Content warning: This article contains mentions of violence.
Violent Men Arc
I have sparred with the friends that I have grown into a man with — on and off the dojang mat. They are friends I have fought with about “Fight Club,” friends who I have argued with about “Attack on Titan” and other anime shows. These are friends I have insulted, slapped, punched, kicked, wrestled and hurt on many occasions — and they have done the same to me. These friends are the ones I’m determined to keep for the rest of my life.
There’s so much more to my friendships than these little acts of violence, but it is the kind of violence that can strain and strengthen male friendships that I’m concerned with. When I say “violence,” there’s already a negative connotation, so let’s define violence in an attempt at an objective neutrality on it.
There is the common legal and etymological definition of violence as “bodily harm,” and then there is the definition by Mike Rugnetta, PBS Idea Channel host: “the potentially aggressive removal of an actor’s choice in a situation.” By extension, the removal of choice may bring harm. In play-fighting, roast exchanges or full-on sparring, the removal of choice is transformed into a game in which both parties consent, one designed to bring people closer together. That’s how I understand the violence my male friendships employ. But what about violence outside of that?
Whether the primary cause is biological or cultural, the masculine brain (which I believe I have, which is also why the scope of this article does not go into feminine violence) has a predisposition for violence and seeks outlets for it. It’s how the “wake up and choose violence” meme has become a popular option for men. It’s part of why men are so fascinated with the Roman Empire. And those are just the examples that aren’t too actively harmful to reference. It’s specifically that mechanism of violence that brings my male friends and me closer on a platonic level. It is a different, tragic, harmful violence that is carried in men’s threats toward their daughters’ boyfriends. It’s what conducts harassment and SWATing over the internet. It’s responsible for so much other destruction in the world — so how can I sit here with any hope of neutralizing it?
“I’m in my villain arc” is a phrase that I have heard uttered by some of these friends but have also seen uttered by many men on the internet at large. The villain arc arguments are justifications for focusing only on improving the status of one’s self after suffering a great loss and pursuing one’s goals with little regard for others — behaviors that are associated with figures like Tyler Durden, Eren Yeager and the Joker. Part of the appeal is self-evident: Not only do people cheer for wrestling heels, laugh at absurdly problematic content and fall for the most exceptional of villains — they also turn to villainy when they feel that the “good” route toward their goals isn’t working.
Enya Eettickal, writing for The Case Western Reserve Observer, defines a villain in this context as “someone who acts in opposition to the protagonist, or ‘the hero,’ of the story. That’s it.” This illuminates a crucial part of the villain arc — even if it holds a pretense that the villain takes action with complete disregard for everyone else, acting in opposition is still prioritizing the opposition.
Further, villain arcs are intrinsically tied to violence. Not only do they feature violence toward others in the callousness of “villain behavior,” but binding oneself to a constant pursuit of goals is a personal removal of choice; it is violence toward the self.
If nothing is working for an individual — not self-help, not self-searching, not self-improvement — is violence the only option?
I’m going to spoil some major plot points of the seinen anime/manga “Vinland Saga,” so please watch it first if that will dampen your experience. Trust me, once you start, you’re very unlikely to stop. One can hardly turn away as the series kicks off with some of the most brilliantly brutal battles ever animated. After a brief moment of Thors the Viking (Kenichiro Matsuda, “DRAMAtical Murder”) resting in a golden field he calls Vinland, heart-pounding action fills the reality of war as he uses swords, arrows and even his bare fists to dominate the battlefield. Years later, Thors is killed because he refuses to take up his sword after having used it on too many people.
Thors leaves behind his son, Thorfinn (Yuto Uemura, “My Hero Academia”), with only the following words: “You have no enemies. No one in the world is your enemy.” Thorfinn swears to kill the man responsible — and so this child is baptized in the blood of the battlefield as he travels for years with the mercenaries who murdered his father, all for a chance to become skilled and feared enough to kill their leader. This story is the War Arc in the manga and first season of the anime, filled with violent spectacles in panels so picturesque and frames so faithfully adapted that it beautifies its brutality. This beautification is more obvious in the anime, as, to make a compelling show, the animation company WIT Studio compressed the pacing of the more vicious “Vinland Saga” battles, trading their original ferocity for flashier fights. This season sees Thorfinn all the way to the murder of his mentor, his attempt at regicide and subsequent enslavement. This season is the Prologue Arc.
