Kummen: Needs More Dith Pran

(Contains spoilers; if you wish to avoid them, the same stretch of anime is reviewed here. I think I may finally have learned how to spell ‘Ogiue’ now.)

We see a small boat putt-putt-puttering its way in midstream, while the men onboard lie about, sweating in the sun. They heft guns, looking bored; one man casually applies the burning end of his cigarette to a leech. Complaints about the boat’s progress bounce back and forth, though the external heat seems to have taken any fire out of the complaints themselves. Someone stands up, leans back, stretches – and is promptly hit by a swarm of bullets from the bank.

Everyone scrambles for cover. The boat speeds up. A cry rings out: ‘the Veela guerrillas!’ The passengers return fire with their weapons. Chirico Cuvie, meanwhile, races to the bow of the boat and assembles a flamethrower, which he turns on the passing undergrowth. The last shot before we cut to the episode title is the still image of an emotionless Chirico outlined against a background of smoke and fire.

This is our introduction to Kummen, split by a civil war (which larger powers are meddling in). And it screams ‘Nam, doesn’t it? VOTOMS keeps hitting the same notes with its images for the rest of the arc: helicopters lift Armoured Troopers over the jungle, tense infantrymen search a village for Veela, a guerrilla sneaks into a club where pilots are relaxing and leaves a suitcase bomb, napalm is used liberally, Borough the military adviser brings with him top-of-the-range equipment and highly-trained super-soldiers, &c, &c

(Last time I wrote about VOTOMS I noted that, in the DVD commentary, Takahashi mentions the Rambo franchise as a possible influence. He also mentions Takeshi Kaiko, not another director or an animator, but a novelist who worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam, and was noted for his opposition to Japan’s support for US policy in Indochina.)

Gundam likes to plug itself into history too.

Yet (as with the relationship between Code Geass‘s Britannia and Real Life‘s United States) we musn’t be reductive. This is science fiction, and entertainment: Stealing ideas from history is a key technique. And I must admit I’ve been unfair, because I’ve only mentioned features of the war in Kummen (mostly visual details) that suited the Vietnam comparison. In my defence, I’ll say that I was trying to replicate the viewer’s experience of the Kummen arc: you notice the war’s imagery before you find out the facts of the conflict.

Let’s consider those facts: the war in Kummen is between two factions, one which wants to modernise the country, and the Veela, or the Holy Kingdom of Kummen, who oppose industrialisation (some of them feel personal loyalty to Kanjelman too). This isn’t that close to the situation of the Vietnam War. Moreover, one of the combatants is named Pol Potaria. Despite the name, he’s not an unpleasant man, but by recalling Pol Pot the name itself throws up two more historical conflicts: the insurgency (if that’s the right word) which took the Khmer Rouge to power, and the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.

(Kanjelman is an interesting study. In the twenty-fourth episode he reveals that he doesn’t mind losing his war. In fact, it seems to have been – to him – an exercise in dialectics applied to the real world: he wasn’t interested who won, so long as one side won and permanently altered the state of Kummen. To this end he tries to make sure that as many of his troops as possible die along with him, to ensure as clean a political slate for the victors as possible.)

Pol Potaria is a strong supporter of the industrialising faction, who bears a personal grudge against Kanjelman. I’m told that the Khmer Rouge’s own ideology was almost the opposite of industrialisation: a ‘back to the land’ movement. It may be that the conflict in Kummen maps neatly on to a particular episode of Indochinese history – I can’t tell, as that history is a closed book to me – but the Kummen arc certainly isn’t just ‘the Vietnam War, with mecha’. I suspect that the Kummen conflict resembles several different wars, and that we read Vietnam into it because that’s what we’re familiar. In fact, Takeshi’s own remarks on the subject are a response to a leading question from his interviewer: ‘many viewers in the US see your work and say it reminds them of Vietnam . . .’

‘Reductive’ sums up the loathing I feel for the act of reducing a fictional story to a mere reflection of historical events: reading the war in Kummen as ‘Vietnam with mecha’ means losing the nuances of conflict between tradition and industry. As unpleasant, and perhaps more worrying, is the reduction of history to fiction: turning the conflict in Vietnam into the sum of all the impressions we’ve picked up from films, books, television &c, (including VOTOMS), which play with it.

This is why I wrote ”Nam’ in my third paragraph: the casual monosyllable contrasts well with the carefully neutral (if colourless) phrase ‘the conflict in Vietnam’, and by saying ”Nam’ I wanted to bring in all the cultural stuff built around the war as well as the war itself. Here we come up against the fact that (if you’ll excuse me pontificating), while history as an academic discipline has lost some of its old lustre of truth in recent decades, ‘history’ as a word involves actual events. The theorist in me is interested in the division between Dith Pran and Haing S. Ngor, but the human in me is more interested in what both of them did – and what was done to them.

12 responses to “Kummen: Needs More Dith Pran

  1. The take on visual detail is highly dependent on one’s background. My first thought at seeing a picture above was: “My, these guys look much happier than their prototypes did at Stalingrad”. BTW, check out the final episodes of Kokoro Toshokan for lulz. The level of detail was striking, down to the roundlets on the stock of 98k’s, yet funnily enough they kept it enough out of focus not to show what exactly the eagle was holding in its claws on the insignia.

  2. History only loses the lustre of truth if you look at the recent history or look at events were the two opposing sides are still in opposition and have a vested interest in preserving their version of events. The history of the Cultural Revolution, for example, is not at this point definitive and so long as the CCP is there the whole truth may never be known, out side the fact that it was an unmitigated disaster. However if you look at the history of the Eastern Front today the picture is far more clear as the Soviet Archives are open to scholars and something closer to the truth emerges once you compare German and Soviet documents. It also helps that those who fought in the war are old men who have plenty of time to tell their war stories.

