The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: October, 2015

The Mission

Partner blog also posted something about this film today. It takes a differing perspective though, so both are worth reading. Couldn’t recommend Critical Hit!! highly enough.

Critical Hit!!

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

The Mission (1986) was a project well suited to Jeremy Irons’ preference towards prestige pictures. Headed by a near all star cast (Jeremy Irons, Robert DeNiro, babyfaced Liam Neeson) and crew (score by Ennio Morricone, directed by Roland Joffé), the film won both the Palme d’Or and the Technical Grand Prize and the Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, the film’s quality is only surface deep.

Where to begin dissecting this film? Perhaps we shall start with the plot, or rather, the lack of one. This film is a historical adaptation of real events in 18th century South America, as Jesuits try to establish missions and convert natives while brushing up against colonialist slave trading. Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, a Jesuit who establishes contact with the native Guaraní group. He does this with music, or course, which begins the films didactic footnote that “music…

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On-Message History in The Mission

What's fascinating is that the poster makes it seem as though the entire film is Jeremy Irons vs. De Niro, whereas that part of the film is exceedingly short. Also, the "bringing civilization" line is pretty indicative of the film's politics.

What’s fascinating is that the poster makes it seem as though the entire film is Jeremy Irons vs. De Niro, whereas that part of the film is exceedingly short. Also, the “bringing civilization” line is pretty indicative of the film’s politics.

Returning to the history on film series after a long interlude, we come across one of those odd films that has some idiosyncratic significance for me. Because the college I attended would show this mostly-forgotten message film almost once a year, I managed to catch it twice on the big screen three decades after the film debuted.

Viewed on an expansive screen, the film conveys its visual power most effectively. While poorly constructed, tonally and thematically clunky, and neglectful of most of its excellent cast, the film was essentially built around astonishing wide shots of Colombia standing in for modern Paraguay. Thus its setting makes it comparable to slightly older films like Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God, all of which take place against the backdrop of Spanish colonialism.

If we consider those films as a trio for a moment, we can see that each one builds its conflict from a stark dichotomy––standard practice in the movies.

For Aguirre, it’s Man (gendered intentionally) against Nature, depicted as shadowy, unknowable, uncaring, untameable. Aguirre could therefore be called a Nightmare of Colonialism akin to Heart of Darkness: even the civilized Man is corrupted by prolonged exposure to the indifferent “void” of the forest.

Fitzcarraldo dramatizes the tension between a more advanced and self-consciously “progressive” colonialism attempting to bring Culture to Nature. Here the agent of high ambition is not an armed conquistador and his band of marauders but an ambitious opera fanatic attempting to build a palatial opera house in the rainforest. The land is controlled and parcelled rationally by capitalists, and the upstart is distinguished from them only to the extent that he actually believes the myth of civilization’s omnipotence. He is both tragic and in some ways comical, an unbalanced would-be oracle to the shadow world who fights against indifference––though this time it’s human and rational coldness rather as well as Nature.

The Mission does not have a single simple conflict around which to build the story. Herzog’s protagonists follow clear, if outrageous, goals to grandiose and self-destructive extremes. Meanwhile Joffé’s film navigates around a few central conflicts arguable pivoting around one epicentre. To summarize the handful of plots:

  1. A papal representative travels to South America to oversee the implementation of the Treaty of Madrid, which hands much of modern-day Brazil over to the Portuguese. The lands to be transferred include territories held by Jesuit missions that make both converts and profit for the Spanish. The papal representative arrives to investigate whether these missions are to retain the protection of the Catholic Church in light of the anti-Jesuit attacks perpetrated by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in Europe. Meanwhile, a Jesuit missionary, Father Gabriel––played by Jeremy Irons––attempts to persuade the representative to preserve the missions against the wishes of merchants and cartoonish royal flunkies.
  2. Captain Mendoza (Robert De Niro) leaves a life of slave trading to become Father Gabriel’s acolyte. He struggles between the path that Gabriel recommends––the path of pacifism and “love”––and what the film portrays as the remnants of his own violent past, though it might actually just be support for armed resistance against the colonizers.
  3. The Guaraní themselves struggle to save their own lives and sovereignty against the soldiers who come to evict them from the mission and (it’s implied) enslave them.

