Who is Granted Personhood? Frieren’s demons and the trouble with the “inherently evil race” trope

By: Cress March 27, 20240 Comments
Closeup of Frieren lying down under blue light, looking melancholy

Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End is a story about grief, heroism, and the way we spend our fragile and limited time. A heroic party has brought peace to the land, and after they go their separate ways, time passes. The sole elf of the party, Frieren—with over a millenia of life—visits them years later, and in doing so realizes the contrast in her perception of their time spent together. And so, she decides to embark on a journey retracing the steps of her previous adventure, reminiscing and hopeful she may be able to speak to one of them from beyond the grave. She even travels with human companions again, fully aware she will outlive them. It is a gentle, humanistic story where the audience has the privilege and the joy of coming to understand friends and foe alike alongside Frieren. That is, until we encounter demons.

While the writing of Frieren allows us to empathize with complex and nuanced characters, this narrative structure is cut short at the demons of the show. Their creation does have some interesting worldbuilding, but it still falls into the trap of the always Chaotic Evil trope. Instead of another intelligent being, demons are more of a plot device to contrast against our main character’s “humanity.”

Frieren looking sadly off into the sky, seen in profile. Subtitle text reads: My adventure with you wasn't even one one-hundredth of my lifetime.

Demons and the “inherently evil” trope

Demons, as a concept, are older than print itself, giving us a form to our feelings of fear and anxiety that we can readily pour our hate into as well. As for demons in fantasy fiction, they often appear as villains or defeatable monsters and mobs without much personality of their own, often playing into the trope of the always Chaotic Evil race. This concept is not uncommon: while the idea of alignments like “Chaotic Evil” was popularized by games like Dungeons & Dragons, J.R.R. Tolkien arguably helped cement the concept of an “always evil” magical race with the depiction of orcs and goblins in his books. Orcs were his creation, while goblins were common to European folklore. Descriptions of them frame them as being subhuman, violent, and inherently evil, with many allusions to racist caricatures (Tolkien may have hated allegory, but he wasn’t immune to propaganda). 

As orcs appear in many fantasy works that followed—including the many anime, manga, and light novels that draw their inspiration from European-style fantasy settings—they tend to carry these ideas with them. There are certainly some more nuanced portrayals of orcs out there: in English-language fantasy, protagonist Viv from Travis Baldree’s Legends & Lattes stands out; and the orcs in Delicious in Dungeon aren’t main characters, but are shown as an intelligent group of individuals with their own motivations beyond just attacking adventurers. But there are many, many more that repeat the animalistic, “always evil” cliche and use it as justification for treating them as lesser than the human, elf, or dwarven characters… or not treating them as characters at all. For example: in the isekai series Campfire Cooking in Another World with My Absurd Skill, the human protagonist is reluctant to treat orcs as subhuman at first because they are so humanoid and seem to have a tribal society, but quickly ends up accepting that they are just rowdy, non-sentient animals… to the point where he’s okay with cooking and eating them

Closeup of Frieren looking stoic and unimpressed. Subtitle text reads: How heartless.

Goblins also appear in many fantasy anime and get a similar treatment, with problematic tropes from their origins baked into new narratives without questioning. For example, goblins have historically been used in anti-Semetic literature and appear as a detestable race in Goblin Slayer. The titular Goblin Slayer says—when asked if there are good goblins—There might be if you looked hard enough, but the only good ones are the ones that never come out of their holes.” Does this sound familiar?

Demons are also very familiar in anime, to the point where having the end goal of “Let’s defeat the Demon King!” is an all too common plot arc. This pattern is so frequent that many more recent series like The Devil is a Part-Timer and Sleepy Princess in the Demon Castle are able to parody it without too much set-up: there’s an evil Demon King, there’s a good hero, the audience knows how this is supposed to go (though often, these series actually invite us to understand the Demon King—it’s almost become more common to subvert the idea of the evil demon lord than to play it straight). Even the beginning of Frieren relies on this to some degree: the story is able to begin after the iconic defeat of the Demon King, because it’s assumed that this trope is so familiar that audiences don’t need this concept explained to them. 

A Demon Lord is a convenient shorthand for a villain that’s evil, monstrous, and cannot be reasoned with. Defeating this Demon Lord character is often the surefire way to save the day and ensure peace and safety for everyone else—killing him (or maybe “it”?) is thus justified morally and your heroes are still heroic for taking a life. On a smaller level, the assurance that demons are always evil means the human protagonists don’t need to have any qualms about killing them to level up (if this is a video game, or one of the many isekai series heavily inspired by video games). You can have a character who would normally be against violence and killing, kill a demon, because killing a demon makes the world a better place. When it comes to moral worries about violence, demons “don’t count” because they’re always evil monsters and you can’t possibly treat them as if they have feelings. Right?

