We grow stronger through oppositon. We advance through competition. And if we are judged by the company we keep, then we are also defined by the differences, and similarities, between us and our greatest foes.
In short, every hero needs a villain.
Or at least an antihero.
Someone or something that pushes them to improve in order to overcome: a rival.
Anime is rife with characters in opposition to one another. Among them, those who are not only enemies, but rivals, have the most fascinating relationships. They may be mutually antagonistic, but they also push each other in unexpected ways, teach one another by experience and example, and they may even (somewhat often) join together for a time in the face of a greater threat. And, really, for all their differences and conflicts, there is something about them that makes them kindred spirits.
That is the sort of rivalry I thought of: one which shows the truth of the characters involved and defines them in some way, such that we can hardly imagine these two sides without one another, much like a coin.
So, who did I pick?
1) Alucard v Anderson
One is a super-powerful vampire, the single most deadly and dangerous of his kind, bound in service to the house which defeated him generations ago. The other is a priest of exceptional physical prowess, bent on annihilating evil in the name of God and the Catholic Church.
One has guns, and the other has knives.
One is a monster that feeds on blood, while the other is a human with the power needed to match monsters.
One dresses in red, and the other in white.
They both wear sunglasses in the dark.
Oh, and where Alucard, as Dracula, would usually be the villain, and Anderson, the monster-slaying priest, would usually be the hero, Hellsing Ultimate absolutely turns that idea on its head in every way possible. These two are perfect rivals for each other.
(and I do feel somewhat jilted that they axed Anderson before the real end of the show, and then had Alucard keep going strong even after defeating him)
2) Kenshin v Saito
Standing on opposite sides of the Meiji Revolution, Kenshin Himura and Hajime Saito clashed with one another several times, sword against sword. They both survived, and, a decade later, found themselves again at odds. Though this was temporary, they were certainly pushing each other on ways they hadn’t been pushed for ten years, and they nearly killed one another. Then they joined forces against a common enemy, and then they promptly went their separate ways again.
They are not friends at all, but it is clear that they have a mutual respect for one another. When they first meet, they are both disgusted by the man that the other has become, rebuking each other even as they draw their swords. Saito deliberately pushes Kenshin, hoping to get him to become stronger and more dangerous for the fight ahead. Meanwhile, Kenshin has pushed Saito simply by being there, by being strong enough that Saito has trained himself in preparation for their eventual final conflict. They even end up working fairly well together, though they hardly ever agree on anything.
The true similarity between these two men is the choice they both make to follow their respective ideologies, and the difference lies in exactly what they choose to devote themselves to. For Kenshin, he strives to save people, to protect, and he has sworn never to kill again as a penance for his past sins. As for Saito, he is devoted only to the goal of “Aku Soku Zan,” which is a dedication to kill evil now. He stands with groups which enforce law and order at the point of a blade, which strike down evil and deliver justice. He accepts that it is normal to die, and normal to die in the line of duty, so, unlike his rival, he does not dwell on it and has no desire for revenge to battle with. He simply does what he does: kill evil, without hesitation.
The two men are a study of similarities and differences, and they match one another quite well in battle. Small wonder I love their rivalry.
3) Goku v Vegeta
How much more classic can you get? These two have been rivals for a couple decades in the real world and about as long of longer (depending on which continuity you’re going with) in the story as well.
Most of Goku’s friends were once his enemies, have you noticed that? And everyone who is now a friend of Vegeta is someone he fought against and tried to kill. That makes for a number of potential rivalries, and they’ve had plenty, but theirs is greatest.
These two warriors are the last of their people in out universe, outside some debatable additions in one of the non-canon movies. That both binds them and sheds light on their similarities and differences.
As Saiyans, both of them love a good fight, and they love to get stronger. They are strong, defiant, and unyielding in the face of adversity, opposition, and loss. And they eat enough to feed entire armies. As for where they are different:
Goku is a carefree doofus with an exceptionally hard head. He tends to think very littler and go around doing whatever he likes, and thank goodness he does nothing bad. He’s not much of a husband or father, though a fierce friend, and for all that he fights for peace and freedom, he also fights just because he loves it.
Vegeta is a prince, with far more pride than may necessarily be warranted. He carries the weight of his people on his shoulders, including their demise. He thinks carefully, and he is a cunning adversary. He is driven to match or surpass Goku, but he also comes to fight for much more than himself. He becomes a caring husband and a devoted father, albeit very gradually, and when he lays down his life in battle, which he does multiple times, he is actually thinking about others, not himself.
It would seem that, over the years, Goku and his friends manage to rub off on Vegeta a bit, and that only happens because the ongoing contest between them is so fierce and so well-matched.
4) Zechs v Heero
Heero Yui, Gundam pilot, is strong, resilient, disciplined, multitalented, and capable of controlling himself in remarkable ways. He is cold, calculated, and precise. Though he does warm up to a degree, he never quite sheds that objective ruthlessness in battle. Each of his fellow Gundam pilots is also capable, each in their own way, but he is their biggest gun… partially because he has the biggest gun.
Zechs Merquise is similar to Heero in many ways: dedicated, uncompromising, ruthless, precise. But Zechs is also a noble, chivalrous warrior, incapable of accepting too great of an advantage over a worthy foe. He is driven by his past and his passions, his desire for peace, even if that drive leads him eventually to be the devil in the story he shapes.
These two men collide more often than not, but they also have the same enemies on occasion. They even trade weapons at one point. It is partially Zechs’ rivalry with Heero that makes him so strong, usually favoring speed and close-range weaponry instead of Heero’s really big gun. They become the first and the final two on the great battlefields of Gundam Wing, each man choosing a path to fight through for the sake of peace. And they are bonded in another way, as the girl Heero loves is none other than Zechs’ little sister, leading them to spare one another even when fighting with their all against each other. The respect to be found between these two is immense. They are perfect equals.
5) Parn v Ashram
(& Deedlit v Pirotess)
The Record of Lodoss War
I first saw Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight when I was a kid. Some years later, I got my hands on the original Record of Lodoss War, which was a bit less oriented towards kids. So, as best I can tell, the story between these two goes a bit like this:
Parn is a young swordsman with a strong sense of justice, while Ashram is already a dark knight with a strong sense of duty and loyalty to his master. The first encounter between these two is indirect, as Ashram leads an attack on a castle that Parn happens to be in at the time. The captain of the guard is a short-lived mentor to Parn, and his guidance, and death at Ashram’s hands, ignite the spark of a hero within this young man.
Not long later, the two encounter each other more directly in the midst of a massive battle, the War of Heroes. Neither one beats the other, and it could have gone either way with just some slight twist of circumstance, but Ashram was clearly the better swordsman at the time.
As it happens the near stalemate is partially due to the elven companion each man has at his side. Parn has Deedlit, Ashram has Pirotess, and that remains practically a constant for quite some time. As Deedlit is a high elf and Pirotess is a dark elf, the rivalry becomes two-fold. Both women, after all, are clearly in love with their men, who are somewhat oblivious, and they appear to be equally formidable and dangerous.
Now, in one version of the story, Pirotess dies saving Ashram’s life. I like the version where she lives, but, then again, that one has her mostly acting as Deedlit’s counterpart, keeping her busy whenever Parn and Ashram are fighting. And then, following Ashram’s story away from Lodoss to Legend of Crystania, evidently he gets himself possessed by an evil god and she spends a couple centuries helping him get free and defeat said evil god, though he finally perishes in the act. Seriously, she gets so jilted in every version of the story. But moving on, and back to Lodoss…
Parn and Ashram continue to clash a number of times over the years, and their encounters seem to have a surprising impact on Ashram. Where Parn grows strong enough to match him, Ashram grows more noble and kingly. He even grows to respect Parn, perhaps even have an odd sort of attachment to their rivalry. I mean, the last thing he does in Lodoss, as he takes his people to flee across the sea and make a new life in a new country, is to duel with Parn, now known as the Free Knight, one last time. He has learned from Parn, you see. He does not mean to kill Parn… he just says farewell to him, and to the past.
As for Parn, his ill will towards Ashram has also died down, and he bids Ashram an honest farewell in turn.
Or, that’s one version at least. The other version has them unite against an evil wizard, then fight each other again, only for the wizard to return and kill Ashram and… yeah, I prefer the one where they live and say farewell as fellow knights.
So that’s my picks for five rivalries from anime.
How about you? Who would you pick?