We reflect on our all-time favorite manga antagonists.
As a whole, creators want you to root for the heroes in their stories. Their character arcs are significant in fueling the drama, and they’re generally considered the forces of good. There’s something really satisfying about a great villain, though. The best antagonists out there up the quality of their series, as they make it clear that there’s an actual, credible threat to be vanquished. From the imposingly powerful to the cunning and manipulative, these sorts of villains come in all types. Case in point, a wide variety of characters came to mind when we decided to share our favorite manga villains of all time. The following are the foes that made the cut.
My favorite Dragon Ball villain is Cooler, but because he’s really an anime villain more than a manga one, I’m gonna highlight my second favorite Dragon Ball villain, Kid Buu.
When I was young, I thought Kid Buu was one of the coolest villains because he’s a pure incarnation of vicious, gleeful destruction. This is Majin Buu with all the intelligence and capacity for good behavior stripped away to a childish, animal-like need to kill and cackle to his heart’s content. As the final villain of the original Dragon Ball manga, he was like the Big Bad of the series to me: a heartless force of nature that couldn’t be reasoned with.
My other pick is another favorite from my childhood and I’m going to cheat and talk about both Zabuza and Haku.
I remember watching Naruto on Toonami and being floored by the emotional depth Zabuza and Haku brought to the series. Until that point, I don’t think I had ever been exposed to “cartoon characters” (this was back before I could clearly distinguish between anime and western animation) who defied gender expectations in explicit terms, had affecting tragic backstories while still being antagonists through and through, and then both died before they had a chance to be redeemed into friends for the heroes. Zabuza was a scary-ass villain but I cared about him by the end, and Haku’s traumatic life, which ends in an upsetting death, was something middle-school-aged me didn’t know how to process. I still think Kishimoto peaked with this arc. There are plenty of stories in Naruto with emotional weight and excellent fights, but nothing ever came close to the nuanced and affecting way he told Haku and Zabuza’s story.
When the topic of favorite manga villains came up, I instantly thought of Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu’s The Promised Neverland. The series has had a number of great villains, from Isabella and Sister Krone in the opening arc to Lewis in the recently completed Goldy Pond arc. Isabella started the series’ drama off well as an intelligent and conniving nemesis with way more societal power and knowledge than the protagonists. There was a very real sense that she could be the death of Emma, Ray, and co., even though she went about her day-to-day life as their “loving” caretaker. Once Sister Krone was introduced things got even more interesting, as she simultaneously plotted against both the kids and Isabella.
As awesome as Isabella and Krone were, Lewis was even cooler. He was arguably the first of the manga’s demons to receive distinct characterization as opposed to just being part of a larger group. He was every bit as cunning as the series’ human villains, but he was also much stronger physically speaking. He was damn near unkillable, and the protagonists had to use trap after trap and barrage after barrage of bullets to finally take him down. As if his sheer competence wasn’t enough, he also had a unique respect for his opponents. He was at his happiest hunting humans, and when he finally found worthy prey in Emma he was downright ecstatic. The Goldy Pond arc truly felt like a duel between two passionate forces, and it was a lot of fun to read. Plus, it’s recently been hinted that he may not be out of the picture after all. Here’s hoping he makes a reappearance worthy of his magnitude.
I also adore the antagonist from Ryousuke Tomoe’s Museum. His design is simple but amazing: he’s a dude in a regular rain jacket and pants with a frog mask on. This enhancement of the average with one striking detail is very effective, keeping him creepily down-to-earth and unreadable at the same time. His modus operandi is also memorable. He’s a serial killer who murders his victims using a variety of techniques designed to parallel their perceived sins. Cruel and unfeeling yet also disturbingly creative, he’s like if you took a Criminal Minds villain and imbued them with a flair for visual art. All in all, he’s unforgettable for me.
I also want to give a quick shout out to Kohei Horikoshi and My Hero Academia. The series has a variety of cool villains from Tomura Shigaraki to Overhaul, but I have a soft spot for the barely used Moonfish. He’s more or less my favorite manga villain who never got enough page-time despite having a badass design and powers. He’s essentially just wearing a gimp suit, but his mouth is always shown open with eerily large teeth. They get even larger when he uses his Quirk, which is to lengthen them to absurd degrees and aim them at opponents as razor sharp blades. It’s a really disturbing visual, and I’m disappointed he hasn’t shown up more frequently.
