Sweet, Sensitive (Sometimes Sexy) Sentai-style Supervillainesses

Of all the new anime this season, the one that’s caught the tokusatsu fandom by storm the most has been Miss Kuroitsu from the Monster Development Department.  The show has a lot of gimmicks to write home about, such as cameo appearances from a wide variety of Japan’s most well-established local hero characters, casting various major tokusatsu franchise alumni as voice actors, and a Pretty Cure pastiche getting promotional art by Slayers’ Rui Araizumi. The core concept, though, focusing on the overworked staff of the R&D department at an evil organization bent on world conquest, is a fun one, relatable to anyone who’s ever had to suffer the crunch of meeting deadlines for projects that ultimately wind up feeling worthless (in this case because the hero blows their latest monster up on a weekly basis).

One thing that I’ve found a bit amusing in the discourse around the series, though, is the occasional bemusement that such a program would revolve around a cute girl character, since, if you’re going to make the “villains” your heroes, an attractive female lead is the most natural thing in the world.

You see, there’s a strong tendency in the Super Sentai oeuvre, that, if you have a villainous organization aiming to take over the globe, there’s usually a “face” character, a maskless human among all those rubber monster suits serving as either a primary lieutenant or outright commander of the big bads, and more often than not, it’s a sexy lady.

Now, the pretentious explanation for this would go into ancient Asian mysticism, conflating the female (yin) with darkness against the light of the male (yang), or cite the ever-expanding roster of malicious female ghosts who’ve dominated Japanese horror stories for centuries. However, I honestly don’t think the cultural ingraining goes that far, since you’ll find similar phenomena in American superhero comics (e.g. Enchantress, Harley Quinn, Emma Frost) just without quite the same monster-of-the-week formula attached. Rather, the trope makes sense as a way to humanize your villainous cluster: you give them a token human face, and given that the shows tend to be written by and for male audiences, an attractive female face often winds up being the most appealing to look at.

While the program’s nominal heroines are constrained to (at least plausible) modesty so as to not scandalize audiences with the moral hazard of imitable actions, the villainesses have no such ethical constraint, and thus the bulk of a program’s sex appeal winds up resting on their oft-stylishly-padded shoulders. Villains are allowed to be transgressive, and them breaking cultural taboos can serve as intrigue as much as revulsion; a kid watching the show might be intended to think “good girls don’t dress or act that way” and side against the villain, but often as they grow older, those are the characters that they gravitate to the most. This keeps engagement up with older fans (and even sometimes parents of younger fans), often making for some of the higher-end merchandising of a given series.

(There’s a tangentially related discussion to be had about the enduring popularity of villains who challenge society’s very notion of gender with their existence as well, such as Mazinger’s Baron Ashura, Gatchaman’s Berg Katze, and Devilman’s Satan.)

Another benefit of the pretty-face villain is that she can conceivably have forbidden romantic feelings for or from their opposing male hero, an instant formula for dramatics that has played countless times across titles as serious as Jetman to as goofy as Carranger.

As to how the trope has evolved to the point where these once-ancillary villainesses came to headline narratives, rather than operating as supporting cast, perhaps a history of the trope can help elucidate. A key point of divergence between Japanese superheroes and their American counterparts is the structure of the villains: your Rider or Sentai rarely battle lone muggers or bank robbers, but instead massive, well-endowed, nefarious organizations bent on utter world domination, usually by means of monsters-of-the-week. There’s an easy throughline that can be traced here; from Shotaro Ishinomori’s Goranger back to his Kamen Rider back to his breakout hit Cyborg 009, which set the template that the genre followed thereafter. Cyborg 009 wears its influence on its sleeve, namely that of the contemporary hit, the 007, or James Bond series. James Bond likewise didn’t fight common criminals, but a global baddie syndicate called SPECTRE, which then explains how Japanese villain gangs such as Black Ghost, Shocker, and Black Cross Army evolved from that root. (Though SPECTRE is woefully lacking in their menacing rubber-suited cyborg department.)

