Much of modern Japanese culture is created with respect to the feelings of the writers' and artists' opinions and thoughts on war. The most visible media of Japanese art in this cultural epoch are anime
which have become, in this past two decades or so, a juggernaut within American culture. Japanese figure drawing informs much of the art being created on this side of the Pacific. It is important then, that Americans take this medium seriously and try to gauge its merits. And it also gives us an ear in the conversation that has been fought in Japan for the past 60 years over War, Masculinity, Honor
Anime and its sister Manga spend a great deal of time thinking about the subject of fighting and conflict. Series after series centers around brave young men going off to fight for their ideals. I shall endeavor here to explore the subject of war in a variety of series. Famous and basic examples are the various Gundam series, Full Metal Panic and Naruto. But the spectrum extends into very dark territory with series such as Saikano and Gantz. In western media terms Gundam is to Star Wars, as FMP is to 24, as Naruto is to TMNT, as Saikano is to Hellboy, as Gantz is to Spiderman, Catcher in the Rye, and A Clockwork Orange.(And Tits) All of these provide subtly differing theses on all of these topics and have just as many aims.
Before reading further I must warn that herein lie SPOILERS! for all the series mentioned.
War for Boys!
Naruto and similar stories center on young men who have no compunction about fighting who go forth to become more powerful, who may be fighting to save their friends but know that in order to achieve their goals they must become as powerful as they possibly can and then go further. These men are vital and have the ability to stand up after taking the beating of a lifetime and exhausting all their power and taking on their opponent more powerful than ever. Characters like Naruto or Ichigo or Luffy need no motivation to fight and will launch themselves into danger with a smile on their face. But in the end they always save their friends and always win against adversity. A message for young boys who do not need to know that they are capable of failure or boredom. Get beat up, laugh, eat and stand back up.
War for Teenagers!
Series like Gundam have a fairly simple thesis: sometimes it is necessary to fight and fighting with wisdom and honor will bring us to victory and perhaps even peace. Almost every Gundam series is the same. A sensitive boy, maybe 16 years old, is forced to go to war because he is uniquely suited to fight using horribly beweaponed suits of armor. War has come about because two or more nations with numerous reasons to despise each other have finally come to the point that they are openly at war. The reasons behind the war are many and varied. The space colonies demand independence or the vast colonial empire wishes to have dominion over Earth or the colonies and Earth are embroiled in a terrible ethnic conflict sparked by nuclear weapons. Always many thousands of innocents have been murdered by war and at the center of the conflict is a young man who must become the crux of his time. This young man makes friends, finds love, and learns to fight and learns why he must fight. The end product of the dialogue on war is that you fight in order to protect. Your 10 meter laser sword is a shield for those you love. I am not giving Gundam a full explanation, often these series center on this amazing boy's failures and blaming himself for the horrible murder of his friends.
In Full Metal Panic and other similar series the world is darker. The hero is young and male but his strengths do not save his friends and all the assurance he had as a boy that he could not fail has been taken from him. Sagara has been fighting since he was very young, but unlike Naruto, he is not a jovial ninja who goes forth into battle, he is a soldier through and through. If you can imagine what adult men become after a few years of combat in Iraq become, imagine a child soldier who has never stopped fighting. FMP is the story of a young fighter who is thrown into peace and finds he must still fight. Sagara begins the series as a soldier who finds himself in a normal life. He falls in love, goes to school and is placed into a situation where his training is a liability to the safety of those he loves. His ability to fight, the weaponization of his mind, makes him unable to protect. The series celebrates his heroism but centers on his conflict with the dark world that he was born from.(Though, like Gundam, this is a very short appraisal and a further exploration of the contrasting themes in FMP would be interesting) To fight is necessary if you are to save what you love but war threatens to make you unable to go to peace.
War for..Oh god the pain, MY LEGS!
Saikano takes a far darker and less pro-military stance. The protagonist of this story is a boy with no power whatsoever. He finds himself in the strange position of being in love with the soldier. His girlfriend, Chise, as it happens is a horribly beweaponed cyborg. At peace she resembles a humble, small, slightly sickly girl, when activated she is capable of razing continents to the ground. The series centers in many ways on Shuji watching his life fall apart as the woman he loves destroys humanity. Shuji watches war rip his peaceful city apart. His friends are killed: one by a bombing, another by earthquake, another by Chise herself as she destroys yet another city where invaders have a foothold. He has many conversations with them as the world falls apart. One friend goes to war, believing that in doing so he'll be protecting the girl he loves. Shuji rejects this, "You do not go to war to protect, you go to war to KILL." Shuji does not go to war as the world is destroyed, instead he runs, he tries to save Chise, to keep her from bringing about destruction but ultimately he cannot take her life and spare what is left of humanity. The world is destroyed and all that is left is Shuji and his love. The series is a damning critique: both beautiful and horribly tragic.
Finally, and perhaps most dark, is Gantz which is both indirect and direct in its contemplation of war and youth, masculinity and heroism. Gantz is, in western terms, the story of Holden Caulfield and his old friend Peter Parker being conscripted into a mysterious organization made up primarily of FPS fans to fight aliens with a platoon made up of Alex and his Droogs, motorcycle gangs, grandparents and Lara Croft. Gantz has no particular love of its characters, the entire cast is killed off at one point, save the main character. The characters are forced by certain death to fight powerful forces, to go out and kill with almost no information and no training. Gantz explores all of the above themes, simultaneously. The characters have no choice but to fight and kill perfect strangers for no reason. War is not something they have any control over. Despite this the characters find themselves learning to be heroes or villains. They want to survive at least and as the series continues this becomes increasingly hard. Death is almost certain. Heroism does not equate to survival. Of any other anime or manga I have seen or read, none so completely explores and destroys the stereotypes of its style.(also contains tits)
War, what is it good for?
The Japanese fought a war, a terrible war against a large power because it thought it would be protected by the power of its destiny as a world power. EMPIRE! The men who fought that war were all the boys who could hold a rifle straight(ish) and almost all believed quite completely that they were morally justified, going off to fight and defend their homeland, to stop those horrible gaijin from raping their delicate mothers and wives(since 3 days before shipping off). They fought, they killed and they died in huge numbers. The survivors were rewarded by the first, and thankfully only, practical use of nuclear weaponry and the defeat of the past few decades propaganda about manifest destiny.
And then they came home. And in their defeat they wondered what it was that possessed them to go off and fight and heroically throw themselves on their own grenades. What has resulted is a strange combination of distaste for war, creating the most stable and peaceful nation on the planet, and a slight obsession with military hardware and fighting. A juxtaposition of thousands of years of martial tradition and 60 years of partly self-imposed peace. Perhaps this should not be so surprising, Japanese culture provides a safe space to explore all of these themes because they do not have a modern experience of war. War happens far away, so it will always be interesting to depict war occurring on Japanese soil. In that Americans have a great deal in common with the Japanese, no significant military action has really happened on US soil since the Civil War. Many American men and now women have experienced war, but the past few generations have experienced war thousands of miles away across the ocean. Peace is rampant in America today but unlike Japan, Americans are currently seeing action so we don't need to fantasize about war when we can document it. In many ways this explains why anime is popular in the United States.
There is much more that can be explored in anime. It is a literary medium like any other but its style and exoticism gives us a unique insight. America has very few serious cartoons, like Anime they are mostly informed by the graphic novels that have evolved side by side with manga here in the States. But no animated series seeks to adapt classic works of fiction like Gankutsuou does for Le Comte d'Monte Cristo or explore deep science fiction like Planetes does for space travel or Ghost in the Shell does for cybernetics and information technology.