Anime should be political. No, anime already is political, as is any other media you lay your eyes and ears upon. Every single thing which has arisen not from nature but from humanity bears upon it the mark of the society in which it was created, a society shaped by the political actions and actors which exist everywhere, and even nature itself shows clear signs of ideological influence. No media can escape the subtle personal biases of its creators, nor can any piece of art avoid being affected by the world it exists within. To claim otherwise would be to ignore art’s universal feature: its ability to communicate. If we accept that all art, in some way, speaks to how human beings do or should act, then it must, as a result, speak to politics. This is not the politics of elections and leaders, it is the politics of society’s organization, of the ways in which many individuals shape the world around them.
Yet people deny it anyway. [Insert comments from Franxx vid] Across many mediums, people will bleat on about “keeping your politics out of our enjoyment”, as if doing so is either possible or advisable. Surely, these same guys who love 1984 must realize that it’s political art? You don’t exactly see anyone screaming at novelists to keep politics out of their works, now do you? No, this is something which is most common in younger forms, those where the desire to be seen as truly artistic is strong but where the actual dynamics associated with being a proper art form are not yet present. Just take a look at the comments I listed off. While the ones claiming I’m “bringing a Western perspective into a Japanese show” are off-base — Japan’s politics aren’t some mythical beast which can’t even be compared to ours — it’s the idea that the show itself isn’t connected to real-world politics that blows my mind. DarliFra puts forth some pretty straightforward statements, even if it mucks them up a bit. As one of the most popular shows in 2018, it’d be hard for a reasonable viewer to look at anime and go, “huh, doesn’t seem to be any politics here!”. Other widely-watched works from this year like HeroAca, Hinamatsuri, Megalo Box, P5A, Violet Evergarden, and Grancrest Senki have blatant messages about society. In works which have less clear statements, politics still slip in, as they always will. Yorimoi’s plot only works due to the underfunding of Antarctic scientific exploration, characteristic of a broader lack of money going towards endeavors which aren’t directly profitable. Cells at Work explores the way in which a societal machine of sorts comes together and what that can lead to, best seen in the brilliant cancer arc. Literally any anime that takes place in a school is shaped by the way that Japan organizes its education, which, I might add, has gone through numerous changes over time, most clearly due to the direct effects of colonialism and occupation, distinctly political processes. Something set in our modern world will be political because said modern world is shaped by political decisions and forces. If multiple humans are together, there’ll be politics of some sort, even if that doesn’t immediately stand out.
A common fall-back from this is to claim that obviously, there’ll be some politics in anything if you boil the term down to that. According to these people, blatant, on-the-nose politics are what turn people off. To which I say, “stop lying.” Anime with very direct messages are hardly looked upon poorly by the community at large. Gundam, Utena, Evangelion, Death Note, FMA, Psycho-Pass, literally any Ghibli movie ever made! Are you gonna look at me and tell me that Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away are subtle with their politics? Reallllllllllllly? No one comes screaming that Ikuhara and Yamamoto are SJWs poisoning anime. Well, few people do at least.
No, everyone can love some good ol’ politics in their anime. When they say they don’t want the politics to be on-the-nose, what they usually mean is they don’t want politics that they a. Disagree with and b. Notice. Of course, there are plenty of cases where a show’s politics are clumsily handled but these instances are less likely to stand out if you agree with what’s being said. A right-winger is less likely to notice politics that subtly promote their ideology and the exact same is true for a left-winger, because ideology defines how you look at the world and so, media that promotes said ideas without doing so actively will simply seem to portray the world as it is to those who agree with it.
So, anime has politics. Great. What does that actually tell us? Well, it gives us a lot to go off of. If anime can be and are political, then that opens a multitude of avenues to explore. We can look at how a particular work, in subtle or blatant ways, portrays the dynamics of class struggle, or women’s role in society, or the way gender is constructed. And this is just from my own, leftist perspective. While I obviously disagree with other political approaches, they do exist, and provide for interesting — though personally very off-putting — points-of-view from which to look at art. Alllllll works are analyzed through political lenses because eventually in the lifespan of a medium, its critics will realize that commenting on society is simply what art does, in some manner or another, and that this can be analyzed. So, I’d like to showcase a small demonstration of that right here.
In 2017, two anime released. One was ACCA and the other was Princess Principal, with both being thrillers. The two of them are political, as I think I’ve demonstrated all art is, but as works specifically focusing on the nature of monarchy, they stand out as particularly key examples. Except, ACCA attempts to avoid politics. What do I mean by this? Well, despite being a literal political thriller, it presents little-to-no ideological positions on its face. The actors of the series all desire effective leadership and, occasionally, personal power for themselves or the region they control. While there are two potential heirs to the monarchy, neither of them represent any clear goals. They’re plenty fleshed out as characters and because of that it’s an enjoyable show. But a political thriller where the actors don’t seem to have any personal politics is just bizarre and comes across as an attempt to avoid alienating any potential viewers through not presenting an ideology of its own.
