Captain Marvel is the first Marvel movie I walked out of.
The 40 minutes or so I managed to sit through were inexcusably poor — bad acting, worse CGI, lame jokes, an overly contrived structure built around an excess of flashbacks that still couldn’t hide an extremely obvious twist, and action scenes that looked like they should have been in a mid-budget Star Trek: The Next Generation movie (think Insurrection), all of it wrapped in the faux-feminist smirk of a mediocre episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer; and that’s before all of that gives way for the dead air of lame, government-approved Top Gun pastiche (but with ladies!) and an avalanche of hacky “LOL BLOCKBUSTER” jokes sure to thrill anyone who still posts “ONLY 90’s KIDS REMEMBER…” listicles on their Facebook. When a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson got his first closeup, several members of the audience broke out into wild applause. That’s when I got out and didn’t look back.
As bad as it is, though, it’s hard to say that Captain Marvel is the worst of the Marvel movies. For all its faults, it wasn’t as bad as the shambling, half-baked homunculus of a movie that was Avengers: Age of Ultron. It definitely wasn’t as bad as Avengers: InfinityWar, that bloated monstrosity built entirely from nonsense plotting and melodramatic bathos. I’m not even sure it’s as bad as the numerous B-list brand building exercises the studio keeps pumping out like Doctor Strange, but making that call would require I remember anything about Doctor Strange. After three days of thinking about it, I’m still not sure if I ever got around to watching Ant-Man or not.
So why was Captain Marvel, out of all the less-than-good Marvel movies, the one I couldn’t even bother to finish. If I’m being honest, it’s because I watched most of the other Marvel movies at home. But that’s nowhere near juicy enough, so let’s pretend I didn’t say it.
The thing about the Marvel movies is the shine comes off them the instant you stop grading them on their own custom-built curve. Breaking down the quality and importance of the individual movies in the franchise is almost beside the point; the most successful part of Disney’s adventure in superhero market saturation is how well they’ve trained the audience to sequester the Marvel films into their own little cultural bubble, where the only thing they can be compared to is themselves. Captain America: The Winter Soldier wasn’t compared to a 70’s conspiracy thriller because it was a good recreation of the genre; it was because it was more like a 70’s conspiracy thriller than the other Marvel movies, and thus attaching a few shallow signifiers extracted from the film history database were enough to disguise an incredibly straightforward action movie plot that has more in common with Eraser than it does The Parallax View. The proclamations of Captain Marvel‘s cultural importance are just as vaporous: being the first Marvel movie to star a female lead is an extremely insignificant accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, one that in any context other than its “importance” to the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be considered a piece of trivia barely as interesting as “Who was the first Welshman to play James Bond?”
Why did I walk out of Captain Marvel? Because the movie it reminded me of the most wasn’t another Marvel movie; it was 2011’s Green Lantern. In case you’ve forgotten, people didn’t like Green Lantern much. And there’s a good reason for that: it was a bad movie. It was a flabby, overwrought mix of unlikable characters having boring adventures set against a backdrop of uninspiring sci-fi worldbuilding and poor CGI. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but it didn’t have to be for most people to walk out unimpressed. The question isn’t why didn’t people like Green Lantern in 2011; it’s why do people think movies of the same quality and character are now worthy of their time and admiration just because of the brand it was released under?
Maybe Warner Bro.’s biggest mistake with Green Lantern was when the studio chose to release it. Even a year later, the public reception of superhero movies had changed dramatically. The first round of Marvel movies were treated like fun curiosities, a noble experiment by an upstart studio offering something different than the usual fare. But 2012 was the year of The Avengers, and the year that the newly Disney-branded Marvel movies became important. These weren’t fun little movies anymore; they were momentous cultural events that blessed the petty existence of the audience with their very presence. If Warner Bros. had only waited a year or two, they could have had Ryan Reynolds threaten reviewers for not liking the movie enough to the rapturous applause fans and the simpering obedience of the entertainment press (the Pavlovian conditioning of the audience and press was obviously well underway at the time: “any critic who can’t step outside himself or herself enough to judge these corporate products on their individual merits is, at the very least, in for a very cruel, cruel next couple of summers” concludes the writer of an editorial in Variety scolding A.O. Scott for thinking Marvel movies should be compared to anything other than more Marvel movies). And did you notice that Carole Ferris is the head of a corporation AND a woman?! FEMINISM FOR THE WIN! JOIN THE AIR FORCE!
Captain Marvel isn’t bad because it’s a bad Marvel movie. It’s bad because it’s a bad regular movie, in ways that many movies have been bad before. Ignore the marketing blitz. Ignore the online culture war posturing (but I repeat myself). It’s just a movie. Love it or hate it, it will never be anything more or less than just another movie.
Crunchyroll has changed. We just don’t know how yet.
Some of the details of North America’s premier anime streaming platform’s metamorphosis are known. For one, we know that “Crunchyroll” doesn’t exist anymore. Now there is Crunchyroll, a branch of Ellation, a division of Otter Media, a WarnerMedia company. That’s quite a change from the old Crunchyroll, the pirate site that went legit, in appearance if nothing else. For those (rightfully) skeptical of anime being swallowed whole by the forces of global content marketing, it’s hard not to imagine that behind the familiar interface sits a ruthless killer ritually donning the skin of its latest victim.
If you want a peek at how much Crunchyroll has changed, look no further than the recent White Paper produced by its new parent company Ellation, “Anime in the Mainstream: How the Japanese Animation Industry is Developing Global Influence in Business and Pop Culture.” For anyone who loves the mutant euphemisms of corporatespeak, the paper is a goldmine: the growing global market for anime is described as “a vibrant Japanese content ecosystem” that has planted “seeds” in the brains of viewers for decades, seeds that have been “cultivated” and are now poised to “spawn new business opportunities” as multiple generations who were exposed to anime at a young age are now ready to devote even more of their “mindshares” to its consumption. For anyone who enjoys anime as an art form, a hobby, or anything other than a vehicle through which the human psyche can be inseminated with market demand, reading “Anime in the Mainstream” conjures the peculiar experience of being reduced to a sex organ of global capital.
