I don’t really participate in the broader anime blogosphere. I made this site to satisfy my own boredom during downtime at work and, as such, I rarely read posts from other writers. But this week I stumbled across something interesting: a discussion about fascism in anime, starting with this article from SyFy.
The Syfy article explores the author’s discomfort with the use of fascist imagery in several anime. Contrary to some of the criticisms of the piece I’ve seen on discussion sites, it fairly acknowledges that most such anime make their fascist-look-alikes into villains to promote anti-authoritarian themes. For example, Fullmetal Alchemist includes an evil dictator called “Fuhrer Bradley” that the heroes revolt against by the end of the series. However, the article perhaps stretches a bit too far when it claims that “Fascism in anime becomes a problem when fans glorify and emulate these clearly evil characters.” When fringe fans choose to interpret a piece of fiction opposite it’s intended (and obvious…) message, I am not sure if it’s fair to fault the fiction itself.
In general, I disagree with the article’s conclusions. Uniforms alone do not define a fascist. However, the weak arguments in one article do not make all anime immune to criticism. I myself have accused precisely one series of promoting authoritarian politics: Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria (official English: The Master of Ragnarok and Blesser of Einherjar; my translation: The Iron Tyrant and Holy Valkyria; shorthand: Holy Valkyria).
This may seem like an odd choice. Given it’s Bronze Age isekai setting, Holy Valkyria has no fascist aesthetic to worry about (except for two “Sieg Patriarch” chants in the first and last episodes, but that’s perhaps a HUGE thing to “except…”). Most of its episodes either dither away through boring battle sequences or the usual ecchi harem nonsense. For the uninitiated, here is a one sentence plot summary: a magic mirror throws Japanese middle-schooler Yuuto Suou into a Bronze Age fantasy world, where he rules as “patriarch” of the Wolf Clan via a magical solar cellphone and a crack team of lusty little-sister sorceresses that help him defeat his rivals on the battlefield. Typical isekai, huh?
Despite the bland premise, Holy Valkyria is uniquely vile among the anime series I have seen. Though my early impression post probably leans more toward a rant than a rigorous analysis given my overwhelming disgust with the first episode, having completed the show, I stand by my initial assessment. Holy Valkyria contains a core of fascist-ish ideology, espoused by the protagonists of the series rather than the antagonists.
Of course, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To be clear: I do not want to validate Godwin’s Law or cheapen the word “fascism” with lazy accusations (see Orwell’s essay on “fascist” becoming a meaningless slur). As such, I will try to make my argument with greater rigor than I did the first time around. This post will not waste time judging the quality of the series’ animation or music or common isekai tropes. Instead, I will focus only on the themes that resemble fascist philosophy. I will start with a working definition of fascism, because to identify a fascist, you first need to know what one looks like. Then, I will compile the lines and scenes which I believe promote a fascist worldview, with a few concluding caveats.
Yes, plural! Fascism is notoriously difficult (impossible?) to define. When discussing it, I often find it easier to start with the question of “what is it not?” rather than “what is it?” Here are four “anti-positions” that help define fascism against competing ideologies, drawn from Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism (credited to Mussolini, but co-authored with the philosopher Giovanni Gentile):
- Anti-democracy. See the section heading “REJECTION OF PARLIAMENTARY DEMOCRACY AS A SHAM AND A FRAUD.” To Mussolini, true democracy is support for the totalitarian state, absent any individual rights. However, by claiming that the mass supports the state, fascism retains a veneer of democracy as a source of popular legitimacy. See another section heading: “DEFINITION OF FASCISM AS REAL DEMOCRACY.”
- Anti-egalitarian. See the section heading “REJECTION OF EGALITARIANISM.” The anti-equality self-concept of fascism goes hand-in-hand with its distrust of class consciousness via socialism and communism. On that note, see another section heading, “REJECTION OF MARXISM.” Fascism redefines equality in terms of corporate groups (with corporate meaning a political body “corpus,” not a business). Within a group, an individual has equal status as a member of the mass. However, the groups themselves exist on an unequal power hierarchy (for example, in Italy management versus workers or, most famously, Nazism placing “Aryans” above Jews).
