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October 15, 2015

The Last of Us -- feat. Kamen Rider OOO (Part 2)

Confession time: I’ve been reluctant to make this post, and the one before it.

It’s not that I mind expressing my opinions, since I at least try to rationalize what I type out.  But things can get pretty volatile when it comes to games, especially stuff like The Last of UsJust look at the comments at the end of this feature -- the vitriol could melt a steel wall.  It’s one thing to disagree with someone’s opinion (and his/her personal takeaway from a game, one that tries its best to inspire thought and discourse), but it’s another to shut it down while barely trying to make a counter-argument.

Imagine how I feel in my aims to avoid rocking the boat, but to be so daring, so mad, and so audacious as to claim that an underpants-loving goof from a merchandise-driven franchise is somehow better than the weathered survivalist from 2013’s critical darling and fan favorite.  I’m a little wary, to say the least.  But I’m serious here.  Kamen Rider OOO’s Eiji is, in my eyes, a better character than Joel.  And I’d even go so far as to say that his story in general is better, too.  Yes, yes, different mediums, different objectives, etc. -- but speaking personally?  One of those characters makes me deliberate (and smile) to this day, even after experiencing his story to completion more than a year ago.  The other is Joel Grumpybuns.  So all aboard the crazy train once more, yes?

You could sum up Eiji with --

Oh, wait.  ALL OF THE SPOILERS incoming.

You could sum up Eiji just two words: “good guy”.  He may be weird and goofy at times, but that doesn’t stop him from being a nice, friendly person.  More to the point, he would practically trip over himself trying to be a hero even without the power of OOO (rhymes with “Moe’s”); he’ll willingly throw himself into the fray against enemies that could tear his shreds into shreds, but it’s worth noting that some of his most heroic moments are done when he’s out of his super-suit.

Like I said last time, the core thrust of the show is that the Greeed and their respective Yummies manipulate the desires of innocent people to farm Cell Medals.  As you’d expect, that includes dangerous and criminal desires, from “I want more money” to “I want revenge via murder” to “I want to blow lots of stuff up”.  But it also includes positive, well-intentioned desires, like “I want to help my teacher” or “I want to protect people” or even “I want to make my dreams come true”.  The show goes out of its way to show that having a desire (or yokubo, which can also be the Japanese word for greed) doesn’t have to be bad -- and it uses Eiji to try and accomplish that.  Because this show is deep and meaningful.

Our hero plays the underwear ambassador and, time after time, meets with these people face-to-face to try and sort out their issues -- to help show them a new way of thinking, or simply to prove that he’s in their corner.  It’s a nice gesture, and it’s 100% in-character, buuuuuuuuuuut it also means that Eiji’s playing the white knight all too often.  A pure-hearted, noble, selfless person who always seems to know how to cure what ails others?  How dull.  How’s he supposed to be interesting if he’s pretty much perfect?

The answer: he isn’t perfect.  Arguably, he’s a bigger monster that Joel will ever be.

For starters, Eiji playing the white knight backfired majorly in the past.  He may more or less be a hobo at the start of the show, but he’s actually the son of a big-time politician (which means he’s actually pretty wealthy).  Unfortunately, Eiji opted to use some of that money as part of a fundraising effort for an African village -- which ended up being used as a fundraiser to start a civil war that cost a little girl he befriended her life…along with, you know, untold thousands of others.  And dear old dad spun the incident -- one that he turned into a war in the first place -- into a way to earn votes and support.  All it cost him was irrevocably scarring his son for life.

So part of the reason why Eiji goes so far out of his way to help others is to compensate for being unable to help others back then.  But there are two wrinkles to that: the first and most obvious is that even well into the show, when he’s beating back the Greeed with the power of OOO, Eiji is a broken-ass man.  (There’s a pretty harrowing shot where, after taking a beating, he sits in a rocking chair and stares at the moon.)  And that feeds into the second wrinkle: for a show all about greed and desires, Eiji doesn’t have anything.  He’s a hollow, half-formed person, and no matter how many lives he saves, he can’t fill that emptiness inside him.

Well, in theory, at least.  To be fair, the concept breaks down if and when you argue that his desire is “to help others”, which he does pretty much from the first episode on.  On the other hand, it stays pretty solid if you assume that his desire to help others is just something on the surface -- almost as if he wants to save face, or wants to redeem himself.  In reality, he refuses his real desire (assuming he has one at all), which in the context of the show makes him an anomaly.  Again, having a desire is not a bad thing; it’s said at one point that it’s because of desire that modern civilization and technology exist. 

So is it possible for someone as pure as Eiji to exist?  Probably not -- and that’s entirely the point.  Because this show is deep and meaningful.

Eiji’s lack of desire ends up creating almost as many problems as it solves.  It’s true that it allows him to become OOO in the first place (at least without going insane), but at roughly the show’s halfway point, it’s used against him and allows some unearthed Core Medals to turn him into a mindless berserker...and also dinosaur-themed, for some reason.  It’s a struggle for him to tame the power forced upon him, but even afterward they take their toll; he starts losing his senses, he still risks losing his mind, and he’s practically a henshin away from turning into one of the Greeed he’s out to beat -- and he actually does become one, albeit temporarily.

