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Review of Mechademia 4: War/Time

By Ellen Grabiner

Lunning, Frenchy, ed. Mechademia 4: War/Time. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.

When asked if they are familiar with “manga” or “anime,” what comes to mind for many are the sparkly-eyed, spiky-haired characters that populate martial arts-based kids’ shows like DragonBall Z and Naruto, or perhaps the luscious, mainstreamed anime of Miyazaki. But it is the rare consumer of manga who, when asked, would think to juxtapose the thinking of Michel Foucault or Jürgen Habermas, Friedrich Schiller or even Henry Jenkins to these transmedial artifacts of Japanese culture. But this juxtaposition is just what the reader of Mechademia 4: War/Time will discover in this amalgam of essays.

The fourth volume of the annual forum for “anime, manga and fan arts,” follows three previous issues in which the overarching themes have included an investigation of emerging worlds of anime, the “traces of the webs of desire that structure anime” (, and the limits of human identity, respectively. The current volume, War/Time, is published by the University of Minnesota Press and edited by series editor Frenchy Lunning, professor at the Minnesota College of Art and Design. War/Time finds itself appropriately located in a moment where perpetual war pervades the everyday. And yet, war remains as invisible and out of reach to most of us in the west as the coffins returning en masse, bringing our dead from the Iraqi desert to US soil.

The arts have historically served as the polished shield of Perseus, allowing us enough remove that we might look into the horrifying face of the gorgon of war. Art can mitigate, can help to make it tolerable to look upon the havoc wreaked by war. And while the almost decade-old incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq remain largely hidden from our view, war continues to permeate the art of our time.

The mainstream film Hurt Locker (2008), about the day-to-day lives of members of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal squad whose job it is to diffuse bombs camouflaged by insurgents in a war-torn Iraq, wins the academy award for Best Picture. Avatar (2009), in which a capitalist, industrial, military complex attempts to destroy the world of the indigenous Nav’i with the use of robot weaponry—incidentally appropriated from the meka of anime—is the highest grossing film. Ever. And Waltz with Bashir (2008), the animated film by Israeli Ari Folman, in which memories about Folman’s involvement in the first Lebanon War in the early eighties are excavated, wins international critical acclaim.

The collected essays of War/Time take as their jumping off point the notion that the discrete boundaries of war and peace have been blurred and now run together. In the preface to this volume, Thomas Lamarre, professor of East Asian Studies at McGill University, draws on the thinking of Michel Foucault, among others, to undergird the essays that follow. No longer do we alternate between times of war and times of peace, but instead, following Foucault, Lamarre suggests, “war becomes a technology of social control…and is the permanent basis of all modern institutions of power” (xi). When we have all war all the time, we no longer have wartime, but instead war/time, in which the slash signifies a gap within which “war acts as a control on the everyday time of orderly social productivity, while that everyday time spurs the spread of war” (xi).

The essays in this collection inhabit, investigate, stretch, and illuminate this implicit gap, some more directly engaged with war and its discourse than others. This fourth volume of Mechademia makes visible multiple and disparate ways in which the everydayness of war has permeated the Japanese postwar experience.

But this anthology goes further than that. In the essay “Theorizing Manga: Nationalism and Discourse on the Role of Wartime Manga,” author Rei Okamoto Inouye locates the power and potential of wartime manga within an edifying historical context. Looking at the birth and evolution of the discourse surrounding manga in Japan beginning in the 1920s and 30s, she points to the distinction between what Japanese refer to as nansensu—manga purported to be modeled on silly American cartoons—and the attempt to elevate anime’s status by seeing its potential as a form of propaganda. This overview highlights the people and organizations behind the movements and tensions surrounding various factions of manga during the twentieth century and concludes with the observation that the “hybridity” of the medium is a good fit for our fragmented postmodern moment (35). Similarly to the way that Japanese manga artists organized to transcend the ubiquitous silliness of the nansensu cartoons and promote, instead, anime’s artistic potential, the essays in this volume expand the power, depth and breadth of the contemporary discourse surrounding anime, and in the process open a discursive space to a larger public. Mechademia 4 is impressive in its grasp of, and reckoning with, the far-reaching tentacles of Japan’s history, which insert their way into contemporary Japanese life.

At the same time, if one is unfamiliar with the genre, this volume is by no means a primer. It assumes a knowledge and a familiarity on the part of the reader not just of manga, but of Japanese history and culture, and of the many theoretical lenses that are drawn upon to elucidate the specific examples under exploration. Many of the essays included in the volume zero in on a specific TV series, movie, graphic novel, or video game, without the knowledge of which some of the salient points of the works may be inaccessible to the reader.

Like many an anthology, some of the pieces are stronger than others, and the subject matter is far ranging, sometimes flung beyond the constraints of what one would normally consider “war/time.” It is to Lunning’s credit, however, that the volume is organized in a manner that strengthens the pieces by virtue of their placement and the pacing of the whole. If one wanted to draw on the metaphor of the meka, a reader could imagine Lunning sitting in the pilot’s seat of an unwieldy robot monster of essays, orchestrating its cumbersome movement so that it appears smooth, organic and all of a piece.

