Wednesday, October 14, 2020

War and Peace and Japanese Cartoons Everywhere

For many decades now, it seems that Japanese cartoons and animated series are everywhere. This is, in part, attributable to their creative and vivid storytelling, innovative design, hard work, and clever marketing.

But there's more to it than that.

Anime treats in certain ways some of the concerns of my "East Asian Studies Project" (that I described in a previous post, HERE). It emerges against the backdrop of the pervasively influential (and in some ways traumatic) "invasion" of East Asia by Western ideas, influences, and power over the past century and a half. 

In the throes of its own cultural crisis and change, the West flooded this region of ancient interconnected (yet often mutually hostile) societies and cultures with a spectacular mashup of the whole Western heritage: the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Japan was affected in a very particular way by what I have called the "East-West collision" of the 19th and 20th centuries. Therefore, it's useful to view the Anime phenomenon in the larger context of the historical conditions from which it arose. 

Here I would like to put forth a few observations that are necessarily incomplete and by no means exhaustive (e.g. there is the whole specific story of the development of animation in general, and the way pioneering animators on both sides of the Pacific Ocean mutually influenced one another). I limit myself to the broader sociological view, which is a difficult endeavor when trying to assess the long (and ongoing) Japanese experience of the West in all of its peculiar complexity. Indeed, it is peculiar and complex in ways Westerners never think of.

The crucial point here, obviously, is that for Japan, the "East-West collision" included a war that was unprecedented in its magnitude and destruction.

We now are beginning to have enough "historical distance" from the most intense moments of Japan's 140 year modern relationship with the West to risk moving beyond the partisan narratives of the brutal conflict in the Asian-Pacific "theater" of World War II. Indeed, it is time to sketch a larger perspective that is more fully objective about the multifaceted events that took place in the war. This is not to challenge the established (and undeniable) consensus that the Japanese government and military waged an intolerable and criminally aggressive war of conquest in Asia and the Pacific. Defense against Japanese aggression was in principle necessary and just, and considerable effort went into meeting many of the demands of justice in practice. 

Japan's invasion of China, the brutal attacks by Japanese soldiers against Chinese civilians, and the (at least ferociously disproportionate) preemptive strikes and/or offensive territorial seizures of places under USA or British governance (notwithstanding Japan's stated motives of combatting Western imperialism) all point to the extremely violent and dangerous elements of Japanese militarism in this period. Whether these violent tendencies remain latent in Japan's national identity, manifest themselves in other ways, or might reemerge in revived forms is difficult to predict. Japan's current system of government with its political process has overall responsibility in this area, and - having demonstrated cooperation and good faith for over seven decades - it deserves the corresponding degree of trust from regional and international partners in addressing the violence in its own heritage.

But how did this conflict emerge in the first place? 

After the West's forcing open of Asian markets in the mid-19th century (which launched a cultural revolution in Asia beyond anyone's expectations), Japan's apparently wholesale adoption of Western social forms gave the impression that it had entered "the modern world" (a term still filled with "enchantment" in the West and regarded as an unqualified good). As already noted, however, the West rushed into enagement with East Asia on many levels at this time, thanks in large part to the advances in shipping technology (not least of which was the steam engine) that made unprecedented global interaction possible. The result was that the very different sets of cultural forms of the Western world and East Asia crashed into one another in an experience fraught with mutual misunderstandings, with the West bringing to bear the pressure of its superior material power to impose its structures and patterns in the East. What furthered the traumatic charactor of this imposition was that the West itself was in the midst of a crisis regarding the meaning of its own structures. What was exported to Asian peoples at this time was therefore very much a "mixed bag" of good and bad tendencies of material progress, and conflicting ideas about their significance.

Japanese culture, however, used its genius for adaptability to rapidly integrate the whole Western "package" (and all its good, bad, and ugly aspects) into Japan's own native idealistic renaissance and reinvigorated martial spirit. The result was an admirably dynamic but also inherently unstable and even volatile emerging culture. Not suprisingly, extremists with sweeping visions of grandeur rose to positions of leadership. The drums of war - amplified now by microphones and dispersed everywhere by radio - began to beat.

