Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Scummy Manga Reviews #7: Ressentiment

Title: Ressentiment (ルサンチマン)

Serialized in: Big Spirit Comics, Volume 3 2004-Volume 12 2005
Art and Story by: Hanazawa Kengo (花沢健吾)
Genre: Self-loathing rom.com

What It's About

Nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment.

-Friedrich Nietzsche

People drop out of society for a number of reasons—bad luck, missed opportunities, poor timing—often the same reasons that prevent them from dropping back in. But in most cases, especially for protagonist Sakamoto Takuro, it's resentment towards the world that keeps them under its thumb.

Our hero has every reason to hate the skin he lives in. Thirty with a hairline going on fifty, he sponges off his parents and works a dead-end job at a printing factory for beer money. Whatever self-respect he once had has been sanded away over years of grinding against prostitutes. Did I mention that he's grossly obese, just plain gross, and suffers from extreme foreskin coverage? Blaming society for his lot in life is more comforting than making the effort to overcome his laundry list of shortcomings.

For those without the will to power, escape is the only release from their self-determined slavery. Takuro hitches a ride out of his squalor on Noah's Ark, a world wide massively multiplayer online role-playing game. This is no mere World of Warcraft substitute—it surpasses virtual worlds and augmented reality to present a fully-interactive virtual reality that's better than the real thing. The only reason to log out is to change your diaper.

Takuro fashions his avatar after a romanticized version of his high school self, back before he grew fat and self-loathing. His sweetheart-to-be, Tsukiko, initially appears to be docile, subservient, and just out of elementary school—the perfect foil for Takuro's insecurities. But there's some bugs in her programming. She has her own agenda, fighting off Takuro's violent sexual advances. Unlike the other girls, she's aware of the world outside the game, and over time finds ways to interact with it.

Tsukiko's erratic behavior recalls urban legends of a proto-program named Moon, the kernel of data that all current A.I. popped from. Rumor has it that Moon can make a digital clone of the user's memories and personality, thus liberating their consciousness from the shackles of reality to seek salvation on Noah's Ark. The procedure, however, comes with risks. With society removed from the equation, can Takuro's coddled ego stand up to the shock of being brought face-to-face with its true nature?

Why it's Awesome

Author Hanazawa Kengo lies somewhere between George Carlin and William Gibson in making biting social commentary through the filter of science fiction. The technology behind Noah's Ark may be exaggerated, but the sociological factors that allow for wayward youth like Takuro are very real. Any of us could just as easily fall off the tracks after a series of slip-ups.

Ressentiment takes place in the not-so-distant 2015. While most futuristic works overshoot mankind's evolution, Hanazawa follows our current trajectory towards a tomorrow that falls short of our expectations. We're still living in Tokyo’s lower-middle class suburbs, not a high-rise in Tokyo III. Approaching the story as speculative fiction, rather than science fiction, offers insight into where Japan was in 2004 and where it's heading.

Noah's Ark is split into two main regions: Fantasia, a Dark Ages Europe for role players, and Nostalgia, a Showa-era suburb for dating sims. FPS clans patrol the borderlands, while Nostalgia is a strictly monitored demilitarized zone safe for the user to parade his girlfriend across town back to the Good Old Days. Here, memories come from a time before adolescent depression and economic deflation. The real money trading rate is set at one-tenth the value of real-world currency. Players can treat their girl to a steak dinner or dress her up in designer clothes, all on a McDonald's paycheck.

Flash back to our inescapable present, where the media never tires of new buzzwords to berate the youth for bucking accepted patterns of consumption and employment. First it was the NEETs, 15-34 year-olds not in education, employment, or training—a convenient acronym to pin the economic slowdown on. Headlines proclaim; NEETs are bringing down the GDP; they're rotting out the pension system!

The moniker carries so much baggage that NPOs tried to phase it out for the politically correct “Late Bloomer,” as if being jobless was only a phase to grow out of once you “get with the program.” Rather than focus on creating employment in the growing tech sector that this generation of net natives are equipped to contribute to, the government is wasting time offering unstable and unsatisfying temp positions through Young Hello Work.

