USS Clueless - More adventures in anime

Stardate 20031126.1453

(Captain's log): It's been a while since I wrote about my adventures exploring anime (Japanese animation). I've continued to sample new things, some chosen on a whim, some based on reviews I've found online, and some based on recommendations from friends.

Steel Angel Kurumi and Sakura Wars: The Movie: Sakura Wars is a very successful and wildly popular series which was originally based on a video game. Steel Angel Kurumi is a comedy series which I've read was the first example of the "gorgeous robot maid-slave" genre. In most regards they're not really related, but I choose to discuss them together because they're both placed in the same era. Steel Angel Kurumi was created later, and it looks to me as if they borrowed it pretty much unchanged from Sakura Wars. Both of them are placed in a mythical Japan in the 1920's, where the underlying technology is a strange mix of retro (steam) and the futuristic (computers, television) and the science fiction (mecha and robots). One review referred to this as "steampunk", and that's not a bad description.

For those not familiar with the term, "mecha" are fighting machines which vary in size in various depictions from little larger than a normal human up to monstrous machines which make skyscrapers look small. Most mecha are at least vaguely humanoid. (None of them are actually plausible as fighting machines; even if we could build them, we would not. There's a strong element of wish fulfillment involved in this concept; who hasn't imagined himself as being a powerful giant?)

Steel Angel Kurumi was a TV series, and those episodes have been released on 4 DVDs. There was an OVA series, released as a fifth DVD. And then there was a sequel of two DVDs which are only loosely related to the others. I bought the first DVD of the TV series.

[OVA stands for "Original Video Animation" and refers to a series created specifically for release on tape and DVD without prior broadcast. An OVA series is not constrained by the kinds of rules about sex and violence that affect a broadcast series, and they have a reputation for being more explicit.]

Sakura Wars is quite the franchise; there were a couple of OVA series', and a long TV run, and a movie which I bought, and lots of other stuff. Sakura has a reputation as being almost canonical, almost the archetypical anime series, one that any true fan of anime had to be familiar with, and one about which there were no neutral opinions. Some love it, some hate it. So I bought the movie when I saw it in a store, because it seemed as if I should check it out.

Given that I'm so taken with the series Hand Maid May, and with my first contact with Mahoromatic, then when I read somewhere that Steel Angel Kurumi was the first example of the robot-maid genre I was curious about it. (I have no idea whether it actually was the first, but I know it appeared earlier than those other two.) But I didn't really like it, and don't have any urge to pick up the rest of the series.

The male protagonist in it seems virtually identical to the one in Mahoromatic, although some of the paint job is different. It's set in the same fictional Japan of the 1920's as Sakura is, and there's at least one giant war mecha on the first DVD. (Which the newly awakened Kurumi proceeds to pulverize.) The protagonist Nakahito, is cut from virtually the same cloth as Mahoromatic's hapless male teenage protagonist Suguru, though in SAK the hapless teenager is a monk, a trainee priest living at a monastery. They work that into the series concept rather nicely, actually.

There are ultimately a swarm of Steel Angels in the series; there are three in the title sequence, but the third one doesn't otherwise appear on the first DVD. Steel Angels are a combination of technology and mystical arts; they use the mystical to explain (or excuse) how anyone in 1925 could produce a sentient robot. The mystically-created motivating force that converts an inanimate robot body into a working Steel Angel looks like a heart and is implanted into the robot body, but then must be activated. The "scientist" who developed the Steel Angels was working with the older brother, and they had originally intended that the older brother use his mastery of something called Onmyou (a variant Buddhist mysticism which is explained by one of the "extras" on the DVD) to activate the first Steel Angel. However, through contrived mischance in the first episode, the younger brother, said hapless teenager Nakahito, ends up in the scientist's house when it's attacked by the army using said giant war mecha, and the not-yet-activated Kurumi falls into him and their lips touch. Apparently his kiss, albeit inadvertent, does what's needed, though at least in the first DVD no one knows how or why. He's not the adept his older brother is, but he too has been in training for years, and may have some native mystical talent which had not been recognized.

Whatever it is, it seems to be catching. Kurumi herself activates another Steel Angel with a kiss a couple of episodes later.

I didn't really like Steel Angel Kurumi. It was more original in the sense that it was (maybe) first, but I think that both Hand Maid May and Mahoromatic did the concept better. (In HMM, the robots weren't combat models, but it is clearly part of the same genre.) One problem is that Kurumi is extremely unsophisticated as a "person". They did that deliberately, and they change the animation style from realistic to extremely cartoonie when she's talking about how she feels, as a stylistic way of showing how simplistic her view of things is. I suspect that as the series proceeded they probably made her grow and change. Nakahito starts out as tentative and immature, and I suspect that he grows up during the series. But I don't really care enough about any of the characters to want to find out, and do not feel inspired to buy any more of it.

The series setup results in Nakahito, and two Steel Angels and a woman who is an ex-officer of the Army moving around trying to find certain things while evading assassins sent by the bad guys, and that also didn't seem attractive. And a love triangle they created, with Kurumi obsessed with the kid, and the other steel angel obsessed with Kurumi, turned me off. (Turns out that the Steel Angels were designed so that they'd imprint on the first person they saw and become their slave. The reason is to set up dramatic situations as well as to play to viewer fantasies, but when something like that doesn't seem justified at the character level, it feels contrived, and I can't see any legitimate reason at the story level for such a thing; why the "first look"? why only one? Both HMM and Mahoromatic handled this better.)

But another reason it turned me off was the environment it borrowed from Sakura Wars.

I don't find that particular setting (alternate 1925 Japan with mecha) at all interesting or convincing; it's entirely too nostalgic and unrealistic for me. In fact, I'm a bit offended by it, and a lot repelled. It was the last interval before the end of the old order where the underlying ugliness was sufficiently submerged so it could be ignored for purposes of nostalgia. Japan had stagnated under the Shogunate, and it finally was forced to open itself to the world when Commodore Perry visited with an American naval squadron. That started a process which ultimately led to the Meiji Restoration, and to the industrialization of Japan, so that by the 1920's Japan was arguably a "great power" in the world, capable of defeating a European navy in 1905 at Tsushima, and well on its way to creating an overseas empire rivaling those of some European nations. In a lot of ways, the modernization of Japan during the 50 years following the Meiji Restoration was an amazing feat, but it was also uneven; some aspects of Japan were drastically changed, some were not changed at all, and some were distorted in ways which planted the seeds of eventual destruction. In order to make it all happen, the rulers created a distorted version of the Bushido and decided it applied to everyone and not just to the Samurai. It depicted every person in Japan as being totally obligated to serve the Emperor (and his government). It bears more than a passing resemblance to the kind of cult-pseudoreligion which exists in North Korea now that virtually deifies Kim.

The way that era is portrayed in Steel Angel Kurumi and in Sakura Wars: The Movie, is so divorced from reality as to approach hallucination. I suppose I can grant them the technological changes, though they're more than a bit implausible. I understand the concept of suspended disbelief, but when someone changes an assumption I want them to change it all the way, and follow through on its implications. If the kind of alternate technology shown in these was available for production of military equipment, it would affect a lot else. But that's really not the point.

My big problem is that the culture they portray is far too sanitized. Japan in 1925 was nothing like as wonderful a place to live as they are trying to pretend. They're showing it as a golden age, when it was actually a prelude to a nightmare.

There was a brief period in Nazi Germany where things had improved a lot (especially compared to the chaos of the final days of the Weimar Republic) but hadn't quite gotten as ugly as they finally did around 1943. It would be a period of a couple of years around the time of the Berlin Olympics, and it could also be seen in about the way these series' see 1925 Japan. No one does that for 1936 Germany, because they understand how monstrous it really was. The underlying hideousness hadn't really started to express itself, but everyone knows it was there. But Japan remains to this day in almost complete denial about the equivalent underlying ugliness of the old order, especially in the 75 years between the Meiji Restoration and the end of WWII. To this day, a majority of Japanese do not see Japan's involvement in WWII as coming from Japanese imperialism; they see it as a necessary response to American aggression. They see the attack on Pearl Harbor as resulting from an American-organized economic boycott of Japan, but don't in turn understand that the boycott was a response to Japanese aggression against China. And they don't seem to acknowledge the consequences of the imperialism which caused Japan to acquire control over Formosa, Korea, and Manchuria and which eventually led them to attempt to conquer and rule that entire part of the world.

In some ways I find this nostalgia as offensive as I would nostalgia for 1936 Germany, because it exposes what I see as a modern Japanese cultural pathology of denial about its own past. When I see anime depictions of heroic Japanese soldiers in 1925 wearing Army uniforms, I know that the Japanese see the ultimate manifestation and triumph of the old order's martial tradition.

If I saw a heroic depiction of a German soldier of the SS in 1936, in my mind I would also see Dachau and Auschwitz. And when I see depictions in anime of heroic Japanese soldiers in 1925, what I see is the Rape of Nanking.

Students in Japan are not taught about Nanking. They're not taught about how the Koreans and Formosans suffered under Japanese rule. They're not taught about the Bataan Death March, or what Japanese soldiers did in the parts of China they occupied, or about their medical experiments on live prisoners, or any of the other myriad atrocities big and small committed by Japanese soldiers and the Japanese government. They don't learn about what Japan did to pacify Korea after taking control there.

1925 Japan is shown to be prosperous, influential, industrially powerful which are all true but also as virtuous and heroic and free and culturally diverse, which is much less realistic. Sakura Wars includes foreigners in its heroic group of girls and thus totally ignores the cultural chauvinism and racism which dominated Japan at the time. And these series don't show what contemporary life was like in Japanese-ruled Korea and Formosa (Taiwan), both of which were ruthlessly exploited in order to help maintain that wonderful situation in Japan. They don't show the secret police in Japan, or the censorship and propaganda, or the pervasive indoctrination of all Japanese regarding the cult (my term) of the Emperor.

