The Truth About Nabiki
June 15, 2004
Written by David Andersson
Nabiki is the, by far, most irredeemably evil character in the manga
when picked apart to her core and paying good attention to what she's
truly capable of. She's been perfectly willing to arrange a multitude
of life-threatening situations for her own amusement or small monetary
gains. She was also perfectly willing to leave her family at the poorhouse,
sell off Onna-Ranma to the yakuza or to arrange murder for the sake
of a bet and petty pride (all in the Kinnosuke Kasha-Oh story arc).
The common idea of her financially supporting her family is completely
a fanfiction myth. She was seen to be one of the biggest drains on
the family resources (No, we don't see Soun teach to bring in money,
but in Japan it's not too uncommon with old money for traditional
families), gladly spending of the family money, but being very cheap
when it comes to her own expenses, frequently stealing from her sister
or using her status as an extremely popular girl to shamelessly extort
money from her male admirers.
She isn't the 'tragic, responsible character in the shade of her 'spoiled' immature sister' that people, for some unfathomable reason, generally make her out to be. Yes, she is one of the sexiest girls in the manga; Yes, she has that high-class, naughty and sophisticated fair that makes many men want to screw her silly and in lack of other intelligent characters it's an easy trap to begin to identify with her since there are few alternatives, but do any of you truly understand her character and just what she represents? Based on what's shown in the manga alone, she's an extremely manipulative, spiteful, malevolent, untrustworthy, ungrateful, back- stabbing, irresponsible, utterly self-serving, sadistic, self-righteous, arrogant, hedonistic, vengeful, black-hearted, completely amoral and irredeemably evil character with no limits whatsoever to the lengths she'll go to find personal satisfaction. That's Nabiki in a nutshell. Heck, as far as I know she was the only character Takahashi outright admitted as being evil outside of Happosai.
Also, contrary to the recent fanfiction trend, she doesn't care about Ranma in the least. When she thought he had died in the battle with Herb it was met with a shrug. When he saved her life after one of Akane's idiotic temper-tantrums she rewarded him by treating him as a slave and using him as a chess piece, unleashing the 'fiance'e fury'(TM) triad on him (and that's literally Nabiki at her nicest). There was also the instance when she paid off her debts by handing over Onna-Ranma to be used as a hooker by the yakuza, or the time she almost revealed Ranma to his mother out of spite, even though she knew Nodoka was quite serious about the death- threat. Or the times she sold out Ranma to several of his enemies at once, creating potentially life-threatening situations. The only clear opinion she's shown about him is that he and his father are a bunch of no-good freeloaders (the Hinako & Soun arc) and that she's jealous that he still has a mother and, of course, that he's a good source of income for her private investments.
So where exactly is the solid basis for this general complete reinvention of her character to become Nanami Jinnai (from El-Hazard) instead of Nabiki Tendo?
I've heard the argument that she's not three-dimensional enough when her original characterisation is used. Well, that's not really true. She's better rounded than most of the other characters. It's just a bit harder to notice all the details that fleshed her out. I've met plenty of truly evil people who have a solid, three-dimensional basis for their thought-patterns.
I've also heard the 'she's tragic because she misses her mother' argument and 'she's only waiting for someone to reach out to her and melt her heart' and 'she was always in the shadow of her sister'. Well, there are plenty of very, very bad people who've had some bad things happen to them and have done much, much worse things to others. It doesn't make them tragic in the least unless we're talking extremely bad circumstances. There are also a lot of nice people who have had very, very bad things happen to them, often because of the first category. It's very unlikely that the almost saintly Kasumi doesn't miss her mother as well. We were also shown that Nabiki was a very popular girl and that every time some nice young man 'reached out' to her she first skinned and then blackmailed him dry of assets. Also, Nabiki most definitely didn't live in shadow of her sister. By all accounts Nabiki seemed to be the one fanning Kuno's interest in Akane and the subsequent attacks on her person, in order to thrive financially.
The most sensible argument I've heard would be: "Well, the characters come from a _humour_ setting. Why obsess over certain characters when almost all of them are very nasty if translated directly to whatever story you want to use them in? It's all comic-book gags anyway." Fair enough. Those are good points.
