Into the Lifestream: Histories and Philosophies of FFVII

Part I – Personal fannish stuff
Part II – Socio-political stuff (Race and gender, Japanese history, Environmentalism)
Part III – Philosophical stuff (The Lifestream, Aerith’s way, Advent Children extensions)
(Because this WP layout has a static banner, it covers the first paragraph or so when you go to an internal link, so you need to scroll up a bit. sorry.)

One of the biggest pieces of news coming out of E3 this summer was that there will be a remake of Final Fantasy VII, and hearing this has made grown men cuss and cry in front of their children. There are 2 decade’s worth of debates on the game’s impact; while my personal reasons might be rather idiosyncratic, I also think a portion of them might be what a lot of fans find appealing when they say they were impacted by Aerith’s death, but they just haven’t articulated it the same way.

I won’t be addressing the technical aspects of gameplay or graphics advancement in the 1990s, since I don’t know enough to judge. What I’d like to focus on here are the themes and the concepts that the character, plot, and the world-building imply. I think what makes this a good story is that while it’s fantasy, it reflects Japan’s concept of itself in the world, and in the end it has a rather modest and relatable view of good and evil, which are locate in the ways we approach life and loss and the world we live in.

Having said that, though, I do think how characters as gameplay elements relate to characters as narrative elements is important to keep. Some of the later FF games have no specializations for characters and they can grow technically according to player choice. Battle system and random encounter mechanics aside, I do think that stats and specializations contribute to a sense of who the characters are. Relying on the table in Section 1.4 here on character stats, it makes sense that a character like Aerith doesn’t grow in strength as quickly as Barrett, who conversely doesn’t grow in magic as quickly as Aerith.

I. Personal stuff

I’m a big fan of FFVII but not through the typical route of “this defines my childhood.” I watched Advent Children (AC) when it first came out in 2005 with the anime club in university, without knowing anything about it. While it didn’t make much sense to me, it haunted me and I watched it up to 5 times in one semester trying to figure out why. I suppose that having had watched a lot of anime, certain dramatic devices and characterizations, such as angst, was familiar. I was also taking a Bible and Literature course at the time and wrote a response paper on Biblical themes and whether FFVII subverted them by making Sephiroth an antichrist figure (especially with the similarity of “Jenova” to “Jehovah”), and whether there was a subtext of Eastern polytheistic religions compared to Western monotheism. Later in this post I will also justify why think in the thematic scheme of things AC is absolutely necessary, even if it retconned half the characters and nothing particularly different from the game happened.

I got into gaming only in my mid-20s, as my family were relatively poor immigrants for whom entertainment in general was frivolous spending. (Advice for the next generation of parents: start ’em young. Gaming is like piano or martial arts, because it requires a very specific set of sensory-motor skills and a “language” in terms of reading what the game wants you to do. The literacy of videogames are different from other visual media like movies and so forth because there is an interface, both in the sense of the actual menus you see and also implicit conventions in what you can and cannot interact with). I played FFVII when I was teaching English in China because I had more time from not being in school myself, and I was also at a telecommunications / software engineering institution where students exercised free will over their lives for the first time by playing games all the time. They were asked to choose English names for the benefit of foreign instructors and one kid actually named himself Sephiroth. He wasn’t my student, but I found this out during a Thanksgiving event, where teachers announced “Sephiroth will be performing Pachlebel’s Canon in D on the violin.”

I guess I took this as a sign and downloaded a PC version of it, though because of my lack of gaming skills meant that I followed a textual walkthrough (from Absolute Steve, who is a great writer for this kind of guide in terms of being clear, comprehensive, and occasionally humorous). It took me a couple of months and the timer in the game clocked out long before I finished it. I didn’t feel attachment to specific characters more to the party as a group, and it got to me to the extent that when I failed to destroy one of the Weapons I actually felt like I let someone down. I did finish everything in the end, though because it too me so long, the emotional payoff at the end didn’t seem as salient. But FFVII stayed with me in a way that has influenced my personal growth; every time I’d get cocky or get overcome with guilt over something I tend to think of FFVII to get me out of it (more about this in Part III, and an excellent interview with Takahiro Sakurai, the voice actor for Cloud, sums this up perfectly towards the end). AsI go onwards with graduate education I also see in FFVII a unique and instructive Japanese approach to the world (Part II). And like most fans of the FF series the music has been a major draw; as a flute player I tend to practice a lot of FFVII tunes (my favourite being “Cloud Smiles”).

II. Socio-political stuff

Race and gender issues

I’ve seen some articles since E3 discussing what should stay in the remake and what should be changed, among them more sensitive topics such as Cloud cross-dressing, and Barrett’s behaviour and speech being racist. While Cloud cross-dressing adds a lot of humour to the game, there is concern that having it simply as a humorous element and having Cloud unmask himself as a “real man” at the end of that sequence sits uncomfortably with queer and transgender sensibilities 20 years on. Though I think even today, if you ask an average straight guy to wear a dress and infiltrate a brothel, he’ll still be uncomfortable, and men he meets in the brothel would still be uncomfortable when they find out. It might be interesting to explore the diversity of orientations if someone were to be attracted to Cloud regardless of whether he’s in disguise or not, even more interesting if a significant character were bisexual or something (oddly enough I can see Aerith being such, also Rufus).

As for the character of Barrett, I would also say that because he’s a rather complex character overall and exists in a fantasy world, I don’t think his behaviour and speech really matter all that much in the end. For Japan, who has its own rather different racial discrimination problems, I thought his character was already pretty progressive. I also don’t know how much of his speech is in translation and how much of it was written in the Japanese version already, and if the latter, whether it signifies differently in Japan (I think in Axis Powers Hetalia, world accents were represented as Japanese regional ones for the Japanese voice acting, so if Barrett has something similar going for him I’m not sure Euro-American fans have enough information to complain). What I would like to see, though, is if he’s meant to reflect a specific racial/class demographic, when the English voice acting take place, the producers would actually consult English the way it’s spoken by that demographic. I’m thinking of the Zimmerman trial where Rachel Jeantel was deemed to behave inappropriately or spoke unintelligible English when it was legitimately a different form of vernacular. Anyways, I always thought his idiosyncracies were more about class than race, and I do think it’s realistic and relatable for a person of colour on the outskirts of the world to have their prior ways of life and economies (in his case, coal) to be interrupted by new technology from urban centres.

I think some things have changed, though, and the sensibilities of a post-9/11 and post-Fukushima world need careful treading around. It might be hard to pull off heroism of eco-terrorists blowing up energy reactors now, even if the heroism is only initial and Barrett recognizes his error later on. Fukushima also makes Advent Children harder to accept, as Geostigma and orphans infected with Jenova-contaminated water is uncomfortably close to the effects of radiation exposure. I’m not sure how the writers plan on handling this sensititive topic.

Japanese history

I’m doing a doctorate in American Studies, which examines the ideas and status of people within the US and the effects of the US worldwide. One of the topics is how Asia has been impacted by the US, and another topic is what Eisenhower calls the military-industrial complex, the consequences of which I think FFVII shows in the Shinra Corporation. If this seems far fetched, a similar thread that fans have also noticed is that Japanese anime, especially pre-2000 ones, has a lot of apocalyptic scenarios involving cities getting destroyed (Evangelion and Akira, to name 2), which people tend to agree has to do with a generation growing up after the atomic bombs.

When Eisenhower came up with the term “military-industrial complex” he was referring to the conjoined interests of legislators, military leadership, and the arms industry in the US. Since industrialization in the Euro-American world, a lot of the industry was privately and not state-owned; governments and militaries would contract out arms production to these private companies, and in turn government legislation would ensure that these private companies would be able to produces armaments smoothly. In broader terms, the military-industrial can also arise from the joint effects of military and economic influence, which would be different from a strictly economic force such as foreign direct investment. Japan would be the Asian nation which has felt the effects of the US military-industrial complex the earliest, with commodore Perry and the navy opening Japan to economic development in the mid-1800s. Rationale for this on the part of the US is numerous, some of which involving needing Japan as a fueling station of sorts, and also wanting to control shipping routes to China, which was seen as a huge market. Japan industrialized quickly and even defeated Russia in modern warfare, but the US didn’t pay it much mind since it was still preoccupied with Europe. Japanese and American interests around the Pacific began to clash during WWII; the incident Americans tend to know from this is the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in Hawai’i. Then the US dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, leading to the withdrawal of Japan from the Pacific theatre of WWII.

Common knowledge about the US’s involvement in Japan usually ends here, and most people assume that Japan got itself back on its own feet. In the treaties after WWII Japan was forced into complete disarmament due to its encroachment on its Asian neighbours. Instead, the US stations military in Asia and the Pacific region to secure the places that Japan withdrew from (such as the Philippines and Pacific islands like Guam, as well as Korea). In addition to military presence, the US also heavily influenced (if not dictated) the direction of Japanese economic and industrial development into the 50s. Part of the result, intentional or not, was that the Japanese economy also became a military-industrial one to provide support to American engagement in the Korean War, and American influence in South Korea also created institutions to support its engagement in Vietnam. During these Cold War engagements, Japan, Hawai’i, and Thailand served as R&R stations for US soldiers on leave, which some people argue was the start of making Hawai’i into a tourist-driven economy.

I can’t draw a direct connection between Japan’s relationship to the US and Shinra, but I also think that an energy corporation with a paramilitary presence like Shinra would come uniquely from a country which has lived through national development influenced by a combined foreign military and economic force, and it would be harder for Euro-Americans in the 90s to conceive of this particular combination. This is especially salient due to the presence of Yuffie and Wutai in FFVII. Wutai’s cultural aesthetics are heavily Japanese-inflected; it was supposed to have been a strong warrior nation, but because Shinra wanted to set up a mako reactor and Wutai did not, and a war ensued that Wutai eventually lost. In addition, along with becoming a source for energy extraction, Wutai also became a resort destination for non-Wutai tourists, which Yuffie and other Wutai resistance fighters are ashamed of.

This lack of self-determination in Wutai reflects the history I have outlined above, where both Japan and Wutai have little choice but to become a proxy or service for another nation which is stronger both militarily and economically and uses the former to secure the latter. Reading Shinra as the US military-industrial complex might be stretching it, since the US didn’t explicitly carry out military-lead resource extraction; however, a number of US industries and scientists were folded into the nuclear development program during WWII (a good book just published about this is here), and it’s kind of unsettling to add the fact that the US dropped nuclear bobs on Japan to the fact that the nuclear reactors at Fukushima were designed by General Electric, which we tend to associate with benign home appliances. While the intentions of the US and of Shinra might be different, the result they have left on Japan and Wutai are not so different. Because Yuffie is the representative of this, though, the message is “safe” in that most people wouldn’t read threat in a young woman who’s annoyingly cheerful and slightly incompetent. There’s a whole area of research into why Asians like to convey messages in cute things, which I won’t get into, but recommended sources would be artist Takashi Murakami’s Superflat aesthetic (which he links to WWII here), as well as the chapter on cuteness in Sianne Ngai’s Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting.


Another issue related to the military-industrial complex is environmentalism, which is on the forefront in FFVII. Environmental activism can date back to the 60s as a major movement and isn’t particular to Japan (though it did take place around the same time as civil right and anti-war movements). An excellent academic book that touches on this (and readable for laypeople / Japanese pop culture fans) is Anne Allison’s Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Allison argues that Japanese popular culture reflects the social conditions and aspirations that Japan has lived through post-war; one of the effects of industrialization is that areas of untouched nature shrunk, and thus many Japanese people feel a great deal of nostalgia for a natural or pastoral landscape (as a Canadian person, I was amused to learn that Japanese people really like Anne of Green Gables and are the largest group of foreign tourists to Prince Edward Island, which they apparently see as an image of what Japan had been). Allison spends a great deal of time talking about Pokemon; she writes that Tajiri, the creator of Pokemon, borrowed from his childhood experiences of catching insects and fish in his town and tries to recreate this experience of nature as playground, albeit a fantastical natural ecosystem of “monsters.” Allison doesn’t discuss this, but a more sober and ambivalent work in Japanese popular culture regarding the loss of nature would be Princess Mononoke. It’s also no accident that these works emerge in the 80s and 90s, which is when the generation born after WWII in Japan had matured into adults. Thus, while the environmentalism presented in FFVII seems to be a universal issue, it’s also very specific to the Japanese.

III. Philosophical stuff

Another rather Japanese-specific theme in FFVII that gets into philosophical territory is that “nature” in FFVII is not simply a material existence but a spiritual one, and is fundamentally no different from human beings. Hippies and esoteric beliefs aside, most people living in the Euro-American world would see nature as a resource (energy, raw materials) or as a setting for human activity and enjoyment (leisure, beauty, being in touch with ourselves). If we “respect” nature it’s more that we need to survive sustainably rather than for nature’s own sake, or when we fail to predict or control nature, disasters happen and we are humbled. If we “return to nature” upon our deaths, it is decomposition on a material level of the body, which we have in common with the natural world. Judeo-Christian-Islamic thinking has influenced most of us to think that human beings are exceptional for having souls, while beings of “nature” lacks it, even if we are not all religious adherents. The Lifestream in FFVII is a very different world view, where human beings are not exceptional, and everything returns to the Lifestream; thus, everything has some degree of soul, if that’s still the right word for it. Thus it also makes sense that Aerith’s flowers grow best in a church.

The Lifestream and good and evil

Because of this underlying spiritual element to FFVII, I think there are two parallel but linked frameworks of good and evil in FFVII. On the one hand, there is the familiar good and evil of an adventure story where Cloud and his friends, as the heroes, save the world from villains, which are both Sephiroth and Shinra. But what makes Sephiroth and Shinra the villains? And while Cloud is flawed, what makes him good, and what makes Aerith good? I think the other framework of good and evil is whether one acts according to the Lifestream or not. Two attributes of the Lifestream is that a) it is a continuous cycle where, in due time, everything on the planet dissolves into and b) in the flow, everything is broken up, remixed, and appears in a different form. The opposite of these would be a) taking something out of circulation and b) persisting in one form that does not distintegrate or recombine. In terms of nature and environmentalism, this would be plastic in a landfill. In the case of FFVII, it’s true that Sephiroth has killed innocent people, but I think his evil has more to do with being bent on continuing Jenova’s takeover of the planet, which directly affects the Lifestream; and Shinra Company’s evil is that they process the energy of the Lifestream into mako and use it up without replenishing it (an interesting article here argues that Shinra represents capitalism). Sephiroth is also guilty of this; in AC he explains that his aim is to spread his influence with the remnants of Geostigma victims, take over the planet that way, and use the planet to sail somewhere else to find another planet. This is definitely not sustainability either.