By the middle of the 20th century, Japanese militarism was using its own "Westernized forces" to pursue a nationalist and regionally imperialist agenda. Ultimately, Japan became first the perpetrator of the horrors of technologically advanced "total warfare" on its neighbors, and then the catastrophic victim of the West's newer, savage, unprecedentedly brutal war technology that brought the Japanese people to a condition of devastation and utter humiliation. Japan has since been excluded from direct participation in the (ongoing) war culture, but it has regenerated on an even larger scale its industrial and financial "success" using Western ideas, and has become an innovator (along the lines of Western development) in engineering, electronics, and digital technology. Today, Japan is "more like us" than ever... or so it appears.

So, is the Japanese identity crisis a "thing of the past"? Has it moved on from wartime defeat and destruction, and decided to embrace "the Western road"? I don't really know the answer to that question. Japan today is hard to fathom. It has possibilities and problems similar to those in the West, but it faces distinctive challenges as well. Anime is an interesting medium for a mature observer to see these various tensions "played out" in diverse ways in a vast imaginative space.

Meanwhile, the real Japan remains enigmatic beneath its Western dress. It is a secular, materialistic, work-obsessed, often-lonely place. Economic assessments of material properity and productivity do not necessarily reflect these cultural factors (at least, not yet). In particular, the Japanese family has become fragmented and the newest generations are shrinking alarmingly under the looming shadow of demographic winter (caused, in part, by yet another, more recent Western imposition: an ideology-of-sterility implemented by a relentless technological invasion of the human ecosystem).

Yet the Japanese have not forgotten their history, their ideals, or their great sense of integrity, and they long for the lost solidarity of their families (which still exercises a defining, even though increasingly impotent, influence on their view of themselves and their own success). 

Also, the Japanese people - who during the war were largely victims of isolation from information, relentless propaganda, and a distorted, manipulated sense of "patriotic duty" - have since tried to embrace non-violence (an approach that also has roots in their tradition). They profess it sincerely, but inwardly there is much complexity and obscurity in their struggle to make this ideal their own. The Japanese are wrestling with what it means for human beings to use physical force against others, in what manner (and when) it may be appropriate or necessary, and what dispositions are required to keep force with the limits of respect for the other person. I think basic intuitions of morality (which we find at the foundations of "natural law" ethics) are being brought into consideration in a manner that has a certain freshness to it, like firm ground rediscovered in the midst of an ongoing overall disintegration. We see examples of Japanese culture today working through these questions and difficulties in original ways, including in the development of new schools of karate and other martial arts. 

Anime is also a forum where imaginary realms visualize these questions, the perplexity involved in them, and the consequences of transgressing the limits of force and indulging in violence. The context of this struggle for understanding and coherence is a story intended to "entertain" but that also moves within a spectrum of "attitudes" ranging from high idealism to deep cynicism. These cartoons (intended for adults) are most interesting when they are neither ideologically didactic nor morbidly aimed at providing vicarious indulgence of the urge for violence as revenge or self-destruction; they are most interesting when they present complex characters in empathy-engaging circumstances that are resolved imperfectly. Thus, imaginary universes with monsters and mythical creatures can simultaneously "entertain" by taking the viewers to a different world, amaze them with rich and original artwork, and mirror something of the viewers' own struggle with issues of the ambivalence and the problematic nature of "using force" in the context of some kind of ideal of non-violence. Anime also can reveal a society still seeking (often in repressed ways) the meaning of its own enduring pain.

This is not surprising, because in Japan the wounds of their last war remain open. The necessary repentance for their own crimes against their Asian neighbors (especially China) is mired in difficulties - not only because of their own pride but also because of China's tumultuous post-war history. 

Moreover, deep down they have not forgotten the (arguably disproportionate) punishment imposed upon them for their own arrogant imperial ambitions, or the massive direct attacks against their civilian population by incendiary bombing, and of course the unprecedented, horrifying liquidation of two cities by nuclear weapons whose damaging after-effects are still unknown. 