They don't talk about Japan's "government by assassination". They don't show how the Army had effectively taken control of the nation in all but name by then, abusing a rule in the constitution which gave the Army effective power of veto over the civilian government through its ability to bring down any ruling coalition any time it wanted. And if any politician, whether MP or minister, was too vocal in advocating policies the Army didn't like, he was likely to be visited by a group of mid-level Army officers, in something essentially identical to what in another time and place was called a "death squad", with identical results.

By the 1920's the civilian government in Japan could only rule as long as it did what the Army wanted, and individual civilian leaders could only stay alive by toeing the Army's line. By the late 1930's Japan had abandoned the pretense of civilian rule entirely, and the prime minister was an Army officer. But even as early as 1910, Japan was for all intents and purposes a military dictatorship.

The old order was shattered by the Japanese defeat in WWII, and no one today in Japan seriously proposes reviving it. But even this kind of nostalgia bothers me. There was much to admire about that era (and I do admire much about them), but there was also much to despise. I wish the Japanese were more realistic about it.

I guess it's the nature of nostalgia that we sanitize the past. The era embraced by the SCA was nothing like they way they pretend it was. Everyone in the SCA seems to be a noble of some kind, but life for even the nobles was much less pleasant than most of them think, and life for the majority who served the nobles as de facto slaves was extremely hard and unpleasant, and usually not very long.


One of the reasons SAK didn't quite work is that the episodes fit into 15 minute blocks instead of 30 minutes, and it's pretty hard to fit a good story into a space that small. They did the best they could, I guess, but they feel like snacks, not like meals. But the series concept itself seems weak to me; I am not sure it would have worked (for me) even in 30 minute episodes. And ultimately I can't really get over my knowledge of what Japan was really like at the time.

I thought that Sakura Wars: The Movie was visually wonderful, mixing computer-generated and hand-drawn art pretty well. On the other hand, the idea of a performing group being used as a cover for a secret fighting organization, with the girls acting in plays and musicals and also saving the nation in their mecha, was absurdly implausible. If robot maid/slaves like May and Mahoro and Kurumi play to adolescent male fantasies, it's clear that the lead characters in Sakura play to adolescent female fantasies, even to the implausibly colorful military uniforms they wear.

They're what military uniforms would look like if 13-year-old girls ran the world. These are not dress uniforms; the girls in this image are minutes away from going into combat. But I don't share those adolescent female fantasies. (I may still be adolescent, but I was never female.) Combined with my ongoing "yeah, right" reaction to the technology and my fundamental revulsion at their portrayal of the era, in the end I have no urge to watch any more of the series.

Mahoromatic: Mahoromatic, on the other hand, has hooked me. I picked up three DVDs at Fry's a couple of weeks ago. There are six total, two series of three DVDs each. But they're not labeled clearly, and I ended up with disks from both series without realizing it. I've watched the first disk of the second series, and have ordered the others so I can watch the entire thing. (The sixth DVD will be released in December.)

Mahoro is another robot maid, but she's not a slave. She is a combat unit which was created by a hidden group called Vesper to fight against an invasion by a group of aliens known as Saint, and was reaching the end of her service life. If she had remained in service she would have ceased functioning in about a month, but was told that if most of her weaponry was removed she would last 398 days, so Vesper offered her the choice of retirement, which she took. That apparently involved going to work for Suguru, a teenage orphan, and I'm sure that's going to be explained on DVD #1 which I'll watch when it arrives.

The series is a comedy with a lot of action and a lot of jiggle. It's farce. But it feels strange as farce because at the end of each episode there's a brief caption shown telling how many days Mahoro has remaining. Farce is supposed to feel light and airy; how can you feel light and airy about a series when you know one of the characters you like will die soon?

Nothing explicitly says this was OVA, but it must have been because there's a lot in it I can't believe could be present in a broadcast series. Mahoro works for Suguru but is not really enslaved to him, and continues to be peripherally involved in the war, continuing to fight but without her previous built-in armament.

There are a lot of breast jokes. There's a teacher with huge tits who's not so much a villain as a comic foil, and Mahoro has small breasts and feels inadequate. There are three girls in Suguru's high school class going through that period girls go through when their breasts are growing and they don't know how big they'll get; from what I've read on some women's blogs, it's a very challenging time. (Boys go through related anxieties; I can relate.) The closing credits run over a cartoonie animation of those three girls singing an upbeat song (to music which is sort of like a calypso march) which begins with a lot of platitudes about having a positive outlook on life but then turns out to be about how every girl should have a positive outlook about her developing bustline. And Mahoro orders something from a catalog...

It may have been a mistake for me to dive into the middle of the series; there are things I am forced to take for granted which probably were explained earlier, so I don't know if the backstory will turn out to be as crisp and tight as Noir or resemble the fractured mess of Hand Maid May. I don't really care, though; I like the characters and I like the animation and I like the storytelling style and the fan service ain't at all bad. Some parts of it approach Excel Saga-like frenzy, and no one who has seen this DVD will fail to giggle when hearing the words "booby missiles".

[No. I won't explain. I refuse. You can't make me. I won't talk about them.]

Louie the Rune Soldier: It's another harem-comedy, and in some ways it feels kind of like a cross between Those Who Hunt Elves and Love Hina, except that it's different from both,

Captured by MemoWeb from on 9/16/2004