Mourning the Bad Guy

By Shamus
on Aug 30, 2006
Filed under:
Anime

Steven originally pointed me towards this exhaustive list of %anime tropes. This is a lot of fun to read through. It’s rather telling how many of these I recognize despite my limited anime experience.

Here is a trope – if not an outright cliché – that has been getting on my nerves lately: Shows that mourn the death of the villian. Between Fullmetal Alchemist and Full Metal Panic I’ve just about exceeded the maximum safe dosage of this one.

The hero will end up in a fight with some sick sadistic bastard who’s killed heaps of innocent people. When cornered, the protagonist will still try to beat him without killing him. Why? Unless you plan on imprisoning him, there is no justification for leaving him alive.

Full Metal Panic did this in the episode where Sosuke has to fight a robot ten times bigger than his own. They stomp through the city while the bad buy blasts innocents and knocks over buildings for fun. When he finally goes down everyone seems worried about what a sad waste of life it was to kill him, and they never give a second thought to the hundreds or thousands of dead civilians below. Sosuke didn’t have a problem offing the guy, but when it was over it seemed like we were supposed to feel bad that he was gone?

fma_killer.jpg
In Fullmetal Alchemist, Ed faced off against a metal suit, which was made by binding the soul of a serial killer to a metal suit of armor. He’s nearly unkillable. He’s homicidal. He’s sick and evil and dangerous. Despite this, Ed refuses to kill the bad guy, even when the bad guy realizes he’s beaten and asks to die. When the bad guy finally snuffs it, Ed is stricken.

I can understand that a character may be a pacifist, but Ed is not a pacifist. I can understand someone who reflects back on a battle after the fact and has regrets about the taking of a human life, but that’s not what we see here. This is someone showing doubt about killing a foe who is beyond redemption and negotiation.

fma_greed.jpg
Ed uses deadly edged weapons and engages in fierce, life-or-death battles. Once he has marched into battle with his arm transmuted into a big metal spike, faced off against a deranged murderer, gotten stabbed a few times, and fought to the point of exhaustion, I think we’re past the stage where he should be squemish about it. If he can’t get his head around it by now, then maybe he needs to think about another line of work.

It’s bad enough when soldiers and mercinaries agonize over killing the most hopeless and sadistic murderers, but the real problem is that the writers seem to think we should shed a tear along with them. The slow, mournful music swells up and the camera pans back from the fallen. Farewell, evil bastard. Rest in peace.

This wouldn’t be so irritating if they gave a halfway glance back at any of the many victims of the bad guy.

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20525 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.

From the Archives:

  1. MOM says:

    I agree. But the rules of war are sort of on the side of the writers of the game. Whether or not you are free to kill the enemy combatant is not based on how evil you judge him to be. If he surrenders or is wounded and helpless, you can be considered a murderer if you kill him. In fact, depending on the conditions and state of the battle, you may be required to assist him and get him medical help, ie. save his life! You are not, however, required to mourn if he dies from his battle injuries.

  2. Shamus says:

    Well, I should have stated: In the examples I cite, none of the bad guys ever surrendered. They fought to the end.

  3. Cineris says:

    This is definitely one of the reasons why I dislike the show. I consider the attitude of, “Killing under any circumstances is wrong,” an attitude that Ed seems to hold and which the show seems to endorse, as extremely childish.

    I forget exactly what happens with regards to the armor suit character, but it sounds like the writers of the show wanted a way to exonerate Ed of moral culpability for killing while still doing the necessary thing and getting rid of the character. Solution: Show Ed conflicted and unwilling to finish the job, because he’s such a nice and upstanding guy, then have some third party come along and kill the character while Ed’s off guard. The resolution is that Ed is still lily-white in the eyes of the viewer, and nobody has to think beyond a catchphrase like, “Killing is always wrong,” or “Equivalent exchange.”

    In general this attitude carries over into a generally anti-military sentiment throughout the show. Ed and Alphonse are [supposedly] in the military. They, and basically every other character, talk about it as if merely joining the military leaves a black mark on their souls. Come on. It’s like even joining an organization where killing might be required is supposed to morally compromise someone.

    (And lets not even get to discussing how the show makes alchemy itself corrupt everyone except Ed and Alphonse.)

  4. MOM says:

    Your desciption of the end made the villian sound wounded and helpless.
    And of course if he had killed him outright in battle no rules would be broken.

  5. Shamus says:

    I guess I could have explained better, but I don’t have the disc anymore and I can’t remember the exact working. The gist of it was he was taunting Ed by saying, “you must either kill me or I will go on to kill others”. He seemed just as baffled by Ed’s goofy ethics as I was.

  6. Ubu Roi says:

    Back when you reminded us all why Firefly was such a great show, you wrote: “I got irritated, as I always do. I heaved a big sigh. Would one of you guys just shoot this bastard?

