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What makes a great villain? Is it someone who achieves their nefarious goals; is it someone whose affect on the hero is life shattering; or is it someone whose motivations, no matter how dark, make you question your own? The biggest point of contention between Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII often culminates upon this vital question. Proponents of VI readily point to Kefka succeeding in his goal for world destruction and godhood (neither of which Sephiroth ever achieves) as proof he is the apex antagonist, but the determination of success in one case and failure in the other isn’t that simple, and there are far more factors at play.
Fans of the Final Fantasy franchise are often at sixes and sevens with each other, and the arguments often grow vehement even amongst the most amiable crowd. The series is known for its in depth and intricate plots, which incite passion within introspective minds. Both FFVI and FFVII are revolutionary in their own way: VI for the seeming victory of the villain and VII for killing off a beloved character whose death still resonates today. For the former’s case, the heroes usually arrive just in time to stop the villain from what Kefka succeeds in accomplishing, and the same could be said for Sephiroth in regards to Aeris. With Kefka, though, his supporters insist that his goal was to destroy the world and achieve apotheosis, which he does…for a time. It is still more than Sephiroth manages, but is such an accomplishment enough to name Kefka the greater malevolence? Before this can be answered, we have to look at the characters themselves.
“Some men just want to watch the world burn…
-The Dark Knight
But for the Joker with whom he shares numerous maniacal traits (and by whom he was certainly inspired), Kefka would surely be the paragon of the “psycho clown” motif, as he is lovingly dubbed by his fans. He stands out among Final Fantasy antagonists as the one true villain with no real doubt or debate. Kefka is unequivocally evil with a dark sense of humor and one-liners even the greatest comedians would envy. Though Emperor Gestahl initially takes the role of “front man” as the leader of a despotic regime, it is obvious from the instant his sprite graces the screen that Kefka will be the last battle before the curtain falls. He owns the role of psychopath from the moment you see him until his final form fades. Final Fantasy VI is far more straightforward in this regard than both the games that follow it and those that come before.
Like Celes, Kefka was a Magitek Knight and general of the Empire of Gestahl. Unlike Celes (and though it is never explicitly stated) the process to imbue him with magic is what allegedly warped his mind, turning him into a megalomaniac who eventually seeks and causes the destruction of the entire world. He has no regard for human life, consistently laughs at the suffering of others, uses people as puppets and pawns (e.g. Terra), poisoned an entire castle to end a siege, tortures espers to extract their magical essence, and when the opportunity presents itself, kills the beloved General Leo in Thamasa and later murders Emperor Gestahl by pushing him off the Floating Continent.
After moving the three statues, Kefka absorbs their power to become the God of Magic.
This act also rips apart the planet, turning it into the World of Ruin, one destitute and clinging to the last vestiges of hope. The once motley fool himself is ensconced in a tower, dispensing the Light of Judgment on those who displease him (or just for the hell of it) like the god he’s made himself out to be, and though he is obviously a dark deity, Kefka still has a cult of followers who’ve raised a tower of their own in worship.
At the final confrontation, he reveals his beliefs about the meaninglessness of life and how destruction is inevitable since everything will return to nothing anyway. Kefka; however, does admit to finding the process of annihilation fun due to the “precious lives” lost, which begs the question of nihilism even within the concept. If one finds destruction entertaining, despite the horror of such a prospect, does such amusement negate the belief in nothing?
Although he is vanquished in the end (like all villains must be), Kefka does succeed in destroying a vital force and changing the face of the planet forever. Since the mad jester made himself the God of Magic, upon his defeat, all of that power vanished from the world. However, since it was only either used for destruction or to prevent it, it is arguable whether something truly integral was lost.
Terra, who was half-human, half-esper, was able to survive without her latter half due to what her human side had latched onto: the children of Mobliz, lasting friendships, etc., while the esper part had only brought her grief (ironic since “esper” comes from the French esperer, to hope; or esperance, hope). She was exploited and manipulated because of it by the Empire, Kefka, and (arguably) the Returners, as well. Even though it was a choice in the last cast, the reason everyone had any interest in her was due to her magical abilities. The only people who neither wanted nor cared about her otherworldly half were the orphans of Mobliz. All of the people either born with or imbued with magic in FFVI were either driven insane, manipulated because of it, or killed due to it.
In most fantasies, magic is something we in our mundane world envy when we’re allowed to experience it through a narrative, but Final Fantasy VI serves as a warning to be careful of what we desire. Without what became only a destructive force, there’s a greater hope for peace, but humans will always create more weapons of mass destruction, and the loss of magic will only stymie war for a period of time.
