Should the Underdog Always Win in Anime?

My recent Unpopular Opinions post, specifically the question asking about “a trope that I’m tired of” or something along those lines, left me wanting to write more about the topic.

This one isn’t even really exclusive to anime, it’s a popular trope in storytelling itself. I’m sure there are many studies on why exactly the underdog appeals to people, why it’s generally the “natural outcome” in storytelling.

Recently, I’ve encountered a few stories that have left me wishing for more cases where the underdog… doesn’t win.

The Underdog Always Wins;
Hope Always Prevails

When’s the last time the protagonist lost in anime? And I mean seriously lost. Died, or was forced to give up their ambitions, permanently. Their journey comes to an end. No silver lining, just defeat. I can’t think of any real concrete examples.

Even in the seinen genre, it seems that the underdog rule still applies. I feel like if you want anything that even attempts to go against this rule, you have to look in the horror genre of all places. Or perhaps the psychological genre, where you might encounter a large twist that renders the protagonist’s original ambitions obsolete or changes our perspective of things.

Am I wrong here? Looking through my own list (460 titles) I’m having trouble finding an anime where the enemy, whoever or whatever that may be, just outright wins in the end. The closest I can get is anime where sacrifices are made. Things don’t end up perfect, but there is a silver lining, so to speak.

Isn’t this strange? I’m no literary expert, I’m sure there are some deep-rooted reasons why we gravitate towards underdog stories. But in a time where anyone can sit down and write a story, you’d think we’d have some variety in this area.

It’s clearly not always been like this. There are many stories in history where the underdog outright loses. Or, as often was the case in Shakespeare, everyone loses. What happened to stories in this vein?

I, for one, would love to sink my teeth into some anime that re-explore this area of storytelling, where being morally good, or the underdog, or the protagonist, doesn’t guarantee success.

But questions aside, why would I even want to see more cases where the underdog loses?

Lately, I’ve been mentioning quite frequently how I’d like to see more death in anime, more dark and gritty anime… and at the core of it, this comes from a desire for more “realism” in anime. Specifically, realism in regards to the stories told in anime.

For example, in fantasy anime, it’s amazing how so many sword fights end up leaving none dead, or even wounded. Let’s be honest, in a real situation, the fight would end with wounds and/or death.

And that includes the main character! Why should the main character always be exempt from these things? Yes, the story is invested in them. We are invested in them. More than often, the story hinges on them. And so I understand that it’s natural to want them to live.

But what a shock it would be if they didn’t.
“That didn’t just happen!” is the thought that would jump into our minds.
We might even have to rewind and watch again, just to confirm what we just saw.

It’s such a shocking idea that the protagonist would die, or lose.
And yet, that’s the realistic outcome, isn’t it?

I guess this comes down to us not wanting to see stories end in despair. The underdog represents hope, the impossible. If the underdog can achieve his goals, then surely so can we! Surely good will prevail over evil, it’s the natural outcome right? Human empathy and all that will surely prevail.

But that’s not always the case.
It’s often not the case.

I’d like to see more stories where that reality is shown to us. Sometimes, there is no hope in sight. That’s what I’d like to see reflected more in anime, and anime stories.

It’s not just because of the “shock value”, which honestly, can be a very powerful thing. It’s because the fact is that all of these stories are only showing one side of the picture. It’s a biased, one-sided equation that we are working with here.

Simply by showing us the other side, it gives us a whole new perspective on things. On the way things can be. On the way things often are, whether we like it or not.

I think the idea of ending a story in despair is very interesting. And it can sometimes pull us back down to Earth from the idealistic clouds that we can find ourselves in after indulging in so many stories where the underdog always wins, and good always prevails.

So many anime have done such a good job of conveying psychological distress, trauma, horror, and other aspects along these lines. But it’s almost as if none are willing to go all the way. There always has to be a silver lining, at the very least.

In my opinion, that shouldn’t always be the case.


And those are my thoughts on this matter.

All of this stems from reading some books where hope is snuffed out, and me realizing that stories can actually take this route.

I’m always for more variety in anime, and I always applaud anime that take risks and try deviating from the industry standards. I highly doubt anime will attempt to go this “despair” route, but you never know, it’s possible a story or two could slip through the cracks.

I’d certainly like to see that.