But how much has really changed? Why would anyone believe that Crunchyroll, even the mythical scrappy upstart Crunchyroll of the past, ever looked at its customer base as something more than a resource to be mined for money and attention? The difference between “serving the fans” and “cultivating mindshares” is one of language, not strategy. It’s easy to imagine the disastrous changes that could be inflicted on a relatively small platform that’s now held firmly in the claws of uncaring corporate bureaucrats eager to cannibalize their own infrastructure for a quick buck. But none of those things have happened yet. So little has changed about the site’s service since it became an appendage of a global media empire, but even the feeling that being exploited isn’t as personalized an experience as it used to be can be enough to shatter the fragile ego of fandom.
The biggest change since Crunchyroll was engulfed by the bigger business fish is a psychological one on the part of its customers. It’s harder to believe you’re being catered to by a dedicated staff of professional servants when the people making decisions openly refer to their users as exploitable and replaceable resources to be strip mined and converted into automaton apostles of profit, and not as the prized customers to whom all their work is dedicated. But this is all just aesthetics. One doesn’t have to have sat in on staff meetings to know Old Crunchyroll was not having its employees submit reports on how their mission to validate the fans’ image of the medium was progressing or appointing Vice Presidents of Empowering Fandom in between discussing metrics and quarterly earnings.
But maybe that’s not the biggest change. The biggest change is that the anime market is no longer its own self-contained world now that it has attracted the attention of the larger entertainment world. Most fans who dreamed of reading articles titled “Anime in the Mainstream” imagined it would happen when one of their favorite shows took the world by storm, not because corporate bean counters determined the attention of the fractured niche audiences that make up “the anime community” added up to create a large enough viewer base to be worthy of their attention. Spend enough time listening to the thoughts of the different factions of fandom, and it soon becomes apparent most imagine the current environment of atomized niche fanbases occupying the same space and arguing over what real anime is (or what it should be) to be a temporary state of affairs that will only last until the day of prophecy arrives and their vision for the medium ascends to its rightful place as the true representation of the art form in the eyes of the world. Now that all streaming anime, from leering fanservice shows for nascent pedophiles to sagas of female empowerment, has been lumped together on the same small shelf in the gigantic content libraries of megacorporations, it takes a lot more effort to believe you’ll find yourself on the heroic end of a dialectical marketplace cycle any time soon. Nothing has really changed, but it feels like it has.
Will the anime industry’s assimilation into the entertainment media mainstream lead to a homogenization of its output? It might, eventually, but for the moment the will of Crunchyroll’s new owners is pointing things in the opposite direction. One of the attractive features of the anime market “Anime in the Mainstream” cites is its diversity of content, particularly the content that appeals to women and other historically underserved demographics:
Even though anime is well-positioned in terms of age demographics, the genre still has other market segments that can be mined for additional growth. Gaining female and minority viewers, for instance, represents both a key challenge and opportunity moving forward.
Plenty of shows that cater specifically to the female demographic are already in
production. Examples include Shojo content that appeals to young girls and Josei
content that appeals to older women. Likewise, many shows that portray themes such as self-determination and the importance of family have the potential to resonate with minority viewers the same way that they appeal to current audiences.
In fact, one of anime’s key differentiators as a media genre is the diversity of its content. Whether a viewer wants to watch an adventure taking place on another world, a chilling mystery, a touching romance, or a sci-fi epic, anime has something that they can enjoy. The question that the industry faces in North America is how to connect prospective audiences with the content most relevant to them.
— “Anime in the Mainstream,” page 5
Which brings us back to The Rising of the Shield Hero. To many fans, the Crunchyroll marketing apparatus’ wholehearted devotion to pitching the show is seen as an indicator of the company’s hostile stance toward its female, POC, and non-Alt Right misogynist viewership. That’s a questionable stance at best, even without reading the higher ups’ own words about how excited they are to take the marginalized’s money. But it does indicate that the company is willing to throw its full weight behind material that will alienate a large number of people. With the specter of change looming in the background, unseen but always felt, it’s tempting to see this as part of a concerted strategy to shed an unwanted audience, or to signal allegiance to one faction or another. The truth is far more simple than that, and much more frightening for the fans who want their opinions to shape the company’s output. The truth is that their opinion on Shield Hero does not matter. Crunchyroll did not decide to investigate how the audience that would be ideologically opposed to Shield Hero‘s content will feel about it being adapted. Airing and marketing the show is not, and never will be, part of a corporate strategy to make people feel bad. All that matters, then and now, is how many eyeballs will focus on the screen when the show is on, and how much money can be made from selling it. Some things don’t change.
With the release of TheRising of the Shield Hero, the latest anime adaptation of a naked power fantasy Light Novel for maladjusted young men, the schisms that exist within the “anime community” have been laid bare once more. “Anime community” deserves to be in quotes here, of course, because these regular incidents of internecine online warfare show over and over again there is no homogeneous “community” of anime fans to speak of, merely a Balkanized market made up of warring factions of consumers, each one with its own specific set of unbendable demands and a self-righteous conviction that it speaks with the true authoritative voice of “the fans,” that invisible majority which silently lends its support to every contradictory opinion, according to the people yelling those opinions the loudest.
The current partisan free-for-all over Shield Hero represents an exciting new development in anime fans being offended by other anime fans’ existence, because this time a #brand is involved. Streaming platform Crunchyroll, which for many years has been the primary delivery system for legally licensed anime in North America, is not only involved with the production of Shield Hero, but actively campaigned to get it adapted into an anime and has devoted the bulk of its current marketing resources to promoting the show (for some reason, this glut of promotional material has avoided mentioning the show’s premise that slavery is morally justifiable if you’re an angry teenage sociopath with a victim complex). And because the internet is a place where only the calmest and most rigorous of thinkers gather to ponder the complex and nuanced issues of the day, many of those weary of Shield Hero came to the only natural conclusion as to what this turn of events could possibly mean: Crunchyroll has personally betrayed them.
