Dodging Controversial Topics in Anime

Hitler. Genocide. Lebensraum. Swastikas. The Final Solution. Nazi. Mein Kampf. Unit 731. Comfort Women. Colonialism. Ethnic Cleansing. Ubermenschen.

There are a lot of scary words out there. I could keep going for while, but I don’t want to give the impression that I get off on this. The words themselves represent some of the darkest chapters in human history; perpetrated by sick individuals and evil governments. Writing stories about such events can seem daunting. Yet, when done right, such stories can help keep these tragedies alive in people’s memories, or serve to educate those who didn’t live through them.

While anime occasionally attempts to tell such stories, I sense a hesitancy to actually do so with the full context. The most sensitive aspects of these atrocities are often excluded to present a “more palatable” version of actual history. Optionally, this can be done by settling for lazy analogues of real-world people, groups, or events; providing the writers an easy excuse for their historical inaccuracies.

While I greatly enjoyed Izetta: The Last Witch, I do have to acknowledge that it does exactly what I am describing here. The story is very obviously about World War II, the existence of magic notwithstanding. It’s about an autocratic German nation invading all of Europe while being opposed by an allied force. Several historical events line up—they even acknowledge Vichy France—yet we are supposed to not think of Germania as Nazi Germany. That would entail having to think about genocide, the Hitlerjugend, the razzias.

They want to borrow the aesthetics and power of Nazi Germany, without any of the moral baggage tied to it. This leads to silly changes, like tanks with a slightly-altered iron cross on them or changing the infamous Nazi salute to “Sieg Reich”.

It always irks me when I see this happen in anime. Do they think we’re stupid and won’t see through this façade? Do they think people won’t feel uncomfortable with Nazis if they make them say a different catchphrase? I live in a country that fell under Nazi occupation and I’m a lot more bothered when I see media skirt around their crimes. Gaming sorted this out years ago, when Wolfenstein 3D came up with the brilliant plan of letting players go into the Führerbunker to turn literal Hitler into a literal pile of gore.

These kinds of historical simplifications also forego a great opportunity to teach people. Or worse, they could run the risk of misinforming their audience. Germania are still very much the villains in Izetta, but erasing the most heinous aspects of the Nazi ideology turns the anime’s story into a simple conflict over territory. Just another silly, old-timey war over land and resources. Sure Germania started it, but everybody started wars back then. T’was a crazy time.

Now, most people today know enough about World War 2 to realize that there’s more to it than that. But will that still be the case years from now? How many people have skewed understandings of colonialism, the scramble for Africa, the crusades, or the wars of their respective countries, simply because the media they consumed opted for less-confronting takes on human history.

Shout-out to Disney’s Pocahontas for absolutely ruining my understanding of American history for much of my childhood.

That is not to say that I want to obligate every vaguely-historical anime to provide a full lecture. Some series use historical elements simply to flesh out their worlds or provide more comedic takes on them. I wouldn’t ask a comedic anime like Hetalia or Girls und Panzer to discuss the darker aspects of their historical backdrops, just to name some examples. Or ask Familiar of Zero to discuss colonialism because it borrows from European history. Actually, that one gets some points for how it depicts the aristocracy and its relations with the commoners. Some remarkably good historical commentary from a wacky harem anime right there.

My gold standard for historical fantasy is still Valkyria Chronicles. Despite pulling Europe and its factions through an anime-fantasy filter and adding in magic and strange technology, it still obviously leans on World War 2 as a backdrop. It could have gotten away with just not talking about the touchier sides of that history. A lot of other series sure would.

Yet Valkyria Chronicles does talk about it, albeit in its own way. A lot of the first game revolves around the discrimination towards the Darcsen people, who serve as an effective analogue for the Jewish people. They are a distrusted minority, treated poorly for crimes they are said to have committed in the past and because they have their own cultural habits. And yea, the game does deal with the persecution they face under the threat of The Empire—including a mission where you liberate a concentration camp—but it goes so much further.

The game also deals with the discrimination the Darcsen face from the “good” guys. Several characters in the story are openly racist towards them, causing unrest in the ranks. Several of your soldiers can turn out to harbor such sentiments, leading to them performing poorly if they are made to cooperate with Darcsen comrades. This angle adds a lot of depth to the story and characters arcs, while also affecting gameplay directly. It’s a wonderful bit of historical commentary, which asks you to consider why the Jewish people still face persecution today, even after we defeated that nasty Hitler guy for them.

Izetta is still a fine anime, that’s for sure. I just hope that in the future, we’ll see anime be more daring when it comes to historical settings. This medium has a lot of potential for teaching their audience. I learned more about Japanese mythology through anime than I know what to do with. If only it could explore history the same way, without being so awkward about it.

4 thoughts on “Dodging Controversial Topics in Anime

  1. I think one of the reasons anime doesn’t tend to get too detailed about WW2 is because Japan has different creativity laws than what you might find in other countries. Hundreds of years ago Kabuki play writers were banned from writing about real people and current events. So they had to change all the names of the characters and slightly alter the events, but everyone still knew what the play was referring to. Though the modern laws in Japan are a little more flexible, getting into too much detail about a war that Japan participated in could still get an anime studio in a bit of trouble. Japan has very strict slander laws, and a studio could get sued by the Japanese government if they write something that a law maker doesn’t like. Though anime might feature some elements from the European battles of WW2, notice that the Pacific Front is rarely mentioned? One of the reasons is because of slander laws.

    1. Oh that’s interesting. I knew that Japan was skittish about acknowledging its gruesome past, but not that there were actual laws in place. Of course I wouldn’t ask of animation studios to put themselves in legal peril, but I have seen anime and manga that talked more frankly about the horrors of the war, even if few of those ventured into the pacific front. When they do, it’s usually about the horrors inflicted by the West (i.e. Grave of the Fireflies, Barefoot Gen) or Russia (Panorama of Hell).

    2. I didn’t even know that about those slander laws. It’s no wonder you don’t see certain aspects aren’t talked about unless it is about Japan being victims like Grave of the Fireflies, Barefoot Gen, and In This Corner of the World for example to piggyback of what Casper mentioned. Even with Millennium Actress, they only glance over Manchuria (Japan-occupied parts of China) by only saying the place during the backstory, but if you know anything about the Pacific Theater or more specifically the Nanking Massacre, you can see why the animators would be terrified to reference that with the laws you mentioned.

  2. I’m not familiar with the anime you mentioned, but I don’t think anime or animation should swerve away from controversial topics. That form of alteration of history can be problematic especially when it can be interpreted as minimizing or whitewashing. Don’t feel bad about Pocahontas. Even us Americans thought the real-life Pocahontas’s story was like that when we were kids more or less and the Native American community HATES that movie. Then again, most mainstream American studios don’t dare cover certain historical concepts if it makes their country “look bad”. Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation (not the racist silent film from the early 20th century) covered the Nat Turner Rebellion which isn’t taught in schools and that movie got sabotaged with the botched theatrical release and the false rape accusations for the director/actor. I think more movies and series should cover these topics. Even if they don’t involve actual history, they can make parallels with harsh topics to show how depraved humanity can be and not be erased because of stupid laws or bills.

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