    Then the captain strides in and does exactly that. No fuss. No gunplay. No moment of hesitation. No quips or trash talk or moralizing or negotiating. No trickery. No suspense about the bad guy shooting the girl or not. Mal just strides into the room and guns down the bad guy before he’s done issuing his demands. The captain doesn’t break stride, and – more importantly – neither does the plot.”

    The rot that is Hollywood these days can’t seem to acknowledge that sometimes the best thing to do with a murderer is to KILL HIM. Nor can it understand that sometimes countries have to be very brutal to defend themselves. It has yet to produce one pro-war film about any conflict since we invaded Grenada (the forgotten “Heartbreak Ridge”) and that was 20 years ago. Bruce Willis is reduced to supporting the troops through USO trips, since he can’t find a scriptwriter, director, or studio that will back a movie that portrays our soldiers as anything other than dupes or brutes. And expecting to find anything sensible in animé, which routinely turns the US military into the UN military is a lost cause.

    Contrasting points of view are nice on occasion. Occasionally, you can get it, but it’s rare. I guess they were all raised on sappy Disney-esque moralistic kiddie pap….

  7. Shamus says:

    The most pernicious idea, which has been rammed down out throughts since we were children: If we kill him, it will make us just as bad as he is.

    I knew it was nonsense the moment I heard it, and I was probably not ten years old yet. Some people heard it and embraced it. I don’t object to them holding that point of view, even though I don’t agree with it. What I DO object to is that they cannot write any other sort of character. They will be writing about cowboys in the lawless west and they will still try to project this thinking into their protagonist, even though it makes no sense in that context and people just didn’t think that way at that time and place in history.

    You are right. The rot runs deep.

  8. HC says:

    No idea about FMA, beyond the identified problems; in FMP that villian was a child as I recall. A psychotic mass-murdering child, but still a child.

    Actually, one other reason it gets done so often is that it’s effective when done well. You can get good drama out of the realization that the enemy is another human being whom, if met under different circumstances, might have been admirable or a friend.

    This does require decent writing and characterization; I get the impression that a lot of shows settle for cuing sad music at the death of the villian instead.

  9. Pete Zaitcev says:

    Getting back to the original point, there’s a very clear distinction between acting heroes and the background fodder. The NPCs die by dozens, thousands, or millions with exactly the same emotional impact: nonzero to be sure, but very, very small. It’s in every show ever made. I saw anime made in 1967, The Ghost Ship or some such, where NPCs disappeared because they drunk some soda. I don’t remember how it was in the 70s, but 80-s vintage DBZ definitely had the same concept with exploding planets and Cell consuming cities.

  10. The pilot of the gigamecha in FMP wasn’t a child. He was a “youth”, a teenager. Fact is, he was probably about the same age as Sagara and Tessa, who are serving military personnel (as mercenaries).

  11. Wonderduck says:

    There are two reasons why everybody is sad when THE Bad Guy dies:

    1) When The Bad Guy dies, the hero has nobody to face anymore. The show therefore must come to an end, and the characters are out of work. Therefore, they are sad.

    2) When The Bad Guy dies, and the show comes to an end, the WRITERS are out of work. Therefore, they are sad, and that comes through in their writing.

  12. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    Ed, I believe now views taking life in the same way he views giving life through alchemy. He made the mistake of trying to bring a loved one back from the dead, and since he sees both scenarios as the same thing he doesn’t want to make the same mistake again. Also in Eds defense he is only about 15 or 16 in that episode, and I don’t care what anyone says, it takes a man to kill. maybe it has to do with his obsession with equivolent exchange. He might not want to kill because he his getting nothing in return. Ed might be more willing to kill if he knew he was getting a pretty red bicycle after he slaughtered someone. thats fair right

  13. Nathan H. says:

    I must disagree with “it takes a man to kill”. The existance of child soldiers in Africa and Southeast Asia (and European history) somewhat disproves that thesis.

    Furthermore, I expect it’s _easier_ for children to be killers. Empathy develops slowly, on into the teenage years. The typical 10 or 12 year old has little care for the feelings of others, and little concept of what death means. It is adults that have to psychologically adjust themselves to ending the existance of others.

  14. Tyan says:

    Edward’s view on humanity is questioned more than once in the manga. In chapter 44, page 4, Pinako says: “This child’s scale of humanity is too wide … and yet … Perhaps he must think that way, or else admit that Al is not human right now. That’s right … Al…”
    It takes more guts not to kill than to kill, as Major Miles stated in chapter 76 (although, no doubt, it isn’t easy to kill either). He said it was childish of Ed to have this “kill no-one”-rule, just like some of you. I, however, believe this view makes him more of a hero. I know most of you disagree, and I will make no effort to write a long essay about it, but I really believe that this way of thinking is admirable. It is easier to kill your opponent than not to sometimes, but Ed has such a value in life that to kill anyone – enemy or not – is something he would always want to avoid. Major Miles also said that his ethical “kill no-one”-rule would get him killed some day – and of course, he gets a near-death experience in the same chapter because of this.

