Friday, June 30, 2017

ANIME: "The Laughing Salesman NEW" ~ The Children Are Watching

His name is Moguro, and he can make your dreams come true. Provided you're ready to have your entire world come apart if you break your half of the deal.

The Laughing Salesman was originally created by manga duo Fujiko Fujio for Big Comic in 1968, but published the following year in Manga Sunday when the former publisher found it too scary. And it's not hard to see why. The black comedy is a gag series with only one major recurring character: Moguro Fukuzo, an absolutely terrifying salesman with a permanent smile and a risky wish fulfillment plan.

See, Moguro knows you're sad. He knows what's bugging you, and he has a fix for it. It could be a business contact. It could be something borderline magical in nature. Either way, you don't owe him a single penny for him. What you do owe him is obedience: use what he gives you exactly how he tells you to, or you will Not Have A Good Time. Invariably, his customers fall into temptation, and end up getting the opposite of what they wanted in the first place (or, sometimes worse -- exactly what they wanted).

So, wait, everyone sucks?

At a glance, that seems to be what the show is saying. As Moguro reminds us at the beginning of every episode, everyone in the world is lonely -- and he exists to fill the emptiness in their hearts. That "loneliness" doesn't necessarily apply to needing a person, though. Sometimes it's a hobby, a lifestyle, a job, or some other form of fulfillment.

The things people want aren't always "bad" by a basic definition, either. Yes, you'll occasionally find the husband who wants to chill with geishas without his wife finding out, but more often you get what sound like very well-intended requests: a college student wanting to get over being a night owl to see more of his girlfriend, a woman wanting less clutter. It's the simple, innocent requests that can really throw you. And often, it's the simple, innocent requests that seem to carry the heaviest punishments if their deals aren't observed.

But interestingly, there are a few traits across Moguro's marks that, when pieced together, put a new spin on what exactly he's doing. And what exactly the show is saying.

His victims are never genuinely badly off.

The lives of Moguro's marks aren't perfect... but they aren't awful. They're largely salarymen and office ladies, housewives in good marriages, college students whose only real trouble is circadian rhythms. The relationships of some may be on the rocks; others may be close to being fired if they screw up one more time. But he doesn't target the poor, the unemployed, or the genuinely distraught.

Which is not to belittle their problems. Romantic issues are terrible. Being mocked at work isn't fun. Worrying about your job security is scary. But he does not offer temptation to anyone who is struggling to get by, who might have to renege on their half of the deal simply to stay fed or alive.

His victims don't actually need him.

True to the fictional traveling salesman stereotype, Moguro is offering things no one actually needs. Magic candles that put you to sleep, a mask to make you a more marketable actor, a special license that keeps people from blocking you when you jog... Everything he offers works, but everything he offers is also deeply unnecessary.

No one in The Laughing Salesman is ever dealing with a problem above or beyond the scope of normal human interaction. Difficult, yes; extra difficult for people with, say, social anxiety (speaking from experience here). But choosing between committing to your girlfriend and moving out of your suffocating mother's home is not truly a Herculean feat.

At best, Moguro's services are stopgaps -- either temporary fix-its to allow time for the base problem to be addressed, or a method to fix one of the less "human" parts of the equation. Or they're a one-time deal, a cheer-up to improve someone's mood and get them back on their feet. But overall, nothing Moguro brings to the table is essential to fix the person's problem.

They were warned.

No one is ever caught off guard, either. Punishment only comes at the time it is meant to come. Nor does Moguro (as far as we know) meddle in his customers' lives in order to make them more likely to succumb to temptation. The fall is entirely their own -- and in many cases, in fact, they're on a fast track to redemption when they decide they just want one more go with whatever magical solution Moguro dropped.

It's this last part in particular that makes me believe the show isn't truly about digging out the darkness in perfectly decent people. Rather, I'm convinced that these are people set up for a fall -- people who would be doing something just as bad, if not worse, without his help in future. And he's simply giving them what they want to bring it to light.

Sadly, it's a truth in the real world that many bad people can masquerade as caring and kind until such time as something they want is in reach -- and then they can snap. It's a circumstance I've dealt with myself.

Note, too, that in many cases the customer is in a position making life difficult for a third party: an ignored girlfriend, a frustrated boss, or what have you. And when the dark side of their personality is finally aboveboard, people who have been dealing with them through what seem like minor inconveniences can escape their influence.

So, technically, Moguro is doing favors. Not only is he hobbling harmful people, he is often freeing innocents from their influence into the bargain.

So does this mean Moguro is secretly some sort of benevolent figure?

No, he's absolutely still an asshole.

My argument that Moguro isn't manipulating decent people into being bad doesn't mean he's not, like, proper evil. He may be making examples of people who were perhaps a few months removed of making examples of themselves, but one look at him chatting with his occasional conspirators shows you he's enjoying every minute of it.

I'm personally not familiar with the earlier anime adaptation, but my research shows that Moguro's attitude is actually downplayed in this new version. He occasionally shows regret at picking certain victims, he's kind to children and animals, and he seems to do aboveboard business enough that he has trusted accomplices. So at least in this modern take, it does feel slightly hurried to just decide he's a straight-up bastard.

What interests me most with regards to the new series is the opening theme, "Don't" by NakamuraEmi. And not just because it's super super amazing. The lyrics are actually quite telling. There's a repeated motif of knowing what's right and still doing the opposite, suffering through hardship being rewarded, and greed being punished. But most interesting is the final chorus, with one phrase repeated four times:

Oioi, kodomo ga omae o miteru 'zo (Hey, hey, the children are watching you.)

In short, whatever the manga and original series were meant to be, this new series is as much a morality play as anything else -- and that's by design. While the dark humor is strong -- and suits a macabre little weirdo like yours truly -- there's an element of psychology to every story.

Are the people Moguro targets deeply evil? In some cases, the potential seems to exist for them to become that way, but he never brings down anyone doing anything truly heinous. Do they already have the tendency toward what they will eventually do? Pretty much yes. But, at least in the case of the 2017 series, it doesn't feel like a case of bringing out the dark side of humans so much as bringing out the dark side of these humans.

And unfortunately, I think we can all think of a few people we wish Moguro had gotten to before us.

The Laughing Salesman NEW can be watched on Crunchyroll.
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