Editorials

Response to Anthony Baranyi's Wimps from Outer Space Editorial.
by Mason Proulx

Some time ago, I recieved the aformentioned article from Baranyi in the midst of our e-mail correspondance. I had a lot to say in response. For one I felt that being a confident and assertive kind of fellow he is, he didn't quite grasp the fact that not all men share his personality and that there's nothing wrong with not portraying men as strong and aggressive. I later decided to post the contents of this e-mail as a counterpoint some of the points he's made.

I just had the opportunity to watch an episode of “Maison Ikkoku” for the first time (episode 4 which was taped off of Japanese TV for me a couple of weeks ago). The first thing that struck me about the show was how much the “look” of the characters resembled the “look” of the characters in Rumiko Takahashi’s earlier work, “Urusei Yatsura”. The next thing that struck me was how differently the characters in Maison Ikkoku “acted” compared to the characters in Urusei Yatsura. The main male character of Maison Ikkoku, Yusaku Godai, comes over more as a “Tenchi” (from “Tenchi Muyo”)or “Keiichi” (from “Ah My Goddess”), rather than an “Ataru” (from Urusei Yatsura).

I'm wondering if one should be able to fully grasp Yuusaku Godai's character based on a single episode. I'm sure you got the general idea, but it usually takes a while before one can truly understand someone's personality. I was a UY fan as a child, but years after I lost track of it, all I could recall were the characters with strange appearances such as Lum, Benten, Kotatsuneko, Cherry, etc.. Around 1991 when I started to get back into anime I began following UY again. I remembered many of the characters, but the ordinary looking ones like Ataru, Shinobu and Ryuunosuke were almost new to me. Although I recognized them, personality-wise I didn't remember what kind of people they were. When I first started to rewatch some episodes and read the manga Ataru seemed plain and uninteresting. But after I got around to watching more UY I finally began to really understand Ataru. From there he quickly became one of my favorite characters (if not the favorite).

So Godai is a wimp, but limiting it to that is like saying being girl-crazy is all there is to Ataru. He spends much of his time being pushed around, screwing up and reacting nervously to everything that goes wrong but Godai has many moments of joy and moments of triumph that make it all worthwhile. All in all even though there's much about his life he wants to change, he's still happy in his own way.

Both Antonia Levi in her book on anime, as well as Trish Ledoux in her “The Complete Anime Guide – 2nd edition” allude to this tendency in anime to portray weak male leads in contrast to the “dominant male” outward aspect of “normal” Japanese society. But neither come up with a good answer to the characterizations. Why are Yusaku, Tenchi, Keiichi and so many other “college-aged” lead male characters in anime depicted as being confused, scandalized or even frightened by the women in their shows?

A question comes to mind – who are these shows aimed at? Trish Ledoux and Antonia Levi comment that Maison Ikkoku, Tenchi Muyo and Ah My Goddess are all popular with the late high school and college crowd in North America. Why are bashful nerds popular as characters? Who is the audience in Japan, the same group? Sailor Moon is aimed at early teen females in both Japan and North America. Mamoru is noble, passive and effectively totally ineffectual (one would almost say “emasculated”).

The wimpy, insecure, all-around nice-guy young male is very common because they make for sympathetic characters. More young men identify with this character than the dominant male type because most of us are like the latter in one way or another. How many of us are confident walking up to any woman we desire and expressing our feelings? How many of us can always be absolutely decisive on matters of life and love? How many of us have complete confidence in our abilities? How many of us never run from conflict and instead always approach it head on? How many of us make minimal mistakes and always take the right path? How many of us are perfectly content with ourselves? The truth is that no one can claim all of this. Cool and confident types may represent what we as men want to be, but it's so far from what most of us really are deep down. In reality we've all got our insecurities and fears, make bad decisions from time to time, have unlucky streaks and a tendency to want to flee from trouble. All people have this, except that some control it better than others.

Still this is a more popular character among youths than older generations. Why is that? Because the wimpy, unlucky and nervous character type is an exaggerated version of what so many young people are really like. We young men and women lack the experience and wisdom that comes with age. So many of us aged 15 to 25 are completely unsure of ourselves (although we try to pretend otherwise). When we see such characters reacting to such situations, it reminds us of some time when we've gone through a similar experience in which we were less than graceful. Such characters strongly exemplify the mind set of young males more than older men. Most of these characters are made likeable because they're genuinely nice guys. Otherwise they'd just be pathetic wimps. Their good intentions aids in allowing the viewer to sympathize with them despite their meekness. Of course this isn't always the case.

For example Shinji Ikari from Evangelion is a weak person and a walking mass of complexes. He's much like these other characters we're talking about only he's not so virtuous. He's seems nice and timid on the surface but he's really a mean person deep down. But he's still far too much of a wimp to be aggressive. He's an appalling youth once you get inside his head, but the audience still finds him more likeable than dislikable. Why? Because in each of us is a little Shinji. However much it dominates our personality or however much we deal with it differently we all have these traits deep down. We see ourselves reflected in him and so it's difficult to hate him completely.

Generally this appeal of the weak-willed character is an international thing, but I've noticed it's much more common in Japan. These types of characters aren't nearly as common in American media and I honestly can't figure out our obsession with dominating, successful characters. They're usually given a couple of flaws to make them seem less perfect, but overall our pop-culture figures tend to be more perfect than people are in reality. I certainly don't find them as human and therefore I don't usually care about such characters. This is one of the reasons I hardly ever read American mainstream comics which are laden with such characters. I find a lot more to relate to in the independent and alternative comics scene.