- Anti-conservative. Many people associate fascism with the far-right, but fascists often reveled in the violation of conservative ideals regarding proper society. Though Mussolini includes a section called “THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION,” it is only three sentences long. By contrast, the final section, titled “THE ABSOLUTE PRIMACY OF THE STATE,” gives the opposite perspective: Mussolini required that traditional institutions like the monarchy and church submit themselves to the state. He defines fascism as “a spiritual revolt against old ideas“ and “not reactionary, but revolutionary.” Fascists wanted to press on towards some millenarian future inspired by historical tradition but separate from the ossified power structures of old. As Mussolini puts it, “History does not travel backwards.”
But what what positive traits define them? In The Anatomy of Fascism, the historian Robert Paxton argues that fascism works more as a process of “mobilizing passions” than a genuine political ideology. To summarize his summary in the final chapter, I will synthesize and condense his nine points into five:
- In-group decline, crisis, or victimhood. Fascism imagines a victimized in-group and an exploitative out-group (to use the Nazism example again, Aryans and Jews). Opportunistic leaders might shift those boundaries for political gain, but at its core fascism mobilizes the masses with a fear of losing out to some demonized “other” (often ironically, a group weaker than the one favored by the fascists. See Umberto Eco famously identifying the out-group as both “too strong and too weak”).
- Radical solutions to achieve a “historical destiny” of in-group rejuvenation. See fascist Italy’s goal of becoming a true great power. Here, “radical” often means a preference for violence to mirror the fascist drive for power. Fascists consider the in-group crisis so severe that no existing political or economic system can save them. As a result, they reject liberal democracy and socialism as possible paths forward though, as in historical examples, they may compromise with traditional elites for the sake of political expediency. However, in the quest to achieve a revolutionary historical destiny, even conservatism becomes a frequent enemy.
- A single infallible leader. The leader offers the radical solutions required to rejuvenate the in-group. With violence and charisma, he rallies a party around him (Paxton notes that the leader is always male). Because fascism asserts that only the strongest have the right to dominate (for example, in Italy veterans of the Great War), the leader does not permit power sharing.
- The complete subordination of the individual to the group. This is the most radical solution, Mussolini’s “totalitarianism.” Via The Doctrine of Fascism, individual rights cease to exist, with the state “entering into the soul and ruling with undisputed sway.” Meanwhile, the leader becomes the “one conscience and one will” of the mass, thus driving the whole in-group towards its historical rejuvenation.
- The legitimacy of violence via a “Darwinian struggle” for domination. Here, fascism reveals its idolization for war and can slip into its stereotypical genocidal tendencies (in Nazism). Because the in-group has suppressed any individualism, only competing masses remain. If survival of the fittest determines history’s winners, the losers have no right to live and spread their culture or genes. As Mussolini writes, “outside history man is a nonentity.”
With a loose working definition of fascism, let’s dive into some key lines and scenes to note how they mirror many features of fascist ideology:
- “What the Wolf Clan needs now is a young, powerful patriarch. A real patriarch” (The old patriarch declares Yuuto his heir). This makes reference to the infallible ruler, youthful enough to imagine a rejuvenation and powerful enough to make it happen. Of course, the appointment of an heir is also anti-democratic.
- “I rose to the position of Patriarch of the Wolf Clan, a position where a single order of mine can determine whether someone lives or dies.” Though the Wolf Clan does not come close to modern technological totalitarianism, Yuuto has the absolute power to dictate the lives of his people. In addition to being anti-democratic, the subordination of the individual to the leader’s wishes goes beyond simple authoritarianism.
- Scene: Yuuto shouts down his council of cynical old men, slamming his fist on the table until it bleeds. I interpret this as both anti-democracy and anti-conservative. From an anti-democracy perspective, Yuuto does not win his argument via reasoned debate. Instead, he rejects the advice of his council and cows the old men with a show of force. From an anti-conservative perspective, he effectively subordinates the traditional elites to his will. Though he makes an appeal to the traditions of the sibling and child ritual, he does so in a radical way to incorporate the Horn clan into his regime.
