Mononoke, Violence Against Women, and The Partiality of Truth


  1. The Medicine Seller as interpreter
  2. The Spacetime of Grudges
  3. Violence Against Women

Mononoke is a detective show with a definite formula. The Medicine Seller (薬売り) exorcises mononoke, monsters borne from the unresolved and secret grudges of those who have been wronged. To do so, he must know the shape, the truth, and the reason of the mononoke. Only once he has all three pieces can he draw his sword and resolve the imbalance that has been created by violence, neglect, and the resulting ill karma.

Every episode is driven forward by revelations. The mononoke makes itself known as a danger in every story, manifesting as sounds, images, and violent action. In one episode, the mononoke strangles a sword-wielding man. In another, it takes a subway train and its passengers hostage. An old grudge or unresolved tension has made itself known in the present, mundane space. Nothing functions normally in these cases–present and past are conflated, events occur over and over again, spaces redouble themselves or change dramatically. Nothing is allowed to move or to transform as usual until the suspension of the grudge is broken by the Medicine Seller. In that sense, he is one who reconciles, who acts in order to keep the mundane world free of glitches.

As I already mentioned, however, he cannot act without first listening. He listens to a pregnant woman and an innkeeper discuss their pasts, he pieces together a story of forbidden love from an incestuous priest, tying a multi-vocal story into a truth. This act of uniting various stories, of listening to every witness without judgment and finding an actionable principle that unites them is the act of interpretation. Fundamentally, the Medicine Seller is an interpreter, someone who listens to human and mononoke alike to determine what must be done to appease the supernatural grudge. In his interpretation, he brings together fragments that were once separate or incomplete, which often means bringing secret or taboo acts or desires into the light.


Of course, this does not make him fundamentally different from any detective. In an old article on the methods used by American detectives, Captain Duncan Matheson writes:

Every crime tells a story capable of interpretation. A peace officer that cannot read the story has no value in its solution. This is where the detective comes in. He makes a survey of the premises, the scene of the crime, the neighborhood and all the intimate details connected therewith.¹

A good detective story is mechanically elegant. The detective unravels the story for us and we are privy to all the pieces of the story and are invited to make our own interpretations. Typically, the greatest pleasure of the mystery story is in being given a surprising or slightly twisted version of a story we already think we know. The pieces can fit together many ways, but ultimately only one way is true, only one way of looking at things enables the detective to make the correct judgment. So not every interpretation has equal value.

For Mononoke and the Medicine Seller, the crime is not usually something contemporary or, sometimes, even recent. These are crimes that have lain dormant, curdling into malevolence while they remain unsolved. Mononoke, whether they can speak or not, are witnesses to as well as traces of the crimes from which they emerge. They often take an agency in the solving of the case, and the Medicine Seller has to weigh their desires and needs as well as those of the human beings affected by them. Part of the pleasures of Mononoke for the viewer, then, is the discovery of something human and recognizable at the core of beings who appear completely alien and incomprehensible. By unraveling their story and their reason for being, their shape and actions become understandable. The Medicine Seller bridges us to these strange beings, acting as a medium as well as an exorcist. Because there is no placating the mononoke without listening to its peculiar voice, which is as unique as any person’s.

2. The Spacetime of Grudges


Before thinking about violence against women in Mononoke, we can first consider the architecture. Space takes numerous forms in the show, and while many scenes are staged as flat tableaux and composed like Edo-era Japanese prints and paintings, in more dramatic moments the camera will push rapidly forward and backward through depths that were barely hinted at earlier. This sense of hurtling forward and backward accentuates the strangeness of the space, especially when apparent exits are closed, rooms multiply copies of themselves, and the world outside a fragile vessel (boat, train) becomes demonic and hellish.

When the mononoke warp space and time, it’s usually as an act of aggression against the perpetrators. They arrest the normal flows and create pockets of stasis or chaos where reality is uncertain and everyone loses their bearings. Passage is often denied, whether through rendering escape illusory or impossible or simply binding someone in place. And the show constructs space differently depending on the nature of the grudge. The shape of the mononoke is not the only thing determined by its truth and reason, but the shape of everything.

3. Violence Against Women

In the third arc of the show, a woman confesses to killing her entire family. According to the law, her fate is already sealed by her words. The Medicine Seller, however, is not satisfied, sensing a mononoke. His skepticism and questioning of the imprisoned woman leads to her realization that her violence was not actually directed at her family but, rather, at herself. She committed a virtual suicide because of being trapped in abusive status marriage. As mentioned in part 2, the spaces of the episode shift the nature of the crime or crimes. Her conflict, although it originates from outside circumstances and physical and mental abuse, becomes confined within herself. The arc therefore begins in a prison cell and finishes with her escaping through a window, running away from her abusive family once and for all.

