Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Boring Invincible Hero

After finishing off Cross Game a few weeks back, I went digging for more baseball anime to see if I could really get into the sub genre en totale. Big Windup! was certainly a fun diversion, but I was craving something more edgy to balance out the wholesome delicacy of Cross Game. Enter One Outs, a series that fuses psychology and sports so naturally that physical prowess seems like it ought to be an afterthought.

Best described as the outcome of Light Yagami stumbling across a baseball mitt instead of a Death Note, One Outs tells the story of one hardcore gambler’s ascension through the ranks of professional baseball by means of prestitdigatatory pitching and devilishly mental manipulation. And Toua Tokuchi is in fact the devil; so much so that he’s lounging way out in the middle of the territory known as Invincible Hero. It’s a topic I’d like to touch on for a bit.

The name of this particular trope used to have Boring tacked-on to the front of it because having a hero who always wins without ever getting flustered the slightest is as dull as it is indulgent. God Mode Sue is the more cynical term for a hero who not only never tastes defeat, but also never sees, smells, or becomes aware of it at any point in time, primarily because he knows it will never come for him. And no, there’s no schadenfreude-subversion slipped in as one might expect. I’m talking about flat-out, flawless curb-stomping from start to finish.

Tokuchi fits the bill perfectly on all accounts. He’s cocky, calculating, and always in complete control. He never misses a beat, sees through every trick thrown at him with ease, and has the nerve to tell his pitiful adversaries to shove it with an unwavering smile plastered all over his smug, pretty-boy face.

Naturally, the question is: Why don’t we, the audience, care? Tokuchi carries himself as a contemptible reprobate wherever he goes by refusing to bond with any of his teammates and constantly making dribbling fools of his opponents. “Pushing them into Hell” is his way of referring to the latter. And to take the devil analogy even further, he also has no spark of humanity, no backstory, and no sympathetic qualities whatsoever.

Simply put, as much of a prick as Tokuchi is, he doesn’t even come close to the cartoonish douche-y level where the villains are perched. TVTropes describes this delicate threshold as Villainous Valor. Both situations involve a struggle between an untouchable hero and an underdog villain. But whereas Villainous Valor goes the whole nine yards with the role-reversal schtick by showcasing the valiant, uphill struggle of the weak versus the strong, a show like One Outs will simply paint the outmatched opponents as even bigger bastards than our Mr. Vice Guys.

The Owner, for example, is absurdly arrogant, full of corporate conceit, and prone to “oh-ho-ho”-ing every single time he hatches a plan to bring Tokuchi to his knees, which Tokuchi will invariably brush off like an errant speck of lint. While the Owner often comes off as an ineffectual nuisance and never poses a real threat, there’s just something about his over-the-top pompous dickishness that makes it so damn satisfying to see him get all butthurt when Tokuchi screws him over. It’s like he’s begging to be put in his place and who better to force him to grovel like a little bitch than Tokuchi?

An Invincible Hero invocation done right is probably best described as catharsis stemming from karmic retribution, and it’s enough to carry One Outs all the way to the end of its 25-episode run. While the formula does start to wear a bit thin at times, the incorporation of insanely convoluted but ingenious and believable mindtrickery keeps the series fresh and exciting.

That’s not to say the series is without its flaws. Like Tokuchi, the series has no heart or soul, despite being a psychological labyrinth of tricks and traps. While it’s a wildly addictive ride, there’s little nutritional value to be had. Kaiji prevails due to genuine emotional investment, whereas the characters in One Outs feel very aloof and wooden. They’re not bad characters per se, it’s just that there’s absolutely no time devoted to humanizing them beyond marionettes that sway to the rhythm of Tokuchi’s mental metronome. And as for Tokuchi himself, he’s guilty of the same crime; he’s likable and cool, but emotionally, he’s as brittle as a soggy wafer cookie.

But maybe that was the entire point of the exercise. One Outs is a sports series that’s bizarrely not about the sport nor the players and isn’t trying to be. It’s a stealth psychological series that’s coated in spicy sensationalism and has no time for trivialities such as developed characters (Death Note, anyone?).

Let’s just put this way: While I enjoyed the character interactions and lovely cast of Big Windup!, Tokuchi’s deft mental acrobatics put Abe to shame. I found One Outs to be quite a lot of fun, and I’m not ashamed to admit that it’s because I was always on the winning (Tokuchi’s) side.

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