A common trope in the 007 series is the “Bond girl”, an offshoot of film noir’s femme fatales, because, as a male wish fulfillment fantasy, that franchise is brimming with attractive women who desire the protagonist carnally, both on the good and bad side of the conflict, so the bad guy (emphasis on guy) would often have a lady lieutenant who wanted to jump James Bond’s bones. The success of the Bond franchise in Japan is likely the cause of a similar trope occurring in tokusatsu movies, particularly at Toho, who co-produced the 1967 007 movie You Only Live Twice. That movie features actress Mie Hama, who the same year played the aforementioned kind of villainess character as Madam Piranha in King Kong Escapes, the evil woman who falls for the hero and betrays her organization to help him, paying the ultimate price for it. Director Ishiro Honda’s kaiju filmography is rife with permutations on this tope, also including Miss Namikawa in Invasion of Astro Monster (1965) and Katsura in Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), and is arguably a variation on Chika from Half Human (1955) or, stretching a bit, Emiko from the original Godzilla (1954).

Kumi Mizuno’s role as Miss Namikawa probably had the most lasting impact of that set, and as a result, tight-suited alien invader women started popping up elsewhere in the kaiju genre. However, unlike in Invasion of Astro Monster, the Kilaak villains in 1968’s Destroy All Monsters were not subservient to any male characters, nor were the Terrans in 1969’s Gamera vs. Guiron. X1, from 1971’s Gamera vs. Zigra, is a lady technically under the command of the villainous kaiju Zigra, laying groundwork for the “male villain=rubber monster suits”::“female villain=face exposed” dynamic that would be more solidified in the future.

The same year as Gamera vs. Zigra, the henshin hero genre literally exploded with the arrival of Kamen Rider. Rider’s villainous antagonists, Shocker, was pretty much a proverbial sausage-fest in the mold of previous Toei villain syndicates such as Giant Robo’s Big Fire, with the exception of one monster-of-the-week: episode 8’s Wasp Woman. Despite being a minor one-and-done disposable baddie, the character quickly became a fan favorite, inspiring merchandise, cosplay, and dojinshi for decades to follow, getting a cameo in the original manga, appearing in video games, and even getting brought back, in sexier redesign, in movies like Kamen Rider J and Kamen Rider Decade (not to mention a few porn parodies).

If the Wasp Woman seems like she went far from her humble monster-of-the-week origins, it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the breakout success of another initially one-shot character who first appeared in the second episode of Devilman. The harpy-like demon Sirene was an interesting villainess from the outset, somewhat understandably ticked off that her former demonic comrade/paramour Amon had fallen for a human and was calling himself “Devilman” now, but it was her bare-chested manga incarnation, with additional backstory and more nuanced development, that truly made her an icon. Even in though in the manga she’s still disposed of relatively early in the story, she’s still managed to become an indispensable part of the Devilman mythos, a necessity in every subsequent adaptation, somehow second only to Devilman himself, more recognizable than the series nominal main villains or even the main love interest. Go Nagai has gone so far as to say that she’s one of his favorite creations, which is saying quite a bit considering the size of the man’s bibliography.

Needless to say, with this level of popularity in one of the most seminal works of manga ever, it should come as no surprise that Sirene’s had a few of her own spinoffs over the years as well, ranging from the goofy school comedy Sirene-chan to the dour Sirene: Tanjo Hen, which is sort of like the Devilman origin story but for Sirene.

While she didn’t appear in the show itself, Sirene also shows up in the opening credits of 1994’s New Cutie Honey, which is as good a reason as any to segue into talking about the Cutie Honey franchise. Starting in 1973 and often credited as the genesis of the modern magical girl format, Go Nagai’s third genre-defining opus of the early 1970s basically took a lot of tokusatsu conventions (particularly from Rainbowman) and perved them up with nudity and a gender-swap. The result was that our female lead now had a roster of female villains to battle against, in the form of the evil Panther Claw organization. Both the primary antagonist Sister Jill and the final boss Zora are women, and as such, Panther Claw in many ways feels like the nucleation of the stereotypical evil queen/commander dynamic that you often see in Sentai shows.

Where this trope finally came together in live-action, however, wasn’t in Japan at all, however, but in Hong Kong. Because the movie Super Inframan is so transparently derivative of tropes from the likes of Kamen Rider, Ultraman, and Mazinger Z, it’s very tempting to dismiss the evil princess Elzebub (or “Princess Dragon Mom” in the dub) as another element lifted whole-cloth from Japanese entertainment, in hindsight of the Super Sentai tropes. However, Inframan came first, predating Sun Vulcan’s Queen Hedrian by a good five years, making it the crystallization of the “evil queen sending out rubber suit monsters” dynamic that would later typify the genre.

Inframan didn’t get a theatrical release in Japan, so it’s not clear how much impact it could have conceivably had, though Japanese effects staff who worked on it (and also worked at Toei) might have passed materials around. At any rate, Toei caught up soon enough, first with recurring hench villainesses like Amazoness in Spider-man and Salome in Battle Fever J, gradually codifying the trope.

(I’ve also seen it pointed out that the Canadian/American-made sexploitation Ilsa series also started in 1975 with She-Wolf of the SS. While those movies did release in Japan, elements like Nazis, whips, and sexy lady commanders were all present in the genre prior to their release, so it’s not exactly a slam-dunk that there was any influence there, as most of the individual elements could just be a convenient shorthand for “bad guy” in the same way that devil horns are. But, there’s certain characters with stylistic similarities nevertheless.)

While Toei wasn’t quite on board the villainess commander train in 1975, their competitors in the anime space at Tatsunoko were blazing new ground with their series Time Bokan. A modest success, the show featured heroes who combat the Time Skeletons, a trio of time-traveling thieves, comprised of the sexy leader Majo and her two ugly henchmen.

This villain dynamic became the template for the rest of the Time Bokan franchise to follow, a sprawling marathon of sequels that ran continuously until 1983. The bumbling, ineffective Time Bokan trio became inspiration for numerous inept anime villain trios to follow, from the Grandis Gang in Nadia: Secret of Blue Water to Team Rocket in Pokemon to Pilaf and his goons in Dragon Ball. Particularly within the Time Bokan franchise the formula stayed quite consistent, which is especially fun when the characters cross over with one another in later installments.

If you recognize only a single character in the above lineup, I’d wager solid money that I know which one. The second Time Bokan series, Yatterman, far outstrips the popularity of the rest, having run for a whopping 108 episodes, with a 2008 remake doing a respectable 60 episodes itself, not to mention movies (both animated and tokusatsu), games, etc. Here’s the thing, though: that show’s villainess, Doronjo, is actually more popular than the heroes! Just about any images for Yatterman in any incarnation feature the gangsters prominently, even getting their own video game in 1996. More than just Yatterman, or Time Bokan, Doronjo herself has arguably become a representative character for the entire Tatsunoko studio, on par only with Ken the Eagle from Gatchaman and maybe Speed Racer’s car. And thus, this is where we can start to see a villainess taking center stage away from the heroes. Not too shabby for the “bad guy” role, but one of the key parts of her charm is just what an incompetently poor a job at villainy Doronjo does; such ineptitude for true evil is one of the common themes that you’ll often see in villainous protagonists further down the road.

Doronjo’s impact is so great that the 2015 show Yatterman Night, which was a done as a 40th anniversary tribute to Time Bokan, has her as the main character…sort of. Rather, one of her descendants (along with descendants of her two sidekicks) takes up the Doronbo Gang mantle to rebel against the tyranny of the “Yatter Kingdom” that the original show’s heroes seem to have been responsible for. It’s a nice inversion of the formula, but the groundwork had been laid for it from the beginning.

There are only a few 2D sex symbols of the 1970s that approach the popular saturation level of Doronjo, such as Cutie Honey and Galaxy Express 999’s Maetel, but the queen of them all is, unquestionably, Invader Lum from Rumiko Takahashi’s 1978 megahit Urusei Yatsura. The cute green-haired alien in the tiger-striped bikini is a perpetual icon and face of the franchise so much that people often forget that she’s not the protagonist; she’s technically the antagonist of the story! This is not only because she exists in direct opposition to the protagonist (her irredeemable horndog of a fiancé Ataru, who would decidedly *not* move as much merchandise as Lum would), but because she’s literally an alien invader who’s introduced in the first chapter as the princess of a demonic force out for conquest of Earth. Lum’s imperialist origins rarely play into the story after the pilot, in which the conflict pivots from Ataru having to defeat her to save the planet to him having to deal with her as an unwanted love interest, but it still plays into the overall zeitgeist of the sexy supervillainess transitioning into the cultural limelight. Lum’s impact on anime and manga as a whole can’t be understated, and even today you still see characters from Lala in ToLoveRu to Miia in Monster Musume to Zero Two in Darling in the FranXX to Jellymon in Digimon Ghost Game that are pretty transparent riffs on the most famous bikini-oni in Japanese entertainment.

