Friday, June 2, 2023

Villains of FFVII Part 4: The Baddest Final Boss

Here we are at the bittersweet conclusion of my Villians of FF7 series. It could only conclude with one person. A contender for the best villain of all time, the mysterious and deeply disturbed Sephiroth.

But, since it’s Final Fantasy, behind that person is a cosmic force with unimaginable destructive power. The huge narrative favor the writers did for players of FF7 is that they this wove cosmic force deeply and generously throughout the story. The many genetic experiments on clones, and the horrific experiences of a few playable characters give the player time to see how Jenova’s mysterious and incredibly murderous nature make her "son" the most dangerous enemy they could possibly face.

Jenova is the cosmic force. She is the entity that has made Sephiroth capable of achieving his goal to destroy the world so that he can redirect the world’s collective life force into himself to become a true, all-powerful being.

Sephiroth is the villain, the man who represents a threat to the entire world, and bears a personal grudge against the main protagonist, Cloud. Cloud, the poor boy who never reached the rank of Soldier, could only watch secretly when he happened to share a mission with Sephiroth to Nibelheim that would start the domino effect that resulted in Sephiroth’s madness.

We add to this dark portfolio, the fact that Sephiroth’s true father was a corporate Mengala performing totally irresponsible experiments with genetic dynamite on his own offspring, and that the boy Sephiroth grew up as a corporation’s conscripted mercenary poster-child. He was raised as far from healthy development as you could get.

It’s not just the backstory and characterization that make Sephiroth so memorable. It’s also the pacing of the plot in FF7, with many juicy hints that Sephiroth was the best the Shinra had to offer, and that Cloud hoped to be like him one day. The sword in President Shinra’s back, the flashback to Nibelheim as Sephiroth descends into madness, and the enormous serpent mounted on a thirty-foot pike all leave a mindblowing bread-crumb trail that drives home the point that Sephiroth doesn’t fool around.

What brings a villain like Sephiroth to life even more for me is the idea that his psychology has become so twisted that he truly believes he is doing the right thing, even though that right thing happens to be as wrong as it could possibly be. He has no problem committing murder. He manipulates and mentally abuses as much as his breathes. The only mission left that really gets him up in the morning is destroying the planet so he can eat all the collective life force of the whole world like a bowl of wheaties. He’s so irredeemably bad, few stories pull off his level villainy without seeming childish. And yet, with Sephiroth it works on a deeper level. His desire to destroy the planet comes across as a genuine threat, just as much as he wants to destroy Cloud’s identity.

I don’t like this particular angle, but you could argue that Sephiroth was made just as much as he chose to become evil. There is also the possibility that due to the nature of his exposure to Jenova cells, his proximity to the largest collection of her remains drove him mad. Or, that his choices were all so heavily under her genocidal, overwhelming influence that Jenova is the ultimate and final villain in the FFVII series. 

Is Sephiroth partially possessed by the Jenova cells that were injected into his body? It seems Jenova has that ability possess people, but like I said, I dislike this idea because I believe in Sephiroth’s capacity to be a horrible human being by his own choice, which gives the player of the game a deeper sense of his will driving the conflict, rather than circumstances bigger than the choices of individuals.

While we’re talking about Jenova, one of the most exciting theories I’ve heard recently comes from 4-8 Productions, and states that Jenova could actually be a weapon from another planet that could not be assimilated into the lifestream, and intended fully to destroy the ancients because its job was to terraform that planet to make it fit for her own civilization to take over, not unlike Omega weapon was meant to absorb the entire lifestream, and leave the planet to start over on a new planet somewhere else, as depicted in Dirge of Cerberus.

In this sense, Jenova is a superhuman being, one on the same level of power and cosmic purpose as the weapons that wait like lifestream Kaiju beneath the depths of the earth and sea.

However exciting it may be to reveal another layer to Jenova’s power, removing Sephiroth’s autonomy, and simply calling him a puppet in the hands of an alien monster ultimately undermines the power of the story, in my eyes. I like to think that the Jenova/Weapon theory is more about her background than her possessing Sephiroth. Jenova poisons and acts as a parasite on the minds of most people. In Sephiroth she is more of a symbiote. A part of his heritage. Just as he claims her to be, she is his mother, and he is the loyal son.

The fact that Sephiroth calls Cloud a puppet several times throughout the series is an interesting reflection on his own condition. Sephiroth is mysterious, but he does have a past. Zach, Angeal, and Genesis were close to him. Sephiroth trained and worked in Soldier. His madness, a result of intense isolation, toxic stress, and a mental breakdown based on feeling unable to reconcile his identity with the atrocities that Shinra was willing to commit, led him to descend into a megalomanical murderer. He became the other side of the coin, his evil father Hojo, fully complicit with an evil system, destroying humanity from the top of an ivory tower, Sephiroth, destroying everything in his path, including the ivory tower, the foundation, and the entire planet in his insane despair.

There is a big difference between a person who engages in destructive behavior because of their traumatic past, and a person who actively pursues the destruction of all living things. Sephiroth has that traumatic past, but lives the former, and actively fulfils his mother’s mission of absolute destruction.

The puppet line, to me, says so much about Sephiroth’s philosophy of life, not just his evaluation of Cloud. It’s obvious to say he has the desire to degrade Cloud. Sephiroth spent years living with the grandiose yet isolating identity that he was the greatest member of Soldier Shinra had to offer. As he attacks Cloud, he is still a ghost at best, incapable of human connection, empathy, even mercy. In many ways, despite Sephiroth’s potential for destruction, thanks to his bond with Jenova, Cloud is the one that is still living, and able to move in the world without relying on an extraterrestrial symbiote. Even when Sephiroth kills one of Cloud's most important allies, a party member and playable character (an event that gets talked to death about on the internet a bit too much, but nevertheless did leave huge impression on many, many players) he looks at Cloud a little too long. It's almost as if Sephiroth has to prove something, he's challenging Cloud.

But then there is the fascinating revelation we don’t get until later in the story. After going mad and destroying Nibelheim, Sephiroth nearly killed Tifa, the girl that Cloud loved more than anyone else, and dreamed for years of just getting her attention. In that moment, hidden in Cloud’s muddled memory, he actually defeated Sephiroth, at least temporarily. Cloud forgets this until later in the game, but this realization is one that shows that not only was Cloud able to save Tifa once from Sephiroth, he and his team would be able to save the world from Sephiroth, if they face him down.

Sephiroth cannot bear the idea of autonomy in anyone, because his delusions about his own identity are so steeped in nihilism, any sense of responsibility for the people he has murdered would destroy his self-image as a superior being. It would also destroy his conception of Hojo and Jenova, two deadly entities without an ounce of morality or humanity who make up the bulk of his family tree. As depressing as it can be to talk about the demonic traits of really dark villains, it’s also the dark side of the story that helps us see the other side all the brighter.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this villains series. I’ll be writing more about FF7 in the future. If there’s anything you would like me to cover, let me know!

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