The Art of Losing

Picture this scenario. A buffed up male character with scratches all over his body, slits of blood leaking out from his stomach and across his face. He’s seemingly unconscious until a voice rings in his mind. It softly tells him to get back up on his own two feet. A villain stands over his body, grinning menacingly, perhaps holding his hands at his waist, and then let’s out a bellowing evil laugh. Suddenly, the brutally beaten up character gets up slowly, the villain stops laughing and says in shock, “I- Impossible!”.  And so the main male character pulls out some hidden move that obliterates said villain, before finally collapsing. This is not the art of losing. This is the art of winning. And winning. And winning.

We’ve all seen this scenario at one point or another. Most likely in many notable shounen series, like Naruto or the more recent ones like Fairy Tail. It’s a formula used time and time again, battle after battle, flashing the many of its viewers in awe, at the ultimate conclusion to a long anticipated battle. And yet each time it’s used, the formula begins to wear off. There’s a pretty noticeable issue with these kind of situations, and that is making the character look two-dimensional. Granted, it’s nice to have morals in shows like “Never give up even when times are tough!”. It’s nice to have some motivation backing you up. But then again, it wouldn’t be humane. A character who can always get back up, be fine and dandy, or an even worse case comes to mind, when that character reaches a new level of strength and will after all the injuries he has endured, that character would appear to be apparently, nearly omnipotent. Moral-wise, it could well be sending the wrong message. After all, we are human, and we are not infallible.

Of course, there are series that manage to pull this off quite well. They successfully point out a character’s flaws, allowing that person to become three-dimensional, maybe even to the point, where a viewer can relate. Let’s take a look at one main character with many flaws: Shinji Ikari : The main character of the well-known series, Evangelion. There’s no doubt about it that Shinji isn’t the most likable character, but he’s well-written enough to become a humane character. He struggles with his relationship with his father, and frequently throughout the series, struggles with maintaining his mental stability. He’s only a 14 year old kid, and he’s thrown into the midst of a giant war. The survival for the rest of humanity, rests on his shoulders. Now that’s quite a burden, isn’t it? Many people found Shinji to be annoyingly over-emotional, weak-minded, and overall, just plain pathetic. And yet, that is the ideal 14 year old. It’s difficult to visualize an ordinary teen that could easily cope with such hardships in a life, and expect that person to be fine and dandy in the end. The most likely case is that most of us were a “Shinji” at some point in our lives. We took upon these mistakes, and learned from them, eventually becoming the better person in the end.

So disgusting.

Learning from our mistakes. It’s probably one of the most difficult tasks everyone must face, but alas, the benefit is so much more worthy in the end. One of the most remarkable segments of a series is seeing a character coming face to face with his or her errors. Self-actualizing is a goal, you wouldn’t normally expect from a character, but it does certainly allows you to see them in a new light. One of the best examples I can think of is Tomoya of the Clannad series. I know some people are sick and tired of hearing Clannad praise, but I cannot let it slide for the life of me. Now I’m aware that there’s not too much development for Tomoya during the main season, but he truly shined nearing the end of the second season, After Story. There’s a point when he’s hit an all-time low. It’s a whole different area than you’ve seen him before, but you cannot blame him for what he’s been through. Soon enough, he hits that mark, right on the dot, where Tomoya becomes a whole new person, a better one than you’d expect. It’s heart-warming to see that revelation occur, especially for all the tragedy witnessed straight up beforehand. It even makes me think, “I do what to become that kind of person in life. I don’t need to be super-buff or almighty.”

Okazaki SAIKOOOO!

