Anyone who grew up on Pokemon remembers Team Rocket. Endlessly hilarious in their stunted pursuit of Pikachu, frequently empowering in their breaking of gender norms, and ultimately sympathetic in the hardship they continuously endure, this sterling trio has been an absolute favorite for well over two decades, the only characters aside from Ash himself to have survived the many changes between regions relatively unscathed. Today, they arrive in the new Let’s Go games, only a little over 20 years after being added to Pokemon Yellow, and as the title says, they remain anime’s best villains. With so many acclaimed antagonists in the industry’s wider portfolio, how do they maintain such a lofty position? Well, let’s figure that out by examining what it is that makes a good villain in the first place.
No baddie can be said to be good unless they are, in some way, likable. Whether it comes from a whole-hearted affinity or the feeling of “loving to hate them”, something about the character needs to be endearing to the viewer. After all, if you solely despise them, the same way someone may despise a person who’s individually wronged them, it just won’t be an enjoyable experience to watch. Of course, as with all rules of writing, this is but a general guideline, not a hard-and-fast commandment; there are great examples of villains who aren’t likable on any level, and some stories need antagonists who just make you hate their guts. But tropes develop because they work and sympathetic villains work extremely well. In frequently serving as comedic fodder, Team Rocket is incredibly likable. They fail so often that you almost want them to win without actually clamoring for the consequences of their victory to bear out, which is exactly what makes them work on this level.
Similarly, all characters in a story should feel like real people. And one thing real people don’t do is commit heinous acts for no reason whatsoever. There’s always some motivating factor, an underlying logic to anything someone does, even if the axioms said logic rests upon are shakier than San Francisco. Team Rocket’s desire to kiss up to Giovanni and quickly climb the ladder of their organization is more than understandable on its own and made even better due to how well the characters’ histories are fleshed out. It’s only natural that Jessie would grasp for the little power she can in this criminal gang given how she was abused by the world. James’ incredibly stifling family situation, emphasized by his arranged marriage, would feel wrong if it didn’t end with him running away to be gay and do crimes. Meowth’s poverty and subsequent ostracization is a perfectly good reason for him to get involved as well. All three of these lovable buffoons have obvious reasons for doing what they do, reasons that ultimately come down to them being othered, cast out from society. Almost everyone can relate to that somehow. Queer viewers in particular, especially with Jessie and James’ penchant for crossdressing, but ultimately, everyone.
Another important step is having the villains act as foils to the protagonist or other main characters through some means. It’s not interesting when you’ve got ideologies and interests which are totally parallel to one another; they must be perpendicular for interaction. Through this, the resolve of the protagonist can be challenged, testing the messages that the work ultimately wants to send. You can’t write a compelling thesis without accounting for the counterarguments, after all. Team Rocket embodies this: they share similarities with Ash and his crew in their close relationship and valuing of companionship, occasionally even working with our heroes when things get bad enough, which clearly demonstrates their existent moral compass. But their willingness to make use of underhanded tactics, to steal Pokemon from the trainers who love them, ultimately makes them a detestable presence. And that, too is key. They are bad, they’re not just antagonists they’re villains. They’re juxtaposed with the ideals of Ash so as to make his good points even stronger, without them becoming annoying to actually watch. It’s that which proves how excellent they are in this role.
Of course, there are other elements that make Team Rocket work. Take, for instance, their failure rate. The trio has, as far as I’m aware, never successfully caught Pikachu for any extended period of time, nor beaten Ash in a direct battle without the rug being pulled out from under them quite quickly. Even with the notable leaps in competence they’ve made in the last couple generations, they still haven’t managed to win. But instead of getting tiring, this has only made them better. They work so well as comic relief because you know they aren’t going to do well. In the early parts of Kanto, this isn’t as established, so they seem like a real threat who you may not want to win, but as it becomes clearer that they’re never going to grasp the glory of victory, it grows easier to cheer them on. You’d never want them to truly succeed, never want to see Pikachu stolen away for good, but in the knowledge that they’ll fail, there’s no need to feel bad about rooting for them. Still, the broader Team Rocket organization has real influence and possesses the power to seriously hurt our heroes and the world at large, so you’re never allowed to take them too lightly. Few other villains could be said to straddle this line so well, to so clearly embody all of the principles of good villainy while also being such hilarious comic relief.
Of course, that only explains why the Team Rocket trio are good villains, not why they’re the best. For that, we’ll have to make some comparisons, so how about we start with the ways in which they avoid the same traps that poorly-written characters fall into.
