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.
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.