Except, of course, that’s not possible. For instance, the show is entirely focused around the idea of a hereditary monarch who has significant, actual power over the nation, clearly making decisions far beyond those made by the monarchs of modern liberal democracies that maintain their monarchies, such as Japan itself. The whole plot hinges on the question of who will succeed the king and yet the question is never asked of whether there should even be a King in this modern, post-industrial, liberalized nation. By failing to present an actual political stance, this series supports outright monarchism in the 21st century. Which, look, I’d be greatly put-off by such a show but at least I’d be able to respect it on some level for making it clear. I hate Now and Then, Here and There for erring so close to pro-life messages but at least it’s forthright with it. No, I doubt Natsume Ono thought that deeply about it. But that she didn’t doesn’t somehow remove the message. It’s still there, almost certainly to a greater degree than if she had been thinking about what politics she would convey through this text. Again, I like the show but all of this did hamper my enjoyment of it. Often, it’s best to consciously think about the politics of a work while you’re making it, because I can guarantee that it will say something, and I think you’d rather have direct control of what it’s saying than leave it up for your subconscious to decide.
Princess Principal tells a very different story. In many ways, it too focuses on a succession struggle, though in being a significantly looser narrative this element of it comes up less often. And yet the show is constantly aware of what it’s actually saying. Set in a steampunk London, it takes place after the country was divided in two by a semi-successful revolution of workers aiming to build a republic, wielding red flags with hammers and gears. What’s that? Sounds like an actual ideology broached the narrative? Sure does! The massive class divisions inherent to an early industrial England are constantly made note of, demonstrating how the rampant poverty has hurt our main characters and so many others, how that could lead to enough social unrest to help the damn revolution come quicker. The politics of British-Japanese interactions are examined, as are many other topics in smaller manners throughout the various episodic entries, such as feminism and colonialism. Most notably, especially in comparison to ACCA, is the handling of monarchy. Certainly, there’s a Princess and the Pauper style swap which sets up the backstory, a plot detail which is necessarily political in portraying how people of different classes live. But more than that, it engages with what monarchy means. Here, there are certainly people who oppose it, as seen in the fact that there was a revolution. There are various factions, with our main characters working for the republicans who wish to spread their reach across the rest of Britain, while opposing the loyalists who intend to bring the treacherous rebels back into the fold. Our namesake Princess, Charlotte, has goals of her own, a real ideology, knowing from her time on the streets that this Britain is deeply diseased, that the class disparity leads many to death and despair, that the wall which separates the two countries is deeply harmful to thousands if not millions of people. At one point, she declares that monarchy itself is bad, that she’ll likely be sent to the guillotine after accomplishing what she has set out to do, and, most notably, that it would be fine for that to happen, perhaps even a good thing because MONARCHY IS BAD. Princess Principal engages with the implications it sets up. And because of that, it’s able to tell a more interesting story, to more fully explore the world it builds and to deepen the characters as a result. I don’t always agree with it, it ultimately takes a liberal position of reform that I don’t think would work but it puts forth its stances and encourages thought, something I can’t say for many series. All people have ideologies of some sort, even if those ideologies are just an unthinking support of the status quo, so to portray characters with them just makes it easier to see them as real humans. Engaging with politics is a good thing. Not every anime should or could do so on this level but it’s worth considering your messages before writing the work, as it can often lead to a more interesting product.
Of course, there’s plenty more well- and poorly-executed examples of politics in anime. You’ve got your Gatchaman Crowds, your Ghost in the Shells, and your Flip Flappers while on the other side you’ve got your Classroom Crises, your Kill la Kills, and your Hitsugi no Chaikas. How well these seem to be handled is up to a number of factors — your own politics, how you feel about the aesthetics of a work, your tolerance for soapboxing — much as with any other criteria used to evaluate a work. But all these series and many more are political and should be examined as such. That isn’t to say all critical analysis and discourse must be focused on the political elements of a story but to throw out the potential for that is merely to deny a work as art.
I want more politics from anitube. When you look at other areas of video-essay YouTube, you get plenty of people who seriously cover what works are saying about society. The lack of that in our sphere is a shame. So I’m ready to correct it. Works I love have messages I disagree with, works I hate have ones I sign onto wholeheartedly, and that’s worth just as much examination as how an anime came to be or what a show made me feel. Do you want a video on the nature of slavery in isekai? Well, you’re gonna get that. Want a video on Lupin III, Kitaro, and how modernizations adapt to new political climates? You’ll get that too. Hell, you may even get a video on Planet With and the nature of ideologies, or a deeper look at Princess Principal, though I can’t promise either of those. Naturally, it’s fine if you don’t want that. If you just want to watch my less-political videos then you can continue to do so, as they won’t stop. Directly political analysis is only one of many avenues available for me to take and it won’t be the only one I walk down. But it’s worth remembering that even the “non-political” videos are politically tinged. Yuri is notable as a genre because queer relationships are treated differently than straight ones by the society in which they’re made. Ikuhara’s anime are all about political questions. A video on a company ruining a beloved franchise only makes sense in the framework of capitalism. And hell, nearly all media in our society is made for sale. It all comes back to our dominant mode of production in the end.
Once again, I’d like to make it clear that not every analytical framework has to be political, that you don’t have to look at a show through a political lens, and that ignoring politics is fine, as long as you don’t deny its existence in a narrative outright. But to claim any story is free from the effect of politics is simply absurd. My proposal is merely that writers realize this when writing, and that we as viewers become more willing to approach things from our respective political lenses in a conscious manner. Ignorance may be bliss but it ain’t healthy, so intentionally avoiding the politics of the art we love can only make us worse off in the long-term.