The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: May, 2016

Tessa Morris-Suzuki: Re-Inventing Japan


Since the late 60s and especially since the early 80s, successive waves of historians have been tossing bricks at the nation-state. They’re rhetorical bricks, so the material edifice of the nation-state has been phased not one bit. But the category of the nation-state is a shattered wreck of its former self. Not only are we history-investigators now more interested in what flows over and between borders, but we have spent a hefty page count or two (hundred) trying to take apart the old national-historical conceptual machine. Tessa-Morris Suzuki’s Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation promises to do just that. On its back cover it clarifies just what kind of reinvention it’s talking about: “Challenging the mythology of a historically unitary, even monolithic Japan…This book takes the debate a step further by examining the concepts that are used to understand modern Japan.”¹

Morris-Suzuki is not interested in any particular historical reinvention of Japan but rather in reinventing Japan as a cluster of concepts used to structure historical investigations. What we’re dealing with, therefore, is an analysis of ideological struggles over the definition of Japan with the ultimate goal of destabilizing old (methodologically) nationalist assumptions about the country and its people. She wisely breaks up her study into a series of chapters that cover one concept at a time: “Japan,” “Nature,” “Culture,””Race,” “Gender,” “Civilization,” “Globalization,” and “Citizenship.”

We can identify the simplified protagonists and antagonists of the book at the end of the second chapter entitled “Japan.” Most of the chapter is concerned with the way that the Japanese state, as it developed into a modern nation, displaced notions of foreignness into the idea of a historical progression. That is, countries which were once accounted as “foreign” were assigned backward positions in a temporal hierarchy. Ryukyuans were not just different from Japanese but also less advanced, occupying an older and more primitive period of history. This kind of ideology tended to see the Japanese nation-state as the modern culmination of history, turning history into the “biography of the nation-state.” Morris-Suzuki’s basic target in her critique is this ideology that considers the nation-state the fulfillment of all human development. She proposes that we junk this and all teleological modes of history and substitute “a dance of identities between many contiguous social forms, [re-emphasizing] the importance of spatial difference, as well as temporal change, in the making of the modern world.”²

These two points––emphasizing both the free movement of identities in fragmented spaces and privileging the spatial over the temporal––are core to the postmodern programme in history. Morris-Suzuki’s remaining chapters all work in this framework, critiquing the various Japanese and Western constructions of a monolithic Japanese national while off-handedly dismissing critical projects that strike her as too political or teleological (i.e. Marxism). Given that Japanese nationalism is an important justification for Japanese imperialism as well as for a raft of racist and exclusionary policies within Japan itself, Re-Inventing Japan serves as an important guide and corrective for these ideologies. The limitations of her approach are that her book is a study of discourse and therefore cannot make a meaningful critique of the Japanese social formation itself.

What I largely take issue with is her contention that the book frames the Japanese state as primarily an apparatus of identity management. The state becomes a black hole or singularity, flattening and homogenizing away difference within its borders and fixing stale binaries that are convenient for the exercise of centralized power. None of this is so much wrong––and neglecting an understanding of how identities form the bases of political mobilization and (often) demobilization can be disastrous––as inadequate. We see the nation fixed and rigged only on the level of language, and are left, at the end of the book, with the impression that by shaking “the invisible grip” of “dead theories” that haunt our writing, we can meaningfully change the way these terms operate and, the book implies, advance the cause of local democracy and identity rights throughout the world.³

We read that negative practices, like racist policy for example, are “supported by a wide and complex range of beliefs, including beliefs about ‘cultural’ rather than ‘racial’ superiority and about the relative positions of social groups on a universalized scale of cultural progress.”⁴ Again, an excellent point, but the book leaves it at this point and makes the implicit case that 1) ideologies supporting racist policies are primarily formed from conscious beliefs and 2) language struggles and the inclusion of oppressed identity groups are in a pluralistic society are the best ways to cure these social ills. After all, if all one has to do is unseat irrational, if entrenched, beliefs rather than revolutionize society and recreate it from the bottom up in a protracted, real struggle, we don’t need to recognize how identity-based oppressions, as real as they are, form part of a total system of exploitation and control.

Suffice to say that this book accomplished what it sets out to do. In the end, I found myself enlightened by the book within the limits I’ve indicated. I think it doesn’t do an especially deep or comprehensive analysis of the Japanese nation-state as such, but I appreciate its strong attack on the ideology of a “homogeneous” and “unique” Japan that have been used for such destructive ends. Anyone interested in the history of Japanese and Western ideologies of the nation and the role of the state in reinforcing these strains of thought should consider this book. Just bear in mind that its focus is quite limited and its approach not entirely successful because it sidelines the unified and systemic qualities of contemporary Japanese capitalism, the classic hallmarks of a postmodern approach to social analysis.


  1. Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1998), back cover.
  2. Ibid, 34.
  3. Ibid, 209.
  4. Ibid, 108.

Defeat is a Wound, Forgetting is Death: The Importance of Political Memory


Like a river fed by many tributaries, political struggles draw nourishment from multiple sources. Collective memory is one of these sources of sustenance. Much academic work has been done discussing how different communities sustain themselves by building and developing a sense of collective memory. Transmission of this memory, including practical knowledge and philosophical assumptions, is integral to the continuity of communities over time.

One of the ways that the ruling class stifles and weakens revolutionary movements is through the propagation of ideological histories. People’s struggles are shrouded in mists, whether of obscurity or, when too large to ignore, sticky sentiment. What should be the collective and inviolable asset of the people is thereby transformed into a vehicle for the repression of struggles and of the advance of people’s consciousness. And if academics are resolutely opposed to covering up these struggles––which has been nominally the case in the historical discipline for some time––they can simply be walled off in academia and forced to run the career treadmill. Where the river can be dammed, it is dammed. If not, it is diverted or, in the last case, remapped so no one can quite remember where it actually flows.

