Japan’s Militarist Resurgence (as Measured in Anime)

When the Great East Asian War ended in 1945, 20 million people were dead – 3 million of them Japanese. After weathering radiation, starvation, and sinking to the level of cannibalism, the survivors took what petty shelter they could find in a totally ruined nation. With no economy, little food, and most buildings burned to the ground, life would be hard for years to come. The children of this time, many of whom are still alive, lived on G.I. handouts and played in the ashes of schools. War orphans starved by the tens of thousands in abandoned subway stations, and those lucky enough to have parents watched mom and dad go hungry to feed them.

But the great wonder of mortality is that nothing lasts forever. No impression, no philosophy, no lesson of history can outlive the people who bear it; as they die, it disappears. Japan, as it marches into the new century, will inevitably exchange the true anguish of its past for more palatable and self-congratulating beliefs. Like all new beliefs, they will grow as the old beliefs die with those who honor them; like all nationalisms, they will contain an element of callous disregard for other nations and for inconvenient truths.

You can see it in the papers. Japan has rescinded its apologies for war crimes. Heads of state once again visit the Yasukuni shrine, where the architects of Nanking and Pearl Harbor are honored among the war dead. Shinzo Abe, taking a page out of Vladimir Putin’s book of tyranny, had a photo op where he pretended to fly a jet. But you don’t need those headlines to tell you that Japan may again be starting down the warpath – all you need to do is watch anime.

After all, to truly understand a nation, you must stare into its soul. And Japan’s soul is anime.

 

1. Space Battleship Yamato (1974-1975)

The Synopsis

In the future, the evil aliens from Planet Gamilus (who look exactly like blonde white humans) are bombarding Earth with radioactive meteors that pollute the environment, poison the people, and have somehow completely evaporated the oceans. With resources dwindling and little hope for survival, the scene is grim – but a final hope for humanity appears in the form of a sudden message from deep space. The people of Iscandar, a previously-unknown enemy of the Gamilus, have sent blueprints for a faster-than-light starship, and promise a radiation-cleaning device if the people of Earth can make the trip to planet Iscandar at the far edge of the galaxy.

But, with the war having dragged on so long, Earth lacks any space-worthy metal with which to build the ship. Desperate, they fall back to their last resort: digging up the WWII battleship Yamato and sticking a big rocket engine on its back. With transportation to Iscandar secured, the Earthlings draft and train a crew that truly represents the diverse peoples of our planet: the Japanese warship-turned-spaceship is outfitted with an entirely Japanese crew answering only to the government of Japan.

So begins an epic trek across the stars where Japan saves Earth in her hour of need by flying a fascist-era warship into space, shooting dozens of blonde aliens, and breaking through every enemy cordon and ambush despite great odds to win the day.

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Commander of the Gamilus forces. (Desler is actually just his middle name; his first is Franklin and his last is Roosevelt.)

The Fascist Propaganda

Well, for starters, there’s the entire plot: A defenseless nation threatened by superior foreign technology and aerial bombardment. Nameless soldier characters who repeatedly save the ship by sacrificing themselves. The benign intervention from the “good” foreigners in the eleventh hour (one of the last hopes of Japan’s wartime leadership was brokering a favorable truce through Russia). And, of course, the Yamato itself rises from the grave to seize victory. This ship was the largest warship ever built and pride of the Imperial fleet; it was named after the fascist concept of the purity of the Japanese race – imagine if the Nazis had a warship called the Aryan.

But, as silly as it might seem at first at first glance, Yamato is a fairly mature show. Despite the setting – a flashy remake of WWII with the gloss of a space opera – it’s more about remembering the war than it is about re-fighting it. In the 1970s, there were still plenty of veterans left alive, still plenty of children who remembered the devastation and poverty of their childhood and attributed it to the war. Released in 1974, Space Battle Yamato could only possibly treat war with the appropriate gravity. Watch this short scene from after the last battle:

As draped in militaristic glory as Space Battleship Yamato is, it never forgets that war is senseless slaughter – that no matter how righteous the cause, no matter how great the victory, it gains no one anything.

Also, halfway through the show the Gamilus change without explanation from blonde white people to blue-skinned white people. This is an improvement.

Fascism rating: 3/10 Schoolgirl Hirohitos

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2. Ghost in the Shell (1995, 2002-2004)

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The Synopsis

In the near future, everybody is robots. Guys are robots. Hot anime women are robots. Even the robots are robots. Brains are uploaded on to microchips, and human souls can be eternally lost on the internet (though, as we know, this already happens today). Major Kusanagi is a robot-person and secret agent for Section 9 who does backflips and shoots people to prevent hackers from taking over peoples’ brains and destroying Japan. It’s like Blade Runner, if everybody in Blade Runner took the internet very seriously and could actually shoot straight.

