The Troubling Relationship Between Anime and Western Viewers

A recent article from syfy.com attempts to highlight a tendency for anime to idealize fascism, but ultimately proves itself an example of Western viewpoints getting in the way of reasonable critique of anime.


It is undeniable that anime has worldwide reach and appeal today. Nearly every country with an established media industry can offer its residents access to a wide variety of anime, not to mention the numerous international broadcasting and marketing services that expose these Japanese creations to a far reaching audience. This has led to an explosive growth of anime fandom, but is a double edged sword in many ways as well. Greater exposure means greater diversity in the values and opinions of viewership, and a greater chance that something will be taken the wrong way.

Before I get too far into this post, I should define some of the terms and clarify my intent:

“Western” refers to pretty much everything outside of Japan, but specifically societies that have a strong leaning against cultures which espouse non-democratic ideals or discourage “modern” social norms. The “Western” culture I’m most familiar with is that of the Unites States (because I live there), so that is the perspective I’ll mostly discuss.

The use of the word “trouble” in my title is pure hyperbole and meant to poke fun at the article I mentioned in the intro. At most the topic of this post is a personal annoyance of mine, but it may have some real significance to the way people watch and think about anime. The level of “troubling” is entirely up to your interpretation.

With that out of the way, the reason I’m writing about this is because of an article I read on syfy.com titled “The troubling relationship between anime and fascism”. The article’s author (Michelle Villanueva) prefaces it by recalling her experience in trying out ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept., the slow burning political intrigue/conspiracy anime from Madhouse in Winter 2017 based on Natsume Ono’s manga of the same name. She explains that she couldn’t finish it, citing the reason as the style of the uniform Jean and the other inspectors wear.

This seemingly superficial reason has a little more depth to it than that, but only a little.  Villanueva explains the similarity between the Inspection Dept. uniforms and that of SS officers in Nazi Germany offended her to the point of dropping the series. She ponders why she felt this way for a couple of brief sentences, and if the reaction is normal. But then she goes on to posit that Nazi themes and/or imagery are all over the place in anime, and spends the rest of her article detailing various examples. These turn out to even more superficial, as does her examination of artistic intent and audience values as it relates to anime.

Image of various ACCA characters in black uniforms holding cake
Sieg heil?

Before I go on, it should be understood that I don’t really care if Villanueva dislikes ACCA or any other anime, nor am I judging whatever reason leads her to come to that decision. What I have a problem with is the knee-jerk tendency to impart personal ideology and cultural beliefs on a work that wasn’t created for a Western audience in the first place. My issue is based around the idea that this kind of sentiment  leads to unfair critique of anime, both as a storytelling medium and a product of a different culture.

To start with the uniforms, Villanueva is simply seeing what she wants to see. Her description reads: “black outfit: stylish and sharp with a hint of red near the shoulders — and echoing an SS uniform.” Forget for a moment that black military uniforms are not uncommon even in democracy loving USA and Britain, and that the splash of red on the arm is the badge of their office rather than a symbol of political ideology. Seen a certain way, the uniform could resemble that of a Nazi SS officer, and depending on one’s sensitivity to this, it might indeed be a breaking point.

But a number of other titles also find their way into her article as a basis for her points, and the intent becomes questionable. For example, she cites Attack on Titan, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Mobile Suit Gundam, as shows depicting either WWII Germany equivalents or fascist powers. Similarly the main characters in Girls und Panzer drive a tank that “used to trundle across the fields of Europe vanquishing everything in their paths.” Villanueva even argues that Food Wars‘ has fascist themes in the elite chefs that cling to traditional techniques and stifle innovation, stretching both the definition of fascism and the validity of her arguments past their limits. Because while it can’t be denied that the themes are there, the reason for them is either left out or misunderstood.