- “Tradition says that the strong should lead” Once again, this includes reference to the infallible ruler. However, the appeal to tradition and strength also fits into fascist philosophy. Rule by force rather than law also applies to the anti-democracy criteria.
- “Hereditary rule only leads to decay” Never to lean into tradition too much, fascists also reject conservative solutions to government. I could also interpret the reference to decay as a form of the fascist preoccupation with decadence and stagnation.
- “Perhaps we were dogs before, yes, but thanks to our patriarch, we were reborn into true wolves, powerful and bold!” This line clearly conveys both the sense the crisis and rejuvenation of the group, obviously led by none other than the infallible leader. Someone less cautious than me might also interpret the dogs to wolves evolution as evidence of social Darwinism.
- “The Wolf Clan’s present success is entirely due to him.” Once again, the infallible leader and rejuvenation.
- “It’s thanks to your wisdom, Big Brother. Now the Wolf Clan will become even wealthier. The poverty we experienced two years ago feels like a lifetime ago.” As usual, this includes another reference to the infallible leader. However, it also alludes to the crisis faced by the clan before Yuuto became patriarch, its present rejuvenation, and its future historical destiny.
- “I believe in Yuuto-sama, the savior of the Wolf Clan!” (Yuuto’s troops cheer him before a suicidal final stand) Yet again, the infallible leader, with more allusions to the past crisis and present rejuvenation. More importantly, the final stand occurs against the promise that the enemy clans will murder or enslave the entire Wolf Clan, fitting into the Darwinian struggle narrative. The soldiers submit their will to the group, fighting to death for the preservation of the mass.
- “Sieg Patriarch!” This line alone, presented in an unironically positive light, does more to associate Holy Valkyria with fascism than any other. In both the first and last episodes, the masses come out to celebrate Yuuto’s military victories with the chant. I don’t think I need to explain this one, but “Sieg Patriarch” is an obvious reference to the Nazi “Sieg Heil.”
- “Unlike a child, a younger sister or younger brother, is not bound by absolute servitude.” (Yuuto forces Linnea and her Horn Clan to become vassals) I consider this one of the critical points of fascist world-building in the series. This quote reveals that the patriarch’s “children” effectively become his slaves. It makes a clear reference to individual subordination to the group and anti-egalitarianism. More subtly, Yuuto’s children act as the losers in a Social Darwinist contest and lose their autonomy as free thinking adults. Even worse, though Yuuto bluffs regarding the sack of the city of Van, he still threatens to kill the entire Horn Clan if Linnea does not join him.
- Scene: Yuuto requests Linnea’s aid in convincing the leaders of the Horn Clan to adopt his radical farming schemes from the future. Though Yuuto has full control of the state, like history’s real fascist leaders, political convenience means that he sometimes must ally himself with traditional elites to achieve the clan’s rejuvenation.
- “In this world, people kill each other over tiny pieces of land. The weak are oppressed and trampled down” Though not necessarily Yuuto’s fault, he lives in a world that revels in war. However, Yuuto does fault himself when he adopts that ideology uncritically to go on his own spree of conquest. The reference to the “weak” comes comes close to a Social Darwinist understanding of violence.
- “This ritual should make it possible to rid the Wolf Clan of all opposition and bring peace.” This is another key line in the show’s fascist world-building. It fits well into the narrative of historical rejuvenation and millenarian destiny, with the end of opposition representing the culmination of the Darwinian struggle for dominance.
- “I’ll buy them.” (Yuuto purchases two slaves). Anti-egalitarian, plain and simple. The (female…) slaves were captured in a raid and thus deserve their subjugation. Even worse though, as the second item in this list shows, Yuuto has the absolute power to eliminate the slave trade in his clan but chooses to do nothing. Instead he opts to pay the slaver a hefty sack of coin. (To those who read my analysis of slavery themes in How Not to Summon a Demon Lord, this is so, so much worse. Holy Valkyria’s hero supports the slave-capture industry. Unlike the Demon Lord, Yuuto doesn’t even try to do the right thing).