And I’d like to know if any of you know of an anime like that, where the underdog, the protagonist, loses. Where evil prevails. Where there’s no overt silver lining. Where it seems like everything was just for nothing. Although I guess that’d be a big spoiler if anyone did name an anime!

I personally couldn’t think up any solid examples of this happening in anime. But maybe there are some out there, somewhere.

Until next time,
Thanks for reading.

28 thoughts on “Should the Underdog Always Win in Anime?

  1. Perhaps the underdog doesn’t lose because they don’t have much to lose other than their dreams. I’m just trying to remember any classic tragedies I’ve read/watched – most of them feature heroes who have already established themselves in some way, hence the possibility of a “downfall.”

    Maybe a story about an underdog who fails before accomplishing anything would feel incomplete as a narrative, or depressing as a social commentary. I agree with you that such stories would have unique value though, and would love to see some for a change.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The only establishment you need is hope. You can establish hope, and set a trend towards that, leading the audience to believe that the story is working towards the expected happy ending. Once it is established that the protagonist has hope, that there’s a chance, that progress is being made.. that’s all you need to be able to pull the rug out from under them (and the audience).

      It’s one of those things I think where there will always be a group of people that don’t like it, because as you say, it is inherently depressing. But those people can also indulge themselves in basically any other story in existence anyways… Personally I’m of the group that would just sit back and think “Wow, that was really well done”. At least that is the type of ending I’d hope for in a story like this.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. F/Z is an interesting example! I’d argue that Kiritsugu and most of the participants feel less underdog than the typical shounen/seinen protagonist – they know how to cheat their way through the game and have been doing that most of their lives. The main underdog in the story would be Waver, whose ending is actually kind of inspiring?

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I think taking the ‘underdog loses’ route is very hard to incorporate in a story, let alone anime. What’s more, it’s even harder to make an ending that satisfies the audience, because more often than not, any attempts to make the underdog lose will leave us feeling empty, incomplete, or as if something is missing from the story.

    From the beginning ages of story telling, we were often trained and told to believe in hope and goodness. And that justice will always prevail. Unless I’m watching some sort of horror movies, then sure, bad endings where everyone dies and the ‘evil’ wins are definitely more doable. But yes, it would be quite interesting to see an anime ending where evil prevails that can satisfy its audience.

    One great example I could think of is Corpse Party, in which the characters continues to suffer in the true ending (basically evil prevails). Though it’s not an anime, I still liked the concept and I could definitely see it working on a more extreme take.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I don’t think it’s actually that hard to incorporate if that’s your goal. I don’t see why it would be. And yeah, that type of ending is inherently depressing to a degree, or carries a depressing message, albeit possibly one more grounded in reality in many cases. But I disagree that it would leave the reader feeling empty or the story incomplete. An ending is an ending, if the pacing is good and the ending wraps up all (or most) possibilities, that’s all you need.

      My point is that this type of story is generally exclusive to horror. But I wouldn’t say it’s more doable there. It’s just as doable in a fantasy story, or mystery, or any other genre. If someone sets out to write that type of story, it’s just as doable as a horror. It’s just not as common.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s not perfectly in line with what you’re looking for but…in Wolf’s Rain all the heroes dies, as does the villain. The world is reborn, and the villain’s corruption is part of that new world, but the heroes are reborn too. So not an entirely happy ending, but the heroes technically fail too.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. In the last episode of season 2 Joe loses to the world’s boxing champion and dies in the boxing ring with a smile on his face. It is pretty epic. If you don’t want to watch the two seasons there are the two anime movies which summarize the whole story.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You know, out of all the thousands of books I’ve read over the years, my absolute least-favorite is Steinbeck’s “The Pearl,” which I had to read back in middle school. Why? Because it’s exactly the kind of story you’re describing here. Nothing but everything going wrong for the main characters, all the way to the end, without ultimately even a moral victory to feel good about. I’ll give it credit for being memorable at least, but God, I hated that book. It’s been almost 30 years since I read it, and I’m getting riled up again just thinking about it.