The next season and arc is farming. The oft-criticized (mostly by “Attack on Titan” fans) Studio MAPPA took over, swapping the previous season’s violent spectacle for slow labor and soliloquies. This transition for Thorfinn is thematic — as a slave on this farm, he is forced to grow rather than cut down. The anime-manga dichotomy is increasingly apparent in its respective mechanisms of receiving the writing: In the former, lengthy dialogue is delivered slowly and steadily and scored to perfection, while in the latter, the reader sets the pace. The same is true for action — what was formerly the reason to rip through episodes of “Vinland Saga” is now almost horrifying to witness as the anime asks what the viewers prioritize: peace for its characters or spectacle for its plot?
These two throughlines are threaded into a bloody, beat-up bow at the series’s most iconic moment. When Vikings besiege the farm, Thorfinn pleads with the enemy camp whose leader it was once his ancestral right to negotiate with. They refuse and sock Thorfinn in the face. He stands up again, takes another hit and hears the warriors around him chanting about bets. When it’s revealed that they are betting on how many punches Thorfinn can survive before he’s killed, the man bets on himself — to the tune of 100 punches. He could have tried to haggle for lower, but Thorfinn is set, even when the viewers know he is capable of beating the bear who’s berating him to a bloody pulp.
As both the manga and anime skip to the last punches, the chanting stops, the man whom Thorfinn challenged can barely tap his opponent with his exhausted arms and Thorfinn stays standing; the brutality has become banal. This violence has been eviscerated of its veneration. Upon being asked why — when Thorfinn is obviously a much stronger man than anyone had thought — he would take that many punches rather than fight them, Thorfinn’s response boils down to his last line: “You are not my enemies. I have no enemies.”
It seems these four words have changed many for the better, especially with their adoption into meme culture and countless testimonies (check the comments). As modern civilization reveals itself more and more as a plaything of incessantly violent men, it seems art and the internet try to become not a reflection of this civilization but a safe place, one that holds up hope: for example, the memetic myth of Sisyphus and Waymond’s “be kind” speech in “Everything Everywhere All At Once” — a film that uses violence first as absurdist spectacle and in its final act as martial arts-aided empathy.
The current and final arc of “Vinland Saga” is the Vinland Arc, in which Thorfinn and the friends he’s managed to make search for the land his father spoke of building — a land without violence. This is what I hold as the opposite of the villain arc — not a “hero arc,” in which heroes and villains function in the same mechanism of violence, but to elevate above violence when enough has been experienced. The violence in the world must be transformed into strength, and enough strength has to be seized to make a world where the only function of strength is to be of service.
The value of violence is to learn enough of it to know it should only be the last resort. Not non-violence, but violence against violence — creating a world where choosing violence never again feels like an option.
You have no villains.
You have no opposition.
You have no enemies.
And that’s absurdly idealistic, isn’t it? It’s impossible to live in a world above violence, especially when violence exists not only on interpersonal but hegemonic, institutional levels. Our brains are hard-wired from ancient times to bring that violence to fruition, so why resist? Well, I don’t have a response to that — the answer is one we all have to seek together, in our revolutions that prioritize life, in our evolution above our primal ancestry, in our eternal search for Vinland. If we have the privileged option to choose peace, choose peace. But where is Vinland, exactly?
Well, it’s most likely Newfoundland. “Vinland Saga” is based on historical events, and the New World west of Viking territory is in North America. But of course, Vinland is much more than a piece of land — it’s an ideal to keep chasing, a utopia to keep creating, a paradise to keep pursuing.
I have found Vinland in piggyback rides and wrestling Twister. I have found Vinland in telling my friends I love them every chance I can get. I have found Vinland coming out of the theater after seeing “Everything Everywhere All At Once” with my friends. One of them asked us to stop walking for a moment, shoulders still shaking. We asked if he wanted a hug, and he simply nodded. My other friend and I embraced him. We stood there for about a minute, just three grown-ass men holding each other in an AMC theater lobby — and it’s one of my most treasured memories with them.
I love you guys.
Digital Culture Beat Editor Saarthak Johri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.