Jiren: How Not to Handle an Antagonist

It still feels weird to me that Dragon Ball Super is over. Well, the anime at least. The manga is still going, but… well, my patience for that version has reached an end.

Oddly enough, though, I have a fondness for Super. Yes, the writing averages out around mediocre and the animation is very up and down. But it managed to capture the spirit of DBZ in a way that the manga just hasn’t managed for me. Plus, there were just enough exciting moments in Super for me to keep watching.

At least after the movie recaps were over. Because hoo boy are those terrible.

Now that a few years have gone by, we’re beginning to see what about Super is going to stick and what’s going to slide off the wall and hit the floor. The select moments or new characters that the fans enjoyed are now either being forgotten or becoming new icons of the Dragon Ball license. Hit, the Universe 6 Saiyans (namely Caulifla, Kale, and Kefla), Goku Black and Zamasu, and of course: Ultra Instinct.

And then there’s Jiren.

God, that aura looks terrible.

Jiren is one of the most divisive characters in the history of Dragon Ball. Some people think he’s boring and dumb. Others think that he was one of Super’s best villains, if not the best. It’s easy to understand both sides of the argument; Jiren’s characterization is hardly anything thrilling, but he does star in some of the best fights in not only Super, but all of Dragon Ball.

So, what happened? Why is Jiren such a divisive subject? Well, in the end, it all comes down to one thing: communication.

Let me explain. In writing, whether you’re writing a whole book or just the dialogue of a TV show, you need to communicate information to your audience in an interesting and memorable way. If your character is a lazy, chill dude, you need to find a way to tell that to your audience. Or even better: show that to your audience.

Let’s look at an example of this from Dragon Ball done well with the introduction of another villain: Freeza. When we first meet our favorite galactic tyrant, what do we see him doing? Sitting back, relaxing, and ordering his men to butcher old men and children. All with a confident and even satisfied smile.

This communicates a few key pieces of information to the audience. One: this dude is evil as fuck. Two: he’s the head honcho. Three: he’s confident in his position. All of that, given to us simply by how a character looked and behaved.

Then, as the arc continued, we were drip fed more information about Freeza. We saw his violent temper and how everyone trembled at even the slightest hint of his displeasure. Then, when he started finally losing ground, he loses his calm demeanor and takes to childishly insulting his enemies. Throughout the entire story, we gained an understanding of what kind of person Freeza is and why we should hate him.

Now, let’s go back to Jiren. How did the writers behind the Super anime communicate his character? Well, that’s the problem. For a massive chunk of the story, they just… didn’t.

It was clear that they didn’t have any idea what to do with Jiren for the majority of the Tournament of Power. You can tell as much just in his introductory scene. What’s the first thing we see Jiren do? Meditating. Saying and doing nothing. How informative.

Then, for the first massive chunk of the ToP, he just walks around. Saying nothing. Doing nothing. Every now and then he’d instantly wipe the floor with someone. But he didn’t do anything to display any semblance of personality. Thus, the only thing we knew about Jiren was that he was strong. End of synopsis.

This problem continued all throughout the arc, right up until the end. When Jiren is the last man standing, the only antagonist left, the writers realized that they finally had to give him and actual character. So, they quickly slapped together a backstory and gave him some semblance of a personality. How do they communicate these to the audience?

Exposition. Hooray.

Am I a bad person for wanting to kick this strange alien child’s head like a rubber ball?

Look, exposition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. To an extent, every story needs exposition. Sometimes, the only way to give your audience information is to just tell it to them. But there are more interesting ways to accomplish this than just straight-up having a character lifelessly explain it like they’re reading a Wikipedia article!

Not to mention just how quickly Jiren’s shift in personality occurs. One minute, he’s the lifeless obstacle we’ve become familiar with. Then, not one episode later, he’s an angsty loner with anger and trust issues. Now, that wouldn’t be a big issue…

…if this didn’t occur in the final four or so episodes of the show.

This is why Jiren overcoming his issues in the final episode is so unsatisfying. If that were an established issue he had from the beginning, one we see him struggle with during his fight against other universes, then it would have been more memorable and satisfying. But as it stands its just “Oh yeah, here’s Jiren’s character! And look, his arc is over! What do you mean it was lame? Uh… hey, look! Goku, Freeza, and 17 are all fighting him at once! How cool is that?!”

Jiren is a textbook example of what happens without planning. Even if you’re a discover writer, which is totally fine, you need to have some vision of what the character is going to become by the end of the story. Otherwise, you’ll struggle to properly establish their personality or develop their arc.

If Toei had been more careful in their planning, Jiren could have been a beloved character. As it stands, he’s only remembered because of his abilities. He’s more of a wall to be overcome than a compelling character.

But hey! At least he’s kinda cool in Fighterz! Not as cool as every other character in the game, sure, but he’s cool!

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