The intimate nature of the violence committed against her contrasts with the explosive publicity of the crime to which she confesses. She says that she slaughtered her family and hung their bodies from a tree in plain sight. Her rage, so heavily internalized, at last explodes like dynamite, creating an unmistakable sign. She publicly confesses as well. Nevertheless, these confessions and signs turn out to be illusions, even falsehoods. Most of the arc takes place in the confined and intimate spaces of her memory, which has a confusing, repetitive quality. In order to lay these illusions bare, the Medicine Seller crafts his own illusion, a man in a Noh mask, in order to show the woman how her situation had robbed her of her self-worth and her humanity, causing her to seek her own destruction through execution.

Nearly every arc revolves around or involves a similar act of violence against women. These acts typically punish “improper” affections or desires or women’s attempts to enter masculine spaces. For instance, the final arc deals with the sensational murder of a woman journalist who wanted to expose corruption and collusion between the local mayor and the capitalists who wanted to build a subway in the city. In the end, not only is the murderer haunted, by various witnesses all comprehend a much more complete picture of the crime, facilitated by both the mononoke and the Medicine Seller.

Violence against women is often concealed by shame and taboo, both in the show and in the real world. The function of the Medicine Seller is to go beyond these boundaries and reveal the truth of the matter. Although we know little about the Medicine Seller and he appears as an impartial judge or actor, he in fact always taking sides in one way or another. After all, the revelation of truth never affects two people the same way. And many would rather live with the affliction of a mononoke, an undying grudge, than ever allow the truth to come to light. The Medicine Seller’s interpretation, the mosaic composed of all the little truths, shatters those who are protected by customary silence and power.


1. Duncan Matheson, “The Technique of the American Detective,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 146 (1929): 214.

Cultural Work and the Human Body: The Sad Death of Kazunori Mizuno

Script for the above video.

On March 19th, about two months ago, noted anime series director and animator Kazunori Mizuno died of overwork and chronic sleep deprivation. He took a nap and never woke up. While inhuman hours are common in all creative industries, it’s worth reflecting on what “inhuman” really means in this context. There is an environmental and biological aspect to this tragedy, one that intersects with the social and monetary pressures that drive professionals to accept these working conditions and even normalize them. At this point, unpaid overtime and other forms of anti-body (and blatantly anti-worker) labour practices are the status quo, entrenched over decades of repetition and reinforcement.

Let’s look at another example of a situation where workers were passionate about their work despite its detrimental effects on their health and general wellbeing–the asbestos mine in Asbestos, Québec. As recalled in Jessica Van Horssen’s excellent recent book on the subject, workers’ livelihoods there depended on a single industry for decades, which created a toxic and parasitic bond between workers and the company. Workers, even long after the substance they risked life and limb to get out of the ground was shown to be a risk not just to their health but to those who consumed it as well, often clung to the belief that the company and the substance were not as bad as they were portrayed. It didn’t help that the mining company, and later the Québec government, obscured evidence of the precise cancer risk for even limited long-term exposure to the fibrous mineral.

In both cases there are unusual rates of mortality–with young animators committing suicide or dying of overwork in the anime industry and an entire town afflicted by the very air they breathe and the work they do in the asbestos industry. In both cases there is an anti-body labour practice and certain material and ideological motivations for people to stay in these toxic positions. Even when workers in Asbestos mobilized and struck against the company in the 1950s, their essential dependence on the company as workers and their vulnerability as human bodies did not change. They were well-paid, but it was hazard pay. In the case of anime workers, wages are usually below minimum wage and below the poverty line.

Capitalism as a system, regardless of what is being produced, equivocates all labour as homogeneous and evaluates output in terms of financial return–an abstract indicator completely separate from the quality of the product and the workers’ health–which leads to this kind of destruction. In many ways, we as workers are stuck on the other side of the coin. For those of us who want to pursue jobs in a creative industry or in mining, we will be subjected to hierarchical, profit-driven workplaces where we are replaceable and valued only insofar as we produce more than we are paid.

To make matters more complicated still, in creative fields workers are often trapped between their material needs and the sense that they are not workers but creators who (yes) have more autonomy over their output than auto workers or miners–at least in some cases. Artists often aspire to produce great work, and are encouraged to think that demanding better wages and benefits is ill-befitting artists. Those who work in anime are often passionate fans and want to be doing what they are doing. They are taking the opportunities that the marketplace presents them, and as we can see, even those who are very successful can be driven to excesses where their bodies simply give out.

Only an end to capitalism and its inhumane, purely quantitative evaluation of productivity can ultimately ensure that we all live full and productive lives. I do think, however, that videos and articles like the ones I’ve linked to are important in simply recognizing the problem and honouring the lives of those who have been killed (murdered) by these violent labour practices. Whatever we think of Mizuno’s work, we have to recognize that his was a life early and unjustly taken, and we need to contemplate and create a better world.

