Day 2 of Don Bluth: Thumbelina

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Hark, a turn in the road! Bluth might be a convinced Disney imitator, but in the 80s and with Rock-a-Doodle, his films intentionally mimicked classic pre-60s Disney animation tropes rather than trying to duplicate what the Mouse were doing in the 80s. That is, they were often musicals but were not trying to do Broadway the way that the Renaissance movies were. Thumbelina represents Bluth’s first attempt to adapt his own style to the 90s format. Adolescent girl protagonist, pop star Barry Manilow writing the songs, fairy tale or literary adaptation rather, use of CG for sweeping camera shots, etc. It’s a 90s Disney movie without the scale and spectacle that the more lucrative Katzenberg Disney projects were able to muster. It’s pale (literally), exceedingly modest, and despite its high-quality animation is simply too much of a non-presence to work.


1. Our Nega-tagonist

Thimble-sized Thumbelina is a vacant cipher of a character, more of a character design that can be stuffed into oddball outfits and moved about than a suitable anchor for a film. Separated from her safe domestic sphere––via river, identical to Rock-a-Doodle––she is supposed to endure tribulations to build up the confidence to reject her unwelcome (arguably paedophilic) suitors. As with the contemporary Disney movies, of course, her independent spirit is invested in a handsome True Love, so that her freedom is granted on the condition that she choose the most conventionally attractive male to mate with. Well, Granted, he’s the only one who’s presented as her own age, which is probably a plus as well.

I think I can summarize the problem succinctly by describing what Thumbelina actively does to shape the plot without it being someone else’s idea. Well, she meets the prince and immediately loves and trusts him (fairy tale logic), runs away from the Mexican (!) frog so she can get home to marry the prince, gets fired from her job as a club dancer for a a sleazy beetle played by Gilbert Gottfried, goes along with marrying the mole, then doesn’t marry the mole, sings to open up the Vale of the Fairies because a bird tells her to, and then marries the prince. Note that not all of those things listed even count as expressions of her own agency. Her only desire is to find a companion who is the same size as her, and the scene after we learn this, she finds one. The plot is essentially an hour of episodic delayed gratification, its inevitability so transparent it would let Don Bluth’s favourite golden lighting effects through.

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In short, Thumbelina is bland as paste, her prince who goes looking for her is stuck in an ice cube for a plurality of the movie, and she makes Ariel from The Little Mermaid cringe at her passivity.

One could argue that this is the point of the story, that Thumbelina is an unsure, shy, curious adolescent who is easily influenced and needs the guidance and support of strong friends to reach maturity. But what we have in Thumbelina is a film that is ostensibly about following your own path regardless of what other people say but is de facto about just going along with what the best people say you should do. The movie always knows what she should do before she does, which produced incredible frustration precisely because our narrator-jester character Jacquimo outright orders Thumbelina to do the right thing at the end of the film, and she does not believe it will work until she sees her true love re-emerging. 

2. Goldie and Thumbelina Should Chat Over Coffee

On Day 1, we saw Goldie, one of the only notable female characters in Rock-a-Doodle, exhibit the same passivity and emptiness as Thumbelina. Both of them are exploited by showbiz hucksters, existing as pure romance-objects rather than people. Easily manipulated, wilting and weak, they’re effectively allegories not for women’s self-reliance but for women’s need to be sheltered and led by the nose, lest they stray like lambs to the slaughter.

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Another parallel with Rock-a-Doodle is that Thumbelina’s primary virtue is her sacred voice. Like Chanticleer, she summons paradise into view at the end of the film by using her voice. Perhaps this is why Bluth and co-director Goldman gave Gilbert Gottfried a prominent singing role––for stark contrast. This theme is largely botched since it’s hitched to her character dynamics or lack thereof. Her voice is there to make her desirable and plays little to no role in fulfilling her own desires, except for when it summons her prince to the window, of course.

Finale: Disney-er Than Thou

Thumbelina looks and feels ancient compared to its contemporaries in 1994. Bouncy farmyard animals, tiny wide-eyed bugs, 1940s-style choir music on the soundtrack, and its hamfisted sentimentality all make this a film out of its own time despite its adherence to the 90s animated musical formula. Its creator’s eccentricities, blunted in Rock-a-Doodle because of test screenings, are repressed further despite manifesting in out-of-place swipes at the entertainment business and his everlasting love of putting evil frogs in his movies. Because I’m literally falling asleep writing about this film (without exaggeration), I feel it’s best to close this chapter of our Don Bluth retrospective and hope that not all of Bluth’s 90s output after Rock-a-Doodle was Disney Lite. His films are always at their best when they tear off on their own mystical tangents, not in sticking to readymade formula.

A truly, transcendently bad Bluth is at least discussing. So we’ll have plenty to talk about tomorrow, believe you me.

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Day 1 of Don Bluth: Rock-a-Doodle

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While finishing up the Ralph Bakshi Retrospective, I began to think forward about the next  series to launch on the blog. Series are excellent ways of organizing groups of posts around themes, help lubricate the writing process, and fill in gaps in my own cultural knowledge.

I decided that Don Bluth would be an excellent follow-up for a few reasons. They’re both animators from outside the Disney empire who produced commercially and critically successful films that were highly influential, albeit in different ways and from different vantage points. Not to mention that both men were born a year apart from one another and their directing careers overlap. But their peak periods of critical respect and commercial impact were in the 1970s for Bakshi and the 80s for Bluth. Though the reasons for this are largely contingent, since Bluth was unhappily working for Disney before walking out with a crew of animators in tow, there are also ways in which Bluth’s work “fits” the American 1980s and its film industry the way that Bakshi’s sensibilities both informed and squared with those of New Hollywood.

Now that I mention the 1980s, however, I have to confess that this series is not about them. We can usher them back into the garish pink closet they crawled out of, because this series is specifically looking at the seven features Bluth produced after 1989. Partly this is because there are seven of them and 1989 is both an arbitrary cutoff and justifies a catchy series title. Not entirely arbitrary, though. 1989 saw, among other world-historical events, the release of All Dogs Go to Heaven, which despite its mixed reputation is probably the purest embodiment of Bluth’s priorities as an animator and filmmaker. It also marked the end of his commercial success, as every film after that––excepting Anastasia––would be a financial failure. One could ask why the American animation renaissance in the 90s, which owes its existence to Bluth more than any single person, was merciless to one of its forefathers.

Though Bluth’s background is fairly well known and easily accessible through Google, I want to introduce a guiding theme for the series that will help us frame his career and hopefully understand his films better. This theme takes the form of a dichotomy, which is by no means absolute but which can help articulate Bluth’s relationship to the wider industry, especially his erstwhile employers at Disney. I’ll use Ralph Bakshi as the antithesis. Bakshi was a television animation director invested in the counterculture, a true outsider who made a hit essentially by accident. He pushed feature animation in radical new directions, appreciating classical animation but chafing under the stranglehold Disney had/s on the industry. He was a rebel, who rejected the status quo and worked as independently as possible to tell personal stories. Don Bluth had a notorious falling out with Disney, but it was more on the order of heresy than rebellion. 

Bluth is the staunchest classicist, more Martin Luther than Thomas Müntzer if you can follow my Reformation humour. His career was always founded on an imagined return to animation’s golden age, which he experienced while working as as assistant on Sleeping Beauty. Working with Disney in the 70s, he despaired and essentially packed up with a number of followers and tried to do Disney better than Disney. In the 80s, he arguably succeeded with the help of Steven Spielberg. In the 90s, though, when Disney was globally dominant and producing gigantic hits with budgets to match? One could ask whether Bluth’s ardent traditionalism, which makes his 90s films look far, far older than the contemporary Disney musicals, was both his greatest strength and an unbreakable limitation.