The current truism about nerd culture is that it tricks people into believing the businesses and artists that produce the content they consume are their friends. The actual truth is that nerd culture tricks people into believing businesses and artists that produce the content they consume are their employees, and that any time or resources said businesses and artists devote to things other than validating the existence of The True Fan (even when the proper noun is spoken as a plural, it is still meant as a singular) is a sign of betrayal by uppity servants. Like all good 21st century bosses, fandom knows that the only thing keeping them from success and everlasting contentment is a lack of loyalty on the part of the shiftless and disloyal proles who aren’t working hard enough to make their dreams come true. If not for the slavery and rampant misogyny, many of the fans currently raging against Shield Hero would probably find a lot to like about its self-absorbed protagonist and his unyielding belief the only reason reality hasn’t reorganized itself to his specifications is because everyone he doesn’t have the power and authority to control is part of an active conspiracy to oppress him.
Despite the persistence of protests and complaints about Shield Hero, the opposition to the show has shown over and over again that it is completely toothless because it expects compliance with their demands to be the natural state of things, and has no idea how to effectively exert itself when things don’t automatically turn out the way it wants. For all the liberal-leaning internet’s obsession with casting itself as a collection of activists, it frequently displays confusion, if not outright contempt, at the idea of activism, because activism requires a mindset where one recognizes that you are not currently in charge and must acquire and use political power to make the changes you want happen. In the world of internet fandom, accepting such a position would mean giving up the pretense on which all fandom grievances are constructed: that the existence of anything not made specifically for you is a distortion of the natural order, an aberration that threatens to de-center the aggrieved party from their rightful position as the center of the universe, the only customer that matters. An activist mindset would lead people to look at a corporate entity like Crunchyroll throwing its weight behind a title that so shamelessly appeals to the antisocial and solipsistic urges of the most rancorous parts of its audience and consider what it can do to makes its objections known in a way where they have weight and influence in the future. But that takes work and requires one to give up the belief that anime studios and streaming platforms exist just for you, which is why stewing in self-pitying rage and shouting “Et tu, Crunchyroll?” for months on end is so much easier.
Japanese history began with the invasion of Manchuria and ended with the atomic bombings of 1945.
That’s what a lot of people would have you believe, anyway. Whenever a Japanese artist dares to broach the subject of war, someone is always eager to leap onto the nearest stage and expose them as stealth recruiters for the slumbering Japanese war machine. According to the vast majority of these analysts, the guilt of every artist is clear from the outset. There is no need to entertain the idea that a Japanese artist is capable of making observations on war, imperialism, or any other related subject that isn’t about how Japan should have won World War II, because it’s impossible they could have any other thoughts on the matter. They live on islands, after all, so information about the mysterious outside world of the “gai-jin” and their strange, modern ways is hard for them to come by. And being as short as they are, it’s harder for them to hear the words of the helpful Americans who only want to teach them how to be peaceful and civilized. It’s not their fault, they can’t help it.
Imagine, for one moment, we applied to our own cultural works the extremely restrictive lens we currently reserve for sussing out all the ways the latest mecha anime is secretly about defending the Bataan Death March. How could we live with ourselves, knowing every American book, movie, and TV show is a propagandist attempt to rehabilitate the image of the Confederacy? The last time I watched Saving Private Ryan, I was horrified that a director with as large a platform as Stephen Spielberg would make a movie about how Americans don’t need to apologize for slavery. Did you smile when Jeff Goldbloom and Will Smith launched a nuke right at the head alien’s face in Independence Day? Well then, how does it feel to cheer for an obvious celebration of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, you monster?
Of course, we all know the work of an activist is never done, and the histories of all the Earth’s nations are full of atrocities and bloodshed that loom so large in their collective consciousnesses everything they make is specifically about that one thing and nothing else. Dr. Who‘s nefarious, robotic enemies the Daleks? Filthy British propaganda designed to smear and dehumanize South African Boers. And isn’t it curious that Belgian comic artist Peyo drew the Smurf’s archenemy Gargamel in a way where his physical ugliness reflects a parallel ugliness inside him, just like his Medieval ancestors would have portrayed the rebellious Cathars if they’d made a comic about tiny blue cartoon characters? Don’t get mad at me, I’m just pointing it out.
Of course, this kind of rigorous and level-headed analysis isn’t really about the Japanese. It’s about the American audience, and its widely held belief that no one could possibly know more than they do, despite the fact they don’t actually know that much. The reason so many people can’t imagine a movie or comic out of Japan could make observations or express opinions about war that aren’t directly related to World War II is because they can’t imagine it, and all of their efforts to discern meaning and intent end once going further would require them to consider they’re not always smarter than the things they consume.
About 20 minutes in to Netflix’s new docuseries, Conversations With a Killer: The Bundy Tapes, I came to a sinking realization: it wasn’t about me.
I try to approach everything with an open mind, but as I replayed the footage I had just watched in my head, a sinking feeling came over me. Here I was, watching a show about a serial killer whose brutality and total lack of remorse have horrified and fascinated the public since his capture, listening to people who knew him and who have devoted their lives to studying him ponder what the existence of a man like Bundy even means. And there was only one conclusion I could come to: at no time during the production of The Bundy Tapes did anyone stop to consider whether or not they were making me feel empowered.
The Bundy Tapes uses a familiar true crime format, where narration and archival recordings are blended together with talking head interviews with experts and witnesses. This format is popular for a reason: it creates an immersive atmosphere that helps the audience engage with what can otherwise be dry historical details while also providing multiple viewpoints from which to view the subject and its meaning. With such a tried and true framework to build itself around, you would think The Bundy Tapes could manage to at least acknowledge how validated I should feel about who I am. If the point is to provide the viewer with knowledge and context on how a society, our society, can create and foster a man like Bundy, it is extremely irresponsible for it to do so without letting potential audience members know that I am already correct in all my opinions on the matter first.
The history of media, and Hollywood in particular, is full of things I am not interested in and that were not made with my approval. Sadly, The Bundy Tapes is just one more example of how privilege can blind filmmakers to the fact they are not talking about me. And now, since I have spent years crafting my personality around being an extremely loud and eternally online busybody, they are forcing me to participate in their hubris by making a thing that other people were enjoying where I could see them.
When discussing controversial figures like Bundy, media has a responsibility to deal with the subject in an ethical matter that does not trivialize his crimes or expect me to learn anything if I don’t feel like it. Yet here we are, in 2019, talking about The Bundy Tapes when I think we should be talking about Aquaman. This erasure of fandom culture by the producers of The Bundy Tapes, which does not mention how Aquaman is an important step forward for diversity in the DCEU once during its four hour run time, is just one more example of the disappointing and irresponsible ways the people behind Conversations With a Killer: The Bundy Tapes, and Hollywood, fails its viewer (me) by not considering how someone who finds their work beneath them and refuses to engage with it honestly will feel while watching it.
Are you worried about the global resurgence of right-wing extremism and the ways fascist movements use media to spread their ideology and recruit new members? Me too!
One of the things that makes fascism so hard to combat is that it’s notoriously difficult to define with precision. Fascism relies on, above all else, the projection of strength and forward momentum. Many of its granular beliefs and strategies are adopted on the fly in order to form cynical political alliances and adapt to current circumstances, and they can change again just as quickly. Expansionism, anti-Marxism, and a belief in racial hierarchies are usually features, just as they are features of many other types of governments. Fascists love flags, military parades, and displays of national strength, but so do conservatives and many liberals.
As tempting as it is to take an, “I know it when I see it” stance in regards to fascism, the belief that you can just rely on your gut to identify and root out fascism is part of what leads to the factionalism and suspicion that often hinder anti-fascist coalitions. Fascism is an inherently slippery ideology that values power over principles and visions of grand futures and mythical pasts over any fixed belief system. It is far too easy to project the image of fascism onto the people and things we find suspicious not to have some common agreement on what fascism looks like in materialist terms.
One of the most common manifestations of the uncertainty over the details of fascism is disagreement about how fascist beliefs are communicated through media. Everyone with any anti-fascist inclinations would agree that the alt-right and other movements have been incredibly successful using modern media like YouTube and 4chan to recruit members and normalize their beliefs; ask them all whether a specific piece of media has been compromised and how, and the various parties are just as likely to accuse each other of harboring fascist sympathies as they are to come to a consensus.
Every few years or so, an article about anime comes out that provides a great example of how the search for fascism in media often leads to jumping at shadows. In 2013, ScreenAnarchy ominously announced that Attack on Titan would be the cause of World War III. That same year, many declared the subject matter of Studio Ghibli’s The Wind Rises was proof that the famously environmentalist, anti-war Hayao Miyazaki had revealed his true nature as an ultraright Japanese nationalist. And in October 2018, SyfyWire published “The Troubling Relationship Between Anime and Fascism” by Michelle Villanueva, an article that attempts to explore the true meaning of fascist symbolism in anime and ends up coming to conclusions it’s hard to believe the author intended.
To my knowledge, this is the first article written by Ms. Villanueva I’ve ever read. If you would like to read more of her work, you can find a link to her SyFyWire profile here: https://www.syfy.com/author/michelle-villanueva
“The Troubling Relationship Between Anime and Fascism” can be found here: https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/the-troubling-relationship-between-anime-and-fascism
There’s a Fascist in My Anime!
One of the biggest problems with “The Troubling Relationship Between Anime and Fascism” is that while many of its points are based on the assumption there are both acceptable and unacceptable depictions of racism, militarism, or other reminders of historical oppressive regimes, it never makes clear where it draws the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable. After asking, “What is up with anime and fascism anyway,” Villanueva lists a number of examples of fascism in anime that include manners of depiction ranging from the portrayal of characters living under fictional fascist regimes in Fullmetal Alchemist and Attack on Titan; to the appearance of a historical Panzer IV tank in Girls Und Panzer; to antagonists in the cooking show Food Wars having personality traits often associated with fascists. All of these anime are lumped together as a single example of… something. Whatever connection is meant to be drawn from considering these examples together is never made particularly clear. The obvious conclusion to be drawn, that any reminder of historical fascism is in itself unacceptable, is only one of several contradictory stances “Anime and Fascism” takes.
Those arguments are just as scattershot and nonspecific as the evidence provided for them. At one point in the article, the proper place for the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable seems to have as much to do with who may be watching anime as with its content: “Fascism in anime becomes a problem when fans glorify and emulate these clearly evil characters,” Villanueva writes. Earlier in the same paragraph, however, the standard is set at whether or not a show idealizes fascism: “While acknowledging that lots of anime can appeal to fascists, what can be done to make sure that these shows aren’t idealizing it?” it asks, before noting that two of the examples it had previously cited, Fullmetal Alchemist and Attack on Titan, both feature storylines where the lead characters rebel against the fascist authorities (whether some of the same shows being used as a positive example also being used as examples of the fascist corruption germinating within the medium of anime strengthens or undermines the article’s previous points is, again, hard to say).
Discouraging art that endorses fascism is a noble goal, and “critique vs. endorsement” is an easily defensible standard for judging whether or not a fictional depiction of fascism is morally acceptable. It’s unfortunate, then, that “Anime and Fascism” never gets around to defining where the dividing line between portrayal and endorsement is, when acceptable opinions become “glorifying and emulating,” or how the examples given fit in to any of these categories It also isn’t long before the article abandons this framework for examining the matter entirely, when it comes time to discuss one anime in particular.
