Friday, November 28, 2003

Steven Den Beste has been watching anime again, which is always news to be approached with trepidation, caution, and good humor. People give him "advice", and the results can be somewhat farcial. I don't know what to make of a guy who occasionally writes for the Wall Street Journal seriously reviewing Steel Angel Kurumi, let alone what to say when he uses it as a platform for yelling about amnesiac Japanese nostalgia.

To start out with, somebody dropped him in the deep end of "robot maid" fetish anime, and to his credit, he's noticed that it's fairly stupid wish-fulfillment. Still, a diet of Hand Maid May, Steel Angel Kurumi, and Mahoromatic is the anime equivalent of dining on Vending Machine Row - not good for you under any circumstances.

Anyways, the outrage:

It would be a period of a couple of years around the time of the Berlin Olympics, and it could also be seen in about the way these series' see 1925 Japan. No one does that for 1936 Germany, because they understand how monstrous it really was.

This belief, that mid-20s Japan was the same chaotic, oppressive hell that the late 20s and early 30s were, is a misunderstanding of the period. It isn't true. The early and mid 20s represented a "bubble economy" between the end of World War I and the social/political collapse into full-bore militarism of the late 20s. This brief period - the second half of the Taisho era in which both Steel Angel Kurumi and Sakura Wars are set - was the closest Japan ever got to European-style bourgeois prosperity. The Japanese of the period were still uniform-addled, regimented, prone to let paramilitary organizations take the place of private society, and poor by European standards - but it still was a sort of calm before the Showa storm.

I don't know if Germans ever idealize the Weimar Republic in this fashion - I don't really "do" German literature or pop-culture - but that's the parallel that should be used. Japan in 1925 is a Weimar Republic, not an early Third Reich.

To be strictly honest, when I've seen Japanese pop culture do idealized nostalgia, they're much more likely to do Meiji, rather than Taisho. Urusei Yatsura has a lot of that, especially in the OAVs.

Don't take all of this as defense of either Steel Angel Kurumi or Sakura Wars. I couldn't stand Sakura Wars. I'm somewhat ashamed to say that I bought the whole first series of Steel Angel Kurumi, but in my defense it was more of a "well, that provided just enough of a margin of entertainment to justify buying one more disc at online discounted prices". I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone - it's horribly saccharine cheesecake piffle. But there are much more noxious examples of Japanese nostalgia for prewar fascism out there.

Almost every goddamn thing Leiji Matsumoto has ever been involved in, for instance. Space Battleship Yamato, in which our Japanese heroes wage heroic self-sacrificing war against space gaijin. I direct the audience towards the excellent, but queasy Arreviderchi, Yamato, in which our protagonists re-enact the February 26th Incident as part of a doomed campaign that eventually concludes with a massive, suicidal kamikaze attack. Captain Harlock, in his many incarnations, rebels against thinly disguised American occupiers, or relives his Nazi-fighter-pilot ancestor's last flight, or just generally goes on in the sort of self-dramatizing Volk-hero defiance of last-man accommodation that is so central to the spirit of fascist anti-rationalism. More than one of the later Harlock projects are remakes of Wagner Ring-cycle mythology, for the love of Nietzsche! You'll get yet more of the same from the three-part OAV adaptation of The Cockpit which, among other things, features another Nazi pilot who's too noble to allow the dropping of a German nuclear bomb, preferring to go out in a blaze of glory after proving that German fascists are more moral than American butchers.

Don't get me wrong. I *like* Matsumoto's stuff, or at least some of it. The first Captain Harlock TV series is twenty-five years old, and it's still a good show. Arreviderchi, Yamato is an excellent movie. The Cockpit OAVs are brilliant. But it's hard to get away from the obvious, which is that Matsumoto is, at heart, a fascist, and he retails a type of anti-rationalist nostalgia. It isn't as if he's the only creative in anime with a dodgy political point of view. Otomo(Akira) and Mamoru Oshii(Patlabor) are both one-time street-fighting New Leftists. Miyazaki was a doctrinaire card-carrying Communist who was one of the leaders of an internal revolt at Toei in the mid-60s that resulted in a two-year occupation of that animation studio. (The eventual result was the grand, but deeply flawed Horus: Prince of the Sun.)

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