Only through a process of continually learning from our own and others’ mistakes and refining our practice can we achieve political aims, no matter how modest. This is why the seemingly trivial practices of recording meetings, writing histories, and penning personal reflections are so vital to the health of the revolutionary cause. Without a past, without the fruits of past struggles, of past reflection, we are starting from the beginning over and over again. This is one reason why it’s valuable to have some strong institutional structures, since that can facilitate these kinds of projects. Political practice is what ultimately wins victories, but we can’t situate our practice properly without a through knowledge both of the general situation (External) and our own (Internal).

This is how a movement can survive a thousand defeats; but in forgetting we kill not only our own movements but those that came before us. Even worse, negligence in this matter only harms new revolutionaries and young Marxists who won’t have any larger grasp of the tradition into which they are inserting themselves. While we will hopefully always have the global and historical moments (1917, 1949, 1871) to remember, within my city the problem seems to be much more acute. Organizations I’ve been a part of have difficult communicating their own history to me. In part this is out of a hesitance to implicate former members and expose them by name, which is understandable. On the other hand, every organization that calls itself revolutionary should have a sense of its own history and the ability to transmit that history to newcomers. Even if the organization is very young, it will still possess a history and established ways of doing things.

Of course, the objection might be raised that to harden our work into a “tradition” is equivalent to setting a formula in stone. We condemn ourselves to solemn and useless repetition of old techniques and old words long deprived of meaning. And to that I say: an organization is far more likely to flail and uselessly repeat itself if it does not have a record and a deep grasp of its own past. Traditions should be established precisely to be criticized and put to new uses, while providing a general guard against the most obvious errors. Whether a group fossilizes into an archaic joke or not would more likely depend on the quality of its line and its ability to refresh itself, drawing on the human capacity for creativity and adaptation. We must rigorously distinguish between empty reenactment and a living relationship to our history and traditions.

With that said, we should all work hard to strengthen our collective memories, both for our own uses and as a service to the communities we are (hopefully!) embedding ourselves in. Just as the movement is at the disposal of the people, so too should its history always be their history. When we forget our past struggles, we can lose the sense that struggle is even possible. I’m all in favour with a clean break from past errors. But first we have to figure out what those errors are in the first place!


White Fear of Savage Reprisal in the Course of Decolonization

While I’m taking a break from culture writing after finishing the Bakshi Retrospective, I wanted to point my readers to something much more important! We can scoff and say we’re so much better than the target of this critique, but I certainly need to take stock of my own backwards attitudes on indigenous liberation.

Maehkōn Ahpēhtesewen

After a bit of back and forth with myself on whether or not it was worth it to respond to this article by Ross Wolfe, in which a bumbling, academic attempt is made to paint my Decolonization is not a Metaphor as the height of absurdity, i have decided to jot down a few words. The article by Wolfe, for all of its demonstrable euro-chauvinist flaws does provide us with a nice teachable moment (indeed it is this property that helps provide the pedagogical tools here) because the article helps to demonstrate two particular points that i have been making for some time, on this blog and out in the real world. The first is one that has its antecedants going back at least as far as the thought of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, who discussed “the white man’s guilty conscience.” The second simply arises from direct experience and the…

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Jeff Vandermeer: Authority


Authority, the second volume of the Southern Reach Trilogy, transposes the paranoid ecological sci-fi of the first book, Annihilation, from the eerily unspoiled wilderness zone of Area X to…the narrow halls of an office building. Control, the protagonist, enters into the story through the backdoor as a character tasked with making a full reckoning of Area X and the events of the first book. His direct obstacles are not inscrutable terrain and uncanny beings but rather the machinations of a more sinister being still: self-interested bureaucracy.

Control is a cloak-and-dagger type, the inheritor of a spy family legacy who feels the weight of his family disappointment and, more acutely, his mother’s domination. Assigned the role of director at the Southern Reach, the increasingly derelict organization investigating Area X, he hopes to extract information from Ghost Bird. The latter, apparently identical to the biologist of the first book, proves evasive, though she presents only one of many difficulties for Control. Another is the obstinacy of the assistant director, and yet another is the disembodied oversight of the Voice, a supervisor from Central who might claim to be helpful but seems just the opposite. These characters form just the top layer of the dense thicket of hierarchies and relations that comprise the Southern Reach, snaring intellectuals and producing an institutional memory that is corrupt to its foundations.

Vandermeer’s story progresses in sync with Control’s investigations, delivering information to the reader in a fragmented but slowly cohering way. The book has a perceptive grasp of human foibles, particularly the way that conversations and words can conceal as much as they reveal. Every piece of evidence works not as a link in a rational chain or golden road to the truth, as in the old hardboiled novels, but rather as an isolated fragment that can feed wrong connections and false conclusions. Opacity––the sheer difficulty of knowing––is one of the book’s major fascinations, and the fact that characters fasten onto certainty despite having an incomplete picture is presented as their downfall.

At a certain point, the boundaries between Area X and the Southern Reach appear to shift, and the slow-simmering tensions and contradictions the book has been constructing all pull apart in satisfying sequences. We’re reacquainted with how horrific and beautiful Vandermeer’s prose can be, after sitting through the more prosaic-yet-effective flashbacks and investigations that form the majority of the book.

It’s somewhat unfortunate that Authority is so different from the first book, if only because it has so little of the surreal and uncanny that marked the first as so singular. Perhaps, no matter how well it stands as a self-contained book, it will always be marked by the awkwardness of the middle volume. Still, its prose and construction are fantastic and the ending, while necessarily leaving the story incomplete, leaves the reader at a crisis point that leads directly (hopefully) into the conclusion of the story. In short, Authority picks up the pieces from the first book and fitfully sorts through them, trying to reckon with the chaos but ultimately unable to. It’s a fine book in its own right and, hopefully, will tie together an overall excellent trilogy.