To start with, I didn't really feel any burning dislike for any of the characters when just reading the manga. Some of them, like Nabiki, were just villains without any redeeming traits, pure and simple. What started to irk me and has continued to annoy me ever since has been the raging reinvention of various characters. Essentially, either being unable to properly analyse the characters and eating up previously established and mostly unfounded myths, or trying to excuse horrible personality traits and acts because the author either identifies with the character or finds the 'idealised' version to be far more attractive. It's pretty much the situation that makes me hate the character. It feels like people in general would like to say: "It's ok to be a manipulative, sadistic, back-stabbing, murderous user who likes to set up life-threatening situations for kicks and spite, with no danger to herself. However we still hate some of these other dull-witted, overly violent, idiots we don't identify with". Yes well, while I'm not as fixated on the rest of the cast, I don't particularly like most of them either, so the dislike in itself is no problem at all, it's the comparison that Nabiki should be morally superior to them that I have a problem with.
While I agree that most of the fist-to-fist violence is mostly slapstick and non-threatening to the inhumanly strong characters (and no I don't think temper tantrums or childish behaviour is an attractive trait), there are exceptions when keeping to the tone for the story, that clarifies the difference in intent of the characters. For example when Shampoo was gleefully willing to murder Akane, when the latter was bound and gagged or when Mousse threw a torrent of knives after Ranma and didn't particularly care if the children behind his target got hurt and Ranma had to save their lives. It's what puts Mousse and Shampoo (as well as Herb and Kuno, who is a bit too deluded to be considered truly evil) on a worse moral level than 'merely' violent bruisers who usually don't attack those who can't defend themselves and don't intentionally try to murder others, like Akane, Ryouga, Ryu and Ukyou (In the beginning of the manga I might have put Ryouga in the first category, but he got progressively nicer as the series continued and it's kind of hard to really dislike him, seeing that he's the by far most miserable character in the series up until the near end. He's already paid for his transgressions in full anyway).
Then we have the really nasty category, which includes Saffron, Kodachi, Happosai, Taro and, of course, Nabiki. Now these characters have almost no limits when it comes to what they are willing to do for their own ends. Kodachi will gladly try to murder every man in an amusement park in order to kill her rival's date and is willing to feed her brother to the alligator because he annoyed her (and yes, it was funny when I read it, but I still wouldn't like someone to try to _excuse_ it). Saffron is willing to ruthlessly murder and manipulate any people who annoy him, but at least feels some responsibility for the people he's brainwashed into service. Taro has no qualms about killing people that he finds annoying, or even for the sake of convenience, though he usually sticks to beatings, extortion and manipulation. Happosai is usually just an entertaining annoyance, but has shown himself to be extremely spiteful and ruthless when he feels like it. Being perfectly willing to reduce Ranma to a cripple for life or to kill people who won't reveal information. It's possible that I should have ranked him a bit lower though.
Then we have Nabiki, who annoys me a good deal more than the rest, for the reason that the other characters generally aren't excused by anyone. That and the facts that she's almost never in any danger whatsoever herself, but gladly uses anything and anyone to do whatever she likes with no moral compunctions whatsoever, not even for the family, and then cheerfully gets away Scott Free... with a profit.
As for the problems with faithfully translating the characters from a humour setting to a serious story without making them all extremely unsympathetic, well ideally we'd have more stories, which tried to capture some of the essence of the original manga. That is, a blend of humour, outrageous people, martial arts and drama, but in lack of that it's not so much about writing redeemable characters as keeping them in moral relation to each other. That is, you can make the characters nicer if you want, but don't make a very nasty character nice to show that another (originally less evil) character isn't nice at all, when keeping the latter character as bad as (or even considerably worse than) usual. This is a frequent problem in many other cases as well.
Now I've noticed that several of the people who like to reinvent (or
follow a previous reinvention of) Nabiki also harbour a strong dislike
towards Akane, which isn't too hard to see. Brutish tomboy vs. elegant
lady and all that, but while I really don't like Akane very much either
I can't say that using a by far more repulsive character, when analysed
more than skin-deep, would be a good idea. Akane at least has some
redeeming traits, while Nabiki has none whatsoever, unless invented
otherwise. Also, while Akane has plenty of worse faults, I can't buy
the general idea of her being 'spoiled', I wouldn't call a girl who
is responsible both at school and with family traditions and is rather
mindful about her expenses as 'spoiled'. Very immature, prudish, awkward
and with immensely high feelings of inadequacy, which translates into
trying too hard (and frequently failing in her pursuits because of
it), as well as a raging temper, insecurity, paranoia and oversensitivity?
Yes sure, but spoiled? Nah, considering that she's trying very hard
with her labours I wouldn't say so.