These are concrete ways that the Lifestream is affected, however there are more abstract versions of the two attributes. As life attitudes, the attributes of the Lifestream would translate to moving on when it is necessary to do so, and being flexible about what one needs to be. Here is also the reason I think Aerith is such a compelling character, and why Cloud is at first Sephiroth’s shadow but manages to be his own person. This is also where I think Advent Children shows a quite different manifestation of the same theme, a side which is important to consider.

Aerith’s way

In their own extremes, Sephiroth represents stagnation and self-absorption, and Shinra represents waste, while I think what makes Aerith “good” is that she lives her way according to the Lifestream and something like the “middle way,” and through her Cloud learns to do so as well.  This is also why I think it makes sense that Sephiroth reappears in Advent Children, since he is so bent on revenge and world domination that he does not allow his consciousness to dissolve in the Lifestream when it should. Near the end of FFVII, there is a discussion on Cid’s airship regarding whether Aerith planned to sacrifice herself, or whether she planned on returning to her friends (When Sephiroth tricks Cloud into giving one of his avatars the Black Materia to summon Meteor, Aerith leaves the party and goes to the city of the Ancients to summon Holy with her White Materia). The conversation ended on a note that leans towards the latter, but one wonders why, if she didn’t plan to sacrifice herself, did she leave alone and didn’t ask for help.

It’s debateable whether Aerith needed to die to save the world. She could have finished summoning Holy, and if Sephiroth’s power prevents it from taking effect, the party would have finished off Sephiroth in the Northern Crater, and Meteor would have stopped. However, it might be the case that even if events had unfolded this way, the party wouldn’t defeat Sephiroth in time and the Meteor would still be on its trajectory. There are different ways of interpreting the scene at the end of FFVII where the Lifestream rises up to counteract Meteor. It’s possible that the Lifestream would have done this anyways if the Meteor got too close (which is what Marlene describes in Advent Children), however since there is a shot of Aerith’s face in the glow of the Lifestream at the end, and in AC her voice seems to emanate from water, I prefer to think that Aerith was the one that instigated the Lifestream from within to counteract Meteor, and she could not have done this while alive. It’s not that she would have known when Sephiroth kills her that she needed to be dead, either; it’s just that she does what she can while alive, and also does what she can after death as well. This is in line with the attributes of the Lifestream, which is that she accepts what happens to her, moves on and takes on another form, which both is and isn’t Aerith, and makes it work.

Cloud also learns to do this by the end; on the airship he says that they all need to let go of Aerith’s memory; as he and Tifa are hanging from a cliff in the Northern Crater after defeating Sephiroth, he says that he is beginning to understand what the Promised Land is, and he could meet “her” (Aerith) there. Perhaps the Promised Land is the Lifestream and they will all “meet” Aerith upon death as everything recombines; perhaps it’s a place of mind where he understands that she is with them but in another form. Hopefully players also understand this by the end, know that hacking the game to keep playing her character rather defeats the purpose of the game’s thematic development, and most likely Aerith wouldn’t want that to happen. I remember reading fan confusion regarding the intention with her death, with the producer Kitase saying that the developers wished to reflect the meaninglessness and suddenness of death in real life (against the trope of sacrificial deaths in popular media, where sacrifice or love is usually a clear-cut meaning); on the other hand, resurrecting Aerith would take away the meaning of her death. I think what he means is that there is no inherent meaning in Aerith’s death, but her death is meaningful for the emotional and intellectual struggles of Cloud, the party, and the player as they come to terms with it. Paradoxically, one of the ways of making meaning of her death is to accept that it has no meaning to death; if this seems nihilistic, her death has no meaning because it’s a non-event, and she is not really gone, and you can meet her in the Promised Land.

Cloud takes quite a long while to get there though. If Aerith goes with the flow of the Lifestream and accepts that she dies and takes another form, Sephiroth and Cloud are too wrapped up in maintaining their self-image, to their detriment and the detriment of others around them. Sephiroth, for his part, goes on his rampage after discovering that his status as an elite SOLDIER was due to being experimented on by Shinra and Hojo, and strives for revenge and to continue Jenova’s supposed legacy of taking over the world (This second goal never made particular sense to me, since going from “Jenova was meant to take over the world millenia ago” and “I have Jenova cells” to “I must take over the world” seems quite a leap, and my only explanation is mako and Jenova-induced mental instability on Sephiroth’s part, as well as a slightly hamfisted way of introducing the theme of legacies). Cloud is so invested in being a member of SOLDIER that he adopts Zack’s memories as his own and deludes himself and everyone else into thinking that he had been in SOLDIER. Even as a boy, as he explains to Tifa when they are in the Lifestream, he told himself that he was superior to the other children when all he wanted was to be included. And of course, when Hojo reveals that he had experimented on a series of beings (?) in an attempt to create Sephiroth clones, Cloud begs Hojo to give him a number so that he has something to latch onto for his identity. After Tifa helps him to piece things together in the Lifestream, he accepts that he isn’t who he thought he was, and that’s all right, since the party together, with the memory of Aerith, will do what needs to be done.

Advent Children extensions

In Advent Children, though, there exists the opposite problem, where Cloud, presumably coming down from the high of defeating Sephiroth, no longer knows who he is at all, nor do the people who used to live in Midgar. This is the opposite extreme to what Cloud manages to conquer in the game, which is overweening pride; in AC he falls into despair. Geostigma infects people who have lost their will to live, and what looks to be acute Geostigma attacks occur during moments of despair or doubt, such as when Denzel first accidentally calls Tifa and tells her that he doesn’t know what to do with his family dead and home gone, and in midst of crying suffers an attack and passes out. Rufus is correct in saying that Sephiroth, by holding onto himself in the Lifestream, is responsible for Geostigma; his malevolence in the Lifestream overpowers those who let themselves go. Cloud, especially, isolates himself when he’s ill with Geostigma; this would be taking himself out of circulation in social terms. Cloud and other Midgar denizen’s issues in AC also show that while Aerith goes with the flow of the Lifestream, this doesn’t mean that she lacks direction or personal integrity. Whereas Tifa tends to hold back, Aerith acts; in addition to going to the City of the Ancients by herself, one detail I remember in particular is from recruiting Vincent. After Vincent explains that he decided to sequester himself in the Nibelheim mansion due to his inability to save Lucrecia, Aerith responds, “So you decided to punish yourself by sleeping? That’s kinda weird.” Aerith would (and does) disapprove of the way Cloud is behaving in AC, though at the end she acknowledges that he’s grown up a bit more.

I think the events of AC makes sense; heroes don’t save the world and live happily after. Sometimes overcoming a catastrophe means there are still pieces to pick up, which might call on different skills and attitudes from the catastrophe itself. There needs to be a medium between arrogance and despair, between action and waiting, between identity and adaptive flexibility, and finding a way of taking on someone’s legacy without becoming a puppet, which is what Sephiroth accuses Cloud of being. I find that the conflict of AC is more internal than in the game, though because it’s a CG movie it needs to show off visual aesthetics with visible antagonists. Oddly enough, in AC it’s Rufus who becomes the most erudite advocate for a healthy attitude, when he tells Kadaj that it wouldn’t matter if Sephiroth were to return; the cycle of the Lifestream means that history might repeat itself, and any number of Jenovas and Sephiroths would not stop those connected to the Lifestream from living as life mandates.

To put FFVII in context, I think that perhaps Japan, with their pride and ambitions during WWII and quick fall into defeat and surrender, particularly needed these popular culture texts to think through what it means to find a middle way. In the context of Japanese society, I suppose I also understand why Advent Children in the 2000s is tackling despair as the problem as opposed to pride in the FFVII game; the pressures of the education system, plus the recent 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and poor employment, likely gave rise to a lot of young people not knowing what they should be doing with their lives and with some becoming hikikomori in extreme cases.

However, I understand the golden age of Japanese popular culture to be in the 90s, when creators were really trying to grapple with the history of their country and what it means to live life to its fullest potential. Since then, I’m rather disappointed to see tropes recycled a lot without much substance behind them, and also Japan’s national branding project in the 2000s (the Cool Japan cultural policy) means that Japanese popular culture may be more devoted of its global image to non-Japanese, whereas self-searching is perhaps put on the backburner. With a new FFVII remake, I hope that it would carry forwards the social and philosophical ruminations of the original game and AC, and even be thematically different from the game so as to continue to reflect what Japan is internally going through today. Regardless, as a major fan of FFVII, I’m looking forward to what the reunion might bring.


Youth Culture, Fandom and Social Participation in Durarara!!

I. Personal background
II. Comparing Baccano! and Durarara!!: narrative structures, emphasis, character relatability
III. How Durarara!! shows the condition of an urban setting, with a bit on parkour at the end
IV. How Durarara!! shows different kind of fandom/participation, through character analysis
V. Duarara!! fandom activities

When Durarara!! first started airing on Crunchyroll, I watched the first two episodes because I liked Baccano! and they have the same original author, Ryohgo Narita. I was expecting something along the lines of Baccano! especially because I read on a summary that Durarara!! would also be certain events told from multiple perspectives, but the first two episodes left me feeling a little “wtf?” The issue with Rio Kamichika wanting to commit suicide in the first two episodes, added to the fact that the main characters were high school students, gave me the impression that the series would revolve around teen angst a lot. I feel that I’ve already outgrown that (or maybe I’m just eager to outgrow it), so I dropped the series. It’s a pity that like me, some other viewers also felt that they couldn’t get the point of the series after a few episodes and stopped watching.

Recently, I’ve been intensely absorbed in Baccano! – I’ve been doing translations of volume 8/9 of the light novels over at Baka-tsuki, and recently I just finished the first volume of the story arc. I remember hearing that there was an Isaac and Miria cameo in Durara!! and that the two series take place within the same universe, so I decided to try Durarara!! again. I’m glad I did, because I’m doing some background reading to prepare for PhD applications, and recently came across studies about fandom and Internet culture. To me, these topics clicked with a lot of what is depicted in Durarara!! .

II. Baccano! : Durarara!! :: form : content/theme

Why are people comparing baccano to Durarara? Yes, they’re by the same author. But that doesn’t mean much of anything.
NYA, Random Curiosity

(I have a post about Rashomon, Baccano! and Haruhi in the works but it’s stalling because I couldn’t find anything new and intelligent to say, and also because I have to watch series multiple times before I blog about them, and watching Haruhi repeatedly drives me crazy.)

Both Baccano! and Durarara!! are by Narita and do share some similar structures, in terms of an ensemble cast, multiple perspectives and incomplete information that gets gradually revealed. While at this point I still like Baccano! more, probably due to how much work I’ve invested in it, I have to say that Durarara!! is the more “mature” of the two series. It was written after Baccano!, so from this point of view one can say that Narita has smoothed out his rough edges as he developed his craft.

However, the most obvious difference between the two series to me is that they have different purposes, with one emphasizing form more and the other emphasizing themes more. As an analogy from art history, milestones in the field seem to come either from a radical new subject of the artwork or a radically new way of representing it. For example, Gustav Courbet painted peasants working in the fields in the 1800s and this was shocking because peasants had never been thought of as appropriate subjects of painting. In the early 1900s, Marcel Ducahmp painted works like A Nude Descending Staircase; while there have probably been a lot of nudes on staircases in the history of painting, this achievement was one related to form because Picasso represented the human form as geometrical and also tried to depict movement in a stationary medium. I’m oversimplifying this – Courbet also developed a rougher way of painting that offended the Academy, but one can see these two painters as general examples of how art and literature can develop through form or content, if not both.

Baccano! is very entertaining with its larger-than-life characters and fantastic elements. The “point” of the Baccano! anime seems to me to be a formal/structural one. Within the 13-episode series, there are 3 main timelines that proceed simultaneously, and each episode switches back and forth between these. The OAVs brings the viewer back to Gustav St. Germain and Carol at the end to emphasize that there is no one perspective that can be more valid than any other, and there is no beginnings and endings even though the tidy human mind likes to think there are (from what I’ve read of the novels, this seems to be mentioned in the novels but it isn’t stressed as much as in the anime), and the immortality of the characters just makes this point more salient. The anime is brilliant in that it leads viewers through 3 plotlines to arrive at a resolution for all of them, and one plotline can give clues and answers to events in the other ones. The most dazzling aspect isn’t necessarily the events in the plot (which, to tell the truth, are still pretty dazzling) but how the plot is executed and what this says about human cognition and our need for closure.

Durarara!! is different in that while it does include an ensemble cast and does have narration from multiple perspectives, the execution of the anime’s plot is pretty linear compared to Baccano!. It seems that Narita has confidence in the form that he has developed over Baccano! and is now building up more of the content with Durarara!! Like Baccano!, Durarara!! also has amazing characters – e.g. I feel like Izaya is almost like a more sadistic version of Huey Laforet – but it places its content more at the fore. There is less action and that makes the anime seem slower, but events in the plot, rather than the plot’s structure, is more reflective of the human condition.

