Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Jumping at Shadows: Is the first episode of Code Geass Japanese Right-wing propaganda?

"There is a house down in New Orleans. They call the Rising Sun."

  • House of the Rising Sun. (Traditional American Folk song)

Now I'll admit my first encounter with Japanese culture didn't come from anime at all, but rather a book. And not really just any book, but a book written by an American. In this case, Michael Crichton's "Rising Sun". Now admittedly around the time it was written it was fairly topical. Japan was buying up large parts of American real estate. Economically and psychologically, the country felt dwarfed by the powerhouse across the ocean. So Crichton, being the smart writer he was, wrote a book exploring the Japanese-American relationship at the time.

It was the first time I came across the word, "gaijin".

Now the only reason I bring up the book, is that when I told other people about what I learned in there, they looked at me and said, "You know that's kind of racist." Now of course, they were referring to what I was saying, not the Japanese attitude.

Now, I'm not going to go into whether Crichton overstated Japan's xenophobia or whether he's racist because honestly, that's not the point. The point is that America (and to a lesser or greater extent the rest of the Western world) is very conscious of race. We talk about it. We argue about it. We have entire fields of study devoted to it. We have television shows that explore it.

So it's not surprising that we end up seeing it in anime. Unlike my friends at the time, we're all pretty familiar with the word gaijin, and the sometimes racist, sometimes xenophobic stuff that creeps into anime from time to time.

In fact, we're so used to it that we expect it. We look at the two CIA agents in GitS: Standalone Complex and say, "Yep there it is." We look at the masked Americans in Gasaraki and say, "There it is again." I'm pretty sure that we could come up with a laundry list of questionable things that have popped into anime since we've started watching it.

So when another blogger asked, "Whether we thought the first episode of Code Geass R2 was right-wing Japanese propaganda?" The initial reaction would be, "Yes."

And it could certainly be seen like that. I mean, you have an invading Western force occupying Japan. You have the noble Japanese people under the thumb of those cruel Brittanians. In fact, the rebel's hero, a Caucasian westerner, is a ruthless anti-hero who would willingly sacrifice his own men.

But… I would say that interpretation is kind of limited.

Tanaguchi and Imperalism

The question here really is one of context. And really I have iknight's pimping of Goro Tanaguchi to thank for it. If we look at Code Geass in the light of PLANETES, then the episode falls into a completely different category.

PLANETES is probably one of the most scathing indictments of colonialism and imperialism that I've seen. In fact, the second half of the series is dominated by a group of "terrorists" from developing countries who want to share in the wealth of space exploration. But the Western world has shut them out.

I put "terrorists" in parentheses because throughout most of the series these people are portrayed as hard working, just people, who happened to come from poor or war torn countries. Now I'd provide specific examples, but I don't want to spoil the series.

Although, I can point out the UN satellite in the first episode. Which Ai originally thought was a symbol of peace and turned out to be blatant PR for the UN.

Now if I compare that with dynamic between the Brittanians and the Japanese, it becomes less about who it's happening to and more about what exactly is happening. Whatever else Code Geass might be about; it is mostly a warning AGAINST imperialism. That just happens to take place in Japan. Much like 1984 happened to be based in England, or Fahrenheit 451 happens to be based in America.

But why Suzaku and Lelouch

Now somebody could ask, well what about Suzaku and Lelouch? I mean the Japanese guy is noble and heroic and has all the best intentions. And the Briton is sneaky, self-involved and cold. And on the surface, I think that's probably a decent argument. And when I was thinking about this subject, I did run up against a brick wall.

I mean Suzaku IS a good guy. But… he's still the villain. I mean he's the Vichy government. And Lelouch IS still the hero even with all of his faults. So why the switch-up?

And I think the answer is pretty simple. Tanaguchi seems torn on terrorism.

If we take the character from PLANETES, who will remain nameless, as an example. We can see that he's a noble man. The first time he gets introduced he's actually a hero. All he wants is a little social justice, but the powers that be won't listen to him. So he takes matters into his own hands. Now I won't say he glamorizes terrorism, but that he realizes that there are times when the tree of liberty has to get watered.

But he also realizes that violence has to be a means to an end and not the end in and of itself. In fact, Lelouch's almost surrender to Euphie points at this. Once the government listens, it's time for the terrorism to stop.

In fact, the opinion I get from watching his stuff could be summed up, "There is a thin line between terrorist and revolutionary." And that's a fairly cosmopolitan (if somewhat radical) viewpoint, if I do say so myself.

Related Links

Anime World Order's interview with Helen McCarthy, Rob Fenelon and Dave III presents an interesting take on the relationship between Britain and Japan.

Iknight's look at the Lelouch's character.

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