So we’ve covered Bakshi the rebel. Now we move on to Bluth the heretic, who left the One True Church but only to hasten a return to past glory. And our first film is the enigmatic Rock-a-Doodle, a surreal fable that’s more concentrated idiosyncrasy than film.


I’m 90% sure there’s a comma splice in the tagline.

Released in 1992, Rock-a-Doodle is the story of a rooster named Chanticleer (Glen Campbell) who brings up the sun when he crows. Pushed out of his cozy farm life thanks to an evil Grand Duke of Owls (Christopher Plummer), he heads to the city to become a rock-and-roll star. Because he never crows, the sun never rises and a deluge of rain begins to overwhelm the world. A small child named Edmond (Toby Scott Granger), shown in live action at the beginning in bookends à la Wizard of Oz, tries to summon Chanticleer  but is transformed into a cat by the Grand Duke and joins the party trying to get Chanticleer back to the farm so he can summon the sun back and save the world from devastation.

1. Family

Actually, check that last part, it’s more about saving Edmond’s home and family than “the world.” The aforementioned live action segments play like a midcentury Disney live action film, delightfully ham handed despite being plagued by Granger’s “naturalistic” child acting. As is typical of Bluth films, family and particularly the nuclear family are associated with the sacred and the mystical. The Great Valley in The Land Before Time was a faraway and alien place, yes, but it was also fundamentally home because that’s where the young dinosaurs’ friends are. Likewise, the final victory of Chanticleer is significant primarily because the sunrise protects the family and delivers the sleeping Edmond back there. Contrariwise, our villains are dandyish or depraved, with Christopher Plummer’s Grand Duke living with a small parliament of owls who sing harmony together to organ music. The Duke even has a nephew, but of course no son because effeminate, gay-coded villains are cast as the dark shadow of the family, in this case literally.

Our central character Edmond’s coming of age is in turn directly tied to this, since the impetus for his becoming-a-man is the need to protect his family, which he is unable to do at the beginning. He’s stuck inside with his mother, still identified with the feminine half of the family. By the end, he’s become a man––at least metaphorically.

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2. Country Mouse and City Mouse

Rock-a-Doodle’s central problem is separation from family/being without light. Notably, the city is a place ruled by artificial light, which can whirl on merrily despite the lack of sunlight. Phone relationship reign, whether it be between Chanticleer and his media magnate agent Pinky or between the rocking rooster and his legions of adoring fans. Since Rock-a-Doodle is something of a showbiz movie, Pinky stands in for the rotting corporate heart of the biz, a pudgy fox (employing a chicken?) who drives a phallic car and flies a phallic helicopter (and they all live together in a phallic little house) coloured 80s pink. Life in the city is simply not authentic in Rock-a-Doodle’s mind, which prefers the green idyll of the yeoman farm. Jeffersonian, to say the least.

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The City bathed in trademarked Bluth Devil Light

3. Puritan and Pervert

If it’s not obvious by this point, I will point out that Bluth’s films are politically conservative, Rock-a-Doodle being no exception. On top of this, they are sentimental and preoccupied with theological mysticism. More on that later. But in depictions of the female animals, the animators show off their pervy side as well. As someone who has seen and loves Fritz the Cat, I have a great deal of experience with sexualized animals. And yet the first thought I had when I saw this––

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-–was how I was much more vexed by Bluth’s sexualization of the characters than Bakshi’s. I criticized Bakshi for his constant mishandling of his women characters, but for Bluth the problem is related but manifests in a different way. Where Bakshi’s love of transgression often overcame his critical faculties, more often with women than with racial issues, Bluth and his team fabricate these vaguely terrifying mammalian chickens because it’s just how you feminize anthropomorphic animals. Goldie, a chorus girl pheasant who works under Pinky and is one of two female characters worth discussing, looks like this:

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She’s the one on the right.

She was modelled after Jessica Rabbit, and though her stick-waisted appearance here is faintly ridiculous, she was originally even more exaggerated. After the critical coolness on All Dogs, Bluth and company sought the advice of test audiences for this film, and they had to edit her looks––among other parts of the movie––to avoid a PG rating. One of Goldie’s roles in the plot is to agree to keep Chanticleer from getting lonely so he won’t try to fly the coop, so to speak. Of course, she eventually falls in Disney love with him and presumably has their relationship consecrated by a minister of the word, thus returning the world to balance. Before this, however, her characterization is equal parts seductress and wilting flower, femme fatale and rescue victim. The epitome of the Disney princess à la Sleeping Beauty but with an attraction that is more explicitly sexualized. When we talk about Thumbelina tomorrow, we’ll see a more sanitized version of this same archetype.

My point is that the film combines a strict adherence to hetero nuclear family values while also indulging in the pleasure of representing sexualized figures, presumably for the benefit of both artist and viewer. It’s not hypocrisy, exactly, but it’s an important marker of the kind of tensions that exist in Bluth’s work.

4. The Voice

One reason why I find Rock-a-Doodle so doggedly enjoyable despite its failures and miscalculations is because it does have a strong central motif that it develops well. Most of the central characters are defined by their voice in some way. Goldie is a singer, Chanticleer has the magic crow and sings rock-and-roll, there is a technically skilled mouse with a lisp, and Edmond has a grating, annoying voice. Our villain The Grand Duke is also a singer and has a magical breath that can shape shift people. It’s the boy calling for Chanticleer that incites the plot, and it’s everyone cheering for Chanticleer to use his voice to save the world/the family that wins the day. Edmond is choked at the end and appears dead because he’s silent. I appreciated this as an anchor in a film that is otherwise often poorly tethered and rushed.

Finale: The Voice of God

When Edmond protests to his mother near the beginning of the film that he wants to help beat back the flood, his mother tells him to pray for the sun. Though it might seem odd that the figure to whom he prays for divine intervention is a magic rooster, it firmly establishes this as a Christian parable about the power of prayer. It’s “When You Wish Upon a Star” filtered through Mormonism. While this makes Rock-a-Doodle more distinctive in its messaging than the typical sanitized Disney movie, it will also be more polarizing.

Unfortunately, character designs were not the only things edited because of preview screenings. Scene-destroying narration by Phil Harris (who plays a dog in the movie as well) was slathered on to help hand-hold audiences through the film, often explaining what is already apparent in front of us. Not only this, but the narration overrides the music at key points, including the introductory song (!). Not only is it unnecessary and condescending, but it completely ruins the drama in a few scenes, effectively sabotaging the movie it’s explaining to us.

No version without narration like the various “final” cuts of Blade Runner exist, but if it did that would be the version to get. As it is, I would say that Rock-a-Doodle is a shambolic movie that succeeds more through its oddity than its core story. That, and a wonderful performance by Christopher Plummer bring this film far above some of the disastrous material we’ll encounter soon…soon enough.

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Kojin Karatani and the Repetition of History


Note: this will not be a full review of the book, but rather an exploration of the first two essays that lay out Karatani’s thoughts on historical repetition. I may write a part two to this post if I get around to it and if I can get through my books on Japanese political economy in a timely fashion.

Kojin Karatani came to prominence in the English speaking world through his engagements with Derrida and, subsequently, through Žižek’s appropriation of his concept of “parallax” in one the Slovenian academic’s many books. Though largely sold as a philosopher and literary critic, he’s written on a baffling variety of subjects––one of the few attributes he shares with Žižek––and a sadly unsubstantiated claim on his wikipedia entry says that his nickname is “The Thinking Machine.” Most of the essays in the essay collection History and Repetition are indeed historically informed literary criticism, and those are precisely the ones we will be ignoring, at least for now. I’m somewhat familiar with authors like Oe, Murakami, and Soseki, but not so much that I can usefully comment on them or Karatani’s view of them at this point.