Confronting the Violence of Capital: Summary of Historical Materialism Toronto


Last weekend I attended the last two days of the Historical Materialism conference in Toronto, in the process gathering pages of notes I wanted to systematize in some way. With that established, I give you a four-part ode to the academic left. We launch books, we talk in echo-box classrooms, we line up for pizza like everyone else, and we pray the revolution won’t interrupt our careers. Let’s take it away.

Part 1: Book Launches

Among the conference panels I attended three were book launches. A book launch is basically a kick-off event for a block of paper that functions both as marketing and a chance for prospective readers to get conversational with the author. A panel of scholars mediate the event, all giving presentations on one or another aspect of the book they want to highlight. Normally, this also connects to their own research and generally includes both praise for the book in question and maybe some light criticism. After the presentations, questions are answered and––ideally––everyone leaves convinced to buy the book and tell their academic friends about it. A virtuous cycle, if you will.

My first panel was a peek at Paul Kellogg’s Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy after Left Nationalism. In short, the book is a slash-and-burn critique of nationalist tendencies in the study of the Canadian state and economy. Put briefly, the left nationalist tendency sees Canada as a satellite in the American orbit, a dependent raw materials producer that is underdeveloped by the dominance of American imperial power. While there was at one time a high concentration of American ownership of Canadian capital, even this empirical case for the nationalist side has collapsed since the 1980s. The importance of the book is, according to the panelists, that it decimates left nationalist arguments and firmly identifies Canada as an independent capitalist and imperialist country. That certainly accounts for the profligate destruction wrought by our mineral extraction industries throughout the world, not to mention Canada’s strategic location within NATO and its military interventions.


Keywords for Radicals was my second book launch, a rather eclectic panel for a very eclectic book. Drawing its name and inspiration from a much older Raymond Williams book, Keywords is a work of definition and debate, collecting over 50 essays on different words that cause friction within the radical left. Additionally, the hope was to map out the conflicts over words in a way that they could be an index of broader social contradictions, particularly within the left but in general society as well. Each panelist spoke on their own word, including “war,” “experience,” “space,” “history,” and “populism.” When I get around to reading the entire book, I’ll have more fleshed-out responses on some of these entries, but I would like to single out Bryan Palmer’s presentation on “history.” Given that this was not a historical conference and most of the audience members were probably not historians, I can understand why his presentation felt incomplete and surface-level to me. It was pitched at a general radical audience, not necessarily someone invested in academic arcana about historical agency, subjectivity, and heritage, etc. It’s certainly vital to point out, as he did, that history might be about the past but is always written for the present and pointing towards the future, but he left me wanting more. Then again, that might just be effective marketing.

The final book launch was for an English translation of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya’s Selected Works, which includes his vital writings on the Turkish national question and his criticism of the pro-nationalist Kemalist left in Turkey. As this book could be better dealt with in a later section, I will leave this section with the note that both Kaypakkaya and Kellogg’s writing excoriated a left trapped by nationalist projects. While it’s important to recognize the liberating potential of certain nationalist movements, a lacking or blundering critical investigation can leave an entire radical group beached on shores they don’t belong on. Or else liquidated by reactionaries.

Part 2: Canadian State and Labour Movements

Speaking of Canadian nationalism, one of the core tenets of the 20th century postwar vision of Canada is the idea of peacekeeping and “good governance.” Canada projects good PR for capitalism, despite its history of repressing and jailing members of radical and labour movements and generally just strolling along as an ordinary capitalist state. Part of its aura, of course, comes from its proximity to the United States, which makes the more northerly country appear like less of a disaster area.

As for the panel, the most notable presentation was on the revolutionary stagey of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) in the years between the world wars. From its early beginnings advocating immediate insurrection to what the presenter described as “militant economism” and finally to the ignominy of the popular front in the late 1930s. What distinguished the presentation was its historicization of revolutionary strategy in a large communist party, acknowledging internal struggles within the organization and its evolution over time, both in relation to its own social context and the international space of the Comintern. It lays the foundation for a more thorough theorization of the mistakes and successes of the CPC in its glory days––back when it was worth paying attention to––and might allow the left within so-called Canada to adapt its strategies in light of these theories.

The other two presentations can be seen as a pair, discussing a recent Supreme Court decision in Canada to enshrine the strike as a right and the history of labour defence leagues, respectively. Both talked about the same broad topic: the incorporation of the labour movement into the “normal procedures” of the capitalist state and the associated decline in labour militancy and will to fight. Given that the current labour movement poses no threat whatsoever to the Canadian state, and in fact often acts as an enabler for it, it appears unlikely that a militant break could occur in the foreseeable future.

Part 3: Ibrahim Kaypakkaya and the Kurdish Question

Two panels I attended covered the issue of the Middle East and its relationship to American imperialism, Turkey, and Kurdish liberation struggles. One of these was a panel proper while the other was the aforementioned book launch for Kaypakkaya’s Selected Works. They bled right into each other temporally and thematically, so I wanted to discuss them together.

The panel on the Middle East had one paper condemning Western left praise and support for Islamist movements. A simplistic focus on the groups’ supposed opposition to American imperialism, the presenter argued, leads to an uncritical stance on groups that are often reactionary to the core and a corresponding neglect of people’s democracy movements working in those countries. One incident he cited was Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance at a commemoration of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which addressed the 1953 coup and Britain’s complicity in it but of course neglected the immense suffering the theocrats have caused in their own country.

Two other panels focused on the Kurdish struggles in Turkey and Syria (Bakur and Rojava), with one analyzing the opposition of the PKK’s libertarian visions of the Middle East and the “dystopian” views of the fascist ISIS organization and Western imperialists. It further discussed the fact that the Kurds pose the main obstacle to Turkish state’s nationalistic aspirations. The second, meanwhile, focused on women’s civil defence units in Turkish Kurdistan, trying to protect Kurdish communities from Turkish military violence, sexual and otherwise. She highlighted the PKK’s strong emphasis on gender relations and women’s liberation within its base areas, all the while dealing with a war situation. Both presentations were illuminating but limited, for me, by my own lack of knowledge of the history of the Kurdish situation and its ramifications in Syria and Turkey today.


