My Dear Loser: Abandoning The Romantic

With the recent release of Edgar Wright’s live-action adaptation of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, it looks like an old disconnect has come back in some respects to haunt fandom once again. Whether or not this was a factor in the film’s lackluster performance at the box office, it is clear that beyond the film’s niche leanings, there is also the phenomenon of not having the most “heroic” of central characters. Scott is jobless, stays in an enclosed studio apartment, and shares a bed with his too-cool roomie, Wallace(who owns practically everything in said apartment) , and clearly has no plans in the long term. In fact, aside from video games, having an underaged girlfriend, and playing bass in his little garage outfit Sex Bob-Omb, there’s really little to our hero that makes him such. And this is what we are essentially stuck with as love at first sight hits the mind cycles like an N2 mine. And yet this is all by design, to the detriment of many. The tendency to take a central character, and to shape them into something less than a clearly sympathetic lead is often a risky proposal in any medium, but when executed with style and balance, something can indeed be savored. And how does this apply to the worlds of anime and manga? Well, it can almost easily be said that the origins of many such stories can be traced here with equal ease.

Looking over the decades, and seeing through the often parodied cliche of the ever-unflappable hero with a desire to be “the best”, it can also be said that a saturation of such types has its very own shadow counterpart, the loser hero. Not merely comfortable with the moniker, anti-hero, these types, while having goals of their own, are often far too shortsighted, too easily distracted, or focused elsewhere to ever truly be considered heroes in any common sense of the term. They don’t take on enemy after enemy in a protracted battle royale for ultimate glory, nor do they completely embrace the power of change toward a brighter future. In fact, very often, they aren’t very heroic at all.

So why is it that they continue to have large followings despite the glares & sneers of disapproval of so many? Well the answers can be both traced to both contemporary society’s own reception of the so-called “least of us”, as well as a deep seated need for recognition of the simpler, quieter defining moments in the lives of certain individuals. It’s a quasi-response toward feelings of alienation, and disaffectedness akin to those of a young Holden Caufield, uninvolved, unimpressed, and aching to be heard regardless of the direction of the winds. Taking the time machine back to the early days of Gekiga manga, where the pratfalls of ordinary folk, with their own internal strife often enveloping their fates with the power of a black hole. Daily life, inner city dregs, and the smoky skies of industrialized society rule intersecting lives without heroes, but many interesting lives with which to explore. Whether Tatsumi knew what kind of mutations would come from his then fresh battle cry against the ever numbing assault of super robots, detectives, and action heroes or not, the influence upon later works can be seen in many well-known central characters.

Can one imagine Go Nagai’s iconic Akira Fudoh without the influence? Heck, in Japan, even Spiderman had his share of problems.(as beautifully captured here in Jason Thompson’s amazing new post.You thought Peter Parker had it bad.) A land recovering from such dramatic changes over recent decades naturally needed an outlet for them that didn’t exclusively float away into mere flights of whimsy & easy answers. Something truly had to give in regards to those less regarded, the reluctant, the daily warriors aching to see it through for another day. Which is why when Gundam first landed in Japanese homes, the very nature of Amuro Ray was something unprecedented, even for a Yamato-era series. A hero nowhere near as interested in the fate of those around him, but of those closest. There was a scrappy, everyboy feeling to the proceedings that helped pave the era of realistic mecha anime, naturally leading to the ultimate expression of this disaffected archetype, Shinji Ikari.

And for years, it came to be long debated right at the gate. Many viewers to this date cannot watch Shin Seiki Evangelion merely because the lead character is so caustic, and incapable of reaching beyond himself. And yet it spoke to so many in an unprecedented manner, exposing a spirit not only reflective of post-bubble Japan, but of a general societal malaise. To see the sheer number of international fans (US fans included) recept to the characters of this series in such a manner, even as it takes a page from Tatsumi’s book of urban isolation is telling. Many wished to not merely see the boy pilot’s evolution from troubled introspective, and into a more classic hero, only to be denied by design in an even more unprecedented move by the show’s director. But the aim remains the same, to begin a character’s arc at the lowest point is a classical method in genre fiction. But in Evangelion’s case, it is less an arc than a case study. That one of a kind look into the mind of one incapable of seeing the world in a pluralistic sense, and more longing of some unseen, ordered universe, which jibed well with many fearing the coming millennium, and a potential cerebral meltdown ala Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

