Monday, 16 June 2008

Kamichu! Part 2 - Japanese National Identity

In my last post I talked about the way stories about confused, alienated teenage girls gifted with godlike powers could reflect certain changes in Japanese society and within the world of anime creators and fans. I focussed in part on the TV series Kamichu! and I'm going to stick with that show with this post as I focus on some observations about national identity.

One of the awkward things when discussing these kind of issues is where the relatively neutral term "national identity" becomes a little too neutral to be useful and where you have to start playing around with more politically charged terms like "nationalism" and dealing with the can of worms that then gets opened up. I'm going to stick my neck out here and say that anime can be very nationalistic, but I'm going to add some caveats here.

Firstly, I'm not talking about the kind of jackboots and swastikas, goose-stepping racist type of 1930s European nationalism here (although anyone who spends much time hanging around Ochanomizu Station in central Tokyo has probably seen exactly these kind of black-shirted fascist scum harassing students from the supposedly lefty-biased Meiji University). What I'm talking about in the context of anime is generally a kind of loose cultural nationalism. An attempt, not necessarily confined to what we would traditionally label as right or left wing, to define and untangle a kind of distinctive Japanese culture from the tangled threads of foreign influences that form much of modern Japanese life.

For all its emphasis on the mundane details of daily life, Kamichu! expresses a remarkably consistent socio-political worldview, on some occasions more explicitly than on others.

In episode four, a female alien visits to return a broken NASA space probe and is imprisoned by the Japanese government with the intention of handing her over to the Americans for experiments. The main character of Kamichu!, Yurie Hitotsubashi, is called in to act as an interpreter for the alien and then tries to rescue her when she discovers the prime minister's plan. There are two things going on here.

Firstly there is an implied criticism of what many regard as the Japanese government's craven acquiescence to American demands. This is an ongoing point of debate in Japan as President George Bush puts pressure on Japan to amend Article 9 of its pacifist constitution to allow the Japanese Self-Defence Force to engage in overseas military action. The issue is a conundrum for the traditional nationalist right in Japan since they are by their nature militaristic, yet they are also opposed to foreign influence in Japanese affairs. As a rule, the right tends to focus its criticisms on Russia and China while quietly supporting the United States. This relationship dates right back to the early postwar years, when the U.S. occupation government and CIA cut deals with extreme right wing POWs, mafiosi and war criminals in order to gain access to their information networks in the fight against communism. The most unified objection to the influence of the United States in Japanese politics seems to come from the left, who share with left-liberals the world over a suspicion of American foreign policy and who, like a majority of Japanese, are extremely proud of Article 9. Kamichu! makes its own position clear when Yurie deals with a platoon of gun-toting soldiers by reminding them that they aren't allowed to use their guns except to defend against a foreign invader and since the alien isn't invading, they are constitutionally obliged to leave them alone.

Despite being set in 1983, which sets Kamichu! during the tenure of Yasuhiro Nakasone, the political issues discussed above were current (and controversial) in 2005 under Junichiro Koizumi. Such direct referencing of current headlines, albeit hiding behind the fig leaf of the historical setting, is a relatively new feature in mainstream anime, perhaps showing recognition that an older audience is watching.

There is a second, more subtle, theme being explored in Kamichu! though, and it is one that recurs throughout the series, namely the idea of the loneliness of the person far away from home. The alien has a sweetheart on Mars who she wants to see again, and Yurie's comment that "Martians should be on Mars" while on one level responding to the simple fact that her alien friend is homesick, also reveals something about the series' attitude. Kamichu! is at heart very inward-looking and in the world it creates, foreigners are welcome guests and amusing diversions, but not permanent fixtures. The bottom line is, that everyone has their place and in the end it is expected that they will return.

In episode nine the same situation occurs in reverse when Yurie has to bring back the spirit of the battleship Yamato, which was sunk by American aircraft near Okinawa in 1945. Within the worldview of Kamichu!, the reunion of the ship and its home port is both natural and necessary. From a pacifist perspective, there could be the implied message that it should never have left. From the nationalist perspective, the return of the most powerful battleship ever created represents a revival of Japanese pride and the way Yurie must first study in detail every aspect of the ship before she is able to contain its spirit is a lesson for Japanese youth to learn about their history and culture. A curious, throwaway comment made by Yurie's local god Yashima-sama, that in addition to learning everything about the ship's physical dimensions she should also learn about "why it was built" seems to hint at a deeper examination of Japan's role in the war, (clue: it was built to kill people) but that thread ends up going nowhere as Yurie is far more interested in the fact that there was a room on the ship where they made lemonade. Presumably too deep an exploration of the war would have been deemed inappropriate for a children's show, although the end result, with its faintly unpleasant whiff of jingoism hardly seems an improvement.

Far more effective is episode twelve, where Yurie moves to Izumo for a month to attend a gods' convention. In that episode, she herself is forced to confront the loneliness and alienation she feels in a new environment, where she is treated differently by those around her. She is eventually able to make a connection with her temporary classmates, but in the end, as with when Yashima-sama runs away to become a rock star, when the cat Tama runs away to escape Yurie's mothering, and when Miko runs away to escape heartbreak, Yurie has to return home in order for balance in the universe to be restored. In all these cases, the ties that bind the characters to their homes are painful when stretched and the relief when equilibrium is restored is palpable.

