It’s Allegory: The Decline and Fall of the British Gundam

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‘Allegory’ is a word I hesitate to employ. Understandably, it is often used loosely on the internet, to mean something like ‘metaphorical’. I personally prefer to reserve it for a certain type of storytelling, and it’s a type which is relatively rare in anime. (Though perhaps more common in anime than in a lot of art after the ‘Rise of the Novel’.) It’s a kind of complex, extended and (over)developed metaphor or set of symbols which say something.

Frequently, allegory becomes so overtly symbolic that it ceases to feel like a normal story. The Bouge of Court, for example, has a set of characters named ‘Disdayne’, ‘Ryott’, ‘Suspycyon’ and so on, and it’s much more worthwhile to read their behaviour and speeches as examinations of the things they embody rather than as revelations of normal fictional character; Suspycyon’s eyes roll and his hands shake not because of some motive peculiar to him as a person (for he isn’t a person) but because (I think) the poem’s pointing out what suspicion does to anyone.

This sort of thing is, as I said, fairly rare in anime; Gluttony, Lust and Envy from Fullmetal Alchemist spring to mind, and Infinite Ryvius is (among other things) a sustained political allegory. (Is the Ryvius a Ship of Fools?) Another place where we can find something approaching allegory is Mobile Fighter G Gundam – yes, despite the fact that it’s a childish show about large robots, fighting. Or perhaps because it’s a childish show about large robots, fighting: allegory loves reductive simplicity.

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What the well-dressed Fighter should be wearing this season

G Gundam tells the story of a super robot tournament, held every four years, in which each nation is represented by a Gundam. The country which wins the tournament proceeds to rule everyone else until the next competition. It’s a kind of organised, geopolitical sporting violence (and I do wonder if it’s a larger-scale allegory, too). Focusing on a participating country for the brief time of one episode and having that country represented by (usually) one Gundam, one landmark and one pilot obviously clears the way for some crudely reductive national stereotyping (see, for example, Mexico’s Tequila Gundam or France’s Gundam Rose, and don’t get me started on the pilots). Usually these reductions of an entire nation to the form of one character and one mecha are downright innaccurate. But when Domon Kasshu visits a post-apocalyptic London in the ninth episode, we’re treated to an uncanny allegory of British 20th Century history.

Neo England (which presumably means that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are separate states in the Future Century)¹ is represented in the Gundam tournament by the (please don’t laugh) John Bull Gundam (John Bull is a personification of England and sometimes the UK as a whole, invented in 1712), which appears to wear a bearskin like a member of the Foot Guards.² The John Bull Gundam is piloted by Gentle Chapman. (We might note that his first name constitutes the first two syllables of that dangerous term, ‘gentleman’, and that his surname means ‘trader’.)

Gentle Chapman is a three-times former champion, a very impressive record which presumably means that Neo England was in charge of the world for twelve years straight. But his long fighting career has taken its toll and he now relies on powerful, adictive stimulants to keep him in condition. Even this is not enough: without his knowledge, his wife Manon uses fog generators and an army of remote-controlled Casshing Mobile Suits to help him win. In his effort to carry on punching above his weight, he becomes a jaded, pill-popping, inadvertantly-cheating, generally less-than-human figure.

Debt

However, help is on the way in the form of (this being G Gundam) manly mecha battles. By finally being decisively defeated at the hands of Neo Japan’s Shining Gundam, Gentle Chapman is freed from the burden of his past successes and offered a chance at rehabilitation. [He re-enters the plot in unhappy circumstances later in the story too, but I don't want to spoil that for myself by researching it before I have seen the relevant episodes.]

If we wish to read this allegorically, then Chapman and the John Bull Gundam must represent Britain. His status at the beginning of the episode is perhaps analogous to the British Empire in 1921: geographically at its greatest height, but already exhausted and difficult to hold together. Britain became reliant on financial stimulants – whopping great loans from the USA – to fight its wars and, just as Chapman suffers the side effects of his drugs, Britain struggled to service the ensuing national debt. And, as far as I can see, the assistance of the Casshings could neatly stand in for the (indispensible) help of the then-Dominions (thanks, guys) in those same wars.

As for Chapman’s way out – his defeat at the hands of Kasshu – I would connect this to the unpleasant period during the latter half of the century when Britain was ‘the sick man of Europe’, as we discovered that our coal and steel didn’t sell and that the Japanese made better, cheaper cars (and, it would seem, better Gundams too). This all culminated in the unpleasantnesses of the late 70s (such as the Winter of Discontent) and early 80s (Thatcherism may have been necessary, but it was evidently rather painful).³ I’m quite glad that I managed to avoid most of this era by virtue of not being alive at the time.

