Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Science of Evil and Dragon Ball Z

 Count Rugen: "Have you been chasing me your whole life, only to fail now? I think that's the worst thing I've ever heard. How marvelous."

I'm currently reading The Science of Evil, by Simon Baron-Cohen, on how empathy affects our everyday lives. He seeks to bring a scientific view to human cruelty, and so far, is succeeding in convincing me.

I've long wondered at how to write evil characters. As someone with a surplus of empathy, I find it difficult to create a character who can do the kind of things I want them to do, while providing them with adequate motivation. "He's not evil, just misunderstood!" is a tale for Sesame Street, as far as I'm concerned. And yet one of the reasons I've also been really enjoying Dragon Ball Z Kai recently is because the characters in it are so breathtakingly immoral. But how, and why? Spoilers to follow.

First, we have Vegeta. As a prince of the Saiyan race (and one of, say, 4 Saiyans left in the universe), he's a pretty powerful guy. In season one, he kills everyone, including the hero, who has to run back from heaven (Chinese mythology is awesome) to fight him again. Vegeta kills his own minion for getting beaten, unceremoniously wipes out four other fighters, breaks every bone in the hero's body - hence why he dies - and then starts beating up a child. Wow. As villains go, he's pretty scary.

For an example - and ignoring the irrelevant title the poster has given it - this clip on Youtube serves as a relatively good example of Vegeta's disposition.

Then you get to season 2, and you meet Frieza. Holy crap. This guy makes Vegeta look like a fluffy kitten. He interrogates an entire race of people, and kills them whether they tell him what he wants to know or not. Then he summons the universe's elite band of warriors to come and kill a child and a midget (sorry, Krillin). Vegeta is there too, being a little evil, but he also saves the kid at one point, essentially because he knows he's got no hope of beating Frieza alone and the kid might be able to provide a distraction, but sure. The end result is still a positive.

Then things get nasty.

Frieza is powerful. This much is obvious. In a series where the hero has achieved a power level of 180,000 after months of rigorous training in x100 gravity, Frieza's power level in his first form is 1,000,000. Well, damn it. There's a child who can heal his enemies. Frieza kills him. A warrior is defending the secrets of his people. With one arm behind his back, Frieza breaks the warrior's back and leaves him to die in the dirt. He shoots Krillian through the heart with a bolt of energy for interfering in his fight with another character, then mocks Gohan (the child) by blocking his way and refusing to let him save his dying friend. Frieza then beats the crap out of Vegeta, who he has raised as a surrogate son, just to prove he can. When Vegeta talks 'too much', Frieza kills him.

He doesn't even use his hands, or his superpowers, to kill Krillin. He's that much of a jerk.

But, most of all, when Goku, the hero, has finally arrived and decided to sacrifice himself so his son and friend can escape, and they're already on their way to safety, Frieza grabs the newly-healed Krillin, hoists him into the air and forces him to explode because he can.

Here is a being with no morals. Krillin is a main character - he was killed by Vegeta, then resurrected, so given the lore of the universe, the next time he dies, he stays dead. Frieza doesn't care. Likewise, Vegeta has been serving Frieza loyally for years, and only recently found out it was Frieza who destroyed his homeworld and made the Saiyans an endangered species. Vegeta then resolves to fight him... and fails. One of the episodes is subtitled: "Tears of a Proud Saiyan Prince." This character, who raised Vegeta from the age of 6 and has been lying to him all this time about the fate of his planet, kills him because he 'talks too much'. After beating the crap out of him. After telling him his entire life has been futile. And after Vegeta has purposely come close to death several times to increase his power level, all in a bid to take revenge.

Man, Frieza is a jerk.

But the surprising thing is not how evil he can look, which is like this:

But rather than he inspires fanart and merchandise like this:

Um, what?

This is not entirely at odds with the show, either. Frieza's most innocent expressions come when he's surprised, like this:

He seems genuinely confused that anyone would ever want to hurt him. His entire life, he's always been the strongest, so he assumes the people who can't beat him just aren't trying hard enough.

On Baron-Cohen's empathy scale, he definitely falls at the 0 level. In my opinion the reason the fan art and merchandise portray him as cute is because the alternative is too horrible for us to comprehend. I have that plushie, and it makes me feel a whole lot better about him as a character, to think he can be reduced to something cute. He's not evil, he's just a little childish.

But, if we start to think that way, we get into the question of whether children can be evil,and that's a whole 'nother topic entirely. So suffice to say, my understanding of evil is this:

Hurting people with no remorse and undervaluing life.

Ultimately, as Mike Laidlaw once said, being evil is the same as being selfish. And, man, does our society have some problems if that's what we believe.

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