Understanding Characters: The OP Badass

Welcome one and all. This post will have scattered spoilers but will mostly focus on the presentation and execution of the subject matter at hand using examples.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, action and anime have a long and intimate relationship, and one of the archetypes that you will commonly find in action anime is the OP Badass.  However, as with everything else, the OP badass can be awesome or shit depending on how well he or she is used in the series.  So as someone who clearly loves looking at his own writing a bit too much, I shall expound upon ye humble readers, my views on how to use the OP badass well.

First things first, the OP badass mustn’t hog the spotlight.  This might actually easier to explain by starting with an example that gets it wrong.  Let’s pick on Naruto because I enjoy picking on the big guys first.  Madara is great example of how to do OP badass completely fucking wrong.  His entrance was good but as time has worn on he has just torn my enjoyment of the show to shreds to the point where I have seriously considered dropping the show altogether.  Madara gets two very important elements of good OP badasses wrong.  First, he sticks around rubbing his OPness in your face.  You see a good OP badass usually doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, he comes in rarely makes sure to enter and exit with a bang, and by the time he’s gone we can’t wait to see him again.  With Madara on the other hand,  he has been crushing the ninja world for so many episodes in a row now, that his jutsus have stopped being awesome and started being bullshit.  One comment I saw on Youtube sums up this issue fairly well, the comment being  “Naruto used to be about strategy and skill, now it’s all about who can spawn more meteors”.  I hold a similar belief, Naruto battles used to be a lot more engaging and I think the Second Chunin Exam filler demonstrated that well.  But with Madara on-screen, if you can’t take on the world with some stupidly powerful jutsu, you’re automatically not important anymore.  Second, over-exposure to awesome detracts from awesomeness.  If you go way back in Naruto there was a time when Chidori and Rasengan were a big deal, a point in the series where they where the ace in the hole or top drawer attack.  Then as time went on they became the go-to attacks, and all the dramatic timing, the buildup that used to go into the scenes where the Chidori or Rasengan  was featured stopped happening because Naruto and Sasuke kept using those moves until they lost all the special meaning they once had, and used them so frequently the creators couldn’t afford to give them same dramatic buildup that earlier episodes did.  The same goes for badasses, a badass who sticks around too long is soon rendered more mundane simply because they can’t keep building him or her up as dramatic.  To see how it’s done well compare for a moment Madara and Wrath aka King Bradley from FMAB.

Now Wrath has a fair amount of screen time but he only fights in short bursts.  He overpowers his opponents with ferocious skill, strength and speed.  But more importantly watching Wrath fight never gets boring because he never is kept in a situation where he keeps fighting for long periods of time.  All of his battles get proper dramatic buildup because he doesn’t have too many of them.  Therefore each  battle also carries more weight because we don’t know when we get to see the next one.  Wrath also has two other very important traits.  The first, still related to length of combat and screen time, is that Wrath does what all the great OP badasses do, he steals the spotlight.  For a brief span of time the story is completely his and there’s nothing the hero can do to stop it.  This particular trait, while extremely powerful one in the narrative sense, mostly only works when the badass has limited screen time because if he kept wresting control of the story away from the hero, the audience would stop caring about him and start to want to see the hero take center stage again.  The other trait Wrath has is that he’s vulnerable, and this is possibly the single most important trait for an OP badass to have.

