This one is an old article that I wrote for an anime awareness club and published it in my blog.
Manga (or Japanese comics) are a very hot source of entertainment and enjoyment among teenagers all around the world today. Even in this age of the television and the Internet, manga remains a very popular source of pleasure for teens of the 21st century. But manga is often much more than just a means of enjoyment. Sometimes, manga may have deeper, more profound meanings. This essay will attempt to uncover just one facet of these interpretations: America, as seen through manga’s – and thus Japan’s – eyes.
Now, firstly one must consider the fact that America has historically been very important to Japan. It was Matthew Perry, a citizen of the USA, who opened Japan after nearly 200 years of complete isolation from all external interference. After this, America and Japan continued to be the very best of friends. Except for the period of the Second World War, this warm relationship was maintained by both sides.
But there was also a reason for Japan to follow the US this way. That reason lay in the coming of Perry’s fleet. The Americans were the first foreigners that the Japanese had seen (other than the cloistered Dutch on Deshima). These men impressed the Japanese by their physical strength and seemingly insurmountable power. It is not surprising that they were regarded almost as gods from another realm, gods who would liberate Japan from the crutch of backwardness.
Here we will be examining only three manga for an illustration of the above premise. First, let us lookat a Masamune Shirow classic manga, Appleseed.
The general story line of the manga follows a post-apocalypse world where numerous terrorists strive to survive and soldiers attempt to keep the peace. A great agency called Aegis is created after nuclear warfare wipes out many nations, to keep the peace. Run by a genetically-manufactured race of super-humans called bioroids, the only mission Aegis has is keeping the peace. To do this, they have begun recruiting super-warriors from “the badside” as they call it. Among them are the main protagonists of the story: Deunan Knute, a female super-soldier and her cyborg companion Briareos. From there, the story moves on to document many social and philosophical that ring very true, even in today’s age of imperfect states.
However, Appleseed is unique in the fact that it is a truly international manga, and attempts to be cosmopolitan in its scope. This is where we find allusions to America as the Other Great Nation. Throughout the manga, we find allusions to “Imperial Americana” which seems to occupy enough territory to qualify as an empire. Aegis is shown to be supporting this state (or the other way round; there is little evidence to support either contention). In between long statements about the geopolitical condition of the world, we find the protagonists speaking of Imperial Americana that reminds one of the times during the Cold War, when the West saw America as the savior of humanity. Sure, some characters do criticize Americana’s policies, but these become just sidetracked threads by the time Volume 3 of the series comes around. We see in the very beginning the devastated New York City, where a battle has recently been fought. In fact, one of the characters comments on this very fact:
“So this is the Big Apple…You’d never think the Federated USSR
and Imperial Americana were slugging it out in Baltimore.”
Apparently the USA and USSR have returned to their long-standing war. Here the tone is one of “Oh-no-Russia-is-up-to-it-again”. Again, in Volume 4 we find allusions to the new Imperial capital at Los Angeles and its huge bureaucratic system. Here again, the US is popularized, though in a subtle way.
Now let us look at another Masamune masterpiece: Ghost in the Shell. This tale also bears some similarity to Appleseed in that this too is a cautionary tale set in the future, where World War III has been fought, and nuclear holocaust has wiped out almost half of the world. Very few humans survive; most nations now depend on cyborgs for regular functioning. It is through the eyes of a crack team of counter-terrorists, led by the dynamic and seemingly immortal Major Motoko Kusanagi, that the story has been narrated. Now, many have complained that GitS (as it is lovingly called by fans) is politically sterile. However, one finds no evidence that it is. Here, too, the common thread is the presence of Imperial Americana which seems to be the friend and protector of Japan (the only nation which has survived the holocaust). In the second season of the anime series, we see Imperial submarines heading toward Japan to prevent cyber-terrorists from taking over the reins of power.
My last example of America as seen through manga shall be Mai the Psychic Girl, the highly popular manga from the 90s. This manga is unique in that for the first time we have a negative portrayal of an American character. This is personified by the wicked scantily-clad psychic Turm, called in specially from the US to find and defeat Mai. Throughout the series we see Turm become more and more evil, performing deeds so heinous that she cannot be loved by any reader, much less any character in the manga. Tall, blond, and deadly, she is every hero’s nightmare: a ruthless foe that never lets up, and gives no quarter. Thus Turm becomes the first American portrayed in a negative light by a Japanese, all the more surprising because an American character is always an observer, or at least a lawgiver, reflecting Japan’s psychological indebtedness to the US.
There is no doubt that in all these instances, an American character has, in some way, been the pivotal character (except perhaps Masamune’s mangas). There have also, however, been many portrayals of Americans in supporting roles, so to speak. For example, Lucy Winrad’s character in the Midori no Hibi manga series plays a small but quite meaningful role, pushing Midori and her love Seiji together. Another example is Yakitate! Japan’s Monica Adenauer, who becomes so enamored of Kai Suabara that she agrees to leave everything behind in order to help him. These instances, though perhaps not large enough to justify a paragraph, nevertheless justify the view of America through manga – and thus Japan’s – eyes.