Jutester wrote on the recommendations section for Durarara!! in that the two series are similar in that they are both about underground groups in society, and this is true; there are gangs in both – organized crime like the Mafia in Baccano! and youth gangs, underground doctors, and illegal immigrants in Durarara!!. However they are handled differently. Baccano glorifies in violence and gore, like it’s an animated Quentin Tarantino film. The psychopathic Ladd Russo is probably the best example of this – punching an opponent until both fists are bloody, dancing in a pool of blood, shooting a child in the head, etc. But while Durarara!! glorifies in action, such as Shizuo Heiwajima throwing things like pop machines and Celty’s chases on her motorcycle, it doesn’t figure violence in an entertaining way as much as Baccano! does. From very early on in the series, Masaomi narrates that he wants to protect Mikado from the darker side of society, and the actions of the renegade Yellow Scarves members are horrifying rather than appealing. In addition, the “twisted love” in Durarara!! seem more frightening than the twisted relationships in Baccano!, even though technically they’re on the same level of twistedness. For example, Ladd and Lua in Baccano! are pretty messed up, as well as Huey’s relationship with his children, but they don’t seem as creepy as weird love trapezoid between Mika Harima, Seiji, Namie, and Celty’s head, and the entourage of girls who worship Izaya. Speaking of Izaya, I also feel that while the information brokers in Baccano! seem very cool for the extent of their powers, Izaya in Durarara!! is meant to be doubted despite being appealing, seeing as how he shamelessly uses people and puts the focus characters through a lot of misery. In Durarara!!, I think, there are more clear villains.

On the flipside of villains, something which Baccano! lacks and Durarara!! has is characters viewers can relate to. There isn’t really anyone in Baccano! that viewers can relate to right off the bat, because the world it depicts, 1930s American gang warfare and train hijacking, is so far removed from our own, even without any anime-esque twists. While there are elements of profundity like Claire’s solipsism , and his idea that human relationships makes one’s world bigger, there aren’t too many instances of desires or quandaries or losses that exactly match what real people today experience.

Also, the two series are both about gangs but they are very different gangs. In Baccano!, the gangs are well-established organized crime families run largely by adults, but the gangs in Durarara!! are mostly packs of kids, and I think this is the series’ strong point. In Episode 18, Masaomi singles out Horoda for being too old and tells other members not to invite adults anymore, because they’re just junior high students and wants neither to fight against adults nor be controlled by adults. In the end, when Horoda and the Blue Squares members reveal that they’d taken over the Yellow Scarves from the inside, all the remaining members appear to be adult or approaching adult age. I remember in Children’s Literature class, the professor says that a lot of young adult stories “get the parents out of the way” before the story starts – either they’re dead or missing or away on a trip or whatever, because these stories tend to want to build into a world just for children(1). Masaomi’ comments seem to reflect this. All children feel at some point in their lives that parents can ruin things and they just want to bump around and see where they end up, which children’s literature allows them to do. Durarara!! shows a world where there aren’t many adults, and rather it’s up to interactions among teenagers to sort things out, and so the teenage/young adult audience might find the series more compelling than Baccano! because they would see themselves more in the series’s characters. Ultimately, which side of the line Mikado will end up in and how he will get there, and whether Masaomi can extricate himself from a gang war that he’d rather not be in, stand in for all the questing of young people to find their place in society, as trite as that sounds. So, I must admit that I misread the first couple of episodes, and the series actually does have very strong points and a lot of depth.

III. The Urban Condition

So uh, anybody figure out who the main character was? Some say it was Celty, others say it was Mikado, and people even say that there is none. […] In my opinion its Ikebukuro itself, since I felt that the events spiralled around the city itself, but then again, that’s just me.
Click, Random Curiosity

A lot of people who watch Durarara!! noticed that the anime prominently featured Ikebukuro. There is also a discussion on Random Curiosity about the final episode where Simon punches Izaya into a sculpture that says “LOVE,” where fans debate whether it’s in Shinjuku or Ikebukuro and one fan, “ammato,” says that he/she heard that the production team actually went around Tokyo and assigned where certain events would take place. Hence, Click in the quote up there is correct that Ikebukuro is more than just a backdrop – it has its own importance. (I really wish that I had my notes with me, because a couple of years ago there was a seminar on anime culture at Ryerson University in Toronto where one professor talked about the relationships and significances that different areas of Tokyo such as Ikeburkuro and Akihabara had to anime fans. I can’t remember what he said, but it seemed to be along the lines that there are many places in Ikebukuro that cater to fans.) Anyway, in this section the focus is more generally the city and how the city, Ikebukuro or not, provides an important setting that is also a comment on the condition of many young people today, and sets up a lot of tensions in the anime series.

I think urban studies is a specific branch of the Humanities, but I haven’t really done any work in this area. I only have a vague memory that Charles Baudelaire, an early 1900s French poet, had about the idea of the flaneur, which is someone who walks around the city and looks at urban sights and urban people, which is sort of like window shopping + people watching today, and very general stuff from Social Studies class. In the 1800s and 1900s, the city was just developing into the structure it was now. In the Industrial Revolution migration of people from the countryside to the cities, social structures in the country, such as the relationship between landowners and peasant farmers, changed. This caused a lot of concern among the middle and upper classes regarding the breakdown of traditional hierarchies in the city where you could meet anybody. The absence of a hierarchy and the everyone for themselves attitude, added to poor working conditions, also made crime in the city a big concern. In some ways this is still the case.

More abstractly, life in the city also changed people’s self-concept. In rural areas and in feudal societies, a person’s place in society was likely determined by the work that he or she is doing, which was most likely passed down from older family members, plus being a member of whichever church/congregation. Most people lived by identifying themselves vis-a-vis immediate family first, then the community, which was probably a village or a town, and for most people this would have been as far as identification got. Middle-class merchants and craftspeople would have had a bigger world view since they engaged in trade and production, and of course the upper classes had an international mentality and could probably speak a few languages. But most common people would not have had the chance to feel that they were a part of a world or even a part of a country. But being in the city, where there was every kind of person imaginable, plus the sheer number of people, made one quite aware that there was a huge world out there and that one person was quite small.

Also, since the city developed due to industry, there was the sense that the city was a giant machine and people got sucked into it. This idea of the city still stays with us today, because people who work in urban areas like to go to the beach or the woods or something non-urban for holidays. Part of this is true. To be sort of Marxist (not meaning a Communist here though), industrialization does make the individual worker a cog in a machine. In feudal societies, perhaps even peasants had the sense that the land they were working on has been handed down through their ancestors, and it gave them a sense of ownership and pride in the work they put into it, but in the factory, workers do small repetitive tasks for the owner of the enterprise.(2) However, industrialization, while messing with traditional hierarchies and identities, also provided a new playground. It is possible that in the city a lowly peasant could work hard and become wealthy through the capitalist system, whereas this wouldn’t have been possible in the feudal system. (The American dream should be amended to be the American urban dream. Few immigrants go to America to be farmers, for instance). So the city provided a sense of possibility but also a sense of danger in that anything could happen to you, and also a faint sense that taken altogether, the city wasn’t quite human and sort of mechanical (For a comparison between the experience of working with a machine and the experience of being jostled in the city, see Bejamin’s “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” section VII).

Benjamin writes that Baudelaire was caught between two aspects of the city – on the one hand, he could be a flaneur and enjoy the teeming possibility of the city as a detached observer, but on the other hand, as a person being among the city crowds, he was also a part of the masses. A quotation from Benjamin is that “He [Baudelaire] becomes deeply involved with them[city crowds], only to relegate them to oblivion with a single glance of contempt.” (“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” section VI). I might add that other people also dismiss Baudelaire with a single glance of contempt too. Whereas in a village you knew everyone who lived around you, in the city this isn’t the case, and so critics in the 1900s talked about alienation in the cities, a criticism we still hear today.

So, going by these effects of being a part of the city, there is alienation from the traditional references of personal identity, which are no longer present, however there is also the possibility that people can develop into anything they want. There is fleeting glances of contempt but there is also anonymity if one is trying to escape from the law. All of these aspects of being in a big city is central to the development of Durarara!!. Toshi left an insightful discussion comment on Random Curiosity that if we apply Campbellian archetypes, Mikado is like the young man in tribal societies who leaves his home to go into the forests to become a man. I agree that the Campbellian archetype is still apt even for the 21st century, except boys no longer go into forests to prove they are men anymore, they go into cities. The cities is where a new identity can be forged and sustained through new connections, but it’s also where young people can fall really, really hard.

In the first half of the anime, Mikado repeatedly emphasizes that he wants his life to become more interesting, and that’s one reason he accepted Masaomi’s offer to enroll in Raira Academy in Tokyo. This is the aspect of Mikado that would take advantage of a city’s possibilities. The first episode seems a bit confusing but that’s probably exactly what the producers want us to feel, which is to feel like Mikado experiencing the city intimately for the first time, with its legends and rival factions and quirky characters. It also makes Mikado and the audience feel that there’s a whole web of material that we don’t know about, which there is, and this is the aspect of the city where individuals might feel alienated and insignificant. Some audiences (like me) might have felt alienated enough to drop the series, but I think the point of the series is that the audience should overcome what amounts to culture shock along with Mikado.

Because anything in the city is possible, there’s a question of where Mikado would go, whether he will be swallowed by the anonymity of the city and become a drone, or whether he will become a man in the wilderness. He obviously doesn’t plan on becoming a drone, however soft-spoken and awkward he is. But “becoming a man” is also fraught with danger, since anything is possible and there are all kinds of people in Ikebukuro, from mad otakus to headless fairies to hell-bent traffic officers to rival street gangs. Many young characters of the series is in a similar situation as Mikado, in that they are trying on identities and allegiances and fandoms in order to find who they are. The question surrounding Mikado becomes: what aspects of the multitudinous city will he imbibe to form his identity as a man, and are they the right ones?

(Before I get into answering this question in the next section, I want to add that part of the mechanicalness of the city is that it controls the flow of human bodies. To drive in the city you have to obey traffic lights, for instance. But something we might take for granted is that most public places are ordered into grids or webs of some kind, meaning you can’t take the most direct point from A to B “as the crow flies.” Most people probably don’t see this as a restriction, since we generally still end up where we want to go. But we still find that breaking these rules seem pretty cool. In Durarara!!, Celty is amazing for her mastery of the Ikebukuro streets on her motorcycle/horse, and Shizuo is amazing because he can literally change the urban setting by picking up and throwing almost anything that’s not a concrete building. I thought that part of the humour of how he used a highway signpost to smash the car that Saki’s captors were fleeing in (Ep. 21) lies in that he’s abusing an urban sign which is normally used for peacefully directing traffic to completely smash someone’s vehicle, not to mention deprive other drivers of directions, at least until it gets fixed.

Even if Shizuo can’t pick up buildings, He and Izaya both know parkour, which is sadly underemphasized in the anime. Wikipedia says that the objective of parkour is to “take the most direct path through an obstacle as rapidly as that route can be traversed safely,” or in another words, A to B as the crow flies and working around the obstacles that the city places in the way. In the philosophy of parkour, “Urban reclamation,” which is “the idea that by creating an urban landscape around us, society has robbed us of something dear to us” and “We re-imagine the concrete and architecture as we see fit, and are no longer bound by the rules of ‘stairs’ and ‘barriers’ and ‘fences'” (Tran, “Two Theories on Parkour Philosophy”) For Izaya, who manipulates humanity, parkour can be seen as another kind of manipulation, but at least Shizuo can be a force for good even if he doesn’t always feel that he is. In Celty, Izaya, and Shizuo, there are characters who are not physically bound by the limitations of the city.

(Interestingly, in the article “Two Theories on Parkour Philosophy,” there is a section on “Human Reclamation” that contrasts the movement of parkour to movement up the social ladder of capitalism, which most people are “conditioned” to believe they will be “perfect capitalists,” but
“reality and statistics have only shown that this is a very rare occurrence and most people will remain in the same place or social stratum for most of their lives.” So, this goes back to the idea of the city as being a place where anything is possible – but actually few people “make it.” Working around the boundaries of the city becomes symbolic for working around the system of capitalist production that the city stands for.)

IV. Different Kinds of “Fandom”

With “fandom,” I don’t mean just fans of particular media productions – I mean more loosely groups who actively participate in anything that gives them a sense of identity.

Durarara!! shows many different ways that its urban youth focus characters engage with society to build their identity. There’s Izaya, who manipulates everyone while claiming to love humanity; Anri, who can’t engage with people, and Saika, whose relation of “love,” similar to Izaya’s “love,” brings destruction; again, the love triangles between Mika, Seiji, Namie and Celty’s head; the scary makeup girls who bully Anri, who seem to be swallowed in commodity culture, and their rapidly gesticulating boyfriend; Walker and Erika, the otakus with a twisted sense of reality; Masaomi, who becomes the leader of the Yellow Scarves and is mired in gang warfare; and Mikado, the anonymous leader of the Dollars.

Basically, I see Durarara!! showing two kinds of social engagement. One is an obsessive, (self-)destructive engagement with one aspect of society that makes everything not of this aspect to be expendable, and another is a balanced engagement that takes into account both one’s private sense of self and one’s social roles with a sense of responsibility. Some characters have a sense of this all along, and some grow into it. One can say that Celty and Shinra, two older characters, also go through this path as well. Shinra, being in love with Celty, wants to hide the knowledge of her head from her, but realizes that he is perhaps being selfish. Likewise, in the beginning of the series, Celty is very adamant about finding her head, but she comes to accept that lacking her head does not unmake who she is.

To start with more minor characters, the creepy makeup girls and their boyfriend. They seem like they’re trying to fit into a certain popular image, which in the representation of the anime, seems outrageous and ridiculous because it’s overdone and pretentious. The boyfriend, especially, seems to reflect how young people will overload themselves with signs of a subculture to shore up their sense of belonging to that group, hence the hair and the gesticulating that proclaims himself as part of street culture, but again, overdone.

I don’t know how to analyze Izaya, and it seems to me that he’s one character in the series who isn’t quite human in character – all other characters, when they do wrong, seem to have a reason and a background story to explain it, but Izaya doesn’t. Anyway. The obsession on the part of Mika, Seiji, and Namie doesn’t really need to be explained, except to emphasize that Mika is so blinded by her obsession that she’s willing to accept a severed head in Seiji’s possession and would get cosmetic surgery for a chance to be with him, and Anri also said that Mika and Anri were only friends because they each used the other to make themselves look better. And Seiji is willing to grievously hurt Mika to protect the relationship between him and the head, and Namie is willing to completely disregard the law to protect Seiji, kidnap people to do experiments on them, etc.