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The Fascist Propaganda

In Ghost in the Shell, Japan has been nuked into oblivion once more – but this time, it didn’t stop them. The new, resurgent Japan of the show has risen from the ashes to become a super-power second only to China. Japan accomplishes this through technology – though putting everybody in robot bodies and nano-scrubbing the radiation out of the environment. Ascendant once more, the Japanese are the center of the world because they used technology to make themselves smarter than everybody else. The master race is triumphant: Ghost in the Shell is a flat-out Japanese power fantasy.

And at the heart of the new technocratic empire is the Section 9 gestapo, where our heroine works. (Incidentally, Article 9 of the American-written Japanese Constitution, forced on the Japanese after just the war, is the section forbidding Japan from war ever again; a coincidence?) Like the kempeitai, Kusanagi’s bureau operates with impunity. To defend “the greater peace” she kills civilians, third-world leaders, and important political figures from the nominally democratic Japanese government. And she does it with style; years after Yamato, murder has finally become sexy again.

Fascism rating: 6/10 Schoolgirl Hirohitos

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3. Strike Witches (2008)

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The Synopsis

In Strike Witches, a Japanese schoolgirl named Yoshika Miyafuji is inducted into a military organization of teenage girls who are duty-bound to fight aliens by taking off their pants and attaching propellers to their legs. Only witches can do this, because why not. Also, when witches use magic they grow animal ears and a tail, because why not. Most of the show is little girls firing military-grade rifles in mid-air at aliens and then accidentally flashing their panties at the camera.

Oh, the plot: After her friend is somehow mortally wounded by falling on a watermelon, Miyafuji leaves Japan to travel to Europe and fight aliens. There you go.

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The Fascist Propaganda

This one’s especially malicious, mostly because it takes place starting in 1939. The various nations of the world, originally geared for war with each other, find themselves fighting the much more menacing aliens. “After all,” Strike Witches seems to say, “Who’s worse – Nazis and Japanese militarists, or mute extraterrestrial battleships that spawn from what look like sphincters at the center of black hurricanes from dark space?”

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Clearly, the aliens are worse. Clearly, the Nazis were more legitimate leaders than aliens. Clearly, Japanese rule in Asia was better than aliens. All this is merely implied, not stated, but who can doubt it when the final episode has the battleship Yamato (yes, the same one from the first entry) ram the aliens to death?

In four short years, we’ve gone from serious depictions of war and unfettered military agencies to sexualizing airplanes and children. War is fun. War is good. This is anime. This is the way the world ends.

Fascism rating: 9/10 Schoolgirl Hirohitos

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4. Girls Und Panzer (2012)

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The Synopsis

Girls und Panzer is a charming series about Japanese schoolgirls trying to murder each other with tanks. The story follows a young girl, Nishizumi, who transfers to a new high school in a new town. There, after making new friends by acting extremely friendly, polite, and kawaii to her classmates, Nishizumi is bullied into participating in the national girls’ sport of this neo-militarist Japanese utopia: driving around in a pink tank and shooting live shells at other children. (The show does explicitly state that the shells are live, but “shot without the intent to harm,” so, you know, no problem.) This is called “tankery.” After a lot of discussion about tanks – what is a tank? why are tanks fun? do girls like tanks? – the first episode ends with a jaunty military march playing as girls squeal around their new war machine. Then the camera pans out to show that the entire episode took place on an aircraft carrier the size of Long Island.

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The perfect mobile home for fascists.

The Fascist Propaganda

Perhaps the most poignant scene is when the Nishizumi admits to coming “from a family that has a long history of riding tanks.” In fact, she only left her old school so her parents’ achievements in tankery wouldn’t force her into the sport again – but as the episode wears on, we see her ancient battle lust rekindle. She can’t escape the use of tanks. Conquest is in her blood.

Despite her heartfelt effort to disassociate herself from her warmongering ancestors, Nishizumi eventually joins the tankery club. She shoots live rounds at competing teams from China and Russia. She rejoices in the feel of hard steel under her fuku. She repairs and maintains her chariot of death because it’s kawaii and genki. The schoolgirl, born innocent, is transformed into a vessel for war. As the anime continues, I realize that there is only one point it wants to cement in my mind, a point it reinforces again and again through repeated shots of smiling anime girls driving tanks: Nishizumi’s attempt to break from her nation’s bloody past was doomed before it began. War is the natural state of anime schoolgirls. It is the natural state of all Japan.