The Mission creates its themes around three binaries: Church v. State, Violence v. Love/Faith, and Colonizer v. Colonized. To some extent it is also a criticism of slavery and, indirectly, the capitalist system then being constructed around conscript labour in the Spanish and especially Portuguese colonies. What it does, though, is attach each major character or group of characters around a certain taking point and never leads them anywhere revelatory or even intriguing. Jeremy irons’ Gabriel is “Love,” and will voice the talking points associated with that idea.

In fact, Irons disappears from the film for long stretches and seems only to show up when the screenwriters need to insert a speech about the value of human life or to lecture De Niro about the importance of passive instead of armed resistance. He is Good Priest, and it stops there. Every character suffers a similar fate, and the large cast of Colombian native people are essentially reduced to a role slightly larger than that of sidekicks or even Father Gabriel’s trophies that he can show off to the Europeans who are (gasp) stunned that the people they want to enslave can sing hymns and make musical instruments.

(Historical Aside: While the film depicts these missions as havens in the midst of a genocidal norm since they protect the local Guaraní people from slave raiders, they remain points where indigenous culture is erased and native bodies are put to work for foreign interests. The Guaraní on the missions are depicted in the film, however, as liberated by conversion and submission to beneficent Jesuit rule. Additionally, the film distorts the facts by showing white Spanish people fighting with and even leading the Guaraní resistance, which did not happen. Films distorting history happens all the time and it is not necessarily bad, but in this case it reduces the role of the people the film is ostensibly about and just serves to allow the writers to insert more shallow babble about passive v. violent resistance.)

De Niro starts out as a bandeirante or slave raider who goes into the rainforest to kidnap native people for plantation labour. He goes through some mostly extraneous plot business at the beginning with his partner having an affair with his brother and so on and so on. Once rendered an outcast, he throws himself at Gabriel’s mercy and does mostly nothing until the film becomes a poorly choreographed action movie for its last fifth. I sense that the filmmakers wanted at least one white person to be converted in this film, both religiously and ideologically.

Mendoza as played by De Niro converts readily from a slave trader to a holy paladin defending the native people from encroachment. He converts to Catholicism and to the “good” side, whereas none of the other white cast members do so––Gabriel being the angelic exception who as far as we know has always loved the Guaraní. This in turn serves to suggest to the audience the idea that people can change, even if there will always be balding bureaucrats and professional racists and remorseful churchmen just doing their jobs in the world. Whiteness is therefore preserved from any direct criticism; it’s remarkably easy to stop hating people, after all!

All of this character business and political intrigue and tearful remorse needed another hour or so to really develop. As it is, characters practically vanish into the background as buzzwords and pithy liberal chit-chat occupy the real starring roles. It’s history as message, and what’s worse a message that is confused rather than thoughtful or even ambiguous. By the end of the film, the music and staging make you feel almost like there’s going to be a triumphant happy ending. And though the film avoids becoming another Disney’s Pocahontas and leaves the tragedy in place, there’s no indication of what that tragedy is supposed to mean except that life goes on. It’s “uplifting” film at its most frazzled and dishonest, and whatever distortions it makes to history only serve to muddle it further.

Sniffing For Japan in Asia with Koichi Iwabuchi

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Though it’s accurate to describe our current situation as being “under global capitalism” the second word in that phrase merits some serious caveats. Though globalized in extent and unbound by national or cultural loyalties in the abstract, the concrete reality of capitalism is thoroughly Eurocentric. In brief, capitalism bears the birthmarks of its origins in European feudalism and its dissolution through the process of colonialism. Even countries like Japan, which were never formally colonized and have attained phenomenal levels of economic power, the Eurocentric biases of the international system of capitalism could not be more relevant.

That is the brute reality on which Koichi Iwabuchi builds in his 2002 book Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. The work is an attempt to study cultural flows in East Asia, with Japan as its “anchor,” examining both the reception of Japanese popular culture in greater East and Southeast Asia and the effect of Japan’s “turn to Asia” has had on Japanese ideologies and desires. Recentering is unmistakably a published dissertation, as shown by its lengthy and often turgid dives into reviews of postcolonial theory, but as the book continues it builds a fairly coherent argument that I found worthy of discussion.

I’m particularly interested in this topic because Japan’s rise as a cultural power is a process that reveals the inherent flexibility of global capital, particularly during its global “neoliberal” restructuring that began in the 1970s. Cultural industries, among others, have begun to appreciate the value of the “local” within their vast scope, tailoring products for smaller subculture or large markets outside their core territories. Iwabuchi recognizes this and notes the corporations like Sony are not just interested in pushing Japanese pop stars, for example, into Singapore, but also to cultivate Singaporean talent that will be better received in the home country and, possibly abroad, but still contribute to the Japanese home office’s bottom line. In fact, the experience of trying to localize specifically Japanese properties, according to Iwabuchi, was often so unsuccessful that the latter strategy might be preferable.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the entire book is Iwabuchi’s sustained discussion of Japan’s cultural “position” relative to both mainland East Asia and the West. One of the ways that Japanese producers interpreted their own role  as they attempted to produce audiences for Japanese media in East Asia was as “transmitters” or even “digesters” of Western culture. Japan, in this “hybridist” mindset, was uniquely and inherently suited to incorporating and domesticating dominant Western culture and technology, thereby allowing it to transmit it to its regional neighbours who would be incapable of absorbing Western culture directly. Japan in this conception therefore becomes neither Western nor Asian but “Japanese,” free to combine American and Chinese historical influences and process them because of its unassailable native culture.

Such conceits, Iwabuchi notes, also constituted part of the ideological justification for Japan’s colonial adventurism in the same regions where its popular culture is beginning (as of 2002 when the book was published) to become more popular. Combined with official Japanese prickliness about its own imperialist past and resurgent right nationalism, this could be a dangerous mixture. Indeed, people noticed precisely that combination in the recent anime Attack on Titan, widely perceived (I believe correctly) as a vehicle for Japanese right nationalism, albeit cloaked in the guise of a Western-ish aesthetic. Another pivotal, if much earlier, example of the way that Japanese media retransmits Western Orientalism lies in the widespread adoption of the urban chaos milieu of Blade Runner in anime, particularly in Ghost in the Shell, which takes place in a setting derived from Hong Kong.

Part of Japan’s uneasiness with its position vis-à-vis the rest of East Asia, of course, has to do with its relatively privileged position as a nonwhite country with a fully developed and self-sufficient national economy. Its strategic importance to the United States, who reduced the country to a partly-sovereign military protectorate, also allowed it to escape the usual subjugation applied to Southern countries by Western powers in the economic sphere. The result is that Japanese popular culture is, almost uniquely in the non-American world, succoured by a self-sufficient home market that can afford to be relatively insular. Despite this, its popular culture is itself deeply shaped by the hegemony of Western culture, and the English language, worldwide. Iwabuchi conceptualizes this as the loss or suppression of a Japanese cultural “odour” that has to be neutralized to make a particular export acceptable in the West. (Also gave me a good post title.)

This separates Japan, in Iwabuchi’s argument, from what it imagines “Asia” to be, a place of premodern harmony where an acidic capitalism has yet to corrode away social cohesion and “collectivism.” Not only this, but Japanese media corporations remains dependent on the muscle of the Western culture industry to push their products worldwide. Note the ubiquity of intermediary companies––though, like Viz Media, some are owned by Japanese firms––established in the West to handle localization and distribution. Japanese economic and cultural power, mighty though they are, are still neutered because the country’s culture often has to be “denationalized” to fit international tastes. No wonder, then, that animation and video games, which are portable and more easily localized and scrubbed of cultural specificity, have taken the centre stage in Japan’s cultural power game.

Unfortunately, Iwabuchi’s book touches very little on the relationship between Japan and China, which will form the backbone of my own studies. When it does mention the PRC, it is nearly always in reference to the more restrictive state controls on the media there. So while it’s valuable in terms of analyzing the construction of what the author calls Japan’s Asian “dreamworld” on top of its peripheries in SE and East Asia, I will have to look elsewhere for answers to how culture and cultural industries in China and Japan relate to one another and how that in turn reflects on the political and economic contests between those two countries. Regardless, those who are interested in the workings of Japan’s relationships with its regional neighbours and how they manifest in the realm of popular culture and ideology should consider giving Recentering Globalization a read.

