Make-Write Monday: Antagonist Design Lessons from Nobuhiro Watsuki’s “Rurouni Kenshin”

shishio_makoto_by_sandara-d80jqb5
“Shishio Makoto,” illustrated by the amazing sandara @ deviantart.com

Do you see that man with the glowing red eyes, the bandages around his entire body, and the flaming sword in his right hand?

Pretty menacing, am I right?

His name, in the Western order, is Makoto Shishio, and he’s one of my favorite villains of all time.

And today, on Make-Write Monday, I’m going to talk about three ways to make your villain well-crafted, memorable, and symbolically relevant to your story.

The Background

Rurouni Kenshin is a manga by Nobuhiro Watsuki that’s been adapted into anime, live-action films, and even video games. It’s about a former assassin named Kenshin Himura fighting on behalf of the Japanese government during the Bakumatsu era that mysteriously vanishes ten years prior to the start of the Meiji Era in Japan. Because he mysteriously disappears, the government has to find a new assassin to replace Kenshin. The new assassin they pick is Makoto Shishio, a powerful swordsman that believes in a kind of Social Darwinism, where the strong live and the weak die.

This mindset was brought to the forefront of his transformation into a villain particularly with how the government betrayed him.

In order to cover their tracks, the government ordered for Shishio’s assassination in a very violent way. They shot him multiple times, doused him in oil, and set him on fire. But miraculously, he survived and started forming a plan to take over Japan using the very things that was intended to conquer him.

Which is what makes Makoto Shishio a well-designed antagonist to the protagonist Kenshin Himura.

Method 1: Protagonist Mirroring and Contrasting

It’s important to have your protagonist and antagonist contrast each other so that they stand out. But having your antagonist mirror your protagonist in some aspects is equally important. An antagonist that mirrors your protagonist keeps your antagonist memorable and not one of those cartoon-y pushovers.

Watsuki crafts Shishio to mirror the protagonist two ways: their shared past as government assassins and the swords they wield.

After Kenshin Himura became a wanderer, he asked the master swordmaker Arai Shakku for a sword that would help him protect people instead of kill people, because he has vowed to never kill again. Arai Shakku then forged a sakabatou, or “reverse-blade sword” for Kenshin, one in which the sharp edge is on the inner side of the blade rather than the typical outer side. In this way, Kenshin’s abilities are handicapped so that attacks that would normally kill people simply render them unconscious instead, allowing Kenshin to keep his oath of not killing people.

Shishio’s Mugenjin blade does no such thing. The blade’s edge is on the typical side, but with a modification. It’s serrated, and embedded in the microscopic serrated edges is the human oil and fat of the countless victims Shishio has killed in order to get stronger. If he swings the sword tip across the ground, he can ignite the oil in its tip and set the air around him ablaze in a cyclone of fire.

You wanna guess who made Shishio’s sword?

Yup. Arai Shakku.

Arai Shakku made swords for all kinds of characters. Kenshin’s reverse blade sword, however, is the last sword that Arai Shakku ever made. As a master weapon maker, Arai Shakku had had enough of taking lives. Shishio, on the other hand, is just getting started.

Two swords made by the same craftsmen, two strong assassins fighting for the fate of Japan, two men with wildly different belief systems…

Doesn’t get better than this, right?

Oh…

Oh, but it does.

Method 2: Symbolic and Story Relevance

Makoto Shishio is not one of those villains you forget because his character is the figurative embodiment of the story conflict. When Makoto Shishio was burned alive, all of his sweat glands burned off, and his body lost the ability to regulate its own temperature. Because of that, his body temperature is, at times, higher than a normal human being’s. He even demonstrates this one of his followers named Hoji by taking off his glove and placing his burning hand on Hoji’s forehead, claiming that he is essentially “Hell” embodied.

I mean, gruesome, yes, but how cool and well-crafted is that?

Shishio’s design, his personality — everything about him screams fire, petroleum, death, and conquering. He’s got bandages all over him to make him look like a mummy and someone that has risen from the dead.  He uses fiery sword techniques that are in line with his fiery body. The arena where Kenshin and Shishio have their final battle is called the “Inferno Arena” and has giant stacks of petroleum burning out of it. He’s doesn’t look like a scary mummy because Watsuki wanted him to be a scary mummy. He doesn’t want to take over Japan and gain power with Western petroleum simply because Watsuki wants him to.

Watsuki’s takes advantage of the fire symbolism and runs with it like nobody’s business, which makes Shishio even more memorable of a character even up to the very end.

Method 3: Tragic Flaws and Positive Attributes

WARNING: SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!

If at this point you’re thinking of watching Rurouni Kenshin and seeing Shishio in action yourself before you’re spoiled, power to you. But if you’re okay with being spoiled for the sake of learning, I’m going to go ahead and tell you the third method, and the third reason, Makoto Shishio is memorable to me.

Cartoony cardboard villains have their purpose. But I find that it’s a combination of positive traits and negative traits that make all kinds of characters shine, as explained in The Positive Trait and Negative Trait Thesaurus, both by Angela Ackerman and Becca Pugilisi.

Let’s be real, though. Shishio could have turned into a cartoony villain at any point. His savagery and thirst for blood, as well as power, leads him to bite Kenshin’s shoulder during their final fight. But as much as I find Shishio scary and downright terrifying, I have to acknowledge his undeniable strength. He can read his opponents attacks very well, and once he sees an attack, he knows how to block it the next time. He has incredible stamina and incredible combat skills, which all fall under the positive trait umbrella for me, because he’s incredibly strong and determined.

But his negative traits — his Social Darwinism mindset, his physical deformities, his strengths as well as his weaknesses — are what ultimately do him in.

His tragic flaw is himself.

Because he doesn’t have any sweat glands anymore, Shishio can only fight for fifteen minutes or so. With the aid of some of his friends, Kenshin manages to stall for time and push Shishio past his body limits.

And even though Shisho manages to reduce Kenshin to an injured, wobbling mess, Shishio ultimately loses. His body becomes too hot to be cooled, and he lights on fire.

The fire from the government that made him who he was, the fire that he used to kill people in his name, the figurative fire that stoked his Social Darwinism mindset — His ideology is symbolically represented int he flames that end up killing him. Indeed, he was strong, and he lived. But even the strong die sometimes. And even the weak live sometimes. This is what he failed to learn, and this is what kills him.

And it’s the unity that exists between Shishio’s character, the events of the plot, the settings associated with him, the character design style, and the overarching theme’s of violence, strength, peace, and weakness that make Makoto Shishio one of my favorite villains of all time.

Wrap-Up

Alright, I know I was gushing a bit.

But do you see why I love Shishio so much? Do you see what makes villains memorable and not cardboard?

What TV shows or stories are you reading where you’re enjoying the characters? What could make the protagonist or antagonist of your story even better?

Let me know in the comments who your favorite villain is, dear readers. Or better yet, tell me your favorite protagonist to spice things up.  I hope this little essay/discussion has inspired you to look at your favorite stories or characters more closely to see what makes them tick.

Hope this post was helpful and fun 🙂 !

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