Antagonists are a cornerstone of storytelling, and they are often more worthy of study than their opposite protagonists by being the more tortured character. Antagonists are psychological mysteries waiting to be unraveled, but often they are confused with “evil” morality. Though many antagonists are evil, it’s important to note that an evil character is not always an antagonist, and, more importantly here, not all antagonists are evil. Miyazaki Hayao’s anime films often contain stories with antagonists who are difficult to call evil, and Ursula K.
LeGuin is one of his chief inspirations. This essay will examine the difference between antagonism and evilness, as well as study the antagonists of two of Miyazaki’s works and one of LeGuin’s works to determine if they are, in fact, evil.
To distinguish evilness and antagonism in analyzing the personalities of evil characters, will look for three common elements: sentience, selfishness, and sociopathy. An evil person has to want something and must stop at nothing to get what he or she wants, no matter who is hurt, killed, or sacrificed along the way.
Sentience seems a given, but remember that not all antagonists are sentient (which we will see later). Selfishness is reflected in a desire to gain, not for others, but for the self; evil characters almost always act for themselves, and if not, they intend for some kind of benefit. Sociopathy is the keystone: evil characters don’t care what they do to get what they want as long as they get to their goal, and if that means maiming a few innocents along the way, then so be it.
If, for instance, we consider Darth Vader to be morally evil at the start of the Star Wars trilogy (1977-82), we learn in the end he only acts in his master’s stead, making him selfless, which is furthered by his saving of Luke from that master later on. Thus, Darth Vader is not evil.
Let’s apply this definition to Miyazaki’s manga, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982-93), where, by the seventh volume, the only antagonist left to oppose Nausicaä is an intelligent being that runs and protects the Crypt of Shuwa. In a sense, the Crypt is against the messianic protagonist, so is it evil? Consider sentience. Whether or not we can say that the Crypt intelligence is sentient is another discussion entirely, but for our purposes, I will say that it is, as it can speak and react to Nausicaä, and It appears to have the power to reason and make choices beyond programmed responses. We move, then, to sociopathy. This is more a psychological issue, but this intelligence is programmed to look out for only its group and no others. That said, it looks out for a group, and not for itself, which brings us to selfishness. The intelligence has the goals of more than one in mind; pre-apocalyptic humans are a group of more than one individual, and it has no self-advancing goals except to protect them. For its selflessness, we can conclude that it is not evil.
The Nausicaä anime feature, however, was completed long before the manga ever hinted at a Crypt, and its home country, Dork, is not mentioned in the film. Instead, it shifts focus to the giant insect-like creatures called Ohmu, as well as the forest in the Sea of Corruption from which they come. These creatures are established as antagonists early on, showing viewers an angry, red-eyed Ohmu attacking the enigmatic Lord Yupa. However, they do not overtake the Sea of Corruption as the main antagonist, the “Big Bad,” of the anime.
It’s obvious that the forest fails all criteria for being evil: it is not sentient, and therefore it can’t be selfish or sociopathic. However, like the Crypt intelligence, the Ohmu are difficult to classify as sentient or not. They don’t seem to operate individually, but as a whole, possessing some kind of hive mindset, sharing information, emotion, and noticeably, anger. If we choose not to apply sentience to the individual, we can determine that the Ohmu hive mind is sentient, though a particular Ohmu won’t be. But the hive is still incapable of evil because it is inherently selfless. In no way do the Ohmu display any kind of selfish behavior, and even though they may act for their benefit, they have no “self” to begin with, being many instead of just one.
Sociopathy simply doesn’t apply either; Nausicaä repeatedly points us to the fact that the Ohmu, when angry, is “blinded with rage.” In this state, they only care little for none but themselves because of this blindness; they cannot see that they are harming others. In Whitney killing Nausicaä in the stampede, they calm down and choose to revive her, showing us that they must care for more than themselves.
Now, I want to consider Cob in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore (1972). Unlike Miyazaki’s antagonists, Cob is (was) human, and he intensely fears death, such that he will stop at nothing to avoid it. Yet Cob is difficult to classify as evil at first, because in the last few moments, his character, like Darth Vader, suddenly turns. In his sobbing at his arguments with Ged, he reveals some kind of faint guilt at his actions. The text states, “Very strange was the mixture of despair and vindictiveness, terror and vanity, in his words and voice” (p. 232). But when he lunges at Ged when the other attempts to close the gap, he reinforces his selfishness and fear. Still more confusing is his reaction to Ged’s success in closing the gap: “There was no anger in his face, no hate, no grief” (p. 236). However, it must be said that, though an evil person may experience fear and grief for the consequences of his actions, it does not make the character any less evil. We can conclude from this that Cob is certainly sentient, selfish to the end, and sociopathic for rending the world without sparing a thought for its inhabitants: “Only I exist” (p. 231).
Cob is a challenging character to consider evil in his final moments, though he eventually does come through as such. Miyazaki, on the other hand, seems to want to stray from the “antagonist is always evil” paradigm and instead give his fans an enemy that either cannot be evil or is too complex to be evil. Indeed, in other Miyazaki works, the antagonist, upon further investigation, isn’t evil, from the witch Yubaba in Spirited Away (2001) to San and Eboshi in Princess Mononoke (1997) to nothing at all in My Neighbor Totoro (1988). LeGuin, too, creates non-evil protagonists in her works, notably the harsh environment of Winter in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). It is clear, then, that antagonism is not congruent with evilness, and as more and more writers choose to create non-evil antagonists like the Ohmu, the Crypt intelligence, or the Sea of Corruption, the difference becomes more distinct.