    The closer to the present you get the more fraught your picture, hence the Punic Wars would be a less touchy subject than say Vietnam. In the case of Vietnam the popular image has for now eclipsed the actual war given how most people who draw from the Vietnam War often forget the contributions of such nations like South Korea, South Vietnam, and Australia. Who can blame them given how Platoon, Rambo, and Full Metal Jacket are famous productions. The issue is not that the events are forgotten but that in the present remain charged with human passions, even when the participants are all dead so long as there is nostalgia for the lost cause, like in the case of the American Civil War with regards to the South.

    Drawing from history is nothing new, but in my opinion it is better to draw upon something older and less emotionally charged. While fiction is not a mere reflection of history it doesn’t change the fact that history is far more interesting because the actors were actual people whose motivations for doing things range from incredible to out right daft, but nonetheless remain “human”. With historical fiction (or fiction inspired by history) however the use and abuse of TV Tropes will make or break the over all plot. If WWII were an anime I am sure we would be baffled as to why guys like Zhukov and Konev would be taking orders from a man like Stalin.

  3. Dang wish there was na edit fucntion, but…

    -The issue is not that the events are forgotten but that in the present remain charged with human passions, even when the participants are all dead so long as there is nostalgia for the lost cause, like in the case of the American Civil War with regards to the South, an objective analysis of the event will remain slightly out of reach.

  4. @ Author: Affirming the importance of the person looking at the visual detail in determining its meaning, I suppose. And 98ks featured in a show about a remote library? That does sound like something worth watching for lulz.

    @ Crusader: Fair point on the clearing effect of time; I’ve read a few of Antony Beevor’s books and from reading his introductions I’ve received the impression that he wouldn’t have been able to write much without access to those Soviet archives. That said, it sounds like he hasn’t avoided controversy. Vietnam’s a pretty obscure subject to me, as I’ve missed out both on a lot of its presence in popular culture, and on a lot of its history, as the UK wasn’t directly involved. Which may be why I found Kummen so interesting.

    I was thinking more of the way that academic history has been affected by the arrival of Theory with a capital ‘T’ in recent decades: it’s hard for me to find a liberal/left-wing historian who’ll admit to writing about facts. Military historians are a bit of an exception, either because they tend in the UK to be connected to the Establishment, or because it’s hard to be excessively postmodern about death. There’s been a retreat from grand historical narratives into things like microhistory, which does help to dampen down the problems that come with having a grand narrative (the Geoffrey of Monmouth kind of problems), but doesn’t help if you’re writing about a period of history which might actually have a grand narrative to it. But this is all rather disputed, and technically not my business as I’m not a History student.

    As for the superior interest of actual history, I suspect that’s something we disagree on. My father’s fourth career was as a historian, so the subject has always been something I’m meant to rebel against.

  5. I don’t know people like Patton, LeMay, Stalin, and Harris were quite colorful and seem to have more depth than your typical anime character.

    All in all human history is filled with some rather strange moments and colorful people. Russia will have to deal with the issue of their own deeds on the most savage Ostfront sooner or later, even they could not escape the fact that war is hell.

    Fiction usually has to follow its own set of rules of plausibility with instances like Code Geass pushing plausibility to the limit or out right breaking it in some cases. History on the other hand is filled some rather fantastic accidents and happy coincidences. It was after all a French Army Engineer who discovered the Rosetta Stone, and not an archaeologist. Hannibal the Admiral sucked hard compared to Hannibal the General.

  6. “History on the other hand is filled some rather fantastic accidents and happy coincidences.”

    Indeed. I’m sure if someone animated the Hood and Bismarck clash, I reckon Anime fans would probably consider it a bit unrealistic.

    After all, what are the chances of the Hood literally blowing up instantly, the Prince of Wales jamming most of its main battery, and the Ark Royal jamming the Bismarck’s propellers with a dud torpedo all in the matter of a few hours/days.

  7. Animated? It depends on how you play that word. It’s already been ‘animated’ here:

  8. “The Hood found the Bismarck and on that fatal day
    The Bismarck started firing fifteen miles away
    We gotta sink the Bismarck was the battle sound
    But when the smoke had cleared away the mighty Hood went down”

  9. @ Crusader: It’s true that history is an interesting place to visit – as you say, only a fool would suggest that history’s cast were boring people – but I for one would not want to live there. As for story’s problems with plausibility, I think a lot of the time that’s the fault of the viewer/reader rather than the story itself. Given how coincidence-prone real life is, I think people should put up with plot twists a little more.

    @ Anonymous: Wasn’t Hood a pre-Jutland design? If my memory on that is correct, in retrospect her explosion isn’t too odd a coincidence – not that this would necessarily be brought up in an animated adaption of the battle. So yes, it would be pretty hard to believe. And I’m not going to offer any convenient explanations for the jammed propellor.

    I seem to recall that Forester wrote the Bismarck‘s voyage up, and that his book was filmed.

    @ Dorne: I didn’t know the History Channel did things like that. Nice imagery, though I wouldn’t say I liked the narration.

    @ LillePer: And coincidentally, Wikipedia’s article on Johnny Horton has a ‘Coincidences’ section . . .

  10. I think its that in fiction you have to explain most events, history on the other hand, well shit happens. A torpedo jamming rudder is plausible, but reaching out of a bunch of supposedly dirt poor peasants over the interwebs and television is something else. In my experience both the internet and televisions are luxury items I know that media is a powerful tool, but if the audience has no access point then the message will go unheard.

    Plausibility for coincidence is elastic to a degree, far better to use magic if the plot demands a lot of fantastic coincidence than to use science. There is little point to not wanting to live in history though, because you are living it and making it as your live out your life… ;)

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