(or Torturing Children can be Ignored, but only sometimes)

This is a reply to some of Noah’s comments following his review of Lady Snowblood which can be found here. From the looks of things, this might be a manga themed week at The Hooded Utilitarian.

In his final comments, Noah writes:

“Well, there’s appalling morality and then there’s appalling morality. I don’t have any trouble with lots of things that are variously horrific, from Johnny Ryan to Female Prisoner Scorpion to slasher films.”

It’s difficult for me to mount an adequate defense of the manga of Kazuo Koike (and Lady Snowblood is somewhat typical of Koike) since I’m not really that much of a fan. In fact, I’m pretty much totally detached from his works in the same way I’m pretty detached from Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon – interested enough to recognize him as an important voice in manga but not enough to recommend him to anyone with only a peripheral interest in comics.

But on to Noah’s comments.

I view Johnny Ryan in much the same way I view someone like Takashi Nemoto or Mike Diana. Ryan is obviously a far better artist than Diana but both depict scenes which are so over the top that none but the most deluded would suspect that the author is actually promoting the kind of behavior being depicted.

Lady Snowblood is drawn in a fashion that encourages a more realistic reading of the author’s intentions (as Noah indicates). But it also comes from a genre with certain conventions; conventions where the level of dignity accorded fellow humans is considerably diminished as befits a drama set in an earlier period of human history. Whether these levels of degradation are actively promoted and approved by Koike in Lady Snowblood is a matter of perception. I didn’t detect that level of approbation but this might be due to my over consumption of such pieces. The number of Chinese period dramas I’ve seen where children have been trained to exact vengeance for the honor of the clan or family is such that my eyes glaze over whenever the plotline comes up.

It’s interesting that Richard didn’t have any problems with Lone Wolf and Cub since (if you look at the series through the lens which Noah has cast on Lady Snowblood) it’s really far more reprehensible. A manga depicting a toddler being taught the arts of violence and engaging passively in murder at the behest of his father and this as one of the main themes of the book  – Noah would have a field day with this one.

If there is an underlying philosophy in any of Koike’s samurai dramas, it is that “the ends justifies the means”. He and his most enthusiastic readers see his protagonist as the unassailable hand of justice in the absence of an all powerful God. Is it any wonder that a right winger like Frank Miller finds Lone Wolf and Cub so compelling? Though it would not surprise me to find out that Koike shares values in common with Miller, Lady Snowblood in itself is less problematic in this regard because it is distanced by the period it is set in.

Noah again, first towards the tail end of his piece and later in his final comments:

“Your honor is your psychology, your personal motivation, your soul — that’s all there is to you. As such, the individual is, in fact a means, and the end is the family or the collective or, ultimately, the nation. And, again, that seems a fair approximation of fascism. As a mealy-mouthed liberal relativist embarrassed about his own Judeo-Christian heritage it’s hard for me to come out and say this, but — I think that’s evil, damn it.”

“I mean, I guess you can say, “well nobody takes it seriously” and have that be that. But I don’t know; the film is carefully shot; and the moral/honor code discussed is insistently and enthusiastically sold. It’s not clear to me why the fact that it’s broadly accepted is supposed to make it better. Blackface representations are rife in old beloved comics, and more or less accepted as part and parcel of their greatness. As you discussed, this is not necessarily ideal.”

My indifference to these themes might be my way of giving fans of this genre of manga the benefit of the doubt. The values espoused here are so much a part of the ethos of Japanese period and samurai dramas in particular (and, who knows, modern Japanese life to a lesser extent), that to denigrate them would be in fact to denigrate a very important aspect of Japanese culture and the Japanese themselves. These themes are clearly to be seen even in “new age” samurai dramas like those directed by Yoji Yamada (Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade) where these questions are ever present and of utmost importance in dictating the actions of the players. These are the values which have sustained Japanese culture and civilization for centuries. I hesitate to cast aspersions on them for looking upon times past with a modicum of respect. I appreciate these differences both in their art and lives, and cannot see that they inevitably lead to the promotion of a fascist state.

I have no doubt that the honor code was enthusiastically sold by Koike but I cannot remember if the abuse of the young Snowblood was treated with the same glee. My feeling is that whenever such scenes are depicted, it is more often to apprise the reader of the protagonist’s level of determination and hatred; an attempt to shock the reader with the level of vindictiveness a human being is capable of achieving and bequeathing. It has less to do with the gleeful torture of children in print than the use of age old genre conventions found for decades in tales of revenge.

It is certainly all to easy for someone of Chinese origin like myself to take a number of anime and manga to task for their unapologetic militarism and lack of shame concerning the events of WW2, but I don’t know if to do so has any benefits beyond the intellectual at this point in time (at least for me). If unguarded, such perceptions might lead to an unhealthy level of mistrust and suspicion if not outright racism. And I have enough of that kind of thing from all the Chinese and Korean media I consume.


ADDENDUM (a response by Timothy Finney)

I asked a long time comics reader (who happens to lives in Japan with his Japanese wife and child) to comment on Noah’s piece. He replied with the following (lines placed between paragraphs because WordPress won’t allow me to create paragraph breaks later in the piece for some reason):

I’m not sure what to write exactly, but Suat asked me for my two cents worth, so here goes.

I can’t write too much about the actual series as I’ve only heard about it, not read it or seen the movie. (I saw a movie that bore some similarities, though.)

However, I have lived in Japan for about 20 years and I can say that trying to extrapolate too much about Japanese culture from its fiction, however tempting, will drive you mad due to all the contradictions. Compare this, which was made for a men’s magazine, with the usual Tezuka-style manga with its world peace, anti-war message. These things are never cut and dry. For every ying there is a yang. (So, the “Welcome to Japan” comment seems a bit off to me compared to the boring reality of the country. No, cold-blooded warrior drone army being bred in any of the public schools I’ve taught at, anyway.)

