Scattered Thoughts on Equality and Subjective Revolution in Anime
Tigers aren’t generally fans of anime, except for the superhero show Tiger and Bunny, though most are gravely disappointed when they find out that that show is not about tigers catching and eating bunnies for several hours. Back to the National Geographic and Discovery channels they go, only to be clobbered over the head with inane reality show programming. No wonder we’re going extinct.
I tend to like anime, though, largely because I tend to like animation. As I’ve been becoming more politically aware lately, I’ve been noticing that some anime deal subtly in narrative threads about how we should organize our lives in a society. Very briefly, I would like to discuss the Dollars in Durarara!! and the ideal of the Prince in Revolutionary Girl Utena, a show I recently reviewed.
One of the primary characters in Durarara–none can be said to be a central protagonist, except perhaps Dollars founder Mikado–is a headless Dullahan named Celty who roams the streets of Ikebukuro on her black motorcycle. Initially, she is motivated to act because she is searching for her lost head and wants it back. Eventually, however, she learns to accept her headlessness and reconcile with herself as she is. This ties into how the Dollars operate, which is “colorless,” yes, but also “headless,” since leader Mikado, though he is able to mobilize the group’s members, eventually abdicates his own “headship,” making it a truly egalitarian organization. Members no longer follow the orders of one leader but are “headless” and horizontally organized.
This themes also appears in Revolutionary Girl Utena, where the role of the “head” in this case is played by the archetypal Prince. In this case, the school is ruled by Akio Ohtori, one of the series’ many representatives of this archetype, who enjoys manipulating the students of Ohtori Academy. He takes pleasure in the pure exercise of power, as well as its erotic rewards. While we initially take him to be a paternal figure and one who imparts wisdom to our protagonist, Utena, he is eventually revealed to be an empty vessel, dependent on his sister, Anthy and utterly fallen from the princely ideal. That very ideal is shown to be bankrupt in the final episode, where Utena herself takes on the mantle of the prince and, in attempting to free Anthy from her coffin, fails and disappears from the narrative. Now, with this patriarchal system, in which both genders participated and were harmed, destroyed, the students are free to truly begin their lives free of the encumbrance of old memories and illusions.
In both cases, egalitarianism is the ideal, with a radical questioning of power as such. “Headship” in Durarara!! and the “Prince” in Utena are both false ideals that, though they can provide comfort or overarching motivations for people, ultimately disappoint. Worse, they can trap people in oppressive systems that leave them without agency or the possibility of fulfillment. For Celty, the Dullahan, she needs to realize that she is complete without a head, that, unlike most people, her identity is not compromised by her lack but is in fact defined by it. That further extends to the Dollars, whose identity as a colorless organization is not fulfilled except in the complete absence of leaders who can wield power over the members. It becomes absorbed into the fabric of society itself.
One final note I would like to make is that the revolutionary aspects of both series, perhaps befitting their shared focus on adolescence, is confined to personal subjectivity. There is no overthrow of the state or school administration on the horizon. It barely if ever registers as a blip on the radar in either of these series. Akio remains the Acting Chairman of the Academy, with the only difference being that his use of Anthy for his own ends is no longer possible. So while these shows often touch on broader social themes, they don’t ever push their analysis beyond the subjective. Of course, they might be either richer or poorer for doing so, but that’s for another post to consider. The one truly valuable lesson the politically active should take into consideration is that all political and social change begins with the people and should move up. There is no point hoping in some transcendent figure descending from the heavens and righting all the wrongs–both of these shows conclude that that is a foolish hope, putting faith in castles in the air rather than real people and material circumstances.
Now it’s time to help my editor study for his theology examinations. Everyone should have a tiger study buddy.