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.