Pointless Debate #18: Context

For as aspirational a story as Planetes is, there was always one particular arc that bothered me. That would be the back story of Fee Carmichel and the tragedy that befalls her uncle, which goes into territory very rarely seen with its examination of racism. Essentially, her uncle has his tree house he lives in burned down by a mob who believe that he kidnapped a girl. Reading this at about the same time I was watching H2O deal with the outsider Kohinata Hayami by burning her residence in the woods down, I couldn’t help but think that it was a rather Japanese interpretation of racism in America. Though, to be fair, my biggest complaint was more on the timing of the story, more than anything else.

The idea for this post came from a discussion about gender issues in Hourou Musuko which features a group of middle school kids dealing with a variety of issues, most prominently gender identity. During this discussion, there seemed to be an overwhelming desire for anime to deal with much more important social issues in a Western context. As I was listening to this, part of me thought this did not make a whole lot of sense.

Despite statements trying to make foreign markets more important, the Japanese market is still far and away the most important product. In that case, social commentary might focus on the rapidly aging demographic, decline in workforce participation, gender issues or the high suicide rate. To be honest, there are a bunch of titles that address these themes such as Eden of the East, Manabi Straight, Kuragehime and Welcome to the NHK with varying levels of success, but they would at least strike a familiar chord with the intended audience.

When it comes to issues like the portrayal of foreigners, that obviously leaves a lot to be desired. Characters who have no clue what sushi is supposed to really be, the recent trend of English girls being made ojou-sama characters, most of G Gundam, Louis Mashengo and the portrayal of foreign footballers as not serious or excessively vain (That is probably true – ed.) could clearly be taken the wrong way, or simply laughed off as just another trope. In these cases, the intent isn’t really to make a point beyond their characterizations. They exist simply because they represent the best packaging of the creator’s vision.

Mashengo attacks with a wooden beam.Back to Planetes and the situation here is entirely different in that it is trying to present social commentary on race in America in a way that Japanese readers would understand. That the conclusion to said story arc ends up being not at all different from a lowly-regarded visual novel adaptation isn’t terribly surprising. The intended reader gets the broad point in a shorter amount of time since there’s not as much explanation as needed. However, for an outsider, it doesn’t make sense within this cultural paradigm. Judging by the laughable conclusion to The Last Samurai, it’s also safe to say that this issue cuts in both directions.

4 thoughts on “Pointless Debate #18: Context”

  1. What is interesting to me, is I see no difference in the portrayal in Japanese anime(or any other medium) of race(racism) than any other country. You pointed that out with “this issue cuts in both directions”.

    I can remember as a kid how Asians were portrayed to American audiences. It was totally stereotypical. Slant eyes, bad English, and in some cases stupid. It was amazing that Kung Fu ever made it to TV, and lasted as long as it did even though it contained the same kind of elements of derision and misconceptions. I also remember how uncomfortable everyone felt when Spike Lee spotlighted America’s problems with “Do the Right Thing”. Even now, I see “engrish” referred to on twitter.

    One other thing I’ve become acutely aware of in Asian mediums, is class distinction. I watch/read a lot of Asian mediums, and it has made me aware of how often this is used as a plot device. It always seems that there is the poor but happy boy/girl forming a relationship with the rich but unhappy boy/girl. We see them achieve understanding and love, but their families are still stuck with feeling that this is unacceptable. They may come around by the conclusion. It’s true of American mediums, too.

    My point is that anime is not immune to errors about people in other countries or in their country. Maybe, what I am saying is that I think all mediums are guilty of misinformation, and that is true of every country in the world. Also, they will pander to what they think their respective audiences will tolerate.

    I am really glad you wrote this piece, because more than once while watching anime, I have pondered your points.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I guess I was really trying to highlight how the tropes and cliches from one area aren’t that much different from another. They just center on different topics and groups of people.

  2. I find myself a bit uncomfortable, honestly, with the Japanese criticizing American racism, period, given that Japan itself has serious issues with its own racism. Which isn’t at all to claim that America is this post-racial utopia, but, rather, that the ones depicting it themselves aren’t explicitly familiar with it. Its like how I would shy away from depicting anti-Semitism in Europe; I’m not terribly familiar with it, and I also think its very easy to slip into “look at us, we are so much better than you awful people!”

    Now, I’m not saying that this is what Planetes does, either, but I think it is extremely easy for this sort of thought process to occur, and so I feel wary of its usage in general.

    1. I think the character’s back story was an afterthought considering how late in the overall scheme of things it was. It came up as a sort of rushed look at how the author saw the way race was viewed in America. That’s probably where my biggest issue with the story was.

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