It is what it is
I’ve been plinking away at this-or-that manga oriented post since I started this bog 28 months ago. I haven’t liked one of my drafts about it yet. I suppose it’s time to get them out there anyway, so, here comes the start of yet another not-organized “series.”
To remind my beloved readers, this isn’t a review blog. There are thousands of fandom and reference sites about manga and this is not one of them. This post might even piss you off.
First, some autobiography, subset comics-geek. I saw plenty of Asian comics and animation as a kid, completely unconstructed so I had no idea what I was looking at, but often striking and influential. In the sense of reading comics and knowing I was reading them, I first encountered manga in the mid-1980s. A couple friends in college were the first to shove a bunch of remarkably lovely pages of giant robots zapping each other under my nose, must have been in 1985. My gateway titles were those of the majority: Lone Wolf & Cub, reprinted by First Comics and blessed by Frank Miller, and Akira, reprinted in color by Epic Comics. And also like the majority, my first exposure to any analysis was in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.
I did not, however, encounter the wave of Japanese visual media that had already hit hard. No Transformers, no Power Rangers. John Ostrander, Kim Yale, and Doug Rice showed me Vampire Hunter D, Dirty Pair, and lots more, and of course Akira the movie hit us at that point too (1988). My contact with that medium was pretty spotty in the 1990s (unlike Hong Kong action, which I lived & breathed for a while) – I saw some movies but not the favorite TV shows.
For comics, throughout the years, again, just like everyone else, I’ve nosed into or immersed myself in more manga than I can count. Sometimes on-and-off, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes “must – read – it – all,” whatever. I’m not a manga-hater by a long shot, but I think its fandom is appallingly uncritical to the point of mindlessness, and I won’t be pulling punches. Some things I plan to write about include:
- American and general comics fans’ reverence, as an artifact
- why McCloud’s breakdown of panel transitions is all screwy, including its reliance on U.S./manga distinctions
- industry and economics, referencing Akira
- whether science fiction is any good, referencing Ghost in the Shell
- maybe a bit about Japanese politics as a Cold War vassal state, referencing Eagle
My own view is frankly simple: really good manga is really good comics. In developing that deceptively simple sentence, the first thing I want to blowtorch is orientalism.
I’ll use the title which nabbed my attention almost despite myself, titled in American English, Blade of the Immortal (Japanese: Mugen no Jūnin, “The Inhabitant of Infinity”). Although it’s a franchise, associated with an animated show, some novels, and recently a live-action movie, it’s a bit different because it was only a comic for most of its history, 1993-2012, with the associated other media arriving very recently. It might also have been the first, or almost, that I read just about concurrently with its Japanese release, as opposed to stuff we didn’t really grasp was five-to-fifteen years past its release. The American publication was from Dark Horse Comics.
I find myself hard-pressed to summarize why scruffy wryly-cynical guy with instant-healing powers wanders about with an innocent girl companion, killing a zillion despicable people in horrible detail while seeking a meaning for it all is anything more than the boilerplate it sounds like. Prefacing the visual excess with “glorious,” or trying to assess the dramatic integrity of the unpleasant presence of rape in so many storylines, doesn’t help that case.
I can only say that I find it to be edgy, rather than play-edgy, or adolescent. It completely demolishes the honorable Jedi Samurai hero concept, even its anti-hero variants, and for the whole of society, not just ronin or this-or-that character. The bad guys are curiously interesting and the what-ethics-has-revenge topic, well-worked as it is, seems fresh to me here. The grubbiness is actually grubby rather than merely a backdrop for Manji to be cool.