Dissidia Final Fantasy creates another aspect to Kefka’s narrative that the original leaves out, taking a more tragic view of his insanity (in a similar vein to our opposing villain). When defeated in the Shade Impulse story mode, the jester-like fiend laments on the futility of life, which fades into sad laughter, the utter antithesis of his trademark cackle in VI. Terra speculates that Kefka destroyed the world to fill his broken heart, and she also ruminates in Dissidia 012 Final Fantasy (before battle) if he’s being repeatedly tormented when he continually chants, “Destroy.” His museum profile in the same game states he uses self-destruction to make himself feel better, suggesting a depression related to his nihilism that was potentially hinted at in the original FFVI during the final confrontation with The Returners when they state what they hold onto in order to preserve the world (of ruin). Kefka briefly pauses (which the wiki suggest might be due to sadness) before ranting he’ll eradicate all dreams.
This seems purely speculative though, as there is nothing else in the body of the original game to even suggest Kefka’s nihilism is fueled by depression. The expansion of the motif in the Dissidias comes off as grasping for meaning behind madness, which is an excellent meta point for a villain whose modus operandi is meaninglessness. Kefka’s appeal comes from his insanity just being a character trait with no real or in depth explanation beyond the potential reaction to the Magitek Knight process. It’s never stated in the original game, merely suggested as the only outside influence that could’ve caused his mind to break.
Obviously, this has implications for Celes, since she was subjected to the same procedure, though when she was far younger, which leads to the conclusion that age is a factor in mental effects. This stipulation doesn’t erase the “but for the grace go I” of General Chere’s situation, and, to reiterate, there is no empirically stated evidence in the original game to explain Kefka’s insanity. His personality also remains consistent throughout.
Kefka’s name could draw reference from a few potential sources, but Franz Kafka, author of The Metamorphosis (which I’m currently reading), is a major contender. Kafka struggled with hopelessness and wrote extensively about alienation, injustice, and the futility in fighting against the latter. The author’s stories are known as existential, and apotheosis is about as existential as you can get. It’s possible the Magitek Knight’s moniker was chosen to represent Kafka’s brand of hopeless nihilism as manifested in a megalomaniac mind. The term “Kafkaesque,” defined as bizarre, nightmarish, or oppressive, is an essential and meta description of the (non)existence VI’s villain wants to preside over, as well as the labyrinthine nature of his tower, which serves as not only a malicious final dungeon, but the archmage’s “palace.” Kefka’s surname Palazzo, of Italian origin, means just that, creating wordplay any pun master would be proud of. Kefka Palazzo…Kafkaesque Palace also draws qualities from Pandemonium (which is used quite often in the Final Fantasy franchise), the place of all demons as first envisioned in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The surname can also be cut to the adjective pazzo, the equivalent of “insane,” and another Italian word pagliaccio, meaning “clown,” bears a resemblance to his last name and of course fits his motley clothing and makeup.
Kefka’s final form is akin to what we would call a fallen angel or the fallen angel aka Satan or (erroneously, but historically also still attributed to) Lucifer.
One of his more devastating attacks, Fallen One, also references this, since Satan is the Fallen One. This seems more cosmetic in Kefka’s case, since his arc had a sharper slope upward with no originally established goodness before his defeat by the Returners. Though it could be argued again that he succeeded where Satan (and by extension Sephiroth) failed, his overall symbolism isn’t fallen angel in nature, since he was never shown to be virtuous enough to fall. He’s not a fallen heroic/angelic character; he only has a fallen angel’s form, which game-wise, was the start of Final Fantasy’s fixation with dark, angelic figures, and the series only symbolically improved upon them as it continued.
Kefka did win, but his victory wasn’t permanent. His narcissistic megalomania elevated him to the literal top, but these traits along with his psychopathy and nihilism wouldn’t allow him to consider that such failings are not universal. Nothingness is also unsustainable. It’s far too neat. The universe is chaotic. This is ironic considering Kefka is one of the agents of Chaos in the Final Fantasy universe extending to Dissidia. Chaos obviously exists in destruction, but there is no entropy to nonexistence, which is much more orderly than the exponential chaos of life, love, and hope. It’s a messy business being alive. If the maniacal Magitek Knight had achieved his final goal of destroying everything, there would be no more “precious lives” left to lose. While he did gain godhood and managed to forever change the face of the world, he didn’t permanently destroy it. Of course those who lived in that moment suffered for it, but the generations who came after everything was restored will never know the difference. This begs the question about the nature of nefariousness. Is a great villain only defined by what they physically destroy?