Pretty much all of Eiji’s friends well before that point tell him to stop being all noble and shit, because it’s more or less killing him and feeds into the bad guy’s plans.  Using some of OOO’s high-end abilities (slotting in matching Core Medals to change his “loadout”, if you need an analogy) puts a big strain on his body, to the point where an entire episode is dedicated to explaining how similar his condition is to being punch-drunk.  That’s ignoring the fact that, in typical Rider fashion, wearing a super-suit isn’t enough to protect his body from getting utterly wrecked.  Eiji’s counter-argument, practically made with a smile on his face?  If he doesn’t fight and help others, then no one else can and everyone loses.  Or dies.

He’s got a point…assuming that you overlook the other badass Rider just a phone call away.

So if you’re keeping score?  In the red corner, we’ve got a guy whose character arc is (more or less) about him learning not to be such an asshole.  And in the blue corner, we’ve got a guy whose character arc is (more or less) about him learning to be an asshole.  Can you see why I might enjoy one over the other?  At the basest, it’s not every day we get a character like Eiji.  This isn’t just about how he’s a Boy Scout or is more fun to be around; it’s about going the distance with a character.

In all fairness, though, it’s not hard for me to declare that the two of them are actually pretty similar.  Both of them are extremely damaged people despite the airs they put on.  Both of them failed to protect little girls in their backstories.  Both of them are pulled into their main stories because they form unlikely partnerships.  Both of them kick monster ass.  Both of them are changed because of their bonds with unlikely partners.  Both of them are in desperate need of their partners.  Both of them do some pretty shocking things that not everyone would agree with (albeit on a different axis).  Both of them have firmly-rooted ideologies that decide the level of heroism they choose to express.  So biases aside, why do I think Eiji is the better character?

Let me answer that with a question I’ve had for a while: is Eiji gay?

All right, look.  I know that it’s pretty much a thing to suggest characters from this game or that movie or whatever is part and parcel of fiction.  Fans will latch onto subtext (or supertext, in the case of stuff like Kingdom Hearts) and run wild with it.  On the other hand, the creators can and do put up an effort to add in that inclusivity, as Mortal Kombat X recently proved.  That’s cool.  And really, so is the fact that people are willing to accept -- and even push for -- that inclusivity.  Audiences the world over are hardier than some of the bigwigs would ever believe.

But what does that mean about Eiji?  Well, here’s the rub: if Eiji isn’t gay, then it’s no big loss; he’s already an interesting character with charisma to spare -- someone entertaining on every level of thought and digestion.  If he is gay, then it turns him into an even more complex, even more interesting character -- one whose actions, and maybe even his entire show, get cast in a different light.  Because this show is deep and meaningful, you see.

It’s worth noting at the outset that unlike other KR installments, Eiji doesn’t have a dedicated love interest.  He forms a platonic relationship with aspiring fashion designer Hina (who has super strength for some reason…shut up, it’s a deep and meaningful show), but even if she gives him support on occasion, she’s not in love with him, and he’s not in love with her.  That’s a byproduct of Eiji’s lack of desire, naturally; since he doesn’t want anything, then by default he doesn’t want a relationship, or even intimacy.  Despite pretending to be Mr. Fix-It, he’s an emotional dunce.

In fact, Eiji pretty much has to be forced to acknowledge love by virtue of a Yummy’s shenanigans and a homely scientist’s makeover -- and while it leads to one of the show’s funniest episodes, it takes on a different aspect if you view his overreaction to love as his awakening to love.  It’s the first time he’s ever had a desire heaped on him.  It doesn’t last, of course, but it’s something.  It might be something with a profound, lasting effect on him.  That episode could very well be what makes him realize what he’s been missing -- what he’s denied himself for so long.

And in the same sense that you can’t talk about Joel Grumpybuns without talking about Ellie, you can’t talk about Eiji without talking about Ankh -- who at one point is more than willing to throw Eiji off a building. 

Eiji’s push to be a good guy is met point-for-point by Ankh’s push to be a bad guy.  As a Greeed, nothing would make him happier than to stop being a monster arm and start being the world’s new supreme ruler; Eiji is just a means to accomplish that.  But as time passes, the two of them go from a VERY uneasy partnership to…a less-uneasy partnership, albeit for different reasons. 

Spending time with Eiji and the gang lets Ankh see the value of humanity, forcing him to trust and even appreciate them as well as become more than just a power-hungry monster.  He’d never admit it, but Eiji has become his first and truest friend -- which would explain why at one point, Eiji’s declaration that he’d kill Ankh to save the detective whose body he’s hijacked shocks him enough to help jumpstart his heel turn.

It’s complicated.  But it isn’t.  Well, it is.  Shut up, this show’s so deep and meaningful.

