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Escape from the pain

It's always odd when I experience two pieces of media, in this case an anime and a manga, which discuss the same topic but come at it from two completely different directions. Both look at what can happen as technology improves and begins to blur the lines between reality and fantasy. In the case of Ressentiment, it's a stark and almost grotesque look into the seedier underside of human nature while Dennou Coil still holds a child's wonder and hope. Both works explore how tenuous our links with other people really are and how this sort of technology can make it even harder to form real bonds. I read Ressentiment first, right before leaving for Chicago and it left me a trifle bothered.



In the world of Ressentiment, which occurs not all that far into the future, virtual reality has been 'perfected' and now people can interact with that world using visors and bodysuits. As you might imagine with any new technology, charging to the forefront is its use in pr0n. All those bishoujo and eroge games that you see otaku playing nowadays? Well, in this world they can actually interact with those characters and many have abandoned reality for a world of sweet illusion where they can be handsome, powerful, and loved (often by multiple 'girlfriends' who they can buy and then customize as software). Our protagonist, I doubt anyone could call him a hero, is a 30-something year old loser named Takuro who works at a dead-end job, lives with his parents, and whose greatest thrill in life is getting his yearly bonus so he can use it at the local Soapland (read: house of prostitution). He still has residual dreams of one day finding a girlfriend, but it's pretty clear that that's probably never going to happen. It's then that a friend of his introduces him to the virtual world. In that world, his friend goes from short and ugly to tall and handsome, with a harem who fight for his affection. This seems pretty good to Takuro who empties his bank account to buy a computer and VR visor, and along with it a software girlfriend named Tsukiko. As is almost always the case in stories like this, Tsukiko's software turns out to be special. She's not one of the generic virtual windup toys and is instead one of the early prototypes who actually has a mind of her own and can interact more fully with the system. Something that Takuro finds out firsthand when she bites him after his rape-rage attack at discovering she wouldn't simply do what he wanted. As the story evolves, Takuro begins to develop 'real' (?) feelings for Tsukiko and through some epic levels of manipulation, even geting her to fall in love with his VR self. Meanwhile, in the real world, through little merit of his own, Takuro has a chance to start a relationship with a real woman but when she discovers the two in flagrante delicto in the virtual world, she delivers an ultimatum. Pick and choose. Either you can have reality, or you can this virtual world. Toss in some more plot about dark forces of anarchists hoping to use Tsukiko and her access to the core of the VR world to launch nuclear missiles, and you basically have Ressentiment.

At its core, Ressentiment is a war between reality and virtual reality. Between a world which is often painful in many ways to one of fiction where we can create our own happy endings. The difference between the two world is even more stark if you consider the art styles used to depict reality and VR. The short and simple of it is that reality is grotesque. The art is pretty much Gonk to the extreme. If you need an example, here's a page from the manga featuring Takuro.



As one person reviewing the manga said, "I don't think I've ever seen a non-pornographic manga expose a guy's ball-sack so many times." and that is NOT a happy thing no matter what your orientation might be. Reality is ugly. Contrast this to the VR world where you can be whatever you want. Characters are all handsome or beautiful and there is no pain, no rejection, and you can have whatever you want. It's no mistake that Ressentiment is so named. Just consider the definition.

Ressentiment, in philosophy and psychology, is a particular form of resentment or hostility. Ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one's frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one's frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the "cause" generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one's frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.

This is pretty much the perfect definition of Takuro and those men he represents. The small, the impotent, the unhappy who will never achieve anything in their lives. If reality has done nothing but hurt you, is it so wrong to reject it for fantasy? Considering the path of my life, I couldn't help but read this and wonder what I would choose if VR technology were a possibility. Would I give up reality to live in a world of my own crafting where there was no pain, no rejection, and I could really feel like I belonged? It could be argued that the internet is already one small step on the path to that end. Sure, it's not a completely immersive world but we often spend our time with people who we will never meet in worlds where we can remake ourselves to be completely different from who we are in real life.

In the end, I'm not sure that I could fully make the plunge and not because I still have hopes that reality will turn out fine or that there isn't a part of me that longs for a place like that. I don't think I could ever completely drown out the knowledge that no matter how appealing it might be, in the end it's just fake, a fantasy that could never really be.



If that didn't kickstart the self-loathing into overdrive, I'm not sure what would. There's also the thought that maybe we're not supposed to have everything we want. Down that path lies evil. In Ressentiment, Takuro does some pretty heinous things to basically trick Tsukiko into falling in love with him. No doubt he felt it was justified in his own way. After all, he had paid his $49.95 or whatever for her software and it was only right that she love him, much as if he had payed a prostitute for her time. In a world where we're supposed to have everything we want, what's to prevent us from becoming monsters? I've actually spent some time thinking about this because, lately, I can't help but wonder if at my core I'm a good person or not. It's easy enough to receive platitudes from others but how do you really know deep down what is the real measure of a man? Is it only cowardice that holds me back from doing evil? If I were freed from consequences, would I be a monster?

As for the end of Ressentiment, as you might imagine it's not a happily ever after. I won't completely spoiler it just in case someone out there wants to actually read it, but you could say that Takuro loses everything, but somehow manages to pick himself up and keep moving forward. It wouldn't have seemed right for him to 'win' given everything he had done but I can't help but relate to him. It makes me wonder what will happen one day when we do get VR technology. How many people will choose to abandon a world of pain and loneliness for a better world that they can create? Destruction or salvation?

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