And yet it is a stunt that can only work so many times, which is why the loser hero is often more suited to be a comedic lead where the stakes are lower, and the fan service can be high! When the loser hero gained traction in the late 70s, it only took one mangaka’s central pervert to pave the way for an entire generation of lucky zeroes. Ataru Moroboshi, the insatiable, aimless lowlife son of the average Japanese family became the prototypical harem lead with Urusei Yatsura. And what makes this particular character so unique in this pantheon of service is that his unrepentant nature is rarely to never deterred. Even with the ultimate prototypical alien girlfriend, it isn’t enough. And even as the whole town had had their lick at beating this boy to a bloody pulp, it never seems to be enough. It is practically a metaphor for sexualized Japan’s own inability to grow past it’s own middle school period. And yet, the fans clamored for more as Takahashi continued to refine the loser hero with Yusaku Godai from Maison Ikkoku.

Almost setting up what will likely be the final mold for the harem lead, struggling student, Godai while not dealing with a vending machine selection of potential mates, has direction issues that continue to deter him from being a typical seinen hero. Whether it be school, or his landlord, Kyoko Otonashi, Godai’s choices are often more base, and not as concerned with the greater struggles of a would-be college student. The manga & anime’s leanings coalesce into realms unexpected, and side less with what most would expect regarding the initial setup. A bittersweet set of choices makes Ikkoku into something truly brave in the gardens of anime love geometrics, and has yet to be executed with as much sensitivity or irony.

The Takahashi Loser Hero Evolution Scale:

Which leads us to where it can all go wrong. When the loser becomes so unyielding, so childish, so incapable of sympathy that it can only end in bloody histrionics. That’s right. There’s just no other way for these folks to end their journeys but in the requisite bloodletting and screams one saves for a slasher free-for-all. Now without getting into titles, we are talking about the loser heroes who usually and up becoming yandere bait, and sometimes even targets due to their indecisive, unconscionable actions. Now where this comes from internally, I won’t get into here. But I will say that it is a pretty desperate place, and will likely take a strange place in the echelons of otaku museums for future investigation. Maybe then we can all look back, and ask exactly what it was we were drinking back then.

Ahem.

And so the often kneejerk reaction toward protagonists that happen to be less than ideal comes off as not only a little strange (after all, where would Golgo 13, Taxi Driver, or Fight Club, or even Charlie Brown(!!) be without this complex viewpoint?). To not see the connection between our own fallible selves and the at times borderline massive battles of the mundane seems a little shortsighted, and more than a little unfair. To each their own of course. And of course, there has been a recent tendency to allow characters to start from this point, only to wallow in it without an ounce of likeability, nor hint of reprieve from their childish natures,which is also telling of artists & readers. But to see a non-hero from the perspective of those around them can be a rewarding experience (as best expressed in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic version of Scott Pilgrim and well implied in the film. To see this expressed stateside is something of an interesting reflection on classic Japanese tropes of these sorts, making it a fascinating counterpoint.). When writers are fully in control of where a protagonist begins, it is vital to consider the placement of it, and in the case of the film in question which owes a great deal to Japanese video games, as well as anime, has a great amount of kinship with many elements of the more comedic loser hero with a tinge of the urban disconnect prevalent in so many classic characters.

Your mileage? Can’t say, but it is a most welcome swipe at the already tired comic book movie format. Now if only other live action anime adaptations would be so lucky.

Big acknowledgments to the works of Antonia Levi.

20 thoughts on “My Dear Loser: Abandoning The Romantic”

  1. You know, I always thought the roles that Michael Cera usually plays (Scott Pilgrim included) was the closest thing we Americans had to a standard Japanese harem lead—not very masculine, wishy-washy, hesitant, and yet courted by cute girls.