This collection is, in fact, rife with all manner of metaphors, some explicitly the authors’ focus. For example, in “War by Metaphor in Densha otoko,” Michael Fisch deftly explores the usage of the metaphorical language of war adopted by an online community offering the protagonist, “Train Man,” advice on his love life. An astute observer, Fisch builds bridges between the trope of train as mise-en-scéne for romance and digital narratives, between the comedic effect of appropriating the metaphor of war to express love, and the unlikely effect that has of mobilizing society and creating community. Overall this essay is a smart take on the blurring of semantic, narrative, and social media as together they function to disseminate and even participate in the otaku’s romantic adventure. Christophe Thouny, in his essay, “Waiting for the Messiah: The Becoming-Myth of Evangelion and Densha otoko,” also draws on Densha otoko to exemplify his metaphorical construction of “The Waiting Room.” Building on the thinking of Deleuze and Guattari, Thouny suggests that in the face of a time in which the everyday and war coexist, we are suspended, hovering in a liminal space, a “space of transit in which a collective subjectivity can recover a form of agency in narrative becoming” (112). Addressing the surprise success of both Densha otoko and Neon Genesis Evangelion across television, movies, video games and online social media communities, Thouny points to the possibility of new forms of social collectivity that consequently, and perhaps necessarily, will alter narrative production. While I particularly appreciated the fluidity of Thouny’s “waiting room” metaphor, his portrayal of Densh otoko in a messianic light stretches the credulity of the reader.

Several other pieces grapple with the metaphors embedded within the anime they are analyzing. For example, in “Transcending the Victim’s History: Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies,” Wendy Goldberg investigates the deeper meanings of fireflies gleaned from Japanese culture. In Grave of the Fireflies, the viewer accompanies the ghosts of two children, a brother and sister, who, in flashbacks, watch as the events that led to their deaths transpire. Goldberg’s lovely essay is as multi-layered as the anime it describes. It gives the reader not only the rich and tragic storyline but also a window into the visual trope symbolic of the firefly, as well as insight into the post-war suffering of a haunted, nationalistic people (52).

In “Monsters at War: The Great Yokai Wars, 1968-2005,” Zilia Papp carefully traces the ways in which the historical signification of yokai, “cute folkloric monsters,” has fluctuated over time and across media (225). The yokai alternately come to stand for the outsider, more specifically the “West” or the Allied forces, for “Japanese-ness”—”a representation of an imagined, shared nostalgic Japanese past”—or even embody the dangers of environmental pollution (233). Papp’s overview illuminates the mutable fluidity of the yokai across media, and, like Inouye, emphasizes the ways in which manga, and the yokai specifically, have fulfilled the needs of a militaristic propaganda machine (237).

Several of the pieces stretch the limits of the war/time theme by reaching to the furthest outskirts of the motif. In “Haunted Travelogue: Hometowns, Ghost Towns and Memories of War,” Michael Dylan Foster zeroes in on the role of nostalgia as Japan struggles with post-war loss and destruction. Foster contrasts his visits to two museums. On the one hand, he details his experience in Sakaiminato, a village that has been “revitalized” as a theme park along a train route, as homage to the yokai world of Mizuki. In contrast with the “yokai world stitched into the landscape” (167), the second museum, the Mugonkan, a more traditional museum housed in a “sober, cement building,” is dedicated to the work of artists killed during the Pacific war (174). Foster cites Svetlana Boym’s typology here, suggesting that in order to ascertain whether nostalgia ends up being restorative or reflective, the reader/viewer must, as Foster demonstrates, approach the idea of “yearning” critically. Taking that suggestion to heart, this reader felt the travelogue went too far afield from the thrust of the collection, and my interest and attention flagged.

The travelogue motif is extended to the virtual world in Christopher Bolton’s edgy and inventive piece, “Virtual Creation, Simulated Destruction, and Manufactured Memory at the Art Mecho Museum in Second Life.” Here the reader ventures to the middle of one of Second Life’s oceans to the archipelago on which stands the Art Mecho Museum, featuring a “cluster of aesthetic, social, and theoretical practices surrounding Japanese anime and manga” (199). Mirroring the experimental orientation of the museum and its impact on the nature of identity, Bolton chose to present this essay as a dialog between himself and his avatar, Kuri Basiat. As the conversation unfolds, it evokes the uncanniness found in the mise-en-abyme that results, in part, from an emphasis on watching oneself watch oneself. Bolton aptly brings to light the oscillation between the two-dimensional qualities of many anime characters and the ways in which they sit in three-dimensional, perspectival realms. He suggests this layering is also a function of Second Life itself, alternating between “immersion or suspension of disbelief and self-conscious spectatorship” (202).

