FLCL: The Nouveau Riche Princess (Rough Draft)

FLCL is a controversial anime. While it is clear to any casual observer that there are aspects to it that are praiseworthy, it is not so clear why such an anime is so well regarded. The plot is disjointed and has been described as nonexistent, the only consistency in its visuals is that they are not consistent, and the anime is seeped in so much pretension that it can easily be off putting. While I don’t believe I can convince everyone that FLCL is a masterpiece, I do believe I can at least show why myself and others feel so.

 

Nostalgia is the main reason why FLCL is so well regarded, but it’s important to recognize that nostalgia isn’t that easy to create. FLCL worked because it was the right anime, at the right place, at the right time. FLCL aired in the United States in 2003 and continued reruns on adult swim for a good while after that. What’s important to recognize is that FLCL aired before the internet revolutionized how anime fans in the West interacted the medium; for perspective YouTube was created two years later in 2005. FLCL had a captured audience that had little choice but to watch FLCL if they wanted to see anime, or even just a cool animated show. The technical aspects of FLCL made it a perfect fit for Adult Swim. The short episode count of six episodes means that it wouldn’t take long for a viewer to see the entire show. The OVA nature of its production means that each episode is a self-contained story that is enjoyable in its own right. It makes the anime more accessible to young viewers who are not used to needing to view episodes in a certain order to be able to enjoy the work, and allows the anime to work as reruns. My personal experience with FLCL is piecing together the entire series through watching the various parts in a random order. The fact it was short meant that I was able to see everything in a few months, and constant reruns meant that I was able to comprehend some of the crazier aspects just for the sheer fact I was able to watch it so much. This brings up another important point, that FLCL is a touchstone anime. People are heavily influenced by their first impressions, and so too are people towards anime. That’s why so many fans love FLCL is because it is what defined anime for them. The wackiness, the randomness, and the mature subject matter helped young viewers define form themselves what anime is and how it is different than cartoons of the West. It is no wonder that so many fans consider FLCL a masterpiece considering it is the quintessential anime in their mind, and most of what has come since has been unable to live up to it.

 

FLCL is a coming-to-age story, but that begs the question what does it mean to “come-to-age.” The transition to adulthood is a universal experience, but the particulars are not universal. The entire process is a confusing journey of lessons that you’ve learned, lessons that you should have learned, and lessons that you shouldn’t have learned. The chaos that is FLCL is able to capture this disjointed point in a persons life, but the true beauty of FLCL is that this chaos isn’t just noise. While not everything in FLCL has a particular deep meaning, there are sufficient enough aspects of that do. The key difference between FLCL in and other anime is that FLCL works in metaphors. Visual symbols and actions represent aspects of growing up, but the lack of obvious explanation means they can easily be missed. The excessive use of metaphors also means that the interpretation can vary, and a viewer can gain multiple different things from one event.

 

Truth

 

Episode Three of FLCL is a significant departure from the previous two episodes. The main reason comes down to on thing, Eri Ninamori. Up to this point, Ninamori has just been one of the background characters that Naota hug out with at school. While already shown to be observant, she never stood out much compared to Naota’s other friends who were much more colorful. The only real meaningful impact she had to the story was her question about the school because she was the only person who didn’t know that it burned down, thus giving a reason for the audience to learn. However, that changes in episode three. In that episode she grabs the story and much of the episode follows her.

 

At this point in FLCL, it can be said that each episode has one general theme or idea that it tackles. For episode three this theme is truth, or possibly the opposite, lies. The central problem for Ninamori faces throughout the episode is that her life is built upon lies and the truth is destroying everything. The first scene describes the catalyst for the events in the episode, namely that Ninamori’s father who is the mayor of Nambasa is having an affair with his secretary. The commotion at her house shows that this scandal is coming to light, but Ninamori’s own talk with the secretary shows that she has known long before that. This means that throughout the entire show to this point, Ninamori has known that the foundation of her family has been corrupted by the infidelity of her father and that her family was living a lie. Ninamori understands this and just plays the part to keep things running smoothly, if not truthfully.

 

Ninamori’s quite acceptance of this reality doesn’t mean she isn’t trying to do anything about it. She has concocted a scheme to bring her parents together and restore her family, the only problem is that she is her father’s daughter. A politician is a person who has to be mindful of everything they do or say, and make sure their statements are tailored to be best received by their constituents. The politicians who are best able to manage themselves are the ones who are most likely to succeeded. Ninamori has already learned this control and has perfected playing the part of the good daughter. Where Ninamori errs is that she believes she can fool the world with her mask.

 

Ninomri commits an extremely heinous act. She rigs the election for the play. While we know that the reason she did it was that she wanted to bring her parents back together and repair her family, but there is a deeper reason for it; she thought she could get away with it. This phenomenon is called the Bathsheba Syndrome. It is when people who have obtained success and power grow overconfident and complacent. Their past success and current access to power convinces them that they are more capable than they really are. They reach a point where they make unethical decisions with the full belief they’ll get away with it, but they don’t. While there is little information on Ninamori’s father, it can easily be surmised that he has fallen victim to the Bathsheba Syndrome and committed adultery because that is why men in power do it. However we also see that Ninamori falls into the same trap. When Ninamori reveals the secret to Naota she is the most excited we ever see her. To this point, Ninamor has always been a reserved character. She keeps things close to the vest and avoids the appearance of excess emotion both good and bad, but not during this scene. We see her reveal her master plan in an excited and aggressive manner. She leans into Naota and slowly consumes the scene. By the end of it she has pushed Naota to the wall with no more space to go. The only thing that saves Naota is Haruka’s intervention by pointing out the flaws in Ninamori’s thinking. The big question this scene raises is why. Why would Ninamori reveal her so far successful plan so easily and with such disregard? Part of it was to convince Naota to participate. At this point, Naota was the only aspect of the plan that wasn’t working because Naota refused to play his part in the play. He was the one holdout that she needed to fix, but the method she chose seemed particularly stupid. It is at this point that I feel the simplest explanation is the best. Ninamori confessed everything to Naota because she though it would work, she did everything she did because she thought it would work. She had been fooling the class to include the teacher, and had become drunk on her success. She spoke to Naota to both convince him to play along and to brag at how she has fooled everybody. She didn’t think that her crying probably would have been a more effective way to fool Naota into playing along. She had thought that she had already outwitted reality.