    I wonder whether, should American enter an economic “lost decade(s)” that Japan experienced in the 90s and 00s, we will begin seeing more and more heroes of that sort in our fiction. As you said a lot of the archetype is the product of difficult economic times and a sense of a loss of direction, something that Hideaki Anno explicitly exploited and wished in his own way to help correct. (How different the new Shinji of the new Evangelion is!) Perhaps, hand in hand with the triumph of geekdom in American popular culture, we will begin seeing more and more “loser heroes”?

    But no Makotos, please. :)

  2. To give credit where credit is due: House of 1000 Manga is written by Jason Thompson, author of Manga: The Complete Guide, not Mike Toole. His column is entitled The Mike Toole Show.

    I think a key difference between the protagonists you cite and Scott Pilgrim is the fact that the narrative of SP does not explicitly and strongly condemn its protagonist as a “loser hero” the way that Shinji Ikari, Ataru Moroboshi, Yusaku Godai, et al are condemned within the context of their own shows. Indeed, the first volume of the comic is “Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life,” which implies that the life he lives is one you, the reader, WISH you had: he doesn’t need to work (roommate who pays for everything + rich parents to fall back upon when said roommate stops paying for everything), he’s got plenty of friends, plenty of GIRL-friends, and he’s got multiple talents, some of which he’s unmatched in. There is no strong condemnation within the narrative itself, no “this guy is a LOSER!” directed toward him by everyone around him. Any condemnations of his lifestyle are from characters intended as comic relief or antagonists. The end result is that readers want to BE him. They want to live that life. They see themselves in him, flaws and all, and THAT is what fosters their sympathy. Scott Pilgrim therefore does not embody a “loser hero” archetype in the eyes of its intended audience.

    By contrast, everyone in Urusei Yatsura despises Ataru, and for good reason. The intent is not for the reader to root for Ataru to win; you root for him to screw up, get caught, and get hurt. Godai is a closer example to Scott Pilgrim due to their similar backgrounds, but the societal condemnation of Godai’s life is pervasive throughout MI. Like Scott he has no future prospects, but a very important distinction is that he has no girlfriend or former girlfriends. Within the internal narrative context, Yusaku Godai is not initially seen as desirable to society OR the opposite sex. As a result the viewer/reader has no desire to want to be in his shoes. However, due to his fundamentally “good-natured’ character traits, you want to see him succeed. This is the true mark of the “loser hero” or “beta male protagonist,” and I fail to see how womanizing Scott Pilgrim, “the best fighter in the province,” carries such a mark.

  3. Oh definitely, Mike. A part me of feels that this film is the defining moment of this reflection. The thing that makes it all the more potent is in how aloof the Scott Pilgrim character begins, and later discovers himself far more capable than he had ever imagined. Problems occur when the film skips the more realistic expressions of this (Ie looking for work,etc) The part that makes this character most relatable is that his aloof past has left behind a junkyard of damage in order to fight beyond in order to gain himself. And in this, it surpasses many harem leads in that it acknowledges the problems inherent, and the roadkill it leaves behind., making him no different than his opponents.

    And yes, I’m beginning to feel that we are in fact on the road toward an era not unlike Anno’s spiritual quagmire. Will we see something to his impact? Only time will tell.

  4. Daryl. I’m not sure what book you read. But a writer doesn’t have to drive the character beat with a flaming pyre to make its point. I found it quite clear that Pilgrim was being more than a jerk to many around him including Knives Chau & Kim Pine. The fogginess may seem apparent since so many characters are locked into their own trivial realities at times, but such is the life of disconnected young folk in the city. (Something O’Malley nails frighteningly well) Pilgrim himself has no aim outside of satiating his momentary impulses until Ramona Flowers comes along, and in the process of the series experiences the weight of responsibility. The fighting exp is never to be taken literally, and works as s shorthand for his own battles to get past his own shattered images of young love.

    It also requires a generational perspective as well. If one looks at SP closer, it’s pretty messed up, and implies some pretty sobering notions about the youth of the last ten years.

