Sunday, January 18, 2009

Life in the Bubble: Axis of Ignorance

No time slot. Not yours.

While by no means the first manga creation to anthropomorphize political states as cute characters that do cute things, Axis Powers: Hetalia (the graphic says "powers" but some people are calling "powered"?) was popular enough to get someone to pay for an animated series. It should come as no surprise that this is not going to get aired on TV. When Japan’s neighbors throw a (deservedly justifiable) fit over a state visit to the Yasakuni Shrine, I doubt a cartoon series that makes the Rape of Nanking and Kamikaze attacks look like schoolyard shenanigans is going to go over well in the international community. Therein lies the focal point of this conundrum. In the great collective memory of Japanese history, these things didn’t happen. Studying there I found the academic history to be so whitewashed that even among college students, “Kamikaze” only congers up images of an invading Mongol army being swept out to sea off of Kyushu in the thirteenth century.

This unintentional ignorance of historical matters goes a long way to explain why a writer of a modern manga might be oblivious to certain international sensitivities when it comes to portraying 20th century events. It is not for this reason that the show shouldn’t be made, but only that we shouldn’t be surprised if places like Korea and China (where most anime is actually made) have negative reactions to an anime which, by no stretch at all, serves to reinforce an “accidental revisionism.”

This Japanese “culture bubble” is why Japanese pizzerias think canned corn is a widely used pizza topping in the U.S., why whale-burgers are still on the lunch menu, and why no one thought a TV show called Axis Poweres would create any kind of backlash (or maybe they did since the time slot was going to be late night). This not a program created by some right-wing group with some sort of revisionist agenda out to glorify one state or another. If anything, one could argue that the personification of Japan as the quiet weird one who probably tortures animals at home and one day will shoot up the school if Russia doesn’t give Saklin back, is at the deep end of offensive. But that self deprecation is not enough to get a pass in the commercial arena, and I don’t think it should be. Now, I want to see this show, and I would not want it canceled or production halted, but this is one of those occasions where the “culture bubble” has affected the end product to a point where it might be incompatible with an international notion of an acceptable way to treat 20th century history. Also, why does Lichtenstein have a character… seriously?

Japan’s exports are historically good at avoiding the taint that the culture bubble can give things (all exports have to otherwise no one is going to buy enough of them). Cars, electronics, earth-moving equipment, kitchen knives, have all been made in such a way so that their universality overshadows the unique aspects of their origins. This is also true for most internationally successful anime and manga. They have a universal quality to them which exists in things like character design, story type, and unspoken communication of emotion. Character designs are often made, or at least perceived, in such a way as to deemphasize depictions of ethnicity so that the relation to the characters by the audience is almost immediate (ie they don’t have to look a certain way to make the story believable).

It would seem that Hetalia: Axis Poweres has tipped ever so slightly over the side of that line so as to lessen the universal quality by being perceived a bit too sympathetic to the one true Axis of Evil if ever there was one. Case in point, people in the U.S. would expect France to be the one with all the white surrender flags and not necessarily Italy, but from the perspective of the Axis powers, it would make perfect sense thanks to wacky Victor Emmanuel III (look it up if you don’t know, I’m not history channel). If the intentions behind this series were strongly and intentionally political, then it might almost be easier to accept the series as just some product of right wing thinking and therefore marginalized.

Is this an instance of oversensitivity of fragile sensibilities stifling a truly creative work on the grounds of PC-ness and an example of collective bullying against free expression? Probably, but free expression with this material rarely translates to good business and as mini-mouse once said, “animation’s expensive.”

Props to Erin of the Ninja Consultants for the idea that Israel and Palestine should be conjoined twins forced to share the same desk.

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