Ibrahim Kaypakkaya

One way I might bulk up my knowledge of that area, however, would be through reading the Selected Works of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya. Kaypakkaya is a core figure in the history of Turkish Marxism, being one of the core members and founders of the Turkish Communist Party/Marxist Leninist (TKP/ML) and a leading theorist on the national question, semi-feudalism in Turkey, and the relationship between the Kurdish movement and the wider socialist project in Turkish state territory. The presenters and moderator on the panel did an excellent job of explaining Kaypakkaya’s importance and the timeliness of the book’s (long-delayed) release in an English translation, however flawed that translation might be. Given that Marxist work on the national question tends to be straitjacketed by Stalin’s dusty (if still relevant) articulation of nation and its relationship to the broader popular movement, I hope this book can make an impact worthy of its author.

Part 4: Conclusion

I shrink from making grand pronouncements on the “State of the Left.” My youth and inexperience are not the only reasons; I simply think that self-flagellation or self-glorification miss the point of what these conferences and similar gatherings are about. They’re about sharing knowledge, connecting with one another, and challenging each others’ failings. In many ways, we’re mired in a fog of war, a myopia that restricts us from seeing past our own local situations and understanding what solutions are needed for the broader quest for liberation. What I learned at HM Toronto was more of a confirmation than a new insight: academic work, particularly if not organically linked to peoples’ struggles, cannot overcome its inherent limitations. Put simply, even Marxist academics are restricted by publishing constraints, respectability, alienation from proletarian struggles, and career obligations. Nevertheless, I left HM Toronto more informed and more focused, and I’m confident that conferences like this are necessary if only for the indirect benefits they might have on academics who are also participating in live social movements and political projects.

Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 10: Last Days of Coney Island

Bakshi Logo

“But if we’re going to go back to using hand-drawn animation, it frees us to use hand-drawn animation. In the old days, when you’d do hand-drawn animation, you’d try to make your line very slick. It wasn’t with a computer, but you’d try for a certain slick-ness, a certain clarity, which all animation did: Disney, Warner Brothers, UPA. But the computer has freed us, I feel, to get closer to what painting is. We don’t have to be slick any more. Hand-drawn animation could never out-slick a computer.”

Ralph Bakshi, in an interview with Simon Abrams

To say that Last Days of Coney Island brings us “full circle” in Bakshi’s career would be more than wobbly rhetoric. In his latest and so far final film major film release, Bakshi makes a number of distinct returns. He returns to Brooklyn in the 1960s, the incubation chamber for his entire career and the subject he has mythologized and demythologized throughout his entire career. More than any other animator, Bakshi has himself become part of the 1960s New York myth, one of its most organic and self-conscious offshoots. Despite the fact that Bakshi, now in his late 70s, lives in George Herriman’s Southwestern territory, he produces another film in the line of Fritz, Heavy Traffic, and Coonskin. Last Days of Coney Island shows this animator living and, in more ways than one, commemorating the dead, by his artistic bywords: collage, expressionism, and independence.

But perhaps I’m too eager to begin eulogizing. Last Days might be an irreverent tribute to death and loss, but it is the work of a vital and still-living artist. And as much as it clings to the old world of street toughs, mob cops, and underground comics, the film is just as much a product of the present. Distributed on Vimeo, funded on Kickstarter, and processed in Photoshop and Toon Boom Studio, the film exists in the weird neverland of today’s film industry where Hollywood has no pocket change for $2 million animated films anymore but you can raise $175,000 for your own project with no oversight. Considering that Bakshi’s entire career has consisted in doing more with less, you can see how working this way might appeal to him despite his selective commitment to craft traditionalism.

Screenshot 2016-05-18 11.13.42.png

One of Bakshi’s paintings that appears in the film.

And what came out of this hybrid process? Put shortly, Last Days of Coney Island is a condensation of the Bakshi urban film. With a scant one fourth of Bakshi’s usual 80-90 minute running time, the film’s narrative flails and flies to reach its bitter conclusion. We encounter our usual troop of castoffs and lumpen elements––mobsters, bartenders, closeted gay men, prostitutes, crooked cops––and their stories are presented broken, fragmented. Bakshi centres not one protagonist but three, mixing dialogue low in the soundtrack and hitching the result to a Mark Taylor jazz score that scrapes and burns along with the sketchy images.

“Sketchy” is meant quite seriously here, since the frame has not been cleaned or scoured of errors or clutter. Every frame more resembles painting, Bakshi’s post-Hollywood career of choice, more than classic animation. Character forms are still cartoons, probably the most grotesque and even unsettling Bakshi has created yet, but they fill frame space in a different way. Easily dismembered, often subject to surreal transformations, their bodies share the elasticity of traditional cartoon figures but don’t have any inherent stability. They’re always collapsing, reconstituting themselves, and flowing like water sloshing in a porous container. “Flowing” might even be the wrong word, since the character movement looks unfinished, jerking from pose to pose without the refinement we’re accustomed to seeing even in Bakshi films.

Screenshot 2016-05-18 11.16.26.png

Shorty, one of our protagonists, and the circus freaks he extorts.

Backgrounds, meanwhile, are a collage of paint, old photographs, vintage video footage, and scraps of paper and, at times, even old pulp fiction book covers. We often see stretched and pixelated video footage of, say, the Kennedy Assassination, and perceive the obvious borders between two JPEGs pushed into the background. At no point do the characters exist comfortably in frame, as the scenery is always pushing and containing them. Despite some of Bakshi’s apparent unease with digital conventions––use of some editing techniques that are distinctly out of style and title fonts that are basic and dull––the overall effect is both to ground the film in a certain time and to communicate how that time and place was already composite, a recycled collection of random ephemera from all times. That was, after all, the essence of Coney Island. And this film, scrounged together from digital scans of vintage photos, embodies that essence in its very form.

I haven’t discussed the story itself in detail for a couple of reasons. The first is that the film is too chaotic and flippant for me to form much of an emotional attachment to it. Characters go through years of their lives, are killed suddenly, make startling revelations, all into a void the film would have filled if it had been 90 minutes long. Second, the film is relatively short and easily accessible, and contains some ironic twists that clarify the thematic intent of the film.

Screenshot 2016-05-18 11.14.33.png

That intent, as the title might imply, is to mark the passing of an age, or rather several ages. Last Days ends with a dedication to a number of Bakshi’s collaborators who have died before him, positioning this as a tribute to a whole generation of animators and their work. In some ways, their traditional craft has itself passed with the advent of computerized production. Of course, Coney Island itself stands in for a certain mythical conception of the United States itself. Bakshi uses Coney Island to periodize the United States, with its collapse coinciding with the phenomenon we usually call The Sixties. Given that the director spent the first half of the 70s reflecting on the aftermath of Kennedy, King, Malcolm X, Kent State, etc. etc., we can even see Last Days as a sort of origin story for the New York we see in those movies. A thorny milieu on the edge of collapse, a convulsion of violence, and the dissolution of an entire world find their way into the story. It’s the Big Crunch, a compression of tension and pain and trauma that will only explode when the likes of Fritz are forced to swallow it.

So what can we, as radicals and viewers, make of Ralph Bakshi? Most poignantly, his urban films dramatize the pitched battles waged on the carcass of urban decay. They revel in showing the toll of violence, instability, corruption, and, of course, exploitation on the human body and mind. In his fantasy visions, we see a flowering of the utopian desires that can only wither and rot in the contemporary world. By no means are Bakshi’s politics commendable, nor should we uncritically claim his work as some kind of beacon in the darkness. I think we should approach Bakshi’s work with both their content and process in mind. We can see them as fists slamming at the boundaries of animation and its capacity for expression. We can appreciate them as always-compromised protests, the work of an artist strongly embedded in the worlds he portrayed and furious at the horrible state of things. Above all, I think we can see him as the most impure (or is that the purest?) and radical edge of the New Hollywood, the prophet who most clearly articulated its machismo, its righteous rage, and its cutting failures. But a history of animation or film without Bakshi? I hope I’ve shown that such a history would be impoverished by this exclusion.

Screenshot 2016-05-18 11.17.43.png

Book Review: The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence


“The tide of golf courses, ski resorts, and marinas that now rises over the land is striking for its irrelevance to the needs and problems of local communities, many of whom now see the whole process as a contemporary form of the enclosure movement, in which public land, forests, mountains, and beaches are enclosed by private interests for corporate profit. While corporate Japan thrives, they say, the people suffer. Hence the recently coined slogan: fukoku hinmin (Enrich the country, impoverish the people). It is a phrase that points to the poverty at the heart of affluence.”

McCormack’s book, the very volume we are looking at today, turns 20 years old this year. Despite being removed from us by two decades, Japan’s problems have only deepened and expanded. Economic stagnation, environmental disasters, a bloated construction industry, stagnant and alienated politics, and a troubled relationship to nearby nations in East and Southeast Asia are all relevant issues in Japan today. Specifics might differ, but one could easily draw depressing comparisons between the bureaucratic mishandling of the Kobe Earthquake addressed in McCormack’s book with the recent 3/11 disaster. Or the abortive social democratic governments of the 1990s and the recent and ephemeral DPJ ascendancy. What helps McCormack’s book remain relevant even today is that it is not merely alerting its audience about specific symptomatic problems but addresses some of the core structures of the Japanese state and society that condition these issues.

Specifically, McCormack formulates his analysis of Japanese malaise into an analysis of Japanese political economy, problems of Japanese identity, and war guilt. He covers the metastasizing construction state and its key role in the proliferation of massive corruption in the Japanese state throughout the last several decades. He diagnoses severe problems with GATT rationalization of Japanese agriculture and the opening of rice markets––one sign of a maturing neoliberal consensus even among Japanese elites who have coveted the rural vote since the end of WWII. And so on. The list of maladies would stagger a general practitioner.

His mode of presentation varies little between the chapters. First, he presents the case for a particular issue, lists off empirical evidence, and gathers some Japanese and Western analysis of the question. Finally, he laments the extent of the problem and notes some possible openings for alternative solutions. For the chemically addicted, degraded rural Japan, he recommends re-ruralization and a more traditional approach to agriculture that takes advantage of the islands’ natural productivity. Golf courses have to go, in other words. In the chapter that touches the most on my own work, the one about “New Asianism” in Japan and the country’s relations with its neighoburs, he argues that, given what he calls the end of 500 years of European global hegemony, Japan can strive for “a role as mediator, assisting the birth of a truly global civilization rather than participating in sterile…confrontations between civilizations.” In his more prescriptive moments, he often resorts to such vagaries, content to catalogue Japan’s ills while offering strong if nebulous remedies.

Of course, there’s no sense in trying to offer packaged solutions to such complex issues, especially given McCormack’s status as a non-Japanese person, one who is able to participate to some degree in discourse about the country in its native language but who is also embedded in the Western academy rather than ordinary life in Japan. Given its English-speaking audience, it’s likely that the book was largely read by those in a similar position. These are people who are neither exactly spectators nor instrumental in any project to produce alternative politics in Japan. Given that, I actually admire its willingness to merely outline and present existent, possible avenues of reform and change present within Japan. I also admire the book’s preference for an internal analysis of Japan’s problems rather than an external ones. It does not, in other words, simplistically replicate complaints about how Tokyo policy might be “directed from Washington,” and treats Japan both as an autonomous entity as well as a member of an international community with particular historical responsibilities. Best to simply state known truths rather than preach on what one does not know.