If an image change and temporary jobs are the best the administration can do, it's no surprise that the number of NEETs has stayed strong at around 600,000 over the past two decades. The cutoff point for NEET-dom is 35, at which point you graduate into an uncounted demographic dead zone. Better to sweep them under the rug then chalk up another loss.

The herbivore male in his natural (sex-free and sanitized) environment. (Source.)
Those fortunate enough to have regular employment still aren't free of society's judgmental gaze. Lowered incomes make the current crop more frugal than their fathers. These economic deadbeats would rather spend a quiet weekend at home rather than blowing their wad at singles parties and are derided as “Herbivore Males” for acting so domesticated; interest in luxury goods and cars is falling nearly as quickly as the nation's libido. Everything is mendokusai—more trouble than it's worth—and the passive resistance of non-consumption is the best quiet riot the youth can muster.

For a generation of young men making ends meet on a part-time salary, something as high-maintenance as an automobile—or a girlfriend—is certainly attainable, though not economically sustainable. Unless, of course, it's in a virtual world with third-world prices.

Konami has been pushing the limits of pre-packaged girlfriends. Their romance simulation game Love Plus (over 600,000 copies moved, one for every NEET,) brings a high level of physicality to the relationship with dates timed to the real world clock, region-specific presents, and most recently, augmented reality marker tags that open a digital rift between our world and that of your fairy-sized soul mate. There's also Dream Club Zero, where you woo cabaret girls with gifts—gifts purchased with real world currency (at a fraction of the actual price, naturally,) charged directly to your smartphone.

The iron-clad argument against virtual girlfriends (apart from being sad and creepy) is that there's no physical compensation for the time sink. Ressentiment delivers return on investment, with dividends. The Noah's Ark software comes packaged with a VR helmet and pressure-sensitive gloves for force feedback and increased immersion. Hardcore users will be interested in the body suit (sold separately), as well as the numerous adult attachments.

Behold, the penis case, a divine synthesis of Rumble Pack and motion wand technologies. Once you succeed in buying your way into her heart, prove to your girl that your wallet isn't the only thing that's fat with the ultimate post-game content. Proper sizing is required for maximum stimulation, so be honest about your measurements—all sales are final. I also recommend preparing a last will and testament before jacking in, because you may never see the light of day again. The body suit will become your new skin.

The spinning, clicking, and relentless penis case would later find its real world counterpart. In 2007, Tenga launched a series of male masturbatory aids poised to bring sex toys to the casual consumer through minimalist packaging and sleek designs. The original “easy beat” Tenga Egg was ready out-of-the-box and came in six styles reminiscent of the Fruit Colors Power Macintosh G3. Sony still laments that Japan wasn’t the one to deliver the iPod to the world, but the country can take pride in the iWank. All it takes is one pump to see how Tenga successfully moved one million units (two for every NEET!) in its first year of production.

If Dream Club and its derivatives are any indication, people are becoming more comfortable with trading tangible money for intangible goods and services—though the ethereal nature of these transactions where no physical cash is exchanged—could have something to do with it. Take the recent comp gacha scandal as an example.

Comp gacha in a nutshell. (Source)
Comp gacha is short for “complete gacha-gacha,” a type of cellphone game where players crank gumball machines (known as “gacha-gacha” for their patent clanking sound) for randomly generated loot. Complete a series and get an exclusive item in that category. Here's the rub—the odds are rigged to make the last piece in a collection ultra-rare and keep your hot hands turning that handle at 100 to 500 yen a pop—not that this matters to elementary students whose parent’s foot the bill.

Once the PTA rose a ruckus, the government’s Consumers Affair Industry quickly moved to ban their sale for violating the Act Against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations. Bad news for social game giants like Gree and DeNA who operate out of the nouveau rich Roppongi Hills and Shibuya's Hikarie on the backs of profits from would-be compulsive gamblers. And possibly worse news for the public, whose rallying cry against comp gacha consisted of throwing their hands up in the air and lamenting, “GOJ, please raise our kids for us because we have no idea how!” 

