Gundam: Warriors of Universalism

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World War II is in the news these days. Just last weekend, Chinese youth vandalized Japanese restaurants and burned the Hi-no-Maru in response to events from the 1930s, and meanwhile, the Japanese conservative party is on a mission to boost fallen national pride — once emboldened from economic superiority — through a new retro-nationalism. WWII is an obvious place to mine for culture: back in the “Good War” (as Studs Terkel ironically called it), everyone was a victor (Pearl Harbor! Japanese surrender!) and everyone was a victim (Pearl Harbor! Japanese surrender!), and no matter which side you were on, the uniforms looked sharp.

Most of the Japanese public, however, rarely looks back fondly to the Empire, and instead, have been longtime believers of a pacifist internationalism. Nothing expresses this better than the 1979 TV anime series Mobile Suits Gundam.

Gundam is about a future war between the Earth Federation and a breakaway colony called Zeon. Today, the show is one of Japan’s most beloved cartoons, but during its initial premiere, Gundam was a massive flop. And no surprise: The show is like a 30-minute toy commercial agonizing over the horrors of war. An emergency situation forces our main hero Amuro Ray into the Federation fight, and even after becoming the the army’s prize pilot, he still constantly questions his own involvement. Other characters are introduced only to be killed a moment later, and the whole cast visibly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Overall, it’s totally humorless and often difficult to watch because the writers are unwilling to betray the gravity of the show’s premise.

To emphasize the “war is hell” message, there’s no clear-cut “good guy/bad guy” distinctions — only a web of internal intrigue and fleeting moments of relative moral clarity. The robot/uniform designs, however, speak volumes to the underlying intentions. Amuro’s unit — Gundam RX-78 — looks like a robot samurai designed by Gerrit Rietveld, hard lines and primary colors. The red, yellow, and blue resonate the benevolent Universalism of the Earth Federation, which until Zeon’s breakaway, ruled Earth and Space in peace.

On the Zeon side, the uniforms are a pastiche of late 19th century European empire designs, if not flat-out Germanic. Throughout the show, sympathy towards Zeon’s star pilot and heart-throb Char makes it difficult to automatically hate these independence fighters, but by the end of the first quarter, we start understanding the nature of the enemy. When a member of the Zeon ruling family gives a speech for his fallen brother, he ignites the mass rally with the chant of “Sieg Zeon!” under two flags looking much like Germany’s iron cross and a black-and-white version of Japan’s WWII-era flaming sun. Hey, Zeon just wants some Lebensraum! — but at this point, we all know what happened at Munich, and it’s clear where the story is headed.

Opposed to the “universal” of the Federation, Zeon is the malevolent “particular” — wearing culturally-unique uniforms and demanding to be treated differently than the Federation’s other members. In the show’s moral logic, it is the Germanic Zeon’s struggle for independence that starts the terrible war — absolutely a critique on the Axis Powers, and ultimately, the Japanese Empire. While the Gundam side is far from perfect, viewers can extrapolate a pacifist-orientation and good will from the Federation’s futuristic universality. Post-war Japanese fondness of the universal over the particular, however, stems from an fundamental belief in modernist conformity: The group order only crumbles when individual countries/people try to stand out. The 20th century Modernist project of Universality may have been heavy-handed in its ignorance and suppression of difference, but its call for equality was an obvious reaction to the “selfishness” of particularism that started the major wars.

Today, the Japanese public has a choice between reverting towards 19th century nationalism or continuing to support yellow, red, and blue Internationalism. With the current government squarely in the first camp and the people/culture in the second, this could be an interesting fight ahead.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
April 15, 2005

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

18 Responses

  1. Chris_B Says:

    nice article marxy, thanks. I am still not convinced that the governement today is attempting to revive the nationalism of the 30s, but I guess we just differ on that matter. I really liked the graphic you used for this as well, good comparison.

  2. and now Says:

    and now….cue momus…with some self absorbant diatribe

    and action…!

  3. Nari Naro Says:

    I think this is a great article Marxy! Ok I think I’m ranting here, but here goes…

    My relatives all remember the Japanese invasion in China. The scars from that run deep within my family, and I can’t say that they are feelings that can be rationally dealt with. Although the Chinese goverment may be stoking the flames of nationalism among its people, I also sense the fire also rages within a significant portion of the 30+ million overseas Chinese.