Though the nature of a single book is limiting and McCormack’s range of topics quite broad (necessitating a merely schematic analysis of each subject), I would recommend The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence as a survey look at Japan at a particular historical moment. It’s well-argued and bold where it needs to be and restrained elsewhere, shedding needless speculation or the use of rhetoric to mask ignorance. Though I would have appreciated fewer nostrums about peace, love, and democracy in the ending, I get the sense of McCormack as a person who truly feels a passionate interest and love of the Japanese people rather than just a cold observer. His arresting indictment of the Japanese state and the degradation of human life under capitalism ––and, indirectly the entire imperial order in which Japan is lodged––carries the book more than far enough.

Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 9: Cool World

Bakshi Logo

One of the reasons that I started a full retrospective on Ralph Bakshi’s feature filmography is that I find his films intrinsically fascinating whether they succeed or fail. I am, to put it bluntly, invested in his work to a greater degree than I am in most others’. Every Bakshi film is clearly and emphatically the result of a peculiar production process, from conception to final edit. Ever restricted in budget and aggressive in ambition, Bakshi was not afraid to do his best with what he had and still leave ragged edges. His professionalism, hard-won during his TV animation work, inoculated him against toxic perfectionism. Which leaves his films as unapologetically animated and artificial artifacts of human effort. If part of the utopian fantasy of a film like Pinocchio is the magician’s sleight of hand (how did they pull off that long multilayered establishing shot?) combined with an apparently unforced naturalism, Bakshi’s films are forcing, making one conscious of their own limitations and yet––at their most successful––communicating their core ideas well inspire of these boundaries.

All of which is to say that it’s not hard to tell that Cool World was a tough project to finish. It would not shock the otherwise naïve first-time viewer if, after sitting through this mostly bewildering picture, they were told that the animators never got a good look at the script. Or even that the script was entirely rewritten behind the director/writer’s back and forced on him under the threat of legal action. Nor, I would wager, NOR, would the viewer express anything other than the most contented confirmation of prior knowledge if I told them that this was supposed to be a horror film about the diabolical love child of cartoon and human.

They might flinch a bit if I told them I still thought it was pretty good, though.

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Brad Pitt’s Cool World face.

To put it bluntly, the final version we have seems like nothing more than an adult.swim redo of Roger Rabbit. We have Bakshi’s favoured 50s nostalgia setting, the femme fatale, the put-upon detective, a device uniquely capable of destroying “doodles” (cartoon people), etc. etc. The trouble with Paramount jerry-rigging Bakshi’s ideas to be more like Roger Rabbit, though, is that they were unwilling to put up enough cash to make it a worthy competitor. Beyond that, they did not have the immense prestige of the WB/Disney crossover nor the exacting artistry of animation director Richard Williams. Roger Rabbit is noir and has a grimy cutting edge to it but Bakshi was never going to give the studio a cash-minting facsimile. Richard Williams would never tell animators who had never seen a script to just “draw something funny” as Bakshi did here. Again, the appeal of that earlier smash hit was both its alliance of corporate brand names and its flawless, expensive integration of animation and live action. In that respect, Cool World is only marginally more convincing or natural than the photo backgrounds in Coonskin.

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Animated characters like Sparks here are far more interesting than the likes of the human cast.

When we look at a given sequence in Cool World––for convenience, let’s pick the scene where 50s cop Brad Pitt picks up his animated girlfriend under a streetlight (recall Hey Good Lookin’)––we are confronted with images that clearly don’t inhabit the same space. Pitt looks stunned and acts near catatonic through the whole movie, blandly reciting his lines and flailing about with all the natural grace of a porcupine. When he bends his arm stiffly around the shoulders of his significant other, the mismatch is more than obvious. Seamlessness was beyond this movie’s capability, and unfortunately it’s been weighted with a plot and emotional beats that require seamlessness to really work. At no point do the character’s emotions, audience expectations, the script, and the animation synchronize or find any rhythm. At least, not in character-driven moments. In the hands of a different director and a less talented team of animators, the result would be an uncoordinated, gangly failure of legendary proportions. As is, the seemingly improvised chaos and sheer effort put into the visuals do some great work redeeming this symphony of discord by pushing the dissonance to the nth degree.

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Characters laughing at how little their scene has to do with the plot.

During a relatively serious dialogue sequence between Brad Pitt’s character Frank and Holli Would (Kim Basinger’s voice and live action performance), for example, the frame regularly swarms with complete non-sequitur chaos. Cartoon mayhem encroaches on the frame at regular intervals––i.e. whenever they had to fill time or space––and the effect is what I would describe as “maddening relief.” Every time an unannounced gag about a bunny losing at craps to a bunch of goons happens or a senseless mallet-smashing vignette plays out in bottom corner of the screen, it cements the fact that Cool World is at war with itself. Its creators are at war with a production alienated from them by their producers, and though their weapons are only of the artistic variety, they are strong. Every time there’s some trite plot business going on, you can just watch the other five animated shorts happening in frame at the same time. All of it is animated beautifully and flaunts common sense and spatial logic so thoroughly that the film’s awkward attempts to smash live action and animation together seem almost inevitable in a world as demented as this.

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However, the only unalloyed pleasure the film has to offer is Cool World itself––no italics. Barry Jackson’s background art is detailed and twisted full of grungy gothic architecture, cartoon mouths, and impossibly tangled roadways that carry the film’s wonderful car chases. Every backdrop is sheer perfection, a hint, perhaps, of what a fully horrific Cool World might have offered.

As the matter stands, however, Cool World is a failure of a film that is nonetheless stuffed with brilliant animation and artwork. A portfolio more than a real movie, one might say, not to mention a platform for awkward sexual encounters and some truly inane plotting. It’s unfortunate that Bakshi’s last feature, which destroyed his will to try to work in Hollywood ever again, had to be just as mangled and compromised as it was. But I would argue it’s probably the most technically advanced and aesthetically complete of his films even if it’s one of the most narratively scatterbrained. And that’s including Fritz the Cat.

Book Review: Japan at Nature’s Edge


Environmental history has the potential to be a major player in the transformation of history as a discipline. Current ecological crises, though not necessarily death knells for capitalism as such, certainly cast a shadow of foreboding over our political and social situation. Though the lynchpin of historical materialism should always be class, our history is baseless and useless without addressing the connection between humanity and the rest of nature. We need to reject the merest suggestion that human beings can produce their lives from nothing. Without soil, without water, without air, without the immense base of resources we transform into valuable goods (use values in Marxist talk), we would amount to nothing. All societies, including future socialist ones, are obligated to live as a part of nature, and environmental history is a tradition that responds to that obligation in a limited but necessary way.

So I was glad to read Japan at Nature’s Edge, a book of essays on what the book’s subtitle calls “The Environmental Context of a Global Power.” From the title, one can tell that the book is not just about the birds, bees, flowers, trees, oceans, and seas in Japan but their relationship with the development of modern Japan as a major political power. It’s about human appropriations of nature, the pull of the oceans on Japanese imperialism, the long, slow death of communities wounded by chemical poisoning. It’s about scientists, mountaineers, and fishery workers leaving their traces on our history––and our global environment.

As is the case in most social and culture-savvy histories these days, the contributors approach Japanese environmental history from two angles. One is the factual stuff of history, the gritty reality that defined the lives of people in the past. This mostly concerns people making something physical out of nature, whether it be fish for the table and whales for oil or chemicals for industrial uses. The second angle is to look at nature’s relationship with the human imagination, and concerns the intellectual and ideological products that people created in response to nature. At their best, the essays do the real work of historical materialism in the historical field: narrating not only “what really happened” and the material structures underlying history, but also what people thought of themselves and their own situation and why there might be a distance between those ideas and the reality.

For example, the essay “Fisheries Build Up the Nation” by Micah Muscolino discusses the relationship between Japan and China in the realm of fisheries. Both states, responding to universal pressures to “catch up” with the West in terms of capitalist development, began to expand and refashion not only their fishing equipment but also the way that people related to each other within those industries. It also explores the tension between the two dominant state ideologies that grew up and around these fisheries. In Japan, the dominant ideological factor was imperialist, an expansionist tendency that sought new markets for its fish and opened ever-expanding swathes of ocean to exploitation. For China, meanwhile, the dominant conception of fisheries was that they represented national independence and sovereignty. And while the article tends to have a too-simple vision of nationalism as always and everywhere destructive, ignoring its potentially progressive uses (particularly during the early decades of the People’s Republic), it points out that both were caught up in the capitalist hustle for growth and domination of the environment. It also indicates, but does not explicitly name, the truth that capitalism’s unevenness, which allowed Japan to leap ahead of China in terms of technology and thus serve as a model for nationalists in the latter country, arises from imperialist exploitation.

Another great essay in the compilation is Takehiro Watanabe’s “Talking Sulfur Dioxide,” which fits firmly in the group of articles about intellectual and ideological history, though it’s well-grounded in an account of sulphur pollution and its effects on Japanese communities. The crux of his work, however, is the political (and class) struggle over the definition of pollution and of certain chemicals. Afflicted villagers advanced one definition while companies advanced another while the state acted as the mediator between the two. It shows the kind of callousness of capitalist legal settlements and systems: even when the victims received philanthropic compensation for the company’s negligence, their pain and suffering remained ultimately unquantifiable. Translating the price of human suffering and human life into a payment account on a corporate ledger, the article notes, is similar to the general drive for scientific and rational administration and control that the Meiji embodied. From an early age, the modern Japanese state scooped certain branches of science into its sphere of influence, which has had a profound impact on the way that the Japanese state and, to a different extent, the Japanese people, have related to nature and technology’s role within it. On the other hand, the tenant farmers who lobbied this case were eventually further politicized and unionized, partly as a result of their collective struggle over sulphur pollution compensation. Articles like these show how history can in this way explore social reality more fully through an engagement with nature and its relationship to collective human lives.

Given the date of publication of the book, within the last few years, it’s unsurprising to find an entire section dedicated to that most unstable basis for Japanese society: the Earth itself. The 3/11 “triple disaster” of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown takes up the last part of the book, discussing the event as an “envirotechnical disaster.” I enjoyed this part of the book greatly because environmental history often appears as a discipline of long and deep histories that stretch back through geological time. When that kind of lengthy perspective and care for non-human natural detail is applied to current events, the results can be impressive. I would recommend this final part of the book most of all, especially for people who are interested in the limited capacity of capitalist societies, even ones as rational and bureaucratic as modern Japan, to deal with sudden outbreaks of chaos and disaster. These interventions from “outside” the usual realm of human authority––earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis––expose the contradictions and divisions inherent in our human social structures. The fact that the Japanese state was bumbling and alienated from the people it was ostensibly helping, and the fact that it continues to press for nuclear power regardless of popular anger, can be incorporated into a case for radical change in this very powerful East Asian country.


Surely the fires in Fort McMurray also represent a sign of our exploitative and unsound society here in Canada.

Though not anticapitalist by tendency and certainly an academic rather than activist book, Japan at Nature’s Edge is a jewel of insight and, usually, clarity on some of the most pressing issues in contemporary Japan. Integrating social, cultural, intellectual, and economic history in an environmental context, it parades of a group of talented scholars before us and leaves us with the question of how to resolve these issues not just in Japan but in our own communities as well. It’s certain, after all, that if a grassroots human response does not materialize, capitalism will adapt to its own advantage, and I’m not sure how much more of that the human race can take.


Ralph Bakshi Retrospective Part 8: Fire and Ice

Bakshi Logo

Though Bakshi had worked with other screenwriters before––on American Pop in particular––and made his most famous films adapting others’ work, he preferred to exercise tight personal control over his films. Fire and Ice, a 1983 sword and sorcery film in the vein of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Conan books, is the only one of his films that is specifically catered to fit another person’s sensibility. Which is to say that this film finds Bakshi largely facilitating fantasy painter Frank Frazetta’s aesthetics. Frazetta’s art is instantly recognizable––



––and the film basically translates his favourite situational tropes and character archetypes into animation.

Though Bakshi and Frazetta are credited for characters and story concepts, the script was written by yet another pair of fantasy aficionados: Marvel Comics writers Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas. AKA one of the men responsible for inventing The Punisher and another who introduced Conan the Barbarian to the world of serial art. Produced at a time when fantasy was becoming more acceptable in Hollywood––think Willow, Conan, Beastmaster, Heavy Metal––Fire and Ice is emblematic of the same pulp fantasy values found in many of its contemporaries.

As expected, the film’s storytelling is economical. An evil ice king named Nekron and his scheming mother are bringing about an apocalyptic ice age by magically pushing glaciers further south, obliterating peoples Nekron finds inferior along the way. Now the ruler of the volcanic kingdom far to the south finds himself beset by this creeping sheet of ice, a situation made worse when Nekron’s cronies abduct his daughter Teegra while visiting under the pretence of a diplomatic mission. Meanwhile Larn, the last survivor of a race of warriors destroyed by Nekron’s glacier, flees south and swears revenge on the frigid invaders. Hanging on the fringes of this setup is the mysterious wandering warrior Darkwolf, who ends up being the supreme heavy of the plot. We also have racialized orc-like “subhumans,” witches, and a natural history museum’s worth of wild monsters.

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With such a simple setup, the execution has to be more than competent to avoid the film becoming redundant. Luckily, the screenwriting and editing are extremely efficient. Ponderous conversation scenes are held at bay and our various players get most of their characterization from actions instead of explicitly talking about their attributes. None of the characters have a conventional arc, with their personalities and strengths more or less set at the beginning. The plot tests each character but it doesn’t perform any alchemy with them. This decision fits the structure of the plot, which is a straight-ahead revenge/action fantasy without a lot of intrigue or thematic subterfuge.

Teegra is an excellent example. As daughter of the king of the fire lands, she resents the fact that her brother and her country are off at war while she is stuck in the palace being tutored. Her attitude, oddly enough, is not too dissimilar from Fritz the Cat’s in this respect. Craving action, she ends up kidnapped, thrust into situations for which she is not prepared, and forced to adapt to survive. Though she at first extends Nekron a peace offering when brought before him to be his sex slave, she shows no real compunction about using violence to defend herself, though her agency within the plot is severely limited by the fact that she is often drugged, carried off, or imprisoned and waiting for someone to rescue her. Though she demonstrates her capabilities during the course of the film and has a certain romantic tension with Larn, neither of these are of primary importance. And Larn and Darkwolf arguably undergo less dramatic change since they’re simply fighting on terrain they’re already quite familiar with.

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Given that, the fulcrum on which this film works or breaks is our interest in the heroes’ fight against the Big Bad Ice King, Nekron. We’re interested in their kinetics, their physical clashing with one another, their competition. Our cold blue villain wrests firm control of every scene where he appears, bearing on the audience with a strange charisma. A cruel and uncaring soul, Nekron sees the world from a spiteful and instrumental point of view, only interested in causing pain to his enemies and using other beings for his own ends. Our filmmakers define his villainy both though his rather obvious genocidal glacier rampage and through their portrayal of his sexuality/lack thereof. Depravity is here defined through his lack of sexual interest in Teegra, whom he wants to rape only out of hatred for her brother and kingdom rather than for pleasure. His close and exclusive relationship with his mother and lack of interest in women distinguish him from blonde, virile Larn, who sports a ropey ponytail but demonstrates an obvious desire for and closeness to Teegra. This is both a form of queer coding and a neat way of establishing that he has had a stunted development, thinking in the most callous and childish way and treating the world like a play room or toy box.  The fact that one of his powers beyond controlling masses of ice is his ability to telekinetically manipulate others’ bodies, turning them into his literal puppets who kill themselves and others for his amusement.

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From beginning to end, the film looks excellent, particularly on Blu-ray. Painted backdrops (some done by actual demon Thomas Kinkade himself!) establish realistic settings but are also dramatically heightened with visible paint lines and impressionistic vistas. Character cel animation is generally well-integrated with these backdrops, and though the film lacks the teeming crowd scenes from Lord of the Rings the rotoscoping is still smooth and well-staged. Compared to the somewhat clunky and simplistic action scenes in Rings this represents a step up. This is no more evident than during an aerial chase sequence where Darkwolf and Larn ride dragon hawks into Nekron’s lair while dodging projectiles. This sequence, animated by Aeon Flux creator Peter Chung while the latter was working at Disney, is thrilling and complex, showing off the advantages of animation’s free “camera” in staging highly physical and detailed movement.

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Fire and Ice is not one of Bakshi’s more ambitious or experimental films. There are none of the stylistic flights of fancy that he would take even during Lord of the Rings, and his trademark collage aesthetic is totally absent. He sublimates his own sensibility into Frazetta’s style, enabling a highly cohesive but less wild kind of filmmaking. Its appeal is completely tied to one’s appreciation of pulp fantasy, and its economical storytelling is both an asset and a reason why it packs relatively little thematic weight. It’s not Bakshi’s most exciting work, but it’s one of the most immediately satisfying if you’re a fan of the genre in question and can stomach its regressive politics. It’s a well-oiled machine of a film and, it turned out, Bakshi’s last for nearly a decade.

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