“Mother is the name for god on the lips and hearts of all the world’s children.”
–William Makepeace Thackery
There is as much humor to Sephiroth’s existence as there is clarity. Twenty years later, the flames of debate rage as high as the fire that immolated Nibelheim, and what truly happened and who should be believed remains lost in the mists. I have written extensively about Sephiroth’s origin, motivations, tragedy, and culpability here, here, and here, but a succinct (re)summary is never unwarranted, and it’s only fair since I presented one for Kefka above.
Sephiroth was the son of Lucrecia Crescent and Hojo, two Shinra scientists who were appointed to work on the Jenova Project alongside Gast Faremis (Aeris’s father) with Vincent Valentine, a member of the Turks, assigned to protect all three. Lucrecia and Hojo decided to use their unborn child as a test subject, injecting him with alien cells while in utero. This of course affected Lucrecia even more than common pregnancy pangs. She was in frequent pain and overcome with visions of her son’s future atrocities.
When Sephiroth was born, he was taken away before his mother was even allowed to hold him. Eventually, due to her agony, she tries to kill herself, but is unable to die due to the alien cells in her body. She flees, ending up in the cave where once she and Grimoire (Vincent’s father) discovered Chaos. Encasing herself in crystal, Lucrecia resides in her self-imposed exile, and her son never even knows her name.
Hojo tells him that his mother is Jenova and “she” died giving birth to him. It’s also uncertain whether or not Sephiroth knows the truth of his paternity.
The full spectrum of what Sephiroth endured in childhood is unknown, but Hojo was a psychopath who had no qualms about using human test subjects including his own son. For unspecified but highly understandable reasons, he abhors his father, stating a line similar to Isaac Newton’s “standing on [the] shoulders of giants,” but derisively more accuses the scientists of stealing from what better men have accomplished (which could be seen as foreshadowing for later events). Ironically, he has the highest respect for Professor Gast, the father of Aeris whom he famously kills.
Due to the infusion of alien cells and Mako, Sephiroth’s strength, speed, agility et al are immeasurable. When Cloud relates his version of what happened five years ago, he states that it is impossible to describe his adversary’s strength. Through this and what could only be years of torturous, rigid training and discipline, Sephiroth becomes not only SOLDIER 1st Class, but is considered Shinra’s greatest warrior. Though such status is never stated in any of the FFVII Compilation, he is often called and considered to have the rank of “general” in universal head canon (aka fanon); however, this would put him higher than Genesis and Angeal, his fellow SOLDIERs 1st Class, and it’s assumed they are all on an even keel (of course he could’ve obtained such rank after Crisis Core, the Wutai War, and the death of his friends, all which happened before the original game).
Sephiroth wields the Masamune, an incredibly long sword nearly as famous (or infamous) as he. Its origin in the game’s universe is unknown, but he is never without it even when the blade is left in his transfixed victims (e.g. President Shinra), suggesting after entering the Lifestream, the fallen hero can manifest more. This idea is further supported in Advent Children when the Masamune appears in his hands after Kadaj’s transformation before the epic, final battle with Cloud.
Crisis Core, despite its foibles in voice acting, expands upon Sephiroth’s original nature greatly, serving to paint him in a fairer light, fleshing out the idea presented in Final Fantasy VII that, while seemingly cold and aloof, he does not lack compassion. Though he only has two friends, Angeal and Genesis, he values their companionship and once even offered his blood for a transfusion when the latter was injured (though he’s told he’s not compatible for reasons never revealed to him). Despite what his reputation might suggest, Sephiroth acts humane and caring, disobeying orders due to conflicting interest if it would harm his friends. Sephiroth couldn’t care less about greatness or glory, telling Genesis (who does) that he could have his title of “hero” to curb the ginger’s jealousy. This of course is meant to lay the foundations of the angel before the fall, but its existence throws a fly in the ointment to the notion of the general’s true villainy.
In the hours before the dark seeds of the Nibelheim Incident come to bloom, Sephiroth calls out to Professor Gast, distraught he died before telling the once general the truth. The tragedy being the information Gast would impart would be true and not the 30 year old lies Sephiroth spent seven days reading. In the end, he comes to believe that Jenova is a Cetra, based on this long disproved information before the Shinra realized that it was not only an extraterrestrial being, but an eldritch abomination that the actual Ancients had sealed away. Because Sephiroth believes Jenova is a Cetra and was told that he’s “Jenova’s son,” the foundation of lies is complete.
He loses himself, both mind and soul, under the influence of the same entity that decimated the Cetra 2000 years before. Believing humanity must pay for betraying that far gone race by leaving them to die defending the Planet from a calamity (which was Jenova itself), he vows to take vengeance for his Ancient “ancestors.” Tragic irony presents itself in that the motivation for Sephiroth’s actions has to do with avenging the Ancients, which he believes Jenova and himself, by extension, to be. This is compounded in the fact that he kills the last authentic Ancient, and Jenova is not only not an Ancient, it isn’t even of this world. Lies and half-truths are the driving force behind all of his actions, and therefore falsehood is the catalyst to the game’s plot.
After burning down Nibelheim, Sephiroth removes Jenova’s remains from the reactor before his defeat by Cloud, which ends with the once general thrown into the Lifestream. There, his will, augmented by the alien entity and potentially bolstered by a misplaced hatred for humanity (which is a shame, since there are a myriad, valid reasons to abhor the species), remains viable and becomes a corrupting influence in the swell. He attempts to become a god by wounding the Planet with the ultimate black magic Meteor. As blood rushes to a wound, so the whole of the Lifestream would flow to heal this, and Sephiroth/Jenova would be at the center in order to merge with it and achieve apotheosis. This is stopped by Holy and his nemesis Cloud in the Northern Crater where Jenova originally landed…and the place where it all began.
The “true” final confrontation takes place between Sephiroth and Cloud as they are (one of several) two sides of the same coin motifs, the coin in question being more like Harvey Dent’s as opposed to your typical heads and tails.
Advent Children’s cover nicely demonstrates this
Cloud is the failure who defeated the best because of his imperfections and not despite them. Sephiroth had the most alien cells of any other being on the Planet, and a powerful will. Due to the latter, he could exert control over any others who shared that commonality, including Cloud, but his will wasn’t strong enough not be taken over by nefarious alien desires. Since Cloud wasn’t born with such corruption, Jenova’s manipulation was comparatively easier for him to fight (even if his will wasn’t as strong as Seph’s). Thus though having the cells makes you physically stronger with the ability to exert mental control over others, the hive mind/puppet master has the final say, and the more materials of that one has, the easier it is to fall under its sway.
Sephiroth is the Satan/Lucifer paradigm in that he was the best, strongest, and certainly most beautiful (the “fairest” in the land: sorry Zack…),
but he climbed too high, strove for too much, and was therefore cast down.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost Satan attempts to overthrow God in the belief that he’s just as good if not better and is punished for it by being thrown out of Heaven where he still seethes in Pandemonium, scheming to try again.
Though there are other mitigating factors with Sephiroth, he most certainly fulfills the fallen angel motif complete with the one black wing, a potentially direct reference to Milton as God took one of Satan’s in punishment so that he would always remember that once he was whole.
Note: I personally have never found that particular part of the epic, but I stopped reading after Book IX. Others who’ve finished it in its entirety have stated this.
Satan betrayed and turned against his creator (God), and Sephiroth abhors his father. Hojo, whose God Complex was set long before his son’s. Milton’s epic has been interpreted to paint the fallen one as the protagonist and God as the antagonist, since it is Satan performing all of the action in the poem, fighting against a seemingly despotic creator, a role which could be filled by either Hojo or the Shinra Corporation in Final Fantasy VII. Sephiroth is able to eliminate one aspect of this in his murder of President Shinra, the forerunner of the company that facilitated his creation, but his biological father remains as much from his grasp as the knowledge of who his mother really is. Like Milton’s Satan, Sephiroth is a sympathetic character to many, and whether the creators of either story intended that or not, the seeds of sympathy are there for bitter blooms.
“The Hell within him, for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step no more then from himself can fly
By change of place: Now conscience wakes despair
That slumberd, wakes the bitter memorie
Of what he was, what is, and what must be…”
Aligns very well with “Estuans interius (Burning inside)” and “Fatum terrible (Terrible fate)” from “One Winged Angel.”
There’s a double sided coin between Sephiroth and Aeris in terms of them both being hybrids, but the last Cetra is a natural one made through love while the fallen general’s origin has a strong rape connotation (from its source in Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece) in addition to being both alien as well as artificial. The true dichotomy of VII, though, is the one between Jenova and the Planet itself (which I discuss here), as two feminine entities representing the sky gods and earth gods respectively.
