I was idle, and I thought idly about war and anime. ‘Anime says that war sucks,’ is what I thought first. This seems to be the standard opinion. If it’s deployed, it’s frequently followed by mention of pacifism and the atomic bomb.
The thing is, ‘war sucks’ isn’t directly a pacifist statement. Root canal operations suck, but most people dutifully submit to their dentist’s not-so-tender mercies regardless. Something else needs to be added to the mix to turn ‘war sucks’ into an argument against war’s very existence: the belief that things that suck should be avoided at all costs, perhaps (in which case, no root canal operation for you), or the belief that there is a line of suckiness which must not be crossed — and that war crosses it.
After all, it’s hard to find someone who won’t agree that war sucks. There isn’t (or at least I hope there isn’t!) a vast military-industrial conspiracy of people who sit in smoke-filled rooms planning next year’s conflict, and every soldier I’ve met has made it clear they think war is an unpleasant business. Indeed, in my experience the respectable breed of pacifist is against war because of more sophisticated philosophical or religious convictions than brute hedonism.
You might wonder why this exercises me so much, so perhaps it’s worth explaining that I’m used to hearing grubbier anti-war campaigners who object to certain wars in particular, rather than to war in general. If you listen to their arguments, there’s a worrying tendency to conflate ‘war sucks’ and ‘this particular war really sucks’. It’s this blending that I find especially irritating, though it doesn’t surprise me, since political speechmaking is to clear thought as Nena Trinity is to wedding parties.
Despite its reputation for unremittingly futile violence, different parts of the Gundam franchise (which is of course where all the above was heading) go to different places with ‘war sucks’. Zeta, for example, depicts a very unpleasant conflict, ending on a famously downbeat note, with some reasonable, likeable human beings among the antagonists (alongside some monsters). At the same time, it’s clear that the villains’ plans are Bad and that it will be A Good Thing if the AEUG defeats them. In Zeta ‘war sucks’ but it’s also necessary: we want the AEUG to keep fighting, and to win.
SEED, by contrast, depicts a very unpleasant conflict in which both factions are led by Bad Guys, though again some combatants on both sides are reasonable, likeable human beings. It’s suggested that it will be A Bad Thing if either side wins. In SEED ‘war sucks’ and we want the heroes we see fighting each other to sort out their differences and then do something to sort out the war (by teaming up and shooting things until both sides stop). The war portrayed is futile, but the heroes’ violence is not, at least once they figure out who to shoot. Note that I’m not including SEED Destiny in my thinking here, because Meer’s ass threw SEED‘s Lacus-based value system out of whack.
(I’ve been unfair to the anime I’ve mentioned so far, though I’m hardly the only guilty one. I’ve assumed that each story has a relatively simple message to be extracted. None of these are explicitly didactic: it’s not clear that we’re expected to take these particular fictional wars as models with which to judge all wars, though SEED does feature some sweeping statements which nudge us in that direction. Still, we tend to approach stories hunting for a message, whether or not we’re promised one, so in my defence I shall say that I was simply imitating that mythical creature, the Average Viewer. I’m going to carry on being unfair for the rest of this post.)
I watched 0080: War in the Pocket again before Christmas, because Christmas is coming and 0080 is the best Christmas anime (take that, Itsudatte My Santa OVA!). It’s not perfect, but the only element that seems really deficient to me is the music, and even that has a certain ‘so this is what the late eighties sounded like’ charm to it.
0080‘s hero is (perhaps) Al, an eleven-year-old boy. He could be very annoying — within the story he certainly manages to get on his mother’s nerves — and there are probably viewers who dislike him. I am not one of them: I appreciate Al because he appreciates mecha. I remember having Al’s fascination for large war machines when I was his age. I remember the glee I felt visiting the Tank Museum or Duxford. Al’s interest may be different in its expression, as since there’s a real war going on he can easily acquire actual memorabilia, but it’s similar in kind.
0080 takes Al’s love of war machines (the love that drives the toy sales that in turn fund the whole shebang) and makes it the catalyst for a catastrophe. Al’s concept of heroism, his rose-tinted appreciation of giant robots and perhaps his failure to understand the rules of 0080‘s genre — the Gundam always wins! — propel the story’s other hero, Bernie, towards that catastrophe. This is hardly the only clever thing that 0080 does — it has Bernie sensibly fleeing his responsibilities while wearing sunglasses that make him resemble Quattro (see below, and compare this blog’s banner), for example — but it’s the play on mecha fandom that I find most striking.
I’m a mecha fan like Al, so I’m jolted into an examination of my own attitude to machines and the wars they fight when I watch 0080. What of Britain’s wars, which in my lifetime have been geographically distant enough to feel like quarrels in far away countries between people of whom we know nothing? For some reason, I have a vote despite being chronically ill-informed about anything that really matters — when I’m holding a voting pencil I’m not unlike Bernie cosplaying as the veteran Quattro — so this isn’t as idle a question as it might have seemed when I began.
Because I grew up with war as something that happens somewhere else, and because I’m not a soldier myself, my attitude to war has been forged by experiencing war stories, historical or otherwise, and finding out whether or not I’m able to say ‘I see this, and I still believe some wars can be justified’. (For the record, I do.) Bombing determined the street layout of my home town, I was raised on history and having to repeatedly read the Aenied was one of the defining events of my late adolescence, so 0080 was hardly the first of these self-examinations. It’s just that the presence of robots gets me hard (in this way, not in that way).
In conclusion— actually, I should be honest and admit that there’s not much here to conclude. I’ve learned a little more about myself, and you may or may not have learned something about anti-war rhetoric in Britain, but I don’t feel like I’ve said anything especially incisive about 0080. There is the point that long-running franchises don’t boil down easily — Gundam rarely, if ever, simply says ‘war sucks’, just as there’s a difference between music that seduces because it epitomises culture to those who have none, and music that seduces because of, um, Fold Waves — but anyone could’ve pointed that out. They probably have already.
- Omo once considered the Gundam franchise in the light of the myth of redemptive violence (I don’t understand the myth of redemptive violence, but if you read Wink’s article maybe you will).
- I swiftly dismissed any connection between suffering per se and pacifism (or at least pacifism which I can respect) in this post, and it might be worth reconsidering that in the light of DarkMirage’s comments on pacifism in Japan.
- Oddly for a post involving phallic statuary, Cameron’s lengthy metaphor for the interplay between the media and a government which is fighting a war is probably relevant somewhere along the line.
- This post is in no way endorsed by the Royal British Legion.