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The Analysis of “Loser-hero”, “Tragic loser-hero” and “Failed loyalist hero” Archetypes in Japanese Literature Essay

In the book “Warriors of Japan as Portrayed in the War Tales”, as the title suggests, author Paul Varley studies numerous war tales from hundreds of years of Japanese history, throughout the rise of the samurai warrior culture and the societal change that went along with it. From ancient war tales like the Shomonki to tales firmly in the medieval times like the Taiheiki, the changes in battlefield customs and warrior society are presented and studied as they change and evolve.

Despite all the social changes occurring in these time periods, a certain element stays the same throughout all these tales, the warriors themselves. The main focus of nearly all these war tales follows the rise and equally the fall of esteemed warriors of the period. The tales also touch on time honored values and beliefs such as honor, respect and reputation frequently. The evolution and prevalence of these values influences the way of life of the warriors in the tales, on and off the battlefield.

Varley goes one step further to separate warriors into distinct, classic categorizes, based upon their characteristics and actions. There are three archetypes: loser-hero, tragic loser-hero, and failed loyalist hero, with almost all warriors discussed in the book fitting into one group or another. Why would Paul Varley put such emphasis of the three archetypes of heroes in Japanese history? The explanation is found in the analysis of the characters themselves, and noticing the fact that they continually come up in Japanese literature.

In order to better understand the usefulness of the three main archetypes in Japanese history, it would be prudent to first start with the definition and analysis of the characters themselves. The first archetype to appear in “Warriors of Japan” is the loser-hero, a good example of which can be found in the tale of Minamoto no Tametoto. Tametoto is particularly special in that he is a loser-hero but not a tragic loser-hero, as the two are very similar and easily connected. The Hogen Monogatari tales recount the story of the Hogen Rebellion, which the feared and treasured warrior Tametoto fought in.

By most accounts, although most likely fictionalized for the sake of storytelling, Tametoto was a fierce and ruthless soldier, whose skills with a bow impressed any who witnessed them. From his extensive experience in war, Tametoto has seen the success that a night attack can bring, and believes that it is the best way to defeat the opposition in this conflict, the Sutoku. He argues to his comrades that if they do not use this strategy on the enemy, the enemy will use it on them. His advice is rejected by the Fujiwara leader Yorinaga, and the enemy does indeed attack that night.

The Fujiwara and Minamoto base at the Shirakawa Palace is defended valiantly by Tametoto, but with few reinforcements is basically fighting by himself. At one point it seems that Tametoto is actually winning the fight, at least until the Sutoku side sets the palace on fire, forcing Tametoto to flee the palace where he is captured by the enemy. In this story, Tametoto is a loser hero because it is not his fault that he is defeated, his effort was fantastic and it was the faults of others, namely Yorinaga, that lead to his defeat.

Paul Varley defines the tragic loser-hero as “One who fails or comes to grief at least in part because of some weakness or flaw of his own-he is not done in entirely by others or by outside forces-and whose end if made especially moving because his reduced state evokes memories of an earlier time of fame and glory” (Varley, 57). Some defining traits of a tragic loser-hero are that he is always aided by an ever-faithful follower who is always at his side, and that his indecision and inactivity in his last moments leads to his defeat.

Minamoto no Yoshitsune from the Heike Monogatari tales is a perfect example of the classic tragic loser-hero. Though a “vigorous commander”, Yoshitsune eventually fails because of his “political ineptitude” and “his rash handling of Kajiwara no Kagetoki” (Varley, 155). One thing that makes tragic loser heroes so interesting is that they are often rather relatable; they have flaws that in their character, they make bad decisions and lose their temper.

This evokes a sense of sympathy in the reader, and this underdog characteristic lends well to fictionalized tales and song celebrating the warrior spirit. There are many tragic loser-heroes throughout the war tales studied in “Warrior of Japan”, because it is an important archetype that has its place in Japanese literature. The last specific subtype of hero we are going to explore is the Failed Loyalist Hero. This hero is generally characterized by his self-sacrificing loyalty, specifically his unswerving devotion to Emperor Godaigo and the southern court.

This loyalty is usually what leads to the hero’s eventual death in battle. Readers take an interest in the extreme self-sacrificing loyalty displayed by these characters; loyalty is explained in “Warriors of Japan” as a highly respected virtue in Japanese history and literature. The failed loyalist is different from the other types of heroes in that these type of characters do not become prominent until the Taiheiki, where warriors become way more ingrained with imperial loyalism.

Before this period, a lot of warriors do have devotion to their commanders and emperor, but not to the extent that they could be considered a failed loyalist hero. Now that the archetypes are defined and their differences detailed, it would be useful to also explore their similarities, of which there are many. Most notably, the only difference between a loser-hero and a tragic loser-hero is that a tragic loser-hero’s defeat is the result of a personal flaw.

While sometime this distinction often clearly separates a loser from a tragic-loser hero, the commonalities often lead to a character becoming both archetypes. The failed loyalist hero, however, does not have as many parallels to the other types, but there are still some shared traits. Still a superb warrior, the failed loyalist follows the warrior lifestyle and the battlefield customs of the time. Also, the amount of loyalty that character possesses is no unlike the tragic-loser and loser heroes, it’s just that the failed loyalist hero is loyal to the point where that trait brings on his downfall.

So in conclusion, all the hero archetypes may be distinctly separated, but generally share a few traits at the least, showing a clear theme of the warrior culture of the time. A theme that contains ideals like devotion, respect, loyalty, bravery, and honor. The only issue left to address would be that of why author Paul Varley would take interest to stressing the different archetypes of heroes, and feel the discussion of them it imperative to the study of Japanese literary war tales.

The best explanation of it may have been said by the author himself, as he writes, “Firstly, there is a distinct liking in Japanese literature, discernible in the earliest writings, for stories of the sufferings and tragic fates of those who lose out in particular events or affairs” (Varley, 56). Varley understands that dramatic characters are important to Japanese literature, and as such strives to maintain that element of the literature by examining the hero archetypes, which are inherently tragic and sometimes contain suffering.

The often fictionalized and embellished stories of the warriors indicated that something about Japanese culture at the time enjoyed a good story, often for reasons other than the basic factual details of what took place. A great illustration of this is the often embellished story of loser-hero Tametoto, because while based on a real person, through the retellings of his story his character was often greatly exaggerated and propelled to mythical levels. He went from being a regular, even exceptional warrior in real life to a “veritable superman” and “a monster” in the war tales (Varley, 56).

This evolution of Tametoto’s character, and other characters throughout Japanese history, suggests an affinity in Japanese culture and literature for theatrical and compelling narratives. Much speculation can be made about why this is, but the main intent of this study is the compelling conclusion that Paul Varley decided to stress the three archetypes of heroes discussed because of their inherent importance and presence in Japanese history, literature, and culture. Citations: Varley, Paul H. Warriors of Japan as Portrayed in the War Tales. Honolulu: University of Hawaii P, 1994.

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