Next, there’s Walker and Erika. When I first heard about them, I was immediately interested, because having anime fans in anime is a very brave thing to do because the production is confronting the audience with themselves. I first thought they were sort of cute, and it was very brave of Walker to save Saki. His otaku-esque rant while he is confronting the Blue Squares who kidnapped Saki was one of the highlights of the episode : “In real life, people don’t come to the rescue like in movies and cartoons, and so this girl’s been trashed like she has. So I was thinking…if a hero appeared now to save her, perhaps the world would become two-dimensional, and I’d become the saviour of the world with superpowers at my command!” (ep. 18)

Basically, Walker and Erika espouse the philosophy that reality and fiction aren’t separate. This is perhaps what enables Walker to walk up to a gang and save someone they’re torturing – he sees his actions as a part of a fictitious story, a two-dimensional world (which it is from the audience’s POV, hence part of the fun in this scene). I think this episode portrays an obsession with the two-dimensional world in a positive way, because it gives people courage to do what they wouldn’t dare do otherwise.

However, Erika and Walker quickly become extremely creepy. I haven’t read the novels but apparently they torture people according to how people in anime, manga and light novel series are tortured. The most disturbing of all is Erika in episode 21. While Izaya is goading Masaomi with the theory that he will always be haunted by his past, Erika is basically saying that Masaomi can just pretend that the conflict with the Blue Squares never happened. Later, scenes of a troubled Masaomi pacing the streets of Ikebukuro are interspersed with Erika and Walker in an anime store, and Erika saying hat she can edit reality to be what she wants and can get rid of everything that she doesn’t find interesting. The scene shows her casually throwing one of those ball container things into a garbage can. While this isn’t as bad as educational critics saying that violence in the media causes incidents like the Columbine shootings, it has a more troubling undertone in what it says about how a engagement with fiction might distort a person’s social outlook. From this, I find how Narita handles Walker and Erica to be very realistic, by neither criticizing nor glorifying the otakus, and hence I still like Walker and Erica as complex characters.

Saki’s situation is also troubling. Again, not having read the novels, I’m not sure exactly how Izaya collects girls who have been traumatized in their past, but Saki as the one example in the anime would do anything for Izaya, as she states in Masaomi’s flashbacks. During the conflict between the Yellow Scarves and the Blue Squares, Saki gets kidnapped and tortured and hospitalized on Izaya’s orders. I suppose, purely theoretically, being traumatized in some way is a big wound to anyone’s self-concept, especially children. Izaya might exploit this fragile sense of self and give the girls a sense that they have a legitimate place alongside him, and they do as he commands because he is the only person in their lives to offer them a sense of place. Saki’s change through the series seems to be that she has found another reference point for her personal definition, which is Masaomi. A lot of fans seem to find her really creepy too, but I think the last episode redeems her, when she calls Simon’s sushi restaurant and tells him everything that Isaya plotted in an effort to save Masaomi.

Masaomi’s situation has a slightly different inflection than the other characters. He’s no longer trying to be a part of something to give himself a sense of identity, but trying to get away from certain things in his past that makes him someone he doesn’t want to be. This can be just as bad as unquestioning participation. One thing in his past is the Yellow Scarves, whose leader position he grudgingly takes up again, and another is Saki, whom he couldn’t bear to visit and whom he wants to break up with. At first, around Masaomi are two competing choices. One is Izaya’s philosophy. Izaya says to Masaomi in Ep.20 that since people use their accounts of the past as a guide for their actions, then it is possible to think of the past as “God.” Izaya uses this chain of reasoning to tell Masaomi that since he feels guilty about what happened to Saki in the past, then Saki will be like Kida’s “God,” and that he will never shake free of it. The other philosophy is Erika’s philosophy that Masaomi can believe what he wants and forget about what happened to Saki if he doesn’t like it.

However, Kyohei (Dotachin) gives Masaomi another choice, and that is to overcome his guilt and “be responsible to both the past and the future.” This was stated in rather abstract terms, but Masaomi manages this by the end of the series. Not wanting a repeat of what happened between the Yellow Scarves and the Blue Squares, Masaomi goes to face Horoda, the upstart leader of the Yellow Squares, proclaiming that he’d been running from his past but he is going to actively catch up with his past this time.

Lastly, there’s Mikado. Contrary to Masaomi, who just wants to be a normal high school student, Mikado wants his life to be extraordinary, which is one reason he went to Tokyo. This makes Mikado the character that most of the audience can relate to, because most audience members are probably teenagers and young adults who wished that their lives were more interesting, and not the reverse like Masaomi, which is wishing that their lives were more normal. Hence, what Mikado does in the series would command the most attention, and more than anyone else, his path serves as a guide among all the other clearly dysfunctional paths other characters take.

Unlike other characters in this section, Mikado doesn’t jump into a social faction to find a place for himself and he doesn’t commit himself to actions just to prove himself. For instance, he advocates peace when some of the Dollars members agitate for conflict with the Yellow Scarves, even when he doesn’t know that the leader of the Yellow Scarves is really Masaomi. In other words, he seems to feel secure enough in his position (and the position of Dollars) that he doesn’t feel that he needs to prove anything by committing everyone to a gang war. He’s already proved himslef. In the middle of the series, when Mikado is dealing with threats from Namie, he has proved that he can mobilize all of the Dollars members and overwhelm Namie with numbers acting in a pacifist way. The nature of the Dollars, contrary to other youth gangs, is nonviolent; Mikado tells the Dollars members only to stare at Namie and her employees, but not to actually do anything else to them. He has tried to influence the Dollars to become a socially benevolent group, for example through public acts of charity. Most importantly, he can let go and disband Dollars when it seems that being a member risked targetting by the Yellow Scarves. All in all, for Mikado, the Dollars is important but not such a crucial part of his identity that he would hold on to it above all other things, such as the safety of its individual members, and it doesn’t colour his perception of his own situations to the exclusion of everything else. In this way, Mikado strikes a balance that many of the character in the series lack.

One quote from Celty that strikes me is in episode 23, when she says that Anri, Masaomi, and Mikado need to meet not as the leaders of their respective factions, but as themselves. But what is “self” but a collection of identities, and what are identities except that they describe the self as belonging in various groups? So how can there be a self for the three Durarara!! characters totally apart from their identities as Slasher, Yellow Scarf leader, and Dollars leader? What Celty seems to be saying is not that there is some abstract “self” apart from identities found in social groups, but that one’s investment in one social group should not overwhelm the other aspects of one’s identity. In this case, it would mean that none of the three characters ought to place their relationship to their respective groups above their friendship for one another.

In this respect, Durarara!! is extremely postmodern. In postmodernity, everything is constantly shifting, there is no fixed centre of reference and nothing is absolute. Postmodernity describes secularization, since less and less people are sure about all-powerful deities and their absolute authority. Postmodernity also rewrites history, showing that multiple events and people contributed to the unfolding of one event rather than attribute the event to one remarkeable person.(3) It is where we get novels like Wicked, and where we get narratives structured like the ones in Baccano!. Identity, too, is part of this. There is no single “self” that is always going to be stable through time. All the other gangs in Durarara!! seem to espouse an older and outdated sense of identity, where there are feuds between factions and revenge; Yellow Scarves members calling Masaomi “Shogun” seems to reflect that they are more traditional in their idea of hierarchies.

Dollars reflects a more postmodern sense of identity. There are no hierarchies, no defining characteristics, no fixed memberships, and an unknown leader. In Episode 21, some members of Dollars call out in the chatroom for their leader to do something about the impending gang war, and also question the leader’s choices and capabilities. However, the members come to the agreement that it’s not up to their leader but themselves, because the group has gone beyond the conventional notion of gangs where a group of people “belong” to a person who leads them, but rather, “It’s not about who Dollars belong to – it belongs to us.” In this move, Dollars crosses the line between the social and private self. We see in Masaomi the conflict between what he wants personally and what he must do as the leader of the Yellow Scarves because the Yellow Scarves is external to his sense of self and calls on him to negate other aspects of his character to prove his allegiance to the Yellow Scarves. Group membership is the worst peer pressure. However, in Dollars, there is no difference between the outside group to which one belongs and the members’ sense of self, since they can join and leave as they please – in another words, participating in Dollars would never risk one’s self-concept because Dollars never tries to impose on its members that it’s more important than any other identity that its members might hold. The fact that Dollars members refuse to disband comes from their own sense of self as responsible individuals and not because the leader of the Dollars calls on them to prove their allegiance.

This difference between Dollars and the other groups is most saliently expressed in the colours of other gangs versus the Dollars’ transparency. What I have been talking about with Masaomi, the scary makeup girls, the otakus, and Seiji, Mika, and Namie is that something external to themselves – either a group or a person – has drawn them into an allegiance where all other allegiances are rendered unimportant or impossible. If one participates in a colour gang, for example by joining the Yellow Scarves, one has to be yellow and no other colour, and this is often shown on the characters’ clothing. However, Dollars does not require this of its members, and it has no outward sign of membership. Not requiring that its members show a particular colour symbolically means that it lets its members take on other identities in addition to being a Dollars member. The anime handles this well stylistically, by making unnamed colour gang members gray silhouettes with only their colour to identify them, making the majority of passers-by grey, and having all the members of the Dollars suddenly erupt into their full spectrum of colour when they choose to act on Mikado’s call to stare at Namie.

V. The Fandom of Durarara!!

The Dollars ARE real. And you’re a part of them. We are real people trying to make a real difference in this world. And we don’t WANT the world to take us seriously, because then our group would be infiltrated by a bunch of assholes that just want to ruin everything. Yes we all have different cells (our friends, and people near us), but that doesn’t make us separate gangs as long as we all continue to collaborate and contribute by keeping communications with these forums.

— Umbra Serpens, ID TzE2UXLq, Dollars BBS

People speak of Urban youth culture a lot, and in general the city is seen as a place where youth culture is established, because the city has spots outside adult surveillance and young people can move freely to find themselves. While the roots of urban youth culture isn’t going to disappear any time soon, I feel that in the West at least, the Internet is the home to more subcultures than the streets.

In some ways, Dollars is extremely similar to the medium it operates through, which is the Internet. The Internet is postmodern because there is no centre and technically no hierarchies; there is no central website that governs other websites, and people connect to the internet and leave, whatever identities they have outside it. The Internet is anonymous, which translates to the Dollars’ transparency. In addition, the Dollars is shown to be all-pervasive in Ikebukuro even though they aren’t seen by marked symbols of membership, such as when member after member pop up and help Anri escape from the Yellow Scarves on an unplanned relay rescue. Similarly, the Internet today is ubiquitous, as smartphones can connect to the Internet and one can access the unseen Internet almost wherever one goes. Mikado’s words as the anime ends is that Dollars can be considered the city, but I would say that Dollars is the Internet as well.

Or maybe another perspective is that Dollars and its members are the go-between between the virtual world and the concrete one. Many people join Dollars (or any other group) because group membership makes them feel that they are affecting some positive change, if this change is only just to make oneself happier. A group like Dollars may start on the Internet, but it has real life consequences for the characters, for example when Mikado sees on the news that graffiti has been cleaned up overnight due to his nudge the day before, not to mention Dollars helping to save Anri’s life through the cell phone network. The importance of the Internet to Dollars is that it provides a network that can be called upon to change the world.

At the next level, although Durarara!! is an anime, it has real life consequences for the audience’s real life. There is a Dollars BBS made to look like the one in the anime. It’s a mind-blowing project, because as you face the log-in page, you feel that the difference between reality and fiction is collapsing. Like Dollars in the anime, people can come and go as they please, use different user names if they choose, follow other members’ proposals or not. It’s all entirely voluntary and there is no leader, other than perhaps administrations. As implied in the quotation opening this section, some people are concerned that this kind of group cannot last among a world still dominated by hierarchical groups. But just as parkour is a symbolic rebellion against the tiers of the capitalist system, Dollars can be a symbolic alteration of conventional hierarchy. The fact that some members don’t need to be “taken seriously” is like what I said about postmodernity, that there is power in being fluid, unstable, and outside the system of punishments and acknowledgements. In addition, the problem that I looked at in the last section with everyone except for Mikado comes from taking their groups too seriously, making it more important than anything in the character’s life. Not insisting that the real world Dollars be taken seriously by the rest of the world may also protect members from investing too much in the group itself to the exclusion of other aspects of their lives.

On the BBS there are also threads proposing missions to better the world in small ways, such as giving others confidence and helping each other with life issues (I’ve barely scratched the surface of the missions – I’m sure there have been other worthy projects that I haven’t seen). It was started by fans of the anime, and it’s still bound to its roots, but it has great potential to become a major force. I am slightly worried that the enthusiasm with the real-life Dollars group will fade as fans move on to other animes, but I hope that this will not be the case. For everyone who wishes their life were more interesting, if members do complete small acts of kindness in their life and get positive reinforcement from other members, this will constantly remind them of what it means to be a part of Dollars. Then, when a crisis does come, members may remember that they are a part of Dollars and react accordingly. For example, if an earthquake hits the city you are living in, it would be wonderful if a message can be sent to all the Dollars members in the city, and whomever is safe and has no other obligations can meet up and try to help others.

The whole last section was spent analyzing different kinds of social participation, with the conclusion that the colourless nature of the Dollars helps its members to stay and do good without compromising their selfhood. What the Dollars in Durarara!! did for its members is what Durarara!! would do for its audience – make the audience into intelligent and socially responsible people and not Walkers and Erikas, who simply put reality they don’t like in the trash. And it looks like it’s working.

(1) The first example that comes to mind of children’s literature where there are no parents is Harry Potter. Of course Harry doesn’t want his parents to be dead, but it means that his adventures are negotiated through an interaction with his peers rather than through teachings by his parents. And step-parents don’t count as parents – I remember my prof for Children’s Lit saying that having step-parents in a story is an automatic cue for readers to hate them as surrogates for all the adults ruining their lives. Hence the Dursleys.

(2) This is an oversimplification and I don’t entirely agree that the two systems are so different. One could say that in feudal societies, a lot of work that peasants do is for the landowner and not themselves, and in contemporary production there are still many incidences of small business and individual craftsmanship. But it’s more a question of the scale of the two systems.

(3) For example, in recent decades historians have been trying try to explore the Holocaust and WWII in the West through examining social forces rather than put most of the blame Hitler, but many people are unhappy about this because that seems to absolve him of guilt. Personally, I don’t think it does, because explanation doesn’t absolve guilt, it just explains guilt.