- “But he shows no arrogance and always puts in more effort than anyone.” This is another obvious reference to the infallible leader. In the most insufferable humble-brag I’ve ever heard, the show would have viewers believe that Yuuto’s only flaw is his excessive humility. Of course, humility is not a flaw. To borrow La Rochefoucauld’s wit from his Maxims, “We confess small faults to insinuate that we have no great ones” (or if you want to be more cynical along the lines of humble-bragging, “Humility is the worst form of conceit”).
- “I think he might be forging the original Norse myth.” The myth represents a sort of national tradition for the Wolf Clan. Meanwhile, the endpoint of the myth in Ragnarok provides something akin to a millenarian historical destiny at the end of the great Darwinian struggle. However, as the infallible ruler, Yuuto has the power to change the myth through the sheer force of his will.
- “Big Brother came from heaven!” In the imagination of his subjects, the infallible leader resembles a god.
- “I suppose it would be my duty as legal wife to let him have his fun with other women.” This quote is less clearly fascistic than it is grossly misogynistic, but here the wife subordinates her individual preferences to the needs of the infallible leader, and thus the group.
In my mind, the assembled evidence shows clear themes relating to anti-democracy, anti-egalitarianism, anti-conservatism, past crisis, historical rejuvenation, an infallible leader, individual subordination, and Darwinian struggle. However, I have one final, critical question: if Holy Valkyria does indeed include fascist content, does it portray the ideology in a positive light? After all, Fullmetal Alchemist included an even more explicitly fascist regime without actually promoting fascist ideology by having the heroes revolt against the Fuhrer’s despotic rule.
I think yes. All of the above quotes come from protagonists in the story. Yuuto is the hero of the story and just an all around great guy (if you can get over the slaving warlord part…). He receives two parades (“Sieg Patriarch!”) for his achievement and the adoration of the entire Wolf Clan, in addition to almost a dozen harem girls and unlimited power, wealth, prestige in his new world. Most importantly, in the last episode Yuuto leaves the isekai but chooses to return to rule his violent, slaving dystopia. If that does not qualify as an endorsement, I do not know what does.
I will not finish with some grand conclusion. I will let any readers judge for themselves my definition of fascism, my evidence, and my analysis of fascist themes in Holy Valkyria. However, I want to end my post with a few pre-emptive defenses as a sort of appendix. In a way, I am reacting to these two posts that criticized the original SyFy article for, among other things, using Western-centric thinking and failing to define fascism. Both posts made reasonable arguments against the SyFy piece. In writing this post, I tried not to repeat its mistakes.
First, I want to note a few things that I am not doing in this post:
- Generalizing to the whole of Japanese society or the whole anime industry. I am criticizing specific lines and specific scenes in a specific series. This has nothing to do with a “Westerner” accusing “Japan” of some moral outrage or declaring all anime “problematic.” My beef is with Holy Valkyria alone.
- Ascribing intent. I am not accusing the writers, directors, publishers or anyone else of knowingly including fascist themes in Holy Valkyria. Even the two “Sieg Patriarch” scenes may have resulted from simple historical ignorance (a poor defense… but whatever). Given the low quality of everything else in the series, maybe I should take the “Sieg Patriarch” chants as evidence of laziness or difficult production constraints instead of willful evil.
- Attacking viewers that enjoyed Holy Valkyria…
- …despite feeling discomfort with its themes. As I concluded in my post about the use of slavery in How Not to Summon a Demon Lord, a person can enjoy some features of a piece of media and dislike others. To use an example proximate to fascism, I love the fast imagery in F.T. Marinetti’s The Futurist Manifesto even if it makes me recoil for its proto-fascist glorification of war and adoration of violence.
- …despite not noticing its themes. I cannot fault someone for failing to recognize obscure ideas in a piece of fiction. When I watched Spirited Away as a child, I loved the movie even though I did not understand its anti-capitalistic themes (those themes hit me like a
trucksquealing capitalist pig when I watch the movie as an adult).