As for the manga itself, I checked the Japanese title, which is kind of funny in that it is a play on the Japanese title for Snow White. Shura yuki hime (or Blood-Splattered Snow Princess) vs Shiro Yuki Hime (or White Snow Princess). Heh. Also, I checked the plot, and except for the main character’s origin, it seems pretty typical, the twist, as noted by Suat, aside. (By the way, I have little tolerance for the I Spit on Your Graves of the world, just not my bag, and while I admit to seeing a splatter movie or two over the years, I can’t say I’ve ever found them all that interesting, now less than ever. So with regards to one’s personal enjoyment of a series, that seems to me valid, but something that does not always apply from person to person.)

Honestly, from everything I’ve heard and read, all I can say is it sounds soooo 1970s. (That was my Japanese wife’s reaction as well.) It has a mix of things typical of men’s comics from that era, some of which, the violence mixed with sex for instance, is still around and kicking.  I suppose it is the Nihonjinron aspects, that is those ideas that reinforce the theory that Japan’s culture is somehow unique, which make a lot of 70s comics seem so menacing on their surface. (You can find this idea in later eras, especially the late 80s/early 90s – stuff like The Silent Service, which was kind of like a Nihonjinron version of The Hunt for Red October.

Part of it was the times, of course. Japan was the rising economic force in Asia (due mainly or in part, depending on your view, to the westernization that occurred after its defeat in WWII), but it often seemed at odds to the ideas of the more tradition-minded Japanese, while being criticized for not being western enough by, well, the West, especially politicians in America. Anyway, this seemingly “new” culture, that to some, was “forced on them,” was viewed as highly suspect, even though it was also highly popular and permanent. (There is little danger of Japan ever going back to its militaristic pre-WWII actions. This is a canard used for geopolitical purposes.)
So, yes, it does seem like parts of Lady Snowblood used bits of Nihonjinron to give it a bit of political currency for the tired and weary salary man to chew on while riding the subway home, but it is hard for me to take it more seriously than that. Basically, I think, the fascination with Nihonjinron was, for the most part, just a way to make the average Japanese male (most women probably couldn’t be bothered with it) feel better about themselves. (Hey, we pretty much all do it to one degree or another. Just think of America, “Freedom Fries” and the Bush Administration’s philosophical war with France or FOX NEWS’ “America, the Greatest Nation.” I’m sure, if you are neither American or Japanese that you can point to some aspect of this in your own country on either lesser or similar scales. The Japanese just had the silly notion that by giving it an actual name, it would somehow give it more gravitas. But I digress…)

Thus, this stuff made its way into the country’s fiction, especially its historical and science fiction genres, much the way it does in American Westerns or episodes of Star Trek. And for some reason, some Japanese have had and continue to have a fascination with assassins. OK, we’ve got James Bond & The Godfather characters, but here there’s Baian, the assassin/acupuncturist, Shogun Assassin, Golgol 13, yakuza characters, ninjas, etc. As far as his or her level of evil is concerned, Japanese protagonists don’t always conform to the Western hero archetype. The important thing isn’t being good or bad, but whether the hero has a code of conduct and sticks to it.  (A lot of Japan’s action films in the 70s were particularly nihilistic, but the characters lived by codes that they could not break, for if they did, they were despised. I’ve never gotten into those very much, though I think I understand the attraction.)
The assassin, born out of evil is a bit out of the norm, I suppose, but I imagine they did it that way because they wanted to make it a little bit different from similar characters born of the moment rather than purpose. I suppose (again, not having actually read the book, so if I’m way off, feel free to let me know) the character she reminds me of the most is Evey in V for Vendetta. Let’s face it, she may have seemed normal compared to the title character, but she was manipulated by him to be precisely who she turned out to be in the end, V (mind you, a somewhat kinder and gentler version to be sure).

As for bad parenting, the same writer’s Lone Wolf & Cub is no well-intentioned father either, and that doesn’t seem to stop people’s admiration of that work. I mean, really, by modern standards, Ogami had serious parenting issues. If the boy had chosen the ball (or whatever the toy was) over the sword, Ogami would have killed the child in an instant. Instead he raised Daigoro to be one fucked-up kid. He was the equivalent of any number of real past or modern-day child soldiers who grow/grew up to be seriously fucked-up adults. (Considering the Japanese’s respect of ancestors, that is somewhat surprising, though I wonder if people back in the 70s look at it the same way we do now.)

As far as evil is concerned, though, this book has nothing on the most disgusting manga I have come across (some 19~20 years back). That would be Rape Man. Best I could tell, the plot was, he goes around raping “frigid” women who, well, just need to get really good and laid in order to loosen up a bit. I seldom make too much about one’s personal tastes, but I make an exception in this case. It’s fucking evil. I doubt you can easily find copies of it anymore, and who would want to, but you will find that rape fantasies are still acted out in Japanese porno flicks. It’s a sub-genre in and of itself. Now, while I don’t think it is reflective of society as a whole, I’ve always thought it pretty disgusting, even disturbing, that, however small they may be, these types of sub-genre otoku existed at all. It seems to be tolerated under the auspices of privacy rights, which is the same reason used to excuse the personal possession of, say, kiddie porn (there is change coming on that front, apparently).
I really don’t consider Lady Snowblood to be in that class at all. The evil things done to her are part of the story and, while disquieting, I don’t find their existence in the story, as I understand it, evil in and of itself.

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