I’m pretty sure that everything in this post applies to fiction in general and not just anime but I rather not take any chances.
I like the word antagonist and I use it a lot. But I might be using it differently than some of my readers. I often get comments along the lines, I don’t believe that so and so was an antagonist, they were actually a victim, or they had good intentions or to me, they are the good guy…
This leads me to believe that there might be a bit of a semantic clash between how I use the word and how others do.
Protagonist and antagonist are two fairly common concepts. A protagonist is the main character. They are the one (or ones) whose story it is and are often used as the point of view character. By contrast, an antagonist is a character that is used by the story as an opponent, obstacle or foil to the protagonist.
I sound like I know what I’m talking about. You shouldn’t be tricked. I haven’t really had any sort of literature class since high school and it was in French so there may be something lost in translation as well. In any case, this is what I dimly remember being taught and also the way I’ve been using both protagonist and antagonist in my reviews.
Most of the time it sort of lines up neatly with protagonist = good guy and antagonist = bad guy. After all, the main characters are often depicted as good. There is still a strong bias and general belief that audiences don’t want to read stories about people they don’t like. Even if the protagonist is some type of criminal or heavily morally compromised, most stories will always give them a lot of good traits to make up for it or throw in a redemption arc or at least makes it clear that these people are redeemable.
And I get it. It’s difficult to cheer for and get invested in a character you would rather not see any more of. I have a deep love of trolls and an appreciation for jerks and even I like a protagonist I would be friends with. But that isn’t a hard set rule.
Alternatively, the term antagonist is often used interchangeably with villain. They are the ones who oppose our good guy character and so they are bad guys. Makes sense. Even if everything is in shades of grey and there no true bad guys or good guys, the story usually frames it so that the audience is at least emotionally invested in the protagonist’s victory.
But there are exceptions. There are (few and far between) actually bad guy protagonists. Main characters you love to hate and don’t really want to succeed. In those cases, the antagonist may even be both classical good guys and narratively framed as moral and righteous characters.
More often though, it’s a little more subtle. Antagonists don’t have to be villains. They can be of course but the range is much wider. There are a lot of stories where no one is bad. Where a character has goals which contradict those of the main character but they are lovely people and their goals may be just as good, simply different and incompatible.
I mean look at Sports anime. Every single rival team is, for at least some time, antagonists. If they win the match or tournament or whatever, it means that our heroes lose. And that’s sad. I don’t want that. They worked so hard. They should win. As a viewer, I’m very engaged in the protagonists’ victory.
But the rival team aren’t bad guys. Not at all. They usually worked just as hard. They are the same kind of people with the same values and goals. They are often friends with the main characters. But for a season, they are the opponent, the obstacle to overcome. You could argue they are the antagonists of the moment.
Basically, that’s how I use the word antagonist. They can be a good person or a victim of circumstance. In some cases, if you just angle the perspective a bit, they could even be considered a hero. But for all intents and purposes, the narrative uses those characters as opponents or obstacles to the protagonist.
Did I just write an entire post to try to justify in my own head why so many of my favourite characters are antagonists? Who knows?