The World Today with Tariq Ali

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Though Marxists have been responsible for some of the most arresting and powerful art and design of the last century and beyond, the current state of aesthetics within Marxist circles and the revolutionary left is dismal. Partly because of a lack of resources and skill and partly because of an attachment to motifs and styles that seem as ossified as a Geocities website, left groups tend not to put their best face forward in their propaganda materials. No wonder that Jacobin has been able to distinguish itself from the Monthly Reviews of the world simply by cultivating eye candy as much as––if not more than––their serious reporting. It doesn’t look like something only activists and Marxist scholars used to poring over utilitarian journal articles would read.

The World Today With Tariq Ali is another case of a left media outlet that pays serious attention to presentation. Produced for the Venezuelan television service teleSUR, it’s a one hour weekly news and commentary program that recently wrapped up its first season. All of its episodes are available online for free without commercials, and they include a variety of programming. Most weeks the hour includes an interview or monologue featuring Ali, a feature on the arts, an ideological analysis of some bourgeois media outlet or news item, and an animated short sequence featuring “Larry the Llama.” We’ll do a quick review of the typical format and tone for each these segments before wrapping up in an analysis of what the program does well and where it fails as a discussion space for leftist viewpoints.

  1. Global Empire: This segment is always hosted by Ali himself, consisting of either a topical monologue or an interview with a (usually European) scholar or leftist figure. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, Greek SYRIZA figure Stathis Kouvelakis, and Marxist geographer David Harvey have all appeared, and lectures have discussed the British elections, the Vietnam War, the International Monetary Fund, and other topics. Ali’s alignment seems rooted in the Trotskyist corner of the New Left, and he is on the editorial board of the New Left Review. Since the show operates through teleSUR, it is no surprise that one of Ali’s most frequent talking points is the left electoral revival in South America and Venezuela in particular.
  2. Media Review: Contrasting with the scholarly tone of Global Empire, this segment usually delivers information with an acidic and bitter sense of humour. Usually hosted by former SWP member Richard Seymour, it either reviews the history and politics of a particular publication like Al Jazeera or The Washington Post or it offers a snapshot review of the bourgeois media’s coverage of a particular event like the rise of ISIS or the SYRIZA government’s rise to power in Greece.  The format takes cues from comedy news shows like The Daily Show but concentrates on exposés and leaves out most of the jokes. Production values are simple and unobtrusive: a flat table, a modestly-dressed host, cuts to screenshots of news articles.
  3. Rear Window: By far the most varied and inconsistent program, this one takes on subjects ranging from the Surrealist movement to oppositional art produced in Palestine to reviews of the work of major world filmmakers. As one could guess from that list of examples coverage focuses on art with a particularly leftist edge, whether it be embedded in the social realist aesthetics of the Dardenne brothers or the revolutionary-psychoanalytical pretensions of the Surrealists. The format varies from retrospectives to interviews to art criticism to poetry readings.
  4. Llama Time: Rounding out each episode is a short visit from Larry the Llama. Unlike the rest of the regular cast of the show, this opinionated pack animal is characterized as an American. Voiced and written by English comedian and actor Andy de la Tour, the character speaks in an accent that, to me, vaguely resembles a New York accent. This urban feel is further reinforced by the ambient sounds of cars rushing by pumped into the background, which has a strange effect when paired with the abstract backdrops and the fact that the character is a South American animal not usually known for prowling the streets of NYC. Whether the choice of animal was influenced by the South American production of the show (though it’s not from an Andean country in any case) is unknown. The character draws on the traits one would associate with an “everyman” and of the shows the tone here is at its most casual and loose. Larry even makes reference to fictional, unseen characters with whom he has had conversations as a way to transition into the topic of the day.
A screen cap of Media Review featuring Richard Seymour.

A screen cap of Media Review featuring Richard Seymour.

