All art is political, but anime is an art form which tends to shy away from engaging with that fact. It isn’t hard to tell where a show like GATE’s ideological biases lie, but shows like this rarely engage with ideology on a more explicit level. It’s rare to get shows like Ghost in the Shell or LotGH that not only explicitly engage with politics, but make it totally apparent where their opinions lie, and it’s always nice when it happens.
I think we can see a good case study for how anime engages in politics by looking at two shows from last season: ACCA and Youjo Senki(aka Saga of Tanya the Evil). Both of these are explicitly political shows — albeit in very different ways — and yet they go in totally different directions when it comes to putting forth an ideology. What’s most intriguing is that one of these shows manages to buck this anime trend in some interesting ways, and it’s not the one I initially expected to do so.
ACCA is the most directly political show I’ve seen in the last few years of seasonal anime. It’s a political thriller, and yet puzzlingly it avoids any serious ideological fighting. There’s a monarchy in the series, and it’s one that seems to have significant political power, and yet there’s a shocking lack of republicanism. That wouldn’t be too odd in a medieval-era show, but this is set in the modern era, in a seemingly developed Western nation. It breaks my suspension of disbelief when I see absolutely no opposition to the monarchy from any of the show’s political actors.
The show is set in a country divided into districts with wildly different settings and needs, and yet we don’t see much in the way of region-specific ideologies. There seem to be no political parties in sight, and it just seems like a country where the ruling ideology is so firmly entrenched that it’s never even slightly questioned. This just isn’t believable. There’s no country in the world with this little opposition to the ruling structure, and the presence of such elements is even more common in relatively free countries, like the one in ACCA.
This is exemplified by the show’s coup plot. A somewhat incompetent prince is the heir to the throne, and his plans to dismantle ACCA ignite plots for a coup. And yet, instead of attempting to destroy the monarchy, the plan is simply to replace the one who sits on the throne. This shows an utter lack of any serious ideology on the part of the show’s many actors, as it makes much more sense for the monarchy to simply be abolished. My strong disdain for monarchism might be influencing this perception, but I just don’t understand why the characters never thought of this. Of course, this is a fictional nation so it needs to be given a bit of leeway, but it’s still jarring how non-ideological it is.
Or at least, how non-ideological it presents itself as. In reality, ACCA is a show with a fairly entrenched ideology, though it doesn’t seem to be aware of that. Some things are obvious here. The lack of opposition to monarchism is a tacit acceptance of its validity as a form of rule, especially when the show takes place in a modernized, secular, non-totalitarian nation. Characters frequently discuss the important role of ACCA in protecting order for the citizens, upholding the idea that the state is the sole force capable of protecting the people.
These things are never meaningfully challenged, and when you present something without challenging it, you’re functionally supporting it. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is presenting an ideology even when there’s no acknowledgement of that fact. It would be nice if these ideas were challenged, even if they they were ultimately affirmed. I think it would be a far more interesting show if it questioned the value of the monarchy before ultimately deciding that it’s worth keeping around, even if I would disagree with that conclusion.
Now, ACCA is a very political show, so it’s somewhat odd when it fails to meaningfully engage with ideology on a textual level. Youjo Senki on the other hand isn’t facing the same challenges. It’s a war story, and while war is very political, it’s been normalized to the point that it doesn’t necessarily feel like it, at least in comparison to ACCA’s more explicit political dealings. We don’t necessarily expect politics in war shows at this point, though they don’t tend to feel out of place if they’re present.
What’s really interesting is that Youjo Senki actually manages to engage with ideology on a deeper level than ACCA. It still puts forth some of its ideas sub-textually and without challenge, but it presents far more textual arguments about ideology than a show which is literally about political conflict does, and I find that simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate.
Youjo Senki makes it clear that war sucks, though it doesn’t do much to actually argue against it. That’s fine of course. Not every war show needs to be an anti-war piece, and I don’t think it would really work all that well if this one were. Instead, Youjo Senki does a lot by applying modern principles of war to a war that isn’t quite ready for them, creating some interesting ideological conflicts.
The main character, Tanya, was an asshole and objectivist HR guy in her previous life in our world, and her philosophy is very present in the time she spends leading troops in a war which blends magic with WWI geopolitics and WWII technology. She is absolutely brutal in her combat, treating the war as a total war in which civilians are a totally valid target, as has effectively been the case since WWII. This faces opposition, both from enemies and from others within the Empire, as it’s not yet commonly accepted, and people are understandably upset when they see war crimes.
Through Tanya, the show criticizes absolute war and objectivism. When Tanya herself gets into situations she wanted to avoid, it’s almost always because of her philosophy, and it serves as a way of rebuking her ideology. Other characters play a role in this as well. One of Tanya’s soldiers protests the shelling of a civilian city, on the grounds that it is cruel and inhumane. In spite of this he is eventually forced to participate, showing that Tanya’s ideology, while vile and somewhat disgusting, is also necessary, or at the very least an ideology that captures some amount of truth. It’s made clear that, while inhumane, her ideology ultimately did protect her side in the war, though whether that has inherent value isn’t really addressed.
I don’t necessarily agree with the ideology Youjo Senki presents. I think it ultimately does far too little to actually criticize Tanya’s objectivism, and sometimes it even seems to validate it, as in the previous example. But I enjoyed that it openly engaged with the fact that politics involve ideological conflict. Shows like LotGH and GITS have engaged directly with real-life ideologies before, but it’s hardly common to do so with any depth, so I appreciate that Youjo Senki made the attempt, even if I’m not sure it was the best vehicle through which to do so.
I strongly hold to the idea that everything is political, and I tend to find it more enjoyable when art makes it clear where its stances lie, rather than futilely attempting to be apolitical. A show’s politics can be much more nuanced when a writer or creator is aware that they’re pushing an ideology, so I’m very happy that the makers of Youjo Senki seem to have been aware of it. ACCA was a disappointment in this respect despite being a good show overall, and I really think that the show would have benefited from at least a light level of ideological conflict.
I really want more shows start to engage with real politics and ideologies on a textual level, because animation is a medium ripe for portraying politics in varied and interesting ways, and I want to see how that works out. I get why shows would be afraid of alienating people like this, but I want them to do it anyway. GITS:SAC and LotGH are amazing because of their open politics, and both shows have fans from all over the political spectrum. Youjo Senki isn’t anywhere near those shows, but it’s another show to list when thinking about political anime, and that has value on its own.