Jonathan Clements: Anime: A History


This dense republication of the author’s doctoral thesis is significant largely because it is the only broad history of the anime industry available in English. Most of the academic studies of anime have heretofore been focused on the thematic analysis of individual works. From reading some of the few available books on anime and a smattering of journal articles, I can safely conclude that the field of anime studies suffers from some endemic ills. Though it’s not difficult to understand why so many people who study anime are also fans, having a fannish attitude toward the object you’re studying can be a source of critical errors and omissions. Luckily, Anime: A History avoids this error, though one consequence is that its prose is enervating, reference-dense, and ponderous.

Clements draws largely on industry professionals’ memoirs, official studio and media archives, and economic records for his sources. Significantly, most of these sources are only available in Japanese, so Clements’ summarization and appropriation of these documents has the additional value of giving English readers a first glimpse at them. Neither would I fault the book in terms of its level of detail, which is not only additive but also intelligently used to provide multiple perspectives on a single event. Though it does produce a level of “he said, she said,” this is inevitable where the past is obscure and the memories recording them often self-serving or simply addled.

Broadly, the book describes the history of Japanese animation (defined as Japanese largely by the nationality of its producers and the location of the labour used to produce it) as a technological movement from magic lanterns to cel-shaded digital animation. From that technological basis, he branches outward to discuss the transformation of animation from artisanal industry to a complex of brand tie-ins and the so-called “media ecosystem” or “media mix” that now dominates production and dissemination of animation from Japan. Though he doesn’t explicitly state that technology is the single most important driver of change in the animation industry, deferring to a more “complex” and discourse-focused style familiar to his post-modern historiographical touchstones like Hayden White, his narrative is largely organized around documenting major shifts in technology at all levels of commodity circulation and production. Cels, rotoscopes, film projectors television, VHS, DVD, cable television, and file sharing software produce the ripples that transform the industry, while the human beings within the industry use and react to these developments.

Clements also spends a great deal of time talking about the economic life of animation in Japan, including a great deal of specific data about foreign distribution deals, break-even sales figures for video releases, box office figures, and the like. At the same time, its treatment of the labour of animation and how it’s integrated into a system of capital accumulation remains under-theorized, left at the level of empirical observations. The anime industry is treated more often as the centre of particular discourses or memories than as a system with any coherent shape. Perhaps given the overwhelming scope of his project––covering more than a century of artistic/commodity production with a huge array of sources––we shouldn’t be surprised that the book often seems shapeless, more of an arrangement of events and rumination on sources than a theoretically coherent account of a defined subject. Because anime is the purported focus, rather than the anime industry, Clements’ analyses of animated objects, industry figures, economic realities like mass subcontracting to China and Korea, the aura of “cool” around anime among fans in the West, etc. are put next to each other but never connected in a systematic way.

In other words, I learned a great deal about the who and what of the history of animation in Japan and its development but not the why. I mentioned earlier that Clements usually centres changes in the forces of production––computers being an important later example––in his account, but this is far from consistent, and it’s always difficult to tell with any clarity whether Clements think that Great Men, forces of production, relations of property and ownership, fan whims, or larger political and economic developments drive activity within the anime industry. I would, in fact, argue that Clements’ book implies that it is all of these things, but at different times, with each singular case treated as an isolated case rather than the symptom of a structured whole––even a complex one. This gives Anime: A History a kind of unrewarding density. Rather than considering anime from one strong perspective, it tries to create a composite but without any systematization.

Stated more polemically, I think those who want to take Clements’ nevertheless considerable achievement and advance the field should approach his sources with the strength and totalizing power of a Marxist perspective. Being able to take these disparate accounts, take note of all the forces in play, and produce an overall picture that integrates singular events into an overall view of both the anime industry and the industry’s place in a wider world. Anime: A History is at this point the only book of its kind, and will hopefully act as a springboard for better-theorized and more systematic accounts of anime.

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:

Anime and the Netflix Niche


On February 24, Netflix announced that it was partnering with powerhouse anime studio Production I.G. to create and distribute an original series. Called Perfect Bones, the series would debut across all territories with access to Netflix (i.e. most of the world except the People’s Republic of China), a first for any anime. Moreover, it won’t air on Japanese TV at all, and we can assume that it will mostly target a Western audience.

Why a Western audience? Netflix’s choice of collaborator is a key clue. Production I.G. has been associated with some of the most important cross-PAcific hits in the last few years. Attack on Titan was an I.G. production, which for Netflix makes it a proven hitmaker. The director himself is associated with Tarantino, having created the anime sequence in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Note also the, at this point vague, plot outline. According to Netflix’s press release, the show has a science fiction concept:

the 12-episode series is set in the future where scientists have tried to create the “perfect human” in hopes of keeping peace in the universe. After nearly achieving their goal through several children, the scientists send their “new humans” for further training where they are kidnapped by an evil organization set on using their powers to implement their own concept of a new world order.

