[Week 3] Interlude: Things That Were a Mistake

This week, a tangent.
Shoko Asahara, founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, addressing followers in India.
Shoko Asahara, founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, addressing followers in India.

For the film club I do with friends, I'm picking a series of selections from the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise. Because not all of us are anime buffs, I figured I'd write some short intros for each thing I plan to have us watch, to provide a bit of context and explanation. The intros got a bit longer than I'd anticipated (probably because I was procrastinating working on another thing I should have been working on instead). Since I ended up being really happy with what I wrote, I thought I'd share them with a wider audience here on the blog.

Week 0 | Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5

This week, we finish off Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket.

I've already provided as much background on this series as I know how to provide, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop rattling off dubiously relevant contextual information.

Anime Was a Mistake

In July 1989, days before the fifth installment of War in the Pocket was released to video stores, police arrested a man who had killed four young girls in and around Tokyo. While searching his home, they found recordings of his victims interspersed among a massive collection of thousands of videotapes. His collection included horror films, pornography, and all kinds of stuff, but news media misrepresented it as primarily comprising anime and manga, dubbing him the "Otaku Murderer." This ignited a moral panic about anime and manga, and fed negative stereotypes about otaku which have never fully abated.

There's a popular meme of Hayao Miyazaki saying "Anime was a mistake." It's a joke, not a real quote from the man himself. But the actual Miyazaki quote it's parodying isn't much less harsh about contemporary Japanese animation:

Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves. Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people, you know. It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans. And that’s why the industry is full of otaku.

A cynical attitude about otaku is common among Japanese animators of Miyazaki's generation, including two key members of the team that had worked on First Gundam: creator Yoshiyuki Tomino and animation director Yoshikazu Yasuhiko (about whom more next week). Criticism of otaku culture often accuses it of promoting a protracted adolescence, a narrow viewpoint on culture, and, in Tomino's words, a decline in "aesthetic sensibility".

Which, fair enough.

Yoga Class Was a Mistake

In 1987, Shoko Asahara started teaching group yoga and meditation classes in his Shibuya apartment. Within two years, Asahara's group, Aum Shinrikyo, had grown into a religious movement and was recognized as such by the Japanese government. This recognition was given over the objections of anti-cult activists, who viewed Aum as a doomsday cult.

In the years that followed, members of Aum perpetrated a number of assassination attempts and terrorist attacks using chemical weapons, culminating in a deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 14 people and injured over a thousand. The Tokyo attack was and remains the deadliest recorded terrorist attack in Japan's history. I assume it's also the deadliest ever attack by a yoga class anywhere in the world, but I don't know that for sure.

In the wake of Aum's attacks, commentators noted that some members of the cult were also anime and manga fans, fanning the flames of moral panic that the "Otaku Murderer" coverage had ignited six years prior. Aum's apocalyptic rhetoric and cosmic theology mirrored themes appearing in popular anime and manga, including works by celebrated auteurs like Hayao Miyazaki and Leiji Matsumoto. The overlap between otaku and devoted followers of Aum was no mere coincidence: Aum had circulated literature highlighting thematic similarities between its theology and popular anime and manga, in order to attract otaku as followers.

While Miyazaki and Matsumoto have never commented on any relationship their work might have with Aum’s ideology, Tomino has gone on record saying that he feels Mobile Suit Gundam bears some responsibility. I can't find an English language quote, but here's a paraphrase from a 2008 essay called “Aum Shinrikyo and a Panic About Manga and Anime” by religious studies scholar Richard A. Gardner:

Some producers of manga and anime, such as Yoshiyuki Tomino, even accepted some responsibility for the appearance of Aum. Best known for the animated television series Kidou Senshi Gandamu (Mobile Suit Gundam), which aired from 1979 through 2002, Tomino was involved in the production of a number of robot anime in the 1970s. He acknowledges a connection between the content of these anime and Aum’s vision of [Armageddon]. In Kidou Senshi Gandamu, for instance, earth is fighting a desperate battle against an evil empire in which even teenagers are pressed into service and, in the course of their training, gradually develop what might be termed supernatural powers. Members of Aum, he argues, took as real the fictional evil empire that was originally envisioned simply to create a scenario in which anime heroes could emerge.

Newtypes Were a Mistake

By "what might be termed supernatural powers", Tomino (via Gardner) is referring to "Newtypes." To recap the idea as it was introduced in First Gundam: regular old humans who evolved to live on Earth are not as well suited to live in space. So, in the Universal Century of expansion into space, humanity is adapting into a new and more highly evolved form. This means that some people who live in space, like Amuro and Char, are sort of psychic. And more importantly: they are super good at piloting robots.

To be honest… Newtypes are not my favorite part of this franchise! I think they muddy the thematic waters. I want to see big robots fight each other and I want it to be about the realities of war. I'm less interested in the specialness of the special boy who pilots the special robot, and I'm not here for his psychic awakening that validates how special he is.

Moreover, the concept of a special breed of elite humans who emerge through an apocalyptic war is... maybe not a great idea to be stirring up in the culture. It's overstating the case to draw a direct link between any one particular anime and any one violent incident, but I also I think it's wrong to say there's no association.

Nor should it be ignored that nowadays, in the anglophone world, violent and misanthropic ideologies like incel culture, QAnon, and white nationalism have benefited from a robust recruiting pipeline in otaku-adjacent online communities like 4chan.

Cool Robots Were a Mistake (Albeit a Cool One)

Fumihiko Takayama, who directed War in the Pocket, is a decade younger than Tomino, not quite young enough to be of the otaku generation. In one of the few English translations of an interview with Takayama I could find, he cites influences as disparate as the Italian fantasy novel The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino, the Francois Truffaut film Small Change, and the Great Depression photojournalism book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans. That's a much wider range of cultural influence than I'd expect a typical otaku to cite.

By 1989, the otaku phenomenon was still pretty young, and veteran animators were probably only in the early stages of becoming grumpy about otaku. But I wonder whether misgivings about the otaku audience might already be evident in War in the Pocket.

I'm reminded of another meme commenting on anime: the "Wow Cool Robot" comic, which directly references Gundam. It pokes fun at the incongruity between the show's antiwar themes and the viewer's interest in the impressiveness of the weapons. But while the meme is primarily about Gundam's viewers, it seems to apply just as much to War in the Pocket's child protagonist, Al.

Al's enthusiasm for cool robots and his desire to collect war memorabilia closely mirror the stereotypical interests and collections of the otaku viewer. But Al isn't an otaku per se, he's just a kid. So, I wonder whether there's an intentional infantilization of these aspects of otaku culture. It's as though the show is asking: if Al's narrow, childish perspective and naïve enthusiasm for weapons and warfare are to be excused because he is a child, then what's my excuse?

My excuse is: well, the robot is cool. 🤷

This week we’ll finish off Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket with episodes 4-6. We’ll talk Sunday at 9.

I really loved the latter half of War in the Pocket, it cemented itself as one of my favorite Gundam things I've seen. I highly recommend it if you haven't seen it, or anything else Gundam. It's kind of a shame that it's not available on any streaming site right now. We didn't see any minds change in movie club this week: those who were into Gundam continued to be into it, and those who weren't, still weren't.

Next: [Week 4] Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan's Island (2022 Film)