Final Fantasy has a brilliant propensity for recycling paradigms, but presenting them in different ways. Final Fantasy VI does so, as well, with the World of Balance and World of Ruin, Celes and Terra (ice and fire), Celes and Kefka, and even within Terra herself. This is also true of Aeris, the flower maid who must reconcile her human and Cetra halves, ultimately choosing Cetra (as opposed to Terra chosing human) in order to save the world. In that Aeris shares another similarity with Sephiroth, since he, too, “chose” his non-human side to his and the Planet’s rue.
Sephiroth’s name has wonderfully esoteric implications. It comes from the Qabalistic Tree of Life, of Jewish mystic tradition, and refers to the holy emanations through which Ein Sof (The Infinite) (more easily understood as God) reveals itself. There are ten Holy Sephiroth: Kether, Chokmah, Binah, Chesed, Geburah, Tiphareth (where Tifa’s name originates), Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malkuth with Daath (sometimes called the 11th Sephiroth) floating in the abyss around the first sixth and representing knowledge and divine light.
There are also ten Unholy Sephiroth whose names I won’t write here, but this paradigm, too, presents a dichotomy in the arcane. Sephiroth is a character who (through whatever debatable reasons) attempted to become a god, so it makes sense that his name would reflect the aspects of deity come together.
According to Gustav Davidson’s Dictionary of Angels, our fallen general has a specific place there, too, outside or perhaps alongside his Qabalistic leanings. Sephiroth is “a powerful angel associated with the 5th Seal,” which (in brief terms) connects him with martyrs (more on this here). He potentially becomes a martyr (in death) and also creates them (Aeris).
Sephiroth’s final form is that of a dark, distorted seraph with one extra wing and therefore seven.
It’s also the merging of him and Jenova in a terrifying “turning into your mother” motif that would make H. P. Lovecraft proud. While Final Fantasy VII isn’t a horror narrative, it has many elements of dark fantasy, which is the precursor to the harrowing. While fear of the unknown is a common horror trope, witnessing the known and endearing become monstrous is another that’s less discussed. When you take something that everyone has either experienced or knows of and add a layer of horror to it, you make people question things that are the very foundation of who we are and what we know Twist the known, common, cherished and dear to the point they become unrecognizable, and you’ve imbued fear of the unknown into every day life. Nightmare on Elm Street did this with sleep and dreams, because we all have to sleep. While Freddie Kruger may not be frightening to us as adults, the idea of something that can kill you in the midst of an utterly mundane activity is unsettling (and sleep/dreams are common fodder for this type of fear factor).
*******Spoilers for the game Little Nightmares below*******
The more recent game Little Nightmares shares Final Fantasy VII’s Evil Matriarch motif in addition to having its main character steal her power and ultimately become her.
*******End of Spoilers*******
Sweeney Todd did it with going to the barber. Coraline also used the false, literally, “Other” Mother (the black cat also comes from the same source as Cait Sith as an FYI), and SOMA brilliantly did it with the nature of consciousness itself. There is no greater fear than the uncertainty of the ordinary.
There is another dichotomy…between Sephiroth and his real mother Lucrecia. Both are encased in a substance, one purely so and the other teeming with corruption by an alien influence, and it is fitting, if heartbreakingly so. Neither knows about the other, and Lucrecia is merely a side quest in the main game, consigned to the obscure. If her haven is found in order to spare suffering, Vincent tells her her son is dead. Though Lucrecia still has Jenova cells, which extend her life into perpetuity, she’s not affected by the Reunion perhaps due to encasement. Her crystalline tomb might have robbed her of the chance at seeing her son again and ignites one of Final Fantasy VII’s many “what-ifs.” Of course by the time of the Reunion, what Sephiroth had been was arguably dead, so the sight of his real mother might have done nothing, but it is a point of sad speculation.
Those “what-ifs” are what keep many fans coming back, because the entirety of the game hinges around them. If Lucrecia hadn’t agreed (or been coerced) into donating her uterus for science. If Sephiroth hadn’t been lied to about his origins. Had he known who his true mother was, would he still have fallen under the sway of an alien abomination? He certainly wouldn’t have been as angry, since Jenova wouldn’t have meant as much if it wasn’t the believed name of the mother. If his father wasn’t a narcissistic psychopath who used his own son for scientific gain. This ties into the foundation of lies since a non-narcissistic psychopath probably wouldn’t have lied to his progeny nor driven his wife away (if that indeed was a factor to Lucrecia’s egress). A story that has as many branching paths as the Tree of Life that is also tragic in nature will continually bring its fans back to both explore the possibilities and wonder if the tragic events were preventable or fated. While “One Winged Angel’s” lyrics primarily focus on the latter aspect, it was not one of Sephiroth’s making, but set in motion by his parents’ actions similar to the Oedipus he references.
