An eternal question with no clear answer. So don’t expect much objectivity as I attempt to answer this.
I recently took a friend of mine to go see A Silent Voice in theaters. The visual storytelling absolutely enraptured me on the big screen. My friend didn’t share in the enthusiasm because he couldn’t get into how unlikable the characters are. This honestly didn’t surprise me one bit given how even fans of the film don’t enjoy how bitchy some of the female characters can be, but between this movie and my recent playthrough of Danganronpa V3 – along with some of the reactions the cast in that game draws out – I thought it’d be nice to take a look at the fine line between an asshole and “he/she is just misunderstood”. And just for the record, I’m going to be referencing a lot of my favorite anime for this.
While this obviously doesn’t apply to all people, especially for the anime fans who enjoy “healing” shows and visual novels, good storytelling generally requires conflict in order to keep the momentum going. The severity of the conflict is variable, but the most common and often engaging way to create conflict is to have a character become a piece of shit. Most of us grew up on Saturday morning cartoons where said pieces of shit are just throwaway villains with arbitrary world-conquering schemes, and tons of people enjoy those Marvel movies where every single bad guy who’s not named Loki has about as much depth to them as Jaden Smith’s philosophical ramblings. However, a lot of anime fans had their tastes evolve to demand more complexity from villains when they started reading Shonen Jump and watching big acclaimed anime like Gurren Lagann, Monster, or Code Geass.
I’m sure most of us have seen and become engaged by characters like Hans Gruber or any of Batman’s villains prior to anime, but I think this medium more than any other popularized the idea that a villainous character can be worth rooting for. Sure a lot of Geass fans wanted Lelouch to win in the end and have Suzaku stay alone forever, but how many of them didn’t wish for a short time (at the very least) whilst watching it that Cornelia would be the one to get ahead? Or Schniezel? Or a few other characters who I see just as much people wanting to die as the amount who want them to live? It’s a bit of a mess to describe the feelings Geass created given how it’s a mess of a show, but the point is that you’d never see this kind of “goddamn these bad guys are awesome” feeling with any of the bad guys that Captain Planet had to fight in his own awful TV show outside of the inevitable four or five people who will for some reason really like your horrible product. Even though Schniezel nuked millions of (admittedly nameless) people in his fight against Lelouch, he still has so many fans because of his “sexy charisma”, the fact that Lelouch wasn’t really any better, and a few other things that I’m not going to bother describing because who hasn’t seen Geass by this point?
However, I will say that the one thing Schniezel shares with characters like Cornelia as well as other engaging villains that is incredibly vital is a just cause underneath all the morally wrong things he does, as well as how he’s not a total monster in regards to carrying those things out. He’s not just destroying the world purely to be a bastard, even though I’m sure that’s an element to his character. Now I haven’t seen any of the extra material that focused on him, but I’m sure he’s quite lovely with the ladies and his siblings in his spare time. Plus, he does his actions with a smile throughout most of the show whilst still showing the occasional frustration so that we know he’s human – a stark contrast to the permanent bored expression that Biba from Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress wears. Not really sure about his personal faults though. I haven’t seen the show in years, but I don’t recall him having any beyond his own ego.
A character who sets himself up for conflict and consequences through the dastardliness of his doing—is surely unlikable, yes, but also magnetic. You want to watch him ruin his life. He repulses you in the same way a car accident is simultaneously disturbing and hard to look away from. This character is a train wreck, and it is glorious to behold. Every time he does something unwholesome, immoral, felonious or just, like, super-rude, he creates a conflict. The anticipation and delivery of that consequence is deeply satisfying for a reader, and by their very nature, not-nice characters create these conflicts almost constantly. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “The suspense is terrible; I hope it will last.” — Adrienne Crezo
In regards to these sorts of villain characters, I think they come in two categories: the ones we admire but don’t want to hang out with in reality, and the ones who we’d love to have a drink with in their spare time between them trying to chop the hero’s head off. Personally, I think the latter is trickier to execute since a very important part of a likable villain is that no matter how much you respect it, you’re not supposed to side with their ideology because that’s like siding with those Youtube fucks who promote piracy so that Crunchyroll and other legal streaming services will improve (incidentally, no I’m not linking those videos, because the last time I notified some people to one, said video doubled in views). But when done right, they are much more engaging than even the Joker. And when it comes to that character archetype, I think Ghibli at their best perfects it with their antagonists.
With the exception of Musca from Castle in the Sky, what makes the people who oppose the heroes in Ghibli movies so great whether they be Lady Eboshi from Princess Mononoke or Curtis from Porco Rosso is that nothing is ever personal. In Eboshi’s case, she’s doing bad things because she has loyal subjects who need her protection, and the animals that she fights aren’t exactly the most sociable of folks, especially when compared to her. In Curtis’s case, aside from gunning down Porco (which is played so lightly in that movie’s universe that it’s hard to see it as a bad thing), he’s just a normal dude who wants the girl and is actually quite sociable, smart, and funny regarding his life choices. I’m heavily downplaying the positive qualities of these characters because you’d need at least two-thousand words for each of them to get the full picture, but what I always liked about Ghibli in college and even moreso now that I’m an adult is how there are multiple sides to them. And if they feel the protagonist is truly in the right, they’ll give up their previously destructive ideologies in order to to join the former’s quest.
It’s not just simply turning a bad guy into a good one with these antagonists though. These characters have always been good from the start, but one fact most people tend to shy away from is that good people can do bad things too. Whether it be by circumstance or misunderstanding, they just simply chose the wrong path to achieve their noble ends, and while it can be hard to admit that when you’re confronted with that knowledge, the fact that they are capable of realizing how wrong they are is not something just anyone in real life can do as is. However, if you can achieve that, you’re already a billion times more sociable than that quiet kid who just sits in the corner and reads to himself. And it’s not even a good book either. I mean Chuck Lorre? C’mon.
But these are just the “unlikable” characters that are supposed to be the villains. What about the kind that are the heroes like in A Silent Voice? The ones that are supposed to carry us all throughout the story? The ones we inherently have to root for, even when they do actions we find repulsive.
Now the most obvious example of a villain protagonist that’s well-liked is Light from Death Note, but I’m not really referring to the type of unlikable lead that ultimately ends up the bad guy and dies at the end (which I should point out, I’m not a fan of). I’m referring to the type of character that follows in the same sort of style that makes Lady Eboshi so great, except this time they’re the protagonist (or one of the protagonists), which means you have to inherently agree with them to an extent and accept the ultimately positive conclusion they reach – and considering how not agreeing with their ideology is a big part of what makes a great antagonistic force, that’s a pretty large handicap to have. This character type is so tricky to execute that they tend to get a bad rep by default, especially in crappy melodramas. And yeah, I agree that for the most part, you should probably stay away from writing these guys. But when they succeed, they literally end up as the best of every world they could possibly live in.
My favorite ending I’ve ever seen in a movie and maybe of all-time is the one to Saturday Night Fever. The whole movie is practically perfect with great music, great humor, and a young John Travolta showing off his dance moves, but the ending where Travolta’s character has everything crash around him due to his friends’ actions combined with his own reckless personality is cathartic in a way that soap operas wish they could achieve, and the last few minutes where he decides to use those events as a springboard for a new way of life (without actually showing that new life because that’s one of those things best left to the imagination less you want to end up with Staying Alive) finalizes that climax in a way that speaks to me. Maybe it’s because of my background as someone who didn’t grow up all that nice, but I absolutely love it when these sort of unlikeable characters slowly but surely wreck everything due to a combination of their own personality problems and circumstances beyond their control (but it has to be both at the same time. You can’t do it with just one or the other because it’s too unbalanced and unrelatable that way) as long as they use that event as a catalyst for a new start.
What I like the most about these sort of character stories like Saturday Night Fever, as well as anime like Welcome to the NHK, Sakamichi no Apollon, and A Silent Voice is how they’re not afraid to show their leads at their worst whilst simultaneously making sure that said showcase of horrible qualities has a purpose to it, and an ultimately positive one at that. And really, despite how tricky it can be to get this formula right, a purpose to the lead character who regresses in behavior as time marches on goes a long way in making you engage with him. I loved seeing Sato in Welcome to the NHK regress as a character whilst everyone around him ironically got better through his actions because it highlights how his problems go beyond what a normal practitioner can diagnose. I loved seeing Kaoru in Sakamichi no Apollon ruin his relationship with Rikako and take that winter train to college with all contact cut until five years later, because it represented the chaotic nature of jazz whilst showcasing that sometimes, relationships just don’t work out, especially when your future is concerned. Some people seem to think those sorts of storytelling choices are inherently flawed. I say they’re just running away from the truth.
Also, I speak no hyperbole when I say that Kokichi Oma from Danganronpa V3 is literally one of the greatest anime characters I have seen in the last few years, not just in terms of being a likable asshole, but just character-wise in general. And it’s not just because he’s asking if robots have dicks, calling slutty women “cum dumpsters”, or stating my exact opinion on the latest episode of the new Kino anime, although the fact that he’s hilarious helps. It’s because he embodies humanity’s need to lie as well as the negative connotations that generally come with lying. From making himself out to be the antagonist to his constant accusations in order to find out who among the people surrounding him is a murderer so that he can help everyone because deep down, he hates killing, the guy literally contains both definitions of the good “unlikable” characters I’ve described in this post in his tiny body. To this day, I’m not really sure whether his philosophy in life is truly good or bad…although I should point out that bad things do happen to him in the end, so be careful if you decide to follow his creed. Nevertheless, I can see why he’s one of the most popular characters in the Danganronpa universe because you can count me as a fanboy too.
