Akatsuki. The Espada. The Homunculi. The Phantom Troupe. The Ten Commandments.
The monikers above belong to the central criminal organizations in five iconic anime series: “Naruto,” “Bleach,” “Fullmetal Alchemist,” “Hunter x Hunter,” and “The Seven Deadly Sins,” respectively. Within their ranks are some of the most beloved characters in the history of the genre. Sinister and melancholic, they serve as well-defined antitheses to the brighter, morally orthodox teams of protagonists they fight against.
For loyal fans, these names are enduring classics. Ruthless and imaginative, groups like these are what separate the great shows from the good.
There is a distinct romance to the criminal organization in anime. This is apparent in every feature of the animation. Take Akatsuki, the criminal organization in “Naruto.” Its members stand in stark aesthetic and behavioral opposition to the show’s main trio. While Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura wear regular apparel, members of the Akatsuki don flowing black robes adorned with vermillion clouds. One member named Kisame Hoshigaki wields a sword made of shark scales that cleaves metal like butter; his combat partner Itachi Uchiha locks opponents in psychological torture by holding their gaze for a fraction of a second.
All this is a verbose way of articulating a simple truth: Anime criminals are simply more interesting than their morally commendable counterparts.
So what about being criminal is enigmatic? Why, in other words, are we drawn to characters who do bad things?
The answer is necessarily a convergence of factors. For one, criminal groups disrupt traditional structures of power. Protagonists are often frustratingly loyal to societal norms and laws. Rather than bend the rules, the antagonists eschew them entirely, operating in a moral limbo outside the realm of traditional civic affairs. There’s also a tragic allure to the way these characters play God — often to Icarian effect. By attempting to assume power over a reimagined world order, they try to do the impossible: break free from the gravity of the world and move with ease through its wildness. Of course, this liberation does not come without its costs. It isn’t often that antagonists disrupt systems of power in an altruistic fashion; they extort and pillage, taking from others.
Generally, these characters also have interesting backstories. The gradual uncovering of their histories throughout a series allows actions that seemed reprehensible to become understandable at second glance, perhaps even forgivable. Often, members of criminal groups are individuals of exceptional promise who, after a betrayal or an inconceivable loss, determine that they can no longer serve a society that has failed them. This conviction compels them to turn to underground groups that operate outside of the accepted social and political infrastructure. Their moral compromise mirrors a concealed personal trauma.
These criminal groups, then, operate on a paradoxical logic: They accept only the best — the best of the worst. They attract, in other words, exceptional outcasts. They grow into mythic syndicates populated by fallen elites.
Class dynamics often foreground depictions of criminality in anime. Take the Phantom Troupe from “Hunter x Hunter.” It’s a motley crew of lethal, gorgeous, and volatile outcasts helmed by an icy visionary named Chrollo Lucifer — a rather obvious nod to the hellish side of biblical tradition. The majority of the Troupe’s members hail from Meteor City, a wasteland where people from across the planet dump industrial trash. Despite its population of roughly ten million, the official record indicates the number at zero. The very existence of Meteor City’s residents — many of whom, destitute, scrounge the debris for scraps — goes unrecognized.
From this place of destitution, the Troupe emerges. As viewers bear witness to the indignities its infamous members faced in their formative years, it becomes increasingly difficult to pass judgment on their resentment towards the world. Their backstories beg the question: Are morally upright characters intrinsically good, or were they just lucky enough to not be exposed to experiences of abandonment and violence? And even if they were, can we truly criticize those who choose more hostile forms of self-preservation after experiences of trauma?
Other considerations shape conceptions of criminality. Gender undoubtedly plays an important role. It’s notable that the vast majority of members in many criminal organizations are male. Take the Akatsuki from “Naruto.” Despite having over a dozen members, only one, Konan, is a woman. The disproportionate male-female ratio rings true for groups from other shows, including The Espada in “Bleach” and The Ten Commandments in “Seven Deadly Sins.” Though groups like “Hunter”’s Troupe retain a more equal balance, the trend suggests an association — or at least a correlation — of criminality with masculinity. These masculine undertones in qualities including intensity, strategy, decisiveness, and strength, though occasionally subverted, need to be more pointedly challenged in the future.
An exploration into viewers’ infatuation with anime criminals is telling. It reveals complicated truths about consumers and what they demand from their characters. Perhaps more importantly, it opens up a set of urgent questions about the ways in which we relate to structures of power and desire — but perhaps fail to act on our desire — to disrupt the machinery of those structures.
The dialogue that emerges in the wake of this reflection reiterates the core project of this column: to call attention to the wisdom of anime, and firmly critique the normative stance that the genre is a juvenile or otherwise second-class form of entertainment.
Wildly popular and frequently brilliant, anime often presents media at its most interesting and unorthodox. To put a finger on the craze, we must lean in rather than look away.
— Staff Writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho. Part love letter, part cultural critique, and part manifesto on the remarkable wisdom of the genre, her column “Dear Anime” explores how anime enables consumers to engage in complex dialogues on gender, power, and affect.