So maybe it’s a little unfair for me to use a character from a drama series. It’s usually expected there would be some development along the way. So what about a shonen series? I’m aware that it’s not easy to allow main characters to become defeated. It makes them vulnerable, weak, and the viewer begins to lose hope in the fight. But who is to say that everything must rely on that one person? Take a look at Edward Elric of the Full Metal Alchemist. He’s rather loud-mouthed, eccentric, and has a tough-guy attitude, but what makes him a special little character, is that he’s able to lose. Not every fight he becomes involved in, is he able to successfully win at. There are times when his metal arm is destroyed, causing himself to become vulnerable, as he can only conduct alchemy with the use of both hands. In these times, he’s saved in the nick of time, by an even stronger ally, or he’s just barely makes an escape. Should we fault Ed for not being strong enough? Surely not. Especially for a kid his age, he’s quite the impressive fighter. However, Edward knows when to back down. He’s aware of his limits and his incapability to keep on fighting, regardless of how many injuries he can sustain.

Size ain't everything.

This is the issue I had with Naruto while I was reading the manga. No matter how many times he would get beaten down, he’d consistently fight until his enemy made him know his place in the world. In the end, he’d be beaten half to death, covered in bandages for a couple of chapters. And you know what the first thing he does when he’s healed back up? He goes back to fighting the same enemy as before. Where is the lesson here? Keep trying your chances until you win? Surely he could take a crack at strategies and planning before heading it, shurikens blazing. I haven’t caught up with Shippuden, but everything before Shippuden has been nothing but Naruto tackling things head-on.

It would be nicer to see more main characters come to terms with their own mistakes and errors. Not so much on physical capabilities though. Physical strength can be handled with some training, but for the personal stuff, it’s a whole other ballpark.

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About davethezombie
I watch anime on nearly a daily basis. I also try to read some manga every now and then.

5 Responses to The Art of Losing

  1. vensito says:

    :O I’m so proud Dave you went a whole post without bashing Eva. I agree with the point about Naruto and Fairy Tale, but couldn’t that be attribute to alot of shounen MCs?

  2. sudatama says:

    What I remember of Naruto’s theme is mostly in the first season and that is having your own methods of living which in the show was Ninpo (Ninja Way). Naruto’s happened to be never giving up, same with Hinata, which is why he keeps going at what he wants to. He’s also a hot-head character, so he always recklessly runs into thing the way he does.

  3. hearthesea says:

    This is a great post. I particularly agree about your thoughts concerning Evangelion — that’s actually one of the elements of the show that appealed to me so much. People tend to love the typical ‘careless badass’ type characters, which I’m sure TV Tropes has some sort of wacky name for. While I sometimes enjoy seeing characters like these (there should, after all, be room for all types of personalities, considering how diverse humans are) I think it’s much braver and more difficult to ‘sell’ a flawed, weak character. (I also think it’s far more interesting.)

  4. catchercatch says:

    I agree with your sentiments. A character must have the necessary tools to win, not something granted to him in the nick of time by a bout of motivation.

    Particularly of interest to me is your mention of Evangelion. Shinji is one of the most well-written characters I’ve seen in anime – and this is why people hate him so much. For the 14 year old, faced with all the insecurities of adolescence as well as the burden of essentially defending the world, Shinji mirrors what a lot of teenagers watching the show would feel. It’s this exact mirroring of the self that people don’t like: they realize how weak they would be in the situation that Shinji has been pitted in. This is the same reason why many 17 year-olds find Catcher in the Rye asinine (or incredibly powerful), and 18 and 19 year-olds find Quentin’s section The Sound and the Fury powerful (if they take the effort to understand it)- they realize how accurate a projection of themselves it is.

    I’ll skip over Tomoya, because there is far more than enough attention to him on the internet; not to say that I don’t like him, though. Ed is another good case to bring up. Part of what made FMA such an engaging read for me was that Ed didn’t win his battles by purely a strength of will; he had to use his head. And when this failed, and the enemy was more physically capable than he (Scar, for example), he lost. Plain and simple. It hurt his pride, sure, but that left room for Ed to grow as a character.

    Good stuff.

    • Indeed, I liked all the planning Ed does in Brotherhood as well. Sometimes you weren’t so sure what exactly he was doing, but in the end, it all comes together and works so magically. Not sure if it’s just as evident in the original series though, as I’ve yet to see it.

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