Annnnd now you’re going to chime in with this whole ‘splainin’ about “But it’s reversed,” so it’s not the same, it’s really Dharma and harmony and all manner of dignified awesome Asian-ness … Because you see, Asians, they’re all harmonious and into that spiritual stuff, they’re not “western” you know, and the Nazis went and stole it, you see, and, and …
Spare me. I read that stuff just like you did, suspiciously consistently repeated in every single English-language issue. Here it is, emphasis verbatim:
The main character in Blade of the Immortal, Manji, has taken the “crux gammata” as both his name and his personal symbol. This symbol is also known as the swastika, a name derived from the Sanskrit svastika [meaning “welfare,” from su- “well” + asti- “he is”]. As a symbol of prosperity and good fortune, it was widely used throughout the ancient world (for example, often appearing on Mesopotamian coinage), including North and South America. It has been used in Japan as a symbol of Buddhism since ancient times. To be precise, the symbol used by Japanese Buddhists is the sauvastika, which moves in a counterclockwise direction, and is called manji in Japanese. The swastika, whose arms point in a clockwise direction, is generally considered a solar symbol. It was this version (the hakenkreuz) that was perverted by the Nazis and used as their symbol. The sauvastika generally stands for night, and often for magical practices. It is important that readers understand that the swastika has ancient and honorable origins and it is those that apply to this story, which takes place in the 18th century (ca. 1782-3). There is no anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi meaning behind the use of the symbol in this story. Those meanings did not exist until 1910.
At long last, I say it: who are you trying to kid? Never mind what it supposedly means to the character, within the fiction. We are talking about iconography and audience. I agree with the exculpatory text that the story and symbol aren’t “Nazi.” But harking back to an ancient meaning as the relevant defense is nonsense. There is no “reversed,” it is what it is – and never mind what it was in either configuration. This story is written-and-read in the 1990s. The meaning of the symbol is here and now.
And therefore what matters is exactly what would matter to, say, a hard-core American biker – to a disgruntled post-Wende Ossi – or I suppose, to a Manson family kid. It’s fuck you in a specific late-twentieth century context. The meaning is unequivocally Not Us for a “decent American” of any and all stripes, meaning, if I wear it, I’m Not One of You, and I am not playing around. It means outlaw.
I submit that in this case, the semiotic meaning is particularly pure. Neither the “ancient mystical” hoo-ha from whenever nor the specifics of the Third Reich. Not even the rightwing powers-that-be in modern Japan, which believe me are not getting a free pass from me in this blog, re: manga, in due time. If that stuff was in the comic in any way, that’d be different, but it’s not. So this is swastika as in-your-face, plain old thing.
If you interpret it as posturing, then it’s an extreme and less-amusing version of the not-especially-bright umlaut in rock-and-roll. If you (like me) more generously associate it with the story’s other uncompromising elements, then it veers into genuinely edgy territory.
Let’s look at that defensive and, I submit, absurd “ancient and honorable meaning” business. It relies heavily on the reader accepting the notion that eastern, Asian culture is or (especially) was “deeper” than the culture he or she happens to know personally.
All of this is picture-perfect for Edward Said’s critique of orientalism in 1978. If they’re not slinking, sly, intrinsically deceitful, letter-only transactional, and incapable of upright dealings, then they’re wise, distant, intuitively spiritual, “balanced,” inscrutable.
I don’t think this hard to understand. If Manji were an “ancient and honorable” protagonist, especially a nocturnal, magical, Buddhist, harmony-shiny one, then I’d say sure, the manji on his back is all about that stuff, yay for historicity and authenticity. But he isn’t. And to say that the manji on his back is to be interpreted in such a fashion – as they say –
… the swastika has ancient and honorable origins and it is those that apply to this story …
– then I say, horse shit. They patently do not apply to the story in any fashion. The licensing publishers flinched so badly from the potential of being called a Nazi (offensiveness 101) that they recoiled all the way into orientalism (offensiveness 102), the latter subset which casts Asian culture as awesomely and intuitively profound. It’s a cop-out, but it’s more than that worse – to the extent that they actually undercut the active strength of the symbol as a story device, right outta the sphere of attention. The Hells Angel, nasty, rather carefully anachronistic quality of the comic isn’t dumb; it’s disturbing, deliberately defiant of the entire honorable-samurai image, and at least to me, often in a good way. The manji on Manji’s back is part of that – because it’s a goddam swastika.
This racism-102 text or context for Blade of the Immortal isn’t a one-off. It’s a good example of the glittering, reverential – but actually patronizing – orientalism that stinks off of manga fandom to high heaven, not only about particular symbols or other fictional content, but in reference to the production of Asian comics at all, especially Japanese ones.
I recognize that manga is an emotional and identification-laden topic for comics readers. That’s why I’m opening it up for guest posts, so if you have something to say, speak up.
Next: The little game that could (July 9) – thanks to everyone who helped with the Marvel Super Heroes booklet!