Like other scholars, Karatani’s work is founded on the ideas of past thinkers and writers in his field(s). From these essays and reviews of his work that I’ve read, I think we can understand him better if we situate him alongside thees influences. In terms of political thought and historical insight, he largely turns to Marx and the tradition of Marxism as it evolved in the Japanese context. Specifically, he greatly admires the thought of Marxian political economist Kozo Uno, who conceived of capitalism primarily as a mode of exchange rather than a mode of production (hence the subtitle to Karatani’s book on the structure of world history). It’s also notable that his understanding of world history and the capitalist system borrows much of its substance from Immanuel Wallerstein and the other world-systems thinkers. If much of Karatani’s thinking about history bears a certain resemblance to that of Fernand Braudel and the Annales school, Wallerstein may be the transmitter in that case. For philosophy, his major work on Marx has been done through an engagement with Kant, which I have not read and cannot comment on. If you want a fuller exploration of some of Karatani’s political views, he founded a political organization called the New Associationist Movement (NAM) that has a manifesto of sorts available online.

I want to sink my historians’ teeth into the first two essays in the collection, which are of immediate relevance to both my political practice and my academic work. As suggested by the title, these essays reflect on the ways in which history repeats itself. He recognizes that human history is characterized by both linear and cyclical patterns. As he says in the first essay, entitled “On The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,”:

“Events themselves are able to evade repetition, whereas a given structure––such as the business cycle––is unable to do so.”¹

In the first essay, his concern is not so much with the business cycle but with the inherent “repetition compulsion” inherent in the modern nation-state. This compulsion, he argues, is at the heart of Marx’s analysis in The Eighteenth Brumaire. He borrows the idea of repetition compulsion from Freud, arguing that this compulsion manifests as the revival in the present of that which has been repressed in the past. The return of a void from which some unsavoury element has been purged. The capitalist mocks the Scrooge, but every financial crisis leaves people scampering after the gold. Likewise, Karatani argues, the parliamentary democracy under capitalism has banished the king but must bring him back once in awhile to put its affairs in order. Like the feudal lords who bolstered the absolutist monarchs who obviated them, the capitalists must occasionally put aside the competitive, representative debates of the parliament for a cavalier executive who can put the interests of the entire class over that of this or that faction.

For Karatani, just as the crisis is part of the repetitive compulsion of the business cycle, political crises are inherent in the structure of representative democracies. “If Capital engaged economy as a question of representation [e.g. the mystification inherent in the money form, its reality and fetishistic qualities], The Eighteenth Brumaire engages with politics along similar lines,”² he writes, indicating that this work by Marx is indispensable for our present time because we are in a time that is seeing a recurrence of the 1930s. Karatani specifically looks to Marx’s work to understand the nature of Japanese fascism. Namely, just as the rise of Louis Napoleon constituted a counterrevolution that in many ways carried the trappings of a revolution (since Napoleon III implemented quite a few Saint-Simonian proposals in his attempt to revive the French economy), the 1930s saw a global counterrevolution against the rise of the Soviet Union. Just as a vaccine must contain a weakened or neutralized virus to be effective, the counterrevolution that is meant to inoculate capitalism from leftist revolution must make a direct appeal to mass politics. Hitler and Roosevelt, as different as their politics were, both served the role of the saviour of capitalism, captains of class conciliation who facilitated the greater inclusion of the workers in the capitalist state for the sake of that state. 

Fascism is therefore, for Karatani, a kind of Bonapartism, which he sees as endemic to popular and representative forms of government. Unlike the absolute monarchy, the Bonapartist rules through direct appeal to the people––Hitler’s election, Napoleon’s plebiscite, perhaps someday a reality show?––usually under the name of the nation. He notes that Marxists in the fascist countries had no framework for understanding fascism within a Marxist framework, and therefore brought in psychoanalysis (Frankfurt School) or social psychology/anthropology (in Japan) to produce some kind of analysis. Yet, Karatani, argues, The Eighteenth Brumaire is a far more lucid exploration of the processes that produce fascist counterrevolutions. In effect, the Bonapartist, or fascist, dictator is one who stands for the state, for the nation as a whole, transcending class divisions.

Some of the most vital writing in these two essays is about how Napoleon III “consciously put into practice the maxim that media-created image shapes reality.”³ He governed through performance and spectacles, including world expos and even, the book says, his own coup d’état, which was more on the order of a staged event than a military action. His actions were ridiculous, violent, unexpected. In effect, they were a smokescreen, which certainly reminds one of certain political personalities who run amok these days. I certainly see in Karatani’s analysis some truths that persist in our own crisis of representational democracy. With voter participation rates falling throughout the capitalist centre and right populists with an axe to grind winning offices (mayor of Toronto, governor of Tokyo in the recent past, presidential nominations in the USA), it’s important to account for the problem of representation and how political forces establish affinities––and lose them. We’ve been living in a world where mass politics have become increasingly narrow and technical, governed by hideously expensive electoral machines and a convergence of all parties around centrist, technocratic politics. Neoliberalism. What happens when the pendulum swings back the other way, and the politicians start stumping for the masses again, appealing for national vengeance against the bankers, and in the same breath, the expulsion of all the “parasites?”

Perhaps unintentionally, the author connects this repetition––the return of the king, the transformation of the modern nation-state into an empire––with the rise of new forms of imperialism and even the labour aristocracy:

“British labourers were able to counter the ‘impoverishment rule”…and attain wealth because capital was able to extract surplus value from foreign trade. The impoverishment was generated not domestically but rather among people abroad. Therefore, it is incorrect to consider surplus value within the enclosed confines of a one-nation model.”⁴

So as capitalism goes through its repetitive compulsions that draw it inevitably into crisis, it produces new forms that reorganize society but not in ways that escape that compulsion. No matter how revolutionary capitalism can be, it can never escape its own internal logic. When one layers the repetitive compulsions of nation-state politics onto that scene, one starts to get an idea for what the capitalist system truly is and how it functions in a concrete way.

Speaking of which, the second essay in the book concerns the specific case of Japan. I want to go over this part briefly since much of the essay revisits the same concerns in the first but in a more abbreviated fashion. The most productive parts of the essay discuss the specificities of Japanese fascism and its relation to the idea of repetition. These repetitions happen on two levels: that of consciousness, where people summon up images of the past to explain an uncertain present, and in reality, where real historical systems work in cyclical patterns to condition events. For example, the Meiji Restoration of 1867-1890 presented itself as a revival of ancient imperial power against the shogunate usurpers. Yet what it established was not the old empire but a radical new form that could usher in the birth of capitalism in Japan. The emperor was an active part of the new state, though his precise role was debated by the “elder statesmen” of the Meiji era. What’s for sure is that he was given extra-parliamentary powers and  authority over the military, which helped to check the power of the representative body (Diet) and the cabinet.

The two curious personalities he uses to illustrate the contradictions of Japanese fascism are Kita Ikki and Konoe Fumimaro, the former a national socialist who was executed for an attempted coup and the latter a wartime Japanese prime minister. Kita argued for the nationalization of large enterprises and the expropriation of the biggest landlords, but this was to be supplemented by a program of vast conquests, also promoting partial worker ownership of and participation in private enterprises. He believed that a true representative system could not do without an emperor who was the only one above politics, who could represent all the people in a truly “democratic” way. He was defeated, but some of his ideas lived on in the programs of Konoe, who worked with Marxists and had ties to the peasant movement despite also being an aristocrat with military connections. In other words, he was able to bridge the strong divide in Japan between the military and the state apparatus (bureaucracy) and the representative system, as well as between different classes. It was Konoe’s decision to forge an alliance with Italy and Germany, as well as to expand the war in China. Many of his proposals, his so called “new order,” were only implemented by the American occupation, in an odd twist of fate. Konoe, then, the conservative with radical ideas, laid the foundation for the future of Japanese capitalism.