A-C-C-A in the U-S-A
The inspiration for “Anime and Fascism,” says Villanueva, came when she watched an episode of the anime ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. Expecting an anime about attractive cartoon characters eating beautifully illustrated food, she was surprised when the characters were portrayed wearing, as she puts it, “black outfit[s]: stylish and sharp with a hint of red near the shoulders — and echoing an SS uniform.”
Unable to identify any diagetic or thematic reasons why ACCA‘s main cast wear uniforms that remind her of the historical SS (more on that later), Villanueva identifies only one possibility for why ACCA would choose to “evoke [fascism] when the imagery might (as it did with me) conjure up negative connotations.”
It only seemed as if the manga creator [Natsume Ono] just liked the aesthetic, and perhaps, like in [memes], there’s a fun sense of irony in the dissonance between sympathetic characters and SS-esque uniforms.
But irony, in this current political climate, is dead, and such fascist ideas should still be called out because there’s an extremely fine line between a troll and a true believer. Ironic racism is still racism; ironic fascism is still fascism.
Here, “Anime and Fascism” judges ACCA deserving of being called out for its “fascist ideas,” despite also stating the only connection the show has to fascism is the visual similarity between historical fascist uniforms and those worn by the show’s characters. Furthermore, the article concludes that, regardless of the mangaka‘s motivation, she could not have appreciated the full implications of her decision to evoke fascism in her work. According to the article, Ono’s decision to draw uniforms similar to the SS could only have been made either purely out of aesthetic considerations blind to any deeper meaning, or as a tasteless joke that nevertheless serves as a tool of real world fascism. That Ono might be aware of the true meaning of the symbolism at hand, or that she could fully understand the scope of the moral trespasses she’s accused of, is never considered.
Saving Japan From Itself
Ono is not the only person “The Troubling Relationship Between Anime and Fascism” judges to be constitutionally incapable of grasping the true meaning of fascism. The article may be unclear about the visual properties of anime’s fascist corruption, but it is extremely clear on what it thinks the source of the corruption is, and it’s a doozy.
“There has to be something within the Japanese cultural landscape which lends itself to these narratives constantly popping up in its media,” the article declares. What exactly “these narratives” entails is still a mystery, but the article has no problem identifying the “something within the Japanese cultural landscape” and diagnosing it as the source of anime’s inherent fascism problem:
To answer this, it’s important to focus on how Japan portrays itself in its own media narratives.
On the surface, Japan seems to adore its own history. Samurai dramas are perennially popular, but there’s one era which has never really received much attention: WWII…Japan still has a tremendously difficult time accepting its role in conflicts from the 1930s and 1940s. The systemic ignoring of Japan’s occupation of China and the denial of the existence of comfort women are clear examples of the country’s inability to take responsibility for its troubled past. The atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese military of that era are barely acknowledged, which leads to a fascination with that era. And since Japan struggles with its own history as an imperialist state, the interest falls instead on Nazi Germany and its iconography
The article continues by describing Japan as, “a very xenophobic nation” with “an eagerness towards nostalgia, towards past glories, and towards reminiscing about Japan as an all-powerful empire,” with a culture irredeemably compromised by sexism and a fear of immigrants:
[Immigration] cause[s] resentment among Japanese citizens. This conservative, reactionary environment is ripe for creating and supporting media which fears foreigners, supports an all-reaching, totalitarian government, and celebrates the military.
“The Troubling Relationship Between Anime and Fascism” fails to outline a coherent moral argument or a workable framework for critical analysis, but that doesn’t stop it from drawing its own conclusions from the evidence it provides. The article summarily dismisses the ways any individual anime does or does not transgress against acceptable standards of depicting fascism as irrelevant, along with the thoughts and beliefs of the individuals who make anime and the Japanese audience that watch it. It finds no need to differentiate between the ways anime can and does depict fascist imagery, because all anime is tainted by its inborn association with Japan. The Japanese collectively refuse to acknowledge any historical responsibility for 20th century atrocities, the article says, therefore anime has fascism inside it. The beliefs and policies of Japan’s conservative government, no different in principle than the beliefs and policies of any of the world’s other elected conservative governments, become the beliefs of the collective Japanese psyche. Vague accusations that could be made against almost any country in the world of “celebrating [its] military” and having an “inability to take responsibility for its troubled past” are used as proof of an entire population’s native and willful cultural and political backwardness.
In her quest to rationalize the discomfort she felt watching media from another country, Villanueva decides all media from that country must be tainted. By failing to examine how fascist ideas can be communicated through culture or what ideas can be communicated through fascist imagery in fiction, “Anime and Fascism” declares the cultural products of an entire nation defective. Villanueva saw a cartoon character’s military uniform and found an entire population enslaved by dreams of imperial glory and bloody conquest underneath it. Her assumptions all Japanese are incapable of comprehending the significance of historical fascist imagery, and that fascist imagery can only appear in Japanese culture as a result of this ignorance, annihilates Japanese artists’ agency in the creation of their own work as well as the Japanese audience’s agency in being able to interpret the media they consume. Only an outsider’s mind can properly comprehend Japan’s history and culture, and without this enlightened perspective the meaning behind the things Japanese people do can never be properly understood and indexed. Fascism in anime is but a symptom of a uniquely Japanese pathology, one that can only be cured by having an American explain things to them very, very slowly.
Suspicion Without Accusation
It’s obvious that “The Troubling Relationship Between Anime and Fascism” was not intended to be so condescending. If the problem can be traced back to one source, it is that the article is never sure what, exactly, it is looking for on its quest to discover “what is up with anime and fascism.” The article almost never makes any specific accusations, against ACCA or any other anime, or explains what demonstrating a blurry, metaphysical link between anime and fascism is supposed to prove beyond the fact such a connection exists. That an anime can be said to demonstrate some connection, any connection to fascist imagery is all that is needed to arouse suspicion, which is all that is needed to further the one argument “Anime and Fascism” makes very clearly: some parts of some anime make people feel uncomfortable.