In other words, perfect fodder for crossover success: it’s in a genre recognizable to Western mainstream audiences, produced by a studio many might have heard of and directed by someone who has experience working with Westerners. Of course, it’s also launching just a few months after Netflix arrived in Japan, and might help strengthen its presence there as well.

There are two analytical points I want to make here.

  1. Japanese media production is incredibly advanced and productive. It has experience and a large, entrenched home market. However, it has always relied on American intermediaries to get its products out to an international audience. Sony didn’t build a Japanese film studio to rival Hollywood; it bought Columbia Pictures. With the exception of Viz Media, which is owned by a Japanese publisher, Japanese companies have relied on American firms to get their work to an English-speaking audience in Noth America. Virtually every Japanese animated film to hit it big internationally has had an American distributor (Warner Bros. for the Pokémon movies, Disney for Ghibli, etc.).
  2. Netflix is able to target and grow its audience through exploitation of niche tastes. None of its original series, including PERfect Bones, ever have to answer to the demographic hungers of advertising firms who want to broaden the appeal of media as much as possible. Rather, Netflix can be both “thin” and “wide” by targeting a very small part of their viewing public and releasing the show in dozens of countries at once. Its infrastructure and access to viewer data are unprecedented, and we can expect anime produced under its aegis to meet a particular standard. Since far more than half of its global subscriber base are in the United States or other English-speaking countries, it can tailor the storyline and concept to fit those expectations.

Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade


In one low-key scene near the middle of Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, our two protagonists are talking in a desolate pocket park. Kei, a former left wing revolutionary who has fallen in love with the male lead, a member of a ruthless paramilitary group, notices a crumpled heap of debris. It’s the remains of an old building. She asks him what used to stand there; what building used to occupy the empty space? He can’t remember, and she opines that, perhaps, they never noticed it in the first place, much less remembered it. In the midst of a vast construction boom, the film forces us to take notice of the wreckage and entropy left behind by “creative destruction.” It’s one of a handful of subtly profound moments that make the work of Mamoru Oshii worthy of attention.

It’s also notable that Oshii originally planned this film as a live-action piece, only later deciding to utilize animation. Jin-Roh has few flights of animated fancy, only a few dream sequences that could be easily replicated in live-action. Framed and shot in highly dramatic ways, it certainly benefits from animated techniques but in no way required them. Except, of course, that such a detailed and accurate recreation of 1950’s Tokyo, even the distorted vision seen here, could not be accomplished in live action because the old city simply no longer exists. Perhaps this is why the little vignettes and period recreations feel so meditative and significant even if they’re peripheral to the plot and its main themes: the film effectively represents city life in broad strokes, producing a tangible sense of space and its relations with the characters.

Oshii did not direct Jin-Roh (which translates to “man-wolf” or “werewolf” in English)––it was the debut of director Hiroyuki Okiura––but the film forms part of Oshii’s lifework called the Kerberos Saga. In short, the premise of this franchise is that Germany won the battle of Stalingrad and WWII. Japan is occupied and restructured by the Nazis rather than by the Americans. As in the actual history of Japan, the 1950s in the world of Kerberos are marked by sharpened political struggles between the bureaucratic and authoritarian government and powerful left-wing popular movements, some of which are armed. In response to growing chaos, the Japanese state organizes a paramilitary arm to suppress the violence, driving the communist movements (literally) underground to scurry like rats in the Tokyo sewers.

Our male lead, the taciturn fascist cop Kazuki Fuse, chases a red-clothed woman through these tunnels in the inciting scene. Cornering her against a wall, he sees she has an explosive device and prepares to shoot, but hesitates. She detonates the bomb, leaving him unscathed but apparently shaken by the event. While undergoing re-education, he meets someone who claims to be the bomber’s sister, Kei Amemiya, and the two engage in an ambivalent romance. All of this takes place against a backdrop of dry interdepartmental scheming and intrigue, as Fuse’s paramilitaries struggle against other branches of the defence forces in a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy-esque plot.

The latter, like the actual plot business in most Oshii films, is complex but also dry and cold, just interesting enough to drive the central drama forward. Machinations like those in Jin-Roh remind me of Metal Gear in a less operatic mode, with the same loving recreations of weapons and technology that blur the line between fastidiousness and fetishism. Though the spy story bites a large chunk out of the running time, the central thread of the film is the love story between Kei and Kazuki, always entangled with a belaboured Little Red Riding Hood allegory that Oshii and Okiura use to––some––good effect.

Fuse, like the rest of his fascist cop comrades, are explicitly coded as wolves, with the bomb-carrying women named Little Red Riding Hoods. Fuse carries a German-language copy of the fairy tale with him, and has surreal dreams where he stalks the sewers with a pack of actual wolves. Though there is subtlety in the film, it’s certainly not in evidence here. Characters pontificate about it at length, drawing out the metaphors between the sly seducing wolf and Fuse, who breaks down Kei’s emotional defences only to lure her to an inevitable destruction.