- Calling for censorship. I skirted the idea in my impression on the first episode of Holy Valkyria because I worried about my middle-school aged students reading the light novel, but ended the post disgusted with myself. I wanted to take a shower not because of offensive content in the episode itself, but because I felt shame for my extreme hatred of such an insignificant show. I remain committed to John Stuart Mill’s expansive concept of freedom of speech. Yes, even if a child might read or watch Holy Valkyria.
Last (and yes, probably least), a few possible objections to my argument and a few rebuttals:
- Yuuto is not a fascist because he is not evil. He brings prosperity to his country and even institutes free education! To start with, Yuuto himself says “I’m going to hell for sure,” showing at least a personal conviction that he has done evil. More substantially though, Fascism does not preclude progress for the in-group. For example, Nazis were obsessed with hygiene and public health and promised an economic recovery from the Great Depression. The Italians sought to lift Italy out of its “proletarian” international status. Equating fascism with evil oversimplifies the real historical appeal of the ideology.
- Holy Valkyria is not fascist because it is not genocial. See the first point. This is an unfair oversimplification of fascism. Genocide can occur without fascist politics (for example, the genocide of Native Americans in the United States). Further, fascism can exist without genocide. Before killing the Jews, the Nazis first tried to remove them from German territory. But even here, Yuuto threatens genocide when he conquers the Horn Clan. Even if he was bluffing, the threat alone makes him a tyrant.
- The Wolf Clan allies with the Horn Clan, so it is not an exclusionary in-group. I disagree. The Wolf Clan only allies with the Horn Clan after Yuuto subjugates them via the sibling-child ritual, which turns the children into slaves and the siblings into subordinate juniors. Further, though the philosophical emphasis on Darwinian struggle might suggest that fascists of different nationalities would fight each other, in reality international fascism resulted in alliances between groups that believed they could help each other reach the top of the survival-of-the-fittest hierarchy (the obvious example being Germany and Italy).
- Fascism can only occur from 1918 to 1945. Because Holy Valkyria takes place in the Bronze Age, it cannot apply. I agree to an extent. Despite the resurgence of supposedly neo-fascist groups across the world, for the most part fascism is historically bounded in the first half of the twentieth century and does not appear before or much after. However, Holy Valkyria was not written by a Bronze Age scribe. It was written in the modern world and is thus shaped by history up to the present, including Japan’s experience during World War Two. However, neither does the series represent a distinct “neo fascist” movement.
- Fascism requires democracy. Because the people in the show did not experience democracy before Yuuto’s rule, fascism cannot apply. Paxton makes this point in his book by emphasizing the importance of fascism’s “anti-positions.” Viewed in the context of its Bronze Age world, fascism thus cannot exist because no democracy or socialism exists for it to oppose. However, see the previous point. Holy Valkyria is not a historical work. It aired in 2018. Though the characters in the story do not exist in a world that has ever seen democracy, the creators of the work have. At a bare minimum, Yuuto himself has lived most of his life in Japan’s modern democratic society before traveling to the isekai.
- Yuuto is a traditional dictator rather than a fascist autocrat. Again, I agree to an extent. However, Yuuto’s revolutionary agenda distinguishes him from the boring old law-and-order types that merely seek to enrich themselves and preserve the status quo. If his radical reforms of the Wolf Clan’s economy, military, and society do not convince you, consider this: because Yuuto came from the future, he literally has a grand historical vision packed into his brain like some kind of messianic guide (even though he is a middle schooler…).
- Yuuto does not have enough power to reform his society or oppose its fascistic tendencies. This is a common defense of heroes in fantasy settings that tolerate problems like slavery. The argument goes that if the heroes resisted every injustice, they would get themselves killed. However, I don’t think the argument applies in this case. Yuuto has unlimited power to shape his clan. During the series’ twelve episodes, he enacts free public education, reforms the military multiple times, revolutionizes the Horn Clan’s agricultural system, and establishes ironworking, glass, and paper industries. If he wanted to make his society more democratic or egalitarian by say, abolishing slavery, he could do so. Remember his line: “a single order of mine can determine whether someone lives or dies.” Again, Yuuto is a tyrant with a shocking indifference to the injustices of his world.
- None of this matters. You got me there! This show is obscure and terrible beyond its politics. But I’m just so, so bored at work…