Konoe Fumimaro

Karatani’s two essays on historical repetition and cyclical movements were written in the 1990s, under the belief that the 90s would embody a repetition of the 1930s. Of course, this was also the vaunted “end of history” as proclaimed by capital with Fukuyama as its herald. Karatani rejects this and argues instead for the idea that history might move in cycles but that these cycles do not repeat without radical differences. Despite the time gap, I would argue that his concepts still have some utility, as I’ve tried to show in relation to our current crisis in parliamentary representation, which has been developing rapidly since the 1970s. As a historian these insights help provide some clarity as to how to treat the political system as an autonomous entity that has a certain relationship with the economy rather than being a simple reflex. At the same time, his notion of structures is not elaborated––I imagine it might have been in his book Structure of World History––so I’m left somewhat puzzled as to what he means by “structure.” He seems to question or reject the Althusserian idea of overdetermination in one part, so I hesitate to read his idea of structures in the same way that it appears in Reading Capital, but, again, it’s unclear. There’s also not much in the way of an elaboration of what is to be done. Of course, these are short essays, and in a sense we have Karatani’s answer to that question in the NAM, but given the problem that right-wing nationalism currently poses in Japan, and the danger it poses to every human being today, we need to take this kind of analysis further and find ways to act and organize against all the wannabe Bonapartes we see gathering around us.

And if Karatani’s analysis is worth anything, it tells us that relying on the parliamentary system is not the way to go. One cannot debate away class struggle, and it’s best to be ready for the force that will come down on your head.


  1.  Kojin Karatani, History and Repetition (Columbia University Press, 2012), 2.
  2.  Ibid, 4.
  3.  Ibid, 17.
  4.  Ibid, 25.

Christian Kitsch #11: Archie Gets a Job!

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We’re rejoining Archie live in progress. After reviving the Christian Kitsch series last week, I rediscovered the joy of pure riffing.  Unfortunately, our next specimen, one Archie Gets a Job!, is about half the book I want it to be. The 13 pages of the book are just a summer parade of halfhearted slapstick gags involving the physical––possibly spiritual––destruction of Mr. Weatherbee. A brief montage of screenshots should be enough to give my readership the gist:

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Fig. 1: Archie tries to loaf at Veronica’s, is thwarted by Chinese vampire dad.
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Fig. 2: Archie asks for a job at Mr. Weatherbee’s scenic Christian bookstore, which is built into a lighthouse.
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Fig. 3: His employment uncertain, Archie resorts to drastic, physically implausible measures to get the job by “rescuing” Mr. Weatherbee from the crushing tide.
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Fig. 4: Mr. Weatherbee realizes that, no matter how miserable you are at your job, you can always rely on schadenfreude and violence to lighten your mood.
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Fig. 4.1: If you cannot reason with your opponent, silence him instead.
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Fig. 5: Archie takes obvious pleasure in sucker-punching Mr. Weatherbee with a heavy metal object. Vengeance is mine, sayeth Archie.
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Fig. 6: Even with his eyes snapped shut, Mr. Weatherbee realizes the extent of the horror he has brought on himself by bringing this deviant under his roof.
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Fig. 7: The company parts ways, and Archie and his friend head off to the beach to sell, sell, sell!

At last, on page 13, the propagandizing begins. In their ramshackle phallic jalopy, Archie and Jughead bound across the dunes until they find the author Al Hartley’s prop for preying on young women’s insecurities: Big Ethel.

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Fig. 8: Ethel’s desire to learn springs from the void of despair.

Classic propaganda setup has been established. Now it’s time for the hammer to fall. What kind of easy prescription will Dr. Archie Self-Insert recommend? Apparently the solution for patriarchal body expectations is about 500mg of nepotism.

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Fig. 9: “You can be sure it was written by a well-adjusted male such as ourselves.”
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Fig. 10: Text reads: “Dear Reader: There are hundreds of good Christian books I could have used in this story! So why not choose one my son wrote?–Al Hartley. P.S. Here’s his picture.”

Yes, not only is Al Hartley running commercials in his comics, but he is using his comics to promote books written by his own son, Fred Hartley. Fred is something of a Christian popular literary celebrity, having published books like Dare to be Different, That Morals Thing, and Growing Pains: First Aid for Teenagers. Obviously, the man found his niche writing Christian self-help lit for teenagers, but evidently lacked his father’s cartooning ability. And he also graduated from Wheaton, which suggests that he has some kind of work ethic, if nothing else.

Our redoubtable boys have made a sale––and I’m sure our author’s son made a few as well––though we never see them take anyone’s money so they may just be distributing Mr. Weatherbee’s merchandise without compensation. While Ethel seems satisfied with her purchase, not everyone is so enthusiastic about Archie and Jughead’s mission.

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Fig. 11: And he knows crazy ideas, having perfected the self-Heimlich.

Still, something must be working because Ethel’s dramatic reading of the book is drawing in the masses. Even Veronica feels outdone by Fred’s arresting words.

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Fig. 12: Archie is just as shocked as everyone other named character in the book.

Pause. Let’s remember that the book has so far been completely devoid of (un)helpful advice for children of any age. Hartley’s usually much better at rapidly hitting the bullet points and integrating the pratfalls and absurdities into the propaganda. The only mission he’s given us so far is to buy his son’s book. For which I suppose we’ll all have to get summer jobs. Frustratingly, the book once more turns to comic mischief (as the ESRB would have it) as Archie ties Jughead to a kite sporting a streamer with a truly memorable slogan.

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Fig. 13: Jughead’s monastic vow of silence has a surprisingly slapstick-y origin.
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Fig 14: Let the lighthouse turn me on! Everything about this panel is perfect, especially with the odd colour errors on her face.

Having enlightened the people and left Jughead-shaped gaps in people’s tans, this foolproof advertising scheme comes to a safe and happy end.

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Fig. 15: Mr. Weatherbee won’t be smiling when OSHA comes rapping on his lighthouse door.

This panel and the next are a perfect encapsulation of the bizarre dream logic by which Al Hartley’s Archie operates. In one panel, Jughead is basically Jesus in the Pietàa crumpled shell of a person whose eyes are shut and who is incapable of standing. One could only speculate about the internal and external damage he’s suffering. The very. next. panel. however…

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Fig. 16: They lied to us. Money can cure any ill.

No further acknowledgement of Jughead’s life-threatening injuries is to come. But we finally have some proper preaching to look forward to! Archie decides that he’s going to give ten percent of his paycheque to “the Lord,” by which I’m sure he means his local church.

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Fig. 17. A standard crab trap, beached and unloved.
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Fig 17.1: Enhanced view.

But we all wonder why we should give ten percent of our income to the Lord. Or church, whoever is easier to get to by car. Archie has a rather dramatic illustration of the true commitment that Christians should have for their God. It’s not the one anyone expected, but I’m sure it was persuasive.

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Fig. 18: I’m sure that’s what all our parents said when we were born. “See what did?”
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Fig. 18.1: And he looks ecstatic about it.