Closed in his iconic suit––which mixes German army garb with samurai armour––he is an emotionless murderer, but when stripped of it, he can regain some of his humanity. Much of the film hinges on the question of whether this soldier, a wolf by nature, can break out of his armour and live authentically again. The way Oshii’s scrip tries to resolve this question is ambiguous and difficult to unravel, but the central point to take away is that Fuse is deprived of meaningful friendships and connections by machinery––both the literal kind and the state machinery to which he belongs.

Kei’s character, unfortunately, undergoes a progressive degeneration as the plot continues. Always situated as a pawn and a disposable asset of one kind or another, her one major role is to be a dreamer and an emotional touchstone for Fuse. By the end, I found her reductive and annoying, a caricature of femininity who existed purely to suffer just for the chance to redeem her beastly love interest. She seemed less and less like a hardened professional and more like a frightened child the more the film went on, which is addressed within the story but in a dissatisfying way. At the end, she can be reduced to a symbol, Red Riding Hood, the naïve one who climbs into bed with a wolf. We can all at least be thankful that the overtones of rape in the story do not receive graphic treatment in Jin-Roh.

For me, Jin-Roh, like all of Oshii’s work that I’ve seen, is a mixed experience. Its treatment of its characters is at times callous and clumsy, not to speak of its (to put it mildly) questionable politics. But there are also beautiful and truthful moments, especially when the animators bring life to alternate 1950s Tokyo. Perhaps the most profound, and maybe unconscious, message the Kerberos universe has to offer us is that the Nazi occupation and its aftermath would not have been all that different from the American one.

Sniffing For Japan in Asia with Koichi Iwabuchi


Though it’s accurate to describe our current situation as being “under global capitalism” the second word in that phrase merits some serious caveats. Though globalized in extent and unbound by national or cultural loyalties in the abstract, the concrete reality of capitalism is thoroughly Eurocentric. In brief, capitalism bears the birthmarks of its origins in European feudalism and its dissolution through the process of colonialism. Even countries like Japan, which were never formally colonized and have attained phenomenal levels of economic power, the Eurocentric biases of the international system of capitalism could not be more relevant.

That is the brute reality on which Koichi Iwabuchi builds in his 2002 book Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. The work is an attempt to study cultural flows in East Asia, with Japan as its “anchor,” examining both the reception of Japanese popular culture in greater East and Southeast Asia and the effect of Japan’s “turn to Asia” has had on Japanese ideologies and desires. Recentering is unmistakably a published dissertation, as shown by its lengthy and often turgid dives into reviews of postcolonial theory, but as the book continues it builds a fairly coherent argument that I found worthy of discussion.

I’m particularly interested in this topic because Japan’s rise as a cultural power is a process that reveals the inherent flexibility of global capital, particularly during its global “neoliberal” restructuring that began in the 1970s. Cultural industries, among others, have begun to appreciate the value of the “local” within their vast scope, tailoring products for smaller subculture or large markets outside their core territories. Iwabuchi recognizes this and notes the corporations like Sony are not just interested in pushing Japanese pop stars, for example, into Singapore, but also to cultivate Singaporean talent that will be better received in the home country and, possibly abroad, but still contribute to the Japanese home office’s bottom line. In fact, the experience of trying to localize specifically Japanese properties, according to Iwabuchi, was often so unsuccessful that the latter strategy might be preferable.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the entire book is Iwabuchi’s sustained discussion of Japan’s cultural “position” relative to both mainland East Asia and the West. One of the ways that Japanese producers interpreted their own role  as they attempted to produce audiences for Japanese media in East Asia was as “transmitters” or even “digesters” of Western culture. Japan, in this “hybridist” mindset, was uniquely and inherently suited to incorporating and domesticating dominant Western culture and technology, thereby allowing it to transmit it to its regional neighbours who would be incapable of absorbing Western culture directly. Japan in this conception therefore becomes neither Western nor Asian but “Japanese,” free to combine American and Chinese historical influences and process them because of its unassailable native culture.

Such conceits, Iwabuchi notes, also constituted part of the ideological justification for Japan’s colonial adventurism in the same regions where its popular culture is beginning (as of 2002 when the book was published) to become more popular. Combined with official Japanese prickliness about its own imperialist past and resurgent right nationalism, this could be a dangerous mixture. Indeed, people noticed precisely that combination in the recent anime Attack on Titan, widely perceived (I believe correctly) as a vehicle for Japanese right nationalism, albeit cloaked in the guise of a Western-ish aesthetic. Another pivotal, if much earlier, example of the way that Japanese media retransmits Western Orientalism lies in the widespread adoption of the urban chaos milieu of Blade Runner in anime, particularly in Ghost in the Shell, which takes place in a setting derived from Hong Kong.