Flamme standing in dappled shade in a forest, seen in profile. Subtitle text reads: They're nothing more than monsters capable of speech.

Demons in the world of Frieren

In Frieren, demons are explained as articulate beasts, most likely evolving from a magical creature that could mimic human cries for help to lure prey. They are highly adept at magic, honing one spell over the course of their life. And their pride over their magical selves makes it a cultural imperative to never conceal their mana. Mages in Frieren’s world have learned new spells specifically from demon’s talents. They’re able to speak the common language and while they don’t have the same social structures, remaining solitary for most of their life, they’re able to communicate with one another to accomplish goals. But Flamme—one of the greatest mages in history and Frieren’s former mentor—tells Frieren, and the audience, that demons only use words to deceive.

Frieren’s take on our demonic antagonists feels like a breath of fresh air in comparison to some of the more hackneyed, tropey depictions of Chaotic Evil fantasy races. Rather than being animalistic or ugly in a way that evokes caricatures, Frieren’s demons are posh and as conventionally attractive as our protagonists. Magic, and their practice of it, has influenced the sorcery of the land, bringing the craft to new heights. There’s even a certain reverence to their strength and ingenuity. Just one small issue: they really want to kill people. 

Landscape shot in a watercolor style. Subtitle text reads: In just a few years, Zoltraak was incorporated into humankind's magic system.

Well, sort of. Some want to understand humans and do so by killing a lot of them. The story hits us again and again with the explanation that demons do not feel compassion, guilt or even malice, that they can’t be reasoned with. Their morality (if we can call it that) is so alien that we can’t even begin to understand it. Some of this lore becomes a bit shaky when we see demons commit to petty moves that go against self-preservation. For example: in Lugner’s fight with Fern, he avoids committing a lethal attack against her and instead chooses to draw out the fight for revenge and seems to enjoy it. If that’s not “malice” then I don’t know what is.

I’ve seen the defense from some viewers that this is a tragic set-up of how sad it is that humans (and elves, etc.) can’t connect with them—how different things could be, if only they had empathy. Frieren’s writing manages to avoid egregious examples of allegorical bigotry, but still has a core of the idea: demons, for all their other traits, are explained as being inherently evil, it’s “just the way they are, and there’s nothing in the narrative to prove this wrong.

Closeup of Lugner, eyes cut off by the top of the frame, holding a bloody blade up near their smiling face. Subtitle text reads: In the end, we are wild beasts.

Dehumanization through non-human characters

Some viewers have used mental health shorthand to describe the demons, calling them “basically sociopaths.” I find this assessment of the demons offensive, and it aligns with some of the issues described above. Sociopathy or Psychopathy—their proper term: Antisocial Personality Disorder—is categorized as a limited capacity for empathy and lacking remorse for hurting others (there’s more to it, but this is the Cliff’s Notes version). This can have degrees of severity and can occur comorbidly with other disorders. But here’s the thing: empathy isn’t morality. It can help guide you to it but it’s not the be all, end all of whether or not someone will be a kind person. Not everyone who hurts you is a sociopath and not all sociopaths are violent. And even a violent sociopath is still a person.

Except, conveniently, a fictional demon is not a person. When traits that exist in real life—be they physical characteristics, cultural practices, behaviors, or mental health conditions—are projected onto fantasy races that are marked as being always and inherently evil, it functions as a way of dehumanizing the very real humans who share those traits. This may not be malicious or even intentional on Frieren’s part, or any other series that does this. Many modern fantasy works inherit the hurtful ideas embedded in these tropes when they borrow and repeatedly use them without examination. However, regardless of intention, this characterization of the demons has a detriment to Frieren’s writing, which otherwise has quite a nuanced and gray morality.

In a story full of rich and interesting characters, the demons seem to be a convenient plot device more than anything else, to contrast with our heroes, especially Frieren. Her long life is similar to demons and therefore her outlook can be similar, too. During the very first episode, Frieren makes a comment about how the journey was so short, not understanding why her companions consider it so monumentous. As an elf, her perception of the passage of time is different to humans. She doesn’t meet her friends until years after and only realizes on Himmel’s deathbed how little she knew of him. Her apathetic nature seems to be a side effect of her incredibly long life, and thus a side effect of her being an elf—different from humans, and experiencing the world and morality in an inherently different way. However, despite her literally not being human, the narrative goes to great pains to humanize Frieren and have her learn, grow, and come to understand the perspectives of others. She’s an elf, but she has a clear sense of personhood, and is written to be relatable to the (human) audience.

