Welcome, everyone, to AniTay's latest series: Masterwork Mondays. Each week I'll — wait, what's that? It's Tuesday? Well shit, looks like we're already off to a killer start! Expect future posts to actually, y'know, be on Monday.
Anyway, this series was originally going to just be MasterWork Manga Mondays, but then I remembered that would restrict me from talking about Gurren Lagann and Neon Genesis Evangelion. So now this series will be an examination of the single best aspect of all the anime and manga I've consumed over the years. This will all be my personal opinion, and just because I feel one series did one particular thing best doesn't mean it didn't do other things just as well. You get the idea. Also, there will probably be spoilers throughout, so consider yourself fairly warned.
Enough explanation (and playing dumb about missing Monday), though — let's get on with it. The inaugural entry for Masterwork Monday goes to what has consistently been my favorite manga since I started it as a child: Shaman King.
Since it ended more than 10 years ago and therefore doesn't get talked about, I don't actually know how other people feel about this series. Still, that hasn't stopped me from returning to it a dozen times and loving every re-read page. I love the characters, I love the concept of being a shaman, and I love the writing. About the only thing I don't love is the racist use of blackface for the series' only major black character.
Regardless of all the good and bad, one thing has always stood out to me each time I read Shaman King, and that's how good its villains are. I mean, just look at who you have: Tao Ren, Johann Faust VIII, the Patch Tribe, half the contestants in the Shaman Fight, and the biggest badass of them all: Asakura Hao.
While most of the villainous credit goes to Asakura Hao, it is worth mentioning some of the other baddies in the series for their propensity to switch sides without sacrificing any of their integrity. The two most notable cases are Tao Ren (pictured in all his gory glory above) and Johann Faust VIII.
Both were two of the first shamans that main character Asakura Yoh ever had to fight, and they were both undeniably brutal. Faust literally opened up the chest of Yoh's best friend, Manta, while the kid was still alive. Ren, on the other hand, murders an official of the Shaman Fight just to test out his new ability and frequently attempts to kill Yoh in the early chapters of the series.
Oddly enough, when the time comes for the Shamans to form teams of the three, both Ren and Faust become Yoh's allies. But what's most notable about them is that, even after switching, they're still roughly the same people. Character development allows for enough growth that they cease being murder machines and become capable of having friends, but Ren is still a violent, arrogant hot-head while Faust is still a tortured, lonely maniac.
On the other side of the coin, there is a group of friendlies that turn out to be some of the last enemies Yoh and co. must face off against. The Patch Tribe, the organizers of the Shaman Fight and keepers of the Great Spirit, start off as a relatively neutral party. Still, one straight up befriends Yoh and the others consistently come off as good people.
However, once Hao wins the Shaman Fight, the Patch Tribe is morally obligated to protect him. So, when Yoh and co. try to stop Hao from becoming a literal God, the Patch stand in their way. Still, the reader always knew the Tribe would defend the winner from a very early point in the story. Instead of black and white good-versus-evil battles, each confrontation was a morally ambiguous gray area of goodness.
The rarest breed of villain: Asakura Hao
Manga and anime villains are about as varied as they come. Some are genius bastards and others are (sometimes literally) complete monsters. But despite their characteristics or amazing powers, there's one thing that is almost universally true: at the end of the day, they never win. I mean, they can't, right? If they did, it would break the story. The heroes would be dead and (insert anime/manga world) would be doomed to 10,000 years of darkness!
Yet, despite that common thread, win is exactly what Asakura Hao does. And I'm not talking about a momentary victory that is eventually snatch away from him by the plucky heroes. Hao literally gets everything he wanted and becomes an indomitable god, leaving Yoh, his friends, and the rest of the world basically fucked.
Granted, the world is saved from his wrath by way of (basically) therapy — but the point is he was ultimately always in control. It was Hao's growth as a character that led to his decision to spare all of humanity. In the end, all Yoh could do was try to talk Hao down. It worked, but only because Hao was ready to accept his past mistakes. That kind of complexity is rare in the shonen climate, where many final villains are defeated during epic clashes with an ultimate attack powered by friendship.
While Hao's complete victory is what puts him in a league of his own, there's plenty more that makes him so awesome. In brief, he could read the minds of those around him, create and control oni, pioneered amazing advances in the shamanistic arts, built a family dynasty after growing up as an orphaned wanderer, defeated the 75 lords of hell which gave him the ability to control the terms of his resurrection, stole one of the five strongest spirits in the world right out from under its keepers, and forced his competition to forfeit their fight over the future of the world because he was just too powerful to defeat. How could anyone else ever compare?
So that's the first Masterwork Monday — a special Tuesday edition. I'd love to hear what everyone else likes best about Shaman King, or even what anime/manga you think has the best villains. Start some conversations in the comments!