What Villanueva ignores is the thematic value these elements bring to the story. A totalitarian setting is often the perfect starting point for a determined underdog protagonist to uncover what’s wrong with the world and fight to change it. If they’re fighting against a democratically elected government or free society, doesn’t that make them a bad guy? Or since hyperbole is the theme of the day, a terrorist? Having bad guys for good guys to fight isn’t exactly a novel concept and I don’t know why she’s surprised that a regime that most of the world fought against in the 1950s (anime’s nascent period) is used as a model. With regards to Food Wars, almost every show that features a creative genius has them fighting against some manner of traditionalism. Also, the Panzer IV is an awesome tank. Who wouldn’t want to operate it? Even most western fans of history can think WWII German tanks are cool while decrying Nazism.

Girls und Panzer clip with two german tanks fighting each other
There’s nothing wrong with this. Fight me.

Indeed, Villanueva herself invalidates whatever point she’s reaching for by explaining that the protagonists in these shows fight against the fascists (or simple traditionalists) that oppose them. Unfortunately she backpedals immediately after with an entirely different point about problems arising when people glorify or cosplay as “evil characters,” hearkening back to her reason for dropping ACCA – She doesn’t want to see people cosplaying as the Inspectors.

The thing is, if her issue with the uniform was just her personal observation and reaction, she could have just decided it wasn’t for her and moved on. Instead Villanueva searches for implied intent, applying pure conjecture on the mangaka’s thought process on the uniform design, and dubious conclusions based on Japan’s history as a former imperialist nation, to suggest that Fascism is a prevalent aspect of their fiction. She writes as if Natsume Ono had even considered her Western viewpoint when drawing ACCA, and that cosplayers who like her characters are idolizing Nazism somehow.

I won’t dive into a discussion about Japan’s imperialist period (hard though it is for me to resist being baited into historical exposition), or a political diatribe on nationalist trends in various countries, but to me this article seems more inspired by Villaneuva’s personal experience than an objective study of anime. A number of points allude to her feelings on the alt-right, including a paragraph on how many of them use moe girls as online avatars. I’ll have to take her word for it since I tend to avoid both moe otaku and the alt-right alike. I guess some alt-righters like anime too, but her “analysis” of why they like these characters, and its relation to ideals purportedly pushed by Japanese society, is simply more conjecture. It’s a conclusion formed out of disdain and personal conviction rather than any actual research.

A line that Villanueva uses near the end summarizes the spirit of her article and my problem with it:

“It only seemed as if the manga creator just liked the aesthetic, and perhaps, like in those memes, there’s a fun sense of irony in the dissonance between sympathetic characters and SS-esque uniforms. But irony, in this current political climate, is dead.”

It might be dead in the United States. It might be dead just to her. I’m fairly sure she has no idea if it’s dead in Japan, assuming that political irony is even intended in Ono’s character designs. Villanueva’s feelings on the alt-right may be valid, but her article is at best a projection of those feelings on an undeserving target, and at worst a soapbox for her agenda with a clickbait title. People have every right to dislike what they want, but it becomes problematic when one adopts a “you should know better” stance against a work or author while working with very incomplete knowledge themselves.

Is Japan largely a homogeneous and socially conservative nation? Sure, but it’s a different place, full of different people, who think about things differently than Westerners. It’s arrogant to claim that you understand the society without living in it, and plainly ignorant to claim that it idealizes fascism based on your own Western values. And besides, whatever Japan’s conservative leanings are, authors and artists push social boundaries all the time. The handful of anime non-examples that Villanueva provides doesn’t (by her own admission) show a trend toward fascist ideology, and five minutes of actually watching ACCA should dispel the notion that Jean Otus or the other characters show any similarity to the Nazi SS.

But even if they did, I wouldn’t consider it an inherent problem. That may be an unpopular opinion, but I think it’s arrogant to expect that everything will live up to your personal philosophy. Fiction exists as a way to explore ideas without being constrained by reality or the fickle social atmosphere of the time period. To suggest that Natsume Ono can’t use a black uniform design because it could resemble a Nazi-esque image, or that a writer can’t create a story about straight up Nazis for that matter, is just as much an enforced regimentation of thought as the “fascists” Villanueva warns about.

