The Japanese Communists’ Cuteness Campaign

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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:

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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.

Moto Hagio: Heart of Thomas

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Moto Hagio participated in the remaking of Japanese comics for girls. Before the Year 24 group, of which Hagio was a part, girls’ manga––shoujo from now on––traded in pitifully slight fantasies about mistaken identity and had men writing them. Defeat in World War II unleashed major upheavals in all parts of Japanese society, and though the potentially revolutionary energies at work in Japan ran afoul of American and comprador repression, Japanese culture in the 1950s through the early 1970s crackled with invention. Manga and anime as we know it today, along with the classic canon of Japanese films and the countercultural New Wave after it, burst forth in these few middle decades of the century. As an artifact of that time, Heart of Thomas registers the shockwaves of liberalized sexuality and expressive freedom that existed precariously alongside growing commercialization of popular art in 1974, when a weekly magazine serialized it in its pages.

Though I made reference to sexuality, sex itself is anathema in Heart of Thomas, existing only in the painful margins of the story. That tale begins with Thomas, the title character, committing suicide by plunging off a bridge. The subject of his unrequited love, Juli, who is a student at the same German boarding school, receives Thomas’ suicide note, and along with his friend Oscar is the only one who knows that Thomas’ demise was no accident. The cryptic note reveals that Thomas intended his death to carry a powerful meaning for Juli, but this is not unraveled until near the end of this expansive book. Complicating matters is the arrival of Erich, who resembles Thomas so much in appearance that it awakens Juli’s death drive as the latter attempts to expunge Thomas’ specter from his life.

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Heart of Thomas is also an origin point for shounen-ai, or “boy love,” casting the roles of the narrative almost entirely with boys who have their own complicated romantic politics. Their loves are always idealized and angelic, having an almost puritanical devotion entwined with sexual desires. The former, as mentioned, rarely figure into the story. Love in this book is internal and mystical, swirling like a torrent around the body but, because the characters are so young, not explicitly sexual at all. To illustrate, let’s take the handling of kisses in the story. Because Hagio injects elements of Christianity into the book, kisses figure as “Judas kisses” more often than genuine tokens of affection, used to spite or as currency for favors. Judas and the fallen angels form perhaps the central motif of the story, symbols of betrayal and loss of innocence. Love and hate, therefore, tend to work on an abstract plane in the story, complemented by the expressionistic use of spacing and composition in the artwork. Characters may be in proximity to one another in the panels but separated from each other by vast distances or, more often, the boundary between life and death. Hagio renders the psyches of the characters as just as literal as their physical forms, constituent parts of their presence in the story. As one might guess, the content of these worlds is often easily read in a Freudian way, a tangle of narcissism, misdirection, and repression that often boils.

Despite the complexity of the multiple subplots and character explorations, the fundamental theme of the story can be simply summarized: how people live with the scars of past torment. Some of these are literal, like Juli’s, while others signify themselves through absence and regret more than transfigured skin. Because the story takes place in what seems to be a Catholic boys’ school, characters sometimes express their troubles in religious language, whether they believe or not. Because of their class status as petty bourgeoisie, their immaturity, and their upbringing, these characters have a highly abstracted relationship to all areas of life, which includes their romantic conflicts. Theirs is a sheltered world, something like the academy in Revolutionary Girl Utena, an island where the larger themes of the story work themselves out almost as actors on a stage; we can sense the artifice of the story but also the integrity of the basic truths being expressed. Unrealistic in some ways, Heart of Thomas maintains an unflinching eye on the subject of pain and trauma, and how the people of this peculiar space deal with their mistakes and the terrible sins committed––by them or against them.

Though Heart of Thomas is unmistakably steeped in the shoujo tradition, it deploys the typical romantic phantoms one would see in those stories in far more meaningful ways than the norm. It accomplishes what all art should: forging truth out of lies, taking the concrete world and rendering it newly recognizable in a fiercer and more lucid form on the page.