Most of us one way or another find ourselves “turning into” our mothers. FFVII took it one step further with the added agony of it being false, creating a story that becomes darker and sadder the longer you look.
Like FFVI, Final Fantasy VII initially obfuscates the true villain of the game with the Shinra Corporation playing the same role as the Empire, and President Shinra occupying a similar position to the despotic and power hungry Gestahl. However, unlike VI, the question of who the true villain is remains ambiguous once you pierce the meat of it. Where FFVI is a more straightforward story with an unsympathetic (albeit amusing) antagonist whose ascension to ultimate evil has no roadblocks, VII is filled with fore mentioned “what ifs” that only help augment the sympathetic status of Sephiroth’s position. In assessing who the greater malevolence is, everything must be taken into account, but what is the greatest malevolence, and what factors contribute to its most accurate definition?
This is the first of two videos I present that focuses on why The Dark Knight’s Joker is such an effective antagonist, and one of the main reasons is because he’s an effective antagonist specifically for Batman. Per this video by Lessons from the Screenplay, there are several factors that create the perfect villain.
- They are exceptionally good at attacking the hero’s greatest weakness (0:56)
- “A protagonist and his/her story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” – Robert McKee (1:11)
- An antagonist must be powerful (1:14)
- “Create an opponent who is exceptionally good at attacking the hero’s greatest weakness.” – John Truby (1:35)
- The forces of antagonism should juxtapose the hero and villain as the two sides of the same coin.
- A great villain has a profound and specific effect on the story and the protagonist.
- The antagonist should be the perfect one for your specific hero. If you could interchange your villain/antagonist with any other, then you need to better develop your antagonist.
Taking these points into consideration, the relationship Kefka and Sephiroth have to their respective protagonist(s) can be examined. The many two-sided coins motif can still be kept for this, especially considering The Dark Knight portrays numerous facets of that paradigm as well.
Pinpointing Final Fantasy VI’s main character can be difficult. It could be Terra, the first one we see or Celes, who is introduced much later, but who aligns better with Kefka in some of the ways indicated above (though in terms of the opening scene, we see Celes at the same time as Terra, but don’t know who she is or where she fits in for some time). For the sake of argument and (hopefully) simplicity, I’ll use the character or characters that fulfill the conditions.
They are exceptionally good at attacking the hero’s greatest weakness.
FFVII – Cloud’s greatest weakness is being a failure: not only in terms of his SOLDIER aspirations (which ironically works to his advantage later), but also a failure as a protector (bodyguard). This grief extends to Advent Children, where we see him struggling to come to terms with his greatest loss (Aeris) and what he see as a failure of leadership due to the influence Jenova’s cells (or Sephiroth by extension) had on him in the original game. This is the reason for his melancholy. He still grieves for Aeris, and it’s possible Kadaj merged with Jenova took the form of Sephiroth because it (the eldritch abomination) knew that would be the form that would be most detrimental to Cloud’s psyche, the one he saw murder the woman he promised to protect. Sephiroth succeeds in a similar way to the Joker, since both killed their protagonist’s (potential) love interest.
The fallen hero’s entire raison d’etre after “death” is to torment Cloud with what he could neither prevent nor change, the burning of Nibelheim and Aeris’s death. Whether or not this is Sephiroth’s or (as I believe it) Jenova’s will is irrelevant. The latter makes a bit more sense as the alien entity is known to take other forms to draw close to those it wants to take over, though Sephiroth’s hatred of Cloud could certainly play a part. Considering that once Cloud truly wanted to be Sephiroth and became a Sephiroth “clone” only adds more fuel to the fire.
FFVI – Terra’s greatest weakness is how she struggles to reconcile both sides of herself, which she’s forced to do at the end of the game when all magic disappears from the world. She’s able to survive because she found something mundane (as in literally “of this earth”), the children and her friends, to cling to. This really doesn’t align with anything specific Kefka attacks since the demented clown is attempting to destroy all of existence. While he does use her as a puppet with the help of the Slave Crown, Terra doesn’t really struggle with overcoming the things she did under that influence.
As for Celes, her greatest weakness also (initially) deals with the dilemma of choice and vulnerability. She’s forced to accept Locke’s help in order to escape after she’s deemed a traitor, which to a former Imperial General must be harrowing: being accused and requiring help to escape the situation. She’s also forced to choice whether or not she’ll defect from the Empire, though it’s arguable that choice becomes easier after General Leo is killed and she realizes Gestahl’s true nature. While Kefka does murder Leo, there really wasn’t much of an established relationship between him and Celes, so while unambiguously horrifying, it’s not really known how it would’ve affected the former general. Later after Celes washes up on Cid’s shore and after (if) he dies, she has to chose between giving into despair or trudging on. Again, Kefka doesn’t really serve as the specific antithesis to either one.
Since the other points have either been covered already or are obviously salient (e.g. “An antagonist must be powerful”), I’m going to eschew them for the final…
The antagonist should be the perfect one for your specific hero. If you could interchange your villain/antagonist with any other, then you need to better develop your antagonist.
FFVII – This works on many levels. Sephiroth is the perfect antagonist for Cloud as explained above, but he’s also the perfect one for Aeris per my fore made point about him being an artificially forced and unnatural hybrid with Aeris as a natural and entirely consensual one. Sephiroth was created by literally forcing alien species together, but Aeris was born by the melding of sister races. We can also juxtapose Aeris and Jenova as the representative and protector of the Planet vs. an invading/corrupting force; Gaia (the Planet) and Jenova as the earth god vs. the sky god; and Jenova and Lucrecia as the false mother and the true. You couldn’t exchange any of these characters for one that didn’t have similar traits. Sephiroth’s very existence as he is hinges on the eldritch abomination. There would be no Sephiroth without Jenova.
FFVI – Kefka’s goal is to destroy all existence in a nihilistic fantasy to turn his belief in nothing to a reality. While his dark sense of humor and wit are definitely entertaining, the reality of his desires make him no different from any other world destroying entity in regards to how he interacts with the rest of the characters. While Jenova is obviously a “calamity from the skies” bent on feeding upon the life energy of the Planet, the use of its cells in human beings ties it to several of VII’s characters. Without Jenova there is no Final Fantasy VII, and of course without the Warring Triad there is no Final Fantasy VI, but the Triad have absolutely no manipulative tendencies (that we’re shown) and Kefka was evil from the get-go as opposed to Sephiroth’s fall. The former required no mind controlling eldritch abomination in order to fuel his nefarious deeds. Kefka, though hilarious, is merely a world destroyer that needs to be stopped, but he has tenuous ties to FFVI’s cast, given reasons discussed above.
This video by The Closer Look reiterates the point about attacking the hero’s greatest weakness, but he goes a bit deeper into villainous psyche, which serves to support the idea of “sympathy for the devil” as it were.
The villain must have good motivation, a reason for doing what they’re doing. This will bring the audience into the villains’ head, which may be uncomfortable for them, especially those who are only used to shallow and “evil just for the sake of being evil” antagonists. With a solid motivation, anyone can be understood. Even if their actions are not commendable, they will make sense in context.
The irony of this meme is burning the world is not Sephiroth’s motivation, it is merely a mitigating factor in (what becomes) “his” primary goal. It is most certainly Kefka’s motivation, which is duly expressed with his Light of Judgment.
Kefka wants to create a “monument to nonexistence,” which makes his Joker-like qualities mostly aesthetic instead of personal. The Dark Knight’s nemesis has no such designs. His battle with Batman over the soul of Gotham is based on the pair’s unwavering and antithetical philosophies of justice and order vs. chaos (though I suppose through a microcosm vs. macrocosm lens, this could be seen as Kefka’s desire as an agent of Chaos in Dissidia). Both Kefka and the Joker could be considered nihilists; however, the latter’s “one bad day” aligns perfectly with the “one day five years ago” in Nibelheim’s history, when Sephiroth and by extension the people of the mountain village had the worst days of their lives. The catalyst of the fallen hero’s story (and the surface story of Final Fantasy VII) is due to the culmination of events that lay the foundation for one bad day.
Both Kefka and Sephiroth seek godhood for vastly different reasons. VI’s villain has no ulterior motive or driving force behind his apotheosis desire whereas VII’s is trying to satisfy the abomination he believes is his mother. There are some who prefer Kefka’s raison d’être as they find the “purely evil and chaotic” character refreshing and fun. There’s less defense for his malfeasance (save for the insanity plea) and the reasons behind his psychopathy are tenuous at best. The most salient evidence points to the augmentation procedure that made him and Celes Magitek Knights, sparing her from the most mentally deleterious effects. However, we never see him sane, which is the opposite case with Sephiroth. FFVII pointedly shows him and his state of mind (through it is filtered through Cloud’s muddled memories) before the Nibelheim incident, and Crisis Core, for all of its flaws, elaborates on this more even, going so far as to show that not even the aloof general is immune to Zack’s puppy-like charms.
An actual, non-evil smile.
His promise that “they’ll meet again” holds no malicious intentions, which makes future events more sorrowful.
Referring back to The Closer Look’s video, one of the most convincing reasons the Joker is a great villain is that he manages to win in the end (6:10), the major points fans of Final Fantasy VI use in Kefka’s favor. He achieved his goal of destroying the world and becoming a god, but who specifically did he win against? The protagonists? Certainly. They weren’t able to stop him from moving the statues and setting off the chain reaction that broke the earth. His actions affected everyone on a planet that would be forever changed. This is the grand, sweeping villainous act in the same vein of someone like Sauron from Lord of the Rings, who is that nameless, faceless evil that affects the whole world, but doesn’t really serve as a foil for any one character in particular. In the end, while the landscape of the planet is changed, his ultimate defeat hits a worldwide reset button and also nullifies magic in general. This has more of an effect on Terra than Kefka himself once she is free of the slave crown.
On the other hand, Aeris’s death has a profound effect on Cloud and the other characters to a lesser degree. This tragedy not only completely changes the nature of the story, it forces Cloud to stop drifting from mercenary job to job, while giving him direction and something to fight for. His depression in Advent Children is directly due to his feelings of failure as a leader, because he blames himself for Aeris’s death. Even though Sephiroth, too, is defeated, nor did he ever achieve his goal of apotheosis, the murder of Aeris cannot be erased, and it breaks through the bonds of the game’s story to still have an effect on gamers 20 years hence. Additionally, Sephiroth plays the Satan/Lucifer role in VII’s narrative. What remained in the Lifestream always returns, never to be utterly quenched, because he lives within. Cloud and him literally share cells, alien though they may be. He’s part of him due to humanity’s hubris, as represented by the Shinra Corporation in meddling with forces beyond their ken for power.
While Kefka’s actions changed the face of the planet in Final Fantasy VI, Sephiroth’s affected the world as well. Whether or not it was truly him or Jenova wearing his skin, the result is the same. The true tragedy of VII is that all of its villain’s actions are based on not just one lie, but a foundation of them. Aeris died because the fallen hero read 30 year old information that named Jenova as the last Cetra, which would have prompted him to kill what he believed to be an imposter or remove the only threat to it. Nibelheim burned because Hojo gave him this false name, and speculatively, this could very well be the way an entity like Jenova operates. Its true age is unknown and the cycle fore mentioned with Sephiroth in the prior paragraph could be merely a microcosm of a sequence performed over and over again.
The question of “Who is the better villain?” initially seems simple in regard to Final Fantasies VI and VII. Kefka succeeded in his quest for godhood and world destruction whereas Sephiroth failed. This has been the long standing argument by the mad clown’s fans, but in examining what factors create the best antagonist, this can no longer be the sole decider. However, Kefka’s legitimate villainy is never in question like Sephiroth’s is. While the fallen general is always presented as FFVII’s main antagonist, there’s a great deal of evidence in the narrative that blurs if not negates this supposition. It’s possible that Sephiroth is merely a thrall of a higher manipulation, which trickles through him into all of the others with Jenova’s cells (not entirely unlike how the Absolute flows into Kether and then to the other nodes of the Tree of Life to tie it back to the source of his name), which would also mirror what Final Fantasies before (IV) and after (VIII & IX) have done. So the fallen general’s villain status wavers in deeper reflection even as he fulfills many of the points presented in the two videos above.
The question of “Who is the better villain?” becomes less relevant when you realize these characters must be examined from different planes. If both Kefka and Sephiroth are villains, and if you accept the conditions presented in the videos above, then Sephiroth is the better of the two. But if you reject the idea that Sephiroth is the true antagonist of his narrative and is under the control of an eldritch abomination, then Kefka wins. Of course the conditions presented could be irrelevant or not all encompassing to the definition of true villainy, and there could be more factors that paint the mad jester victorious, which I encourage you to speak on in the comments. There is certainly something about him that keeps his fandom dancing (if not mad), and it could be his sinister simplicity with caustic wit (never forgetting that laugh) tacked on.
In terms of actual antagonism and overall effectiveness to that end, Kefka could be considered the better villain, but Sephiroth is the better character, because of his tragic and complex back story, which frames him as the villain when he truth he could be another pawn.