There may be a deluge of great villains in anime but there’s plenty of abysmal ones as well. Take, for instance, Sword Art Online’s Nobuyuki. A low-hanging fruit, I know, but it’s an instructive comparison. Nobuyuki isn’t remotely fun to watch; his smugness is utterly undeserved and he never demonstrates himself to be anything other than an awful person. While his pure lust for power makes logical sense, seeing as a great many real people do the same thing(especially when you’ve already got as much privilege as he does), there’s nothing more to it than that. His goals aren’t interesting, his backstory doesn’t make him richer, he’s just a boring villain all-around. Where Team Rocket thrives in how sympathetic they are, in how easy it is to understand why they commit evil acts, and in how much we cheer for them, Nobuyuki is completely unrelatable and has never been cheered for by a single person on the whole planet. Well, other than by weirdos who hate Kirito so much that they want his girlfriend to be raped but people like that should, uhhh, not. He provides no real ideological counter to his protagonist either, and while Team Rocket’s rebuttal to Ash’s “don’t steal Pokemon” is hardly a strong moral treatise, it at least exists. Nobuyuki, on the other hand, does nothing to challenge Kirito’s ideas about VR and the real world.
For a more divisive option, let’s look at Genthru from Hunter x Hunter. Again, there’s nothing particularly interesting about this character. He provides little challenge to Gon and Killua beyond a purely technical one. They have a hard time defeating him, yes, but their ideals aren’t shaken by him. Given that he had been preceded by the Phantom Troupe, this is a big disappointment. He’s just a bad person who’s willing to kill a bunch of people to get what he wants, showing little remorse and consequently, little depth. Unlike Nobuyuki he doesn’t actively make the show a slog to get through and Gon’s feats in the battle against him are amazing to behold, but again, there’s nothing to him. I can’t possibly imagine anyone rooting for him to win the day and everyone I’ve ever talked to has wanted that from Team Rocket.
But okay, it’s not fair to just look at bad examples. Of course our beloved trio is better than them. How do they fare against similarly adored villains? Well, it’s hard to decide which to compare them with. I’ll never end up rooting for Griffith, I just can’t support a rapist no matter how well written he is. That goes for you, too, Akio. Johan, strangely enough, captures many of the same points of appeal for me but he’s ultimately not enjoyable in the same way that Jessie, James, and Meowth are. Can’t pick Squealer, he did nothing wrong. And Light’s potential as a villain is squandered by his absurd pseudo-intelligence that stops being cool and quickly becomes comical. I suppose, in order to redeem this video among Hunter x Hunter fans, we can use what’s perhaps the second-best villain in all of anime: Meruem.
Togashi’s writing of Meruem is absolutely genius. There are scores of videos and essays already composed on why his development is brilliant, so let it suffice to say that over the course of his screen-time he goes from a sociopath with little concern for his fellow ants, let alone human beings, to an empathetic being whose morality stands far above that of the society he fought. His story is deeply moving and by the end, you not only cheer for him but actively want him to win. I have never cried as hard as I did as his arc came to a conclusion. His ideology directly counteracts the warped logic of society which claims that non-human lives are inherently less valuable than human ones. This becomes so evident by the end that there is active change in the mindset of main characters, in the people he directly fights. How could I possibly argue that Team Rocket is better than him?
Well, as great as Meruem is, he’s neither iconic nor integral to the work he’s a part of. What do I mean by this? Well, first, he pales in comparison to Team Rocket on a symbolic level. Everyone can recognize Team Rocket, immediately, and this isn’t true of Meruem. Some of this is simply due to the relative scale of the franchises at play here — certainly, things would get far closer if you compared Team Rocket to any given Dragon Ball enemy — but some of it comes down to familiarization. The trio appears nearly every episode, executing on a fairly well-understood pattern in the process. Meruem, for all of his memorable moments, simply can’t compete with this.
Second, Hunter x Hunter is perfectly capable of functioning without Meruem. It did so for a whole 90 episodes just fine. He certainly improves the work and as an evangelist of the Chimera Ant arc I don’t want to reduce his impact in the slightest. Without him, the themes and narrative of the work would be significantly weaker. But it would still be functional, even great which can’t be said for Team Rocket. Could you imagine Ash and crew making it through a given region without the threat of our resident trio? I can’t. But I can imagine a direction that Gon and Killua’s journey would have went without Meruem, and while it would have been different, it still would’ve looked like Hunter x Hunter. Pokemon’s specials may eschew Team Rocket but they only do so to add variety. They’re simply too core to the way the show functions and its many positive aspects to get rid of, which is why it’s never happened. I mean no slander to Meruem in placing him below Team Rocket, I love him dearly, but for as much as I think about his wonderful arc, nothing he ever does is imprinted in my mind as clearly as “blasting off again”.
Pokemon is in a great place right now. With a new game coming out, a new gen just around the corner, and an excellent anime airing, the franchise is just as alive as ever. Sun and Moon continues to wow me almost every week and a big part of why is how fresh Team Rocket feels. Far less concerned with catching Pikachu, they do odd jobs not just as a way to scrounge up some money, but as a real passion nowadays, credit to Ember Reviews for talking about this before his channel was taken down. We’ve seen them make minor adjustments gen after gen and I couldn’t be happier with how this familiar yet different found family feels. Jessie, James, and Meowth are probably always going to win the best villain award for me. They’ve never gotten boring in their 20 years of screen-time and I can only hope I’ll get to spend another 20 more with them.