A key feature of scholarly writing as a “genre” is that a new contribution to scholarship on a topic does not just stand by itself, but builds on previous contributions, and in a way, engages in a conversation with them. This feature can be seen in the literature review sections of new scholarly articles, as well as in formal reviews of newly-published books. But while book reviews are common in scholarly writing in many different fields, in-depth commentary on previously published articles and book chapters is not common at all. And I think that anime and manga studies as a field that is relatively new and very much evolving would benefit from these kinds of conversations in the form of response pieces to specific recent articles/book chapters.
In the future, I hope to be able to publish response pieces of this kind that are submitted by other readers/scholars. But, right now, I would like to share my own thoughts on a recently published journal article.
[note: I do not know how common the practice of writing commentary/reflection essays on published articles is in other academic programs, but I had to complete assignments of this type in both undergraduate and graduate classes]
Martin, Paul. The contradictions of pop nationalism in the manga Gate: Thus the JSDF fought there! Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 11(2), 167-181.
“Though Japan’s post-war constitution forbids maintaining the means of waging war, the Japanese Self-Defence Force (JSDF) is one of the most powerful militaries in the world. This contradiction has become increasingly important in recent years as the JSDF has expanded its role and public profile, and as the state has moved closer to re-writing the constitution to allow for a more robust military policy. Alongside this military contradiction is a nationalistic one. The hyper-nationalism of the Pacific War left a general suspicion of overt nationalism amongst Japan’s population, but in recent years casual forms of nationalism have emerged that decouple pride in national identity from political commitment. This article focuses on the manga Gate: Thus the JSDF Fought There! to unpack the relationship between nationalism and the JSDF’s ambiguous position. In this manga, Japan is invaded through a mysterious portal from a fantasy world, allowing the manga to depict the JSDF in combat. While the manga hews close to official JSDF self-representations, in attempting to show the JSDF at war, the manga’s images, characters and narrative foreground contradictions inherent in the JSDF and in Japanese forms of nationalism.”
One common criticism of Japanese popular culture products is that too often, they rely on the same few basic story set-ups that are then explored with only slight modifications and little in the way of innovation. This is why those comics and shows that do significantly buck the expected structures attract so much attention and praise. But every once in a while, a title comes along that doesn’t just “buck” or subvert the expected, but goes in an entirely new direction. An is Gate: Where the JSDF Fought, first a novel series, and then adapted into a manga and a 26-episode anime.
The basic plot revolves around a portal to a stereotypical/cliche “medieval” world that opens one day in the middle of Tokyo, but instead of sucking in a single unlucky protagonist, the portal stays open – and what is sent across to the medieval world is not a single protagonist, but an organized military force. Since the first Gate novel was published in 2010, it has been explored in several studies, (Jeffrey J. Hall, in the chapter Towards and Unrestrained Military: Manga Views of the Self-Defense Forces, in the essay collection The Representation of Japanese Politics in Manga: The Visual Literacy of Statecraft, “examines popular cultural depictions of the JSDF since the 2014 reinterpretation of Article 9 and suggests that these works, while not overt political propaganda, tell stories that depict a Japanese conservative/neo-nationalist ideal of the JSDF”; Michael Cserkits, in the Journal of Advanced Military Studies paper Representation of Armed Forces through Cinematic and Animated Pieces, “In comparing those two different approaches of the armed forces of Japan and the U.S. military…hopes to shed light on not simply the representation of the groups but also desired self-identification of the respective armed forces.”). But Paul Martin’s essay is first one that focuses on Gate specifically, rather than comparing it to other titles, whether Japanese or Western.
“Gate presents as an alternative to these official nationalisms a casual nationalism that is personal, cosmopolitan and playfulMartin, p. 173
Martin’s key thesis rests on highlighting “official nationalisms” such as support for generic “national interests”, national politics and politicians, and even the historical Imperial Japanese Army (or at least the idea or memory of the IJA). He notes that “Gate presents as an alternative to these official nationalisms a casual nationalism that is personal, cosmopolitan and playful”, with the lead character in the manga “not a rogue in the JSDF but an ideal type: a JSDF soldier who is motivated by personal interests, and in being so motivated achieves benefits for Japan”. The author’s overall argument is that “texts like Gate, by laying bare the decoupling of nation and politics and demonstrating, if in a highly fantastical and stylized way, the incoherences of this decoupling, serve to illuminate the implications of this move”. He also makes the point, drawing on the argument Rumi Sakamoto makes in “Will you go to war? Or will you stop being Japanese?” Nationalism and History in Kobayashi Yoshinori’s Sensoron (The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 6:1), that [nationalist images and narratives in Japanese popular culture] “are usually cutoff from any overt political or historical significance but can still spark a casual or playful sense of national pride.”
This, however, raises at least one question. To what extent will Gate’s audience notice or accept this “casual” and non-threatening nationalism, especially when so much of Gate’s appeal is on realistic depictions of military weapons and tactics, and an almost cheerful embrace of overwhelming and essentially one-sided violence that the JSDF, with its machine guns and aircraft and tanks can inflict on a fantasy army’s soldiers with their swords and spears and bows. If Gate promotes a Japanese military that is active not just in essentially civilian tasks such as disaster relief or at most peace-keeping, but is actively going on the offensive, then why shouldn’t these audiences then be tempted to expect the same of the JSDF in the real world. At the very least, Gate introduces the idea of a Japanese military that is designed to destroy enemies, and at some point, actively embraces this task, and by introducing this idea even as a fiction, it makes the same idea just a bit more acceptable as an eventual reality.
Ed. note: New scholarly publications on anime/manga now appear at a rate of several each month. And if you are interested in sharing your thoughts on a recent article or book chapter, I would be happy to publish your contribution. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions!