So now that I actually have time to write I have another post! Yay! (And for those who have no knowledge of/no interest in it, I promise this post is not all about Rurouni Kenshin). I haven’t finished Rurouni Kenshin yet and recently I’ve been too busy to make any progress in it. However, I have finished the Kyoto Arc, which got me thinkin’ about some things. Like in my last post on it I made mention of Kenshin’s realization that life is worth living, that he himself is an important person. The other topic which this arc made me wonder about was heroes vs. villains, the postmodern tendency to make everyone morally murky and say “That’s OK!,” and the trend in media to make people (especially women) sympathize with villains no matter how dastardly.
So I’m going to start with Shishio Makoto, since that’s where my train of thought began. I don’t think that Watsuki-san was necessarily trying to garner sympathy for Shishio or anything. But what Watsuki does with the character at the end of the Kyoto Arc demonstrates something important about the villain. Shishio dies because he takes more than fifteen minutes to defeat Kenshin and ends up what I assume is spontaneously combusting. But that’s not actually the last the reader sees of him. There are a few more panels in which he, Yumi, and Hoji are shown after their deaths deciding to take over hell. Besides the idea of taking over hell being somewhat laughable, this decision, combined with all his other actions, gives some insight into Shishio’s character. He is what one would call great.
The Oxford English Dictionary (at least that of it which is available online) has two definitions of great pertinent to this issue: “of an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above average” and “of ability, quality, or eminence considerably above average.” The rest are pretty much one word reiterations of these definitions anyway, but these are more precise. This word certainly describes Shishio. I mean, it takes some serious ability and intelligence to try to topple the Japanese government. Not only does he gather some of the strongest fighters around and keep them incentivized to follow him (which is no easy task), he organizes an attack on Kyoto as a bluff to cover his real plan. He’s also great in a physical sense and nothing shows this more than the fact that he survived the original burning he endured and almost killed Kenshin. It really was luck that he caught on fire before he could do Kenshin any more damage. Lastly, his desire for power reveals itself to be great, as it lasts even past death. Talk about above average.
And here’s where we come to something interesting. I know we all know it, but I think all too often we forget, great is not the same as good. Shishio is great–he has awesome capabilities and the scope of his achievements, and those tasks that he attempts to accomplish, is huge. But is he good, generally speaking? Considering that he seems to be motivated mostly by revenge and the desire for power, I would say Shishio is not good. His use of Yumi–a woman who was in love with him and faithful to him, but powerless to defend herself–as a shield, essentially forcing her to die for him, displays his complete lack of care for anyone other than himself. So, far from good, I would call Shishio evil.
Does this mean that one can’t be both good and great? Not at all. And we have a good example of a great and good person in Kenshin himself. He has great sword-fighting abilities but uses them for others, not himself. He also doesn’t uses them needlessly and doesn’t enjoy fighting for the sake of shedding blood. In fact, he would rather not fight, even to the point of almost giving up and letting others take over, but when he thinks of those he loves and who love him, Kenshin realizes that is a time when he needs to fight. Again, though, it is his thoughts of others that motivate him, and not a desire for power or a sadistic delight in cruelty.
Thinking about this distinction between great and good got me thinking about other characters from different series–which ones are great, which ones are good? Which ones are both? And which ones do we like? The answer to the last question is the interesting part. There are many characters who are great but whose moral codes need some work. Sometimes people ignore this and just focus on how great they are, and how awesome it is for them to give someone a smackdown. And in saying this I fully incriminate myself–there are some characters that I want to like for one reason or another and so I actively look for something in them so I can point to it and say, “Look! See, they did that! They’re actually good!” But one isolated good deed doesn’t demonstrate a person’s ideology and beliefs, whether or not they’re good and worthy of emulation.
Sometimes, though, there are characters who no matter how cool or attractive in looks or abilities are just plain evil. Most of the time I think we tend to detest these characters. But somehow some slip through the cracks and people actually like these characters. One of the biggest examples of this I can think of in the animeverse is Yagami Light from Death Note. He has plenty of fangirls, which rather disgusts me. And I’m not saying that his fangirls are bad people or anything, but I think they are sorely mistaken in what they’re attracted to, and they need to question why they like him so much.
Ok, so maybe this post was all about Rurouni Kenshin. But I promise, my next one will feature another anime. In fact, I’ll be musing about some Bleach characters with problematic attitudes, including Zaraki Kenpachi and Urahara Kisuke, as well as Hiruma Yoichi from Eyeshield 21. Well, as Porky Pig says, “That’s all, folks!”