I had been meaning to write this post months ago, but all of my anime watching and blogging got through off when I had to give up my computer for a few weeks and it was hard to get back into the swing of things. I felt like I had to restart when talking with people after NYAF who started referring to my blogging in the past tense (“I really liked reading your posts about what you were forced to watch”) and realized that damn, that’s a bit too long to procrastinate. That said, the bright side to my procrastination is that I’ve read more and more stuff that’s been relevant to this post and had more and more time for these ideas to percolate around in my head.
So, what are these ideas? Basically, the way that individuals and societies deal with fantasy and subtext in Nadesico, and by extension, pop culture in general. Every once and a while, I like to rewatch Nadesico. Usually this occurs after watching some milestone sci-fi series, like Macross or Gundam. I watched Yamato partially for this reason, but the real reason that I wanted to rewatch it was after reading Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals.
One of the main building blocks that Azuma starts from is the idea of otaku having (re)constructed a new Japan (in the wake of the old Japan that America dismantled after World War II) out of American pop culture, and more specifically sci-fi. Azuma doesn’t discuss this process that much more in depth, but I’ve seen more detailed examples of this given in both Schoolgirl Milky Crisis and Notenki Memoirs. This re-built Japan, however is extremely right-wing. Clements mentions Japanese translations of Heinlein, so the right-wing building blocks concept is a bit easier to see.
Azuma then argues (or perhaps simply, “states”) that Nadesico is first about this process, and then as the series progresses, the realization amongst the characters of the fascist subtext and their attempts to try to forge a new otaku identity free from those values. For the few people (or perhaps, the many non-old fans) that haven’t seen Nadesico, the series is about an anime otaku who is becomes a mecha pilot after being filled with HOT BLOOD and BURNING PASSION as a result of watching a 1970s super robot anime called Gekiganger 3. That name is a pun; “gekiga” are the graphic novels to manga’s comics. Yet the series is often ambivalent as to what exactly the joke is in the title: is the joke that this kiddie show has such a serious name, or that this kiddie show is actually serious business?
The reasoning behind this ambivalence is that the crew of the Nadesico eventually discovers that the alien race that Earth has been fighting against since the beginning of the episode is actually a group of ostensibly Japanese humans that have formed a militaristic fascist society modeled on the explicit and implicit values portrayed in Gekiganger 3 (which, it’s important to note, is a Japanese anime, and therefore these are the values of Japan and Japanese otaku). Thus, the crew of the Nadesico are forced to come to terms with themselves and just what exactly it means to have a life (shades of Paul Verillio and Jean Baudrillard) in which they cannot mediate life except through anime, and just how exactly that lens is affecting their experiences.
Both Azuma and my own interpretations of the show is that that it takes the srs bizness side of the show’s internal debate between srs bizness and MST3K (Repeat to yourself that it’s just a show. You should really just relax…) Going from this perspective then colors a lot of interpretations of different ways to read possibly conflicting aspects of Gekiganger 3 (and because of the meta-ness in the show, Nadesico itself). There’s a joke in the credits of Gekiganger 3, for example where the OP is full of crayon drawings of the Gekiganger with a caption listing the artist (“Taro, age 5”), with the final one being from a 34 year old man. (Another joke: the karaoke is entirely in hiragana, showing that only kids—who would not know enough kanji yet—are assumed to be watching it.)
We laugh; he’s a grown man getting really into a kid’s show. But what exactly does that mean? Well, for starters we’re laughing at how this show is for kids but not for adults. But why? I’d say that it’s because an adult is supposed to see how ridiculous the show is. But what exactly is ridiculous? That’s the crux of the matter. Liking robots is probably part of the ridiculousness, but I’d argue that another big part of what is ridiculous are the characters behaviors and actions. Yet at the same time, these are values like courage, loyalty, friendship, honor, dedication, and so on that are lionized by both Japanese and Western society. So maybe we’re just supposed to “know” not to take things to far. We’re supposed to reflect on our beliefs and actions, and how they affect us, and how they affect the world around us, and what they mean. But sadly, how many people really do this? All you need to do is look at a lot of political coverage to see an overwhelmingly huge number of examples that this is rarely done.
That’s why I think articles like io9’s Your fantasies are not acceptable (and I should also note that, oddly enough, one of the things that brought this idea back to the forefront of my mind was that Oreimo has been exploring this theme) misses an important point. For very obviously “wrong” fantasies, both the fantasizer and the worrier recognize that the fantasies are wrong. I sincerely doubt that very few people defending Rapelay, for example are doing so because they think that the act being fantasized about in the game (you know, raping a family until they kill themselves in anguish) is not a problem, but rather that because everyone knows that raping a family until they kill themselves in anguish is so bad that obviously nobody is going to or really wants to do that.
Instead, I think a far better comparison is historical revisionism. It just-so-happened that around the time when I read Azuma was the one-two punch of the premiere of Senkou no Night Raid (moar liek Sankou no Night Raid amirite?) with the brouhaha over Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell declaring April “Confederate History Month”. Once this happened, I scrambled to get a copy of Saburo Ienaga’s The Pacific War (which I got from a used bookstore on Amazon for like $1), which is sort of like one half discussion of war atrocities and one half Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky-esque discussion of how easily the Japanese government was able to get the Japanese people to go along with war.
(Ah, Senkou no Night Raid. Fascism turned into fodder for fujoshi to masturbate over.)
Time and time again, those participating in historical revisionism don’t ever recognize how, what, or why what they are doing is wrong. It is the polar opposite of people rolling their eyes when they’re told by about how playing Doom is going to make them want to shoot up their classrooms. This has come up pretty frequently in the many posts since April that Ta-Nahesi Coates has made about history and historical revisionism regarding the Confederacy and the Civil War. People first of all don’t even understand that their many fantasies about the Confederacy and the Civil War are even fantasies (everything from that idea the war wasn’t about slavery to notions regarding the military prowess of the Union and Confederacy) despite these being easily debunked through copious amounts of primary sources. Then, they rarely realize why these fantasies are so pernicious. Finally, they rarely realize why other people would so bothered by these fantasies.
Which, getting back to Nadesico, is a pretty big deal with Japan. There are constant tensions between Japan and its neighbors regarding Japan’s atrocities both before and during The Pacific War because of the constant denialism and historical revisionism regarding the time period.
(Sidenote: The difference between “The Pacific War” and “World War II” is that the former starts with the Mukden Bridge Incident in 1931 at the earliest and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1937 at the latest, while the former begins with Pearl Harbor in 1941.)
The most important fantasies that Ienaga takes aim at are the idea that surely not everyone could have been like this, and that there had to have been people that disagreed and did not participate. It’s both a pretty common fantasy since it seems reasonable, and it’s an extremely important fantasy because it shows how threatening the subtext in some ostensibly safe fantasies (like super robots!) can be. There was a time, not too long ago, when people did take that subtext and those fantasies seriously, and look at the catastrophic results. With that in mind, one shouldn’t be so glib as to just easily be able to dismiss problematic fantasies and subtexts.
Hmm, that word. Problematic. Where do I keep seeing that? Ah yes! In analyses of subtexts. The next big source for getting me to think more about fantasies and subtexts was when Sady Doyle started having the same kinds of thoughts that the characters in Nadesico were having, in her case with feminism. Sure, it’s easy enough to take something (really, anything) and apply one’s theoretical lens(es) of choice to it and come up with the subtext that we want to see. It can be either a good or bad subtext, depending on what we want to prove. But usually, what we want to prove is something that works easily for us. It’s a pretty frequent mindset, both on the left (I’m resisting hegemonic capitalist forces by reading Harry Potter slash about Snape raping Draco!—Matt Hills actually took Henry Jenkins to task on this tendency when he interviewed him in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers) or on the right (Precious is a conservative movie because it shows those welfare queens to be as lazy and stupid and fat and slovenly and undeserving of the fruits of my Randian labor as they really are!) I will note that the left is usually more intellectually honest about this.