Everyone has a bad side and we enjoying seeing that from time to time, but a lot of people want the good side to be the dominant trait, often accusing constant negativity as “edginess”. And a lot of the times, their statements are correct, but I think that label goes too far when you automatically consider “edginess” to have negative connotations. For starters, even the most grimdark of anime are fucking tame in their depiction of sex and violence compared to your standard American live-action show, so if you start accusing series like Mindhunter to be edgy, I’m going to laugh my ass off at you. Second, edginess is generally a symptom of a larger problem: that it lacks substance. And yet most reviews of edgy anime would rather look at the “trying to be cool” cliches over observing why the substance is lacking itself, which I find to be very disappointing. As long as it has purpose that’s not arbitrary, those cliches shouldn’t matter too much. You can find the purpose uninteresting like I do with Walter White, but I’d never go as far as to say that he’s a bad character.
At this point, you’re probably asking me when does an unlikable character fall short in my eyes? What counts as substance-less to me? When does this trope go wrong besides with Saturday morning cartoon villains? Two recent examples that come to mind are Chaorice from Rage of Bahamut: Virgin Soul and the male protagonist from Night is Short, Walk on Girl. The former suffered greatly when the show he was in tried to make the audience sympathize with him, despite the fact that he’s an unrepentant mass murderer who didn’t even accomplish a damn thing at the end of his arc. The latter is just an unfunny stalker who was rewarded in the end with a really nice girl that he barely had any interaction with and the only thing he did to win her over was buy a book and get a cold – which isn’t inherently bad, but the movie makes it very clear we’re supposed to see them getting together as an emotional moment rather than an ironic one (like, say, a Yakuza sidequest) unless someone wants to convince me otherwise.
What makes them so substance-less in my eyes is that there doesn’t seem to be any sort of rhyme or reason to these characters aside from the fact that the writer said so, especially when there are so many better options screaming in their faces. They didn’t learn anything after their anime were done. They’re using their newly acquired love interests as a catalyst for a better life when they really should have found something else. Even if that does happen in real life, fiction is not like reality in one key way: it needs purpose to survive. Because if you’re telling me that’s not true, then why don’t I just stop watching anime right now and go hang out at the local festival?
But the most prominent example of how to do unlikable characters wrong was and still is, in my mind, School Days. I can believe that the characters were purposefully made to be awful in that show as a satire of the harem genre, but what exactly is it satirizing about said genre? That in real life, high school girls are loose and people who cheat get shanked? Here’s a question for whatever fans of that series exist: why on earth would you make an entire show centered on that nihilistic, awful, and unambitious message? It’d be different if you actually examined the complexity of teenage hormones, but the series never did anything beyond saying “they exist”, which is high up on the list of things you’re not supposed to use as a justification for why a story happens. In other words, School Days had less of an insight into teenage issues than Great Teacher Onizuka, an anime that primarily existed to make the viewers laugh.
The important thing about any character we’re supposed to despise is that they have to connect to something we relate to. Whether they’re someone we’re supposed to have no sympathy for or someone we’re supposed to see humanity in, something has to be recognizable. Because it all comes from real places, and if there’s no attempt to understand those real places, you lose the connection.
This is why the jerk in this movie (I’ll Be Home For Christmas) doesn’t work. He’s a shell of what other great jerks were, except with none of the understanding of what made those characters interesting. We’re always supposed to connect, whether we’re supposed to like the character or not. If no attempt is made to understand negativity, you’ll never be able to give it direction. – Doug Walker
And of course, this sort of needed connection goes beyond assholes. Whether they’re nice, professional, or cartoony, even if the character isn’t necessarily realistic, most people would want to identify with them on some level. That is why I cannot get into Ghost in the Shell, where the characters are too professional to the point that they will not let me into their world. That is why I don’t care for the cast of Blood Blockade Battlefront, who are only defined by humor and badassness without any sense of reality in them whatsoever. And that is why Just Because fails as both a high school drama and a romantic comedy for reasons I’ll get into another day. Because as someone who grew up with quite a bit of personal drama in his life, even if it’s nothing news-worthy or unique, it’s impossible to identify with someone who doesn’t have their own share of baggage or some semblance of pathos.
When you get down to it, what differentiates a good unlikable character from a bad one is not really any different from what differentiates the good and the bad “likable” characters, whether they be hero or villain. It’s all about relatability and substance, with the unlikable side having a bit more of a high risk/reward ratio, but that’s really the only difference. And while everything comes down to personal taste, I think any answer to this question is a bit more subjective than other opinion-related discussions. Because no matter what fancy wording me or anyone else uses, the fact of the matter is that I related to the cast of A Silent Voice and Danganronpa V3 while the people who dislike either don’t. And I have a different definition of relatability than most people, hence why the general fandom never cares about what I have to say.