  5. Even O’Malley himself has expressed worry that a character like Pilgrim is being seen as a hero to some.

    There’s no taking away that it is a “pathetic underdog” tale, but sometimes those internal battles are everything. But rarely do we see them externalized so entertainingly.

  6. First of all, great article Winter, you are a fantastic writer and a veritable encyclopedia of anime/comic related knowledge.

    I have yet to see SP. This is due to my currently definitively “loser” status as a mostly unemployed, recently single, completely broke, college drop out, musician/artist (meaning my penniless state could be seen as more of a vocation calling than a temporary phase). When one is struggling to make rent, there is no money to spend on cinema, even good, potentially daring cinema. I hope to see it at some point if the universe allows.

    But enough whining, I just wanted to chime in and say that in these times, we need stories with loser heroes. Writing stories is sort of like a magic spell that increases the probability of real life events molding themselves into the shape of the story, especially for those who write it. So whoever you are, keep writing those stories.

    ^_^

    [tlr]

  7. Thanks so much, _tlr_. Starting from very little is always fraught with steep chasms, and arcs of peril. Which is why it’s so important that we embrace the little victories as much as the large ones. I for one, am a lover of the internal skirmish, and have an affinity for characters who awaken to a larger world, stumbling all the way. I also love that we get to see this change through the eyes of those around them. It can be illuminating to see that we ourselves can overcome our smaller selves if we just gave it a moment. All the best your way, maestro!

  8. _tlr_’s comment actually illustrates my ultimate point as to why Scott Pilgrim is not a traditional “loser” protagonist. Regardless of his actual place in society, as presented in the story his role actually fits a more classical “everyman” protagonist, albeit for a new generation for which their “everyman” traits do not exactly correspond to that of the traditional average Joe hero. This is precisely why the appeal of such a hero is so limited among the general public. Though Scott’s situation is exaggerated from reality in places, the base elements of his life are arranged such that the comic’s intended readership identifies more closely WITH him than they do AGAINST him. “Hey, he’s just like me!” From their perspective, he’s not living that bad a life. This line of thinking is problematic is an underlying message gradually revealed over the course of six volumes; “hey…he’s just like me…”

    Perhaps when using a metric outside of the story’s target readership, the reaction to Scott would be that of “this guy’s a loser, but maybe he’ll turn it around.” But there’s very little underdog element at play here. His conflict lies in “keeping” the girl, not “getting” her. He asks her out, she says yes. They go out. Presto. That’s not something any real loser protagonist would encounter. Godai took years to get the girl. After all those years, Ataru still refused to say he loved Lum. By contrast, Scott Pilgrim “gets it together” by doing so…and there’s still a third of the story to go. And while they may sometimes knock him for a loop momentarily, he wins all his fights in decisive manner; the outcome of these clashes is never in question. So while Scott Pilgrim acts like a jerk to the ladies and is “aimless” with no significant career path, that does not establish him as a “loser protagonist” by any stretch of the imagination; indeed, these are exceedingly common character flaws/traits that are quite standard fare for male leads in romantic comedies, which is exactly what both this comic and the film are.

    The common response often given to people like me with less than praiseworthy things to say about Scott Pilgrim–either the comic or the film–is some variation of “you just don’t get it, man.” Though I make no attempt to understand the underlying nature of love/romance narrative, I will say that the tangible cultural critiques present within this story–and they’re there, sure–are ones that will primarily be seen by the very same youth/young adult culture it depicts. Such is the result of crafting a story about an “average” hero, where said average is defined by a specific generational subset.

    (Also, it’s not that I’m a generation removed from these people. In order to catch the geek references in this story, you need to be roughly my age give or take a year or two. This incidentally puts me a few years older than the cast of the story, but not too many years.)

