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.