Fanpower, Nationalism, and the Success and Controversy of Hetalia: Axis Powers;

Or, alternatively titled, “Unbearable Cuteness in Front of the Swastika”

(read right to left. from the wonderful people at

About a month ago, I started watching Hetalia: Axis Powers on Funimation’s Youtube channel. I heard about this a couple of years ago, but the idea of a story featuring the personifications of different countries in WWII was so bizarre that I didn’t pick it up. I did this time because I feel like I finally have the conceptual tools to deal with something like this, and also because I wanted to procrastinate on writing my thesis. If you visit my entry on my rant blog, 27, 000, 000, you can see a long conversation I’ve had with various persons regarding how I have struggled with this series.


The series was initially a webcomic by Hidekazu Himaruya, a Japanese student studying design in New York. The only other webcomic series that has become as popular that I can think of is Megatokyo, and even so I don’t think they are on the same scale. Most cultural productions have an intended audience; this audience is limited by language if not geography, and culture, gender, age, sexuality, ethnicity. Note that this does not mean that a story must include main characters with specific gender and age to appeal to that gender and age, as many adults enjoy Harry Potter and so forth. However, this often helps (though regarding gender, I once read a writer saying that while girls would read novels with male main characters, most boys don’t want to read novels with girl main characters). If we analyze Hetalia with the audience categories above, what would we get? (if you want to skip this seemingly inane list, go

Language: Originally for Japanese-literate audiences, because I assume that as a student in NY, if Himaruya wanted to create a comic in English, he should have had the English skills to make one. Also, the focus of the main storyline is on the Axis powers, which included Japan, and most people in the West would probably think twice about creating a story from the perspective of the Axis. But now English-speaking fans have translated almost everything. Even his blog is translated. There are Spanish Livejournal communities, so language is not necessarily a barrier in this as long as fans and companies are willing to translate it.

Geography: As it’s a webcomic, technically it has no geographical intentions other than those limited by language and culture.

Age: Likely late teen to young adult, 15-30 years old. The author himself is in this age bracket, and the format of his initial publication suggests that aside from creating a personal passtime, he had been creating this series for people who access webcomics. Who are in general not, say, 70 years old.

Gender: This is harder. On the wonderful website TVtropes, which accepts contributions from fans regarding the themes of any/all narrative production, the page on Hetalia notes that many people are surprised that the author is male, because of “all the Ho Yay.” As yaoi and shounen-ai manga and anime are generally produced by straight females for other straight females, Hetalia, which exhibits a lot of homoeroticism, seems to enjoy a largely female audience. I would think that males who are interested in WWII would go watch BBC documentaries and Band of Brothers instead. However, I cannot conclude that this is what Himaruya intended.

Sexuality: Again, since most yaoi and shounen-ai manga and anime are generally produced by straight females for other straight females, I would think that despite the homoeroticism, many of the fans are straight. Or, to put it in more academic terms, although the series features homoeroticism, it doesn’t try to offer any theory or criticism regarding homosexuals in real life; homosexuality isn’t its main topic. Most yaoi and yuri and so forth are along the same lines in that they don’t make sexuality their objective, and do not represent the LGBTQ community. This is not to say that homosexuals don’t enjoy yaoi and yuri and so forth. I remember my gay 40 year old highschool counsellor quite enjoying the series Fake.

Ethnicity/Culture: Putting these into the same category because even now I don’t quite know how to demarcate race/ethnicity/culture. Leaving aside language, I mean “culture” as whether the society accepts this kind of thing as a legitimate passtime. For example, 40 years ago North American culture would not have received this well at all, given the focus in Axis powers and the homoeroticism. The intended audience for Hetalia are probably those living in a liberal humanist culture, ie a culture that seeks to advance human interests (whether personal or those of human communities), not overly devoted to religion, believes in human individuality and freedom and artistic freedom. This is a very broad definition of “culture,” and maybe it’s better to use the word “zeitgeist.” I mean that most people in industrialized societies think this way.

So far, Hetalia doesn’t sound so special: there are many other titles which are targeted at young Japanese-speaking, straight, and liberal humanist females.

When culture overlaps with nation, what is outside the intended audience is the number of national cultures which are represented in Hetalia. This seems obvious, but this also means that it increases the number of national cultures which have a stake in what the series is saying. The popularity of Hetalia rests on the number of nations it represents (someone at the Hetalia LJ writes there are around 50 so far) but also what nation means. Recently, a lot of academic talk has been on things like the “death of nation,” as people increasingly move around more, things like the European Union are appearing, and the corporations become multinational to the point where it’s hard to locate anything particularly “American” about Coca-Cola. However, there are also academics that point that that this perspective is a very Western-centric one, as many nations have only recently won status as a nation through very hard work and a lot of bloodshed, and probably don’t like to see the whole idea of a nation dismissed.

It’s very convenient that I am writing this at the end of the Fifa World Cup (the result of which I am sure many Hetalia fans are happy about). Even if the Western world is feeling the benefits of globalization (being able to read Hetalia even though I don’t understand Japanese, for example), when it comes down to it people are still very nationalistic. Nation is still bound up with culture, and hence defines human beings even if they are able to move to other places in the world and access the culture of other places. Globalization hasn’t gone on long enough for nation not to matter.

What makes Hetalia popular is that as long as you are within one of the 50 personified countries and even marginally engaged in its culture, there is a feeling that somehow the series has you in mind. With this vast representation, the other parameters of age and gender and language do not decide the number of fans as much. Added to the lightness of the series (which I will return to in the “Controversy” section), the series offers engagement with an aspect of what defines you, and makes you laugh. Even if some of the audience isn’t there for the nations, the nations are good-looking young people.

The fact that these nations are human characters also makes this different from engagement with BBC documentaries. There are lies, damned lies, and statistics, because statistics can’t deliver the emotional impact of what things mean, and ideas like “nationhood” are often too abstract. A writer once said that in war, the average soldiers almost never fights for their “nation,” but for people they know in that nation. Hetalia compounds national and human feeling together. Knowing that 27, 000, 000 Russians died in WWII doesn’t quite give the impact as seeing the personification of Russia lament over this (this bit about Russia isn’t in the series but a fanwork).

More importantly, it is the premise of Hetalia that makes it possible for infinite fan participation. I believe that what makes a work open to participation is its lack of closure. Most novels, for instance, try to tell a story like the story is the most important thing that happens to its characters, and the story has a clear conclusion where the characters emerge from still alive (or not), but will never face anything like this again. The story is emphatically “over.” However, with Hetalia, the story focuses on WWII with many many side stories exploring history before that and since then, even current events as they occur. The short comic strip form does not give the same message as a novel or graphic novel; there is no sense that each comic strip tells the most important story its characters will face. This encourages the audience to think up other scenarios than to think that the story is “over.” Even if your nation isn’t one of the 50 in the series, you could imagine what your country would be like, and produce fanwork based on this. It is also impossible for Himaruya himself to exhaust all of the history regarding the 50 nation-characters he has created. Recently, someone on the Hetalia LJ posted a video with some viewers found “confusing,” because he/she used many dates, juxtaposed with fanart, that the official series has not addressed. But that is creative fanwork. And events are ongoing, eg the World Cup, which has generated thousands of fanfictions and fanarts in English audiences alone, and the recent bizarre case in which Russian spies in America used Canadian identities.


This series is light. It’s moe, according to Anime News Network, which means the audience response is likely one of feeling some kind of love for most of the characters. Most of the countries’ leaders do not get too much spotlight, and the series does not equate the country with the dominant political party/person. For example, Funimation introduces Germany’s leader as “hard to manage.” This is obviously a reference to Hitler, who hasn’t made an appearance in the webcomic or manga, that I know of (correct me if I’m wrong). In other words, the character of Germany doesn’t espouse Nazi values, rather more stereotypical “German values” like productivity.

In addition, the series sometimes privileges likable characters over historical accuracy. The character of Poland talks in something like a valleygirl accent and repeatedly ignores Lithuania’s attempts to warn him of Russia’s intention to invade with Germany, rather concentrating on buying ponies and painting his house pink, which really has no historical equivalent. As with Poland’s accent, sometimes the characters’ characters don’t correspond to their reference countries. There are also many light-hearted stereotypes, such as China ending all of his sentences in “-aru,” which is apparently the stereotype Japan holds of how Chinese people talk in general. And of course, Italy, who is totally useless in a cute way, with no tendencies towards Mussolini’s brand of fascism or anything.

If nationalism can make people embrace the series for its positive portrayals of audience home countries, then nationalism added to the light-hearted stereotypes also makes people reject it. South Korea censored the anime completely due to what it considers an offensive portrayal of Korea in the webcomic and manga. For those who haven’t read these, Korea is a somewhat strident, though cheerful young man who seems a bit self-centred, and who likes to claim that he’s the eldest of the Asian nations and that he invented everything. Fans in the West have generally been thinking that Korea couldn’t take a joke, and that the series pokes fun at every country anyway. Personally, I had the thought that we haven’t heard of Poland denouncing the series yet, and the character of Poland could be seen as just as offensive.

But Japan didn’t try to invade Poland. Going back to the intended audience – Hetalia is a Japanese production, even if many fans all around the world have created fanworks accompanying it. In WWII, Japan (the real life country) went on its quest to unify Asia, or rather, its invasion and brutality towards the rest of Asia, and from what I know, a lot of citizens supported this effort (at least in the early stages). Say that Korea has a chip on its shoulder, but it wasn’t so long ago that its status as a nation was almost revoked. I also read on the excellent webcomic Secret Asian Man that Korea was spelled “Corea” until Japan changed it in WWII because they did not want Korea speaking before them at international assemblies, then rostered alphabetically, and this spelling stays. And with Japan’s refusal to apologize for war crimes and even censoring its role in WWII from textbooks, it’s easy to think that Hetalia comes out of the same destructive machine. So the censorship of Hetalia in Korea is understandable, even if it is unfortunate. Along the same lines, the character of China has a Hello Kitty knockoff doll called Shinatty-chan, though in Chinese fandom “Shinatty-chan” is called “Gitty,” as “Shina” is a really offensive term the Japanese called the Chinese in WWII. The equivalent in the US would be personifications of different races in America, with the African American character carrying around a toy called Nigger. Although Taiwan has licenced the anime, I’m just waiting for the Chinese government to pounce on Hetalia, though I hope it won’t come to that.


Accept for the moment that nations (both people and governments) are justified in feeling unhappy with stereotypes in Hetalia. What can they do about it? One solution is censorship, which South Korea is trying (and I’m very very glad that Himaruya didn’t take the series on a suicide run by creating a North Korea). However, there are different types of censorship. There is censorship of sexuality and violence, which most people feel somewhat justified about, and censorship ofconcepts, which people don’t feel justified about. The former kind of censorship judges that people will one day be able to access concepts behind sex and violence once their cognitive skills can handle it, whereas the second kind judges people as never being able to handle it.

Although I feel that Korea is justified in wanting to censor Hetalia, I believe that actually censoring it shows its lack of confidence in its national citizens. First, it is assuming that people will draw a strong link between Korea the character and Korea the real life nation – after all, if people don’t, then it is no danger. While this seems like an obvious intention of the work itself, it is not true. Most audience members would be trained in the difference between fiction and nonfiction, even if it is historical fiction. Fan works with mature content sometimes urge its audience to try and see the characters as people rather than as countries. Canadians may find the doujinshi about Canada being lovesick towards America entertaining without wishing Canada to cozy up to the US politically.

Second, censorship assumes that the audience receives the work and it ends there, that there is no way to voice contradictions without editing the original. As I mentioned in the “Success” portion, the fanworks now outnumber the official work by the thousandfold, filling in gaps that Himaruya would not approach due to the sheer size of his topic. Because the audience in different nations see themselves represented, often they take it as a welcome challenge to create their own stories about their country. South Korea censoring the series means that while the rest of the world sees the annoying Korea character, less Koreans would be able to do something about it. A better solution would probably be to let the series run and sponsor fans who want to create and publish their own Korean Hetalia doujinshi.

** August 2010 edit **
Having read more about the controversy the series created in South Korea, there is a bit more to add. Apparently the national assembly met together and rejected Hetalia based on, among other things, a piece of fanart showing Korea grope Japan (This is probably a worse provocation than featuring an annoying Korea character by himself. I guess the people in the national assembly thought that this piece of fanart originated in Japan, or if they didn’t know it was fanart, thought it was a part of the Japanese official work. Since there are still gloomy sentiments towards Japan, this fanart at once implies what Japan thinks about Korea AND refuses to acknowledge Korea’s anger towards Japan by making him GROPE Japan). In some ways this buttresses what I have been saying so far about the power of fanworks, especially with regards to Hetalia.

The community members who think that South Korea is misjudging the situation argue that their rejection of the official series was based on fanart, which are not the same thing. This is true, but increasingly it is difficult to say what is authoritative and bounded piece of work. This what happens in postmodernity – information flows are so convenient compared to past centuries that a lot of popular culture is people reworking what other people have created; think of all the celebrities and fictional characters satirized on The Simpsons, and The Office featuring a wedding based on a Youtube video of a wedding. I am not disagreeing with the community, but the controversy over Hetalia proves that the line between the official and the fanwork is increasingly blurred. Apparently CCTV (main new network in China) broadcast a piece of Hetalia fanart about China and Russia when talking about about citizen responses to the joint Russia-China space program, without knowing the context of the fanart at all. This really amused fans, but on the other hand, the person who drew the picture of Korea groping Japan probably regrets it now.
** end edit**

Last Caveat(s)

Also, there is something in the fan communities called a “kink meme.” Someone submits a request for a character pairing with some sort of condition, often sexual, and someone else fulfills this request with fanart or fanfiction. While most of this is light-hearted enjoyment, some of the requests can get pretty disturbing. I have extolled fanpower as a positive force, but here may be evidence against fans taking up a series too much. Some posters’ arguments in favour of kink memes are that it’s not real life; enjoying a story about rape does not mean that someone condones rape. Having said that people can tell the difference between the nation-characters and the nations themselves, I cannot be a hypocrite now and say that when it comes to kink memes, people cannot tell the difference, however uncomfortable those requests make me.