 

It is here that the allusion in the episode really shines. The play they are playing is Puss in Boots. It’s a fairy-tale where a cats in boots is able to fool a king into believing a poor man off the street is a prince and that man goes on to marry the princess. It is the iconic story of being able to fool your way into success. Ninamori consciously is trying to recreate the play in real life, and is using real people to props to solve her own personal problem. While Puss in Boots is successful in his story, there are far more tricksters that run into failure. It is here where Ninamori fails, because the truth comes out. In a heated argument with Naota, he reveals the truth. It is at this point that Ninamori is overwhelmed and becomes controlled by a monster that appears from her head. This leads into a fun and entertaining fight that results in the monsters comical destruction, but the fight also leads to the most important metaphor of the episode and provides the “moral” to the story. In the process of the fight, Naota as a glowing ball destroys the roof of the gym next door. This gym is the same location where the play is being held. In the next scene we see Ninamori out on the stage bathed in natural sunlight that is a result of the destroyed roof. This is the lesson. Truth is a destructive force and destroys what is around it, but it is only through that destruction that the light can shine through. But FLCL leaves one final twist. While in Naota’s room, Ninamori revealed that she wears contacts in class to hide the fact she has glasses. On the stage she was wearing glasses as if to show that she accepts who she is and will reveal her true self, but that isn’t the case. In a litteral aside to the camera that we can assume is meant for Naota, and with the music stopped to show how this shot is isolated from the events around it, we see that the glasses are a fake. This is the shot that I am least confident in understanding. I personally see it as a release from an ending that was working out too well. The metaphor of the light on the stage was a bit too strong and it needed to be toned down. It was providing an answer that was too clear in an anime that recognizes that life is never that clear, and that is why it was so appropriate for Ninamori to be the character to deliver that line. While the shot was clearly delivered for Naota, it is also function as a break in the fourth wall to the audience. It showed that she was in a play, and the anime itself is a play. It highlights that FLCL is as fake of a story as Puss in Boots, and to not get carried away in the happy ending. Life doesn’t work like that, even if stories must.

 

Ninamori does receive closure for the ordeal she went through in this episode. In episode 5 (not sure on this), she blithely states that her parents worked things out after she cried and stuff. That line was married to the visual metaphor where she was able to jump over the high bar as a sign that she has overcome this problem. The subdued manner of the scene captures how perfectly mundane her problem was. Now I don’t mean to say that her problem was serious. Episode three clearly shows how dramatic and serious the stakes are for that problem. My point is to show that such problems are common and normal. Countless families shatter due to infidelity, and even families that face no such problem will face tragedy in some manner. Human suffering is a normal and mundane aspect of life. Every person who lives will suffer in some manner, or will have someone they care about suffer. The mundane still needs to be overcome, and Ninamori shows that it is impressive when it is.

 

Agency and Control

 

While truth is by far the most important theme that runs through episode three, it is not the only theme to do so. Life is never so simple and neither is FLCL. Another important theme that gets addressed is agency, or to put in another words, why do bad things happen to me. While this entire episode focuses on Ninamori, she is still just a background character. The main character was, is, and always will be Naota. FLCL is his story, but it is through Ninamori’s story in episode three that we understand Naota’s.

 

The big revelation in Episode two for Naota is to recognize that other people have problems. To this point, his just accepted people as just being who they are. His brother was perfection in the world that Naota knows he is unable to match, Haruko was a force of chaos that brings destruction to wherever she goes, and Mamimi was an annoying girl who Naota has always known. It was for this reason that he was shocked just to learn how bad off Mamimi was. While he could feel something was off, he lacked the maturity and experience to recognize that she was going through some serious problems. He most likely spent more time with her than any other person did, yet he never knew that she was begging for food until his father told him. It was in this episode that he recognized that he must step forward to help others.

 

Ninamori’s story continues on this vein but in the other direction. While Mamimi’s problem was something he needed to step forward to find and help her with, Ninamori’s problem was forced onto Naota without his desire or consent. He spends most of the episode blithely unaware of the dangers that Ninamori is slowly bringing onto him. He is unaware that by the time the episode begins he has already falling completely into her schemes. Refusing is denied to him, even though he perfectly justified in his refusals. Even though Naota is justified in his own actions, his refusals continue to make the entire situation worse, to the point where he is forced to fight a monster. At the end of the episode we see that the situation is resolved when Naota just plays the part. While I don’t think Naota fully understood the lesson the episode showed, it is clear from viewing that other people pursuing their own story will dictate pages in yours.