Whether or not the ninth episode of G Gundam was intended by Gobu to be an allegory, I don’t know. But, whether it’s designed or not, it seems to carry a rather pointed message: when your power has waned, it’s best to downsize quietly rather than trying to hold on and embarassing everyone concerned like an incontinent elderly relative.

Notes

1. I realise that this is almost certainly actually another example of the use of ‘England’ to refer to the United Kingdom as a whole (I recall with horror a Negima character asking ‘Wales is in England, right?’), but I’m trying to work with the canon rather than criticise it. Incidentally, the fact that Marina had to visit Edinburgh to beg for aid in the eighth episode of Gundam 00 suggests that Scotland is independent – within the AEU, of course – in 00‘s canon too.

2. In the dub, the John Bull Gundam was renamed the ‘Royal Gundam’. Royals entering combat? Surely not.

3. To the end of her days, the richer and more peaceable of my two grandmothers refused to even say ‘Thatcher’, and I know people – mainstream, non-socialist people – who are incapable of voting Conservative ever again. Or, to give a more general picture, there’s a play – and a beercalled ‘Maggie’s End’ in, I think, a celebratory spirit.

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7 responses to “It’s Allegory: The Decline and Fall of the British Gundam

  1. I quite enjoyed Infinite Ryvius, but what’s this about sustained political allegory? Rarely do I notice these things. (I have my doubts that this episode was supposed to be allegorical too, because I rarely like to give credit for deep metaphor unless it’s blatantly obvious, but you have made a good case.)

    What other allegories have I seen…actually, I think large parts of FMA are pretty good at that. Scar and his whole deal, for starters. Problems in the middle east?

  2. (excuse double post) Does Princess Tutu qualify?

  3. How do you reconcile allegory with metafiction in anime/manga nowadays? I’m talking about the story within a story type of metafiction, notable examples of late being True Tears and ef — both of which you haven’t seen, I think!

    Clannad has a straightforward allegory going with the “other world” and the robot made of junk and the girl in her nightgown, but since you haven’t seen that either…

    Kimikiss has this too, and I was wondering if this would qualify the statement that “all anime metafictions are allegorical.”

    Earlier examples include Chobits (which I found rather gag-inducing) and Karekano (used to great effect, I mean, heck, an entire volume was used).

  4. @ Shiri: As I read it (and it could be I’m going too deep) the Ryvius forms a state in microcosm (since it’s playing on Lord of the Flies in any case), with the Vital Guarder and its operators as the state military, Zwei (initially) as a ruling elite, and the kitchen girls and mechanics as a kind of proletariat. The various systems of captainship that the Ryvius passes through are fairly obvious takes on different political systems and the series carefully (perhaps too carefully) points out some problems with each one.

    And yes, this episode of G Gundam might not be intentionally allegorical. I suppose allegory can happen accidentally.

    As for Princess Tutu, I haven’t seen it but from reading its wikipedia entry I’d guess quite possibly. If it’s just the role of ballet, however, I’d say it’s more of an overarching metaphor with one specific symbol rather than complex set of symbols related to one another.

    @ Owen: Do you mean metafiction as in a story-within-a-story or as in a story about story(writing)? If it’s the former, then certainly stories-within-stories can be allegorical, although the allegorical meaning may only apply to the world of the anime: the novel in ef (I would guess) and Hamlet’s play adaption in Hamlet both have applications for the characters within the story but not so directly for the audience (unless your uncle has killed your father, but if that’s the case you’ve other problems).

    An interesting example would be Gekigangar 3, Martian Successor Nadesico‘s meta-anime: the characters explicitly and consciously draw moral messages from the anime they’re watching, and use it allegorically, but I’m not sure it qualifies as allegory in and of itself. But then, of course, a show-within-a-show probably isn’t meant to be read in isolation but as part of the larger story. But arguably the whole Nadesico story uses Gekigangar 3 to stand for engrossing fiction of all kinds and offers an allegorical argument against adopting fiction as the key determining force for your moral code.

    Damn this is complicated. Hmm. As for whether ‘all stories-within-an-anime are allegorical (at least to some degree)’, possibly. Given that the a story-within-a-story is always there because the creator wanted it there, I suppose we’re instinctively built to read the story-within-a-story as a comment on the main story. Of course I find the role of the creators’ intentions troubling, but that’s another story . . .

  5. Pingback: I’ve come here to post updates and kick ass and I’m all out of updates « The Moral Anti-Realist

  6. gundam g is cool…

    this is my favorite movie….

    i like it…
    even though it’s old already…

  7. Age should never impede affection for a good anime, if you ask me.

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