People who objected to this sort of kink meme seem to be worried about spreading “Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia” in general. At its foundations, this problem relates to the nature of enjoyment, and the fear that enjoying a story about rape will make that enjoyment bleed to cover everything in the story, going so far as to make rape itself enjoyable. Psychological studies have shown emotional carryover to be true, such as this article here. But I’m not sure emotions and preferences are the same thing, just like love and hatred are not really emotions. Finally coming to the picture at the start of this entry, I believe the majority of readers would appreciate Italy being cute without also thinking that the swastika is cute. In fact, what I love about this page in the comic is the utter disjunction between Italy being cute and the swastika. I get to write 3000+ words on it, after all.

Alternatively, the argument could be that preferences are built upon exposure if not on carryover, and this is the argument used by anti-videogame censors who believe that excessive exposure to acting violent will create massacres like the Columbine shooting. But this sort of worry leads to things like the No Fly List, which hits its targets but also a lot of false positives.

Speaking of liberal humanism, many fans espouse the philosophy of “if you don’t like it, don’t read it, but don’t try to stop someone from writing it.” This position has faith in individual discretion, which is valid. However, going away from Hetalia for a moment, this philosophy sounds too much like it’s condoning shutting one’s eyes to things one doesn’t like instead of doing something about it. Going back to the series, I believe that if people find something objectionable, they SHOULD say something about it. But also keep in mind that the result might not go your way.

Another thing that some fans have argued is that filling a rape kink meme does not necessarily mean the fill is automatically pornography; it depends on how it is written. This is true, but then again, a kink meme has its purposes in being pornographical, and most people do not want to to read fills for lofty reflections. Rationally, I understand that I should have more faith in the fan community, and I have mostly argued in the fans’ favour. I am confident that people who read a rape scene between Germany and Poland and enjoy it as characters do not want a repeat of it as a historical incident. As a poster said on the fandomsecrets blog on June 4, 2009 at 10:08pm, “I don’t mean to sound nosy but I always find Hetalia fans incredibly sensitive towards other people and their country’s histories.” For very disturbing kink meme, there is probably also a fanfiction that handles the same nation-characters and historical incidents in a very sympathetic manner.

However, if someone has not met any Koreans and reads Hetalia and none of the fanworks, and takes it literally, it is possible that the person will form a stereotype of Koreans as being sort of annoying and self-centred. Taking Hetalia literally probably won’t happen very often, but it is possible. I believe in artistic responsibility; there should be some sort of reference to or documentation of non-fiction resources in both official works and fanwork. Translators of the webcomic and manga have very nicely provided links to articles that Himaruya have used and even say they have no idea what he meant because they couldn’t find any sources on what he was saying, but I wish fanworks would also give footnotes to the effect of “real life was actually something like this, and I changed it because….” As I said in the edit, fanworks can now have as much impact as official works. While no fan should condone self-censorship, this means that potentially nothing you do is only for yourself, and fans should take up equal responsibility to actual authors and artists.


Regarding the last caveats, I am still not certain that the position I am taking is the “right” one, or even if there is a right one. I dread the day in the far future, when countries closer to the equator are fighting countries north of them due to global warming, where a terrorist quotes Hetalia during his or her trial. Hetalia touches many people and elicits very strong reactions – this makes it a powerful work if nothing else and worth participating in on all levels, whether you watch the anime casually or suddenly get the urge to submit a paper on it to an academic conference.

I think I’m going to make myself some pasta now.

Sino-Japanese Relations…in an alternative universe (Code Geass pt2)

It’s been a while since the last post on Code Geass, and I’m sorry that I’m not as prolific. My MA degree is really piling work on me. I somewhat got the thesis proposal out of the way, so…forging ahead. (numbers in square brackets denote explanatory footnotes, letters in square brackets denote original Chinese forum posts)

(Also, I have a tendency to give a lot of background and am slow to get to the point. If you just want to get to the point scroll to where the “*****” is.)

In the last post on Code Geass, I briefly touched on Japanese nationalism contributing to the anime’s popularity, as part of its larger preoccupation with politics, albeit the politics of fictional countries. And Code Geass mentions/involves many other nations in international politics (especially in the second season, Code Geass R2). In the second season, the Euro Universe is conquered by Prince Schneizel, and Indian military engineers chip in to help the Black Knights (though as Diethard says in R2, Ep. 10, India doesn’t seem to be unified in its support). The Chinese Federation also throws in their lot, after 3-way political and military sing and dance with Britannia, ending in a botched wedding, coup d’etat, and a lot of shooting. The question is whether the international politics inCode Geass reveals anything about international politics in real life, even though the countries in this anime don’t literally exist.

It’s difficult not to read (or watch, I guess) Britannia as an incarnation of the United States. And I’m sure even the the most dense anime fan will notice the number of titles dealing with (post-)apocalyptic scenarios in Japan, from Akira to CLAMP’s X, and Code Geass as well. I’m not the only one to posit that this proliferation of apocalyptic themes in anime has to do with WWII and the bombs dropped by the US on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Code Geass character Nina, who has the last name
Einstein, is no accident. And while some may object to confuddling fiction and real life (throughout this post, I will be translating comments left by Chinese viewers on video hosting sites, and many comments even starting to approach Code Geass as somehow reflecting reality are spammed by other posts telling everyone to just lighten up and enjoy the show), fiction is a product of the consciousness former by real life events. Accepting this, I want to look at how China, or the “Chinese Federation,” is portrayed in Code Geass, taking into account the East side of WWII. (I’m sidestepping the Britannia/US binary because I don’t have the historical background to take on US-Japan relations, though anyone who wants to take this on, go for it, and I challenge all those political science-incline out there to watch Code Geass and write me a response!)

For those as poor in historical background as me, the Sino-Japanese War in real life stemmed from Japan industrializing after receiving Commodore Perry and along with him, US influence, and using the results of that industrialization to expand and counter the threats of neighbouring states, before the 1900s. Korea was then somewhat allied/under the rule of the Qing dynasty in China. China lost the tussle with Japan over Korea mostly due to internal unrest, and Japan subsequently sought to expand into China-controlled territory even further. Japan invaded Manchuria in WWII, and a long and torturous engagement followed. Japan withdrew from the combined pressure of Chinese Communist and Nationalist troops, Russian troops, and the newly provoked (by Pearl Harbour) US dropping bombs.

China, Korea, and other southeast Asian countries never forgave Japan, especially since members of the Japanese government today try to censor their role in WWII from official documents, textbooks, etc. As a person of Chinese descent, I was brought up to be quite anti-Japanese, and even my peers in China, such as my cousins, are rather anti-everything-Japanese now. However, as a Canadian, I am a little startled to see that Chinese comics for children show the Japanese in almost the same way as WWII-era American comics show the Japanese, considering the Canadian government treated Japanese Canadian citizens in WWII like the Nazis treated Jews. These opposite sensibilities made me prick up my ears at the mention that Code Geass will show not only Chinese characters (which many animes do[1]) but China as a nation, which motivated me to watch Season 2. This is even more interesting in the context of a number of recent Chinese television shows featuring a WWII setting and Japanese villains.[2] To what extend is the hate and denigration mutual? Has a media battle of sorts replaced the actual war?

I. General Overview, Season 1
R1 - 20.05 R1 - 20.07
R1 - 20.10

As an overview, Code Geass seems to present China in two lights. In the first season, characters remark on China rather snidely in passing[3], with one minor military involvement; in the second season, China is nationally involved and characters constitute strong military allies. It seems from the comments online that Chinese audiences have received this anime quite positively, I think because it speaks to rebellious impulses regardless of nationality. However, there are some objections from Chinese viewers.

One point of dissatisfaction is Episode 20 of season 1. In this episode, the Sawasaki and the pre-Britannian Japanese government, who have escaped to the Chinese Federation, obtains help from the General Chan in the Chinese government to “take back” Japan from Britannia. As a Japan-based Britannian newscaster describes it, China joined in for “humanitarian” reasons. The Black Knights help Britannia defend Kyushu against them. Suzaku, the Japanese character in Britannian service, rejects Sawasaki’s proposed Japan, saying he shouldn’t have run to China and should have stayed behind. Sawasaki and his Chinese allies are defeated, with Sawasaki being taken by Britannia and the Chinese Federation bailing out and laying the blame on General Chan’s independent actions.

On the[4] page for Episode 20 of Code Geass Season 1, there is a heated back-and-forth about Japan and its relationship to China in both the anime and real life. One viewer egged the Chinese Federation on for trying to incorporate Japan into its borders. Another viewer cursed Japan (ie the anime producers) for being out of their mind for the depiction of General Chan, saying that of course the Chinese military doesn’t dress like it did during the Qing dynasty.

Most notably, one viewer stated, “If you guys don’t like Japan, then don’t watch anime! Use your pig brains and think about it -do you think China can defeat Japan?” This triggered several angry responses, mostly insisting that if China and Japan came to blows China could be victorious, that this viewer should be beaten or bitch-slapped by his parents for being unpatriotic, etc. One respondent does note that although (in WWII) China seemed like a rooster and Japan like a worm, the worm in this case chewed up the rooster. Then there were a couple of responses saying that we shouldn’t bring up the painful past and that conflating fiction and real life gets us nowhere.

Of the episode itself, I feel that Sawasaki, the ex-Japanese official, shoulders most of the viewers’ contempt. General Chan does look like someone out of a costume drama, but Season 2 reveals that the Chinese Federation still exists as an imperial dynastic order, so I shall pardon the producers (partly, and for the moment) for General Chan’s Fu Manchu moustache. From a military and political point of view, Suzaku is probably correct in rejecting Sawasaki, because he is likely being used as a puppet by the Chinese. The quip about China entering for humanitarian reasons notwithstanding (I think viewers are meant to question whether China does anything for humanitarian reasons), the question, then, is whether hurray for the Japanese producers to show Chinese encroaching on Japan instead of the other way around, or damn the Japanese producers to hyping up the Chinese threat, albeit in a fictional setting, and then having Chinese forces soundly defeated by the combined powers of a Japanese wonder soldier and a Japanese-sympathizing American. I will return to this after looking at the second season. But, as one viewer states on Youku (similar to, “Since Lulu is the hero of them little Japs, I’ll take it upon myself to defeat him and Japan – hahahaha.”

II. Season 2 – Diplomatic China and Asian Stereotypes

R2 - 01.05 R2 - 04.10 R2 - 02.11

In the second season of Code Geass, the arena expands out of Japan, and China is the first destination. It seems that Lelouch moves his operations to China partly because the Geass Order could be situated there, and also because in the initial rescue of the Black Knights facing execution, the character of Li Xingke proved to be an ally. Also, Kaguya Sumeragi, a leader of a secret anti-Britannian society, has made “friends” with the Empress of China.

At the beginning of R2, Lelouch’s rescue operations for his followers coincides with ambassadors from the Chinese Federation coming to the Britannian government in Japan. It seems that Britannia and the Chinese Federation have a non-aggression pact that isn’t completely friendly, being two of the three worldly superpowers. The meeting is supposed to bring the two powers to more friendly terms. On the Chinese Federation side is the Grand Eunuch Gao Hai and the military officer Li Xingke, who seem to be at odds with each other regarding their nation and how to conduct foreign relations. Gao Hai is set up to be a corrupt official (as the anime progresses, it is revealed that all of the Grand Eunuchs have been using the Empress of China as a puppet), and his position with Li’s dissenting party is worsened by the fact that Lelouch puts him under the Geass power[5]. Gao Hai is compelled by the Geass to recognize the Black Knights and Japan as a nation, based in the Chinese Embassy, on behalf of the Chinese Federation. This displeases Li, who makes his own deal with the Black Knights, in that the Black Knights can use the Embassy as a separate “country” in their rescue skirmish with Britannia, only if Li gets to kill Gao Hai and put his own plans for China into action. The power dynamics among the characters are complex, not to mention national implications. One comment that nicely sums up the ambiguity ran thus: “How come the Chinese Federation ended up supporting Lelouch…? *Speechless*…Is Japan hinting that China is Japan’s supporter, behind-the-scenes [“建国的幕后黑手,” hard to translate]…? Or is it trying to pull in Chinese viewers…? *speechless*…or, maybe…never mind…I’ll keep watching to see what happens later…” (shirleymiyu)

Gao Hai and Li Xingke form an interesting duo in diplomacy, fictional or not. On one hand, Gao Hai is a desexualized, desk-bound, simpering bureaucrat, and on the other hand, Li Xingke is a masculine, martial, and disciplined idealist. They are the faces of the Chinese to Britannia and the Black Knights, and also to the Japanese, American, and whatnot viewers. Which one is China? It seems that Gao Hai and Li Xingke present two prongs of the stereotype against Asian males from a Caucasian point of view – either they are calculating bureaucrats and thinkers and at the expense of their masculine bodies in the tradition of the Math nerd, or they are cool martial artists in the tradition of Bruce Lee. Japanese have slightly different stereotypes born from the image of the samurai, added to the influx of Japanese media into the West, which I argue has made Japanese stereotypes somewhat different from Chinese stereotypes. Other Asians, sadly, still seem somewhat absent from media representation (Maybe I should talk about Harold and Kumar later).

The fact that anime is an Asian medium and still has these stereotypes is a little alarming. Those who have deigned to scroll down to footnote [1] can see the list of Chinese anime characters. What I want to point to is that although the Japanese characters in anime are often not held to Japanese racial likeness (hair and eye colours abound), Chinese characters in anime almost always look Asian. And although Japan is not a country lacking in its own martial tradition, Chinese anime characters seem to be proficient in martial arts as a indelible trait even when the the anime isn’t a martial arts anime. It seems that in popular Japanese culture, at least, China and the Chinese are stereotyped, whether positively (Li Xingke) or negatively (Gao Hai).

However, despite being rather stereotypical, Li Xingke’s first impression upon viewers is quite positive. There was numerous comments on Youku (similar to in favour of how handsome he is. However, the reception of the Chinese Federation was somewhat mixed. Some loved the portrayal of the Chinese Federation,[a] with one viewer saying he/she would like to see the Chinese Federation take over the world. However, many comments question why the Chinese Federation appeared to look like a medieval society[b], with one person attributing this portrayal to Japanese people unable to see that China has developed since the Qing dynasty[c].