 

It is under the theme of agency that the economic undertones of the episode shine through. Episode three uses both Communism and Capitalism in order to explore the agency of the individual, but it avoids making judgements on it. Instead, these economic ideas are used to accentuate the incredibly complex and unseen threads that connect the various characters in the story. The first sign of this idea occurs when you see Ninamori’s shirt. The shirt’s message is hiding in the seen in the car, with the audience only able to determine that the shirt is red, but at the school you see the shirt clearly says “USSR.” The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, better known as the Soviet Union, was the premier communist state in the 20th Century. It was also a totalitarian state where the conservative estimates are that it was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of its own people. Though the Soviet Union fell nine years before FLCL aired, such a shirt would no doubt be seen as “edgy” for a student to wear to school. The shirt communicates two important ideas about authority, first is that Ninamori has little respect for the authority above her at the school, this can be easily understood by the multiple examples of the teacher’s incompetence, and the shirt foreshadows Ninamori’s own approach to her authority. Ninamori established a totalitarian rule in the class. She creates the façade of due process to hide the fact that she runs the class according to her own personal will and goals. How absolute her control is seen when you observe how everyone, to include the teacher, blindly follow and accept the system Ninamori runs when she had her argument with Naota in front of the class. In fact, Naota was the only person in the class who didn’t bend to her will, yet he had no virtuous motivation for it. Naota only rebelled due to his personal fear of embarrassment and his general apathy towards school.

 

It is also important to recognize how ironic that shirt is. Of all the people who would be wearing such a shirt, Ninamori would by far be the last one. Ninamori is the bourgeoisie. Her father is a rich man who is also the mayor of the town. It can be surmised that he is the intersection of both business and power. Ninamori has his only daughter is the undeserving recipient of that wealth and power. She has her father’s secretary drive her to school, and she clearly lives in a nice house. While Ninamori has shown that she is competent as class president, it is also clear that the teacher has excessive courtesy towards Ninamori because the teacher recognizes that Ninamori is her social better. Ninamori belongs to a different class of society, even though she does everything she can to avoid appearing so. I imagine that is one of the main reason she associates with Naota and his group of friends precisely because they don’t care about her background. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough evidence in the anime to make any real determination on that point.

 

The highlighting of Communism serves the purpose of making the viewer pay more attention to economic ideas, and that leads into the presentation of Capitalism. Capitalism is why Ninamori has a problem, but it is also not something the anime or Ninamori blames. While Ninamori’s father was responsible for his infidelity, it was others looking to make money that were responsible for the scandal getting spread. Naota’s father eagerly publishes the magazine that exposed the scadle in the hope of making money. The shop that sold that magazine did so because the shop owner wanted to sell her excess Crystal Pepsi, so thus making money. And the secretary betrayed her lover and employer to both get money and to have the satisfaction of bringing down Ninamori’s father who epitomized the bourgeoisie. It is important to show there is one major inconsistency on this point in the episode. We learn in the class from the students that the scandalous magazine is being sold at a store to sell the Crystal Pepsi, but then we see Naota’s father sell said magazine at said store after school in plain view of Ninamori. It could be that Naota’s father is selling more copies because the first run sold out, but regardless, it has a great thematic value even if it doesn’t follow logic. We end the sequence by seeing Ninamori drinking the Crystal Pepsi on stairs leading downward. The stairs themselves shows that Ninamori is on her way to a dark place since the stairs are heading underground, but the fact she is not at the bottom means that Ninamori has not completely subcome to depression and darkness. The more powerful metaphor is her drinking the Crystal Pepsi. The drink is a symbol of the capitalist system that brought various people together who took actions in pursuit of profit that has brought Ninamori to a state of hell, and those people didn’t even have the courtesy of being malicious. Her conversations with the secretary and Naota’s father showed that neither of those people has any personal issues with Ninamori herself, and even sympathized with her plight. But Ninamori drinks the Crystal Pepsi and participates in her own destruction.

 

This one scene addressing one of the most pressing question of life, why do bad things happen to good people. While Ninamori takes her own unethical actions in the episode, it is important to remember that she was responding to a crisis. There is no indication that she did anything wrong beforehand, and I would consider wrong to assume so. Ninamori did bad things because bad things happened to her. I see the anime clearly showing that Ninamori was wrong in taking her actions, but that doesn’t justify why she was in such a position in the first place. FLCL uses Capitalism to attempt to understand this problem of evil. A free market works by having a large number of individuals trade value in order to pursue their own interests. The collective process of individuals moving such a manner creates a noticeable effect that is beyond anyone’s control. The system isn’t malicious, it just is. It shows that the individual doesn’t really matter and you’re not that important. It also shows that you participate in that system as well.

 

This dose of reality presents an interesting contrast to Ninamori’s approach. Ninamori chooses to address her problem by not attacking reality, but attacking fiction. Ninamori believes in the power of story to be able to change her reality and commits herself fully to doing so. The ending of the episode and the resolution we learn later shows that Ninamori was probably more right that wrong. Ninamori is the character who best shows the power of FLCL.

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Izetta: The Last Witch and the Death of a Fairytale

Izetta the Last Witch is a fairytale. Now the anime is filled with many of the trappings of a modern story: the story always attempts to provide a logical justification for an action in the world, the visuals adhere to an extreme fidelity to actual WWII equipment, and the anime attempts to subvert and deconstruct its very nature as a fairytale. This form contrasts with a fairytale that has much older conventions, and those modern trappings on an older story form is what I believe causes most of the problems the anime suffers. However, with analyzing this story as a fairytale helps to find what this anime is actually about.

 

Understanding this anime requires a broader understanding of myths and fairytales. To quote Joseph Campbell, the preeminent authority on myths and fairytales, “Modern literature is devoted, in great measure, to a courageous, open-eyed observation of the sickeningly broken figurations that abound before us, around us, and within.” To contrast, a fairytale serves a much more basic and transcendent truth. While modern literature works by wallowing in the tragedy of mankind, the fairytale works by transcending the universal tragedy of man. This issue facing Izetta: The Last Witch is that a postmodern world has nothing for a person to transcend to. Faced with no place to go, the anime’s only option is to deconstruct a fairytale and see what pieces remain.

 

Myths and fairytales also carry certain story conventions that run contrary to more modern conventions. The prime example in Izetta are the characters. In a contemporary story a character grows and develops. You see how their various trials and adventures shapes them into the person they’ll eventually become. A fairytale or myth does not concern itself with growth and development, and instead has the journey be about the character learning what they always were. Izetta was always a hero who was gifted with tremendous magical power. The Duchess Fine was always fair and just ruler and shows what a just king is. The Emperor Otto was always a tyrant who corrupts and destroys everything he touches. The story ends with the characters suffering a fate in line with the role they played and the actions they took while in their role. It is through observing this that Izetta the Last Witch communicates its message.

 

The most important character to understand the anime was also easily the worst handled character; the original White Witch, Sophie. She is in the story because her character completes the themes and message, but the creators wrote an extremely convoluted and asinine reason for why it was logical for her to be in the story. The idea that she’s a clone from a demented science project and was able to regain her memories and personality by biting Izetta’s lip and drinking her blood is extremely hokey and ridiculously convenient. This convoluted backstory makes even less sense when the anime had already established that magic exists and it can allow a teenage girl to fly around on an anti-material rifle and toss Panzer IV tanks around like rag dolls. There was no need to have science assume the role of magic because the anime had the misplaced desire to appear more believable and realistic. While this is a bad mark on the anime, it does not mean there isn’t anything interesting learn from it.

 

Notwithstanding how poorly Sophie’s character was handled, she is a very interesting character to analyze. Conceptually, she is one of the most interesting characters I have seen in anime. The myth of the White Witch served as powerful force within the story. The myth served as a unifying story for the people of Eylstadt and a source of hope in their most dire times. The power of the myth was such that that the main characters did what they could to recreate the story with Izetta as the White Witch. They used Hollywood knowhow, outright deception, and even murder to maintain the myth for as long as possible. They knew the power of myths and fairytales and attempted to use that power to save their country. For as powerful as Izetta was, she was never as powerful as Izetta the White Witch.

 

Once this new myth around Izetta is established the story does what it can to destroy it, and the main vehicle for that destruction is Sophie. In the story she is clearly a monster. She is a world destroy force more akin to a god than to a human, but her tragic past provides some justification for why she became a monster. The anime first reveals that the real history involved Sophie being betrayed by the Queen once the King was dead. This serves the dual function of showing that Eylstadt is capable of committing evil like any of the other countries, and to provide Sophie with a just reason for her anger and desire for revenge. The fact the anime doesn’t stop here is why Sophie is such a great character conceptually. The big reveal as the end was that Sophie was always a monster, even while she was the White Witch. The anime hinted at this fact by showing her complete disregard for the wellbeing of the soldiers on her own side, but it was not confirmed until her own admission. She may recognize all the killing she did in the past was wrong, but that didn’t stop her then and it didn’t stop her now. As with the other characters, her being a monster wasn’t something she became but something she always was. She desecrated the laws of the witches and used her power to achieve what she wanted. The ultimate reason for her prince betraying her was because her loyalties were so selfish. She had no loyalty or love to Eylstadt, only to her prince and he knew that with his death there will be nothing to keep her chained. Her destruction was just as Machiavellian a decision as was using her to preserve the kingdom in the first place. The irony is that she the fact she was remembered as an angel couldn’t hide the fact she was more like a demon.

 

Sophie also serves the critical role as a foil for Izetta. If Izetta as a character cannot grow, then contrasting her with another is the best way to understand who she is. In the last fight, Sophie proves herself to be a demon, while Izetta proves herself to be an angel. However, the problem with such an idea can be seen in one image.izetta-spirit-bombs In the eyes of a mortal, there is no difference between the power of an angel and the power of a demon. In a theological sense, angels and demons (assuming they are fallen angels) are the same kind of being, with their choices providing the only distinction. Such a comparison works quite well for Izetta and Sophie. It is impossible to tell who is the good guy or bad guy in this image. Both are wielding massive spirit bombs which look to contain world ending power. Even their more conventional fighting is barely distinguishable. Sophie does show some subtle cruelty in her actions, but that can’t hide the fact that Izetta’s fighting is also extremely brutal. Izetta easily killed hundreds of people in the anime; possibly thousands. Her power is entirely destructive and all the help she can give is through destructive means. It is Sophie’s presence that we see how difficult or even impossible it is to tell how good a person is if all we see are destructive actions.

 

A major lesson of the story is that such power is never good no matter the context. This fact was known from the beginning, but both Sophie and Izetta were determined to prove it. Both were taught to never use their magic for such personal reasons, and both were taught never to use the magic stone. Both disregarded all those teachings when they felt strongly enough about an issue. What is striking is how little either achieved using their power, regardless of their intentions for using it. The areas they were able to succeed were quickly countered by personal tragedy. Sophie protected Eylstadt, but couldn’t prevent her prince from dying a natural death nor prevent herself from burning at the stake. Izetta did save Fine twice, but she couldn’t prevent Eylstadt from falling and it is unlikely she achieved her desire for everlasting peace. Izetta’s presence actually allowed Germania to gain magic capabilities themselves that caused even more death, and had the potential for even greater tragedy to come. The actions of Izetta and Sophie resulted in magic being forever destroyed, and Izetta was maimed in process while Sophie died a second death. In the end, it wasn’t even magic that defeated Germania, but as Emperor Otto said, “blood and iron.”

 

However, I stated that the anime was a fairytale so that means there is a transcendent truth. The challenge with Izetta the Last Witch is this truth is achieved through deconstruction. The story works by taking apart and subverting all the aspects of a fairytale. It denies the fanciful and replaces it with cynical reality. It destroys magic and replaces it with science. In a myth or fairytale, the hero transcends the world. In Izetta: The Last Witch the world consumes and destroys the hero, only leaving a maimed girl. The final line of the anime concludes that at the very end, the appearance of Izetta as the White Witch left an undefined something in the hearts of everyone.

 

I see this this undefined something as a vague concept of fate. A central theme in Izetta: The Last Witch is that there is some kind of cosmic justice. Every character has a role, and every character’s fate is directly caused by the actions they take while in their role. Fine’s counselor, Sieg Muller, is killed by a Germainian soldier who looked just like the Eylstadt soldier he killed earlier to keep Izetta’s secret safe. Emperor Otto dies by his own hands after bringing his empire to ruin. The Germainian ace Basler remains loyal till the end and flies off alone on a mission with no hope for success. Even though the cunning Germainian officer Berkmann survived the war, he lost his eye in the process. The lines Fine is speaking at the time the anime shows the fate of Berkmann makes it clear that he is still well within the cycle of war and is most likely unable to escape from it, though it is doubtful he wants to. The anime asserts that there is some intelligible justice in an unintelligible world.

 

The real tragedy of this anime is how it can’t really find an answer to the hard questions it asks. Izetta: The Last Witch directly confronts the horrors of wars, but what answers it provides are extremely lacking. An undefined something in people’s hearts is almost no answer at all. Even a vague notion of fate is a pretty poor answer, yet Izetta: The Last Witch provides the answers that our contemporary world is able to give.

Thoughts on Nationalism and Militarism in GATE

The following was handwritten in a notebook of mine. I don’t think this idea is complete yet, but I wanted it out here to get some feedback. My goal is to turn this into a video script.

 

Up to this point, what little discourse there has been on the anime GATE: Thus the Japan Self-Defense Force Fought There has focused on the nationalism present in it. I’m no different and I even wrote how the anime depicted an idealistic nationalistic Japan. Well over a year later, I find such an answer unsatisfying. My misgivings can be seen when you ask a few questions. Who are the good guys? More specifically, is it Japan, or is it the JSDF. Who are the bad guys? Is it the Empire within the GATE, or is it whoever moves against the JSDF. And this is the most important question, do the Japanese people even matter in GATE?

 

GATE is about the JSDF, its in the name for Pete’s sake. However, I no longer agree with the idea that just because the anime is for the JSDF means that it is nationalistic. Nationalism is an ideology that unifies a group of people with shared culture, history and often ethnicity into a nation. Often, each nation forms its own recognized government in the nation-state. Historically, a more unified country is a more powerful country because it is able to synchronize more aspects of the society to achieve the state’s goals. However, GATE shows there is no need or desire to mobilize the society to achieve the state’s, or more specifically the militaries, goals. It is for this reason I now argue GATE is contains post-modern militarism.

 

Before I can move on to prove my point, I need to define my terms. Because it’s the easiest, I’ll start with militarism. Militarism means pretty much what it sounds like; it is the belief or desire of a government or a people that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests. I think it is safe to say that this definition fits GATE.

 

Postmodern is a much more difficult idea to define. Postmodernism contains many ideas within it, with their unifying feature being the skepticism or departure from modernism. To keep things simple, I’ll focus on one of the most prominent ideas in Postmodernism, which is the rejection of the Grand Narrative. To understand Grand Narratives I’ll quote from Hiroki Azuma’s book, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. “From the end of the eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century in modern countries, various systems were consolidated for the purpose of organizing members of society into a unified whole; this movement was a precondition for the management of society. These systems became expressed, for instance, intellectually as the ideas of humanity and reason, politically as the nation-state and revolutionary ideologies, and economically as the primacy of production. Grand Narrative is a general term for these systems.” To clarify the point nationalism, with its goal to unify a group of people into a single national identity, is a Grand Narrative. Azuma makes a further claim that Japan is currently a post-modern society.

 

An important feature of GATE is that the author is committed to realism within the story. The GATE contains many fantasy elements and the story clearly establishes a world in line with the creator’s wishes, but those wishes can never take the world too far from reality. A fidelity to realism sacrifices aspects of the authors ideals, and how the story reconciles those two opposing forces can provide telling insight into the post-modernism militarism.

 

A feature of a Liberal Democratic Government is civilian control of the military, and Japan is a Liberal Democratic country. The JSDF is subordinate to the Prime Minister, who is the Commander-in-Chief, and the Minister of Defense. The prominence of these positions means they will naturally be characters in GATE. However, GATE looks at civilian leadership in a generally negative light. The favorability of civilian government officials coincides with how much they agree with the JSDF, and most civilian officials are not completely on board with the JSDF. The tension stems from the fact that the government and the military view problems differently. The JSDF has a bias towards bold and aggressive actions where overwhelming force is applied at a critical point to resolve the problem in the quickest and most decisive way possible. This attitude has proven to be the most effective on the battlefield and is ingrained in the minds of the JSDF officers and soldiers. The government has a bias towards consensus building and avoiding negative publicity. A successful politician is one who is able to manage their image in the eyes of their constituents with the goal of doing positive actions when they’re most visible and negative ones when they’re not. Their inclined to ensure there is broad support for a measure before they act towards it, and there is a tendency to avoid action in tricky situations if that is a viable option. In reality, there are tangible benefits and costs to both approaches and one is not clearly better than the other. In GATE military action is always better. A noteworthy example occurred in the hot springs episode. The United States wanted control of some people from beyond the Gate and were willing to use any means necessary to achieve it. One tactic was the blackmail the Prime Minister with compromising information. In order to preserve the military objective of preventing those people from being captured, the Prime Minister resigned.

 

The most prominent confrontation between the JSDF and the government occurred when the Diet, Japan’s national legislature, ordered a hearing on the JSDF’s actions within the Gate. This scene is easily the most egregious instance of propagandizing that occurred in the anime, but also showed how palpable the distain was in the military to the civilians that lead them. The female legislature was a complete strawman who was hunting for any reason to hurt the JSDF and used the weakest arguments possible to attempt to make her points. She was soundly handled by Rori Mucury who spoke with eloquence that wasn’t seen beforehand, nor really seen since. What is enlightening here isn’t the points that were made, but the sheer contempt the author showed to the Diet. Now a hearing to the Diet is a very reasonable action. The people have a right to know what their military is doing, especially if there are concerns of improper actions. Yet you see the idea of a Diet hearing as something terrible from the JSDF members. Not only does GATE show that members of the Diet have a strong dislike of the JSDF, the members even lack the most rudimentary understanding of military matters. I don’t know the reality about the relationship between the actual JSDF and the Diet, but it is clear the militaristic view sees it as negative and antagonistic. My knowledge on the American military-civilian relationship leads to me to easily except the idea that the details of military matters are not well understood in the Diet, though I’m lead to believe whatever antagonism found is more philosophical and political rather than personal.

 

What I find the most fascinating aspect of GATE is how a postmodern society interacts with a military, namely it doesn’t. The Gate itself in the anime is a physical and metaphorical representation of war and violence. It’s appearance directly resulted in the deaths of thousands of Japanese civilians. Within the same episode, it has been covered up. The 24 episodes of the anime is full of war, violence, intrigue, adventure, horror and even love, yet the average Japanese citizen isn’t aware of any of it. While the anime does show that the Japanese people are interested in the world within the Gate, it is an abstract curiosity that doesn’t prevent them from living their normal lives. The JSDF’s mission is to push the non-postmodern idea of war outside of the postmodern world. The war then takes place is some other world that isn’t here and doesn’t effect here at all. This requires the military to adopt ideas and practices not in line with the world they are trying to defend in order to defend that world.

 

The anime intuitively recognizes that the calls to nationalism will no longer be heard and acted upon by the people. It shows that the concerns of individuals do not extend beyond what is personal. Society has gained the luxury of indulging in the reality that it wants, and in doing so makes itself ignorant of the actions of others. GATE shows that military matters have been delegated to those who practice the profession of arms. It also shows that the actions needed for military success will not easily be understood by society at large, so the goal is to act covertly and independently to provide results that will satisfy the people.

Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans and Revolution

Iron-Blooded Orphans 1 Organized violence in pursuit of a political aim often becomes a very messy affair. That is not to say that war doesn’t work, but it almost always costs more than anticipated. A great example in living memory would be the 2003 War in Iraq led by the United States. The overall success and failure of the war and subsequent occupation is still hotly debated, but what isn’t is that Iraq cost significantly more in manpower, time, treasure and prestige than the experts predicted. Revolutionary and Civil Wars tend to be even more messy because there often isn’t a way to negotiate peace. The War in Syria began in 2011, and it took almost five years before any real talks occurred to end the war. During that time, hundreds of thousands of people have died, and over ten million people have become displaced. It is unknown at the time of this writing if this effort will lead to an end of the violence.

 

The Gundam franchise is well aware of the bloody nature of revolution, so the natural setting of many of their stories involve it. The Zeon Revolution that occurred in Mobile Suit Gundam killed half of humanity before the story in the anime began. Gundan Wing saw colonies seek a chance to gain freedom by creating the Gundams, and that effort snowballed into major conflict involving multiple parties attempting to grab power. Many people died as a result. The franchise always views war as wrong, but it is this view that causes an inherent hypocrisy. The message in Gundam is that war is bad, but the purpose of it is to sell model weapons. This has required the anime to glorify the violence and war that it repeatedly preaches is wrong.

 

This is the central reason why the first season of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans feels so different than the previous Gundam series. The characters in both Tekkadan and Gjallarhorn fight because they understand violence is necessary to achieve their aims. The story is straightforward and taps into a primal aspect of humanity. It is no wonder that the first work of literature in Western Civilization, the Iliad, is a story of Achilles’ rage. Achilles is heroic because he can do great things, and he is remembered because his rage changed the course of history. Mikazuki is Iron-Blooded Orphans’ Achilles who is also able to do great things in his rage that change history. Why care about virtue when you can watch great champions use their terrible power?

 

Iron-Blooded Orphans also uses questionable methods to tell its story. Any fan of the Iliad would know that Prince Hector was the ideal man, with his only failing being unable to best Achilles. Iron-Blooded Orphans uses Marxists ideas to make the story compelling. For better or for worse, Marxists understanding has permeated throughout Western and Eastern Civilization. People see the world in terms of class, and generally view those above them working towards their own benefit at the expense of those bellow them. An issue with Marxists thought is that the problems of the world stem from a structural system that goes to the core of society, so society must be completely changed at its heart to achieve true justice for the members of society. There is a reason why Socialists put so much stock into revolution, and I have already made the case earlier that revolutions turn messy. Revolution is often viewed as necessary step, so that means violence is necessary to achieve true justice. There can be no compromise, because meeting halfway with evil is evil.

 

What makes a person or organization good or bad in Iron-Blooded Orphans is not due to their virtue, but whether or not they live in a privileged state. The children who formed Tekkadan gained their power through violence, even to the point of executing the second highest ranking person in their private security firm. The story plays this off as justified because the children were treated inhumanly and were set up as sacrifices in the previous battle. The ethics of their mutiny is never mentioned. Tekkadan become affiliated with the criminal organization known as Teiwaz. The show then quickly introduces the Pirate group called Brewers to show that there are worse criminals out there. We know the Brewers are evil because they’re slavers, and they even use slaves to fight. Though how the slaves remain so when they operate the majority of the military equipment is beyond me. We then see the workers in the colonies around Earth are oppressed by Gjallarhorn. Gjallarhorn is bad because they engineer a conflict by given the workers faulty equipment and faking an explosion to start the violence. It doesn’t matter that the workers were perfectly fine in killing to achieve their goals if only they had the means, or that marching on a government building with firearms and tanks would automatically justify a military response. Victims are given carte blanche to address their grievances in this anime.

 

It is this complete support to those who are disadvantage that makes the Iron-Blooded Orphans so troubling. The rebellion of the colony workers is the only event that is clearly a revolution, and the anime handles it in a completely biased way. The anime initially casts doubt on the workers by having Tekkadan unaware that they are transporting weapons and by having a firefight break out so quickly. The anime then humanizes the workers to make it clear they’re in the right, even though they are quick to violence. The only view of the company the workers work for is given by the introduction of Biscuit’s brother. The brother’s first actions are to betray Biscuit and to allow a little girl to be beaten, even when its known that she’s not the person they’re after. The revolution must be just because of what was seen from both sides, and the subsequent slaughter reinforces the idea.  The fighting is resolved by Kudelia Aina Bernstein informing the world of what was occurring in the colonies, and the dubious spark that started the bloodshed. Showing that the world will side with the workers if only they knew what was going on.

 

The unfortunate reality is that no war can easily be stopped once it’s started. Like Pandora’s Box, it cannot be closed once it is opened. While the workers were able to reach an agreement to end the fighting, what deal could they make that was worth the lives of so many of their comrades? If the workers had means to resists then they would keep on resisting, but what most likely happened is that they were so thoroughly defeated that they would accept whatever deal was presented to them. The most radical workers would already be dead, and those who were still alive understood they had no way of winning through any conventional means.

 

Iron-Blooded Orphans’ creators at least recognized how pro-violence the story was so they introduced a tragic aspect to Biscuit’s brother. He knew that both Gjallarhorn and the workers were moving towards war and did everything in his power to prevent it, even allowing a little girl to be beaten. He was the only one who saw what the cost of the revolution would actually be. His message is subverted in two important ways. Kudelia, who has always been presented as the paragon of goodness in the anime, takes a very different lesson from the workers’ revolution. That incident, to include Fumitan’s death, made her resolved to the idea of having a revolution. Before, Kudelia only desired economic freedom for Mars, now she desires the complete upheaval of the system that keep the Martians and the Colonists oppressed. The second way the message subverted was how the story handled Biscuit. Biscuit received his brother’s suicide note and understood what he was trying to say. This led Biscuit into conflict with Orga. Biscuit has always been a voice of reason for Tekkadan, and now he is the only one questioning if the violence is worth it. Biscuit then comes around to Orga’s view and then dies. He shows that reason can side with Orga and violence, and then he exits the story so reason can never change its mind again.

 

Iron-Blooded Orphans creates another outlet shortly after to show that what Tekkadan is doing isn’t really good by turning the Teiwaz liaison, Merribit, into the sole voice of peace after the death of Biscuit. She alone was willing to voice that Tekkadan’s desire for revenge for Biscuit would take them down a dark road. She alone questioned the cost Orga was willing to pay to accomplish the mission. She alone was willing to say how wrong everything had become. Her pleas did nothing. The most concerning aspect was that the old mechanic who had been with Tekkadan from the beginning saw everything she did, but chose to do nothing. He knew the children were walking an evil path, but quietly continued to enable them.

 

The story of Iron-Blooded Orphans isn’t over, and there is the possibility that whatever tragedy that will be seen in the second season were directly caused by these actions in the first. The members of Tekkadan who died will never come back, and Mikazuki appears to be permanently handicapped from fighting with the Gundam. McGillis has gained tremendous power in Gjallarhorn and has eyes on purging the organization. Other organizations are trying to incite a revolution in hopes of gaining more power and wealth. There are also people who fully believe in the revolutionary cause, and may feel the deal Kudelia reached is not enough. Iron-Blooded Orphans has been extremely creative in its approach to storytelling, but it has left it up to the ending to define the entire series. The story feels like it will it will become another Calamity War between those who desire to change the world and those who desire to maintain it. Both sides will escalate the violence higher and higher until it can go no further. The real question is what the message at the end of the anime would be. As it stands now, Iron-Blooded Orphans contradicts the principles the Gundam franchise has had for decades. The fact Iron-Blooded Orphans appears to be so popular may also be a sign of a cultural change on what people believe justifies violence. It may be that a generations long peace that the much of the world has achieved have made people apathetic to the forces that created it. The injustices of the world are heightened by the stagnation, and the possibility of a better one is enticing. I just hope people understand what the costs of change are beforehand.

GATE and Eating the Menu

“Intellectualisation creates a gap or lack of rapport between you and your life. You think about things so much that you get into the state where you are eating the menu instead of the dinner, where you value money more than wealth, and are generally confusing the map with the territory.” – Alan Watts

 

GATE 1

Princess Pina ate the menu. In episode five of season one, she assumed the task to defend the city of Italica from a large band of marauders. Her personal guard, the untrained citizens of Italica and the JGSDF 3rd Reconnaissance Unit were the only forces she had immediately available. The rest of her Rose-Order Knights were a day’s march away, so her immediate objective was to hold the city until relief arrived. Her plan was to have the lightly manned 3rd Reconnaissance Unit hold a significant portion of the wall, and to entice the marauders to attack apparent weakness. The JGSDF would bear the brunt of the assault, and Pina’s knights would finish off the weakened enemy. The enemy did not cooperate with her plan, and the battle quickly turned into a disaster. Only the arrival of the JGSDF air assault unit prevented the fall of the city.

Imagination is central to both fiction and military planning. Both require an individual to create a world in their mind, establish rules for that world, clarify each player’s objectives and then draw results from the ensuing conflict. How well a person can create an imaginary world has a direct impact in how well a story is received or how well a plan is at dealing with its problem. It is because of these similarities that fiction proves to be a siren song to military planning, because you’re supposed to eat the menu in fiction but not in military planning.

 

In fiction such as GATE, the author creates a new world and its people. The world in GATE and its characters spring from the mind of Takumi Yanai. It is the author’s ability to dream of worlds and ideas that allow for the creation of the stories we enjoy (or not). A military commander operates in a similar manner by imagining Soldiers maneuvering around a battlespace. An enemy course of action is concocted, and a plan to counter that action is developed. Both the story and plan are a pretty little box in the creator’s mind. A box where the creator moves and arranges the pieces in the ways that they desire.

 

The pitfall with pretty little boxes for military planning can be summed up in one sentence, “There is no substitute for victory.” Wars and battles are won in reality, but sometimes commanders lose sight of reality by being consumed in their own personal fiction. A commander who tries to bend reality to fit their pretty little box is doomed to fail, just as a man who tries eats a menu to sate his hunger. The Battle of Little Bighorn, Operation Barbarossa, the Battle of Midway and many other historical examples show what happens when commanders set optimistic goals by rejecting the parts of reality they don’t like.

 

To be fair to Princess Pina, the defense of Italica appeared to be an unwinnable situation. The possibility of the city holding out for a day without relief was slim, but Pina’s poor planning and commanding insured that that wouldn’t happen. Her plan relied on too many assumptions, and was too inflexible to deal with a thinking enemy. Pina is prone to despondency or hysteria when faced with harsh reality.  She did nothing to try to stabilize the moral of her Soldiers and just watched her men die. Her hysteric reactions whenever she learns of the true power the JSDF possess is used for comedic effect, but it also shows a serious personal flaw that makes her a terrible leader. It is a shame Pina’s ability to train and organize an army does not translate to her success on the battlefield.

 

Zorzal provides a much clearer example of a person eating the menu. He is always far removed from the action. He orders his men to fight and die while he stays at the royal palace. As Head of State, it is not wrong that he avoids battlefields, but he never accepts the power advantage of the JSDF in spite of the clear evidence from the field. In the throne room, Zorzal knows he is the most powerful man in the Empire. He knows no enemy can stand up to his might. He knows he can win. It is only when reality literally busts in with the JGSDF that what he knows is proven to be fiction, and is forced to abandon the capital because of it.

 

From a meta perspective, GATE is problematic. The author Takumi Yanai falls into many of the traps that have resulted in the most disastrous campaigns in history. He over estimates the capabilities and behavior of his own people, the enemy never adapts, nothing in a plan ever goes wrong, his people never make mistakes, the local population will love his side, everything is simple, and I could go on and on. These traits are also a sign that the story is wish fulfilling, and point to its lack of quality. The danger of stories like GATE is that they lead to bad decisions when we believe them. The wish seems possible when you write a story that allows it.

 

It is extremely fortunate that GATE is fiction because there is no way reality would ever go that well. The lack of plausibility in GATE is a mark of the story’s overall poor quality. I’ve already mentioned in depth my views on the ideology behind GATE, but I feel the need to say GATE will not cause Japan to invade other countries. GATE is a fan-fiction that a publisher decided to publish and an anime studio decided to animate. It has the flaws that one would expect, but that doesn’t really matter. A work’s quality does not determine what effects it will have. GATE is compelling because it attempts to answer some serious questions, and it is troubling because of some of the conclusions it reaches. I loved watching GATE because it created a world I loved to think about. The new world being worth the cost of GATE’s problems is up to personal taste.