There is no need for Villanueva or anyone else to justify not watching something because it makes them uncomfortable, or objecting to uses of fascist imagery they find inappropriate or offensive. (Given the wide range of, um, “tastes” anime caters to, feeling uncomfortable is bound to happen eventually). But instead of examining why ACCA makes people uncomfortable, “The Troubling Relationship Between Anime and Fascism” treats Villanueva’s discomfort as self-evident proof that ACCA — and the entire country of Japan — is doing something morally wrong. The very idea that the uniforms in ACCA could have any meaning is not only ignored, the very possibility is denied. The significance of Villanueva’s objections are downplayed in the article at the same time it uses them to infer conclusions and signify the scope of the moral transgressions being committed. It describes the uniforms in ACCA as a “superfluous” detail and her discomfort with it as “shallow,” but that doesn’t stop the entire article from being based around the self-evident significance of both.
ACCA‘s first episode reveals that not only do the characters live under fascist rule, but that the main character, Jean Otus, is an intelligence agent who is suspected of being linked to the black market and under surveillance for possibly plotting to overthrow the government. While the story of the first episode has little to do directly with the nature of the government or the characters’ ideological positions, multiple scenes imply that the authoritarian regime is in danger of collapsing because higher ups in the government — the same ones who may be investigating Jean — are scheming to further their own interests. And according to “The Troubling Relationship Between Anime and Fascism,” none of this means anything. It tells us it is impossible any of this information is meant to affect how the audience views the characters, the story, the world, the tone, or anything else about the show. Once ACCA‘s use of uniforms similar to Nazis aroused suspicion, it was already determined to be bad, even though what “bad” means still hasn’t been determined.
Fascism in anime is a topic worthy of exploring, but the search has to be guided by more than vague suspicions and unexamined feelings of discomfort. Instead of flinching and turning away at the sight of things that make us uncomfortable, finding meaning in the relationship between fascism and media requires examining the things, giving them names, and learning how to describe them. Fascism may be slippery, but knowing what you’re looking for makes it easier to pin down. Then you can punch it in the face.
Some time in the near future, a scientific experiment involving gravity goes horribly awry. As a result, gravity becomes reversed for many people; rather than being held to the ground, these “Inverts” are now pushed away from the Earth’s surface, forcing the survivors to take refuge underground. Generations later, the surviving population is divided into two separate societies: the underground society of the Inverts, and Aiga, the totalitarian surface city.
Patema Inverted begins, like these stories tend to do, with a precocious teenage girl who has little time for adult-imposed boundaries on exploration. Patema, the daughter of the Invert chieftain, has a habit of wandering near a large chasm called The Danger Zone (get your Kenny Loggins jokes out now). Unbeknownst to her, this chasm leads to the surface, and to the non-inverted people of Aiga. One day, a scuffle with a “bat man” (a black-clad Aigan soldier who is exploring the tunnels and, from Patema’s perspective, walks on the ceiling), Patema falls through the chasm and onto the surface. Before she floats away into the sky, however, she is saved by Age, an Aigan boy who wants to follow in the footsteps of his father, a would-be explorer who once tried to defy the fanatical government and see what lay outside the city.
If the broad strokes of the story described so far feel familiar, they should. Once Patema Inverted‘s two teenage love interests from different worlds have their first magic moment together, it’s no challenge at all to predict the path the story will take to its end. Our rebellious teen heroes meet, fall in love, and face adversity from ignorant authority figures, only to then discover secret knowledge about their fantastical world that they will use to bring their two divided communities together. None of the turns of the plot, or the secrets Patema and Age uncover, will come as much of a surprise. And it’s a credit to Patema Inverted‘s charms as a story that it can tread such familiar ground and still be as enjoyable as it is.
Like writer/director Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s previous work, Time of Eve, Patema Inverted uses a fantastical premise to explore the way societies create barriers between people, and how overcoming those barriers creates empathy and, ultimately, understanding. In Eve, humans discover that when they encounter their android servants in a social setting where both hold equal stature, the differences between man and intelligent machine become harder to discern. In Patema Inverted, the Inverts and the Aigans view each other as freaks who could never fit in with “normal” people like them. When Patema and Age first encounter each other, they view the other with a mix of wonder, horror, and confusion, which eventually give way to mutual respect and compassion. Once you get to know someone, the fact they think the ceiling is the floor doesn’t seem like such a big deal after all.
The moments where characters from the two worlds interact are the obvious highlights. The scenes where Age and Patema walk through an open space, awkwardly clinging together to keep the other from “falling” into the sky, are all particularly beautiful moments for the way they capture a simultaneous mix of simultaneous emotions. They are confused, amazed, scared, and excited, all at once – all the things one feels when encountering something unknown, depicted through the act of trying to walk while holding on to an upside down person. Patema Inverted succeeds as a movie because it fully embraces the metaphorical meaning of its science fiction premise, which gives Yoshiura the opportunity to indulge in the movie’s most effective directorial flourish. Rather than maintain a fixed position as to which characters are upside down, the perspective from which the characters are portrayed changes depending on their emotional state and the power dynamics between characters; just because a character is standing on the floor doesn’t guarantee that they will be the one right side up in the frame.
In most cases, Patema Inverted overcomes its utterly predictable story by injecting a surprising amount of life and emotion into the relationships between its characters. And its worst moments come, unsurprisingly, when it fails to do so. The most obvious weak spot comes in the form of the antagonist, Izamura, the leader of Aiga. While the rest of the characters experience conflicting emotions, Izamura feels just one: the need to be a cackling supervillain. He sneers, he plots, he torments the innocent, he makes Mr. Burns finger steeples without a hint of irony – and he never amounts to anything more than the panto villain he appears to be at first glance.
