Shonen anime have a habit of bringing back fan-favorite (usually) villains from the past as ringers for later fights, setting up some Heel-Face Turns so dramatic they’d make a pro wrestler blush. They’re not always good guys exactly, very rarely changing their attitudes, but each of these characters found their way to the side of good despite their sordid past. Although a truly comprehensive list could easily extend into the triple digits, I’ve collected the 10 greatest villains and have, in the true spirit of shonen, ordered them in a power ranking counting down to the greatest reverse turncloak of all time.
10. Aizen (Bleach)
Crimes: Mass murder, treason, theft, tampering with immortal souls
This jerk first shows up pretending to be a nice guy before (not) killing his subordinate Momo to reveal he was actually evil all along. He goes on to become the main antagonist for the majority of the series, participating in all variety of horrific experimentations essentially corrupting the immortal souls of human beings to make them into Arrancar. But the worst part was he was such a smirking jerk about it too, y’know? After he’s defeated and sealed away in Hell Jail, that seems to be the end of it, but a bigger bad appears and he joins forces with Ichigo to take it down. Between Ichigo and Aizen, Yhwach is defeated, the world is saved, and Aizen turns himself back in probably. The last we see of him, it’s ten years later and he’ll still locked up reflecting upon on his crimes. Even if he’s reformed, he’s still a jerk.
9. Takasugi (Gintama)
Crimes: Terrorism, sabotage, murder, treason
A violent revolutionary obsessed with strength and, well, kind of a sore loser. Takasugi has been the recurring antagonist and mastermind behind plenty of Gintama’s most violent arcs. Although his goal of wresting control of the planet back from their alien invaders is admirable, it’s hard to defend his methods. Terrorism, sabotage, and the sacrifice of innocents are tools he’s more than willing to employ and the consequence of all-out war are what drive the series heroes into conflict with him. But, once again, a bigger bad has shown up that has this villain looking for a new hat. Takasugi has been forced to rethink his priorities, requiring an uncertain alliance with Gintoki to defeat the existential threat represented by Utsuro.
8. Mashiba (Hajime no Ippo)
Crimes: Arrested for unknown reasons, regular fouling, vehicular manslaughter
The first of our villains redeemed by their protective love of a younger sibling, the introduction of Kumi did a lot to reframe Mashiba’s sadistic urges into a much more sympathetic story. Mashiba is first introduced as a thug using the sport of boxing as an excuse to physically harm others for money. In fact, he’s one of a rare few characters that can be said to have been represented as villains at any point in the series. His fouling Miyata and breaking his foot was the deciding factor that prevented a rematch between the series’ central rivals. We learn later that his life has been tough supporting his younger sister after their parents deaths and his attitude comes from years of bitter resentment. We later see a sort of redemption when he retires Sawamura after the boxer took a swing at Kumi. Mashiba also has yet to kill Ippo for dating his sister, which, for him, is a tremendous act of self-control.
7. Seto Kaiba (Yu-Gi-Oh!)
Crimes: Extortion, insider trading, jaywalking, murder(?)
The very first villain in Yu-Gi-Oh!, Seto Kaiba was introduced as a crazed rich kid willing to financially destroy privately-owned shops and possibly literally commit murder just to collect all the copies of a rare card. His transformation may have been the most intentional of this list, as Yami Yugi literally shatters his heart to purge it of evil. Although still a huge jerk and of questionable morals, being the ruthless CEO of the world’s largest multinational corporation (which I guess mostly organizes card tournaments?), Kaiba becomes a series regular, taking on major villains and even teaming up with Yugi. He’s not without his charming points, however, especially his soft spot for children and his younger brother, Mokuba.
6. Hiei (Yu Yu Hakusho)
Crimes: Grand theft, murder, illegal arms sales, kidnapping
When we first meet Hiei, he’s a bandit-turned-arms-dealer-turned-kidnapper who steals away Keiko, cuts her with his Conjuring Blade to turn her into a demon, and uses mind-controlled humans, all just to get a good fight out of Yusuke–not a nice dude. Turns out he just needed to find a better group of friends and a healthy dose of fear over disappointing his little sister to set him straight. Several tournaments later, he’s now dedicated himself to the surprisingly altruistic task of escorting lost human souls out of the demon realm. As with Mashiba, he’s managed not to murder Kuwabara for dating his sister, so that’s gotta be worth something.