    I’ve also spent time in Japan. My feeling is that people there are for the most part, believers in the internationalist pacifism you mention. That leaves me feeling that there is a strong discrepancy between the Japanese government’s perceived actions and the reality of the Japanese populace. Could there be some internal logic to the actions of the LDP or is it really so simple that it’s about men showing who has a bigger dick?

    Anyways there’s a quote I remember (but unfortunately don’t know who said it) that goes:

    “Let the leaders lead and the people will follow. Let the people lead and the leaders will follow.”

    I really hope there is more citizen-to-citizen level exchanges. Have you heard about Peace Boat?

    http://www.peaceboat.org/english/index.html

  4. porandojin Says:

    in all this it is really interesting how the third country, Italy, dealt with its past, or actually it didn’t and how no one cares about it … they have legal fascist party , quite popular on local level, never apologiesed to Ethiopia etc …

  5. Momus Says:

    Don’t you know you are a super star?

  6. farley Says:

    Right. Brilliant. A perfect little cultural nugget. But is the model distracting from the reality here? You said “interesting fight” (I wa thinking the same thing myself) but if we consider the extreme gravity of the situation – isn’t that kind of a distanced way of thinking and maybe irresponsable?

    I am planning to spend the late summer at an artist-in-residency program in Beijing with my Japanese girlfriend and this whole political situation is becoming very personal for me.

    There is so much being said about this recently and one does not want to encourage the media frenzy, but unlike the political manipulation that created the feeding-tube fiasco, this is a real issue that needs to be dealt with.

    Reading the English translation of the (not as far right-wing) Yomiyuri – the translators should be embarrassed for translating the euphemisms so well. Drop the “alleged” already! … so frustrating!!! And when will they be brave enough to publish an editorial that presents the Chinese side? I know they have published (at least some of) the FACTS about the war, but I am talking about the OPINION of someone who disagrees with the government line. Dream on, right?

    I don’t know who these students are that are rioting. Of my mainland Chinese friends not one has a deep hatred for Japan. But I noticed a pattern; all of my friends have at one point told me about the horrible things Japan did to China. They seemed to have the attitude that I probably had never heard of these things and were preparing themselves for a disagreement (I am an American – maybe they didn’t know which side we were on during the war…) When I didn’t claim that they were making things up they seemed kind of shocked.

    I’d love to see how historically accurate the Chinese textbooks are… I wonder if there are any English translations? We all know the Chinese government is repressive; Japan needs to accept that is not a level playing field and move on. Stop trying to change the subject. It reminds me of arguements with my girlfriend. It’s like – Farley, you didn’t wash the dishes – and I’m like, yeah, well, you left the laundry out in the rain. I mean, it’s maybe true, but it’s a fucked-up logic.

    I think that it is not so simple as “the people lead, the government follows” – in fact in China it appears to be “the government tricks the people into thinking they are leading, and then the government pretends to follow.” But I do think that establishing personal connections with people in countries that have ideological differences seems to be an invaluable way of effecting political change.

    I wonder if the Japanese public really supports pacifism, especially the younger generation. Generally, the educational method does not seem to encourage independent analysis of political situations. I could never gauge how deep the support is – how much is just love of John Lennon and the omnipresent peace pose for photos? Creating a war seems to be pretty easy, peace is much harder work. I have met some committed individuals, but how does this relate to the general public? Where is the action to support the idea?

  7. Momus Says:

    Don’t you know you are a super star?

    Posted by Momus at April 16, 2005 07:37 AM

    Would the “Momus” trolling around with my name please cut it out? Make comments under your own name, a handle, or anonymously, but not mine, please.

  8. Chris_B Says:

    momus: we all know you are the real superstar with legions of fans around the globe.

  9. Sarmoung Says:

    I was in New York recently and there was a large Korean demonstration outside the Japanese Consulate on Park Avenue. Much banging of drums and sloganeering about Dokdo/Takeshima. I chatted (or rather I tried) to one of the demonstrators over the historical nature of island’s supposed ownership. I didn’t get much sense out of him as he was too caught up in the action of joining in group chants and noise making.

    Emotionally, I entirely side with both Korea and China on these matters and pretty much so from a more considered point of view. Yet, I can’t help but feel that a large element of this struggle is conducted by reactionary bigots on all sides.

    I have a few issues with your phrase “the “selfishness” of particularism that started the War”. It’s not clear to me which you are referring to. Well, aside from Zeon vs. Federation! The Pacific theatre is part of the Western-defined World War, but where do we date Japan’s War from? Mukden or before?