I don't know about you, but I always root for the underdog instead of the guy who has it all together. This is the appeal of the nice-guy/wimp. When he screws up for laughs it's very humorous because we as humans can relate it to our own lives. When it's done in seriousness like in Evangelion we may feel for the character as we see our own human weakness mirrored. Either way you can't help but relate on some level. Of course there's always exceptions to how people react to this character type. Some may not identify with it at all. But overall everything I've talked about is why creators constantly use such males as leads or co-stars.

In “Rurouni Kenshin”, Kenshin has his katana blade reversed so that he can’t kill with it. What is the significance of this “impotence”? Other characters in the show can, and frequently do, kill with impunity.

I don't know how this fits into your subject matter. The significance is that he's a man with great power, but has grown weary of the destruction and tragedy that exerting his power brings. So he dedicates his existence to righting his wrongs by using his strength to protect life rather than destroy it. Killing only brings about more killing so to protect he avoids killing unless as a total last resort. Hence the sakaba sword. I don't see how it constitutes impotence since it's an example of what it means to be a civilized man. Balancing strength with restraint. To the Japanese male, this partly stems from an honourable martial art principle; with great skill comes great responsibility, and this means exercising control. This also means not using one's full strength on a weaker foe. Other than his occasional goofiness (which makes him more relatable - like Gokuu or Ranma) Kenshin's the opposite of the weak-willed man character type.

Is there a common thread about growing up and leaving “Mother” in these stories? Let’s go back to my first “counter-example”. One of the perpetual questions concerning Urusei Yatsura is why does Ataru treat Lum the way that he does? Sure, Ataru will go out of his way to save Lum from danger or to fight against another suitor, but when there is no threat Ataru does his best to keep away from Lum and all of her charms. The standard claim that Ataru is just a “lecher” doesn’t seem to answer this in any satisfactory manner. If Ataru is so lecherous, why doesn’t he take advantage of the circumstances wherein he is co-domiciled with a sexy and seemingly willing girl? His “lechery” consists of (almost totally unsuccessfully) asking other girls for dates (most often to have tea with him). This is not the usual definition of lechery.

True. This is why I have always detested people referring to him as a pervert or some kind of sex-fiend. Ataru's really the same as most teenage boys. He likes girls, food, goofing off, etc. What separates Ataru from the rest is that he lacks control. He always acts on his urges without social restraint which nearly all humans have built into their consciousness. Have you ever studied the "Id", "Ego" and "Superego" theorized by Sigmund Freud? Well let's just say that Ataru is "Id" personified. Short of trying to look up women's skirts or copping a cheap feel his motivations are rarely sexual as much as it's finding intense pleasure from the presence of the opposite sex. When it comes to actual sex, he's much more timid. Take a look at the episode where he and Lum spend a night alone. Ataru begins to feel that if Lum want's it, maybe he's ready to go all the way. But he isn't his usual confident self, he's a mess of nerves. Nothing happens, and you can tell that if anything were to happen between them, Lum would have to make the first move.

I believe that what we are seeing instead is Ataru’s reaction to having another “Mother” show up in his life at a time when he is still dependent upon his own mother. Lum’s interests in Ataru are always maternal – she doesn’t want to have “fun” with Ataru ( at least the sort of “fun” that fills most teenaged boy’s fantasies ), she wants to cook and care for Ataru. The only time Lum refers to sex is early in the series when she is competing with Shinobu for Ataru. Even then the threat is revealed to be only a bluff and Ataru is taken aback by the innuendo.

I just have to disagree with you here. I think you're close to the source, but a bit off the mark. To Ataru, Lum isn't a mother at all. Lum symbolizes a wife to Ataru. Ataru being the quintessential fickle male, fears only one thing... a committed relationship (namely marriage). He wants to be free to spend his youth following his every whim, jumping from girl to girl refusing to settle for a monogamous relationship. Lum however wants it the other way and tries to trap Ataru into a steady relationship at every chance she gets. Lum wants to settle down and Ataru believes that marriage means the end of his youth, which he enjoys too much to give up. You can bet that if Lum didn't start out trying to be a wife to Ataru instead of a girlfriend, Ataru would be after her even more than all of the other girls. Still there is that one hole in my argument because Ataru was willing to marry Shinobu at the start of the series. My only answer to that was that Ataru's personality wasn't fully fleshed out at that point. Takahashi would probably have went back changed that discrepancy if she could turn back time.

Other than wanting to look after him as a wife figure I don't see that there is any equation to being like Ataru's mother. It's true that in many cultures (Japan included) you see the role of wife is strangely similar to that of a mother. Many men want their wife to be a soul mate, a friend, a lover and a mother all rolled into one. The mother figure role enters into it, but it's usually only part of the whole equation.

I'm not exactly sure what you mean by Lum doesn't want to have fun with Ataru, but either way I believe otherwise. Lum's always persuing the idea of going on dates with Ataru, they constantly take fun little outings together, at home they'll often play games together or just hang out and talk, and she often tries to initiate some intimacy between her and Ataru. If all this doesn't constitute a girl who wants to have fun with her mate, I don't know what does. Being a woman it's conceivable that her idea of fun can be very different from a typical male like Ataru. To Lum fun means spending time with those she loves (be it her significant other, friends or family). Ataru derives some fun from friends, but to him fun mainly means having the freedom to follow his urges be it eating, causing trouble, chasing women or just lounging around enjoying the simple pleasures of life.

 

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