Echoes of the binary war/time relationship resound throughout the collection. We find East/West, US/Japan, civil/military, and in particular, analog/digital, caroming in “Oshii Mamoru’s Patlabor 2: Terror, Theatricality, and Exceptions That Prove the Rule” by Mark Anderson. The frighteningly realistic replication of instruments of war in Patlabor 2 brings into high relief the issue of technology and the ways in which it mediates our experience. Here one can’t help but juxtapose the recent leaking of video footage taken from the gun-site of an Apache helicopter flying over Iraq. The unintentional slaying of Reuters photographers, the mistaking of cameras for weapons, and the “video game-like” display, all too deadly in real life, are evoked in Patlabor 2. The myriad screens and sensors eerily replicated, call into question the awful human consequences of the distance afforded by technological warfare. Evoking Baudrillard’s simulacrum, Anderson questions the multiple orders of reality, and the resultant blurring of the line between terror and warfare.

Stepping back from the blurring of lines, we confront oppositions to war/time; and here we can’t but find love/time. In traditional manga, this distinction is clear. As Rebecca Suter explains in her introduction to “From Jusuheru to Jannu: Girl Knights and Christian Witches in the Work of Miuchi Suzue,” we have shōnen manga, the martial arts, rock and sock ’em boys comics, pitted against shōjo manga, what we might call manga for girls, or romance comics. (I can’t help but indulge in a bit of my own nostalgia here! My son, Alex, and I were serious Trekkies, watching and re-watching every episode of the Next Generation series. At the start of each episode, Alex would announce whether this one would be an episode that he would like—one with lots of hand to hand combat and explosions—or one that I would like—one with lots of romance and relationship themes. Some things do transcend cultural constraints.)

Suter points the reader in the direction of what she calls sentō bishōjo, a motif translated as “battling beauty,” in which the love and battle tropes overlap. Threaded though her essay are the ways in which the girl knight genre explores notions of gender construction and performativity, as well as the function of appropriating western historical settings as a way to “address social and political concerns in a displaced, allegorical mode” (243).

In “The Filmic Time of Coloniality: On Shinkai Makoto’s The Place Promised in Our Early Days,” Gavin Walker explores love in yet another context. The Place Promised in Our Early Days (2004) doesn’t employ an appropriation of an historical era, but instead an alternative present, in which Japan has been split into two: the northern part, or the “Union” and the southern part, occupied by the United States. In this alterity, we are introduced to even more parallel universes as the backdrop to the poignant adolescent love story of three young friends. Walker sees this visually stunning film as emblematic of multiple divisions: between the narration and what the audience witnesses, between north and south, between city and countryside, etc. And he suggests that aesthetically it exemplifies the sekai-kei style of anime. In some sense this style is reminiscent of the Classical Hollywood narrative, in which two story lines interlace: the romantic love story as a counterpoint to a “world-historical, interplanetary or international conflict” (7). Walker deftly and credibly makes visible the impact of the disruption of linearity by virtue of a visual aesthetic that opposes the scale of “love/time” to the scale of “world/time” in PPED.

Bookending Inouye’s historical essay, “Theorizing Manga,” which appears at the beginning of the volume, we find Mark Driscoll’s, “Kobayashi Yoshinori Is Dead: Imperial War / Sick Liberal Peace / Neoliberal Class War.” Parallel to the trajectory of the fall in popularity of Kobayashi, Driscoll traces the political and social see-sawing of a “neo-liberalized” Japan over the last two decades. Using Kobayashi as a barometer, Driscoll explores the tension between a disaffected, modern or “westernized” youth and the appeal of a nostalgic return to the “collectivism of a militarist 1930’s Japan” (291). Cataloging recent political twists and turns, Driscoll paints Kobayashi, and by proxy, his anime, as metonymic of a kind of Japanese ultra-nationalism.

Tom Looser dubs Driscoll’s disaffected youth the “Gundam generation” and in his essay, “Gothic Politics: Oshii, War, and Life without Death,” suggests that although they have never experienced war, they “know” it through their virtual adventures. Looser writes about Oshii’s novel, Blood: The Last Vampire: Night of the Beasts, telling the reader it is a “tritely traditional narrative,” and “by some accounts, just a boring book,” begging the question, why write about it at all? While the connections he was attempting to draw between death and politics are compelling, his prose tended toward the repetitive, alternately opaque and pedantic, and at times even listy.

The spotlight both Looser and Driscoll shine on a disaffected youth brings to the fore the assumption that postwar Japan is characterized by and inescapably steeped in a militaristic, imperialistic past, as well as colored by its tragic victimization at the hands of the United States. And yet, there is evidence that these very same young people are woefully ignorant of their legacy. In the opening scenes of Okazaki’s film White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2007), random young Japanese residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are asked, “What happened on August 6, 1995?” and not one of them has a clue. While the essays in this volume make clear the extent to which, at least on a subtle level, war has inserted itself into the language, entertainment, social connections, and technology of Japanese youth, it would have been of interest to contrast to what extent a certain obliviousness or rejection of this paradigm is also prevalent in manga today.

Mechademia 4: War/Time concludes with back matter including several book reviews and an interview with Murase Shukō and Satō Dai, artists who collaborated on the anime Ergo Proxy. A short, quirky, surreal, “comic interlude,” entitled “Land Mine in Central Park,” written by Yoji Sakate, translated by Manami Shima and illustrated by Chinami Sango, serves as the perfect light dessert to the feast of the collection, counterpoint to the extraordinarily diverse and complex “manga” meal proffered by the selections of War/Time.

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