5. Hisoka (Hunter X Hunter)
Crimes: Mass murder, destruction of property
Stick with me here: introduced as a serial killing clown with his eyes on murdering Gon as soon he has reached his “peak of beauty,” Hisoka has come a long way from murdering his fellow hunter exam contestants to get his rocks off to generally only killing bad guys. Although still accurately described as a homicidal maniac, he’s spent the last several arcs single-mindedly devoting himself to fighting and killing one of the biggest villains of the series, Chrollo Lucifer. If you’re up to date in the manga, he’s even wiped out a considerable number of Chrollo’s gang of thieves and murderers, the Phantom Troupe. Just goes to show you can be homicidal in the name of good. Greed Island even featured Hisoka teaming up with Gon and friends for a wholesome game of dodgeball.
Crimes: Murder, treason, human experimentation, assassinating the ninja president
It seems like only yesterday Orochimaru was participating in human experimentation, assassinating the ninja president, and kidnapping children. Lately he’s been spotted attending Naruto’s wedding and showing up in Konoha for his own child’s parent-teacher conference. He’s even patched things up with Sasuke after spending years trying to take his body, and is now a vital part of the defense of their dimension tracking down the remnants of Kagura’s influence in their world. Although it seems he has yet to kick his nasty human experimentation habit, his goals have become more altruistic, and he’s miraculously made his way into good terms with all the people whose loved ones he’s killed.
3. Greed (Fullmetal Alchemist)
Crimes: Kidnapping, murder, patricide
Greed makes his first appearance kidnapping Alphonse to discover the secret to his abnormal state so he could achieve immortality, and that pretty much sets the tone of his character. He’s so selfish he ends up getting executed by his own Father, since he can’t be bothered to care about what anyone else wants. Even after having his memories erased, it doesn’t take very long for him to get back to caring only about #1. His turn may be the most narratively important of this entire list. After Lin willingly gives up his own body and soul for Greed’s power, he finds a kindred spirit in ambition, and later commits the ultimate sacrifice to help take down Father and save those he’s come to care about. It turns out the thing he was truly greedy for… was friendship.
2. Bon Clay (One Piece)
Crimes: Conspiracy, fraud, attempted regicide
A classic example of a guy who just fell in with a bad crowd, Bon Clay seemed aware he was part of a group dedicated to the violent, almost genocidal, coup d’etat of a major nation. You get the feeling the only reason he was involved was due to his romantic notions of esprit de corps with his fellow members of Baroque Works. No sooner is Crocodile defeated than Bon Clay happily faces the Marines alone to help the Straw Hats escape Alabasta, and is later captured helping his fellow Numbers escape. At Impel Down, he spent his time teaching his fellow prisoners calisthenics until Luffy shows up, then dedicates himself to the cause of freeing Ace. He’s a lesson in either the healing power of friendship or its ability to make us to horrific things. The degree to which he pirouetted from a henchman to one of the most beloved characters in the series deserves the number 2 spot.
1. Vegeta (Dragon Ball Z/Dragon Ball Super)
Crimes: Planetary genocide, disturbing the peace, bullying
From the same series that brought us side-swappers like Piccolo, Android 18, Buu, and now even Android 17 and Frieza, Vegeta stands supreme and could be considered the quintessential reverse turncoat. He went from his career professionally glassing planets (a job which he very much enjoyed) to protecting one and could now be considered the second-best father figure in the series (congratulations, Piccolo). Maybe he calmed with age, maybe the power of love is the true cure for evil, or maybe Bulma is much scarier in person. All I know is that Vegeta went from killing for fun to attending friendly barbeques, riding tiny trains with his son, and giving speeches about the importance of protecting your loved ones.
Although these villains deserve credit for finding the true light of good (or at least partnering up with it), the shonen heroes deserve no small amount of credit for forgiving even the worst acts of genocide in the name of jolly cooperation. Whether it be a partnership of convenience, a careful new portrayal including the introduction of a beloved younger sibling, or a true change of heart, it’s always nice to see a villain mend their ways in the name of cooler fights. With these villains in particular (mostly) we can only thank the authors for finding a path to new dream team combos or some much-needed edge in a group of bright-eyed innocents.
Have a different opinion? Did I miss one of the greatest villains to find the true path? Share your favorite newly minted heroes in the comments!
Peter Fobian is Features and Reviews Editor for Crunchyroll, author of Monthly Mangaka Spotlight, writer for Anime Academy, and contributor at Anime Feminist. You can follow him on Twitter @PeterFobian.