Befitting its production location in London, the majority of the voices heard and issues addressed are European or North American. Ali’s program positions itself as broadly supportive of building mass movements and using electoral tactics to achieve social progress in Europe. Despite its position under the teleSUR umbrella, it rarely talks about Venezuela directly, and never registers significant criticism of left-y figures in South America, usually being content to expose Western hypocrisy and intrigues on the continent. That much is to be expected, as this English-language program is, like Jacobin, a socialist program that seemingly aims at bringing in left liberals and those dissatisfied with the quality of commercial news programming. It also provides an English-language platform for representatives of the anti-austerity left in Europe––indeed, anti-austerity politics are probably its most pervasive concern. In that role, I find it mostly effective despite not sharing the politics of any of its editorial staff or talent.

Larry the aforementioned Llama

Larry the aforementioned Llama

If there is anything I have to say against the likes of The World Today or Jacobin, other than their being wedded to a trade unionism and electoralism I would deem ineffective in a North American context, is that they do no original investigative reporting of their own. If the Left is going to stay in its traditional “comfort zone” of political commentary and criticism, we’re not going to make much headway in the media. Left media outlets should dedicate more of their resources to the task of creating our own news, despite the expenses and difficulty that entails. Considering the high ambition for social change the revolutionary and Marxist left is supposed to embody, I feel we are lacking a real presence in the journalistic sphere, at least in North America.

One Final Note:

As far as the aesthetics of the website and the show itself, the most fascinating aspect of the whole package is the show’s appropriation of Russian Constructivism. The early years of the Soviet Union saw the flowering of a particularly vibrant and fragile avant-garde. It’s curious that Ali’s program, which has rarely every even mentioned the Soviet Union in its programming and avoids mentioning Marx or Marxism in any of its self-description, takes this particular historical style to define itself. It’s aspirational, to be sure, but I would have preferred an attempt to define a unique visual identity in the opening titles rather than a hollow echo of a style with which the show itself has little connection.

Wakfu: Noximillien l’Horloger

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After doing a brief overview of the French animated series Wakfu in the last post, I wanted to investigate a spinoff episode called “Noximillien l’Horloger,” or “Noximillien the Watchmaker.” Necessity dictates a separate post for this episode because it has little to do with the series proper except in a plot sense. Though it was overseen by the same show runner as the main body of the show, it lies outside the timeframe of the main series as far as I can tell, dramatizing the backstory of one of the major antagonists in the show, Nox.

Though it’s founded on a script by main show writers Eric Herenguel and Anthony Roux, this episode’s production is otherwise entirely different than the main show. Where the main show is animated entirely in France using Adobe Flash, “Noximillien” was birthed from Madhouse, the famed Japanese animation studio responsible for giving motion to Satoshi Kon’s feature films and numerous famous anime programs. Moreover, the style of the animation bears almost no resemblance to the main show, largely because the character design for this episode flowed from the pen of wildcat animator Masaaki Yuasa, whom regular readers will recognize as the force behind the truly magnificent Adventure Time episode “Food Chain.”

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The episode’s animation and writing are both terrific, serving a story that sets up a tragic fall from grace––I did warn you this was the backstory of an antagonist. Founded in the science fiction trope of the mad scientist, Nox here fulfills the predestined arc of such characters, tampering with otherworldly forces beyond rightful human control and falling into an obsession with his own power that alienates him from society and provides him with some character complexity and motivation. Madhouse, under the direction of master Eunyoung Choi, brings out the terror inherent in Nox through motion and facial expressions. Early Nox is clean-cut and, while blessed with a questionable hairstyle, generally handsome and animated with a spring in his step. Once he stumbles on the mysterious artifact that leads him to his downfall, however, his liveliness becomes a paranoid jitter, and part of the genius of the episode is how it draws out his downward transformation, maintaining him as a recognizable character throughout by extrapolating the negative sides of the character they already established in the first act. His ingenuity and devotion metastasize into single-minded fixation and the idolization of machines over flesh and blood. Gradually he takes on the appearance of death itself, seemingly undead and detached from his previous life.

