in sports anime.That said, I think one of my favorite alltime anime villains has got to be Shogo Makishima from Psycho Pass. Yes he was a bad guy, but at the same time it was also someone who had a lot of depth (well as far as homicidal psychopaths go of course😅😅). Great post!

      1. Haha…you will find out on sunday. I’m planning a look ahead post for my blog then, and I will name the show there. I’m pretty sure you will be glad I picked that one😊

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