    That encroachment, occupation and control is, I think, a more complex set of attitudes than a singular “selfishness”. Certainly, many of those involved in the later Manchurian experiment were I think initially well-motivated and actually did believe they were helping rather than subjugating. Yes, I know how things turned out in the end. But 19th century Japanese nationalism is not such a singular notion and is composed of any number of currents that are competing. Are you including emergent Pan-Asianism in its many flavours?

    Hmm, I might be slightly confusing the issue with 20th century issues there, but I’m intrigued by which aspects of 19th century nationalism you’re referring to.

  10. Momus Says:

    No, I am the real Momus. Don’t believe these imposters! Sieg Zeon!

  11. Ossan Alpha Says:

    Hey, whoever you are, using Momus’ name is *really* not cool. I’m a lurker, and usually disagree with Momus, but I appreciate his contribution to the threads. If Momus were a troll, I might condone hijacking his name, but he’s not. Go pull your juvenile stunts at Vice or somewhere.

  12. Randy Says:

    excellent post! i grew up watching this stuff, and it hadn’t yet occured to me to deconstruct it in retrospect for political content. i found your analysis very articulate, and i loved the timely and appropriate reference to modern culture. thanks!

  13. marxy (in the old capital) Says:

    in all this it is really interesting how the third country, Italy, dealt with its past, or actually it didn’t and how no one cares about it …

    The Italians overthrew Mussolini themselves and hung him up in the public square. Japan and Germany had to be “liberated” from Fascism. This is a gross simplification of history, but it explains our perceptions of the ex-Axis.

    I’d love to see how historically accurate the Chinese textbooks are…

    The sad thing is that they’re even more whitewashed and antihistorical.

    Hey, whoever you are, using Momus’ name is *really* not cool.

    Yeah, knock it off. I can tell who’s fake from seeing the emails come through, but it’s impossible to tell looking at this comment screen.

    Are you including emergent Pan-Asianism in its many flavours?

    Pan-asianism was a sham to some degree, especially with Japan doing things like stealing all the rice in Vietnam to make fuel and having 100,000 Vietnamese people starve to death. There could have been some authentic feelings about liberating Asia from the Europeans, but I very much doubt that those feelings still drive the current right wing.

    Emotionally, I entirely side with both Korea and China on these matters and pretty much so from a more considered point of view. Yet, I can’t help but feel that a large element of this struggle is conducted by reactionary bigots on all sides.

    These are my feelings exactly. I understand the Chinese anger at historical revisionism, but I very much doubt that it’s actually the driving force behind these increasingly violent protests. The Japanese are “animals” – dehumanized – as a way to legitimize any violence against them.

  14. farley Says:

    I saw the images from the New York Times on Monday – Chinese carrying posters with what look like American wwii anti-Japanese propoganda images. You know, the bucktoothed, angled-eyes, capped soldier look. It is pretty shocking stuff. Makes it harder to identify with the protesters…

  15. marxy Says:

    At this point, it’s pretty impossible to side with the protesters.

  16. dzima Says:

    Over in my journal, I got flamed by a Chinese person for saying something along the lines of the last three comments. It’s one of times when you try to reasonable but the other side’s patriotism/victim complex is too strong. Anyway, here’s a website that you might be interested in checking out:

    http://www.gregoryclark.net

    It’s got all the information about the writer and pretty interesting essays too! I haven’t looked through all of them yet.

  17. marxy Says:

    I got flamed by a Chinese person for saying something along the lines of the last three comments.

    I sympathize with the anti-Imperialist position, but I am having a hard time to find the Chinese protesters to have any kind of legitimate reason to destroy restaurants and beat up unrelated Japanese kids. Unfortunately, both sides are pretty appalling in this mess.

  18. Nari Naro Says:

    marxy wrote: These are my feelings exactly. I understand the Chinese anger at historical revisionism, but I very much doubt that it’s actually the driving force behind these increasingly violent protests.

    I agree. A lot of the discontent and anger expressed stems from the dynamic changes that China is going through, due to corporatization and globalization. China joining the WTO has only brought more uncertainty and volatility to the country. There is a massive class gap. Even the educated class is finding it tough to make it in this “new China”. All said, this is the doing of the Chinese government in its move to a liberalized economy without liberal economic institutions. It will be a danger if the educated class get together with the rural/working class. The CCP know this because that is in fact how they came to be.