Given Japan's notorious history as a nanny state, it’s amazing how they’ve avoided becoming a police state. Near the end of the aughts, security cameras replicated throughout Shinjuku and Shibuya, pushing crime into non-monitored areas such as Ikebukuro, though their number is still one-third that of London, and their perversity nowhere on the level of the Orwellian Intellistreets infiltrating American cities. The daily announcements telling kids to go home at dusk and gentle warnings on trains are coddling, though not nearly as intrusive as militant street lights barking orders, or cameras that can pick your face out of a crowd.

Ressentiment's vision of Japan in 2015 is of one utter complacency to the CCTV sentries standing watch at every intersection. This seems contradictory to the premium placed on privacy, as seen in the uproar over pedestrians snapped on Google Street View, or the majority of Mixi and Facebook accounts using pets and Disney characters for profile pictures. But imagine a scenario where the government made a low-key push for more surveillance cameras—perhaps at the urging of a US-backed security firm. Would the conservative nation rule against greater security? So long as the units are out of sight, the public would put them out of mind, if not feel reassured by their omnipresence.

Takahashi Katsuya then and now.
The nearly two-decade manhunt for the three remaining fugitives of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks came to a close last month partially thanks to Big Brother. Hirata Makoto first turned himself in to police over New Year's, which lead to the arrest of Kikuchi Naoko, who then provided the alias of Takahashi Katsuya. Security camera footage from a grocery store by Takahashi's dorm put an updated face to the name, and it was only a matter of time before he was spotted and apprehended. The velvet glove tightens its grip. Can you be so selfish as to complain about being put under non-obtrusive surveillance when the nation's safety is at risk?

Besides, Japan has a more clear and present danger to contend with. The revised Copyright Law goes into effect October 1st and outlaws ripping copy-protected materials such as CDs and DVDs, as well as makes downloading copy-written music and video files a criminal offense punishable by a maximum of two years in prison and/or a fine of up to two million yen.

The revision was hastily pushed through the Lower and Upper Houses before bothersome experts had a chance to weigh in. Japan has lobbyists as well—in this case, the monopolistic copyright collection society JASRAC, an immovable piece of the Iron Triangle bonded with bureaucrats from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology. Their vested interest in music sales is painfully transparent. More sinister is their stake in monitoring data flow.

The uproar over the new Copyright Law has silenced pleas of mercy from the private sector. JASRAC is strong-arming internet service providers to implement software that detects copy-written music uploaded by users. The file sniffer only runs on the server, not the individual's computer, keeping it within current privacy laws. For a mere  fifty-thousand yen (roughly $650 USD) monthly usage fee, ISPs can absolve themselves from potential lawsuits brought upon them by JASRAC for assisting in IP theft perpetrated by their users. Blackmail has never been so legit.

The revised Copyright Law seems to have one saving grace—copyright holders need to make a claim before Joe Public gets served a subpoena. Unfortunately, “copyright holders” is synonymous with the draconian JASRAC who will only continue to sneak in spookware through your mail slot. With the government in their pocket and the ISPs under their thumb, who is left to stop this internet wire-tapping?

NEET army black ops. (Source.)
Enter the NEET. Wait, maybe that's being unfair—I'm sure that many of the members of Anonymous responsible for launching DDoS cyber-attacks against JASRAC and government home pages at the end of June hold down respectable jobs. They came, blasted JASRAC's servers back to the vinyl age with their Low Orbit Ion Cannon, and quickly departed, but not before delivering an ultimatum to the people of Japan.

To paraphrase their single Japanese tweet:

Anonymous can't fight your battles for you. You must organize and take to the streets. Stand up, or sit in, but no matter what you do, make your voice heard!

Imagine, 600,000 young people mobilized and working towards the greater good, their lives given value through their actions, credentials be damned! Eden of the East spun a similar scenario, where unemployed internet junkies banded together to cause an IT revolution that freed the nation from government corruption. Ressentiment is not so positive.

Its NEET army of malignant hackers disguise themselves as Che Guevara, complete with facial hair that would put Guy Fawkes to shame. Player killing is their business, and business is good. Their ultimate grift is smashing through United States Department of Defense firewalls—get enough grubby hands at the keyboard and one pair is bound to grab the nuclear football. All for the LOLs, of course.

Back in reality, the Japanese won't go near anything nuclear—unless it's in protest of it. The near-meltdown of and subsequent political handwringing over the disaster in Fukushima galvanized the nation against nuclear power. Protesters have taken to the streets in numbers not seen since the student riots back in the 70's, from the 500 person stand-off with riot police at the reactivated Oi power plant to the 10,000 member strong weekly demonstrations in front of Prime Minister Noda's abode.

Judging from the backlash on online web forum 2-chan and personal blogs, the Left is admonishing the Right for being too timid to step out of its comfort zone to make a difference, while the Right criticizes the Left for their misguided attempts to rock the boat. What role do the NEETs play in this revolution? Are they protesting in public to give their lives meaning, or are they flaming the protesters online to protect the status quo that keeps them in their insulated cocoon?

The reality is likely a split a both, with more falling on the side of disinterested rather than polarized—much like the general population. Some utilize their unlimited down time to spread the message of change across social media. Many more go about their lives as if nothing has changed since 3/11.

Action and inaction are both choices, with the decision driven by one's resentment towards society. Let's hope that Hanazawa's vision of young people is his one prediction that misses the mark.

Why It Won't Come Out in English

The four-volume Ressentiment proved that Hanazawa had the chops to tackle a long-term serialization. Since then, he's polished off Boys on the Run, an eleven-volume journey of getting over yourself, getting the girl, and getting your ass kicked along the way. His zombie apocalypse I Am A Hero is still going strong after nine volumes. Boys has a pretty decent film adaptation going for it, while Hero oozes the undeniable “Z” factor. This leaves Ressentiment, the tale of an irredeemable poop-socker, a bit of a hard sell.

Which is a shame seeing how raw it is compared to his later works, both thematically and artistically. The cast's disproportionately large heads work to ratchet up the awkward humor. Backgrounds retain that dirty draftsman style common before the move to sterilized stills traced in Photoshop. Hanazawa used to be on a potty-mouthed Jihad against the world, bent on taking down as many of his peers along the way as possible. Now that he's respected enough to have a stake in society, he's cooled down somewhat as not to loose it—though his Twitter feed still reads like public toilet graffiti.

Much like the current anti-nuclear movement, Hanazawa offers problems, but no solutions. His rantings alone certainly aren't going to save the archipelago. But perhaps his voice will serve as a wake-up call to those who can. Before blaming society for what ails us, we must first look inwards at what we have contributed—or failed to contribute—to the situation. We are the author of our life's narrative. Ressentiment begs us to come up with a better ending then its own.


  1. This sounds AMAZING!

    As somebody who is not that familiar with Japanese society, this piece really blurs the lines. I'm really not clear where your analysis of reality ends and your discussion of the manga begins.

    If you want to see the future of today's Western youth, look no further than Japanese popular culture. I give it 5 years before people over here start having virtual relationships with Catwoman avatars.

  2. ditto what Jonathan M said : it took me awhile to realize that the konami game was not part of the narrative. When did you guys start learning about all this political stuff? just from books or from talking to activists in person?

    anyway that was my favorite thing on this blog so far this year, keep it up!

    p.s. what is a poop-socker?

  3. Jonathan M>
    I take for granted that Love Plus is something that the average person never has to worry about. Prepare yourself: Virtual girlfriends are primed to take to the streets!

    I'm not so keen on The Issues, but I've always been into conspiracy theories (especially when they're true) and there's also a lot of great (albeit extremely biased) political discussions on 2-chan news aggregate sites. Part of me wants to drop in on the weekly protests in front of the Prime Minister's residence but they pack it in too early--like around 7 or 8? I'm too much of a corporate lapdog to take time off work.
    Buncha Instagram pics here:

    As for poop-socking... When you're a Serious Gamer, every second spent away from the computer is a second of gaming lost, so more ingenious users have taken to defecating into tube socks to save themselves the trip to the bathroom. Piss-buckets is a given. Poop-socking is an art.

  4. nothing to add but that I loved this series when I read it a couple years ago. highly recommended.

  5. Thanks for this, man. I read the whole series in just one sitting. It's awesome yet sad ATST. I'd like to see it in live action adaptation haha.