All of this was "justified" (according to a coalition led by Western powers) by the need to defeat Japan's extremist militant aggression. But the Allied Powers sought not just any ordinary victory. They were determined to coerce an unconditional surrender not only of Japan's armed forces but of the governance of the whole nation. The Japanese ultimately put their entire country into the hands of a coalition of "United Nations" that included one nation (the Soviet Union) whose leadership had perpetrated far more "crimes against humanity" (including genocide) than were ever dreamed of even by the most monstrous, deluded Japanese practitioners of neo-bushido ideology and its barbarous war crimes in the region.

Imperialist Japan had many foolish dreams regarding the domination of East Asia, and aims that its armies and navy pursued recklessly, without regard for human dignity or human life. But it had at least one instinct rooted in reality, and that was its fear of communist aggression from the north with the intention of establishing Stalinist hegemony in the region. Notwithstanding the arrogance of the Japanese imperialists themselves, this instinctive fear turned out to be eerily "prophetic."

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union played no role in the occupation of post-war Japan itself, in spite of Stalin's gigantic eleventh hour entry into the Pacific War with the Soviet invasion of Manchuria at 12:01 AM on August 9, 1945. The one-and-a-half-million men of the (Soviet) Red Army who poured into China and Korea would, nevertheless, have a decisive impact on the future of those countries. Japan was entrusted entirely to the USA, and was treated with an undeniable generosity and subsequently protected during the Cold War era. 

Over the past 75 years this has appeared to be unalloyed "win-win" situation for both countries, but beneath the surface it remains a complex, ambivalent experience that Japan still wrestles with. Its effects on Japan's sense of pride, honor, national identity, and capacity for an integrally human development are difficult to measure. There has been much good, and yet - as indicated above - all is not well, and scars and malformations abound that hinder in some respects the human and spiritual energies of the people.

It is important to understand all the factors of a wounded perspective that still festers in Japanese society, and to remember that ancient peoples hand down their resentments from generation to generation. Still, this is only one aspect among many conflicting memories evoked by the whole national effort of Westernization, including the rapid influx of often partial and distorted Western ideas. Underlying everything, there remains the serious search for identity that the Japanese people cannot escape, as they are confronted with basic questions underlying all the particular details of their gigantic ancient post-modern dysfunctional Japanese society -- questions about what it means to be human

All these considerations are applicable to a lot more things than Anime, but they're part of what these cartoon stories are involved with: pieces of a shattered cosmos of mythology and ancient customs of honor and propriety combined with Western science, the shattered fragments of Western humanism (and the sometimes-distorted shadows of the Christianity that once informed that humanism), and the peculiar historic experience of a complex combination of Western technological violence and Western magnanimity. It's all in the mix, along with the existential drama of living with freedom and aspirations and responsibility for the good that every human being goes through, AND (in Japan the still mostly hidden and mysterious) provocations of the grace of redemption and transfiguration.

In any case, we can't ignore the universe of Anime, and the diverse themes it deals with: from nihilism to the search for deeper identity and moral conviction. It shows us much in particular about the last several generations in East Asia (especially in Japan, where there has been 75 years of often perplexed but persistent soul searching) as they struggle to "re-create" and clarify their identity in the midst of a globalized world order of Western-influenced post-World-War-II technological-power-defined societies. 

We also need to look at why Anime has had such a universal impact on youth culture everywhere as well as the ambivalence of that impact - which sometimes appeals to aimless or bizarre violence and domination, bleak despair, superstitions or vacuous fantasies, but in other instances has some positive elements that revive perennial mythic expressions of good-versus-evil and the drama of human freedom struggling for the good.

In a world of flattened, exhausted imagination dominated by the milieu of materialistic consumption and the absence of the search for meaning and transcendence, the Japanese animated story may be one of the protagonists leading the way (for better or for worse) in the direction of a renewed human fascination with myth and symbolism.

To be continued...