  9. Valid points, Surat. I guess what it also boils down to is a more western mindset that embraces the protagonist’s situation, rather than lambasting it which a great deal of eastern works do so well. But it can also be seen as a sort of snarky response to heroes of the sort. And it also stands to reason why Pilgrim himself can be seen as both identifiable to some, and yet so alien by others. His disconnect, never completely washes away throughout the books. By latter volumes, some clarity is in fact found, but it can also be seen as miniscule upon a macro view. What is interesting to me is that by the end, his relationship position is near Godai levels in still not being anything resembling what is classically known as a romantic lead. In fact, there is no guarantee in the books, or film that the leads are making any good, long term decisions, and that’s a pretty risky proposition. For my part, it is very interesting to see this in a film released in the mainstream. And does have a unique place in the evolution of the young, disconnected hero, which this post is really about. Having him out there to the reciprocation of still what is a healthy number is fascinating.

  10. I’ll have to admit that Scott Pilgrim isn’t the most well-likable hero in the world. I mean, people don’t wish him well and he clearly has a lot of issues. I like the Holden Caulfield reference.

    Having read the entire series, I do agree that SP serves as a crazy look at what most young people go through these days. Where do you see the portrayal of “loser heroes” going forward?

  11. With the west getting notice for putting their own spin on this, I’d rather not prognosticate since it can really go anywhere at this point. But the challenge has always been to even the human playing field by showing that even characters with less than flattering traits are capable of our sympathies. And it has been an interesting ride when considering that many early anime works often functioned within a more standard viewpoint on these lovable zeroes, it was interesting to see that someone like Pilgrim was never seen as more than a leech by most around him since everyone else seems so naturally entrenched in their own mutual worlds (often crafted by other versions of disconnect-sic). The idea that we are in a loser’s world, surrounded by this kind of almost apathetic chorus has been used in other comics before, but is rarely explored in anime works. Even pluralistic works like Durarara!! gives us some standard empathy-bait. But the challenge remains for writers to continue playing with roles, and how we interact with them. And in there, lies the hope of some really meaty character work that develops over time..

  12. Interesting article, but I’m not well versed in American pop culture that much, so I had to watch the film first to contemplate.

    I just watched the film Scott Pilgrim. The visual effect was very cool, almost early Nintendo feel to it. But I couldn’t really tell which part of the film was particularly funny. The audience was laughing at certain parts of the scenes. I wish they could put reference notes on the screen just like fansub puts explanation in each comical scene like Gintama. So, Despite their head of state is Queen while ours is Obama, American and Canadian humors are similar?

    From what I saw in the film, I reckon American loser hero is not based on romance. It’s not clear what really defines “loser” in America. Oh, I mean Canada. I need more explanation on Gringo-loser.

    To me, Pink of The Wall is somewhat closer to hikikomori than Scott Pilgrim. Pink’s hikikomoriness is more identifiable to me, closer to Ikari Shinji’s melancholy. Though they are all musicians, Shinji plays cello, Scott bass guitar, and Pink vocal/guitar.

  13. Well in the case of Scott Pilgrim, the humor is largely dependent upon the viewers’ knowledge of not only video game, garage rock, and hipster culture, it also relies heavily on knowledge of a very particular generational viewpoint. In this case, it is a media saturated culture, heavy on sarcasm, and social disconnect. The humor isn’t so much regional as it is of a very particular generations views of the world and self. And the comedy is definitely a style that some will get, while many others may feel left in the dust. With all the exaggerated images, animation, and action scenes, the comedy comes from how the characters do not see any of this as odd. They are perfectly attuned to the madness, and this often is akin to British humor, where everything is dry and understated.

    As for the role of Pilgrim as a loser hero, he definitely fits the canon, the twist in the comic as I mentioned before is that everyone around him makes it clear that he is troublesome, but are too involved in their lives to make any change until Ramona comes around, spinning his world into a war to gain himself. In previous manga, the world is there to make the hero’s battle look more difficult, in Scott Pilgrim, it is the same, except everyone is too involved in their own disconnected desires to care. It’s an inversion of the old cliche, but with a bittersweet way of looking at modern youth. (ie- self absorbed)

    1. I see. Thanks for the explanation. Oh yeah, American(canadian) houses have garage. That’s right. Music starts from garage in America. Not like Japan, where house garage is not popular. I got that saturated media and social disconnect part, but couldn’t find why it was funny. I see, I thought the CG stuff was part of the world they lived in, but actually this was supposed to be odd. Yeah, for that one, I have to have reference to understand it. Humor is pretty complex.

