In Defense of Jiren

The Dragon Ball franchise is famous for many things, and one of them is its gallery of iconic antagonists. Piccolo, Vegeta, Freeza, and Cell are some of the big names Goku has faced over the years, and they each make a lasting impression. The recent Dragon Ball Super series introduced a major antagonist in its multiversal “Tournament of Power” arc, a mighty warrior from another universe named Jiren. But unlike the others, Jiren is considered by many fans to be a disappointingly generic villain. It’s an argument I can see, but in the end one I don’t quite agree with.

Indeed, if you take Jiren as a villain, he seems to just be generic in his obsession with power and sacrifice–just another big body for Goku to overcome. However, this approach to Jiren’s character isn’t quite accurate: Jiren may be opposing Goku, but he’s not a villain. He’s a hero of his own world, one he presumably has defended from threats comparable to the ones Goku has faced, and he gained his power through the circumstances and decisions that comprise Jiren’s experience.

The crucial difference between Goku and Jiren is that the latter’s life is full of pain and loss that made him choose a life of isolation and rejection. Where Goku would defeat and befriend those he faced, Jiren would destroy. Where Goku attains power for self-improvement and new experiences (i.e. fight stronger opponents), Jiren does it almost out of a sense of obligation or duty. Where Goku is goofy, Jiren is dead serious. What Goku has to overcome when fighting Jiren is not some evil machinations or even a chaotic force like Majin Buu, but a different in philosophy borne from a universe that did not have a Goku.

Put another way, Jiren could have been the protagonist of his own anime or manga, one where suffering and cynicism dominate. Perhaps you can think of a couple of titles that fit the bill. But just like how Goku embodies certain values as the core of Dragon Ball, Jiren would be the center of his own narrative and all that such a scenario entails.

So Jiren might come across as “uninteresting,” and he might not necessarily be as compelling a foe as the most well-known villains of Dragon Ball, but he acts as a different kind of foil. If ever he shows up again, there’s plenty of room to explore his character.

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