(I’ve seen everything from Star Trek to Avatar argued to either conservative or not conservative entirely depending on what straw man the author is setting up. But I digress. And I think that the fact that theory rarely usefully engages anything is a big part of the popular backlash against it. But I digress again.)
But what we rarely see are the cases like Sady’s (or the Nadesico’s) where one realizes that the subtext in things regarding themselves may not live up to their theoretical ideals, and have to figure out what that means for themselves. Instead, it’s far easier to deny the dissonance, or tweak the theory, or joke it away, than it is to genuinely wrestle with the implication that it might have for oneself or one’s society.
Then, the final thread that finally got me to want to write this post: the scandal regarding the teabagger candidate in Ohio who regularly participated in World War II SS re-enactments. Not just World War II. The SS. There’s two parts to this. The second part was how I lol’ed for 20 minutes at how this guy has been so warped by teabagger anti-socialist ideology that the Nazis have become the good guys to him because they fought against communism in World War II. But the first, more important part, are the fantasies revolving around Nazi Germany.
I pretty frequently say on this blog “While I am pussified pinko faggot liberal academic, I can’t get enough of (war-related thing)”, and one of those things is World War II alternate history. And, since I’ve got this whole post on my mind, I started thinking about what this all means for me and what I think.
(Wuh oh, this is getting as close as I’ll ever get to one Diary of an Anime Lived thingies. Dear Internet, I first watched Nadesico when I was going through the very emotional time in my life when I too was getting to burning…)
I thought about how when I read The Pacific War, I kept thinking about how awful the Japanese army was. Their strategies were terrible, their tactics were terrible, the only things that they were good at doing were raping Koreans and performing medical experiments on Chinese, and how hard they got their asses kicked by the Russians both in 1938 and 1945 when they realized that pulling out a sword and screaming “LONG LIVE THE EMPEROR FOR ONE THOUSAND YEARS!” is a lot less effective against a T-34 than it is against a Filipino baby.
But then I also wondered if there was a big racist dimension to this. Nazi Germany, the other bad guys (Italy doesn’t even exist), are the baddest bad guys of all time, with all the best units and stats and uniforms. I thought about how I loved playing Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe when I was little because they had stealth bombers and jet fighters and cruise missiles, while the Allies had boring old prop planes. I thought about whenever I would play Axis and Allies, I either wanted to be Germany or Russia since they had the best, most stuff. I thought about how I keep wanting to buy Hearts of Iron 2 to see if I can win the war with Germany, beat both Japan and Germany as Russia with no help from America and England…and make Japan never attack America. The fantasies with Germany and Russia are to see if I can take on the world, while the fantasy for Japan is for them to never get involved in a war that I can’t even fantasize them as being possibly able to win. And then I realized that I’m basically repeating the common American mindset regarding the Axis powers in WWII, and perhaps also reading in the subtexts that I want to read in order to confirm what I believe, rather than engaging my beliefs (like in Nadesico!)
(Sidenote: in case anyone hasn’t read it, a great example about this tendency to fantasize about history (and damn the subtexts) is that joke about how World War II was full of plot holes.)
Finally, I think that one of the reasons that Azuma’s reading of Nadesico was such a revelation to me was simply because so few anime ever even remotely address this issue. One of the only other times that I can recall seeing an anime(ish) work address this was Sakura Wars 2, and the fact that it addressed the Gekiganger 3-ish subtext (which was pretty obvious in the first Sakura Taisen) is one of the reasons that I liked that one so much. Any other ones that anyone else can think of? And no, anime like Grave of the Fireflies absolutely do not count, as these still traffic in the same historical revisionism about how the Japanese people were innocent and blameless and whatnot that Ienaga demolishes.
(tl;dr there is kissing in the last episode, and if I didn’t own this on DVD and watched it numerous times before, I would have been forced to watch this, and said kissing would be the reason why this series was originally burned to CD.)