I’m fairly sure that Christianity abhors human sacrifice, and we’re meant to take this quite metaphorically, but I think the visual medium works against Hartley’s point here. We can’t help but empathize with the pig’s pitiful situation, stuffed and prepared for consumption. Is it alive or dead? Whichever it is, the moment that Hartley captured with his pen triggers a deep sense of identification with its plight, which our very souls cry out: “I guess that makes sense, but let’s leave the butchers out of this!”

After that, possibly the deepest, darkest panel Hartley ever cartooned, our comic can only manage to sputter to its conclusion. We have another bout of slapstick nonsense that culminates in another grim-seeming injury:

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Fig. 19: Jughead realizes the true extent of his sins, and he watches the heavens, trembling.
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Fig. 20: Archie breaks the fourth wall because he knows his time has come.

But Mr. Weatherbee remembers that his hapless employees have somehow generated a sensational amount of business for him, so all is forgiven.

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Fig. 21: It’s this panel that made me wonder: why did Hartley think “Yes, this has to be a Veronica panel!”

At long last, and after much dithering and padding, Hartley comes around to remembering what the true message of this book is all about: local bookstores are important cornerstones of the community. I’m actually not sure there’s much more to it than that. Observe:

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Fig. 22: I’m not sure why Jughead only has 90% of his paycheque left. Did God spirit away the tithe off-panel? Also, Hartley never figured out how to do a fourth-wall break that elicited anything other than fear and spine-tingling.

In summary, this is one of Hartley’s weakest comics, at least that I’ve reviewed on this site. Nuggets of preaching and ill-considered but hilarious situations are few and far between, separated by dusty canyons of ineffectual slapstick. Nothing comes to a head in the end, either. Despite this being somewhat less episodic than the typical Hartley Archie entry, his writing is flaccid and even distracted. More than any of the other comics, this one tastes distinctly of a rush job he didn’t have any feeling for. I may only be speculating, but I think that Hartley was more the chicken than the pig this time around.


Belladonna of Sadness and the Animators’ Hand of God


Not Safe for Work images ahead.

“I felt it was almost as if Tezuka had a few little drawers, which he opened, pulled out some things that he had used long ago, and though, Wow, look at this! before reassembling them into some sort of work…There’s a scene in [Takes of a Street Corner] where posters of a ballerina and a violinist or some such things are trampled…I remember when I saw this, I was so disgusted that chills ran down my spine…

There is a well-known rakugo comedy routine in which the owner of a tenement is learning gidayū ballads, and gets all his tenants together and forces them to listen to him. Well, Tezuka’s animation was just like that.”¹

–Hayao Miyazaki

Tezuka did not direct Belladonna of Sadness, but it ended up being the self-inflicted death blow for his animation company, Mushi Productions. Part of a trilogy of animated films intended for adults––1001 Nights and Cleopatra being its less experimental siblings––the movie is currently on a revival tour. I recently saw the 4K digital restoration of this occult rape fantasia at a local theatre and had to work through my impressions very carefully. It embodies in its radiant mix of impeccable taste and lurid sexuality the profound contradictions at the heart of attempts to bring animation to the adult counterculture.

It dovetails well with my Bakshi Retrospective, in other words.

Originally released in Japan in the summer of 1973, the film did so badly that it killed Mushi Productions, one of the historic titans of early Japanese film animation. Its avant-garde tendency contributed to its commercial failure but also ensured its longterm historical significance. Produced in watercolours with limited and stylized animation, with some scenes being just pans across huge, elaborate paintings, it tells the story of a woman who makes a deal with the devil to get the power to make her family prosper.

Director and co-writer Eiichi Yamamoto’s basis for the story was La Sorcière, called Satanism and Witchcraft in English. I’m not familiar with the book, but it has a reputation for being one of the first largely sympathetic accounts of European witchcraft, framing it as a protest against the repression of feudalism and the Catholic Church. Considering the 19th century’s obsessive fascination with the occult, it’s hardly surprising that the book came from the 1860s.

And, judging by these 1911 illustrations by Martin van Maële, the book looks about as scientific and accurate as one would expect.

The book’s author, Jules Michelet, was not some gumshoe amateur, either. He was a Huguenot (French Calvinist) historian whose crowning achievement was a 19-volume history of France that exposed his scathing hatred of the Middle Ages. He even wrote and worked energetically during the Paris Commune, being unyieldingly hostile to French empire and feudalism in general. A thoroughly Romantic individual, his sensibility definitely informs the iconoclasm and mysticism of Belladonna.

Films that touch on witchcraft and the early modern European witch scares in particular are dealing with some fairly complex history. The definitive Marxist work on the with hunts is Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, who weaves this period of repressive violence against women together with the birth of the capitalist system and its destructive assaults on both peasant communities and women’s traditional knowledge. Many of its insights are summarized and well-presented in the zine Burning Witcheswhich is an excellent piece of work in its own right.


Indeed, the film does have a critical edge to it and has some marginal material in it that could accord with Federici’s analysis, though presented in a warped and often patriarchal manner (on which more later). For instance, the entire plot of the film, such as it is, pivots around acts of violence against women. Entities political, supernatural, and human all take part either in the literal rape of the protagonist, Jeanne, or violently repress her in some way. Our heroine is ritually raped by the lord of the land on her wedding knight, and later gains occult powers through being raped by Satan himself, who appears in the form of a grotesque phallic being. People begin to suspect that she wields sinful power when she and her family carry on a successful artisan practice during a period of hardship. She and her husband prosper while the rest of the town is suffering from famine and excessive taxation. Because he is the only one who can pay his taxes (due to his wife’s labour) Jeanne’s husband Jean is appointed tax collector by the same lord who raped his wife.

Jeanne thus breaks out of the subsistence agricultural economy at an early point in the film, though that’s portrayed to be part of their dream at the beginning. Eventually, Jeanne becomes a usurer, using her position to exceed even in the lord in terms of wealth and power. At this point, she is a person to be reckoned with, and the king stirs up a mob to chase her out of the town and into a local forest for being a witch. Belladonna specifically frames the witch hunt as a result of a woman’s empowerment and the fear it produced within the population and particularly in the lord and his loyal Catholic bishop.


Once chased to the periphery of civilization, Jeanne creates a phantasmic world and slowly wins the town to her favour with her power to heal the Black Plague and––no less––because of her ability to host orgies that would put the Summer of Love to shame. Here Michelet’s anti-Catholicism nestles right up to a crude approximation of the 60s sexual revolution. Just as the hippie isolationists of the 1960s arguably reconfigured Romantic ideas to suit their separatist retreats and communes, the film looks beyond the confines of the civilized space and the community that produces it for liberation, looking for escape in physical indulgence and mental expansion through substance use.

Deciphering the exact “view” the film might have about the historical witch burnings is not entirely possible. It’s easy to see that it sees the burnings in a negative light, and even sees witches as figures of revolt and counter-hegemonic power, but it’s obviously only using this period of history as a prop for its own agenda: to free animation from the tyranny of the “family” audience and canned subject matter. The animators are in some sense telling their own story through Jeanne: she is the instrument through which they will liberate their art.

Though the film is commendable in glorifying Jeanne’s power and even positioning her as a revolutionary figure in some ways, its depiction of her reminds one of the ways in which Surrealists would appropriate women’s bodies as props to celebrate their own liberation from the superego. Within the plot of the film, Jeanne transcends her victimhood to become an avatar of freedom and free love. In fact, at a certain point, her personality almost completely transforms from confident but often harrowed and “damaged” to serene and detached.