Most of Lum’s expys are, like herself, fairly innocuous, but Kahm, the horned, bikini-clad, green-haired alien princess of an evil invasion force in Johji Manabe’s 1985 manga and subsequent anime Outlanders is shockingly into her role when she’s introduced, brutally killing a hefty number of Earth defense force troops before eventually failing to defeat, and falling in love with, the human protagonist of the series, becoming one of the good guys. Much like Lum, Kahm is the face of her series despite not technically being the main character, but never quite achieved Lum’s level of worldwide popularity… let’s face it; it’s a tough flex to pivot into a cutesy moe pinup when you’re holding a severed head in your first appearance. It just kinda hits different, ya know?

The shift in world-conquest organizations to humorous main characters continued in 1983’s Prefectural Earth Defense Force, a manga by Koichiro Yasunaga, and its 1986 anime adaptation. The series, about heroes and villains battling for the future of a small, remote part of Kyushu, is an unabashed spoof of tokusatsu conventions from Ultraseven and Super Sentai, but the titular heroes really take a backseat to the inept invaders of the Telephone Pole Gang, particularly their ditzy pink-haired commander (who also happens to be a cute schoolgirl) Baradagi (and yes, there’s a Varan the Unbelievable reference). It’s easy to see why the character is a favorite, playing the role more like an overworked, penny-pinching, put-upon office lady just waiting to punch out for the day than the usual malicious dominatrix associated with the type of role…she even dates the main hero when she’s off the clock! It worked out for her: honestly, I haven’t found a single piece of art for the series without Baradagi front-and-center!

Unfortunately, the Prefectural Earth Defense Force OVA, actually made by several Urusei Yatsura alums, was only ever released directly to ADV’s website in the US, so it’s a really difficult DVD to get ahold of. This is a shame, since it’s well-animated and hilarious…in another, fairer, timeline, it would be regarded here the same way as Project A-ko.

The evolution of the villainess to the proper title character came with 1996’s manga Excel Saga, about the hyperactive, spastic, overenthusiastic Excel, an officer at the evil Across organization, which is, naturally, bent on world domination. While there is a Sentai-like hero team opposing Across, they often disappear into the background cornucopia of unlikely antics going on, especially in the 1999 anime adaptation (the team, Municiple Force Daitenzin, did eventually get their own spinoffs, though, including an official hentai manga).  Nowadays, Excel Saga tends to get a pretty bad rap for being a “it’s funny because the characters are yelling loudly” comedy, but it was massively beloved for its absurdity and audacity in its day, even though, yes, some of the charm does involve the incoherent word-vomit that Excel rants out at a mile-per-minute, so extreme that it led her English dub voice actress to suffer vocal chord injuries. It’s tempting to make everything more of a run-on sentence than I normally do just as a tribute to her cadence!

After the postmodernism boom of the 1990s, the deconstructionist approach to villainesses became quite the common trope, ramping up in prevalence across the 2000s, and even though the villainess may not be the main character, they were often primary supporting cast rather than actual antagonists. A few examples include:

  • The Cosmos House light novel series from 1999, which got anime and manga adaptations released stateside under a renamed based on the hero character: Dokkoida. The series is, like a lot of harem comedies that were popular at the time, about a single guy living in an apartment complex with a gaggle of hot ladies as neighbors. The twist is that our main dude is a superhero, one neighbor is another hero, three are super villains, and nobody knows each other’s secret identities. The villainesses all play into different kinds of archetypes (dominatrix, witch, android), but thanks to some strong characterization and the good judgement to *not* fall completely into the harem genre, it holds up pretty well.
  • I’ve talked a great deal in the past about the Heroes Are Extinct manga from 2003, because it’s just that great. The gist of the story is that a commander of an extraterrestrial invasion fleet, having spent his whole life watching TV broadcasts from Earth, dreams of going to battle the heroes there. Upon learning that it’s all been fictional, he snaps, secretly kidnapping five Earthlings and giving them advanced technology so they can fight, well, him. His direct supervisor, who he has to convince of things like “the best invasion tactic is to send a giant monster into the city each week, trust me” is the princess of the invaders, who serves as the romantic interest as well.
  • Also from 2003, Imperfect Hero sees the green ranger (AKA “the boring one”) from a stock sentai team have the queen of a group of subterranean invaders suffer a head injury and move in with him, magical girlfriend-style.
  • Sekihiko Inui’s Ratman (2007) also plays with the hero/villain dynamic, featuring a guy who joins a villain organization (because his crush and her older sister work there, hence the villainess angle) hoping to reform it from within, only to realize that the so-called hero characters seem to be the real bad guys.