    On a more theoretical level, I think this type of narrative is the most natural fit with horror because that’s the one genre where the payoff for the audience is in the villains’ actions, not the heroes. We read/watch a detective story to find out “whodunit,” and the detective is the one normally responsible for solving that puzzle and satisfying our curiosity, not the criminal. We read/watch a romance to see the main couple get together (or not), and they’re the ones ultimately making the decision to split or commit, not the other people in the love triangle or whoever else is getting in their way. We read/watch a fantasy story to follow the hero’s quest, and as long as the hero continues on his journey there’s more story to tell. But we read/watch horror to be horrified, and that requires a villain who’s free to act with impunity. As soon as the murder and mayhem ceases, whether that’s because someone stopped the villain or because the villain won, the story’s over. I read a review of ‘Funny Games” (which I assume you’ve seen if you like this kind of stuff) discussing the scene where the killers briefly break the fourth wall to ask the audience, “You’re on [the victims’] side, right?” The reviewer pointed out the rich irony of that question; we sympathize with the victims, but the truth – even if we won’t admit it – is that we’re actually on the killers side, because we came to see violence. That’s the whole point of a horror movie after all, and it’s the killers who are giving us what we wanted.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. While horror seems like the natural choice, I feel like what I’m looking for isn’t that, the better word would be “tragedy”. Following a heroes quest which goes well until it doesn’t. A mystery where the detective seems to uncover everything but took one step too far. A man who sets out to fulfill his dreams, and makes progress, only to lose it all.

      The type of situations that could lead to a villain’s monologue along the lines of “What did you expect? Did you really think you were going to accomplish X? Welcome to the real world”. A villain isn’t even entirely necessary in this sort of tragic story, but certainly would help drive that point home in the end.

      Basically, nothing like a horror or slasher. It’s not explicitly about people dying. It’s about hope created, and then subsequently crushed by reality. Not necessarily the death of people, but of hope (although that can be caused via the death of a person also).

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    2. Alright, I pity all the kids who had / have to read The Pearl in school haha. I wouldn’t say that it fits what I was mentioning in this post (1984 by George Orwell is a better example of how a story creates some hope only to extinguish it completely) and I can see why you hate it. I found it boring in so many ways. Setting, characters, situation, etc. Very dreary story for sure. Never is there a moment to get excited about anything in that one.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep, “boring” and “dreary” pretty much sums it up for me, too. In my English class that book was also the subject of our dialectical journal assignment for that year, which made an already torturous experience even worse.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think the equivalent book that I read in middle school was The Giver, which I actually liked, although the ending was super rushed.

        I definitely wouldn’t recommend The Pearl to anyone. I guess there is a purpose / message in there with the whole idea of being blinded by greed or sometimes having to cut ties with something that seems good, but man, it’s not exciting at all.

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      3. Yes, I saw a message in it about the insidious corruption of greed, and the way it almost turns Kino into a different person (plus other characters like the Doctor, who presumably became a doctor because he wanted to help people but now only seems willing to help patients who might write him a fat check). Honestly, though, I felt like Steinbeck tackled most of the same themes a few years later in The Winter of Our Discontent (greed, ambition, prejudice, corrosion of a family) and did a much better job of it. That book’s definitely not what you’re looking for either, though, I’m just making conversation.

        I think we read the Giver all the way back in 8th grade or maybe 9th. It was definitely all the way back when it first came out. I remember liking that book, but I don’t really remember anything about it anymore.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m not sure if it’s what you’re looking for but what you described here is exactly my feelings when I finished watching Devilman Crybaby. I felt like my hope was consistently established then utterly destroyed throughout the series. And honestly, it was not for me.
    I don’t agree that ending things in total despair is a realistic outcome. I find it’s just as much unrealistic as a total happy ending. They are two extremes of a spectrum. For me, realism would be if, say, the underdog doesn’t exactly grow as a character – but then that would just be a very unsatisfying story.
    I do agree that it would be an interesting take to deviate from the whole “hope prevails” route. That would be a unique yet difficult narrative to pull off.

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    1. I tried watching Devilman Crybaby a few years ago but dropped it. I didn’t like the animation and the characters.

      My point on realism wasn’t that total despair is the natural outcome, but that the underdog losing is the natural outcome (which in many cases, would lead to despair). The underdog is the underdog for a reason. And realistically, the weaker of two forces will lose more often than not. Like one small crew of people taking on an army, or empire, or whatever… winning just doesn’t seem very plausible.

      In stories, the underdog seemingly always manages to make it “against all odds”. We know that in storytelling the odds are actually stacked in the underdog’s favour, basically to the point of a guaranteed victory. But if one was to focus on a more realistic situation, that wouldn’t be the case anymore.

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