I mean… what would she have said if she tried to watch The Saga of Tanya the Evil instead?

Image of Tanya in military uniform threatening a soldier
LOS! LOS! LOS!

Artists should have freedom of expression to tell their stories, and viewers should apply their own values when choosing what to consume, but those who critique their works have more responsibility. It can be very damaging when a site like syfy.com suggests that anime has a fascist bent. Unlike anime, articles on that site are written for a Western audience in which many of its readers might not have extensive knowledge of anime and its norms (let’s be real; it’s syfy, not ANN).

Villanueva writes many articles about anime on syfy, most of which aim to enlighten readers about lesser known anime. She helps expose anime to a greater audience, and this is generally a good thing. There is only cause for concern when she uses her platform to hold personal opinion above research and reasonable supposition, and implores her readership to call out anime when it doesn’t conform to their ideals. Especially when anime is the product of a distinct society and yet still shaped by widely diverse influences.

If you read Villanueva’s article, what did you think? Do the uniforms strongly suggest a Nazi image, implied or otherwise? Are fascist elements prevalent in anime, and if so, are they glorified?

Should anime bend to Western ideals? Or is there something in the cultural background of its creators that makes it special?

Should writers/bloggers simply express their opinions, or is there a need for them to credibly back up their claims?

I clearly have opinions on these questions, but I would like to know yours.

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18 thoughts on “The Troubling Relationship Between Anime and Western Viewers

Add yours

  1. No, I don’t think that anime should fall to the Western viewpoint because it’s Japanese. It’s from another society that is different from ours with different values and a different set of organization. Calling out things that people think are Nazi related seems incredibly wrong.

    That being said, she is free to not watch whatever she wants to not watch for whatever reason she feels like not doing it. I just wish she wouldn’t call out and write a post like this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the comment, Scott! I don’t begrudge her at all for her viewing choices. It’s just the spirit of her article really rubbed me the wrong way.

      She could have written more about her personal reaction and delved deeper into how little things can trigger a viewer, without calling shame on ACCA character designs. She could have even made a case for Nazism in anime if she had better examples. It just felt like she wanted to make a point however weak it was because it’s trendy to cry fascist these days.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Someone linked this article on Twitter so I did have a read of it. I left without comment because I found the argument fairly unconvincing. Then again, I really enjoyed ACCA and the world building. Do I want to live in a world run the way that world is run? Absolutely not. Was it fascist? Well that entirely depends what district you were living in given each district has more or less an entirely different near autonomous government sitting underneath what seems to be a largely figure-head monarchy.
    Again though, if the uniforms bothered her (though to me they just looked like grown up versions of various school uniforms seen in almost any anime) she’s entitled to that view. But yeah, I didn’t find the article particularly convincing.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Suitsu seemed a little stifling, but I would probably happily get fat off of bread in Badon. Or everything in Famasu.

      I loved ACCA too and was surprised by her reaction, but like your post “My Trigger, Your Trigger” people can react very differently to the same thing and there’s nothing wrong with that.

      My initial reaction was the same as yours, unconvinced. But when she implied that fans need to watch out for problematic elements in anime, like it’s their job to prevent it, I felt I had to give my take.

      Thanks for reading.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hello. This is the first time I’ve seen this post through a link in Twitter.

    When I watched ACCA while it was airing I never even thought of the said theme throughout the show. It takes place in a fictional society for crying out loud. The connection is way to big of a stretch just for the uniforms alone. She could’ve reason it out better than making a fabricated review. There’s a silver lining in creating an opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello, and thank you for reading!

      The thought never crossed my mind while I was watching either. The author does mention that the uniform doesn’t come up as a plot point at all so I think she understands in some way that her reaction was personal and unique. This would have been fine as an opinion piece too, but in framing the article it feels like there was a preconceived point that she had to stretch to support rather than drawing a conclusion from several examples.