Part of Japan’s uneasiness with its position vis-à-vis the rest of East Asia, of course, has to do with its relatively privileged position as a nonwhite country with a fully developed and self-sufficient national economy. Its strategic importance to the United States, who reduced the country to a partly-sovereign military protectorate, also allowed it to escape the usual subjugation applied to Southern countries by Western powers in the economic sphere. The result is that Japanese popular culture is, almost uniquely in the non-American world, succoured by a self-sufficient home market that can afford to be relatively insular. Despite this, its popular culture is itself deeply shaped by the hegemony of Western culture, and the English language, worldwide. Iwabuchi conceptualizes this as the loss or suppression of a Japanese cultural “odour” that has to be neutralized to make a particular export acceptable in the West. (Also gave me a good post title.)

This separates Japan, in Iwabuchi’s argument, from what it imagines “Asia” to be, a place of premodern harmony where an acidic capitalism has yet to corrode away social cohesion and “collectivism.” Not only this, but Japanese media corporations remains dependent on the muscle of the Western culture industry to push their products worldwide. Note the ubiquity of intermediary companies––though, like Viz Media, some are owned by Japanese firms––established in the West to handle localization and distribution. Japanese economic and cultural power, mighty though they are, are still neutered because the country’s culture often has to be “denationalized” to fit international tastes. No wonder, then, that animation and video games, which are portable and more easily localized and scrubbed of cultural specificity, have taken the centre stage in Japan’s cultural power game.

Unfortunately, Iwabuchi’s book touches very little on the relationship between Japan and China, which will form the backbone of my own studies. When it does mention the PRC, it is nearly always in reference to the more restrictive state controls on the media there. So while it’s valuable in terms of analyzing the construction of what the author calls Japan’s Asian “dreamworld” on top of its peripheries in SE and East Asia, I will have to look elsewhere for answers to how culture and cultural industries in China and Japan relate to one another and how that in turn reflects on the political and economic contests between those two countries. Regardless, those who are interested in the workings of Japan’s relationships with its regional neighbours and how they manifest in the realm of popular culture and ideology should consider giving Recentering Globalization a read.

Wakfu: Noximillien l’Horloger


After doing a brief overview of the French animated series Wakfu in the last post, I wanted to investigate a spinoff episode called “Noximillien l’Horloger,” or “Noximillien the Watchmaker.” Necessity dictates a separate post for this episode because it has little to do with the series proper except in a plot sense. Though it was overseen by the same show runner as the main body of the show, it lies outside the timeframe of the main series as far as I can tell, dramatizing the backstory of one of the major antagonists in the show, Nox.

Though it’s founded on a script by main show writers Eric Herenguel and Anthony Roux, this episode’s production is otherwise entirely different than the main show. Where the main show is animated entirely in France using Adobe Flash, “Noximillien” was birthed from Madhouse, the famed Japanese animation studio responsible for giving motion to Satoshi Kon’s feature films and numerous famous anime programs. Moreover, the style of the animation bears almost no resemblance to the main show, largely because the character design for this episode flowed from the pen of wildcat animator Masaaki Yuasa, whom regular readers will recognize as the force behind the truly magnificent Adventure Time episode “Food Chain.”


The episode’s animation and writing are both terrific, serving a story that sets up a tragic fall from grace––I did warn you this was the backstory of an antagonist. Founded in the science fiction trope of the mad scientist, Nox here fulfills the predestined arc of such characters, tampering with otherworldly forces beyond rightful human control and falling into an obsession with his own power that alienates him from society and provides him with some character complexity and motivation. Madhouse, under the direction of master Eunyoung Choi, brings out the terror inherent in Nox through motion and facial expressions. Early Nox is clean-cut and, while blessed with a questionable hairstyle, generally handsome and animated with a spring in his step. Once he stumbles on the mysterious artifact that leads him to his downfall, however, his liveliness becomes a paranoid jitter, and part of the genius of the episode is how it draws out his downward transformation, maintaining him as a recognizable character throughout by extrapolating the negative sides of the character they already established in the first act. His ingenuity and devotion metastasize into single-minded fixation and the idolization of machines over flesh and blood. Gradually he takes on the appearance of death itself, seemingly undead and detached from his previous life.


Most of the drawbacks of the story’s approach are found in plot details I don’t want to get into specifically. They specifically involve the off-screen deaths of some central characters that, though they lead to a poignant moment, might have been better handled. I would be willing to engage in discussion over the finer points of that development, particularly since its meaning to the character is rather ambiguous at the point when it arrives.

As with their contributions to Adventure Time, Yuasa and Choi here work in collaboration with Western producers in creating a product designed for Western television but with Japanese oversight and, in this case, animation. Despite the fact that Western producers have for two decades been using anime as an influence in their own visual styles, this is still a notably rare occurrence. What it goes to show is that, despite the flow of ideas and influences, not to mention dubbed broadcasts, being fast and consistent in recent past, the Japanese and Western industries and, to some extent, fanbases, still have little direct creative contact with each other. Language barriers and cultural differences partly explain this situation, but another reason behind this reality is the fact that each industry produces its work primarily for a domestic audience, with any international exposure being a bonus.