Like Joel before him (even though OOO predates TLoU by a couple of years), Eiji needs Ankh way more than Ankh needs him.  The Greeed may be an asshole, but there’s rarely a moment where he doesn’t have a good point: humans are beings ruled by desire, and there’s no sense in denying that.  Eiji’s efforts to be some flawless hero are what make him flawed in the first place -- and again, succeed in turning him into a monster -- so even if Ankh goes about his teachings in a dickish way, he’s actively trying to help Eiji besides give him advice on the battlefield and help switch his loadouts on the fly.  More to the point, it’s thanks to the evil arm that Eiji finally realizes what his true desire is, and it’s exactly what Ankh gave him in the first place.

The big reveal is that Eiji’s desire -- what he’s wanted for ages, as well as what he wants late in the game -- is that he wants power.  I don’t think I need to tell you how slippery of a slope that is, especially since that’s usually a desire held by the baddest of the bad, but in Eiji’s case he wants power (or says he wants it) so he can save others.  That’s exactly what Ankh gives him in episode one via OOO’s belt, and our hero only proceeds to get stronger from there.  It actually reaches a point in one of the show’s climactic moments where the two of them duke it out…and Eiji takes time out to explain, as sincerely as he can, just how thankful he is to Ankh.

It’s a pretty heartwarming moment -- but it’s hard to deny that it and the show at large aren’t bursting with sexual tension.  Not to mention this.

My current headcanon -- irrespective of whether or not it’s actually true -- is that OOO is as much about desire as it is about self-acceptance on every level.  Or, if you want to be a little less delicate, it’s a show about one man’s exploration of his sexuality punctuated by dive-kicking monsters and ska music.  No matter his orientation, it’s not something that absorbs Eiji’s (or Ankh’s) character, but it is something that helps inform and accent it.  At the show’s end, Ankh ends up sacrificing himself to give Eiji the power to save the world; as such, it’s not as if Eiji is out to get with everyone he can.  He’s accepted that part of himself, but he’s the underpants ambassador.  Relationships take a backseat to clean boxers.

Now, am I saying that Eiji is a better character than Joel because he’s ambiguously (?) gay?  No, of course not.  But Eiji’s complexity is something you wouldn’t expect out of a merchandise shill, in a world where fiction still isn’t quite the best, on average, at handling different orientations.  And really, that’s what it’s all about.  It’s not just “make more goody two-shoes heroes” or “make gritty anti-heroes”.  It’s not a black-and-white, us-or-them, you’re-with-us-or-against-us divide.

It’s about complexity.  Arcs.  Exploration.  Nuances.  Variables.  Juice.

When I think of Joel Grumpybuns, I think of a character with nothing else to show.  It’s as if I’ve gotten everything I can out of him, so there’s absolutely no reason to go back and play his game.  He’s a functional character with a functional persona and a functional arc.  I know his trajectory, because I’ve more or less seen it before.  He doesn’t have the spark needed to hold my interest, much less carry his game.  He’s tested throughout, but the situations that test him wear out their welcome less than halfway through, and his answer to them -- just kill stuff -- loses the sheen in a matter of hours.

Conversely, I’m eager to watch OOO all over again just so I can get more Eiji, and see if there’s anything I missed about him.  He’s charismatic, deeper than expected, and always full of surprises, even beyond what I’ve mentioned here.  His trajectory may not be 100% original, but it’s original enough to warrant a second look, or even a spit take from some.  Losing Ankh would hurt the show severely, but it’s still possible that Eiji could carry the show -- because he kind of already does.  He’s tested by enemies, friends, innocents, criminals, situations, the world, and even himself.  He earns respect before a single punch gets thrown.

So I’ll ask you point-blank: which one do you think sounds like the better character?

I’ll be fair and admit (once again) that TLoU isn’t the worst thing ever.  Considering its competition, there’s a reason why it’s won so many awards.  But standing tall amidst games like Halo 4 or Call of Duty is like a grown man boasting about his height to a bunch of toddlers.  The game opened up gamers’ eyes to what a game could be, but it only helped highlight just how much needs to be done -- both in a single story, and with the entire medium.  At this stage, there’s no destined reason why games should lag behind everyone else, so long as the talent and will are there.

And yeah, the talent and will ARE there.  I mean that on two levels -- because there have been creators in the past and present, with Kamen Rider and beyond, who actually have been eager to get the most out of what they produce, even if they have no obligation to.  But beyond that, it’s entirely possible that a sufficiently-resourced studio like Naughty Dog (and maybe not even sufficiently-resourced) can put out something amazing.  Something that goes much, much farther than TLoU ever could.

The gates are open.  Anything goes.

Also, not to diffuse the pathos of those last two paragraphs, but…am I the only one who thinks that Eiji looks like a Japanese Ted Mosby?  Eh?  Anybody agree?

Well, whatever.  Let’s see how Kamen Rider Ghost turns out.

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