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Most of the drawbacks of the story’s approach are found in plot details I don’t want to get into specifically. They specifically involve the off-screen deaths of some central characters that, though they lead to a poignant moment, might have been better handled. I would be willing to engage in discussion over the finer points of that development, particularly since its meaning to the character is rather ambiguous at the point when it arrives.

As with their contributions to Adventure Time, Yuasa and Choi here work in collaboration with Western producers in creating a product designed for Western television but with Japanese oversight and, in this case, animation. Despite the fact that Western producers have for two decades been using anime as an influence in their own visual styles, this is still a notably rare occurrence. What it goes to show is that, despite the flow of ideas and influences, not to mention dubbed broadcasts, being fast and consistent in recent past, the Japanese and Western industries and, to some extent, fanbases, still have little direct creative contact with each other. Language barriers and cultural differences partly explain this situation, but another reason behind this reality is the fact that each industry produces its work primarily for a domestic audience, with any international exposure being a bonus.

Wakfu might have been ideal for this kind of collaboration precisely because it was a French production, and European shows tend to need much more international backing and access to international markets to get exposure, while the animation markets in the United States and Japan are so large that they can target only a domestic audience (or, in the case of the USA, assume that their immense resources can simply “force” their flagship programming into international markets).

In fact, part of the reason Wakfu might have adopted an anime style is that it’s internationally recognizable. Whereas French animation, despite its storied and influential history, does not have a defining look to it, Japanese animation is readily identifiable. Of course, the game adopted the style first, but its style probably made it more attractive as a candidate for an animation production in the first place.

With all that said, I would recommend everyone track down a copy of this episode. It’s not on Netflix as of yet, but there are subtitled copies of it floating around the Internet in fairly obvious places. It’s worth your time to be sure.

Wakfu: French Animation, Japanese Style

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Because anime is my partner’s main field of academic study, we have lots of lengthy discussions about it. Anything from its link with Japanese power projection to subculture formation and, of course, aesthetics, might pop up in these conversations. One of the more fascinating talks we’ve had recently was sparked by a curiosity we found on Netflix. Wakfu is a French show produced by Ankama Animation, the TV production arm of Ankama Games, which produces the MMORPG on which the program is based. Though I want to mostly discuss the spinoff special episode directed by Eunyoung Choi and featuring the design talents of Masaaki Yuasa, a bit of background on the show itself is in order. That will be the content of this post, while Choi’s “Noximillien” special will be the topic of the next one.

As mentioned, Wakfu is based on an MMORPG of the same name, which was published in 2011. The game adopts the aesthetics of Japanese animation and an isometric camera perspective. Its setting liberally mixes anime and Western fantasy tropes––swords and sorcery, anachronistic technology, a smattering of humanoid fantasy races, etc.––and all of it is rendered in Adobe Flash. Unlike many shows that use the venerable animation software, however, Wakfu has a fairly appealing look. Animation is not the most fluid, and tends to flitter around awkwardly, something I know from experience is difficult to avoid when animating in Flash. Overall, however, the production quality is respectable despite an often dissonant English dub job. I’m not sure if I’ll be finishing the show and don’t have much to say about its story or characters, at least not after just two episodes and the special. To tell the truth, the show feels fairly generic and uninteresting at this point. However, there are larger issues of context and aesthetics I thought worth exploring.

The United States is no stranger to television shows that lift anime aesthetics, and often narrative conventions, wholesale. Avatar and its successor Korra are the most prominent examples, with numerous others borrowing elements to a greater or lesser extent. France has also produced a couple of shows in this vein, including the off-kilter Totally Spies, a strange teen-girl filtering of spy movie clichés that miraculously ran for six seasons and cultivated a global fan following. Wakfu, because its premise was generated from a role-playing game, hews closely not just to anime as an aesthetic but to a particular brand of adventure fantasy that appears in both shonen––young boys’––manga and anime and related media, especially video games.

Anime itself, in its infancy, derived from artist Osamu Tezuka’s melding of Japanese visual art conventions with the style of Walt Disney’s animated films. Huge expressive eyes and rounded features defined much of this look, and though the Disney influence has been diluted throughout the decades, Tezuka’s role in creating anime itself, the production industry, and the markets to which it caters still retains considerable influence. Japan’s ballooning postwar economic expansion and large domestic population provided a material basis for the creation of a powerful animation industry.