This is an easy pick for me since it’s a villain from one of my favorite manga, Death Note. The funny thing is that the villain is also the protagonist, further complicating the character and making the reading experience one that makes you feel a bit immoral. That villain is Light, a boy who gains the ability to kill anyone by simply writing their name. As the manga goes on Light gains more power even when detective L is right on his heels. Sure, Light is killing for the greater good, but the series postulates that maybe if you continue down this path the greater good becomes a very dark and terrible place. One could argue that Ryuk, Light’s god handler who tosses the book his way, is the real villain, but Light still takes it upon himself to kill others.
The series does a phenomenal job at capturing the inner thought process of Light, making him one of the most complex characters I’ve ever read in a manga or comic book. One could argue that at times he’s the good guy and his intentions are noble in the grand scheme of things, but there is no doubt as the series goes on that he becomes addicted to the power he wields over the world. He relishes the fear bad guys and even good people live under. He literally plays god and relishes it, but it’s written in such a way that you can relate to his actions and put yourself in his shoes.
“I doubt I need an introduction, but just in case, I am the mighty Frieza, and yes, all the horrible stories you’ve heard are true.” – Frieza
One of my favorite villains would have to be Frieza from Dragon Ball Z. Although I started backwards with Dragon Ball (anime first then manga), in my opinion his saga has to be the greatest of all. The first time that we saw Goku actually reaching Super Saiyan mode was thanks to this guy. He is the only villain that is naturally evil; Frieza is straight-up a conqueror of universes. During his saga he has various transformations that vary in power. Vegeta, another character in Dragon Ball Z, is a very egocentric guy, but at the sight of Frieza all of that turns into fear. Frieza is aware of his own brutality and he accepts it. I have only watched Dragon Ball Z in Spanish, and in that version Frieza always compels dark humor in the conversations he has with others. It’s a characteristic of his that just makes you love him. Honestly, I stopped reading and watching Dragon Ball due to it’s longevity, but I have no doubt that on Frieza is still cooking up evil in his cameos.
There are many great villains in manga that I have gotten to read about over the years, from truly loathsome but human creeps like Director Rockswell of Afterschool Charisma to off-kilter, genocidal figures such as Dr. Roosevelt of Pluto. But when it comes to my favorite manga villain, I would like to spotlight just one: Lady Bernkastel, the Witch of Miracles from Umineko: When They Cry.
Umineko has a toooooooon of good villains, some growing or lessening in their villain status over time like Beatrice, but I would like to narrow in on Bernkastel. She’s initially introduced as just an observer of the Groundhog Day-like events that take place over the series’ run, showing up to watch things play out and maybe stave off her endless boredom from living for centuries. She presents herself as an ally for Battler, the series’ protagonist, offering occasional advice so he could escape his situation. But as time goes on and Bern keeps appearing in the series it starts to become clear that she’s anything but a casual observer.
Coming into her own in the fourth arc, she reveals herself to be a vicious, heartless manipulator. She brings in Battler’s sister, offering her a chance at salvation from her harsh life, only for it to be revealed to be nothing but smoke and mirrors. The sister is then senselessly slaughtered once her purpose is no more. Bernkastel starts partially running the show in the fifth arc when her bloodlust really boils over. She’s determined to destroy everything precious Beatrice had and to wipe her from all realities. She introduces her own “self” into the games within the series, planning to wreck things there, but when her clone shows even the slightest bit of weakness the witch threatens to annihilate her completely. Even Bern’s own friend, the Witch of Certainty, is just another plaything for her to hurt and destroy. The only reason for any and all of this? Just the means to an end, relieving her of some of her endless boredom. She’s truly one of the coldest villains I’ve ever read about, and since I still haven’t finished the series I’m sure there are still more horrors and vicious acts she has left to reveal.
Not every bad guy has to be an over-the top-villain with godlike powers. The best evildoers are just crappy people who don’t care who they hurt. Enter Gendo Ikari from the iconic Neon Genesis Evangelion. As the head of NERV, Gendo is responsible for the research done on the Evangelion Project. In order to get what he needs, Gendo uses everyone around them until he no longer needs them. He seemingly only cares about doing what is best for himself and will do whatever is necessary to accomplish his goals. The worst thing about him is his treatment of his son Shinji. He is reluctant to have anything to do with Shinji and treats him with complete indifference. It’s brutally sad. Even the revelation at the end of Evangelion that Gendo’s actions were motivated by love don’t change how much of a butthead he was throughout the entire series.