Then there’s the question of the embassy. A country’s embassy on foreign soil is seen as a piece of land belonging to the embassy’s home country; that is why Lelouch can count on Li Xingke blocking Britannian entry into the embassy, because military forces in the embassy would almost be like Britannia invading the Chinese Federation. However, a part of the deal with Li is that the Black Knights re-declare the United States of Japan in a room of the embassy grounds. Although it isn’t technically an invasion, since Li made this deal out of his own free will and not under the Geass like Gao Hai, instead of Britannians invading the Chinese Federation (which they don’t – the Knightmare frame soldiers listen to Li and turn back), the Chinese Federation has ceded a part of its territory (a room) to Japan. Although viewers on Youku were generally happy that something Chinese-related got anime airtime, there were some negative comments – that although “the Japs” manage to create really good anime, they still have to denigrate China and make it look bad. Many comments ran along the lines of “Is Japan and China actually working together? *sweatdrop*”

III. Season 2 – Territory and Post-raciality

R2 - 09.01 R2 - 09.44 R2 - 09.52

Onto the Chinese Federation itself. It subsumes all of Asia (except for Japan), meaning countries such as India, Laos, and Pakistan are under its rule. It is described as being wrecked by disasters and famine, with the Eunuchs controlling power and production. A reel of black and white montage in Episode 9 shows the average folk in utter destitution. After Lelouch moves the Black Knights out of the Chinese Federation Embassy, the Grand Eunuchs in the Chinese Federation grants the Black Knights and artificial island in the south. But Britannia, not wanting to lose their edge, buys the Eunuchs with Britannian titles to arrange a wedding between the Empress and the eldest Britannian prince. Li Xingke and other members of the military loyal to the Empress is apalled by this prospect. He crashes the wedding and stages a coup, only to have Lelouch take advantage of the general confusion and take the Empress hostage and depart with the rest of the Black Knights.

These movements and the ensuing melee make for exciting action sequences. Before getting into the battle and the depiction of Chinese military mentality therein, the background merits discussion. In real life, eunuchs were used as servants for the Imperial family in the Qing dynasty, because sexually active males would threaten the Emperor’s reproductive right over his wives and concubines. While the eunuchs historically rarely held official positions, because they were servants and sometimes confidants for those who were, they could be said to have wielded a certain degree of power from the shadows. This is perhaps what Code Geass is tapping into. Also, having denigrated Gao Hai as a negative Asian stereotype, I do have to say that in Chinese historical dramas, eunuchs are mostly oily and manipulative characters who suck up to those with power and spurn those without. So, before disparaging the Grand Eunuchs of Code Geass as Japan’s view of Chinese government, it is a view that Chinese media partly endorses. Aside from the Grand Eunuchs, some viewers question why Japanese anime always makes the political leader of China female. I’m not aware of this tendency, but if it is true, it might play into feminization of China as a country (along with genderless eunuchs).

However, Chinese media usually present even the most base Chinese character as patriotic.[6] This means that even if eunuchs are oily and unpleasant in a Chinese work of fiction, they usually wouldn’t sell their country to gain personal status. Importantly, they are conceding territory, which to Chinese people is the ultimate blow to national pride (think of the happiness that greeted Hong Kong’s return to China, and the continuing contestation over Taiwan). I find it too extreme an act even for these Granch Eunuchs. It is of note that in the case of Code Geass, the Grand Eunuchs are not selling out to the equivalent of Japan but the equivalent of America. Ponder this because I don’t have a resolution. Added to being depicted as selling out for personal gain, the state of the country is an extremely negative one. While poverty and a lack of resources are problems in China today, it would be reductionist to say that the country is defined by these problems. Along with this, I need to bring up again the quip in Season 1 that China was backing Sawasaki for “humanitarian” reasons. The Chinese Federation seems to be a two-faced beast. Before I get too negative, there is also Lee’s cabal trying to free the Chinese Federation from foreign political influence. I rather like Li’s wedding crashing speech: “Where, in this marriage, is the will of the Chinese Federation?” – implying that the Chinese Federation should not be equated with the Grand Eunuchs necessarily, but everybody else.

R2 - 10.16 R2 - 10.20 R2 - 10.30

Now to the exciting part – the battle over the Empress by 3 different nations. I am going to give a very detailed account of this battle, which takes place over 2 episodes, so if you already know what occurs, scroll down to *. Lelouch captures the Empress and flees with the Black Knights (incidentally, in the back of a large delivery truck with a panda logo). Britannia chases them to secure the Empress, but Toudou holds Suzaku back. The truck is forced to stop because the Chinese Federation’s defense unit destroyed the bridge along their route. This turns out to be Lelouch’s plan, as he has hidden other members of the Black Knights in the gorge that the bridge passes over. While they fight, he takes the Empress back to his command headquarters on the Ikaruga. Lee and his followers are imprisoned briefly for trying to stage a coup, but then the Grand Eunuchs realize that other than Li’s superior fighting skills and military leadership, they haven’t a hope of winning. So they install him in the Knightmare Frame “Shenhu” (divine/magical tiger) while holding his aide, Zhou Xianglin, hostage in the command centre. Li manages to capture Karen, and the reinforcements from the Chinese Federation arrive behind the Black Knights. Most Black Knights members want to rescue Karen, but Diethard points out that it is illogical to risk sacrificing themselves for one soldier, and they should meet up with the Indian army for reinforcements. However, as Rakshata has stated that other elements within the Indian government has given Shenhu to the Chinese Federation in the first place, Lelouch deems it likely that in fact India has betrayed them as well. So the Black Knights gather their forces around the command centre, which leaves the Chinese Federation units the only choice of also concentrating their forces in front to break through. Li’s Shenhu engages with Toudou’s Zangetsu while the main Chinese Federation forces does break through the first block of defense. However, this is exactly what Lelouch wanted, as he gets the divided first block to surround the Chinese Federation units from behind, hoping to contain Shenhu long enough to exhaust its energy. Li had another plan, which was to collapse a dam and let canal water submerge the Black Knights. Lelouch had foreseen this and reduced the amount of water in the canal. However, Lelouch did not know that the land he had been fighting on was used for irrigation, and along with shoddy construction work, it means that the earth is softer than usual, and the Black Knight’s units sink into the mud. Li lectures Lelouch on his imminent defeat, concluding with “The bearer of our victory is our country’s land itself.”

Lelouch is forced to retreat, as Ikaruga hasn’t sunk. He takes what remains of the Black Knights to the Tomb of the 88 Emperors, guessing that the Federation won’t attack the resting place of their own rulers. However, the Eunuchs don’t seem to care about this. They have solicited the help of Britannia to attack the tombs, and reveal to Li that to them both the he and the Empress are expendable, and in fact they have readied a puppet Empress. Li is angered by this and wants to go after the Eunuchs, but Gino stops him. Li tells Gino to get out of the way because “This is my country’s own problem,” and Gino argues, “But on the international stage, they are your countries representatives.” Meanwhile, Anya is wiping out the Chinese Federation troops with Mordred. Nina, on board with Prince Schneizel, wonders why Mordred doesn’t just destroy the entire tomb complex, and Kanon Maldini, the Prince’s aide, says that they have to leave it to the Eunuchs to kill the Empress, otherwise it would give Britannia a bad reputation. Lelouch tries to bargain with the Eunuchs, but the Eunuchs already have everything they want in their deal with Britannia. Lelouch is outraged that the Eunuchs don’t care about how their decision will impact the people. The Empress at this point runs out of the Ikaruga, screaming at all the troops to stop fighting. Kaguya tries to go after her but the guards block her way. Li sees the Empress getting blown about as explosions go off, and then the Eunuchs order their troops to kill the Empress. Li puts Shenhu in their line of fire and takes their shots, but realizes that he can’t hold his position, and calls for help. Lelouch answers by coming out in person in the shiny new Knightmare Frame Shinkirou, and uses it to prove to Li that he himself is the only person Li can join forces with. Li says that he will not be Lelouch’s subordinate. Lelouch answers that no, Li is a capable person, and so he will save the Empress, Li, and everyone in the Chinese Federation. At this moment, all parties receive word that there’s a riot going on in Shanghai, Beijing, Jakarta, Islamabad, etc. Lelouch had conducted his conversation with the Eunuchs for the purpose of leaking it to the public via Diethard’s control of the media. Schneizel guesses, and Lelouch explains, that creating conditions for a revolt at the same time Li stages a coup means that the Black Knights are not in fact under siege at the Tombs, but that all the civilians of the Chinese Federation are their “reinforcements.”

Lelouch sends out the Black Knights, which those surrounding Schneizel say that they can easily crush. Schneizel, however, orders that they retreat, as “A country is neither its territory or its government, but its people,” and having lost support of the people, the Grand Eunuchs are no longer useful for Britannia to back. They retreat, and Lelouch and Li go to find the Eunuchs, Li so that he can get Zhou Xianglin out and Lelouch so that he can rescue Karen (who had been “given” to Suzaku earlier). When they return, Li and the Empress reunite, but Diethard advises that they arrange a marriage between the Empress and someone Japanese. Lelouch things of Toudou and Tamaki, but all the women in the Black Knights go against Diethard’s suggestion – Kaguya mostly because she thinks that Li and the Empress should be together. It takes Shirley, Lelouch’s friend at school, to convince him to let affection run its course, and that love is power. Lelouch interprets this as similar to how he wanted to create a better world for his sister Nunally, and decides that the Chinese Federation would be a more powerful ally if they want to do the same for their Empress. Diethard seriously objects to Lelouch’s “We fight by the power of our hearts!” speech, but everyone else nods happily, and Lelouch and Li shake hands.

R2 - 11.13 R2 - 11.18 R2 - 11.28

The response to this couple of episodes was rather interesting. Predictably, there were people who were opposed to the way the battle was constructed, with comments along the lines of “Japan, go to hell” and “Go die” etc. One viewer astutely summarized his/her take on the battle as “The central point of this episode seems to be ‘Japan no longer constitute a threat under the military might and pressure of the West, and therefore needs to subjugate the old-fashioned and backward China, and use China’s resources, to oppose their might.'”[h] On Episode 11, there were numerous protests that the animation for Chinese Federation people look ugly, that the Chinese Federation looked too ancient, and that history was all distorted anyway, and since when did we have eunuchs in government…? An interesting dialogue that went thus: Poster A: “Wow, the producers are so generous…they gave all of Asia to China.” Poster B: “Really? Why didn’t they give us Japan too?” [f] And one person pointed out something that seems both obvious and easy to miss: “Why does everyone in the Chinese Federation know how to speak Japanese?”

Maybe I’m picking out more negative responses. There is an emoticon on Youku that animates the Chinese character for “great” or “wonderful,” and I would say at least 1/5 of the posters posted this emoticon and nothing else. Most people enjoyed how exciting the battle, was, but there were a few comments that the battle maneuvers were copying the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. This refers to the Li’s idea that the people living on a terrain will know it best and will ultimately win because of it, which was one piece of military wisdom in the story. What I find interesting is that no one saw using ideas from Three Kingdoms as a good thing. It is understandable that many Chinese viewers would see this as almost plagiarizing off one pillar of their culture and using it to (literally) attack (a fictional) China with it. However, as a point of history, it is said that Mao Tse-Tung studied Three Kingdoms extensively during WWII and used tactics therein to repel the Japanese invaders, which is exactly what is going on in Episode 10. For a Japanese anime to include that is frankly quite astounding to me. Granted, the Eunuchs look awful, the country is represented to be in shambles, but if there is a representative for the Chinese Federation in this anime, it would be Li. Lelouch owns that Li’s genius rivals his own and Li’s heroism in battle rivals Suzaku’s. And Li quite clearly refuses to be subordinate to Lelouch, even if they join forces. I did not mention this scene in my discussion of Li as an ambassador to Britannia, but in the first episode of Season 2, Gao Hai the Grand Eunuch tells the Britannian governor that he’s heard rumours that Zero is dead, to which the governor replies, “No, no…I believe it is still a bit early for you, members of the Chinese Federation, to understand us, Britannia.” Then, two soldiers ask Li to remove his sword for security reasons, and says that he does not need such an “antique” anyway. Li responds by drawing his sword and cutting off the two soldiers’ weapon belts so quickly that they (and we) barely see him do it. When Gao Hai chastises him for being rude, Li replies, “Forgive me. I believe it was a bit early for them to understand us, the Chinese Federation.”

“Understanding” the Chinese Federation would involve understanding things like national pride in the land as being able to rise up and defeat enemies, which it seems neither the Black Knights and Britannia grasp. It is the first time in the anime that Lelouch is significantly out-maneuvered. For this anime to understand and assert that the Chinese Federation holds such values that could drive them to ingeniously defend their country, but also that superpowers should not presume they understand everything about China and belittle China, seems to be speaking of China with quite a high regard. Again, granted that the country is in shambles etc. There was one comment as follows: “Such an insult…an insult…even the Japanese know about shoddy work and corruption…damn…”[e] This person was somehow not spammed by comments questioning his patriotism. This may be because there is a general feeling of discomfort and shame that this in actuality is what takes place in China from time to time.

I am still ambivalent about this. The battle over the Empress pretty much redeems any other slur against the Chinese Federation for me, yet I cannot deny that those slurs exist. Some of them hold truth (the corruption and shoddy work, and to a certain extent the Eunuchs), which make Chinese viewers uncomfortable. In Episodes 10 and 11, at least, it’s hard to conclude that Japan invaded and took over China. I think it’s more accurate to say that Lelouch used extremely tenuous political circumstances on all three sides to ensure that he gains a powerful ally. I prefer to think that Asia, in this case, has united against the powers of the West. But we do need to examine the ending political situation of the anime.

