Neither hero nor villain, these characters may have noble intentions, but their less than palatable methods can leave fans divided on who to root for.
Be it the intriguing questions they pose on the nature of good and evil, the value of human life, or whether ends justify the means, protagonists whose morality can only be viewed in shades of gray have been a mainstay in anime for many years now. Such individuals are often tormented by the demons of their past, and struggle to find a place for themselves in the world, especially when contending with the binary view of morality that society imposes on them.
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None of these characters are either inherently good or evil. In fact, some of them even hold truly noble intentions, but the manner in which they fulfill their objectives is usually quite complex, combining virtues from all sides of the spectrum. Some may even describe their behavior as insane, although the underlying logic behind their actions may not always be so simple. As such, several such protagonists have been at the fore of some of the most acclaimed and well-known anime and manga franchises in recent years, forcing fans to really ponder what it truly means to live up to the mantle of a hero.
7 Lelouch vi Britannia
As one of the most intelligent protagonists in anime, Lelouch vi Britannia’s greatest strength lies in tactically outmaneuvering his opponents in Code Geass. While his motives were initially fueled by a desire to create a better world for his sister Nunnally and avenge the apparent death of his mother, his actions further down the line seem more motivated by his own ego and the need to triumph over his opponents, as well as his own hubris.
Lelouch can be very cold and ruthless in battle, as he does not hesitate to sacrifice civilians and innocents to achieve his ends. Although his intentions may be good at their very core, the manner in which he goes about them is not in line with the traditional model of a heroic protagonist, although he does take responsibility for his deeds and is not entirely devoid of compassion.
6 Ken Kaneki
Tortured by the horrors he has faced at every point in his life, as well as the violent punishment he has dealt out to his oppressors, Ken Kaneki’s path in Tokyo Ghoul and its sequel, Tokyo Ghoul:re is nothing short of tragic. Once a meek boy who loved reading, Kaneki’s transformation into a one-eyed ghoul is the beginning of his deteriorating mental condition.
This eventually leads him to manifest alternate personas prone to deranged, violent outbursts, where he indiscriminately attacks all those around him and gives in to heinous acts such as cannibalizing other ghouls, leading him to manifest a kakuja. While he develops a desire to protect both ghouls and humans towards the end of the series, the massive casualties he caused in his Dragon form are unforgivable, even if his story did finally have a happy ending.
While one can sympathize with the difficulties he endured in his youth, as he had to shoulder massive debts from an early age, did not have a formal education, financial stability, or even a traditional family environment, Denji has always been someone driven by his baser desires, and desire for companionship. At his core, he tries to be an upstanding citizen if it benefits him, and does seem to care about those around him.
That being said, he is also someone who will always act to serve the hand that is feeding him and will not hesitate to give in to his baser urges if the opportunity presents itself. Additionally, after becoming Chainsaw Man, he also displays a more sadistic side, even displaying great pleasure in killing devils, to the point where his sanity could be questioned.
4 Light Yagami
Proclaiming himself to be the “god of a new world,” one who will usher in an era free from death, crime, evil, and suffering, Light Yagami is the protagonist of Death Note. On gaining access to the Death Note, Light — an already gifted genius — gives in to his megalomania and hubris, embarking on a campaign of killing criminals to inspire fear and rid the world of people he deems “evil.”
While his methods are questionable, especially regarding the innumerable innocents he killed to save his skin, the intent behind his actions, although not justifiable, was always to deal out his ideal of justice, however warped it may have been.
Perhaps the most fearsome vampire in anime, Alucard is the central character in Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing. Immortal and all but invincible, he is a depraved killing machine, who takes delight in slaughtering anyone that dares to challenge him. His ferocious and cruel fighting style involves taunting opponents by letting himself get blown to bits, only to then heal his massive injuries instantly to make his enemies comprehend the difference in power between them.
Despite all this, he is a conflicted individual, with a great deal of respect for mortals with an indomitable will. Bored with his eternal life and lack of purpose, he seeks someone worthy of defeating and finally killing him.
2 Eren Yeager
Since losing his mother during the Fall of Wall Maria, Eren has come a long way in his journey. From a stubborn, hotheaded, and impulsive young boy to a cold, calculating soldier, who can fight his way out of virtually any situation, Eren is one of the most complex characters in Attack on Titan, particularly after the four-year time skip.
Struggling to save those he loves from the wrath of the world, he commits many heinous acts in the name of survival, culminating in the genocide of the Rumbling. Despite this, he is not a character without any sense of sympathy, as he is also a victim of his preordained fate, deprived of the very freedom he desired all his life.
Ever since he first debuted as the Black Swordsman, Guts’ story has always been one of his own struggle against his demons, especially those within his mind. His challenging youth saw him betrayed and left for dead many times, even by those he looked up to, leading to his gruff and cynical worldview. For the most part, he is quite unsociable and stubborn, especially after the events of the Eclipse, which created a genuine fear of attachment within him. He is also prone to violent rampages when confronted by Apostles or members of the God Hand, displaying immense ferocity without any regard for his well-being.
In addition, he does not hesitate to slaughter anyone who dares to stand in his way and can be quite brutal in his methods, having an extremely high kill count when compared to most characters in anime. The trauma he has endured throughout his life has also led to the materialization of his inner evil as the Beast of Darkness, which has caused him to lose control of his senses, even going so far as to assault his regressed lover Casca, when in a deranged state of mind. On the other hand, he also has a softer, more caring side around those he trusts, showing that he has still not let go of his humanity, even with all he has endured.