Her body becomes a vessel for the fulfillment of the filmmakers’ fantasies, as well as those of the audience. These fantasies are cast as aesthetic and erotic, of course (given her constant nudity), but also, given what I’ve said above, deeply political as well. She is an embodiment of the film’s ideal woman and ideal world. The way the film eventually links her to French republican representations of Liberty and Nation is telling; like in Bakshi’s Coonskin, the sexualized woman serves as an attention magnet, drawing attention to what the filmmakers are doing and trying to tell the audience. Her power to heal and fulfill dreams is ultimately tied to that of the filmmakers to satisfy our (and their own) desires with the power of animation. Belladonna is masturbatory (what Miyazaki alluded to as the Hand of God in the article cited above) to the degree that it takes pleasure in a one-sided fantasy of animation’s Promethean power to satisfy the audience’s lust for women’s bodies objectified on screen. Jeanne is the birth of a thousand dreams, the climax of many others.

Notably, the filmmakers give us a parallel character, a feudal double for Jeanne. She is the wife of the lord, the lady of the land. Her own story is that of jealousy, repression, a gradual loss of power and respect. She, too, is taken and raped by a servant, who gets help committing this deed with Jeanne. The lord’s wife eventually dies by her husband’s sword as she climaxes, another instance where the film locates the source of patriarchal power in its control over women’s sexuality. There are certain ironies to that, given how the film’s celebration of sex and women’s bodies is more than a little manipulative and self-serving.

I mentioned Surrealism, but that movement, and its pop 60s counterpart Psychedelia, are only two of the reference points for Belladonna. We also have a whole sheaf of late 19th century European art, as well as earlier “decadent” movements like Mannerism. Eiichi Yamamoto, the director, specifically mentions the influence of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt as well as the Japanese illustrator Masakane Yonekura, who worked on the film. Yamamoto mentions that he wanted to capture the decadence of the fin-de-siècle, which serves as a mirror for the decadence of the early 1970s.² Klimt is certainly the most obvious reference, as his Symbolist art weaves together extravagant use of gold leaf with stylized, erotic subjects. While Belladonna is not as opulent, it takes from Klimt a fascination with characters who are largely abstract and ill-defined, standing in for universal concepts more than psychologically realistic characters. They’re fixed enough to serve as stand-ins for Men, Rulers, Priests, Women, the Mob, but are flexible enough (especially Jeanne, whose body is put through a gauntlet of usually-painful transformations and distortions in the film) to accommodate the experimental animator’s need to reconfigure, twist, and poke.

Viewing Belladonna of Sadness on a large screen is an arresting spectacle, featuring a number of captivating sequences. My personal favourite is the way the Black Death is portrayed as a great dark water dissolving away the great structures of civilization, leaving withered skeletons and spectral human beings in its wake. Another riotous sequence is the final sexual encounter between the Devil and Jeanne, which culminates in a pounding psychedelic soundtrack that rushes along a series of pop-art images that are individually witty or ironic but in their sum convey a sense of world-historical shaking and tearing. They’re also silly, but the overall effect is quite strong.

After seeing so many animated films from the 1970s, I think I can come to a preliminary conclusion about the typical way that Woman is portrayed in these kinds of adult animation experiments. They are never either the sharp-tongued Hollywood women of the Golden Age nor the ascetic badasses typical of action fare starring women today. Instead, they are both outspoken and powerful and the inevitable victims of male sexual power. Sexuality is the dominant theme, though, and whether the film in questions frames this violence fetishistically (the 70s B movie is one of the great repositories of rape in cinema after all) or more antagonistically––and this film does a bit of both––it is often the only thing that matters. I find this somewhat difficult to comprehend so far removed from the so-called Sexual Revolution, but the singular fascination with sex in this film is as graphic a reminder as I would want of this tendency in 70s filmmaking. Everything is sex––violence, personal autonomy, and politics––and sex is everything.

Masakane Yonekura illustration.

What Miyazaki says in his article about Tezuka, that the man and his company were often obsessed with their own power of presentation and that they were desperate to impress, certainly rings true for Belladonna of Sadness. Some of the images in the film are indeed of the sort that would send a chill skittering up your spine. And not always in a good way. Yet I think that time, and the coalescence of animation as an art form around CGI and the “family audience” has been kind to this movie. Take out of its troubled time, and it shows up the current crop of commercial animated pictures for the diluted and formulaic works they are. It’s a piece well worth digesting and discussing, for despite its flaws it contains a spark of what popular art should be.

P.S. I left an enormous amount of content unwritten for the sake of taming an already lengthy piece. I could wax essayistic on what its relationship to anime is, its relationship to 19th century European japonisme, its soundtrack, its relationship to Tezuka’s other work, and on and on. I probably won’t come back to this film again, at least for awhile, but I encourage others who see it to write about these topics if they’re of interest.


  1. Hayao Miyazaki, “I Parted Wayes With Osamu Tezuka,” in Starting Point, trans. Beth Cary and Frederik L. Schodt (San Francisco: Viz Media, 2009), 194-196.
  2. Interview with Eiichi Yamamoto:

Book Review: A Political History of Japanese Capitalism


A Political History of Japanese Capitalism is truly rare book: a Marxist history of modern Japan written in English. Though its author, Jon Halliday, later repented his left leanings and coauthored the execrable Mao: The Unknown Story, I’m happy to report that this book, published by Monthly Review Press in 1974, stands as one of the best encapsulations and analyses of its subject out there. Although a large number of Japanese Marxists have published and engaged in debates around Japanese history, these debates and works have almost never made their way into English except in the case of pure political economy. Halliday’s book, though it’s decades old, makes a compelling historical argument and sidesteps the Japan-bashing/mystification binary that plagues Western writing about Japan.

Halliday begins the book with a chapter-length study of the Meiji Restoration and its lengthy state-building and development projects. The author correctly notes that the birth of Japanese capitalism was unusual, as Japan was a late entrant and an Asian country and was nonetheless able produce its own autonomous national capitalism and to launch its own imperial project. Indeed, for a country as resource-poor as Japan, the latter was an indispensable condition for the former. Growing from the dissolving influence of the mercantile money economy and set into motion by the arrival of Western powers at Japan’s doorstep, Japanese capitalism underwent a crash development both politically and economically. The Meiji facilitated the repression of class dissent, the installation of an imperial “family state” distinguished by paternalistic ideology, and began a policy of expansionism and intervention in China and the wide region.

One crucial part of the story that Halliday tells is the reason why Japan did not simply slip into one or another European sphere of influence. His answer is found in his construction of a dialectic of internal and external causes. Japan was not conquered because its people were unusually literate and its political leadership astute and intimidating. Compared to China, as well, Japan did not present as alluring a target, and was able to wriggle its way out of the unequal treaties by the early 20th century. Indeed, China’s story is in many ways inextricable with Japan’s in this respect. The Opium War absorbed crucial British military resources and saved Japan from the threat of invasion. The Americans were on the advance across the Pacific but were burdened by the Civil War and Reconstruction. In other words, Halliday argues, Japan escaped both as a matter of internal strength and due to a mass of historical contingencies that were not repeated anywhere else.

Though starting the book “at the beginning,” i.e. with the Meiji, is a commonsensical way to go since it’s the earliest period and history books tend to have narrative-temporal structures, there might be some room for criticism in this regard. One of the important tasks of the historian is not to just recount but to transform and critique received understandings of the field they’re working in. In that respect, Halliday is somewhat deficient. He takes commonplace notions like “Japan” more or less readymade and starts off straight away telling his story. He actually begins rather promisingly:

“Japanese capitalism has been the prodigy of the age of imperialism, the only outsider and late starter to join the leaders of world imperialism.”¹

Before telling the history of a particular subject, the historian should clarify the terms under which they are doing so. I consider it good practice to define the objects and terrains one is working with in any investigation. So Halliday begins with a definition of Japanese capitalism as a prodigy, as a late starter and outsider. But Halliday simply assumes a certain definition of Japan and of capitalism, and decides that it began with the Meiji. Yet this is itself a contestable assumption, and Halliday proves as much by beginning his discussion of the Meiji not with the Meiji but with the later Tokugawa period, providing background information for his background information.

It may have actually been better to elaborate much more on the (then) present-day state of Japan and its political and economic peculiarities, giving the reader a strong grasp of the nature of the Japanese bureaucratic “Family State” and the position of Japanese capitalism in the world and in the country. He does provide this information, but at the end of the book. While this method of presentation is traditional and has certain helpful traits, it also makes it appear as though the key to understanding the present is to look back and simply trace our way through the past. But if one does so without a correct understanding of the present situation, one’s analysis of the past will be distorted. I don’t think that Halliday’s history is especially distorted, but I think that as historians our methods of presentation should assist the reader as much as possible in seeing that the present is the key to reading the past, rather than the other way around.²

After all those words, though, this is a minor complaint. To get to my conclusion more quickly, I’ll highlight some of Halliday’s best interventions, some of which remain relevant even now. His discussion of the definition of Japanese military government, which he declines to call “Fascist,” gives a window into a debate that should be had about the interwar and wartime Japanese state and exactly how much it shared ideologically with European fascism. In his final chapters, he discusses the weaknesses of the Japanese economy, which he predicted would stumble if it stopped growing, due to the extremely debt-ridden and credit-dependent state of core Japanese industries. He also highlights the oft-mentioned Japanese subcontracting system, characterized by colossal trusts at the top dominating countless small family businesses to maximize labour market flexibility (without endangering the “lifetime employment” guarantee for regular male workers) and cushion themselves against economic shocks. All of these individual sections are buttressed by the others, as the historical materialist framework links the political and economic discussions in a useful and informative fashion.

Finally, I think his most valuable contribution to a Japanese historiography is that he sees essential continuity between the Meiji state, the Showa state, and the post-occupation state. While each era of Japanese capitalism generated and adjusted new forms of state rule, the basic components of that state––bureaucratic control, imperial ideology, paternalism, weak legislature, imperialism, etc.––were unaffected. The American occupation essentially reestablished, with a few minor tweaks, the prewar state system, albeit with the crucial difference that the military took on a much reduced role. And yet corruption, one-party rule, and reckless developmentalism drove forward without missing a step. His analysis clarifies why parties traditionally classified as left––the JSP and the JCP––are both the most persnickety and conservative when it comes to interpreting the Japanese constitution, whose awkward, stilted words still tend to outstrip the reality of Japanese politics in terms of progress.

Because of these outstanding contributions, I can safely say that Political History is one of the best works on modern Japanese history I’ve read in some time. English-language works challenging the Orientalist tendency to ascribe quasi-mystical or spiritual characteristics to Japan are vital correctives. That this particular book uses the power of historical materialist analysis to present a comprehensive look at the character of the Japanese state and its evolution over time––that’s a bonus. It’s unfortunate that Halliday turned out the way he did, or we might be able to learn from a similar book about the post 1975 era, which ended up confirming the fragility of Japanese capitalism and showcased the onward march of rightist nationalism in the country right up to today.


  1. Jon Halliday, A Political History of Japanese Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), 3.
  2. For example, the fevered writing about the Japanese miracle and its mythical business practices in the 1980s took a particular mystified view of contemporary Japan and projected that impression back into the past, finding all sorts of cultural/religious justifications. Nationalists, of course, implicitly hold a certain organic and patriotic view of the country and find their own justifications for by reading forwards through history. Because history is a politically contested field, it’s valuable for radical historians to define their terms theoretically before engaging in the discussion of the past proper. Gabriel Kuhn does an excellent job of this in his book on pirates that I reviewed. It doesn’t eat up much space, but it lets the reader know what a particular author means when using certain contested words and, more valuably, alerts the reader to the existence of historical debate and lack of closure. Two for one!

Christian Kitsch #10: Barney Bear Out of the Woods!

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Yes, Spire Comics, we’re back. Back to settle an old score.

For the tenth instalment in our expedition into the mighty Christian kitsch industry, we’re considering a spawn of Spire’s children’s imprint. Kiddie Christian Comics was the company’s imprint for very young children, and also put out God Is…, which we covered in Christian Kitsch #4. We can only hope that this entry will achieve the same slapdash surrealism of that comic, though this time the preaching is grounded in a narrative form.

Because this is a special occasion, and these characters are Spire originals (though, as a friend named Tom informed me, Barney Bear is also an MGM cartoon and comics character), it’s only right to give them the honour of a dramatis personae.

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Barney Bear. Age: young. Religion: take a wild guess.
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Parents. Age: middle. Property owners, concerned citizens.
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The Wild Bunch. Hobbies: delinquency, immiseration, squalor, and noise violations.

And, last but certainly not least, the pillars of the community.

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Left to right: Church mouse, the owl, and the goat judge (Satanic affiliations unproven)

Now that we’re familiar with the many colourful characters of the Barney the Bear Extended Universe, let’s see what kind of adventures they get themselves into when they come OUT OF THE WOODS.

Al Hartley begins his story on a clear night. The parents are sleeping, until all of a sudden:

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Clearly, something is amiss, or else this bear would not be having trouble sleeping in his natural habitat. Though it appears that, in this world, only some of the anthropomorphic animals have assimilated into a domesticated life. I’m also unsure what Mama Bear’s curlers  are supposed to accomplish given how short her hair is. On an artistic level, they serve as gender markers, but other than that they probably just pull her hair and sort of sit there.

The entire comic, being meant for children, is also quite light on panels, often having only two or even one per page and very little dialogue. I’m not opposed to this approach, and we’ll see it actually leads to somewhat creative page layout, but the drawing itself is just as generic and overall lifeless as it always is on these books. Competent, but nothing above mediocre.

After the whole family wakes up and rushes into the parents’ bedroom, the father bear begins the story proper:

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Basic plot outline: white (brown bear) suburban paranoia.

How exactly has the neighbourhood changed? Basically, we’ve gone from cute, domesticated Disney animals, complete with Bambi, Toby the Turtle, and Air Guitar Frog…

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Is “Rabeet” what frogs say, or is it labeling the pink fluffy thing in the bottom corner as a “rabeet?”
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Pictured: Rabeet’s fourth album cover.

To Ralph Bakshi animals:

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The Redwall books had less obvious racial profiling of animals.

Having realized that their tranquil suburban bliss has been upended, the family rushes from their house and heads out to investigate the source of the racket. Perched on an overhanging cliff, they behold a landscape wholly and terribly transformed:

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Though it’s not stated or even implied by the text, I have to assume that the family awoke not from a normal sleep but from an extended hibernation. Otherwise, this level of urbanization would not have escaped their notice. And indeed this city is a swarming hive of misery and sin. People out at “All Night Movies,” being “Adult,” having “Fun,” and even heading to the “Grotto.” Take that inebriated elephant for one. His dome is smoking something fierce, though he doesn’t seem too worried about plunging over the green waterfall. I’m jealous of the bear triplets riding the useless water wheel in antique swimsuits, and much less jealous of the white-suited gentleman taking a swan dive right into the turf. Overall, though, it seems like a good time.

Not if you ask our nuclear family in peril, of course:

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Note the inexplicable day/night change, which suggests the rough part of the woods is in an eternal Gotham-esque night.   

Well well, what kind of bright idea is forming in the effervescent young mind of our young ursine scout? As we learn over the next few tedious pages, he has enlisted the help of the noble bachelor Church Mouse, a meek evangelist who hurries to the woods with his Tent of Miracles.