Wakfu might have been ideal for this kind of collaboration precisely because it was a French production, and European shows tend to need much more international backing and access to international markets to get exposure, while the animation markets in the United States and Japan are so large that they can target only a domestic audience (or, in the case of the USA, assume that their immense resources can simply “force” their flagship programming into international markets).

In fact, part of the reason Wakfu might have adopted an anime style is that it’s internationally recognizable. Whereas French animation, despite its storied and influential history, does not have a defining look to it, Japanese animation is readily identifiable. Of course, the game adopted the style first, but its style probably made it more attractive as a candidate for an animation production in the first place.

With all that said, I would recommend everyone track down a copy of this episode. It’s not on Netflix as of yet, but there are subtitled copies of it floating around the Internet in fairly obvious places. It’s worth your time to be sure.

The Japanese Communists’ Cuteness Campaign

Translation: Member in charge of “employment” Youkou Yoko (Employment Yoko)

Leftists in Japan have never had an easy time. State repression and one-party dominance of the legislature have worked to squeeze out most forms of official opposition. The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) has been no exception. Despite being one of the leading social forces in Japan after the fall of the military government and the end of the Second World War, the party’s own failures to maintain a politics independent from the Soviet Union led it into a spiral of splitting and marginalization.

Of course, the Chinese Revolution in 1949 also provoked the Americans occupying Japan to reverse their attempts at democratizing Japan and led them to enact a policy of clamping down on labour and left movements and returning power to bureaucrats and monopolies. Rapid economic development, represented in the postwar era by rising GDP, became seemingly the only national priority, with the legacy today of a Japan with limited sovereignty that is dependent on American military protection and the colossal exploitation of its own increasingly precarious population, not to mention imperialist rents drawn from abroad.

But the JCP still exists and remains one of the most powerful old-guard communist parties in Asia to have never taken power. Putting aside questions of its political line or its relevance to politics today, it has produced some rather unique propaganda materials in recent years. While most communist and other left movements adhere to more traditional poster art styles, the JCP has adopted the aesthetics of “cute” manga, which are widely used even by governments and official organizations in Japan. Police departments, for example, often adopt cute manga-style mascots. Cuteness, or kawaii in Japan is, even more than in the West, an all-embracing aesthetic that is fairly gender-neutral, communicating softness and a non-threatening affect.

The poster seen below is representative of the JCP’s campaign:

Translation of the white text: “Japan will turn into a warlike state!” The dogs are labeled “Self-Defence Dogs.”

This poster protesting the ruling Liberal Democrats’ attempts to rearm Japan in the name of “collective self-defence,” in the tradition of political cartoons, personifies so-called “self-defence” as a pack of grinning attack dogs while the bookish character of the right, a personification of the Japanese constitution called Pouken (a pun on the Japanese word for constitution, “Kenpou”) calls for us to recognize the dangers. Note that the constitution is portrayed as an older gentleman, and his speech on the accompanying web page is written in the exaggerated style of a senior citizen. The JCP is thus positioning this new modification of the constitution as being against postwar Japanese pacifist traditions and values.

Another part of the web campaign is a series of videos outlining party policies––mostly defined in opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his government––in broad and humourous fashion. This one is a good example:

This video shows the JCP as a crusader against “Black Industry” and “Black Part-time Work,” which are terms used for highly exploitative workplaces, including sweatshops and offices that push workers into unpaid overtime. “Black Industry” perches atop a pyramid of overworked men in Japanese-style business attire, groaning under the weight. The JCP bursts in, represented as a woman in sharp glasses. At the end of each video, all of which can be found here, the party’s policy is summed up in a small slogan. A video discouraging the restarting of Japan’s nuclear power plants, for example, features a breakdancing sun shouting “protect our non-nuclear society!”

These graphics and videos might or might not be effective, and I have no way of judging that except on a subjective basis all the way out here in North America. But they do present a fascinating case of a left-wing party adapting its style of presentation to its home country. There’s nothing wrong with old-fashioned constructivist posters or other more traditional styles, but I have to say that I appreciate this campaign for its attempt to add levity to serious political matters, even if it can be cheesy.

Parallel Histories in When Marnie Was There and Love and Mercy


Parallelism is a potent storytelling tool. Though lesser stories paper over their own bankruptcy with meaningless repetition, it’s also one of the primary raw materials for theming. Two recent releases to arrive at my local theaters are When Marnie Was There and Love and Mercy, two films that have little in common at the levels of style, plot, and subject matter, but that explore similar themes using comparable narrative devices. To be brief, we can split this discussion into two: the common narrative device and the common theme.