Combined with an increasing international profile sparked by American fear and admiration of its state-corporate economic model in the 1970s and 80s and the proliferation of VHS and other recorded means of copying and distributing media cheaply, fan subcultures in the West sprouted up. These eventually provided the energies and target market for a whole Western industry importing and translating Japanese comics, television, and, more rarely, theatrical film. Eventually, American and other Western production firms attempted to capitalize on this perceptibly growing fanbase by creating animation that looked Japanese but wasn’t, and therefore could be more precisely controlled and pitched to young audiences in the United States and Europe. As mentioned earlier, their efforts have produced some notable successes.

What Wakfu is doing, therefore, is creating another Westernized iteration of a Japanese cultural form. I previously compared this wave of borrowing from Japan in Western animation to the nineteenth century vogue for Japonisme in painting. There are a few issues here worth commenting on.

  1. Anime’s Cultural Portability: It’s often remarked that human beings in anime often appear European despite being in most cases Japanese characters. There are representations of specifically racialized subjects in anime, often just as embarrassing and stereotyped as early American animation––but for the most part human beings appear light skinned with large eyes. This does not indicate that they were meant to be perceived as European, and in fact it’s usually easy to tell when an animation from Japan wants you to know that a character is, for example, an American. But the lack of specificity inherent in the art form, the ability of Euro-American, Japanese, and French audiences to immediately identify with the characters in anime probably contributes to its exportability and flexibility.
  2. Anime’s Origins as an Import: As mentioned, the aesthetic seeds of manga and anime are both native to Japan, in particular the thriving modern commercial art scene in Edo and Meiji era Japanese cities, and to American animation. In fact, much of Japanese modern culture was imported or even imposed “from above” in order to modernize the country as quickly as possible and help to “catch up” with the core capitalist countries. Nevertheless, the strength of Japan as an empire, a colonial power, and a capitalist country in its own right allowed it––contrary to most other nonwhite nations––to manage this “catching up” and to subject it to its own interests. Now, it is even able to project its own cultural values and brands into the rest of the world.
  3. Wakfu as a Domestic French Production: As a final note,we should recognize that, with the exception of the Choi episode that will be the topic of the next post, the entirety of Wakfu was produced in France, which is not even true of most American productions that outsource the more tedious labour to South Korean or other SE Asian countries. Whatever the debts it owes to the anime tradition, it remains a thoroughly and specifically French creation, one that, like Tezuka, borrows what it likes from another country’s traditions while subjecting these aspects to domestic needs. The quality of the show aside––on which I am not decided––it represents one of the stranger symptoms of capitalism’s extension and autonomous development in Japan.

Charles Bettelheim: Class Struggles in the USSR 1917-1923

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The birth of the USSR carries a dual meaning for international Marxism. On the one hand, it marks the first successful seizure of power by a proletarian revolutionary movement. Urban and peasant masses, accompanied by soldiers and guided by the militants of the Bolshevik Party, held onto state power through an insurrection, a brutal war against internal and external friends of the old regime and of international capital, and the often haphazard installation of the untested ruling party’s political program. Simultaneously, the opening of this new period in human history also presents the problem of revolutionary decay and failure in a potent fashion.

Despite the seizure of political power and the creation of a new state apparatus committed to the liberation of the working class, this revolutionary process would eventually freeze in place, and the state constituted in its name would eventually figure as a major geopolitical military power that turned accumulation into its sacred byword. By the beginning the 1990s, the once-inspiring example of the Soviet Union had lost all of its allure, and the Union itself fragmented, leaving the descendants of the revolutionary generation in a state of disintegration and chaos.