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My guess is that state repression is not available as an option in this case. I would guess that this bedevilled family would probably put in a call to the SWAT team or the National Guard to break up this tomfoolery, but it seems the Hobbesian state of nature is still strong and unfettered in these woods. And so one Church Mouse is summoned to do the work of a thousand gentrifiers and beat cops: clean up the damn neighbourhood with an old-fashioned revival meeting.

But perhaps our mouse of the cloth is not as unshakeable as he appears.

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On learning that his natural predators are likely to be in attendance––though why the derelict denizens of the wild woods would even want to attend such a meeting is never explained––the mouse hoofs it back to the car and doesn’t even think to bring the tent back. It’s all fight-or-flight in this predator-prey world. But the bears, optimistic and, shall we say, rather presumptive, think that the mouse would make a good vessel for the Word in reforming these critters. He offers to leave them tracts and literature, but they insist that the servants of God have to be a bit more involved than that.

So we have our first bachelor pillar of the community, the beginning of the somewhat incoherent core of our book. In propaganda like this, the point is to instruct first and entertain second. The artwork and the story are important but they are subservient to the political or, in this case, religious, point that the work is trying to make.

The structure varies, but in the general case, the characters in this kind of didactic literature fall into a number of fixed types. We have the wise teachers, the ones who espouse the views that the literature considers correct. In this case, the bear family acts as a unit, and if you’ve been paying attention they often finish each other’s thoughts and basically act as extensions of one another. They’re the embodiment of the conservative fantasy of the family as an organic and undifferentiated unity reproducing itself without conflict, especially between generations. Second, we have the characters who are ignorant, mistaken, or fatally flawed in some other way. In this case, the wild jungle animals. These characters are usually the ones who espouse positions the wise teachers have to criticize and correct. In this book, though, their problem is not so much possessing mistaken ideas but instead having no direction whatsoever. They are carte blanche, the people whom Christian evangelists imagine have somehow lived in the United States but never gotten the basic idea of Christian doctrine before. They will either conform to the words of the wise teachers in the end or are put to some kind of bad end.

But, to work our way back to the mouse and his fellow bachelor pillars of the community, there is also a third type: the well-meaning but mistaken “experts” who exist to exhibit arrogance and to be corrected by the wise teachers.

And look who we have here:

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The owl with the wicked eyelashes.

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Here is our second patsy, the intellectual who will, inexorably, bow before the simple folk knowledge of our put-upon Normal American Family. No matter his schemes for urban renewal or educational initiatives or what have you, Jesus can and will fix every problem. What kind of fiendish puzzle will Barney and co. pose to the posturing owl?

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I know what you’re thinking, but let’s first focus on the tree-house in the background. No doubt Al Hartley woke up that day, pulled on his drawing clothes, and said to himself “I’m going to draw windows wherever I damn well please!” Or, excuse me, “darn well please.” I also think we can definitively say that that owl is just a graduation cosplayer who’s never actually read a single word from that unsheltered outdoor bookshelf he has. J’accuse, charlatan!

Well, the church mouse and Barney know an easy catch when they see one.

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So the owl recognizes it on sight but apparently has never read it.

One more aside: the last panel I screen capped shows off one of Hartley’s strangest stylistic tics: the triple punctuation mark. If you scroll back up through this post you’ll notice that in almost every instance where a question is being asked or someone is particularly excited, Hartley puts another line in the dialogue balloon and fills it with three question marks or exclamation points. Notice what I mean??? It’s weird once you notice!!!

But, in an effort to keep up its nonexistent narrative momentum,the book debuts the third and final bachelor pillar of the community: the goat judge!!!

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“And I say that we should evict the purple gopher hobbits!!!”
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“Honey, get the pruning shears!!! We’re going to teach eminent domain a little lesson!!!”

Of course, we can’t have the state judge usurping the divine right. Again, our sphinx-like protagonists pose an unsolvable quandary before the magistrate.

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Once again, his ignorance is never directly corrected, even with something as simplistic as “read the Bible, it’s the truth!!!” Instead, the book leaves him to drown in his own question marks. Obviously the book has a sharp sense of irony: a judge who can’t judge and a know-nothing intellectual. What’s more, Hartley kicks the climax into gear, showing the dangers of running perilously long extension cords in a flammable environment. Although Hartley didn’t bother drawing the wire in a damaged condition, so it appears as though it spontaneously combusted for no reason at all. Well, I suppose it is just a plot device, so let’s scurry forward.

The next few pages show the fire spreading as the dithering judge and owl are no help whatsoever, culminating in their crowning moment:

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Pay close attention to this. Remember that one thread that’s been running more or less consistently through this comic is that one should take action. The bears admonished Church Mouse for suggesting that he just pray for the cats and leave some tracts, and the goat is shown up as a buffoon for his indecision and ineffectual attitude. Eventually, the goat judge does come to his senses and pronounces his judgment:

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He’s got some gumption taking on the spontaneously combusting extension cord industry, I’ll tell you what.

It gets better, since when you think through this comic’s theology and view of how the natural world functions, you have to conclude that the senseless fire was caused by God sparking up a totally intact electrical wire. I mean, if the plot supplies no answers and the art is shoddy and lazy, I have to assume that the judge needs to go after God Himself here.

Luckily, the book doesn’t contemplate deicide. Barney and the Church Mouse have had enough of the goat’s vindictive attitude and just want to get the fire put out. Behold their solution:

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Let’s think for a moment before I reveal what occurs next. As established, the book has criticized the idea that we can just lean on praying and not actually intervening in bad situations. God might carry the day but we have to be his hands and feet, etc. If the book actually wants to teach children something positive and one of the benefits of prayer, it might show the mouse and Barney taking a moment to compose themselves, gather their courage and, maybe, help out with rescue efforts, get the goat off that precarious log for goodness’ sake, or get professionals to help. They even ask for God to help them stop the fire, suggesting that they will prove Christian integrity by acting selflessly even in the face of danger. A raging fire is their crucible, the trial that proves they can live the faith rather than just preaching it.

Yes, the other shoe is about to drop. Along with buckets of…

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Conveniently, the divine rainstorm both snuffs out the blaze and forces the hapless sinners of the woods underneath the only shelter that apparently survived the fire: the tent.

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Finally, after some prodding and a pep talk, the Church Mouse delivers his beneficent message:

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Our moral has truly pivoted. After dedicating a good chunk of space to criticizing the mouse’s complacency and unwillingness to act, we get a literal deus ex machina solving every problem for everyone. The book has come utterly untethered from recognizable reality, and this is a deep flaw in a book that is marketed and produced to teach practical and religious lessons to children. Out of the Woods is not infuriating because it’s propaganda, but because it mistakes its audience for fools and chumps.  Children are naïve, not incapable of facing hard truths or life’s ambiguities. Even a message as simple as “faith needs action to be real” gets muddied up because the comic presents a world where the benevolent God will, say, send rain to douse your burning home. It’s convenient and shoddy, and children probably won’t buy it for a second. At least, not if they’ve ever had to face actual trials in their lives.

Also, it might just be a jerk move to start haranguing forest fire survivors and giving them the three-point sermon after––we have to presume––many of them have lost their homes due to environmental negligence and a lack of social services. And yes, I’m taking this gravely seriously, far more so than the lackadaisical writer and artist. Partly that’s for comic effect, considering just how fluffy and klutzy Out of the Woods is, but it’s also because  I hate the idea that junk media is acceptable just because it’s for children. If you’re writing propaganda and cushy comfort food for the converted, at least get your messaging straight.

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