Cowboy Bebop – Why Vicious is such a good villain

I recently finished watching Cowboy Bebop. I don’t watch a great deal of anime, in my opinion, and I find a lot of anime can start off well but has trouble tying things together, something I talk about in a podcast coming out soon which you can find here. That’s why I found Cowboy Bebop kind of refreshing, even though I had been putting it off for a while. I enjoyed it, and I felt like it stuck to its very good but, all things considered, basic premise to its own benefit. However, I’m not here to talk about why I liked the anime as a whole, I want to talk about its antagonist; Vicious.

That said, I will start with the obvious fact that you can’t talk about Vicious without talking about Spike, the protagonist. When talking about creating Cowboy Bebop the director said that he started by designing Spike. Everything about Spike was meant to be cool, and, from my impression, he is cool. He’s witty, level headed, has his principles and emotions but doesn’t try and force them on the situation and, in appearance, he is halfway between being ready for anything and having just gotten up. However, there are two things that provoke reactions from him unlike any other stimuli; the enigma that is Julia and his partner turned worst-enemy Vicious, and the best thing about both are that you never quite learn the specifics of why he reacts to them in this way.

But now I’m getting off topic. Vicious, unlike Spike, looks like he has a plan. Spike is a drifter but Vicious thinks three moves ahead. He looks brooding, but not unhappy, determined but not in a way that’s all-consuming and, lastly, he is violent without seeming to revel in it. You know he’s kind of off-his-rocker but his past with Spike, that you see in flashbacks, humanises him. In every episode that you see Vicious in the flesh he is accompanied by a lot of references and scenes from the past, and this is where I want to talk about why this is so important.

You see, while Vicious is the antagonist of the series, you don’t really see him all that often. He’s mentioned quite a lot but I think you only see him in 4 episodes, and even then only sparingly, and this is part of the reason why he makes such a good villain. There is a great deal of build up to revealing Vicious, it’s before even episode 11 that he’s even mentioned, and this is the same idea they use in horror films, among other films, to create a sense of how grand this person is to the main characters. If he was on screen from episode 1 then you wouldn’t see him as a villain because he looks really out of place and a bit comical. A dark feathered, red eyed bird on his shoulder, trench coat and a sword as a choice of weapon is the quickest description of him that I can think of, and, if he was in every episode, you’d realise really quickly how out of place he looks.

It’s not just the design and pace that the director, Shinichiro Watanabe, got right. He understood that, to really make people dislike someone who, were the focus flipped, the audience might like, you have to do something more than just make him kill a few people unrelated to the main story. After all, this is a series in which at least half the characters are criminals and the main character used to be a criminal, specifically either a bodyguard or hitman, or both, for the leader of a very large crime syndicate. How did he do this? Well, he made it personal. By the time that Vicious is first introduced, the audience already like Spike’s drift-through-life attitude and his quick-witted dialogue. Every time Spike hears of sees Vicious it seemed, to me at least, that he could think only of some kind of revenge. He wanted Vicious dead, and you never really know why, but you realise that, for Spike to hate Vicious this much, there must be a really good reason and, to us, that’s good enough.

Finally, there’s always this grandiose sense of finality with Vicious as well. Anime is a unique artform in that it has control over every aspect of design, besides some limitations on voices for characters, and Cowboy Bebop is an anime that makes great use of this. I’m not going to go into some essay about the symbolism of Bebop, partially because I’m not interested in it but mostly because a lot of it is fairly obvious if you just pay attention while watching, but I do want to talk about this feeling I get when Vicious comes on screen. Never in the anime is he caught unaware, and it is emphasised by when and where you see him. It is always in some big, overblown set piece of a setting as if he is god playing chess, or perhaps the devil waiting for you to rush into his trap. I don’t want to spoil it, because these moments are really stunning, but it certainly helps Vicious look and feel like an unknowable villain to the audience. Combine this with everything I’ve mentioned, this makes for one of the most effective villains I’ve seen in anime and all of television, and I think we need more villains like him because there are some who just don’t make the grade to be truly hateful.

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