I’ve been reading A Diary of Darkness, kept by the Japanese journalist Kiyosawa Kiyoshi from 1942 until his death in 1945 (trans. Eugene Soviak and Kamiyama Tamie). Oh, it’s so good.
The diary covers international affairs, political happenings, and daily life in Japan over the course of the Pacific / Greater East Asia War. Despite strict censorship enforced by the military government and the arrest of several of his intellectual friends for “thought crimes,” Kiyosawa bravely risked his own arrest to produce an honest account of the madness that descended on Japan during the war.
But it’s not just a typical diary either. Kiyosawa kept the journal on the hope that he could use its material to produce a history of Japanese international relations after the war. Thus, along with recording illuminating vignettes of everyday life, Kiyosawa managed to produce a real-time account of the collapse of the Japanese homefront with scholarly rigor as good or better than any secondary source for understanding Japan’s progress during the war.
In politics, Kiyosawa was a committed liberal – more than anything, he complains about the stultifying effect attacks on the freedom of speech had on Japanese society. It’s remarkable then that the journal survived, a powerful testament to the singular importance of that freedom in maintaining a peaceful and democratic society. I regret that he did not live long enough to see Japan become such a society. But hey, it’s nice that he tried.
So anyway, in lieu of something more substantial, here are three quick impressions:
Porco Rosso, the 1992 anime film about a flying pig-pilot who does battle with sky pirates in interwar Adriatic floatplanes, might be Studio Ghibli / director Hayao Miyazaki’s most memed movie. In addition to that thumbs-up image above, plenty of lines make common appearances on anime meme boards like “You make me think humanity’s not a complete waste,” “Laws don’t apply to pigs,” and the classic “Better a pig than a fascist:”
But for all the memes, Porco Rosso is a surprisingly apolitical film, with those lines representing more throw-away jokes than a vigorous thematic ideal. Yes, the titular character Porco is a typical anti-authority anti-hero who chafes under the rule of Depression-era Italian fascists. But he’s also such a severe misanthrope that if he happens to take anti-fascist action, he only does so because the facists happen to be in charge. Combine that apathetic position with what might be Miyazaki’s weakest feminist message among his otherwise excellent cast of believable female characters and I don’t know what to do with Porco Rosso. Yes, it’s beautiful, as all Ghibli movies are. But despite the anti-fascist hype, it lacks much of Miyazaki’s characteristic thematic focus. In a word (or two), it disappoints.
[My main historical sourcing for this post comes from Reto Hofmann’s 2015 book The Fascist Effect: Japan and Italy, 1915-1952 and Michael Lucken’s chapter “Remodeling Public Space: the Fate of War Monuments, 1945-1948” from the 2008 anthology The Power of Memory in Modern Japan. For the sake of convenience, I’ll cite them both by last name only (since you can search both on Google Books) and link any other sources when necessary. Aaand… ugh, stricken by inadequacy again. I regret that I cannot read Japanese better; I would have liked to learn more in the nearby museum. But eh, maybe it wouldn’t have mattered: the displays focused on the Boshin War, not the fascist connection]
It’s “Golden Week” in Japan, this year extended by some extra public holidays for the coronation Emperor Naruhito to usher in the new Reiwa era. So, I’ve been playing the tourist again with some short trips in Tohoku, including one to Aizu, a volcanic mountain basin in western Fukushima Prefecture best known today for its proud history celebrated in the small “samurai city” of Aizu-Wakamatsu. I’ll keep my disclaimer from last time — I describe weird things in Japan, not weird things about Japan. This is not a country profile. But ohhhhh my god, I found something really weird: two memorials dedicated to fallen samurai children …donated by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany!
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 fascist 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 real fascist 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.
What if I told you that this summer season there is an isekai anime even worse than How Not to Summon a Demon Lord, the ecchi harem show that uses slavery as an erotic comedy premise? Would you believe me? I didn’t even believe me at first; after all, there isn’t much worse in the world than slavery. But the first episode of Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria was without exaggeration the single worst piece of anime or television or any other audio-visual medium I have ever encountered. Maybe that demonstrates my shelteredness, but honestly, How Not to Summon a Demon Lord appears tame by comparison.
When, I say “worst,” I don’t refer to its poor production values (though the art and animation and music and direction all earn a clear “bad”). Instead, I mean that the ideas it contains come with implicit endorsements of violent, chauvinistic, morally abject ideologies. This goes far beyond the typical misogynistic wish-fulfillment found in generic shows like How Not to Summon a Demon Lord. It was so vile that I wanted to take a shower after watching it. I felt dirty.
Bear with me for a moment as I work through the show’s more innocuous elements before I offer my conclusions. I promise I will have a point by the end of this essay.