Patema Inverted is a movie of few surprises and simple pleasures. If you prefer your sci-fi to be philosophically heady and complex, then to you it will most likely feel insubstantial. But as a simple coming of age story and an earnest exploration of the experience of encountering the new, it’s perfectly satisfying.
Maria the Virgin Witch is an angry show. At first it may have looked like just an affable sex comedy about a prudish teenage witch and the horny succubus who wants to get her laid, but the longer it goes on the more its seething anger boils over. Mostly gone are the jokes about awkward teenage horniness and cherry popping, replaced with pointed condemnations of the ugly, tangled mass of religion, blind doctrine, and power dynamics that make up the medieval Church, as well as the ways the people who wield its power use their weight to push people around. It’s a far cry from when the highest stakes conflict was whether or not Maria’s incubus familiar would ever get a schlong of his own.
Thankfully, Maria the Virgin Witch is also an intelligent show. It would be easy for it’s brand of anti-authority, “leave me alone” anger to come off as flailing and immature, especially when directed at a target as big and as tempting as the Catholic Church of the Dark Ages. But Maria‘s anger isn’t the yelling kind that comes from hatred and bile; it’s the kind that comes from bitter disappointment. The show’s villains – the zealot Inquisitors, feudal politicians, and violent thugs who profit from war, promote ignorance, and vilify Maria – aren’t cartoonishly evil mustache twirlers who were born bad and laugh while the world burns. Their evil is the most mundane kind: they’re jealous, small-minded, self-centered, and desperate to maintain their lot in life, naturally afraid of anything that challenges their worldview or takes power out of their hands. It’s the kind of evil that people commit reflexively, without thinking, while still being absolutely sure that they’re in the right. That kind of evil seems small, but it’s the most pervasive kind of all, and often it’s the most destructive and the hardest to combat.
Which isn’t to say that Maria herself is perfect, or that she doesn’t have many of the same flaws. Maria is pig-headed, naive, quick to anger, and at the start of the show was just as self-centeredly convinced of her own righteousness as Bernard, Galfa, and the other agents of the Church, State, and the Heavens who oppose her. Despite her blessed name and her virginal status, Maria is far from pure. But that doesn’t stop her from trying to improve the lives of the people around her and make the world a better place, whereas her opponents use their energy and influence to wage war and control thought.
Why the difference between them? What separates the flawed, humanized hero from the flawed, humanized villains in the world of Maria the Virgin Witch? A shallow reading would say that the difference is purely a choice of religion – the pagan Maria vs. dumb, violent, witch-burning Christians – but there’s much more to it than that. What director Goro Taniguchi and writer Hideyuki Kurata (who was also the scriptwriter for the thematically similar, but much more hyperbolic Now and Then, Here and There with director Akitaro Daichi) have repeatedly emphasized as the problem is not the spiritual validity of the Christian faith, but the way the people and institutions that claim their power through it use that power. Maria the Virgin Witch isn’t interested in debating whether or not Jesus died on the cross to redeem the world’s sins, or if the old-world pagan spirits are the true religion; it wants to know why the beings vested in the Christian God’s authority can’t seem to live up to their own precepts. If faith in Jesus is the light that shows the truth, why are his followers so set in their obvious ignorance? If God is love, then why does his Church promote intolerance and revel in judgement? If He weeps for people’s suffering, why doesn’t He do something to stop it?
Maria the Virgin Witch may not have a good answer for, “Why does God let people suffer?” (who does?), but it definitely has an answer for why His servants have such a big hateboner for Maria herself: they cannot control her. What the Church represents most of all in Maria the Virgin Witch is those who gain power, status, and self-worth through the position of being able to control others (even the soldier Galfa, who is of much lower social status than the rest of the villains, derives his self-worth from being a tool of the system: he lives for the violence, plunder, and glory that being his rulers’ strongman brings him). And to the people in charge of maintaining the current order, someone who refuses to listen to them or to recognize their authority is the ultimate threat to their existence. As functionaries of a misguided and oppressive power structure, Maria’s enemies don’t just hate her; they can’t even comprehend her.
It’s the blinding, morally stultifying effect of being a part of a corrupt authority that Maria is most angry about. The men who abuse and condemn Maria aren’t evil by nature. They do evil things because they can’t see outside their own sheltered prism, because they insist that everyone else see things the same way, and because they use the power they have to force their will on anyone who doesn’t. Maria the Virgin Witch wants you to be angry at these people, not because they are inferior, but because they should know better.
Aldnoah.Zero season 2’s opening credits sequence has one of the most unintentionally funny moments so far in anime 2015. Recapping season 1’s bloodbath of a final episode, the opening images show protagonist Inaho and the Martian princess Asseylum being parted by the sudden violence that left her in a coma and cost him an eye. The animation in the sequence would have you believe that the trauma of losing Asseylum has had a profound emotional impact on Inaho; his face contorts with grief and his eyes appear close to shedding tears as the image of her before him disappears. The irony of this, of course, is that Inaho has never once displayed anything close to this amount of emotion in the actual show.
In the show itself, Inaho isn’t so much a person with human thoughts and feelings as he is a supercomputer made of meat, one that’s programming allows him to comprehend or perform no interaction with humanity beyond numbly reciting useless trivia and stiffly correcting people for not being factually correct or logical enough. Despite the Aldnoah.Zero‘s repeated insistence that he and Asseylum forged a deep, emotional bond over the course of season 1, it’s impossible to think of any moment where Inaho expressed anything remotely resembling human affection for her, before or after she was shot. Equally impossible is coming up with a single moment where Inaho interacted with another human being in a way that would leave any of them with the impression that he was anything but the most awkward and closed off person they had ever met. Inaho does not laugh, cry, cheer, or frown, no matter the situation. Whether he’s dryly lecturing the people around him about the atmospheric effects that make the sky appear blue or blandly reciting the overly complex way he’s figured out to defeat the latest nigh-invincible super robot to cross his path, Inaho faces every situation with the same dead-eyed, emotionally vacant expression.
