The Rurouni Kenshin live-action trilogy is one of my favorite movie series ever, featuring an incredible cast of characters. Among these incredible characters is Shishio, the over-arching villain featured in the second and third movies. Shishio was once a samurai in service to the shogun. He slaughtered his way to infamy in the service of his nation, but when the Meiji era took over, some drastic changes had to be made. The Powers that Be decided Shishio had done too many horrific deeds in the service of his country, and they had to wash their hands of it. Because of this decision, as victory was sounded, Shishio was deceived and brutally attacked by his rejoicing comrades. Stabbed multiple times, the wounded Shishio was thrown into a pile of dead bodies and set on fire. The weather, however, had other ideas – it began to snow. The snow put out the fire, and Shishio, charred, horribly disfigured, and on the brink of death, was able to crawl away.
In that moment, the bakufu created their own worst nightmare. Shishio returned to exact his revenge, murdering shinsengumi (police) officers and government officials with no remorse. He had undoubtedly risen again as a villain of the worst kind.
Yet he remains one of the most powerful, striking characters I’ve ever come across. He’s a villain, but in my mind, he’s exactly what a villain ought to be for maximum potential. Why? I’ll tell you why.
- He’s sympathetic. I don’t use this term lightly, but Shishio was used by his country and thrown away in a horrible, excruciating manner. Even if you hate what he’s doing now, even if you think ‘he was unnecessarily violent back in the day,’ nobody deserves the treatment he received.
- He’s incredibly strong. I don’t just mean physically – physically, he’s covered in enough bandages to mask King Tut and he can’t exert himself too much or he’ll die. He has the sheer, ferocious strength of determination. He survived being stabbed a dozen times and burned alive. He crawled his way across a battlefield while in enough pain to realistically kill a lesser person.
- He’s clever. Oh, I love a clever villain. He doesn’t unnecessarily exert himself (most of the time). In fact, when Kenshin first shows up to fight Shishio, Shishio simply has a very skilled underling take Kenshin on while Shishio leaves. For most of the story, he doesn’t have the mindset many movie villains have of ‘I GOTTA DO IT ALL MYSELF.’ He’s perfectly willing to delegate, which is why his Evil Plan is working so well.
- He’s very human. Oh, sure, he’s a big, bad supervillain with a dramatic backstory and an even more dramatic appearance – but you never feel like you’re dealing with an indestructible Enemy. He’s a very real, very feeling, very injured, very bitter human being with More Determination and Cleverness Than You. Which leads me to my last point…
- He’s admirable. I know. He’s a remorseless murderer, but even a remorseless murderer can have admirable qualities – and Shishio does. He has strength and determination in spades. He’s strategic. He’s controlled. He’s confident, but not so confident that he refuses to delegate. He’s clever, he’s intelligent, and while he’s become so twisted by revenge that he’s honestly on the far side of crazy, there’s a strangely noble tint to what he does. His revenge isn’t simply for himself; his revenge is for the country he knew. It’s for the countless displaced and spurned samurai. It’s not a solely selfish revenge.
He is, in my opinion, the ideal sympathetic villain. The lines are very clear – he’s not the good guy. He’s bad. Very bad, in fact – but he’s a villain you can understand and even feel terribly, deeply sorry for. He’s a villain who makes you feel more emotions than just loathing or hatred and that’s why he’s such a powerful antagonist. You don’t root for him, but you can see his point of view, and you can sympathize with it. The villains we relate to are always the best, and Shishio is a perfect example.
When the villain has a motive you can understand and sympathize with, and when said villain is very clearly the Bad Guy anyway, it’s been done right.
What about you? Do you have a favorite sympathetic villain?