The Common Device: Parallel Histories

When Marnie Was There is a genealogical story connecting the lives of two girls named Anna and Marnie. While Anna, a Japanese student from Hokkaido, is spending a therapeutic summer away from her foster mother and her urban home in Sapporo, she meets Marnie by some marshes that divide a splendid but abandoned mansion from a village. The catch is that Marnie is an apparition of some kind––whether a ghost, a memory, or a dream figure is never stated outright––who invites Anna into her own time and place. In Marnie’s world, at night, the mansion is full of dancing and song, as her jet-setting parents return from their frequent excursions to celebrate a few days at home per year with their daughter. We gradually learn that her idyllic party life is the only true life she leads, as the rest of the year is marked by Marnie’s psychological and physical abuse by the maids, who enjoy tormenting her.

Anna’s troubles, meanwhile, are both physical and psychological. They are, respectively, asthma and a detached mode of living, expressing no emotions and withdrawing into herself and her sketchbook. She has no meaningful bonds, even with her foster mother. The latter disconnect is the main sore point for her, the “problem” that she as a character needs to overcome. On top of that, her blue eyes give her away as a mixed-race person, causing social friction between her and the other children in the village where she stays. As she learns more about Marnie and tells more about herself, she recognizes the parallels between their lives and begins to open up not only to Marnie but also to people from her own time. Near the end of the film, we learn that Marnie was Anna’s grandmother and the woman who raised her until she died and left Anna with her foster mother. Anna’s biological mother died in a car crash one winter soon after Anna was born. The key to unraveling Anna’s psychological difficulties, then, is meeting Marnie and understanding her life and the life that her mother led, helping her to cope with what she saw as a chain of abandonment: her mother and grandmother died, and her foster mother is no substitute.

Love and Mercy employs a similar device, but rather than having two generations of people meeting each other, the film follows a single character in two mostly isolated time periods. We meet Brian Wilson, young leader of the Beach Boys, who pursues his dreams of creating the greatest pop album of all time. Working feverishly in the studio despite the skepticism of his band mates and the snide disapproval of his father, he eventually collapses due to overwork and mental illness. He is ultimately unable to complete his masterwork. Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Wilson is trapped by his psychiatrist Eugene Landy, who uses his legal guardianship over Wilson to exploit the aging musician and raise his own social status. It is established that Landy and Wilson’s father are repressive and controlling twins, father figures who care much more about cash flows than harmonies and composition. Eventually, though the Brian Wilson of the 1960s, like Marnie, must leave what he treasures behind, slipping into death (literal in Marnie’s case and a functional death in Wilson’s), the 1980s Wilson, like Anna, finds a significant relationship that helps him escape the alienation and despair he’s caught in.

There are differences in how the films resolve their protagonists’ internal struggles, however. In Marnie, sexuality is present but is left relatively fluid and dynamic. Anna never fastens onto a boy; in fact, her life is almost devoid of meaningful connections to men both at the start and at the end of the film. She has a mostly-absent foster father, her biological father’s face is never even depicted, and all of her significant relationships in the plot are with other women or girls. Her relationship with Marnie is, of course never sexual in a direct way, though it has romantic overtones, but it’s the Platonic friendship that matters the most. In Love and Mercy, meanwhile, we have a more traditional story where the most important connection our male hero makes is with a woman who helps him to find a renewed life. They settle down in happy heterosexual bliss, with the boy-man Wilson of the majority of the film finally free from his childhood bed and inserted into a marriage bed. Don’t get me wrong: he is far from the protagonist of the 1980s part of the film, but he is also the only major character who has a sustained presence between the two time blocs. It is his story that we want to learn, despite the most active agent in the 1980s part being Melinda, the woman who rescues and marries Brian Wilson.


The Common Theme: The Community of Money

Anna and Brian Wilson’s most critical relationships are undermined by money. In Wilson’s case, his father sells off the Beach Boys’ song publishing rights for a fraction of what they would eventually be worth. His doctor and his father, the two father figure-antagonists in Love and Mercy, are both attached to Wilson for the money. Of course, his relationship with his actual father are rather more complicated, since the latter was also physically and psychologically abusive and impresses on Brian that he will never succeed or achieve anything noteworthy despite his obvious talents. In Marnie, Anna’s source of alienation from her foster mother is not their lack of biological similarity but instead the fact that the latter receives state subsidies to pay for Anna’s expenses. And this has been kept “secret,” though Anna found out herself by accident one day. Traditionally family bonds, then, are corroded and even replaced by the community of money, The residual connection has a nightmarish effect on the protagonists, who feel guilty and trapped by their relationships despite their misgivings. Ultimately, though, both films resolve this in their own way. For Wilson, as mentioned, the escape hatch was a “real” relationship, untainted by a whit of care about money.

For Anna and her foster mother, the answer is resignation and acceptance. The truth is finally outed, and the two are able to continue living together. When Marnie Was There thus directly comments on the obsession with blood relations and conventional relationships: that they don’t ultimately matter. What matters is the relationships that endure for the benefit of both people, and the success of those has little to do with blood and everything to do with communication and proximity.