Frieren, seen from behind, talking to an older human man. Subtitle text reads: I've been trying to get to know the people I meet on my travels as much as possible.

This places her in stark contrast to the demons, who are also inherently different from humans, but in a way the narrative frames as being negative. In her battle with Aura—one of the demon generals—Aura expresses confusion as to why Frieren would continue following the ideals of Himmel long after he’s dead, and Frieren becomes visibly angry. The narrative shows a contrast between this demon and our elven heroine. Unlike Aura and her ilk, Frieren actually cares, she isn’t like these terrible monsters who lack empathy. Because Aura is a demon, she will never understand. Frieren has the ability to practice empathy, and has learned to appreciate the world and humanity… and will protect it by exterminating every vile demon in the land.

Having a thematic contrast between a hero and a villain isn’t new, and certainly isn’t bad on its own. But even if we defend the narrative using demons as an antithesis to life, especially human life, the demons themselves aren’t characters: they’re just a concept given form, a strawman. Our protagonists (and by extension us, the audience) are given a free pass in wishing for an entire species’ destruction. We don’t need to think any further, it’s how they are written, a perfect punching bag. An escapist narrative, even, where the bad guys are just bad and everything will be better when the good guys defeat them. Frieren becomes justified if she chooses to kill every demon in the land because it is written that way, they don’t count as people.

The dark green blur of a forest floor. Subtitle text reads: I hate them so much that I wish I could exterminate every last one.

When I think of other examples of demons set up as a threat to humanity, I need to give flowers to The Promised Neverland. At first its demons are horribly alien and cruel, treating the human children as livestock. They are monstrous and unfamiliar to us, needing to eat humans in order to retain their minds and forms. But as the story goes on, it’s revealed that this system was set up by both demon and human leaders to create scarcity and control for both populations. There were options and ways forward to create harmony between the people of both, but this was rejected so rulers could keep their power, and the story unpacks this in a way that treats both the demons and humans as morally complex characters working for their own survival. Frieren’s narrative continues to insist all demon actions are deceit and any fraction of curiosity from the heroes or the reader is futile. There’s very little push back to Frieren herself if killing all the demons is indeed her goal. It becomes something of a narrative dead end. In a world full of magic, from miracle to mundane, why can’t we visualize a different way forward?

If our imagination relies on cynicism, that something alien to us is inherently detrimental, that becomes a functionally conservative mindset more often than not. No one has to be perpetually forgiving to any group or person hurting them, the problem is full extermination doesn’t fix anything in reality. Why is it that human characters that have threatened killing, or have killed in the past—Ubel, for example, happily tests out her destructive spells on people—are given complexity and understanding, while demons have not? Did we not also evolve from beasts?

Makeshift graves in a sunlit forest, a sword sticking out of one of them. Subtitle text reads: I found the torn-up bodies of bandits in the woods nearby.

Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End plays with the always evil race trope but doesn’t fully escape it. While its depictions of demons differ from some more problematic caricatures of fantasy races in the past, its storytelling roots lie deep in the idea of inherent qualities that, as humans, we designate as evil. Despite inviting us to empathize with strange and threatening mages—and inviting us into the headspace of an ancient elf who experiences life fundamentally differently from us mortal humans—the story doesn’t extend the same grace to demons. 

I truly am enjoying the journey and am open to how the narrative may change further on—maybe we’ll see more nuanced contrasts between Frieren and other antagonists who aren’t solely demons—but currently this is what has been shown to us. This story about immortality, grief, and the importance of emotional connections is interrupted by the presence of blunt, strawman villains who exist not as characters but as plot devices to show the “humanity” of the protagonists. It’s a disappointing pivot in writing in what is otherwise a very enjoyable, gentle show. When a fantasy series asks “what does it mean to be human?” and gives you a strong, flat answer like this, it’s worth unpacking.

We Need Your Help!

We’re dedicated to paying our contributors and staff members fairly for their work—but we can’t do it alone.

You can become a patron for as little as $1 a month, and every single penny goes to the people and services that keep Anime Feminist running. Please help us pay more people to make great content!

Comments are open! Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

%d bloggers like this: