My favorite anime series sounds incredibly boring when I try to tell random people about it. “It’s about this kid who plays go,” I say, utterly aware that I sound like the Nerd-o-Tron 3000. “And there’s a ghost who teaches him how to play and the relationships are really interesting and wait it’s really not that bad!” It’s hard to put into words my fascination with Hikaru no Go, but I think one of the reasons I like it so much is that there isn’t really a villain. Instead, Hikaru no Go is the story of a rivalry — by far the best rivalry I’ve seen in anime. Rivalries aren’t unique to Hikaru no Go, of course. They pop up all over. So what makes rivals tick?
The roles people play
Before I dig into rivals, let’s take a quick look at the different roles characters can take in stories. In a good story, every character serves a purpose. (Characters in bad stories sometimes have no purpose, which sometimes explains why those stories are bad.) The particular role isn’t chiseled in stone. In long-running forms like anime it’s common for characters to take on different roles from episode to episode. Generally characters serve one of 4 roles:
Hero/heroine: This character, also called the protagonist, is usually trying to accomplish some kind of goal. She tends to change the most over the course of the story, and her actions propel the story forward.
Enemies: These characters, also called villains or antagonists, strive to prevent the hero from accomplishing her goal.
Allies: The hero usually has some buddies who help her on her mission. They may include mentors, friends, romantic interests, and so on. They usually
like the hero and want to help her reach her goal.
And then there are rivals. Rivals are characters who aren’t allies, but aren’t quite enemies either.
What makes a rival?
In her book 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, Victoria Schmidt describes rivals as follows: “Rivals are friendly adversaries out to ‘get’ the hero. They dislike the hero but aren’t antagonists in the story because they don’t oppose the hero’s goal; they just create conflict and problems for the hero along the way.” A rival isn’t an antagonist. This means the rival doesn’t flat out oppose the hero from getting what he wants. The rival may introduce complications or delays, but never moves in active opposition to the hero’s main goal. If a rival crosses this line, he’s moved into antagonist territory and become a villain.
In Hikaru no Go, Shindou Hikaru’s “Eternal Rival” is Touya Akira, the go-playing prodigy who becomes determined to discover the source of Hikaru’s bewildering skill. Like most shounen heroes, when Hikaru loses a game he clenches his fist and shouts, “I must get stronger!” (which is admittedly better than when he starts to cry), but Akira isn’t intent on flat-out destroying him. Although Hikaru and Akira face each other in occasional matches, defeating each other isn’t the point. Instead, the rivalry between Hikaru and Akira spurs them both to improve their play. Hikaru no Go is an example of a series where the plot doesn’t require a traditional, mustache-twirling villain. This is possible because the characters have goals that are compelling and mutually non-exclusive. If Akira wanted to prevent Hikaru from becoming a better go player or from ever playing again, he’d be a villain instead of a rival.
Akira is a nemesis rival, the “classic” type of rival we normally think of when we use the word. As a variety of rival, the nemesis hates the hero but doesn’t care all that much about the hero’s goal. The nemesis and the hero may have a relationship stretching back years, a love/hate drama built on grudges and mutual loathing that flares into fresh antipathy whenever they’re in the same room. The nemesis will cause trouble for the hero at first opportunity, but sometimes they’ll come together to accomplish a short-term goal.
The hero and the nemesis might be forced into regular contact because of school, work, or family. Frequently the rival nurses some sort of grudge against the hero — maybe the rival believes the hero’s gotten all the breaks in life, while the rival has had to overcome much stronger obstacles. The characters may view their relationship as deeply significant. If the rivalry is of long duration, the rival may be unable to imagine himself without the hero, however much he may outwardly claim otherwise.
The rival is often a character who gets under the hero’s skin and always seems to hang around, waiting for the hero to slip up so he can rub it in. It isn’t necessary for a rival and hero to come into open competition, though this is a common dynamic in shounen anime. Mutual dislike and conflicting personalities are enough to make the rival and the hero a compelling pair.
Pre-filler Naruto is an example of a series with a more ambiguous nemesis relationship. Naruto’s nemesis, the natural genius Uchiha Sasuke, spurs Naruto to get serious about his training and become a better ninja. The characters hate each other and work together only because they’re forced to, but they’re not enemies. Sasuke’s decision to join antagonist Orochimaru becomes a major turning point in the story. It remains to be seen whether their rivalry will tip over into outright antagonism. I think they’re a more interesting pair as rivals, though.
Many people have noted the similarities between Naruto’s Sasuke and the character of Uryuu Ishida in Bleach. It isn’t just because they’re voiced by the same seiyuu. Uryuu is a nemesis who hates shinigami and agrees to help hero Kurosaki Ichigo only in response to his own sense of honor and desire for vengeance. One difference to note is that Uryuu is played for laughs far more than Naruto’s Sasuke or Hikaru no Go’s Touya. In Naruto, Sasuke’s goals and motivation are always depicted with the strictest seriousness (Naruto himself is the comic relief). In constrast, Bleach’s Uryuu frequently serves as comic relief on everything from his flamboyant and unpractical outfits to his amazing ability to sew lacy ruffles on stuffed animals.
More nemesis pairs: In Hana-kimi, Sano Izumi’s rival is the competing high jumper Kagurazaka Makoto. Kagurazaka pops in every few chapters to trashtalk his rival and make sure Sano continues his training. The Samurai Champloo duo of extrovert Mugen and introvert Jin are another set of nemesis rivals. Vegeta in Dragon Ball is an example of a character who starts out as a pure antagonist and gradually evolves into an ongoing rival. Naruto has another example of a rival relationship in the form of Hatake Kakashi and Maito Gai; Gai seems to be the only one who takes the rivalry seriously.
Other rival varieties
While the nemesis is the most obvious type of rival, the “friendly adversary” comes in other flavors. I’ll save those for another time, however, and leave you with a few questions: What makes rivals so fascinating to watch? Why are they so common in shounen series? And what about romantic rivals in a love triangle situation — are they true ‘nemesis’ rivals, or are they antagonists? Anyway, I’m sure I missed a lot of series that have great rivals, so be sure to let me know about them!