Saturday, January 20, 2007

Anime and History

There's a lot of interesting historical anime--like Grave of the Fireflies (which rivals the manga Barefoot Gen for its evocation of WW II/Pacific War-era Japan), Millennium Actress (which is about as close to a classic example of postmodernism as you're likely to find outside hip hop), Samurai Champloo (which is more of an alternate history), and Inu Yasha (which is more like historical fantasy)--but that's not what I'm talking about today. What I'm interested in here are fantasy series like Full Metal Alchemist or the various versions of Dragonball and the more-or-less-coded way they participate in the process of coming to terms with the past.

With its repetitiveness, Dragonball provides a clear and stark example of what I'm getting at. Every incarnation features the arrival of a threatening outsider who's much more powerful than our heroes and out to destroy the planet; our heroes' desperate training and alliances with former enemies; and the eventual defeat of the threat against all odds. The parallels to Japanese history and national self-image should be obvious. If you look at the character level rather than plot, you might be tempted to draw parallels between Saiyans and the discourse of "the Yamato race." Just like in American war propaganda, the Saiyans living on earth are either dismissed as laughably weak and inferior (often in explicitly racist terms, as by Freeza, particularly before his defeat in DragonballZ) or portrayed as capable of transforming into giant, rampaging, super-powerful apes (see John Dower's various books for the history beind this image). And just like in Japanese critical looks back at their imperial history, the Saiyans are represented by the aristocratic, ruthless, arrogant, militaristic Vegeta and the low-status, kind, humble, and peace-loving (though intensely competitive) Goku--not unlike Trigun's similar dichotomy, now that I think of it. As the series evolves, the implicit connections between the Saiyans and the Japanese are developed in various directions, which I won't go into here.

But to me Full Metal Alchemist is the more interesting example. Not only does it eventually draw links between the fantasy world it portrays and an alternate history version of early 20th C Europe, its themes revolve around militarism and imperialism and their costs for both victims and aggressors. Over the course of the anime series, the two protagonists, Edward and Alphonse Elric, uncover more and more of the hidden politics and history of their country, come to question the very power structure of their society, and eventually help lead a revolution against the militaristic state and its leader. As in Dragonball, former enemies become allies, characters we thought we knew grow and change, and victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. And it too can be faulted for indulging in a certain kind of historical revisionism, in this case positing a small conspiratorial clique manipulating the masses for their own selfish and inhumanly grandiose ends as the ultimate cause of the militaristic imperialism. Yet Full Metal Alchemist doesn't dodge issues of responsibility and complicity. And it's much more ambitious in the sense of engaging a whole range of philosophical and theological debates. The changing portrayal of Scar and the Ishbalans is one of the grittiest depictions of a colonized people I have seen in anime outside of Stand Alone Complex (on which much more later).

So for those who still believe the "science fiction=progressive, fantasy=regressive" trope all-too-common in sf studies or who only know Akira and Ghost in the Shell, this is for you. But this is old hat to blogs like bookofdays or scholars like Matt Thorn. If I missed your take on this, let me know!


Oaktown Girl said...

TC -
just a quick note with my damaged finger. I left you a message on Adrian's page about the WAAGNFNP Hound adoption. I adopted one and it's on my Myspace page (you can link to it from my comment at Adrian's). Hope to see one here soon, too!

I'll leave a comment on your LPGA post when my finger is better...promise! : )

The Constructivist said...

OK--and golf is too a sport!

Oaktown Girl said...

Man, I'm gonna start calling you "The Elephant" - you don't forget a thing!

The Constructivist said...

Just don't call me The Elephant Man.

The Constructivist said...

And have you checked the entry pages on the sitemeter lately, Oaktown Girl? The most popular entry page has been my LPGA blogging post for the last few days.

Shows me we definitely need to do a Super Bowl party here. I can't tell you how painful it has been to miss this season, particularly b/c back home I get to watch Sunday Ticket at a friend's place and we just skip to the best game. Ah, technology!