    Still, I think his compassion isn’t the right thing to bash. But you know, you could just call my view naive and immature too, as I’m just fifteen years old. I still have a lot to learn … Heck, my brain isn’t even finished developed yet. However, on this ‘kill-or-not-kill’ area I am very stubborn about my view.

    Killing out of compassion is another thing. However, when Ed refused to kill the one he had defeated, even though the guy was asking for it, I believe he still thought there was a better solution.

    … That’s just my two cents.

  15. wolfgang says:

    damn!!!! are you kidding me
    Ed is just a kid, i mean… he is laike 16 years old an however is hard to kill someone when you are that joung, and, also, he is the hero of the anime, if you want to see an anime where the main character kills anyone no matter what (friends, girls, kids, parents) you want to see: “samurai champloo” even if it is too short still cool

  16. Veylon says:

    I would like to see a character mature enough to counter the “if you kill them you’ll be just like them” with an argument of their own.

  17. dyrnwyn says:

    “The typical 10 or 12 year old has little care for the feelings of others, and little concept of what death means.”
    I’m fifteen you seem to beleive that that the people little younger then me are virtually heartless and easily capable of slaughter. I remember beeing 10 My greatest fear was that at the end of life there was nothing. I was afraid to go to sleep becouse I veiwed it as the same state as death. A state of almost complete nonexistance. Your reasoning is more absurd then the labels on dice telling us that people who have grown in an industrail world for eight years will choke on dice.

  18. dyrnwyn says:

    “The typical 10 or 12 year old has little care for the feelings of others, and little concept of what death means.”
    I’m fifteen you seem to beleive that that the people little younger then me are virtually heartless and easily capable of slaughter. I remember beeing 10 My greatest fear was that at the end of life there was nothing. I was afraid to go to sleep becouse I veiwed it as the same state as death. A state of almost complete nonexistance. Your reasoning is more absurd then the labels on dice informing us that people who have grown in an industrail world for eight years will choke on dice.

  19. Tesh says:

    Late to this party, but sometimes monsters just need to be put down. It can be soul searing, hoping for the best only to get it thrown in your face (see: the Batman mythos), but sometimes it’s necessary to stand up and stop evil. (Seriously, will someone just execute the Joker already? Stupid pansy Batman beats the ever living crap out of thugs, but won’t man up and stop someone truly dangerous.)

  20. Andrew says:

    I remember something like this in an Anime I watched once. It made no sense to me- somehow, in the final moment, the character just couldn’t pull off the coup de grace. I remember watching the character begin to question their reasons for killing the bad guy. I was seriously wishing he would stop his monologue, look around and notice the huge piles of rubble and bodies all around him, say to himself “oh right, that’s why”, and then just finish it. If the writers really don’t have the guts to end it, at least do it Darth Vader style (conveniently dying right after being redeemed).

  21. Alissa says:

    I think that Ed had problems killing the serial killer just because his soul had been bound to a metal suit and that made him think of Al. That was my take on it.

  22. Eddis says:

    What Alissa said. It’s too much like killing his own brother.

  23. NonEuclid says:

    Really, really late to the party, but I wanted to offer up the given explanation for the Fullmetal Alchemist example.

    Regardless of how childish or idealistic it is, Ed has a self-imposed rule of not killing another human. Probably has something to do with how the alchemical price of a human life is something that no one is capable of paying and it is therefore amazingly valuable yadda yadda yadda. Anyways. When the suit-of-armor-man reminds him that he’s just a soul in a shell, Ed justifies not killing him by saying that if he did, that would mean that the suit-of-armor-man is less than human, which would mean that Al, who is in the same condition, is also less than human. He looks so stricken when the guy gets killed off because a) it was a senseless killing because the guy was fully incapacitated, and b) it was a little too much like watching his brother get killed.

  24. Gilf says:

    To be fair, a lot of the show is about Edward and Al growing up. One of the things Ed probably has to deal with is feeling he has to take the moral high ground.

    That, and I think he’s pretty justified in taking the life of someone after putting his brother in the same predicament as them. He’d probably feel really damn guilty, since he can’t even take calling the serial killers ‘not human’ because of his brother’s state.

    This may not excuse it for everyone, but it made sense to me at the time.

  25. zob says:

    While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment behind the post, the aforementioned kid had been brainwashed and constantly fed psychotic drugs to be that “psychotic killer”. in a way it really was a waste of life. Kalinin’s grief over woman antagonist(who was responsible for creating that killer) would be a better example.

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