Fascism rating: 9/10 Schoolgirl Hirohitos

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5. Survival Game Club (2014)

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The Synopsis

Momoka Sonokawa, faux-gothic pink-haired schoolgirl who secretly hates everything, is riding the train to school when a perverted salaryman decides to molest her. Suddenly, another schoolgirl comes to her rescue, pulling two Desert Eagles out of her pants and threatening to murder the pervert if he defiles sacred Japanese womanhood. After being arrested and (presumably) escaping, the Desert Eagle girl later befriends Sonokawa at school and inducts her into a mock fight club where she and a few friends shoot each other with a sexy variety of weapons including uzis, revolvers, assault rifles, and eventually a minigun. Shooting other children, Sonokawa comes to realize the value of friendship. She also realizes that the only way to overcome the trials of puberty in Japan – being bullied, feeling isolated and worthless, getting molested – is to shoot everything forever.

The perfect response to molestation for fascists.

The perfect response to molestation for fascists.

The Fascist Propaganda

Yet another unassuming schoolgirl gives in to her dark side and starts shooting people. It doesn’t get clearer than that.

Sonokawa initially feels bad about what’s she’s doing – “High school girls shouldn’t be running around with guns,” she complains. However, her attitude reverses when she shoots a gun for the first time. The overwhelming, almost orgasmic sensation of total power fills and corrupts her. She realizes that she can end another person’s life with a twitch of her finger. She realizes that she is God. “Ugyuuuu,” she exclaims.

Before the first episode is out, Sonokawa has gained “the brutality to step over an ally’s corpse without batting an eye.” As Ken Yuasa, a former surgeon with the human experimentation and biological warfare division Unit 731, once said: “I was afraid during my first vivisection, but the second time around, it was much easier. By the third time, I was willing to do it.”

Fascism rating: 9/10 Schoolgirl Hirohitos

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Are these shows hand-picked? Yes; there are plenty of non-fascist animes out there as well. Do these shows necessarily mean that Japan will go on a new Imperial rampage? No. Not necessarily. But they do mark a Great Forgetting.

Because while fascist anime began in the 1970s with a healthy respect for the tragedy of war, more recent series only want to fetishize weapons and machinery. They want to show you how fun, how sexy, war can be. I’ve only mentioned a few here – there’s also Kantai Collection, a video game about girls who are naval warships, and Axis Powers Hetalia, where Japan, Italy and Germany are reimagined as kawaii chibi boys and girls who go camping and cook marshmallows over a fire. Recent animes, whether they’re about shooting your friends or being an airplane, whether they take place in an apologist’s 1939 or the far future when humanity lives on aircraft carriers, only want to forget what Space Battleship Yamato tried so hard to remember: that war is hell.

This is important. It demonstrates how far the Japanese have come from their emphatic pacifism in the immediate postwar. In the Japan of the 1960s or ‘70s, such a blithe and absurd attitude towards war in popular culture would be unthinkable – and so would Shinzo Abe’s posturing. But in today’s Japan, it is a fact of life. In the Japan of the 1960s or ‘70s, a new war with Asia would be impossible. But In today’s Japan, it is once again a conceivable future, one written in the prophecy of pop animation:

There is always the reluctant heroine who – much like the pure Yamato race – is destined for martial valor despite her misgivings.

There is always the cadre of schoolgirls who – just as Korea and China should have supported the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere as an alternative to Western Imperialism – cheer on the heroine’s efforts to murder everything.

There are always the guns and gears, even more fetishized than the schoolgirls, each one lovingly rendered in ink and sweat and toil like a nineteenth-century woodblock print.

And, finally, there is an ultimatum: the Great Forgetting is in full swing. For the first time in several generations, militarism sprouts in the fertile soil of Japan’s dreams.

  • Ruseo

    Oh for gods sake…..
    1: every country shows other countries as the enemy people. Americans baddies are usually british.
    2: because an anime shows weapons or standing up for themselves means they want to begin militirization?
    3: if they do have an army of beautiful women then maby i wouldnt mind being taken over.
    4: they have no military only a self defense force

    • Dane Holding

      Oh for gods sake…..
      1: every article written that incorporates School girl Hirohito ratings should be considered de facto satire
      2: the author doesn’t suggest that America is holier than Japan, just that Japan is having a militarist resurgence. There are no comparisons in this article suggesting that Japanese militarism is any better or any worse than militarism in any other nation or state. It’s just focusing on Japanese militarism because that’s where anime is from.
      3: I don’t really have a third point, whatever.
      4: A “military” and a “self defense force” would probably be defined pretty similarly in most situations.
      5: Again, where in this article does the author suggest that America is a better place than Japan because it doesn’t have militarism portrayed in its media? Because I sure as fuck didn’t read that part of the article. This isn’t an essay comparing nations to one another, rather an essay comparing a nation to its own historical behavior.

    • Dane Holding

      So you probably didn’t read the essay.

  • Pamela Brooker

    i wouldnt call five shows in fourty years a “resurgence” especially when they are all comedies laughing at themselves..

  • Free NC

    I’m a Fascist and I’m proud, that and hentai is cool!!!