And yet, nearly every character who meets Inaho is instantly impressed with him, drawn in by some phantom magnetism that only the characters in the show can even begin to comprehend. His blank, inhuman nature isn’t off putting or distancing or even a barrier to communication; it’s something that everyone around him loves and respects. Any time someone doesn’t understand him or disagrees with him, it’s never because Inaho can’t express himself properly or because there is room for disagreement. Failing to understand Inaho is always caused by the other person’s silly emotions and lack of natural supercomputer calculating power keeping them from being able to get on his level of pure, unbiased logic. Inaho is never once wrong, about anything. Even when he makes decisions that might seem questionable, the plot twists itself to make sure that everything he does is justified (remember when he shot down Slaine’s plane in season 1 for no good reason, even after Slaine fought on his side to help him? Don’t worry, the show forgot about it too). Every action that Inaho takes is the perfect result of flawless calculation that only ever goes wrong because someone else had to have their silly feelings and mess it all up.
If Inaho has strong feelings about anything that can’t be mathematically calculated or quantified, we certainly haven’t seen it. Despite being the central figure in a war for Earth’s survival against a genocidal enemy and the many near-death experiences he and his crew mates have gone through, he doesn’t even seem to feel much concern about any of their suffering or the atrocities being committed around him. If half his compatriots were to die in the next battle, Inaho’s response would likely be to suggest the survivors skin the corpses to make sleeping bags, and then be confused as to why anyone would find such a logical suggestion the least bit creepy.
But still, time and time again, Aldnoah.Zero has hammered home that the true source of Inaho’s heroism is that he is cold, logical, and smarter than everyone else, something the show has gone so far out of its way to establish that Inaho isn’t so much a character as he is a walking plot device, a magic problem solving tool that instantly overcomes every obstacle he is pointed at without having to so much as furrow his brow in frustration. He is heroic because he has no emotions, and for no other reason. Not because of his personal character, his empathy, his passion, his dedication, his resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, his values, or anything else that is generally used to demonstrate a character’s heroic virtues. Inaho doesn’t even struggle to be the perfect creature of logic, and thus the most perfect and powerful person in the show. Being an emotionless robot is effortless to him because it’s all he is, and yet he is constantly rewarded for it and held up as the ideal all others are inspired to imitate. Inaho isn’t heroic because he’s a better person; he’s heroic because he’s a better robot.
The counterpart to Inaho’s perfect roboticness is, of course, Slaine Troyard, Inaho’s rival for Asseylum’s affection and Aldnoah.Zero‘s favorite whipping boy. Unlike Inaho, Slaine is driven by feelings and his relationships with other people. His involvement in the conflict is personal and complex, and it causes him to react emotionally on many occasions. And every time he does, he is punished for it. For Slaine, the first season was nothing but one physical and emotional trauma after another, with every person he forges a personal bond with either dead, in coma, or having betrayed him by the end of it. Despite Slaine and Inaho supposedly being rivals, the Slaine from season 1 can hardly be considered any real competition. Inaho’s lack of humanity gives him all the power he needs, while Slaine’s emotions render him a useless non contender whose only role is to be brutalized, fail in all his goals, and lose the love of his life, first to an emotionless automaton of a person and then a bullet. Even when he shoots someone through the eye at point blank range, he fails; all those silly tears of his must have messed with the bullet’s trajectory.
Cut to season 2, and what’s this? Suddenly Slaine is no longer a failure. In just a matter of months, he’s gone from being the universe’s punching bag to a certified superbadass, from futureless vassal to duly appointed Knight in service of Mars, from perpetual victim to serious political player, from crybaby weakling unable to kill a man from 3 feet away to the most fearsome enemy of all Earthlings, who can mow down any number of foes without breaking a sweat. Turns out that after all the horrific trauma from season 1, Slaine decided put all that silly empathy and emotion he used to feel away and decided that he can be a cold, emotionless badass too. Turns out all he needed to unlock his hidden potential was to stop feeling those dumb feelings.
No longer overcome by emotion, Slaine has been liberated from the shackles of humanity and become a true rival for Inaho. Season 2 has so far been framed by the conflict between the two, and that conflict has been entirely defined by Aldnoah‘s “emotions are for weaklings” philosophy. Despite being hated rivals, the greatest amount of feeling the two have managed to display for the other is robotically repeating each other’s names and emotionlessly commenting on how superhuman the other’s tactics are. You would think that two men with so much reason to hate each other would show the least bit of anger when the other one appears, but the duel of destinies between them is entirely one of two cold, blank faces trying to out-supercalculate each other. And since strength in Aldnoah.Zero comes not from the content of your character but from how much like a machine you can be, both characters have gained new, overwhelming power from being given powerful machines: Slaine now pilots an invincible robot that can perform calculation so advanced it can effectively see into the future, and rather than having any sort of emotional crisis over seeing his girlfriend being shot and having his left eye blown out, Inaho has been rewarded with having an actual computer implanted into his head, because apparently he wasn’t robotic enough before.
But naturally, Slaine eventually has to lose. He’s just pretending to be emotionless, and only pilots a perfect, logical supermachine; Inaho is a perfect, logical supermachine. And unlike Inaho, Slaine still has things he cares about. He’s on a personal mission to reform the government of Mars. He has a new vassal he seems to like, and is taking care of a brand new Princess who will surely soon die to make him feel sad. In other words, Slaine still has things he cares about, things that can throw him off his balance if anything happens to them. Those connections could cause silly feelings to happen again, and once you have feelings you’re no match for Inaho, who still shows no real concern for any of the people or things he’s fighting for. After all, this is Aldnoah.Zero, where emotions are for losers.