The 2010s saw the supervillainess role in the forefront more than ever before. Aside from the aforementioned Yatterman Night, a few standouts are:

  • In 2014, World Conquest Zvezda Plot is a show about a little girl heading up the world-conquering evil organization, and the misfits who join her quest. Along with Yatterman Night, it really plays up the “moe” angle for the protagonist (heck, she carries around a stuffed animal!). This trend was possibly spurred by the popularity of The Saga of Tanya the Evil (which has a modern man get reincarnated as a little girl who’s also a thinly-veiled Nazi commander in an alternate history 1920s European war).
  • The 2016 manga Precarious Woman Executive Miss Black General is, as though the title were not clear enough, about a bumbling archetypical commander in an evil organization, and her stalker-ly simping for the superhero Braveman (who’s Batman in all but name). A great deal of the series’ comedy arises from Miss Black General’s over-the-top advances and Braveman’s uncomfortable refutations… kind of like actual Batman, at times.
  • Superwomen in Love (2018) is a yuri manga about Honey Trap, an evil commander who abandons her post when she falls hard for the Kamen Rider-like heroine Rapid Rabbit. The duo then team up to battle a lot of Honey Trap’s old comrades, who, as it turns out, also don’t seem all that hostile.
  • 2018’s Raw Hero is arguably cheating, since cross-dressing is involved, but hey, trope deconstruction is still part of the trope. Basically, through a series of blunders, a regular dude winds up under deep cover (in more ways than one) as the “female” lieutenant of a stock evil organization, and like in Ratman, the heroes might just be the real fiends. Things get quite raunchy in this title, but it’s from the author of Prison School, so that much is to be expected.

Even the pinnacle of Japanese superheroism, the Ultraman franchise, is starting to see this trope emerge. In 2018, the Kaiju Girls series, in which highschoolers become magical girls endowed with the powers and abilities of famous kaiju from the franchise’s past, opted to not have a traditional theatrical film focusing on the show’s characters, but instead did a spinoff titled Kaiju Girls Black, where a gang with the powers of Commander Black, Silverbloom, and Nova from Ultraman Leo poorly attempt to rain destruction upon Japan (making these particular kaiju cute moeblobs is quite a punch, considering that they’re based on some of the most horrifyingly destructive creatures in the entire Ultra franchise!).

Then there’s the Darkness Heels multimedia project, featuring a team of the most iconic evil Ultras from across the franchise: Belial, Camearra, Juggler, Zagi, and Evil Tiga. However, for the most interesting part, the manga, a new character named Lili joins their antiheroic band, and wouldn’t you know it, she also happens to be a cute girl, giving all these former baddies something to protect even as they try to topple her planet’s government (for, uh, good reasons).

Miss Kuroitsu will wrap up in April (unless it gets a second season), but fans of deconstructed sympathetic tokusatsu villainesses fear not, as the next season will bring Love After World Domination, about a taboo romance between a villainess commander and the red ranger on a Sentai team that opposes her. I’ve been negligent in checking out the source manga, but by all accounts it’s a delight, so the anime adaptation should hopefully be as well.

That completes this rundown of the sympathetic villainess protagonists on the wrong side of the superhero/villain conflict. There’s the occasional dude that fits the profile as well (*cough* Hakaider), but for the most part, they do seem to tend to trend towards the fairer sex. So, yeah, check out a few of these shows, and the next time you find yourself up against and evil queen or dastardly lady lieutenant, try to consider things from her point of view!

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1 Response to Sweet, Sensitive (Sometimes Sexy) Sentai-style Supervillainesses

  1. Rick says:

    Katsura and the Zigra woman were my favorites.

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