Jumping back to Madara for a second, there was a scene where the Tailed Beasts pound him with a seven or eight hit combo, keep in mind this is before he goes Sage of Six Paths mode, being physically pummeled by giant monsters that outweigh him several thousand times over, which Madara then shrugs off with a laugh.  Even sweeping aside the frankly ridiculous way Madara shrugging off those attacks violates the laws of physics, it looks fucking retarded because to anyone else, a Tailed Beast attack likely spells instant death.  Having someone shrug off the attacks completely not only tears away any sense of dramatic tension from the scene, it ruins the visual awesomeness of the combo attack itself.  To get an example of the right way to do it let’s look at Wrath again this time accompanied by Esdeath of Akame ga Kill.  Now Wrath and Esdeath are by no means easy prey, they slaughter lesser men wholesale and even the strongest members among the good guys have a hell of time taking them down.  That said both Wrath and Esdeath are equally vulnerable to damage as even the lowliest random soldier.  For all their offensive might and defensive skill, when they do get hit they suffer damage like anyone else.  When Esdeath gets cut by Murasame, she doesn’t just shrug it off, she has to cut off her arm to keep the poison from spreading.  Wrath loses to Scar because for all his power and skill, he had simply taken too much damage going into the fight to come out on top.  This is part of what lends OP badasses their aura of awesome, the fact that unlike the common man they are not held back by the very reasonable fear of their own vulnerability, instead they strive to be ever stronger, recklessly throwing their all into becoming something greater.  Madara by comparison lacks this aura of awesome because it takes no courage to strive to be bigger and better if you were never vulnerable in the first place.  It’s not at all inspiring to watch someone who was never in any danger throw themselves into ostensibly dangerous situations.  Real OP badasses are badasses specifically because they suffer from the same limitations and weaknesses that others do and overcome these weakness through, will, discipline, and talent.  In a sense it’s like the legend of Hercules, Hercules is such a popular figure because he was a man who overcame his limitations to become something more than just a man.  It’s the kind of story that inspires, it hits some subconscious nerve and burns itself in our psyche.  True OP badasses likewise must be vulnerable, tough to kill certainly, but they can’t just shrug off attacks that they have no business surviving because that’s not badass, it just OP, and by itself being OP is a bad thing.  I mean for fucks sake Naruto took damage from Pains sharp black rods, so it’s not like Marada suddenly gaining sage mode should render him immune to crushing damage, that flies in the face of the internal consistency of the Naruto universe.  Unfortunately OP characters can do much worse than just violate the internal consistency of their worlds.

To me seeing a character who is truly OP, as in brokenly overpowered, is not fun to watch at all.  An Op badass is a character who can naturally steal the spotlight, by comparison a character who is just OP is in my experience a character who feels sorely out of place in the story.  My prime example is Meruem and the Royal Guard from HunterxHunter.  Those four individuals all fall victim to problems listed above, they spend a lot of time in the spotlight and often fight for extended lengths of time.  They are also not very vulnerable since the humans could only win via deus ex machina bomb that spreads poison or Gon’s life-destroying transformation.  But most importantly I feel like they just don’t quite coexist with the rest of HunterxHunter’s universe.  Their strength, toughness, skill and most frustrating for me personally, the speed at which they learn Nen powers is so many leagues ahead of more normal characters that these four legitimately feel like they come from another world.  Based on some hints people have dropped about the manga, that may actually have been reflective of their place in the narrative symbolically but since I haven’t read it I can’t say for sure.  But regardless they made that last major arc very difficult to sit through, and it’s a shame really because HunterxHunter has demonstrated it can do the OP badass supremely well in the form of the Phantom Troupe.

The Phantom Troupe mirrors the trends I’ve laid out thus far, they appear briefly and out of nowhere, they destroy lesser opponents by the score in brief vicious engagements and they have tons of great music and dialogue to make their scenes suitably dramatic.  They are also vulnerable and can have the rug pulled out from under them in the right circumstances.  And I feel like they are the crowd favorites of the series.  Based on all the comments and whatnot I have seen and the people I’ve talked to, my impression is that the Phantom Troupe is the favorite group in the series for the majority of people.  And it’s not hard for me to see why, the execution of all their scenes is phenomenal, they totally steal the show in the Yorknew arc and I loved their brief little smackdown with the Chimera Ants in Meteor City.  But at this point I think I’ve made my general stance on what makes for good badass characters plenty clear.  The key is that they must belong in the story and still have the presence to temporarily overshadow that story’s hero.  But most importantly it’s all about the presentation, good presentation makes for an unparalleled badass, and good presentation is hard to do for long periods of time.  But before I sign off and leave ye humble readers to mull over my wise and insightful words I want to talk about the exception to the rules I’ve laid down thus far.  The exception is when the OP badass is the hero of the story.

