(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.)
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.