Charles Bettelheim was keenly aware of this dual meaning when he wrote this book, as he explains in the preface. His opening words invoke the memory of Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia in an attempt to crush the Czech deviation from the USSR’s political line. Arriving in the same historical moment as epochal riots and popular uprisings in core capitalist countries and the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution in China, the suppression of the Prague Spring provoked Bettelheim to undertake a lengthy and involved inquiry into the history of the USSR and the objective historical process that led it from 1917 to 1968. Bettelheim, along with others like philosopher Louis Althusser, were dissatisfied with the conventional explanations for the deviations of the Soviet Union that centred around the “personality” of Joseph Stalin. What he attempts to do here is explain the failure of the USSR to maintain its revolutionary process by an appeal to the political and ideological categories. Namely, he argues that it was the lack of a correct political orientation and the swamping of the Bolshevik by bourgeois ideology through many vectors that led to its degeneration.

It’s not my intention to provide a full review of the book, but rather to draw attention to it and discuss how it was helpful in clarifying my own thoughts about the Soviet Union and about the history of socialism in general, up to and including its present. I noted early on that the focus of the book is not so much political economic as it is a political-ideological critique that foregrounds the political programme of the Bolshevik Party and in particular the writings of V.I. Lenin. This approach produces both the strengths and the weaknesses of the book. On the positive side, it avoids a narrow economic determinism, pointing out that in a revolutionary situation the influence of the leading political forces and the state apparatus can have decisive impact on the course of objective processes.

Charles Bettelheim

There is a clear affinity here with the work of Althusser, who also worked within his own political party (the PCF) to pursue a disentanglement with the line of the USSR and to orient it away from seeing the development economy as a kind of mystical force that could correct bad political situations. Bettelheim’s recognition of the relative autonomy of the embryonic state, therefore, is a plus. His discussion of the operation of the new political apparatus and the way it served as an avenue for the bourgeoisie to struggle for its own place in the ostensibly new society confirms that the seizure of state power by the masses is not a single cataclysmic event but rather a necessary step in a long process of uprooting capitalism from society bit by bit. Even the organs of the state not staffed by bourgeois experts out of necessity could develop reactionary tendencies––particularly a misplaced faith in the power of pure administration and technocracy––without the supervision of the masses and the intervention of active political elements to kill off these tendencies.

Looming not so far behind the text is the Cultural Revolution in China, which Bettelheim occasionally invokes as a positive counter-example. This was not an outrageous assumption at the time, though my recent reading of Yiching Wu’s Cultural Revolution at the Margins and similar works certainly makes it impossible for me to agree with his implication that the Chinese state was playing an entirely positive role in promoting the self-organization of the masses. Still, I appreciated the many concrete examples provided in the text outlining the misjudged policies of “war communism.”

It’s at this point that I should note that Bettelheim’s text, with its appreciation for politics and attention to the tendencies and political lines that emerged within the party ties to what I would call a strangely myopic focus on Lenin’s writings and a lack of sufficient criticism of Lenin’s own work during this period. While it’s true enough that, as he notes many times, Lenin was often far better than the rest of his party at appreciating his own mistakes and correcting them, the book’s reliance on Lenin as a source makes it less historically interesting and relevant in my eyes. It’s not that Lenin’s appraisals of the situations that Bettelheim describes were completely off the mark, but some additional perspective or a more intense focus on the actual relationship between the state and the party and the party-state and the workers and peasants would have been appreciated. This is something that, for example, Janet Afary in her book on the Constitutional Revolution in Iran is able to do much better. Lenin was clearly immensely capable and an advanced thinker, but his own limitations remain inaccessible to Bettelheim’s readers because the author sets him up as the hero far too often, leading to the creation of a kind of narrative and moral dichotomy that he sets up between Lenin on the good side and Stalin-Trotsky-Bukharin etc. on the other. Perhaps it’s because I am being overly skeptical, but I found it a notable weakness in the text, a lack that I hoped would be further addressed. A better explanation of why Lenin could have been so far in advance of his party (other than his “personality”) would have been appreciated.

Still, I am looking forward to going further into Soviet history with Bettelheim as a guide in the next two volumes, assuming I can get ahold of them. His core themes, the relationship between the state, the ideological and state apparatuses, and the masses, remain viable topics to this day, and the book taught me much about the rapid evolution of the Russian Revolution in its initial “baptism of fire” from 1917-1923. It’s almost absurdly cheap to pick up secondhand (the first volume, that is), so I would recommend it to any leftist with an interest in Soviet history done mostly well.

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