      Like

  4. “Should anime bend to Western ideals? Or is there something in the cultural background of its creators that makes it special?” – Actually, it could be the opposite – some people flock to anime because it’s “different” and they resonate with it because of that, and it’s because the underlying ideas are not entirely restricted to anime or Japanese culture that they have such widespread appeal.

    “Should writers/bloggers simply express their opinions, or is there a need for them to credibly back up their claims?” – I believe people should be free to express opinions, but a little proofreading and/or research also does wonders – striking the balance between the two sides for the topic you write on is key (and you may need to exclude things entirely if you don’t wish to trigger people you may not ever meet in your life).

    After reading the post, I didn’t find the author’s argument entirely convincing, especially because the author admits to loving Girls und Panzer and yet she’s able to divorce what she likes from the historical context of the tanks the girls drive in. ACCA is a less severe case than that, because in this case it’s just a snappy uniform that could belong to any given Western nation (historical/military or otherwise), so why couldn’t she do the same in that case? (The Food Wars comparison is kinda silly, to boot. People trying to enforce tradition/conformity over being creative/unique isn’t necessarily a Japanese or fascist thing.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for stopping by, Aria!

      (edited your original reply with the correction you gave)

      I think you have a good observation about anime in that can appeal to most anyone, owing to the diversity of the ideas that inspire stories. I love anime because it provides me new things to explore, based around a cultural style that I have grown to appreciate.

      I can agree with finding a balance in writing. Opinion form the basis of impassioned thought and help connect to your reader. I felt passionate about this topic myself, but I left a lot out of my post because I didn’t want my tone to convey indignation or feel too attack-y. I tend to stifle my gut reaction if research doesn’t back it up, but a professional writer for an entertainment site might be more concerned with deadlines and sensationalism than about being well researched or logical.

      There does seem to be a paradoxical nature to her thoughts, but people’s values almost never hold fast in every situation. That’s just human nature, and like I said in other replies I don’t have anything to say against reactions that people can’t control. If Villanueva had focused only on her personal reaction, I wouldn’t have written this. It was the blatant attempt to mold reality to her opinion (and blame anime/japanese culture for her interactions with other people) that got under my skin. “Fascist” just feels like a buzzword in her article because of how much she stretches to apply it, which I find very unfair to anime and its fanbase. To borrow her phrase, I don’t see a need to fabricate divisiveness “in this political climate.”

      Like

  5. I had to pinch myself a bit this morning when I was checking my phone at work for some new posts on wordpress and I saw this! Not because of the post of course, but because of the fact that I am so very happy to see you here again! It’s really been such a long time, that I was truly worried you might not return. So….all I can say is: welcome back!! So glad you are back: wooohooo!! 🎉🎉🎉
    Well…as for anime and there being an underlying Nazi in it? I have never thought of it like that in any way, nor have I ever seen it remotely like that. Sure…there are animes that might focus on some regimes that have a resemblance to it…but…I have never in any way found it offensive.
    In the end people are always free to offer their opinions, as long as they at least don’t push those opinions on other people. As always it comes down to respect…and some people just dont’ have that or are not open to other people’s views. And that is a shame….😢
    Great post, and as I said: so happy to see you back here: missed you my friend! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I know I’ve been away too long. I should have messaged you before now. Really no excuse, but I hope we can catch up sometime.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I don’t think the author was trying to be disrespectful, but she was trying to find blame with ACCA: 13 or Japan in general for something she has a personal problem with. It’s a shame because it was a popular article on syfy, so I wonder how many people who don’t know better left with a bad opinion of anime.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Really: absolutely no apology necessary at all!😊😊 Just very glad to see you back here again! 😉
        Yeah, but that’s the problem with a lot of things these days. Take for instance the very bad reviews that the movie Venom has gotten. I really enjoyed the film, and a lot of people with me. But because of the bad reviews a lot of the normal movie going audience might avoid it. And that’s the same with an article such as this. Hopefully not to many people have been influenced by it, because there have been enough things said about anime that have given it a bad rap over the years. (Luckily we all know better) 😊😊

        Liked by 1 person

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