Obviously that means they will have the spotlight a lot, their every scene cannot be built-up in a dramatic way, and since they are the main character they will at bare minimum have some decent plot armor.  Now this exception can be done well, in a mediocre fashion or extremely shitty.  For a mediocre example take a gander at Shiba Tatsuya from Mahouka Kouko no Rettousei aka The Irregular at Magic High School.  Now Mahouka is show I place on the good side of average and my thoughts on our main man Tatsuya are much the same.  Initially I thought they did a good job with him, making him an OP badass because his skill set was so wildly unorthodox that no one could counter it effectively.  To me that was a nice touch, and it hooked me in the early parts of the series.  Likewise although he fought frequently, his battles happened in short bursts and the series kept him constantly switching up his fighting style for new kinds of unorthodox combat, keeping his badassery fresh.  This was all good stuff.  But as the series kept going and Tatsuya kept gaining new skills that he was a genius at and we learned that he was essentially invulnerable, well it shot the good stuff in the foot.  Ultimately I don’t think Tatsuya is a terrible character or a poor OP badass, he is however also not a great example of either.  Now a bad example of the OP badass, aka just an OP character, is Kirito from SAO.  Kirito is made invulnerable by episode 4, gets new skills at the drop of the hat as the plot requires, spends enough time fighting with the exact same skill set that his sword skills become a lot less interesting as time goes on and most importantly he fucks up the internal consistency of the SAO universe multiple times because Kawahara does not seem to be able to separate the term badass from that of snowballing.  But lest you all think this is a bleak world I shall inspire ye with one of my favorite badasses of all time, Balsa from Seirei no Moribito (which I reviewed here).

Balsa is, in my pretty well informed opinion, the single best example of the traditional strong female lead in all of anime, seriously this woman is who I consider the paragon of that archetype.  Balsa is also a great OP badass.  She handles combat in brief bursts of dynamism and flair, and its arguably the best choreography you will ever see in anime spear fights.  But most importantly I think she stays a badass even in her down time and manages to make it work.  She does this by being a sort of unwavering figure, the glue that holds the cast together if you will.  She is always a presence even in casual conversation, best evidenced by the fact she’s the only character who seems unfazed by the force of personality that is Seirei no Moribito’s resident badass grandma, the shaman Torogai.  She has the kind of quiet strength and casual grace we typically associate with literary figures but still has enough character to feel very human.  Likewise, despite her keen wits, willpower and strength of character, she is still fallible and vulnerable to damage as she is human.  But I think what perhaps best encapsulates her is just how comfortable she is with herself.  Most anime characters strive for something, the heroes aim to be Hokage, the Pirate King or simply the best there ever was.  Female characters often feel determined to confess to the boy of their dreams.  Raging anti-heroes want them some good old fashioned vengeance.  Balsa on the other hand, is fully matured, has accepted herself and come to terms with her past and reconciled her actions with her moral values.  Her goal is essentially atonement, but while that goal does define her actions it does not define her.  Unlike say Sasuke or Naruto who is warped by the need for vengeance or desperate for acceptance, Balsa is not developed by her goals, rather her goals were something she developed as a consequence of maturing as a character.  Anyway I could for days on all the things I like about Balsa but you guys get the point, now drop what you’re doing and go watch Seirei no Moribito if you can handle slower paced character driven narratives.  But in all seriousness I hope you guys learned something, or maybe that this video gets you to think about the things you like to see in your favorite badasses.  If you want me to give a discussion on some of your favorite badasses or want to dispute or otherwise discuss the rules I laid down, please leave a comment and I will do my best to get you a satisfactory answer.  I do hope you enjoyed it and I will see you in the next one.

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