The comment that the viewer would like to defeat Lelouch, and by extension Japan, received a response giving the political situation at the end of the anime (spoiler alert!), which is that Lelouch “defeated” the Chinese Federation and unified the world. This response was in turn met by a rather sharp response, “What country are you from?” (ie, whose side are you on.) Whether the Chinese Federation is defeated is a question. It is true that it no longer exists in its imperial state, but in separate smaller states. As territorial unity is important to the Chinese sensibility, it is not surprising that the viewers online would see national fracture as national failure. I believe that the producers of Code Geass may also hold this view, as the fact that the Chinese Federation becomes separate states in no way drives the plot – it’s an aside that is just written in. However, coming from a country where one province holds an entirely different official language, I have to question whether the Chinese Federation splitting constitute a failed state. First of all, it was a Federation of different ethnic groups to begin with. More compelling is Lelouch’s line that “No matter where we are, we will always be Japanese!” It seems that an anime that defines a people by its culture and values and not its territories when speaking about Japan would not then forgo this logic when considering its other fictitious nations. After all, from the broadcast about the United Federation of Nations that Lelouch helps create, he installs himself as the CEO of the Black Knights, but Li as its commander-in-chief. Li also leads the final battle against Britannia, though he does give up this post to Prince Schneizel out of his concern that Schneizel would use his nuclear weapon.

In some ways the anime is extremely complex because it simultaneously asserts the possibility of a nation beyond territory (which is increasingly our world – and there’s tons of scholarship on what being “Jewish” means when there’s Jewish people around the world before the creation of Israel) and yet unites most of the world’s nations in a melting pot to counter Britannia. Lelouch arrives at the conclusion that although his desire at the beginning of the anime was simple – that he just wanted to create a world for his sister Nunally – through his formation of the Black Knights and the United Federation of Nations, he should no longer privilege her, but needs to consider the world. The idea behind the United Federation of Nations is that no single country is more important than any other country, and in fact borders are meaningless. Taking this into account, the fact that the Chinese Federation is fractured into separate states does not really matter – whether entering the United Federation as the Chinese Federation or as separate states, it still ends up being a part of the larger world sphere. In addition, this does not apply just to the Chinese Federation but to any country that enters the United Federation. In comparison to other nations, the Chinese Federation doesn’t get a worse deal, and so I would argue that we should not take the conflict in the Chinese Federation as somehow destroying it. Despite all the negative comments on video sharing sites, it seems that most people like the anime, and frankly, it’s better to give the Chinese Federation/China a role in the story as a world superpower instead of not mentioning it at all (And think for a second – when was the last time you heard Cambodia mentioned in an anime? No offense to Cambodians). The anime’s inclusion of different nations parallels the United Federation of Nations somewhat – it conducts countries into its plot, and viewers really have to put nationalism aside to get into the story.

R2 - 16.18 R2 - 16.03 R2 - 23.37

IV. A Punch for Media and Cultural Studies

In general, I think anime has a pretty positive take on China. Despite certain stereotypes discussed, it’s a mark of appreciating Chinese culture for someone like Ryu Fujisaki to adapt The Investiture of the Gods into a 20+ volume manga title. And having talked with people who have recently immigrated from Japan, I don’t get a sense that I am being looked down on. Of course, these things are never one or the other.

Having exhausted the anime’s story, I want to turn to the anime’s production. I am not someone who scrutinizes the credits, but some viewers on Youku and Tudou noticed that a Chinese animation company in fact contributed to the anime. This further complicates the discussion of the representation of China. If we conclude that Code Geass in fact does negatively portray China, then Chinese animators are complicit in insulting themselves, and are like a media version of the Grand Eunuchs. If we conclude that the production is neutral or complimentary, then perhaps we can say that yes, in real life Japan and China are teaming up to attack America (attack America as in helping to create an anime that attacks Britannia, and America by extension, and also creating Asian media together instead of just letting in American media).

Inherent in a Chinese studio helping animate a Japanese anime is a power relationship where the executive decisions are made in the production headquarters and then shipped to cheaper labour to do the grunt work. Most people are not aware that this takes place in media as much as fashion, but North American cartoons are frequently shipped to Asia because of cheaper labour. Therefore, one can also take Chinese participation in anime production as a sign that Japan has “invaded” China. Bearing all of this in mind, I do want to assert that it’s not all hopeless. Throughout the discussion I have pinpointed many positive depictions of the Chinese Federation, most notably the battle over the Empress suggesting that Chinese values are understood and applied as the Chinese themselves would apply them, and also suggesting transnational alliances where grievances are continuously aired are going to destroy those alliances. So I agree somewhat with viewers who say, “If you don’t like Japan, stop watching anime!” or “This is just a way to relax, stop bringing up the past.” Given this, I do insist that the Japanese government right now needs to start shaping up and admitting to some of Japan’s war crimes, such as the Nanking Massacre and the systematic abduction and purchase of women (Korean mostly, but also Ainu, Chinese, and Flilipina) to be used as forced prostitutes for the military during WWII.

I am prepared to think of the anime production coalition as a kind of beginning phase of the United Federation of Nations. The anime isn’t about political science even if it does involve it a lot, so it does not explore the complex negotiations and mutual adjustment that must go on in most of the world suddenly renouncing their statehood. I expect, though, it would be similar to a rapid version of globalization that is going on in the real world – that some nations who are less powerful to begin with are going to just share a bite of the apple while more powerful nations own the orchard. But, I hope that the United Federation of Nations is an example of how inequalities can work out, and it comes a time when it doesn’t make sense anymore to prioritize a single individual, where it doesn’t make sense to quibble about historic tensions and assert the quirks of a single nation, when there is the whole world to consider.

[1] Chinese characters in anime and manga include Melissa Mao from Fullmetal Panic!, Chang Wufei from Gundam Wing, Prince Lin Yao, his bodyguards and May Chang from Fullmetal Alchemist, Shampoo, her granny, and Mousse in Ranma 1/2, possibly the main character Hei in Darker than BLACK, and arguably the entire cast of works adapted from Chinese classics like Houshin Engi. But most animes don’t try to involve China as a geopolitical entity along with the characters’ nationality/descent.
[2] Some rather anti-Japanese titles are: 血色迷雾, 刀锋1937, 潜浮. Search them up on
[3] Some remarks of China include Emperor Charles’ declaration that the Chinese Federation is a communist state and hence breeds laziness and a lack of progress (Ep.6), and CC’s comment that she needs to conduct herself in a haughty manner when meeting with Chinese Federation delegates because the they look down on displays of humility (Ep.16).
[4] The author does not condone illegal file sharing blah blah blah. Anyway, Tudou is a video-sharing site like youtube based in China, without the 10-minute video limit. This means that many Chinese viewers access many shows on this site and leave messages. I take those who leave messages on Tudou to be a fairly good representation of the anime-watching demographic in China, though this may be contested.
[5] For those who aren’t acquainted with Code Geass, the events of the anime is precipitated by Lelouch, a Britannian student expatriate in Japan, encountering and sharing powers with CC, a witch that Britannia had been doing research on. Lelouch obtains the power to control another person into doing whatever he wishes them to do, working once per person and only with eye contact.
[6] For example, if the story was about Shanghai mafia lords during the 1930s, even the mafia lord who is the most merciless would in the end be patriotic and team up with his Chinese enemies to repel foreign invaders.
[a] 我擦 比稀烂剧情更郁闷的是 中华联邦 我擦; and 呵呵~我们中国最强~是不是
[b] 中国成了联邦, 2019年还有天子和太监
[c] 樱枫释飞: 兄弟顶你。区区小日本这么狂
[quoting] endofallhope:因为日 本 狗 崽 子 们 总是以为中国还是处于封建的清政府统治阶段 事实上他们知道中国富 强 只是像鸵鸟一样把脑袋塞进屎里否认罢了
[d] 不就是把我们的三国那去动漫化吧
[e] 讽刺啊..讽刺….偷工减料的陷阱.这情况连日本人都知道了…完了…完了…
[f] 灰色回忆£:
是吗= =怎么没把日本送过来
[quoting] weiman2802:
[g] ゞ誮糀紘孓灬:
[quoting] GGXXX:
[h] 无薪睡眠:
非常多不符合逻辑的事,ZERO这帮人的财力富可敌国,而且新型机的生产速度好像就是变出来一样,在敌方全面控制大局的情况下如何生产这么大数量的 NIGHTMARE?又如何去运输? 整个片的中心思想就是”日本在西方列强的高压下已经不可能在武力对列强们有威胁,只能通过征服古老落后的中国再利用中国的资源来和列强们战斗” 作者的头脑可以说是极端幼稚. 虽然这部动画可以说画面和战斗情节都不错,但是完全是天马行空的想法已经令这部动画越来越失色了.

More stuff off Tudou or Youku that I’m too lazy to translate:

遗莣。 发表于1年前:

动画一族 发表于1年前:

动画一族 发表于1年前:

Oo冰叶翼oO 发表于1年前:


喀耳刻 发表于1年前:

“= = 汗,老大啊,这是动画片,好不好?人家印度还没嫌Clamp的大婶们把他们纳入中华联邦呢!所有的国家只不过是在一点点事实上增加虚构而已,要真是把共和国的中国弄到动画片上,估计那时才会出乱吧?这样正好,不容易产生一些民族情绪。况且,整部动画片里,日本是处于绝对的劣势地位下,被不列颠侵略殖民,靠中华联邦来逃亡。”

Japanese people drink Coca cola :: Britannians eat at Pizza Hut (Code Geass pt1)

An anime that has been quite popular in the last few years is Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion. For those who have lazy fingers or object to/cannot access Wikipedia for some reason, Code Geass is a mecha anime (featuring giant humanoid robots), set in an alternative present where the empire of Britannia (situated in North America) had invaded and subjugated Japan to mine an energy resource called sakuradite. A prince of Britannia, Lelouch, had been exiled to Japan as a hostage when he was a young child, in part due to his witnessing his mother’s assassination in the royal palace and anger at his father, the Emperor, for not trying to prevent it. The entire anime and its sequel surrounds how Lelouch obtains an ability to make others follow his commands from a witch, CC, and how he uses this ability to stir up world politics with the intent of overthrowing his father and his father’s social Darwinistic ideals.

I remember attending a seminar on anime at Ryerson university a while ago, where Professor Jaqueline Berndt compared Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and the anime Samurai 7. A main point in her lecture was that anime often presents Japan and Japanese-ness in a setting outside real time and place. I don’t know whether she has or will ever watch Code Geass, but I am sure she will find it chock full of stuff to talk about. Mount Fuji being mined for sakuradite…Japanese culture at the age of globalization being “As long as one still possesses the heart that is the root of their culture, no matter where we are, we will always be Japanese!”*…and why does a Britannian military engineer enjoy cooking bad Japanese food…?

The list goes on. But I am not well-acquainted with Japanese culture, and I will leave those matters to more capable minds. There are a couple of things that I do believe I can discuss, and that is Pizza Hut’s constant presence in the anime, which this post will discuss in comparison to Coca cola in the film Bladerunner. A following post will look at the treatment of a fictional China in this Japanese anime and Chinese viewers’ responses.

Bladerunner is arguably one of the best science fiction films made, based also on a very good science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The film and the book are set in a futuristic world with layers of refuse, technology, and reality, with the city of Los Angeles as a quite unrecognizable metropolis. One short scene of a ship’s flight is backlit by a skyscraper-tall video commercial of a Japanese woman drinking Coca cola. In the equally unrecognizable Tokyo of Code Geass, an airship flies above an advertisement of Pizza Hut hanging at the top of an office tower.

A blog post I came across describes how the familiar ad for Coca cola makes the otherwise alien landscape of Bladerunner a familiar one. No doubt the familiarity is a little jarring. We had talked about the ironies of this ad in class – edited staged hyperreal TV commercial in the middle of a movie about the negligible difference between humans and artificial life? Coca cola didn’t know what it was getting into, advertising in this movie. We are desensitized towards how fabricated Coke is until we see it drunk by a 100ft tall geisha-makeup woman who is in a commercial which is shown in a science fiction movie which is based on a book. The familiarity with Coke in our everyday lives just makes the chain of fabrication so much more evident. Does this reinforce the message of how good Coke can be?

The stroke of familiarity when watching Pizza Hut appear in Code Geass is, for Japanese viewers, probably the opposite to the stroke of familiarity of Western viewers when seeing Coca cola in Bladerunner. The two food products are both real things in the world outside film and television; that is the familiarity. That they both appear in futuristic and alien landscapes brings familiarity to the setting but also take a foreign quality back from the setting. In Bladerunner, this is further reinforced by the image of the Japanese woman. Coke presents itself as even more exotic, even sexualized. Except Coke overdoes it, and the drink feels not so much exotic, but rather jarring in contrast to the world of Bladerunner, rather staged. Whether the feeling of foreign food chains being foreign is salient or not in Japanese society, I do not know, but Pizza Hut hanging over Tokyo doesn’t require a foreign guzzler to be foreign; Japanese viewers have the knowledge that even in the real world, it is foreign. Perhaps having CC, constantly hankering after Pizza in the anime serves a corresponding exotic and sexualizing effect to the Coke commercial, as CC is not a typical human. Pizza Hut probably didn’t know what it was getting into either, advertising in an anime series about the Western invasion of Japan. I am not saying that the creators of Code Geass deliberately roped Pizza Hut in with the intention of having viewers point fingers, but behind the Japanese ghettos and nationalist rebels dying in the anime, the Pizza Hut signs silently point back to the real world and shows how nations are currently being invaded. Like Coke in Bladerunner, the inclusion of Pizza Hut becomes slightly ironic.

If Japanese viewers watching a foreign company advertise in their own television series contrasts with North American viewers watching a home company advertised by a foreign woman in their own movie, then another contrasting perspective is North American viewers watching their home company being advertised in a foreign television series. Because the viewers are not Japanese, and Pizza Hut is not a foreign company, the irony of commercial invasion might not be as obvious; in which case, for us in North America, watching Pizza Hut in Code Geass is like watching the Japanese woman in Bladerunner drink Coke. The product that is usually so prevalent in our everyday lives suddenly becomes exotic. Maybe Pizza Hut did know what it was getting into. I would be interested to see whether instead of just increasing pizza sales in Japan, pizza sales increased as well in North America and Europe.

* Code Geass R2, ep. 8, Eclipse fansubs.