      Well, I still can’t figure what makes Scott loser. He’s not a hetare or hikikomori, or otaku. He can socialize and mingle with people at parties. He’s in a rock band and even dated a couple girls. 40 years old virgin, I can understand that’s a loser.

  14. Ah, well Scott’s big issues center on the fact that despite all these things he has going for him, he is squandering it all on an adolescent vision of relationships, leaving a lot of potential “evil-exes” behind him. He doesn’t realize the damage he is doing. In this, he is a loser since he is neglectful of not only the girls in his life, but friends who have taken care of him until this point. His greatest battle is not really for Ramona, but for a sense of self respect. And in the comics, this is her arc as well. These are losers of a more spiritual kind, aimlessly living in a perpetual teenage haze.(although Ramona is far ahead of Scott in this area, he inability to understand the damage she leaves behind her is similar to Scott’s) So the story is implying that there are losers who do as well as losers that do not. Either way, self examination is inevitable. It’s just that in this story, it happens like an old school Nintendo game.

    1. Oh, I see. Again, thanks for clearing things up. So, a loser in a sense by how he treats people with his level of self-respect. Ramona’s also a loser in that way, hu? Disrespecting others is disrespecting yourself. Respecting others is respecting yourself. That’s similar to Buddhist point of view. That leads to ahimsa, no harm to even animals, thus not creating bad karma (evil exes), thus no harm to yourself, non-violence, a concept eventually led to Satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi.

      For Otaku, it’s more like have or have-not. You don’t have good looks. You never been kissed. You never had sex. You never had a girlfriend. For Japanese girls, a loser is someone who can’t get married. Unmarried girl around 30s are called Makeinu (loser dog). It’s very romantic-oriented. Japan doesn’t have enough skinship like America or Canada.

      What did you mean by “Abandoning The Romantic”? Mistreating loved ones?

  15. Abandoning The Romantic is a reference to one of Joseph Campbell’s concepts of heroes. One of the most popular hero types is the classic Romantic Hero. This is the kind of hero that never makes an ill action, is always on the side of right, and is complete before we meet them. The opposite of this of course is the Tragic Hero, which is the other side of the coin. What I was hoping to get across was the embracing of the imperfect hero, and the any variations that have come thus far. I’m a big fan of taking heroes into new territory, and Scott Pilgrim is an interesting take on herodom, even if his lowpoint is him being a neglectful friend/boyfriend.

    Loved your mentioning of ahimsa…I come from a system that is open to the idea that characters, like all of us are capable of equal heroism, and cowardice. No black & white. Just complex individuals. And that stories can shed light upon these ideas.

    1. Very cool! I think Romantic Hero has been the attitude of USA. It’s like old cowboy films disseminating poetic justice. I think Usa-kun from the military manga that Mori wrote about is also a Romantic Hero trying to save meganekko Japan. I was wondering why Usa-kun is a bunny, surely Usa is an abbreviation of Usagi (bunny), but I’ve figured Usa-kun is U.S.A-kun.

      The first Romantic Heroine came up in my head was Yawara. She was a “miracle girl.” “Miracle” was a key word for post-war recovery. So I think they tried to put that in a post-bubble context. Kamikaze (divine wind) is also in a sense “miracle wind.” The one averted the Mongolian invasion in older days. Probably miracle worship is embedded in Japanese psyche. Yet, a big miracle didn’t happen, and that led to the advent of Ikari Shinji. For Otaku, Kamikaze blows to reveal a color of the panties under the sailor uniform skirts. Our miracle has long abandoned the romantic!

      USA is in dire need of a miracle now. But everyone knows Obama doesn’t have a magic wand.

      The fact that Scott is from Canada, not from USA, is pretty telling…

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