One of the defining features of post-nineties anime is the way that the first, and now second, generations of otaku have moved from being consumers to being active participants in the creation of anime, either through effecting their own entry into the industry or through the influence they wield through the Internet (check the case of Takami Akai and the infamous "2channel incident" if you don't believe me). The postmodern critic and philosopher Hiroki Azuma wrote in his essay Superflat Japanese Postmodernity that "otaku culture is a sort of the collective expression of post-war Japanese nationalism" and with that in mind, it is perhaps natural that an increase in the number of otaku working in the industry has gone hand in hand with more explicit expressions of national identity and nationalism.

Within the otaku world many believe that a direct link can be drawn between modern (or postmodern) otaku culture and pre-modern Japanese Edo period culture, pointing at similarities in consumption patterns as evidence. Azuma dismisses this as a "cliche" and a "pretension", pointing to the postwar influence of America as the primary background of otaku culture. The result of this, according to Azuma, is a kind of twisted view of "Japaneseness" that tends towards self-caracature.

The clinging onto iconic nationalist images like the Yamato is one reflection of this but there are many more going further back into Japanese history. In the SF series Gasaraki, the mobile armour that forms the centrepiece of the series is a parody of Japanese Noh theatre and one of the main characters, somewhat ambiguous at first, but who occupies an increasingly sympathetic role as the series progresses, is a hard-right nationalist figure whose ideology is based on a very strict interpretation of Bushido.

In a more domestic setting, romantic and slice of life dramas like Kamichu! invariably place great prominence on the changing of the seasons. This is a fundamental feature of traditional Japanese art and literature, with precedents in Murasaki's Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) as well as the requirement for references to the seasons in haiku. From a postmodern viewpoint, however, this is merely appropriating imagery and motifs from traditional Japanese culture purely for superficial purposes or to support its own postmodern agenda. Modern Japan has been shaped by so many factors over the past 150 years since Western influences were first allowed in that the Edo period is like another country, thus the modern otaku claiming descent from this lineage in fact has more in common with French "Japonisme" of the late 19th Century than he does with the culture that he is claiming as his own.

The fact that it is blatantly unrealistic to expect Japan to turn back the clock to the 18th Century is of course obvious to most, and to return to Kamichu! for a moment, there is a neat recognition of this in the episode dealing with Matsuri' self-declared "War on Christmas", where she gets jealous of the popularity of this foreign festival when her own Shinto shrine lies empty for a day, and annoys a lot of gift shop owners in the process. The two festivals decide to coexist and Matsuri's rival "Japanese" winter festival is considered a success when she manages to bring in ten percent of the people she invited.

Another factor in Japanese society that is beginning to have an impact on the themes and issues dealt with in anime is globalisation. Despite still being a largely homogeneous society, foreigners in Japan are becoming an increasingly visible part of the tapestry of daily life, particularly in Tokyo but also in other parts of the country. Part of this is down to the decrease in value of the yen from the early nineties making foreign tourism easier, partly this is the increasing wealth of Japan's Chinese and South Korean neighbours, and partly this is the slowly but steadily increasing numbers of foreign workers, particularly Chinese, who are settling in Japan.

Politically conscious "hard SF" anime like Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and the aforementioned Gasaraki pinpoint increased ethnic communities as possible hotspots for civil unrest, although regardless of whether or not they are "wanted" in the end, both shows try to paint the minorities in a sympathetic light. The 2000 comedy series Niea_7 portrays a run down bath house in a near future rural Japan where aliens have crashed on earth and have reached a point where their initially incredible presence has become mundane. It deals with the issues of integration faced by the stranded aliens who themselves are by now second generation with no connections to or even conceptions of their home planet, and contrasts their own internal squabbles and prejudices with the personal sense of alienation felt by the human main character Mayuko Chigasaki who is herself seperated from people around her by the remote location of her home, her extreme poverty and her lack of parents. As the series develops, the similarities between her predicament and that of her annoying alien roommate lead to an increasing empathy between them. It's a far more nuanced view of the polyethnic future that Japan might find itself in than most other shows and all the more powerful for the way it avoids making any of its main points directly.

Kamichu! avoids dealing with this issue by fixing the setting in a time and place where foreigners were unlikely to appear, which serves well the show's focus on maintaining the image of a utopian small-town Japan. Certainly it's the prerogative of any show to set the parameters of what issues it chooses to address, although it's hard not to come to the conclusion that by the values that the show expresses, the lack of any non-Japanese presence is because in a world with everything in its right place, foreigners would stay at home in the first place. In this sense, the kind of nationalism that Kamichu! expresses is a defensive response against the foreign influence on Japanese society and the feeling that modern Japanese people have lost touch with traditional values. Unfortunately, as Azuma points out, "traditional" Japanese values are difficult thing to define, with the definition having gone through a number of changes over many years in response to various changes in the world. Kamichu!'s reaction in the face of this is a curious mixture of resigned acceptance, as with the "war on Christmas", and the desire to turn away and to turn inwards.

There is an episode near the end of the series which most powerfully and persuasively expresses a much wider context into which the show's attitude to national identity fits. After her exertions over New Year, Yurie takes a "duvet day" underneath the cover of the heated kotatsu table in her house's living room. The lengths she goes to and the contortions she puts herself through in order to remain in the warm, comforting embrace of the kotatsu, safe from the January chill around her, perfectly captures the "five more minutes" feeling universal to anyone who has experienced winter in a Japanese house and underpins that with a deeper sense of ennui and reluctance to leave home and face the world. She knows, as we know, that she will have to get up, take a shower and get dressed sooner or later, but for now the world be damned and just let me sleep.

Ian Martin - June 16th 2008

No comments: